In ancient times, this was the land of the Assyrians. Modern-day Mosul was known in the Old Testament as Nineveh, Jonah's final destination after his sojourn in the whale's belly. Later, Assyria became one of the first nations to convert to Christianity, and one of the first to send out missionaries; Assyrian Churches dating from 86 AD have been found in China. Alas, the Kingdom of Assyria fell 1,700 years ago, and since that time the Assyrian Christians have been a minority in their own homeland. Persecuted by Persian, Arab, Mongol and Turkish invaders, Assyrian history became a string of massacres, culminating in the death of two-thirds of their population during World War I. Today there are between 750,000 and 2.5 million Assyrian Christians living in Iraq, and struggling to find their place in its postwar government.
Under Sadaam Hussein, Assyrian Christians enjoyed some measure of protection. Hussein only tolerated human rights abuses when he was the one committing them. He was well aware that Iraq's mosaic of peoples could easily crumble into civil war, and responded ruthlessly to unauthorized attacks on ethnic minorities. Some of the highest-ranking members of Hussein's government (notably Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz) were Assyrians. Under the secular Baath regime, their status as religious minorities was no great issue. Still, Hussein's regime proved a mixed blessing at best. Under his "Arabization" initiatives, teaching in Aramaic - the language originally spoken by Jesus and preserved by the Assyrians - was forbidden. The Assyrians were declared "Arab Christians;" in the autonomous Kurdish zones, the Assyrians were called "Christian Kurds" … despite the fact that they were neither Arabs nor Kurds. Like the Kurds, the Assyrians also suffered from forced depopulations, as ethnic minorities were moved from oil-rich areas to make way for Arab settlers.
Still, now that Hussein is gone many Iraqi Christians fear that things will go from bad to worse. There have been many reported attacks on Assyrians in Kurdish-controlled areas: these attacks have generally been ignored by Kurdish authorities fearful of offending their Moslem subjects. The Assyrians also fear intervention by Turkey: Turkey has a long and sordid history of anti-Christian violence starting with the Armenian genocide onward. If they occupy northern Iraq (and they are almost certain to do so if or when an independent Kurdistan is declared), the Assyrians fear genocidal attacks from Turks and Kurds alike.
There is little more safety to be found among Iraq's Arab population. For centuries the Assyrian Christians have been seen by Moslem rulers as a potential "Fifth Column," sympathetic to the West and Europe. As the mood in Iraq grows increasingly anti-American, this sentiment could well turn into attacks on a people who are seen to be in league with "the Crusaders." (Much as the Jews are frequently blamed for both communism and capitalism, the Assyrians have suffered from allegations that they are simultaneously "pro-Hussein" and "pro-American"). Iraq may be divided between Sunni and Shi'ite, between Arab and Kurd - but all groups might well become united in their hatred of Christians.
At present there are 5 Assyrian Christians among the 105 members of the Kurdish parliament in the autonomous Kurdish zone. There is some concern that even this limited representation (by many counts Assyrian Christians make up 10% to 15% of the population of the autonomous Kurdish areas) will be lost if a Kurdish state is declared. The Bush administration has taken steps to ensure that the rights of Iraq's Assyrians are recognized, but this has provided scant comfort to this beleagured people. In 1932 Great Britain promised to safeguard the rights of the Assyrians who had supported the British colonial government… then promptly forgot about those promises when it withdrew from Iraq. In the ensuing chaos, looting Arabs and Kurds destroyed entire Assyrian villages and massacred thousands of civilians. Given America's too little, too late protection of Kurdish and Shi'ite rebels after 1991, the Assyrians see no reason to suppose they will get any better protection if a bloodbath begins.