The Chaldean Assyrian Syriac People of Iraq: An Ethnic Identity Problem – Shak Hanish

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Abstract (Summary)

King Sennacherib built Nineveh on the Tigris River, as a new capital,

destroyed Babylon (where citizens had risen in revolt), and made Judah a vassal


Chaldea, which is a land in southern Babylon, was first mentioned in the annals of the Assyrian King, Ashur Nasirpal II (reigned 883-859 B.C.). King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) conquered the Kingdom of Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was built during that period. Akkadian was the lingua franca of Mesopotamia, with its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects around 2000 B.C.7 The Aramaic language began competing with, and absorbing the Akkadian language around 1000 B.C. It was used by the Assyrians and became the predominant language during the Chaldean empire.

    In Iraq today, there are people who are called by different names, such as Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldo-Assyrians, etc. They all speak the same language, the Syriac language (A modern dialect of Aramaic). There are  heated . debates and doubts about the actual identity of these people. Some writers think that these are all one group of people; others suppose that they are multiple groups of people with different identities, such as the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, and the Syriacs. Some of these groups claim that their current names are the only genuine names; that all other names or identities are a “distraction” of theirs. As such, they discard other names or identities .

    The Syriac speaking people of Iraq constitute about 3% of Iraq’s population. There are over 2% Chaldeans, followed by the Syriacs and the Assyrians.There are 5%  Chaldean members represented in the Kurdistan regional parliament; four members from the group were elected to the current Iraqi Parliament. In the Kurdish regional government, three of its ministers are from these groups,along with two of its ministers, who are in the central Iraqi government. In this paper, I will attempt to trace the roots of these groups, explicate their relationships, present their various arguments, and propose my own opinion and conclusion on the issue.


    Modern Iraq corresponds to Mesopotamia (the land between the two rivers- theTigris and the Euphrates). Civilization emerged in southern Mesopotamia, particularly in Sumer. Cuneiform (Edge) writing appeared in Mesopotamia about 3500 B.C. There were important city-states in the region, such as Uruk, Eridu, Lagash, Agade, Akkad, Ur (the birthplace of the prophet, Abraham), Babylon, and Nineveh.

    In Lower Mesopotamia, many warring Sumerian city-states fought to control the rivers’ valley. Sumer was conquered by Sargon I, king of the Semitic city of Akkad around 2334 B.C. He erected the world’s first empire. In the final stage of Sumerian history, the king of Ur established hegemony over much of Mesopotamia.

    By 2000 B.C., the Amorites, a Semitic people from the west of Euphrates destroyed Ur’s dynasty rule. They established cities on the two rivers, and made Babylon their capital. During King Hammurabi’s rule (1792-1750 B.C.), Babylon controlled most of Mesopotamia, from Sumer in the south to Assyria in the north. Afterward, Babylon was conquered and destroyed by the Hitties. By the 12th Century B.C., the Hitties were destroyed and no great military power appeared untill the 9th Century B.C.

    Assyrians were under the rule of the Sumerians and Akkadians. They attempted

to an autonomy, and eventually created their own empire. During this period, Ashur city, named after the sun-god of the Assyrians, flourished. The Assyrians were Semitic speakers who occupied Babylon for a brief period in the 13th Century B.C. King Ashurnasirpal, Tiglatch-Pilese III, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal were among the Assyrian kings. They expanded their empire tothe Mediterranean Sea, occupying Phoenician cities, such as Damascus and Palestine. King Sennacherib built Nineveh on the Tigris River, as a new capital, destroyed Babylon (where citizens had risen in revolt), and made Judah a vassal state.

    Chaldea, which is a land in southern Babylon, was first mentioned in the annals of the Assyrian King, Ashur Nasirpal II (reigned 883-859 B.C.). Earlier documents referred to the same area as Sea land. In 850 B.C., Shalmaneser III of Assyria raided Chaldea and reached the Persian Gulf, which he called the Sea of Kaldu. The Chaldean ruler of Bit-Yakin (a district of Chaldea) seized the Babylonian throne, but eventually fled and Bit-Yakin was once again placed under Assyrian control. With the decline of Assyrian power, a native governor, Nabopolassar, was able, in 625 B.C. to become king of Babylon and to inaugurate a Chaldean dynasty. The word Chaldean becomes synonymous with Babylon.

