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The Assyrian (Ašurian) Christians in Iran
Encyclopedia Iranica

Assyrians in Iran from 1915

The 19th-century Iranian Assyrians, living under better conditions than their brothers in the Turkish empire, proved to be the best defenders of the Azerbaijan frontier. Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah, after his victory over the Kurds and the Turks, married an Assyrian girl in Dīkāla and organized a regiment of a hundred Assyrian soldiers for defending Tehran (Y. Bḕ[t]-Solḕmān, op. cit., p. 79). From the 1830s to the end of World War I, Urmia was the spiritual capital of the Assyrians by the influence of four Christian missions (see above), which also founded four printing-houses. In 1915-17 the missionary stations in Urmia were able to offer refuge to thousands of Assyrians from the Turkish territory of Hakkari who, under the leadership of their Nestorian patriarch, had to leave their homes to save themselves from the persecution of the Turkish government determined to exterminate all Christians in the Turkish territory. In the early years of the Iranian constitution, the Assyrians had a deputy in the Iranian Parliament (Zahrīrē d-bahrā 62, 1911, p. 1; Macuch, p. 176).

The unfortunate events of the two world wars, however, forced a large number of the Assyrian population of the Urmia plain to migrate into other Iranian cities, especially Tehran, Hamadān, and Kermānšāh, to join relatives or friends there. Some found employment in Iranian administration or in the National Iranian Oil Company and founded new Assyrian communities in Ahvāz and Ābādān, where they established their churches, schools, and clubs. Because of their continual fluctuation it is difficult to give an exact number of Assyrians in different Iranian cities. In Tehran, where there may be about 50,000 Assyrians, they founded three churches and several cultural organizations, especially an Assyrian Youth Cultural Society with its own press publishing books and periodicals. They were supported by the Iranian Ministry of Culture. From 1963 to 1978 they had three successive deputies in the Majles (W. Ebrāhīmī, Dr. W. Bḕt-Manṣūr, and H. Āšūrīān). There was also an Assyrian brigadier-general in the Iranian army, Filip Bḕt-Qšaʿnā (see Ātor 42, 1972). An example of Iranian Assyrian political rhetoric is furnished by the writer Šmūʾḕl Bḕt-Kūlā: “In Isaiah 45:1-8 in the year 712 B.C. it was prophesized of Cyrus the Persian, who in 534 conquered Babyloŋ He freed himself from the Median yoke, became emperor of the Medes and Persians, conquered Babylon, and was a righteous ruler. For these 2,500 years we Assyrians have been faithful citizens of the heroic Persian empire” (“Ṣlōtā qā salāmātūtā d-malkān,” Ātor 29, 1971; cf. Macuch, p. 372).

The Nestorian patriarchate lost its political prerogatives after World War I but continued as a spiritual office—the leadership of Nestorian Assyrians throughout the world. Its hereditary status (succession passed to a late patriarch’s brother or nephew) ended with Mar Eshai Shimon XXIII (Macuch, pp. 336, 486); in 1976 the bishop of Tehran, Mar Denkha, was elected patriarch of “the ancient Church of the East.”

The modern Assyrian society in Iran and its social, political, and economic activities

Because of the fluctuation of the Assyrians after the first and second world wars in general and especially the Islamic Revolution in February, 1979, which may lead to further disintegration of religious minorities, it is extremely difficult to give an exact picture of the present state and activities of the Assyro-Chaldean community in Iran and to guess its future. Forced to leave their more or less compact settlements in Iranian Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, they have been living in a diaspora, predominantly in the larger Iranian cities, only a limited number remaining in their original habitats. The statistics of the years 1950-51 and 1970-71 published by Hubert de Mauroy in his book Les Assyro-Chaldéens dans l’Iran d’aujourd’hui (Paris, 1978) show not only the distribution of the Assyro-Chaldeans in Iran but also the fluctuation and growth of this small nation during these twenty.

