Aramaic Christians in the Kurdistan Region: A Sharing of History and Values

The Background

The Aramaic Christians have shared the land and history of the Muslim Kurds, Yezidi Kurds, and Jews for millennia. The bonds of land, values, language and folklore have merged these ethnicities and religions into one common socio-cultural society where differentiation only occurs in detail.

This image of Kurdistan society sharply manifested itself in the early decades of the twentieth century to the 1960s. Kurdish villages next to Aramaic Christian villages were undistinguishable in ways of life, language, dress and folklore: both communities danced to the same music and sang the same songs, in Kurdish. This tradition is very much preserved now in social events, even after so many Christians have emigrated to Western countries.

This socio-cultural, ethnic, and religious mosaic was fragmented many times by the central government of Baghdad. Most notably, the government of Tawfiq al-Suwaidi in the mid 1950s expelled the Jewish communities in Kurdistan and Iraq through law No. 1 of 1950, revoking the nationality of those who had lived in Iraq for 2,500 years and who constituted more than 50% of Baghdad’s population at the time. The Semele killings of the Assyrian Christians by the Iraqi army in 1936 was another example.

The central government army attacked the fabric of Kurdistan’s society from the early 1960s to 2003, which saw the degradation and destruction of Kurdish and Christian villages and brought major demographic changes, with local populations emigrating both internally and externally from their native homelands. By late 1989, hundreds of villages and orchards from Zakho city to the west down to Dera Luk in the east were destroyed and their inhabitants forced to flee.

The Duhok area and governorate in addition to the Nineveh plain are the de facto ancestral homelands for the Aramaic Christians (Chaldeans and Assyrians). During these stressful times, those who didn’t emigrate abroad ended up in Mosul, Basra, and (mostly) Baghdad, where neither the Aramaic language nor Kurdish was spoken and so they had to learn Arabic. The resettlement was gradual and painful. Subsequently, Kurdistan lost most of its Aramaic Christians after losing its Jewish communities.

The new phase of the displacement of Christians started after 2003 and peaked in 2005-2007 in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul. Christians in these cities mostly of Aramaic origin were systematically and viciously attacked by religious fanatics, repeating what happened to the Jewish community in the mid-twentieth century.

The Christians in these cities declined to a level that former Christian-majority quarters such as Dora in Baghdad had no more Christian residents, and a reverse internal migration occurred to their ancestral havens and homelands in Kurdistan. Many were the second and third generation of those who had emigrated under duress from Kurdistan to the south. Looking for a haven, Kurdistan always welcomed its returning sons and daughters and helped Christians rebuild their lives, providing them with sanctuary and accommodations and building new churches.

In 2014, ISIS attacked Kurdistan, and a third wave of Christian migration began. ISIS also attacked Nineveh plains and Mosul, home to ancient Aramaic Christian villages. Tens of thousands of Christians and Yezidis fled to Erbil and Dohuk.

Who are the Aramaic Christians (Chaldeans and Assyrians)?

In ancient Mesopotamia, two known major kingdoms co-existed: Chaldea with its capital Babylon to the south and Assyria with its capital Nineveh to the north. The Chaldeans and Assyrians consider themselves descendants of those two ancient kingdoms. The Jews who were exiled from Judea and Israel roughly 2,500 years ago settled in Mesopotamia in both Chaldea and Assyria.

The shared Aramaic language continued from antiquity to today. Morris Jastrow (1914) shows a cuneiform text from Chaldea and Assyria that reads: “um nukh libbi shabattum,” which translates into “the day of rest of the heart” in reference to Saturday “shabattum.” In modern Aramaic (Syriac, neo-Aramaic, suruth or vernacular), it reads: “yoma d’niakha d’libbi.” The Chaldo-Assyrian people from Iraq would recognize the first cuneiform text as such.

Christians formed major schools of thought, namely the school of Jundiaspoor (southern Persia), Harran, and Nisibis in ancient Syria-Byzantium, producing a literature of science and philosophy in both Aramaic and Greek that persisted up to the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. That literature was translated into Arabic by Christian philosophers such as Ibn Hunein. The Abbasid Caliphate during the reign of Al-Mammon was the golden age of Aramaic philosophers, translators, writers and physicians.

Today, the Christians of Kurdistan live peacefully side-by-side with Muslim and Yezidi Kurds and do not face discrimination and racism. Kurdistan has been a haven for Christians and other religious and ethnic groups who face persecution in Iraq.

In contemporary Kurdistan, the KRG leadership consistently engages in acts of public solidarity with its Christian populations. Moreover, especially in the aftermath of ISIS, continued vigilance and leadership must be shown at all levels of government to ensure that hateful ideologies are not allowed any space to take root.

Dr. Kamal Kolo is a professor at Soran University, Erbil. He is a native of Kurdistan of Chaldean Heritage. He worked on minorities heritage and history with Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts and Vrije Universiteit Brussels. He was a guest lecturer at the European Parliament, the University of Antwerp, and the University of Central Florida. His authored and co-authored books include: “Es War Einmal in Aradin”; “Das Ende Des Babylonischen Exiles”; “Inside Out: Textorientierte Erkundungen des Werks von Annemarie Schwarzenbach; and “Iraqi Kurdistan Region A Path Forward”.