    In 612 B.C., the Chaldeans (called also Neo-Babylonians) vanguished Assyrian power. The Chaldeans became heir to Assyrian power and they conquered lands formerly held by the Assyrians in Syria and Palestine. King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) conquered the Kingdom of Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was built during that period. In 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great of Persia, who incorporated Babylon into his empire and released the captive Jews from Babylon.

    The Chaldean Empire was the last national empire of Mesopotamian natives to rule Mesopotamia before it fell to foreign powers. It was reported that the Chaldean identity was preserved in the establishment of the Chaldean principality of Udeini, along Euphrates (located in southeastern Turkey today). The famed King Abgar ruled this principality in 130 B.C.


    It is not easy to distinguish between elements of Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, or Assyrian civilizations. The origin and linguistic connection of the Sumerian langague is unknown. The Akkadian language, which absorbed the writing system and some vocabulary of the Sumerian, is a Semitic language that has many similarities with the other Semitic languages of Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew. Akkadian was the lingua franca of Mesopotamia, with its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects around 2000 B.C. The Aramaic language began competing with, and absorbing the Akkadian language around 1000 B.C. It was used by the Assyrians and became the predominant language during the Chaldean empire. The Chaldean adopted the Aramaic over their Akkadian language because of its easy alphabet and richer vocabulary, compared to cuneiform writing.

    The Aramaic language originated on the northwest bank of the Euphrates, in parallel with the Akkadian language that originated southeast of the Euphrates. The spread of Aramaic among people of the Near East primarily contributed to the Chaldeans rule.

    The Syriac Speakers in Modern Iraq The Chaldeans Today, Chaldeans number about one million, the majority being in Iraq, with over 150,000 in the U.S. Chaldea (Chaldaea) is mentioned in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis. The narrative of Abraham, places him at Ur, which was, at a later time, the country of the Chaldeans. Chaldea proper was the vast plain in the south, though the name came to be commonly used later to refer to the whole of Mesopotamia. During the period of the Assyrian domination of Babylon, the Chaldeans formed one of the strongest resistances to the Assyrian rule. The earliest mention of the Chaldeans dates back to the 9th Century B.C., when the Assyrian King Shalmanassar III indicated that he had encountered the Chaldeans. TheChalldeans, as a people, may date back to more than four thousand years ago, although it was not until 625 B.C. that the Chaldean dynasty gained political control of Babylon under King Nabolpolssar. The Chaldeans, prior to the 7th Century B.C., were a tribal society, with each clan/ family under the leadership of a chief, who was referred to as a king. Today, most Chaldeans believe that they are a continuation of all indigenous people of Mesopotamia, whether their names were Sumerians, Akkadians, Amorites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Aramaeans.

    Beginning with the second century A.D., Christianity flourished in Mesopotamia among the descendents of the two great and ancient empires of Chaldea and Assyria. Once they were baptized, both nations preferred the name Christian to their old national names. The Church was simply called the Church of the East. These people were gradually converted through the missions of St. Thomas, St. Addi, and St. Mari. Most of Iraq remained Christian until the advance of Islam in the mid 7th Century A.D.12 In time, Islam became the religion of the majority of Mesopotamians.

    A turning point in Christianity occurred in 431 A. D., when the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, split with the Roman Church over Christ. Christians of Mesopotamia supported Nestorius’ thinking and followed him. Their leader was named Catholikos, who resided in Seleucia, Cteisphon, near Baghdad.

    In 1240, there were five thousand houses of Nestorian immigrants living in Cyprus. In 1445, the followers of the Nestorian Church in Cyprus indicated their wish to join the Church of Rome. On September 7th, 1445, Pope Eugene IV accepted a letter of conversion from Bishop Timothawes, of Tarshish and Cyprus who identified himself as Bishop Timothaem of the Chaldeans. Thus, the Chaldean community in Cyprus was converted to Catholicism, and from then on, the word Chaldean became the official term used to identify immigrant Mesopotamian Catholics. Today, the Archbishop of Iraq’s Chaldeans uses the title Patriarch of Babylon over the Chaldeans.