We see that the urban Assyrian population almost doubled, from a little above 10,000 in 1950-51 to almost 20.000 in 1970-71, a growth corresponding to the general increase of the population of Iran and to the increased moving of the rural population to the cities in the last decades. The statistics also show that, whereas (apart from Reżāʾīya, a representative Assyrian city in the past) the urban Assyrian population diminished in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, it increased excessively in the capital Tehran and, to some extent, in the larger cities of Ḵūzestān, where formerly there were no Assyrians at all, which is directly related to the growing prosperity of these cities due especially to oil industry. The number of Iranian Assyrians still living in villages can be roughly estimated at 60,000. The approximate numbers above are of course no longer valid. The Assyrian population in Tehran seems to have increased by about a third towards the end of the 1980s. Statistical data for the other cities, are impossible to come by in the current situation.

The Assyrians of Iran are divided into two main churches: (1) the Ancient Church of the East (Nestorian) and (2) the Catholic Chaldean Church, as well as a minor Protestant Church and some smaller denominations which came into existence in the last two centuries. The main two Assyrian churches are called, artificially, “Assyro-Chaldean,” as the members of the Catholic Church, in existence since 1552 through a division of the Ancient Church of the East and the subsequent union of the “Chaldeans” with Rome, are not ready to give up their traditional name “Chaldean.” In fact, this church is now somewhat larger than the original Nestorian “Ancient Church of the East” which has only one diocese (Tehran), whereas the Chaldaean Catholic Church is divided into three dioceses: (1) Tehran, (2) Urmia-Salmās (Reżāʾīya), (3) Ahvāz. The bishop of the Nestorian Church in Tehran, Mar Ḫenānyā Deṇḫā was elected patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East on 17 October 1976 in London, after the hereditary principle of the Nestorian patriarchate (passing to the brother or nephew of the patriarch) was given up after the assassination of the last patriarch of this hereditary chain (Macuch, p. 486).
The political status of the Iranian Assyrians is that of a religious minority. Already an electoral law from the Constitution of 1907 made room for an Assyrian deputy in the Majles, but the lack of unity among the Assyrians and the situation created by the two world wars prevented the Assyrians from availing themselves of this possibility. Under the reign of the Qajars only for three short legislative periods (November, 1970-June, 1908; November 1910-December, 1911 and 1915) were Assyrian deputies elected. There has been none between World War I and II. It was only under the government of M. Eqbāl in 1959 that the Assyrians were again represented in the Majles and the first Assyrian deputy, the teacher William Ebrāhīmī was elected for a normal legislative period of four years. For the following legislative period, 1963, there were two candidates, W. Ebrāhīmī and Georges Māleḵ Yōnān. Ebrāhīmī was reelected with 6,000 votes out of 8,000. In 1967 there were four candidates: Wilson Bḕt-Manṣūr, G. M. Yōnān, W. Ebrāhīmī, and Bābā Laʿzār. Of 14,000 votes they got 6,000, 3,500, 2,000, and 500 respectively. In 1971, there was a certain agreement between the Assyrians to reelect Bḕt-Manṣūr that he might eventually be designated as a senator and to make place for a new Assyrian deputy (see the propaganda-article of Rābī ʾĪšaʿyā d-Šammāša Dāwīd in Bḕt-Manṣūr’s newspaper Ātor, no. 31, German summary by Macuch, pp. 375f.). Bḕt-Manṣūr (representing the Īrān-e novīn party) was reelected; the second candidate, Yōnān Māleḵ Manṣūr (of Mardom party) gave up his candidature. But the opposition against Bḕt-Manṣūr started to grow in 1973 as he founded his National Liberation Party supporting Iran’s anti-Iraqi policy in the question of Kurdish liberation fighting in northern Iraq in which many Iraqi Assyrians participated. Many Assyrians abroad criticized this policy and warned against it. As long as Iran supported the fighting Kurds, it was also possible to develop a help program for the Assyrian refugees from Iraq. But after the entente between Iran and Iraq, in 1975, Bḕt-Manṣūr was forced to give up his public functions. The last Assyrian deputy in the Majles from 1976 until the Islamic Revolution in February 1979, was Homer Āšūrīān. He consecrated all his forces to modernization and material and technical development of villages in Iranian Azerbaijan; electricity and water supplies, as well as connecting roads, etc., for several villages were made or, at least, planned under his supervision.

