The Assyrian people, who suffered from many crimes including a genocide in their ancestral lands in the Middle East, won a significant victory in the United States regarding their linguistic rights.
Beginning with the 2023-24 school year, Niles North High School and Niles West High School in Illinois will add Assyrian as an accredited option to fulfill the "World Language" requirements for graduation. Also, in November of last year, Assyrian was recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education as an accredited World Language, paving the way for the historic vote of the Niles Township District 219 Board of Education.
Thousands of Assyrians reside in Illinois. Assyrian language courses are also taught at some schools in Canada, Europe and Australia.
Sadly, the Assyrian/neo-Aramaic language is still not officially recognized in Turkey, where Assyrians/Syriacs have lived for millennia. Assyrians in Iraq, Iran and Syria also face severe challenges to their right to education in their mother tongue.
Most Assyrians are Christian and speak Assyrian (also known as Syriac, Aramaic, or neo-Aramaic), one of the world's oldest languages and the language of Jesus.
Assyrians are an indigenous people of what are today Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Tur Abdin, which is the southeast part of Turkey, a name derived from Assyrian, means "mountain of the servants [of God]," and is an ancestral religious and cultural heartland of the Assyrians.
For 300 years, from 900 B.C. to 600 B.C., Assyrian kings ruled the largest empire in northern Mesopotamia that the world had known. The Apostle Thomas converted the Assyrians to Christianity, and by the third century A.D., they became a Christian nation.
Until the Ottoman Turkish genocide on the Assyrians in 1915-23, the Assyrian population formed a significant presence in the region, despite Turkish rule that began in the eleventh century after the Turkish invasion. In the eighth century, Arabs had invaded Assyrian areas in the Middle East, and for centuries the Assyrian community has also been subjected to Kurdish aggressions. According to the Assyrian International News Agency, every 50 years on average there has been a massacre of Assyrians.
As a result of Muslim persecutions and massacres, Assyrians are now a non-sovereign minority in their native lands. Their situation is also the consequence of the absence of support and protection from the West.
The near-eradication of Assyrians -- including their language and cultural heritage -- took place during the 1915-1923 genocide. Assyrians call the genocide "seyfo", meaning "sword" in their language: swords were often used to murder them. (For further details on the genocidal crimes committed against Assyrians, see Professor Joseph Yacoub's meticulously researched book, Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide.)
A century after the genocide, the remaining Assyrian community in Turkey is still struggling to open an Assyrian primary school in Istanbul and, unsurprisingly, receiving no support from the Turkish government. The last Assyrian school in the country, according to the newspaper Agos, was closed in 1928.
Since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, its governments have refused to fully recognize and respect the linguistic and cultural rights of its non-Turkish citizens. Restrictions remain on the use of languages other than Turkish in political and public sector spheres such as in political debates or political campaigning. The Turkish government also does not allow political parties to promote Assyrian, Armenian, Kurdish, Yazidi, Greek or any other minority culture within Turkey. Similarly, school or teachers' unions can be dissolved under Turkish law for promoting minority languages because the Turkish Constitution rules that Turkish is "the" language. The legislation thus continues to unduly limit freedom of expression in languages other than Turkish.
Today Assyrian has many endangered dialects even where it previously existed more strongly, as in Iraq, pre-revolutionary Iran and Syria.
Almost 50 years ago, the renowned scholar of neo-Aramaic, Otto Jastrow, wrote that Turoyo, or the neo-Aramaic or Assyrian dialect of Tur Abdin, would die out in the 21st century. He blamed the decline on migration to Europe: refugees fleeing what he called Kurdish aggression against Christians seeking asylum there, as well the lack of protection of Christian properties in Turkey.
Professor Hannibal Travis, who has written several articles and books about the Assyrian genocide, told Gatestone about to the vulnerable state of the Assyrian language in the Middle East:
"In Iraq, there used to be Assyrian language teaching thanks to a 1972 order, and Assyrian cultural clubs as well as churches. Many of these institutions have been lost due to al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) activity in the country.
"There is language teaching and church construction -- churches sometimes host classes of various kinds -- but they cannot compare with the scale of Kurdish language and cultural institutions and mosque construction in the Kurdistan Regional Government or their Arab counterparts in other areas of the country. In addition, many smaller Assyrian towns and villages have lost their role as sites of cultural transmission by being declared prohibited, or by being demolished or abandoned in the areas of Kurdish rebel activity or during the fighting with Iran or Turkey over the past 50 years. Other villages were probably Kurdified after 3,000-6,000 Assyrians were massacred in 1933. In 1998, Kurds attempted to close some Assyrian schools in Iraq, in areas under their control.
"In 2018, Kurdish forces in Syria also attempted to close Assyrian schools that had operated for decades under Syrian government oversight, and to impose a Kurdish curriculum on Assyrians. In Iran, there used to be schools where Assyrian was taught; but after the 1979 revolution, many such schools were closed.
"All of this is intensified by Iraq being declared a bi-national country with 'other components' -- who are an afterthought -- as well as Turkey's insistence on its culture, educational foundations, religion, political parties and laws, and demanding the same of their counterparts in Kurdish-controlled Iraq and Syria."
The government of Turkey does not recognize the right of any native minority to education in its own language -- except for those recognized by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, the internationally recognized document which accompanied the Republic of Turkey's founding, and recognized only three ethnic groups -- Greeks, Armenians and Jews -- as official minorities. Any others, including the Christian Assyrians, and all non-Turkish Muslim ethnic groups such as the Laz and the Kurds, are excluded.
Larissa Petrus Al Bazi, the Chairwoman of the Assyrian Federation in the Netherlands, who has family roots in Turkey, said:
"In the Netherlands, some churches offer language courses for children to learn how to read and write in Assyrian. We hope the Netherlands will one day officially recognize the Assyrian language as well.
"I believe Turkey should allow Assyrian language courses within the curriculum of their schools. In addition to the advantages of learning another language, officially implementing it within the curriculum would be a step forward towards recognition, accepting and respecting the Assyrians as an indigenous community."
Evon Sworesho, an Assyrian teacher and rights advocate, born in Iraq, and now teaching university-level Assyrian language courses in Canada, told Gatestone:
"The refusal to support the Assyrian language in Iraq and Turkey stems from the history of persecution against indigenous minority communities in those countries. Whereas Canada, the USA, and Australia are essentially multicultural nations, they try to embrace and encourage the plurality of their societies. The opposite is the case in Iraq and Turkey where the ruling groups tend to dominate all aspects of society, including education, thus they limit linguistic rights and opportunities for many minority groups. There is also a historical element of eliminating the indigenous link of Assyrians with their homelands through erasure of the ancient language, thus cementing the dominant non-indigenous language as the only linguistic group.
When it was merely suggested that Turkish migrants living in Germany should integrate and adopt German culture, this proposal was condemned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as "a crime against humanity" in 2008. Deutsche Welle reported:
"Erdogan shocked Germans when he warned Turks against losing their culture during a political speech to 20,000 Turks in Cologne... 'Assimilation is tantamount to a crime against humanity,' Erdogan said. Erdogan encouraged Turks living in Germany to teach their children to speak German, but he warned against giving up their Turkish ethnicity."
The government of Turkey, however, has persecuted its non-Turkish, Christian indigenous peoples to the point that those peoples have almost become extinct in Turkey. It is high time Turkey recognized the same rights it demands for the Turkish migrants in Europe for the oppressed indigenous peoples of Anatolia, especially the Assyrians, their culture and "the language of Jesus."
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. She is also a research fellow for the Philos Project.