    In 1553, a major split in the Eastern Church occurred when Rome extended the name of the Chaldean Church (of Cyprus) to cover all those new Catholic converts in Mesopotamia proper. When two Roman missionaries returned to Rome to evaluate the Chaldean Church’s unity with Rome, they wrote, “In Mesopotamia, Assyrian and Chaldean people no longer adhere to Nestorius. They are willing to be called Chaldeans.” Therefore, the name Chaldeans has come to bear national, linguistic, cultural, as well as religions connotation. Here, Rome did recognize the Chaldeans’ preferred identity.

    In 1585, a Latin Bishop sent a letter to the Pope stating that he visited Mar Shamoun Dinha (of the Nestorian Church of East), calling him the Patriarch of Chaldeans in Assyria.17 This letter indicated that the Nestorians who did not join Rome were also called Chaldeans. There is no clear explanation why the patriarch was identified as a Chaldean. Were he and his people really called Chaldeans, or was it the Latin bishop’s misunderstanding of these people?

    Chaldeans today still speak Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the ancient Near East in the 8th Century B.C. Between 721 and 500 B.C., the language of the people of Palestine shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his disciples. The Aramaic language went through many stages of development – old, standard, middle, and late Aramaic-and was also divided into different regional dialects. The Western Aramaic was spoken by Jews (of Jerusalem, the Talmud, and the Targums) and the Syro-Palestinians. The Eastern Aramaic is the dialect of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs, and the Mandaeans (a small religious minority in Iraq, also called Sabians). Most Christians of Iraq, Iran, Syria,Turkey, and Lebanon kept the language alive in their homes, schools, or churches. We know that Aramaic has persisted over time; this suggests that itis also possible that other cultural elements were passed down through the generations of these people.

    Did the Chaldeans Really Disappear? Some Assyrians believe that, with the exception of the Assyrians, all original people of Iraq disappeared or were dissolved. They claim that there were no Chaldeans left, nor were their names used prior to the split of the Church of the East in 1553. Furthermore, they claim that there is no relationship between today’s Chaldeans and those of antiquity. The Chaldeans respond to such claims by stating that the killing of Christians forced many to change their religion and ethnicity, while forcing others to migrate to distant places. For example, during the forty years of the Persian ruler Shapour II (339-379 A.D.), persecutions of Christians mounted in the pretext of being loyal to the Roman Empire. Many escaped to the northern mountains, to Syria, or to Cyprus, which was under Roman rule.19 These invaders did not exclude the Assyrians, but included all Christians.

    Originally, the Assyrians were in the north, the Chaldeans in the south, and the Babylonians in the middle. However, from one historical period to another, one of those names became dominant when it became the dominant ruling power in Mesopotamia. Although Chaldeans ruled Mesopotamia for a short period ( 626-539 B.C.), they had previously established their kingdoms, such as Beth Yakin, Beth Daqorce, Gumbulo, etc. They are mentioned in the 7th Century Assyrian annals. Close to 470,000 Chaldeans were settled in Assyria (745-612 B.C.), during the reign of Pelasser III, Sargon II, Senharreb, Asserhadoon, and Assur Banipal. Documents in the British Museum from Assyrian palaces confirm such claims. There is a possibility that those captive people settled in cities around Nineveh’s ancient city (present-day Mosul), which still exists. Most Christians in modern Iraq live close to the city of Mosul, which is the second largest city in Iraq.

    Herodotus, in his History of Persian War, Ch. VII, p. 63, (C. 430 B.C.), acknowledged that the Assyrians went to war with helmets, “This people, whom the Hellenes call Syrians are called Assyrians by the Barbarians.” He also stated that the Chaldeans served in their ranks. The last statement is usually omitted by Assyrians who want to negate the Chaldean name.

    Moreover, the Chaldeans were mentioned by the Greek historian Xenophone. Xenophone marked in his book, Anabas, Book IV, Chapter III (401 B.C.), details about the passage of the Greek Battalion in the Nineveh area while returning from Persia to Greece. He affirmed that the Greek faced armed groups made of Chaldeans, Armenians, and Mardenians. He also described Chaldeans as “men of war, more than any other people.”22 This statement confirms that Chaldeans had a strong presence in Assyria.

    A hymn written by Mar Marotha at the time of Persian oppression of Christians in Mesopotamia in the 4 th Century A.D. reads, “An order was issued to kill innocent martyrs by sword, the Chaldeans were surprised and they raised their finger toward the sky”. This hymn is still in use in the liturgy of the Chaldean church. The pro-Chaldean identity advocates perceive this hymn as evidence of the presence of the Chaldean name in Mesopotamia long after the end of their empire.

