Assyria: New Iraqi Census Officially Recognizes ChaldoAssyrians

UNPO, Netherlands
July 12 2004

Assyria: New Iraqi Census Officially Recognizes ChaldoAssyrians

With the handover of sovereignty by the Coalition Provisional
Authority (CPA) now complete, the new interim government in Iraq has
begun to prepare the groundwork for nationwide elections now set for
2005. Reports have surfaced that in preparation for a nationwide
census, a new draft census form including the various Iraqi
constituent groups has been prepared. The draft survey form
reportedly includes Arabs, Turkoman, Armenians, Kurds, and Assyrians.
The inclusion of Assyrians (also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs)
marks a historic milestone in that under the former regime Assyrians
were deliberately classified as Arabs, despite their protestations.
As a direct result, past Iraqi censuses have resulted in Assyrian
under representation.
The initial draft version of the census form caused some concern and
confusion within the Assyrian community. Reportedly, the new draft
form originally included the term “Ashori” — the Arabic version of
Assyrian. For Iraqi Assyrians, the preferred term for official
governmental business is “ChaldoAssyrian.” This term was
overwhelmingly adopted by Iraqi Assyrians during the Chaldean Syriac
Assyrian General Conference in Baghdad in October of 2003. The
Baghdad conference, sponsored by the Assyrian Democratic Movement
(ADM) and the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), was
unimaginable just a few months earlier under the past Baathist
regime. During a very critical period, the ChaldoAssyrian community
of Iraq convened the meeting to formally adopt the official name to
be included in any future Iraqi constitution as well as to press for
recognition of an Assyrian self-administered area in the Nineveh
Plain. The adoption of ChaldoAssyrian is broadly seen as the best way
to avoid external threats to exacerbate internal tensions over the
name issue that might otherwise result in fragmentation of the third
largest demographic group in Iraq.

Formal complaints by various groups within the community to the
census bureau have, according to insiders, led to the census bureau
acknowledging that ChaldoAssyrian will indeed be the term utilized in
the census form. Prior to the anticipated reversal, Assyrian leaders
had feared that the draft version represented an affront to the
Assyrian community’s political expression as well as potential
fragmentation of the community in the upcoming census. As one leader
noted, “there was concern that the resulting tension and confusion
might lead to another undercounting of our people in Iraq.” Another
analyst added, “It remains critical at this time to not deviate from
the agreed upon formula of the Baghdad conference in order to not
hand our adversaries the victory of under representation of our
people there once again.”

The inclusion of “Ashori” in any form has itself been seen as highly
significant on another count as well. During the previous regime,
there was a deliberate distinction made in Arabic between “Ashoris”
and “Athoris.” As part of the Arabization campaign of the Baath
regime, Ashori referred to ancient Assyrians while Athori referred to
today’s Assyrians as a Christian Arab religious minority. By making
such a distinction, the government deemed today’s Assyrians unrelated
to the ancient Assyrians in order to deny Assyrians their legitimate
ethnic, historical, cultural and indigenous status within Iraq. In
the Assyrian language (Syriac), there is no distinction between the
two terms and both are used interchangeably. Appropriately, the new
proposed census form uses the term Ashori (or ChaldoAshori)
acknowledging the historical continuity of the Assyrians of Iraq.

One of the greatest challenges facing Assyrians in Iraq today remains
a proper accounting of numbers. Community estimates outside Iraq have
put the numbers at between 6-10%, while in Iraq Assyrians are given
only 4% representation. No real hard facts are known since Assyrians
have never been included in official Iraqi censuses, they were
fragmented as separate religious minorities along Church
denominations. One Assyrian observer bitterly noted “We constituted
just over 10% of the casualties of the Iran-Iraq War. How is it,
then, that we are ‘allowed’ to die for our country proportionately,
but not allowed to be represented politically fairly to the same

Some of the responsibility of seeing that all Assyrians are counted
in the upcoming census will fall on the shoulders of the new
ChaldoAssyrian Minister of Immigration and Refugees, Ms. Pascale
Warda Eshoo. Although Assyrians continue to protest only one
ministerial position, the new ministerial level appointment of Ms.
Eshoo is seen as highly significant because through that position she
may be able to contend with the two most vexing issues for Assyrians
in Iraq. First, she will be able to assist with displaced Assyrians
within Iraq. Secondly, from the perspective of representation, she
will be able to assist with properly registering Assyrians in the
diaspora. One analyst noted, “In the US alone, 80-90% of
Iraqi-Americans are Assyrian. Even if , pending a fair census, we are
only 1.5 million in Iraq, there are at least hundreds of thousands
outside Iraq that need to be counted.” Another observer explained the
discrepancy of 6-10% of a nation’s population contributing 80-90% of
its diaspora by simply summarizing “disproportionate persecution has
led to disproportionate emigration.”

Despite the climate of fear and intimidation that the horrendous
security situation has engendered, there have been some recent
hopeful signs for Assyrians. The new Iraqi interim President recently
acknowledged the importance of the Assyrian diaspora community.
Speaking in Washington to an audience of Iraqi expatriates, Sheikh
Ghazi al-Yawer stated that the Assyrians are the indigenous people of
Iraq and are an important and integral part of government. Their fair
representation will be ensured in the new political makeup inside and
outside of Iraq, where they represent a majority of the Iraqi
Diaspora communities.