Since the first mission movements of the Early Church, Assyrian (Syriac) churches have never failed to maintain a confessional Christian presence in or near their original lands. If the current crisis facing northeastern Syria worsens, ancient Christian communities dating back to the Book of Acts might soon be deserted. The last remnants of this people group could be driven out of their homeland and their churches destroyed.
In the last few months, things have grown increasingly dangerous for those who remain in northeastern Syria. Following the abrupt removal of U.S. troops in October 2019, Turkish forces immediately resumed attacks in the region using soldiers, warplanes, and drone strikes. Though their primary targets are allegedly Kurdish forces, the reality is that Turkey has been attacking indiscriminately and recklessly leading to the deaths or serious injury of many Christians and civilians, including children. To add to the imminent danger, the temporary leave taken by U.S. forces allowed for the reemergence of ISIS in the areas where Syriac churches and their families remain.
Assyrian Christians in history and around the world
Assyrian Christians trace their ethnic roots back to the days of Abraham, and their Christian faith roots to the Early Church. As the gospel moved East during the first century, small Christian communities emerged quickly in ancient Assyria. As a result, for nearly two millennia now, Assyrian Christianity has maintained an indigenous presence in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
Assyrian Christians not only have some of the deepest roots in the history of the Church, they also worship in one of the most sacred languages. The congregations of the Assyrians are often called “Syriac” churches because they speak, pray, sing, and read in a modern form of ancient Syriac. Syriac is a subset of Aramaic, which was the language spoken by Jesus and many of the earliest Jewish-background believers.
As the Imperial Church became more formalized in the late Roman Empire, the Assyrians were often on the outside looking in. Syriac churches lacked representation in both Rome and Constantinople, which meant they did not play a significant role in either Western or Eastern Christendom.
Throughout the centuries that followed and up until now, Assyrian Christians have endured sustained periods of persecution and attempts of genocide, most recently in the last century from the Turks. As a result, they have much fewer members than in centuries past, even with the exponential growth in the world’s population.
The oldest form of Syriac Christianity, the Assyrian Church of the East, is today very small, with best estimates being between 300,000–400,000 members globally. Several other groups consider themselves Syriac Christians, including the Chaldeans, Jacobites, and even some Protestant/Evangelical strains. All combined, best estimates are that the adherents of this ancient form of confessional Christianity number somewhere around 4 million.
Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, thousands of Assyrian Christians have fled northeastern Syria into surrounding countries. A similar exodus took place in Iraq a decade before, following the U.S withdrawal from that region. Some have even emigrated to Europe and the U.S., adding to the growing Assyrian Christian diaspora around the world.
The Western influence of these churches is steadily growing. In Chicago and its surrounding areas, for example, there are nearly 100,000 Assyrian Christians and several Syriac churches.
The migration of many Assyrians into the West does not reduce the immense historical and spiritual value of their original lands and traditions. Even those who no longer live in northeastern Syria still feel a sense of unity with the ancient body of Christ simply in knowing a presence remains in the places where their faith began.