    Chaldeans were also mentioned in the 10th Century. Ebn Al-Nadeem,who died in 999 A.D., mentioned the people of the city ofHaran (present-day Turkey) in hisbook, Index, calling them “the Chaldeans.

    In 1222, the Pope sent a letter to Jerusalem’s Patriarch to encourage him to convert the Nestorians back to Rome. A report stated that the request was resisted by Greek and Chaldeans seculars. This letter affirms the existence of the Chaldeans, even before joining Catholicism in 1445 and 1553.

    Fr. Anstas Al-Karmly, in his book, The History of Baghdad, states that Christians at the time of Mongolian Gazan Khan (1295-1303) faced ravages that no amount of ink could describe. Also, Yousif Ganima, in his book, Tour of the Yearned, mentioned the oppression that faced the Nestorians. They were forced to leave Baghdad, Basra, and all Iraqi towns, except Mosul and its surroundings. According to Ganima, the Nestorians took shelter in the mountains of Kurdistan and Persia.

    The Syriac name was used after the spread of Christianity in Iraq. When the Mesopotamians converted to Christianity, they rejected their ethnic names which, they felt, linked their previous names with their pagan past. They were called Syriacs because their missionary came from Syria and they spoke the Syriac language. In time, Syriac became synonymous with the word Christian.

    When the church split in 431, there were the Nestorians (The Church of East) headquartered in Seleucia-Cteisphon (close to Baghdad), and the Orthodox, called the Syriacs or the Jacobites, headquartered in Antakia (Syria). In 1827, some Syraic Jachobites joined the Catholic Church and were called the Catholic Syriac.

    Bishop Zaka Aewas of the Syriac Church also believes that the Syriac language is the same Aramaic language. He considers “Any Aramaean who converted to Christianity came to be known as Syriac.” The term, Syriac is used today usually to describe the Eastern Aramaic people.

    The Aramaeans, the native speakers of Aramaic, began to settle, in the 12th Century  B.C., in modern-day Syria, Iraq, and eastern Turkey. Beginning in the 7th Century A.D., it was replaced with Arabic as the lingua franca of the Middle East. Some Syriacs consider their group as an ethnic group instead of a linguist group. In reality, there were no people in history called Syriacs – neither before nor after Jesus Christ.

    As a language, Syriac was the ancient Aramaic language spoken in Syria from the 3rd Century to the 13th Century that survived as the liturgical language of several Eastern Christian Churches. It was a late dialect of Aramaic. It was used when the term Aramaic acquired the meaning of paganism to Mesopotamians or Syrians. Syriac is often used to refer to Aramaic-speaking Christians of the Middle East. Occasionally, the designation Syrians was used in the same manner, but this can lead to confusion with the modern nation-state of Syria and its inhabitants. According to the Chaldean Bishop Mar Jammo, the Syriac language was the dialect of Orhai, in Anatolia (close to the Iraqi-Syrian border). He pointed out that Orhai was the church university’s headquarters, and that Syriac was used in classical church’s texts. He maintained, “We do not speak Syriac, but Aramaic, in its Mesopotamian dialects, like Chaldean and Assyrian dialects.”

    The Assyrian Argument and the Counter-argument Most Assyrian writers accept as fact the Assyrian identity or ethnicity. They believe that Chaldeans, Syriacs, and all Christians in Iraq and its neighboring countries are Assyrians, and try to impose an Assyrian identity upon all thesegroups. Their distractors accuse them of doing what Arab nationalists – including the Ba’thists – did to non-Arab minorities when they claim that minorities in the Arab world are Arabs, or of Arab origin. The Assyrians also argue that, because the Chaldean towns and villages in northern Iraq are close to Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital (Mousl), they must be Assyrians.

    Some Assyrian writers argue that, because the Assyrian reign was much longer than the Chaldean, those Aramaic-speaking people are Assyrians. These ideas are not shared by the Chaldeans and the Syriacs. Similarly, the counter-argument of many Chaldeans is that, because the Chaldeans defeated Assyrians, and were the last native Mesopotamians to rule, the Aramaic speakers of Mesopotamia are Chaldeans. Furthermore, Chaldeans, quoting some historians, indicate that ancient Assyrians were actually living in Babylon, in the Chaldean plain of Shinaar and that their roots were Babylonian. Therefore, they argue, Assyrians were not a separate ethnicity, but Mesopotamians. Accordingly, they were relocated and created their own region, which was called later Assyria.

