A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Assyrian Christians on Syria's Khabur River: A Century of Multiple Displacements

When the Islamic State recently abducted/kidnapped/"arrested" over 200 and perhaps as many as 373 Assyrian Christians from towns along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria, it gained worldwide attention, and though reportedly 19 or 20 were subsequently released, the remainder were not and face an uncertain fate.

While I'm sure many Westerners aren't even aware of the existence of Assyrian Christianity, I assume my readers are better informed. Even so, I suspect even many Middle East specialists associate the Assyrians with northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and southeastern Turkey, and may have been surprised to learn of the 35 towns and villages along the Khabur in northeastern Syria. This community largely settled there in the 1930s after the expulsions and massacres by the Ottomans in 1915 and the massacre of Assyrian in Iraq in 1933. And now they are under fire again. In that sense, their history is a microcosm of the history of the Assyrian people as a whole.

The varied minority faiths of the Jazira, the region of Upper Mesopotamia embracing both northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq (and thus the heartland of the "Islamic State"), need to be understood, and I plan to offer a number of posts dealing with these groups, Assyrians, Yazidis, Shabak, and others.

The Khabur is a major tributary of the Euphrates. The Old Testament Book of 1 Chronicles 5:26, says it was where Tiglath-Pileser III (Tukultī-apil-Ešarra III) of Assyria settled the captive tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (among the "10 lost tribes" of the Northern Kingdom of Israel). Many also identify it with the "River Chebar" where the Prophet Ezekiel had his visions, but others place that closer to Babylon.

The Assyrian Christian communities along the Khabur include members from all four of the faith (doctrinal/liturgical) communities that are sometimes called "Assyrian" the Assyrian Church of the East, historically called "Nestorian" by rival Christian communities; the Chaldean Catholic Church, formed by those elements of the Church of the East who acknowledged the Pope from the 16th century onward in several waves; the Syriac Orthodox Church, an "Oriental Orthodox" Church often called "Jacobite" and formerly known in English as "Syrian Orthodox"; they now prefer Syriac, which is a better translation of their name in Arabic and Syriac; and the Syriac Catholic Church, the Roman "Uniate" analogue of the Syriac Orthodox.

I won't deal with the complicated doctrinal and liturgical disputes here (much as I thrive on such things), but merely note that all these people are historically, ethnically, and linguistically kin. All speak today, or until recently spoke, varieties of Eastern Neo-Aramaic. All are, at least arguably,descendants of the pre-Islamic Semitic-speaking Christian populations of Upper Mesopotamia and Eastern Anatolia. Let me note that Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholics in other parts of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan may reject the label "Assyrian," but those in the Khabur valley have their origins in the Turkish region of ancient monasteries known as Tur Abdin ("Mountain of the Servants [of God]), which for the Syriac Orthodox was an analogue of Wadi Natrun for the Copts and Mount Athos for the Greek Orthodox. While they call themselves Suroyo (Syriac) or similar terms, they are part of the greater Assyrian Christian mosaic.

The First Displacement: 1915

Much of what follows here on the history of the Assyrians on the Khabur is from Alberto M. Fernandez' article "Dawn at Tell Tamir: The Assyrian Christian Survival on the Khabur River," 
Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Volume XII, Number 1), reproduced at the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) site.

Although the fate of the Armenians during World War I is by far the best known (and largest), other Christian minorities were also displaced  under Ottoman rule, including the Assyrians, and Pontic and Anatolian Greeks. As Fernandez notes:
The coming of World War One exacerbated difficult relations existing between the Muslim and Christian populations in Anatolia and resulted in the flight/massacre/expulsion of historic Assyrian communities in the highlands of the Hakkari during the 1915-1918 period and the relocation of most of the survivors to camps in Iraq and Iran. Indeed, between 1915 to 1920, many of the future Khabur Assyrians would be driven from the Hakkari Mountains, to Urmiyya in Iran, to the safety of the British lines at Hamadan, also in Iran, then to Baquba in Central Iraq, and then Mindan in Northern Iraq.
Second Displacement: 1933
 Other Assyrian groups may have migrated more directly rather than via Iran.The Assyrians in northern Iraq tended to support British rule during the Mandate period, and the British, who often used minority populations to enforce colonial rule, recruited many of them into the notorious "Assyrian Levies," which were much resented by Arab nationalists. When Iraq became independent in 1932, those Assyrians who had served in the Levies became targets.

Fernandez again:
Tensions between Assyrian and Iraqi nationalists eventually led to open fighting and horrific massacres of Assyrians in Northern Iraq in 1933 at the hands of Iraqi Army units and the flight of Assyrian refugees into French Mandate Syria. The  first 415, led by chieftains Malik Yaco (Upper Tiari) and Malik Loco (Tkhuma) crossed the Tigris on July 18, 1933. The young Patriarch of the Assyrian Church off the East, Mar Shimun Ishaya XXI, was stripped of his Iraqi citizenship and became a stateless person eventually moving to Cyprus and then America. After much discussion between the French, the British, and the League of Nations, the decision was taken to settle the Assyrians in the sparsely settled Jezira where they would join other recent Christian arrivals, Syrian Orthodox and Armenians mostly, who had also escaped the destruction of their communities in Anatolia. Although some thought was given to settling these Assyrians in the more fertile Ghab valley in Western Syria, British Guiana, Niger,or even on the banks of the Parana in Brazil, the Khabur River basin in the extreme Northeast corner of the country was eventually settled upon. Some of the Iraqi Assyrians were already near there, living in refugee camps. Lt. Colonel Stafford noted that “their settlement here, however, cannot be, and is not intended to be, other than temporary.”
But of course, as has so often happened to the "temporarily" displaced, the settlement became permanent. At least until now, when the Assyrians on the Khabur are under threat yet again, a full century after their first displacement.

Below, from the AINA site, the 35 villages along the Khabur:

Source: AINA

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