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The Assyrian people have been repeatedly victimized by genocidal assaults over the past century. They first suffered, along Ottoman Greeks and Armenians, from Turkey’s simultaneous genocides during and immediately after World War I. Soon after, the Armenians of northern Iraq were brutally massacred by the newly established Iraqi state. Persecution continued during the reign of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein, and sectarian violence unleashed during the recent Iraq War has left Assyrians vulnerable in their historic homeland. As a result of these successive tragedies, an Assyrian diaspora stretches across the world.
The Assyrian people have deep autochthonous roots in Anatolia and Mesopotamia, going back well before the 3rd millennium BCE. Christianity came early to the Assyrians, at least since the third century CE. With subsequent Arab, Mongolian, and Ottoman conquests of Mesopotamia, the Assyrians and their Christian brethren were subordinated to minority status. The millet system of the Ottoman Empire ensured a certain degree of cultural and religious autonomy, at least until the crises of the 19th century. By then, geopolitical forces and the rise of nationalism threatened the multiethnic status of the Ottoman Empire, which subsequently directed its ire against its Christian subjects. Along with the Armenians, the Ottoman Assyrians suffered grave depredations towards the end of the 19th century, when the Ottoman Sultan organized an irregular cavalry force of Kurdish tribesmen called the Hamidiye. This was the awful prelude of what was to follow in the coming decades.
The status of Ottoman Christians became even more precarious after the ultranationalist "Young Turks" emerged as a dominant political force in the Empire. Organized as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the "Young Turks" staged a successful coup in 1913, thereby establishing a military dictatorship on the eve of World War I. They initiated a national project of "Turkey for the Turks," whereby they sought to forge a homogenous nation state through the deliberate removal of all minorities. Soon after the Ottoman Empire entered World War I in November 1914, the CUP ruthlessly began its genocidal project. Waging more or less simultaneous genocides against Assyrians, Armenians, and Greeks, the CUP essentially followed the same pattern of group destruction. Massacres, rapes, plundering, cultural desecrations, and forced deportations were all endemic. Around 750,000 Assyrians died during the genocide, amounting to nearly three quarters of its prewar population. The rest were dispersed elsewhere, mostly in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, the persecution of Assyrians did not end with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. From August 8-11, 1933, in the newly established state of Iraq, Assyrian villagers in the northern Iraqi town of Simele were brutally murdered. Some 3,000 men, women, and children were killed by Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish irregulars. The massacre was covered by Western media sources, and it inspired the intellectual development of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who would go on to coin the word "genocide."
There remains a vulnerable Assyrian population in Iraq. They suffered along with their former Kurdish tormentors from Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist party's "Arabization" program that culminated in the bloody al-Anfal campaign in 1988. As of the invasion of Iraq in spring 2003, there still remained a substantial minority of nearly 1.5 million Assyrians, roughly 8 percent of the total Iraqi population. However, the recent Iraq War has been devastating for the Assyrians, as they have been caught in the midst of vicious sectarian violence. Presently, the Assyrian diaspora stretches across the world, from the Middle East to Central Asia, as well as Western Europe, North America, and Australia. While they continue to celebrate their rich cultural heritage, their modern legacy as victims of genocide has yet to be fully recognized.