    Some Assyrians challenge the existence of Chaldeans, even in history. Younadam Kanna, the General secretary of the main Assyrian political party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), and member of the Iraqi Parliament, challenged the existence of the Chaldeans. He stated “there is no single stone in Babylon bearing a Chaldean name except the 7ora/&”. Other Assyrian writers claim that Chaldeans were Assyrian tribes living in southern Mesopotamia. Uncovered documents found in 1973 in Nippur – located between Babylon and Uruk – revealed the words Chaldea and Chaldeans on their cuneiform tablets, dated about 700 B.C. In tablet number one [discovered?] by archeologist Steven Cole, there is a letter indicating that “wool could not be found in Chaldea.” Tablet 21 reads “Whatever news (there is about) Chaldea, mylord should find out and write.” The word Chaldea was mentioned seven times in various tablets discovered inthis Nippur location.

    Regarding modern history, opponents of the Assyrian argument affirm that it was the Canterbury Church’s delegates who gave the followers of the Nestorians’ Patriarch, Mar Shimoun in Hakari and Uremia the name Assyrians. The Anglican missionaries promised them that the Assyrian name would win their national rights for them.35 The Anglican Missionaries began their mission among the East-Aramaic Nestorians in 1887-1890 and in 1890-1915, which was called The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission. Initially, it meant the Christians of the Geographical Assyria. These Christians of Assyria became known as Assyrian Christians or Christian Assyrians. MacLean, a missionary, was quoted as saying that “there is really, as far as I know, no proof that they had anyconnection with old Assyrians…. One of the few Anglicans who did use the term Assyrian was Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but that is a fad of His Grace, as no one else.”36 Therefore, Assyrians are considered descendants of the ancient sect, the Nestorians.

    In addition, the author of The Modern Assyrians affirms that those people who “called themselves ‘Suryane,’ …had no greater connotation to Assyrians.” He added, “We take it for granted that they (Nestorians) got the modern Assyrian label from the West.” The book concludes that the Assyrian Christians are the product of Western Missionaries who came in the 19th Century and have brain-washed the Aramaean tribes of Hakaria (Turkey) and Uremia (Iran) to see themselves as Assyrians instead of Aramaeans.37 Therefore, the Assyrian as a modern identity was introduced to the Western World in the 19th Century by Protestant Missionaries in the Ottoman and Persian Empires to designate the followers of Nestorian sect. It can also be related to the 19th Century modern archaeological discovery of Babylon and Assyria. In fact, the seal of a document of Mar Shimoun, bearing the title Patriarch of Chaldeans, sent to Pope Clemente in 1670, remained permanently as his seal. All of his successors, using the title, Mar Shimoun, used the same seal until the time of Mar Shimoun XXI Ishai. The last time a document found bearing such a seal was in 1933.

    The Assyrian Church discontinued using the Patriarch of Chaldeans seal and adapted instead a seal reflecting the Assyrian identity.38 The Assyrians also claim that they represent one single nation, a direct heir of the ancient Assyrian Empire. They claim that their nation has been divided into five groups, each bearing the name of its Christian sect, namely, the Church of East, the Chaldeans, the Maronites, the Syriacs Orthodox, and the Syriac Catholics. Furthermore, they argue that the word Syriac is linked to Assyria when it was used in different languages, such as Athor or Othur in Aramaic, Ashouri or Athouri in Arabic and Assyrios, Assyrians, or Assyri in Greek.

    The Chaldeans respond to those who claim that Chaldean is a religious sect by stating that there is no such sect in Christianity. They believed that the Chaldeans only wanted to restore their national identity, and Rome recognized their wish when they joined the Catholic Church. The Chaldeans argue that if they were Assyrians, why would the Pope give them another name? They say that the Pope only replied to their Bishop’s wish for his people to be called Chaldeans. To prove that they are not a religious sect, they affirm that if a Chaldean changes his / her religious denomination, he/she would still be

called Chaldean.

