- This is a rather recent term used by a still partially Aramaic-speaking, Christian minority who have historically lived among the Kurds, with whom they have often but not always had subservient relations. Assyrians claim descent from the ancient Assyrian empire and call their ancestral land Beth Nahrain. However, it is not possible to prove such ethnically foundational claims. More substantial is the fact that the British settled some 20,000 Assyrians in northern Iraq from the Hakkari region of southwest Turkey after World War I. The Assyrian levy was used by the British to maintain their rule in Iraq, and as a result, these newly arrived Assyrians came into conflict with elements of the existing Kurdish population. Still, a substantial proportion of the Assyrians probably come from the same racial stock as their Muslim neighbors.Assyrians belong to the Nestorian Church, which had broken theologically with the Roman Catholic Church in 431 after the Council of Ephesus rejected the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Nestorians saw Christ as two distinct persons, divine and human, arguing that the Father begot Jesus as God, while Mary bore him as a man. Thus, the Nestorians opposed using the title "Mother of God" for Mary.At one time the Nestorians extended as far east as China, where they built a famous monument in Xian in 781. The Nestorians possibly gave rise to the medieval legends of Prester John, a Christian king supposedly living somewhere in the east who might be a potential ally for the West in its struggle against Islam.The Nestorians, however, were reduced by persecutions and never recovered from Tamerlane's attacks in the 14th century. They eventually shrank to a community largely concentrated in the mountains of Hakkari in what is now southeastern Turkey. Nevertheless, as recently as around 1870, there were some 97,000 Assyrians living in Hakkari, of whom 52,000 were tribally organized and thus not subservient to the Kurds, who numbered some 165,000 in Hakkari. The Assyrians were led by a patriarch called Mar Shamun. During the 19th century, the Assyrians suffered numerous massacres at the hands of the Kurds, the depredations of Bedir (Badr) Khan Beg in the 1840s being a prime example.During World War I, many Assyrians died supporting the Allies. After the war, as noted above, Great Britain resettled most of them in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. The Kurds greatly resented this intrusion and the Assyrian levy, a special military group of some 5,000 Assyrians trained by the British to help uphold their rule in northern Iraq. In 1933, Kurds and Iraqi nationalist army officers massacred many Assyrians and destroyed them as a military force.In recent decades most Assyrians have emigrated to the United States and Europe. There are around 50,000 still living in northern Iraq, where in recent years the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM/Zowaa) joined the Iraqi Kurdistan Front and has cooperated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Younadem Youssef Kana currently heads the ADM and has frequently participated in the governments of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Both the parliament of the KRG and the Kurdistan National Congress, backed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), have Assyrian representatives. In the KRG elections of 25 July 2009, the Rafidain List, which was backed by the ADM, won two seats, and the Assyrian/Chaldean Syriac Council took three seats. In the Iraqi national elections of 7 March 2010, the Rafidain Party won three seats, while the Assyrian/Chaldean Syriac Council took two seats. In addition, MED-TV and its current successor ROJ-TV have both broadcast Aramaic-language newscasts.Problems concerning finances, education, and land remain, however. Since the 2003 war in Iraq and its bloody aftermath, the Assyrians have suffered greatly, especially in the Arab parts of Iraq. Lesser conflicts also exist between the Assyrians and the Kurds, although for the most part the Assyrians have been much more secure in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Nevertheless, many Assyrians have unsuccessfully advocated their own autonomous region on the Nineveh plain in northern Iraq. The ADM even chose to join forces with the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in the Iraqi national elections of December 2005 rather than remain in the Kurdish electoral bloc headed by the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).Most observers would include among the Assyrians other small Christian groups such as the Chaldeans, who were converted in modern times by the French to Roman Catholicism, and the Syrian Orthodox (Suryani) or Jacobites who are a Monophysite Christian sect like the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Coptic Church in Egypt. The Monophysites believe that Christ contained only a single, wholly divine nature. They were declared heretical by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In general, the Assyrian community prefers to view itself as an ethnically distinct people descended from the ancient Assyrian Empire, while the Chaldeans have identified more with their Christain religious beliefs. From the point of view of the Kurdish majority, the Assyrians are not as important as the considerably larger Turkomans when considering ethnic minority dynamics in the KRG region.
Historical Dictionary of the Kurds. Michael M. Gunter.
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