The Assyrians in Iran were hardly in a position to complain about the Pahlavi régime, which guaranteed them political and economical freedoms which the Assyrians enjoyed in no other country of the Near and Middle East; they expressed their gratitude to the shah and his government for the recognition of their human rights quite spontaneously, though a few oppositional Irano-Assyrian students in West Germany wrote a letter to two leaders of the Shiʿite opposition shortly before the beginning of the 1979 revolution in Iran (published by G. Yonan, op. cit., p. 89b), in which they requested respect for the human rights of their nation as well as of other national and religious minorities in their country.

The Assyrians founded charitable, folkloristic, and cultural institutions and even sport clubs in several cities. The first and most important “Assyrian Youth Cultural Society” (Sīʿtā siprētā da-ʿlaymē ātorāye, Tehran) was founded on 21 February 1950 and played a very important role through its publication of books and propagation of literature in modern-Syriac (“Assyrian”). There was also a theater group called Šāhdūst, founded in 1954, with its own choir. Its founder and director, Paṭros Tʾūmā Baḡzāda, wrote forty-five “Assyrian” theater pieces. Another famous and important folkloristic music, dance, and theater group, Šamīrām, was founded in 1957 by Lilē Taymūrāzī. A further Assyrian cultural committee Mutā edited in the sixties a monthly information bulletin Keṛḫā yaṛḫāyā. This committee along with the “Assyrian Youth Cultural Society” is still considered one of the most important Assyrian cultural organizations. It publishes “Assyrian” books and in 1974 it founded a National Assyrian Library. In 1976 it was reorganized by new deputy, Homer Āšūrīān, and in 1977 it started to publish a new periodical Šīlā “The way.” In August, 1969, the Assyrian Iranian Federation (after the model of the American Assyrian National Federation) was founded. This Federation stood under strong influence of the former deputy Bḕt-Manṣūr whose newspaper Ātor was its organ until his political decline in 1975. In 1970 the Iranian government gave a piece of land of 10,214 m2 to the Assyrian Youth Association in Tehran for cultural activities. A “Salon of Assyrian Youths” and a “Students’ Association” were opened there. Similar cultural associations and clubs have been founded also in other Iranian cities, where Assyrians are living. Among the first ones was the Rotary Club in Ābādān, where many Assyrians were working in the Iranian Oil Company. It was founded in 1955 by Pēʾrā Sarmas. In Urmia and the surrounding villages, there were several churches and summer schools in which the “Assyrian” language and religion according to the Chaldean and Nestorian creeds were taught. In 1966 an Assyrian working team was organized which also founded an Assyrian library. In July, 1970, the radio of Reżāʾīya began broadcasting an Assyrian program directed by Roza Dezāčī, Walwadīa Sargīs, and Šīmʿōn Bḕt-Īšōʿ. The Assyrian youths in Reżāʾīya also founded a sports club Koḵḇa d-Āšur “The Assyrian star.” In Tabrīz there is a youth organization led by Dr. James Hormozī.

The best educational and cultural possibilities were, of course, given in the capital where, in addition to the above-mentioned cultural societies, there were four Assyrian schools. Two of them belonged to the Chaldean Church under the supervision of the Metropolitan Mār (= Mgr.) Yōḫannān ʾĪšay. The Nestorian school Šarq “The east” had about 370 pupils and fifteen teachers and the national school Šūšan over 750 pupils and fourteen teachers in ca. 1975. Apart from the inter-confessional associations, there were cultural organizations attached to almost all Assyrian churches.

R. Macuch, Iranica

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