    Some seven hundred years after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the name Assyria was used during the Roman Empire as one of fifty-one provinces of the Empire. Assyria appeared on a map in the Sassanid Dynasty (224-651) as Asuristan. During the conquest of Timur in the 11th Century, they were nearly eliminated to the point of extinction, as they rejected Islam.

    An Assyrian writer, citing Xavier Koodapuzha, states that Mar Yuhannan Sulaqa, the first Chaldean Patriarch, was proclaimed by the Pope as the Patriarch of Mosul and Ashour on February 20, 1553. This statement does not verify that the Patriarch was an Assyrian. Mosul was called Athour by many authors.

    The Assyrians reject the term Syriac-speaking people because they consider it a denial of their ethnic or national identity as Assyrians. They claim that the term was employed by the Iraqi government in 1971 when it granted the Syriac speakers their cultural rights. The Assyrians also argue that the Chaldeans call themselves sorayie, which means Assyrians. The Chaldeans say that it means Christian, not Assyrian. The Chaldeans use Athornayie to mean Assyrian and sorayie to mean Christian. However, Assyrians use Mshehayie to mean Christian. Sorayie means Christian; it is a religious name, not a nationality name. We must not confuse Soraya (Christian) with Soryaya (Syriac or Syrian).”

    The term Assyrian, which has been employed since 1886, is used today mainly to indicate the followers of Nestorius. The Christian Assyrians are divided into two churches – the Assyrian East Church, where its patriarch resides in Chicago, IL (U.S.) (was called The Eastern Church until 1976), and the Eastern Ancient Church (a splinter), headquartered in Baghdad, Iraq.

    The modern Assyrians in the Hakari region of the Ottoman Empire (in present-day Turkey) were used by the British to serve their political means. The Ottomans, who opposed the British, attacked the Assyrians, killing many thousands. During WWI, the British took the Assyrians to Iran where many remained, and eventually to Iraq, where they were relocated. In 1933, an Assyrian uprising surfaced in Ayn ZaIa, Iraq, where hundreds of Assyrians were killed and several thousands were relocated to Syria. This relocation effort of these Assyrians was sponsored by the League of Nations.

ChadloAssyrians ?

    ChaldoAssyrians was a term used at the beginning of the 20th Century to unite the names of the Chaldeans and the Assyrians. The term is now supported by some intellectuals and a few nationalist groups in Iraq. The nationalist leader, Agha Patros, was the first to use the ChaldoAssyrian term in early 20th Century when he presented himself as a military leader of the ChaldoAsyrian people. The next time the term was used in the mid-1970s, in a booklet entitled ChaldoAssyrians Yes, Arabs No. The booklet was published in protest to the Ba’thist policy of Arabization of national minorities in Iraq. In 1996, The Kurdistan Communist Party in Iraq was the first political party to use the ChaldoAssyrian term. At the time, the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) was against such use. However, the fall of the Iraqi regime in April 2003 changed the ADM perspective in favor of the use of the ChaldoAssyrian term.

    When a delegation of the Chaldean Church from Michigan, led by Mar Ibrahim Ibrahim, visited Iraq and met with ADM’s secretary, ADM adopted the term. Then, ADM tried to introduce the term at a conference it organized, allegedly representing the three groups of the Syriac Speakers in Iraq. The use of this new identity neglected the Syriac group name used by the Syriac. The ChaldoAssyrian term would have given different identities to Syriac speaking people in the Middle East. The Syriac speakers in Iran and Turkey are called Assyrians, Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq, and Syriacs and Assyrians in Syria and Lebanon. Their identities would have been changed to ChaldoAssyrians without their consent.

    The ChaldoAssyrian term was recognized for a short time as a political term by the Chaldean Church Patriarch in 2004. In the Transitional Administration Law (the Interim Constitution) adopted in March 2004, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the term ChaldoAssyrians was used to refer to those three groups. When the Chaldean church realized that most Assyrians were keeping their Assyrian identity name, and that the ADM was utilizing it for its political purpose, the church realized that keeping the term would be a loss for the Chaldean identity. Therefore, the Chaldean Church rejected the ChaldoAssyrian identity and insisted on the Chaldean identity. The Chaldean Church insisted on using the Chaldean identity prior to the issuance of the draft of the new permanent constitution that was put for debate on August 2005. The Chaldean Church played an important role in affirming the Chaldeans’ name in Article 122 of the new Iraqi Constitution.

