Persecution is nothing new for the Assyrian Christians of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Syria) who have survived a long list of genocides, massacres and ethnic cleansing campaigns.
The genocide being inflicted by the Islamic State is, in many ways, the same as the historic persecutions the Assyrians have faced, yet thanks to this modern genocide, they now face an existential threat in their indigenous homeland of Mesopotamia for the first time in their 6,700-plus-year history.
A long trend of emigration out of Mesopotamia has existed for more than two centuries, but has only increased during the past decades, due to the continued persecution and effects of globalization. Because of the attacks on the ancient community since the 2003 Iraq War, more Assyrians now live outside their ancestral homeland than inside it. For the first time in their history, the Assyrians have truly become a diaspora nation.
Within the Assyrian diaspora communities exists a great fear that the end of the culture and Syriac language will not come at the hands of the Islamic State or subsequent groups, but rather within the peace and security of western nations.
Many Assyrians from Middle Eastern states can attest to the forced assimilation tactics used by neighboring peoples. This includes Saddam Hussein’s Arab Nationalist government’s banning the Syriac language within public circles; the forced changing of the legal names of all historic Assyrian villages and towns in Turkey; and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s appropriation of the Assyrians’ historic relics and monuments. Assyrians have experienced assimilation and appropriation in their own homeland for centuries.
Another form of assimilation is currently being experienced in the diaspora; this one is not forced, but rather accepted, especially by the Assyrian youth. The breakdown of Syriac as the main social language inside the home, the lack of continuation of Assyrian customs and traditions, and the lack of knowledge of young people’s own history are a few signs of the loss of the Assyrian culture.
Assimilation within new host states is not by any means a negative, nor is it frowned upon, but is rather something that is highly encouraged. But, unlike many other ethnic groups that have a state within which to continue their traditions, language and history, the Assyrians are seeing their history destroyed, language forbidden, and traditions eradicated in their own homeland. Thus, the assimilation within diaspora communities will ultimately result in the destruction of the Assyrian culture altogether, something not experience by many other diaspora communities.
The Assyrians would do well to examine the most famous historic diaspora community in the western world – the Jewish people. The Jewish diaspora began after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. Since then, the Jewish community has dispersed from Spain to India. For the next 2,000 years, the Jews survived, thrived and died in the diaspora. More importantly, they maintained their distinct ethno-religious identity, even after countless pogroms, genocides and expulsions, for 2,000 years.
Investigating how the Jews survived the diaspora is important for Assyrians, especially during these turbulent times. Although much could be written on this matter, the rest of this article focuses on one small aspect of the community that helped maintain its survival.
The Jewish people said four simple words during their time in the diaspora: “Next year in Jerusalem.” These words were used during joyous times, but more importantly were said during times of struggles and hardships, genocides and expulsions.
That saying can be turned into “Next year in Nineveh” for the Assyrian people. Nineveh is the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire and the symbolic center for the Assyrians. During weddings and festivals, Christmases and Akitu (the Assyrian-Babylonian New Year), during good times and bad, the saying “Next year in Nineveh” should resonate in every city that hosts an Assyrian diaspora community.
These four words will help bring to light the relationship the Assyrians have to their ancient capital of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul) and the surrounding region. At best, it will bring about a desire to make those words come true and at worst remind everyone of what they should be aspiring to accomplish.
Even now, as brave saviors battle to reclaim Nineveh – with its war-torn walls, churches and ancient monuments – from the hands of the Islamic State, the saying “Next year in Nineveh” should echo throughout the Assyrian diaspora.
This call to adopt the saying used by the Jewish diaspora is not meant to be a political one, but rather is meant to remind the Assyrian diaspora that for 2,000 years, because of those four words, the hope of return never died.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, In Defense of Christians and The Philos Project are currently leading a push for the creation of a Nineveh Plain province for ethno-religious minorities. This recent re-ignition of the Nineveh Plan is a sign that Assyrians can continue to hope that “next year in Nineveh” will actually come true … sooner than anyone ever expected.
At one time, every Assyrian festival, Mass, wedding and birth was held within Nineveh and its surrounding areas. May the words “next year in Nineveh” be said at every festival, Mass, wedding and birth that is celebrated in the diaspora and provide a renewed hope that Assyrians will once again celebrate in Nineveh.
This article originally appeared on Philos Project, October 31, and reposted with permission.