An estimated 3.5 million people globally comprise a distinct, indigenous ethnic group known as Assyrians. Tracing their heritage to ancient Assyria, Assyrians speak an ancient language referred to as Assyrian, Syriac, Aramaic, or Neo- Aramaic.
The contiguous territory that forms the traditional Assyrian homeland contains southern and southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and northeastern Syria. Assyrians represent one of the most consistently targeted communities in the Middle East. The Assyrian population in Iraq, estimated to be less than 200,000, constitutes the largest remaining concentration of the ethnic group in their homeland.
As we mark Indigenous Peoples' Day 2019, we highlight the unique history and rich culture of the Assyrians, but emphasize that they continue to face threats in their homeland, including the expropriation of their ancestral lands, the dispossession and exploitation of Assyrian identity and culture, state discrimination including the tactical use of violence to intimidate and control them, and other more insidious forms of persecution that have prompted growing numbers of Assyrians to leave their traditional lands:
Assyrians in Iraq have continuously been targets of genocide, persecution, and discrimination since the foundation of the Iraqi state in 1932, which was marked by a genocidal campaign against the indigenous group. The population of Assyrians in the country has decreased by approximately 90% since 2003 owing to lack of targeted violence, discrimination, and harmful policies that have led to their forced migration from Iraq.
The Iraqi Government has refused to restore Assyrian lands illegally expropriated following their displacement by ISIS in 2014, and state officials are advancing policies that would facilitate the forced demographic change of areas historically inhabited by Assyrians. The chronic and systematic expropriation of Assyrian lands in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been a long-term problem that continues unabated in the present. Agricultural lands belonging to Assyrians are often illegally confiscated for commercial interests. For example, Erbil International Airport located in Ankawa was built on Assyrian agricultural lands illegally-confiscated by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The legal owners received no compensation, despite the fact that many Assyrian farmers lost their only source of income as a result. The KRG's confiscation of these lands has also limited access to a sacred site, known to locals as Mariamana.
Assyrian heritage sites, namely in northern Iraq including the Kurdistan Region, are neglected and vandalized. A number Assyrian cultural heritage sites were destroyed or pillaged by ISIS during its occupation of Assyrian territory between 2014 and 2016. Assyrian identity and heritage is often appropriated and exploited by dominant cultures. Assyrian traditions are often mislabeled as "Kurdish Christian" or "Arab Christian" traditions.
Assyrians in modern Turkey have been subjected to genocide, deportation, persecution, and discrimination since the foundation of the state in the midst of the Assyrian Genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire and subsequently the Republic of Turkey.
Assyrians are not officially recognized as an ethnic minority in Turkey, and the modern Turkish state continues to enforce policies that actively deny the indigenous community their place as equal citizens in the country. As such, Assyrians are denied their language rights and Assyrian cultural activities have been restricted. Human rights abuses related to their land rights, culture, and religion have also forced Assyrians into migration.
Historically, the Turkish government has expropriated Assyrian lands and properties and neglected Assyrian heritage sites. Most recently, in 2017, Turkish authorities seized 55 properties belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church in Tur Abdin, claiming their ownership deeds are no longer valid. While some of the properties were later returned after international condemnations, many illegally-confiscated Assyrian properties remain under state ownership.
In Syria, Assyrians are officially and incorrectly designated as Arabs and are commonly referred to as Christians. While most contemporary Syrian Christians do not express a distinct ethnic identity, the Assyrian populations are defined by a set of distinct cultural and linguistic traits. Despite this, the Assyrian identity is not recognized by the Syrian Government and laws restrict the teaching of the Assyrian language.
Assyrian land rights are also threatened by the Kurdish-led self-administration in Hassakeh Governorate. Property belonging to Assyrians displaced by the ongoing conflict have been improperly confiscated. Should these violations continue, they will permanently prevent the return of Assyrians who formerly inhabited these areas and advance the forced demographic change of these areas. Assyrian identity and culture is also exploited and appropriated by the self-administration.
Assyrian heritage sites, namely in the Khabour Region, were destroyed by ISIS during its attack and occupation of the region.
Despite the fact that Iran's Constitution provides for the protection of religious freedom "within the limits of the law," Assyrians and other Christian groups face religious persecution and discrimination in Iran. Assyrian churches have been closed down, and Christian Assyrian religious leaders have been targeted and imprisoned. Assyrians belonging to evangelical denominations in particular have been accused of treason or terrorism.
All women in Iran are required by law to wear the Islamic headscarf in public, including Assyrians and other non-Muslim women.
Violations of Assyrian cultural rights in Iran are part of a wider, well-documented context of human rights violations by Iranian authorities, and continue do to their lack of political power and influence. The right to mother tongue education for Assyrians has never been formally recognized or guaranteed. Publications in languages other than Persian and ethnic minority cultural associations are repressed by Iranian authorities.
All minoritized communities in Iran, including Assyrians, have been subject to illegal land seizures for decades. For example, in 2014, Iranian authorities confiscated land belonging to the Assyrian community's Chaldean Catholic Church in Tehran with plans to convert it into a mosque.