Assyrians Celebrate New Year

As Assyrians celebrated their new year in Syria last week, an organisation representing this Christian minority expressed concern about attacks on members of their community in Iraq and called for more rights inside their own country.

Assyrians, who are the second largest minority group in Syria, ushered in the year 6,758 with celebrations on April 1. Called Akitu, new year’s day was marked in the al-Jazeera area of northeastern Syria with dancing, singing, and the waving of Syrian and Assyrian flags.

The Syrian government did not acknowledge the Assyrian festival, but it went ahead peacefully and without interference from the authorities.

Assyrian organisations issued statements welcoming the new year and expressing concern about the treatment of the minority both in Syria and Iraq. Other Assyrians live in Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus.

The Democratic Assyrian Organisation expressed sympathy with members of the minority in Iraq who have faced “vicious attack”.

Iraqi Assyrians have suffered threats and killings at the hands of Islamic extremists since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 40 per cent of the Iraqis who had fled the country were Assyrian.

The organisation said these attacks constituted “a malicious plan carried out by dark forces aiming to uproot peaceful people from the land of their fathers and grandfathers”.

Assyrians regard Iraq, particularly the northern province of Nineveh, as their homeland.

In Syria, they live mostly in the al-Jazeera area bordering on Nineveh province. The majority still speak the Assyrian language, but it is not officially recognised in Syria.

The Democratic Assyrian Organisation called on the government to recognise Assyrians as an indigenous people in the constitution. The government has not responded to past calls of this kind.

The organisation also asked for official recognition for the Akitu festival, and for more rights for ethnic minorities generally.

Last year, the Syrian Assyrian Democratic Gathering called on President Bashar al-Assad to allow both the language and Assyrian history to be taught in school. It also proposed adding an Assyrian symbol to the Syrian flag.

It said these measures would “do much to curb the emigration of Assyrians and [other] Christians from Syria”.

Many Assyrians and other minorities complain that the country’s Arab identity dominates.

“Minorities feel that their cultures are underdogs,” said a Syrian writer and intellectual who asked not to be named. “They feel that they should make a strong stand against assimilation into the majority, and strengthen their own identities.”

An Assyrian cannot become president, for example, because the post must be held by a Muslim.

At the same time, the writer said, Assyrians do enjoy many rights and do not face widespread discrimination in Syria.

He added, “It’s a shame that most Syrians only know the first day of April as April Fool’s Day. Almost no one has heard of Akitu.”