    Early in 2005, there was an announcement that the ChaldoAssyrian term would be used for the upcoming Iraqi censes. The permanent Constitution approved in November 2005 favored the Chaldean and the Assyrian names separately to refer to the Syriac speaking people in Iraq. It did not mention that the Syriac people should be included among the components of Iraqi society. Syriac was used only to refer to the language of these groups, reflecting today’s political reality rather than history. Article 122 of the Constitution avowed that Iraq consists of Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and other components of Iraqi society.

    Today, the supporters of the ChaldoAssyrian term are mainly the ADM and its sympathizers, many of whom are Chaldeans.43 The majority of the Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs, and their Churches reject the ChaldoAssyrian identity term. The newly active Chaldean political organizations, such as the Chaldean Democratic Union Party, the National Chaldean Council, and the Chaldean Democratic Forum, reject the ChaldoAsyrian name and insist on the Chaldean identity. They mostly recognize others to have their separate identities like the Assyrian and the Syriac. Still, there are some Syriac speakers who prefer to be called simply Christians because they think it unites everyone in a single-word term. They see ethnic identity as divisive, whereas religious

identity is a unifying term.


    There was no reference to the ethnicity of people in ancient Mesopotamia. People were known by their cities or locations. Ethnic affiliation was not known, or not stressed during the time. The common features of a nationality are language, geography, history, tradition and norm, and even religion in some cases. Language is the most important component of a nationality. Almost all these people still speak Aramaic, which is now called simply Syriac. Therefore, it is fair to argue that they are one nationality and should have a united name. The debate among these groups regarding their identity is not over. It is a heated debate, mainly among intellectuals,Internetusers, nationalist politicians, andthemedia.

    The Assyrians, in general, are more extreme in regard to their name and nationality, whereas Chaldean and Syriac are more flexible regarding the adaptation of a unified identity. They respect and recognize an Assyrian identity despite the Assyrians’ rejection of their name.

    It is possible that long before Christianity, the Assyrians and the Chaldeans were two different groups of people, of two legacies of the competing civilizations of Assyria and Babylon. Christianity united those who spoke Aramaic in a common name with other Christians in the western Euphrates. They continued as Christians until the division of Christianity into religious sects, such as Nestorian, Jacobeans, Chaldeans, Maronites, and Syriacs.

    The identity issue is becoming a political and ideological issue, instead of being an historical issue or a topic for research. It is still alien to most people who follow their churches or are occupied with issues of law and order in Iraq, or of economic survival.

    There is no consensus among Syriac speaking people in Iraq to accept any one identity, like Assyrian, Chaldean, or Syriac. There is a possibility that some who call themselves Chaldeans today were Assyrians in origin and others who call themselves Assyrians were Chaldeans. Chaldeans and Assyrians eventually absorbed one another. What distinguishes them today are their religious sect affiliations and their dialects.

    The campaign by pro-Assyrians to consider Chaldean as a religious sect resulted in an awakening of many Chaldeans and Syriacs who asserted their affirmationof their identities. This campaign led to more division instead of bringing them together. Nationalism is in part a nationalist feeling. Even if these people cannot be certain of their descent, they could be called by a name they prefer until there is an agreement on a unified identity. They should be respected for whatever identity they choose to use. Their identity could be just a single word like Chaldeans, Assyrians, or Syriacs; or be a hyphenated identity like ChaldeansAssyrians; or a compound name like ChaldoAssyrians,AssyrioChaldeans, ChaldoAssyrian Syriacs; or simply (Chaldeans Assyrians Syriacs). There is no rationality behind imposing a certain identity rejected by most.

    An agreement on a unified identity name will not soon be seen. A better option now is to use a name that includes all these people together without putting the conjunction “and” between them.

    The term Chaldeans Assyrians Syriacs, stated together, could be a better option available right now. It includes all three identities without leaving any group out. This newly used term is gaining acceptance among most nationalist groups and their media, and is becoming familiar to the people. Using the term for the time being will put aside groups’ differences and might unify them in a common goal to win their nationalist rights in a united federalist Iraq, until the.time is ripe for adapting a term that unifies them.

The Chaldean Assyrian Syriac People of Iraq: An Ethnic Identity Problem –