Shlama Lou-Kuhn! The term is an Assyrian phrase translated “peace be upon you." We often exchange these words as the first greeting with family, friends, and strangers. Assyrians are a hospitable people who love eating food and celebrating events.
Assyrians are also deeply tied to their churches. The purpose of this essay is to share a few observations about the nation of the Assyrians, to show God’s heart for the Assyrians, and to share a personal story of my heritage as an Assyrian.
Assyrians: An Introduction
The Assyrians are a people with thousands of years of history. They mark their history through Abram, who emerged from the Ur of the Chaldees (Gen. 12). Modern-day Assyrians, however, represent a minority ethnic group located in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Jordan. As a result of persecution, the Assyrians have become a scattered nation with no homeland. They represent some 500,000 in Iraq alone, but the numbers there are dwindling daily.
Assyrians identify as Christian by birth, and not necessarily by the gospel. They represent three main branches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Assyrian Catholic Church, and Protestant. The Assyrian Church of the East holds to heretical Nestorianiasm, marked by lack of discernment and understanding of language variances between the West and East. The Assyrian Catholic is non-Roman Catholic, while Protestant churches are often Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, or associated with nondenominational churches located in Australia, Canada, England, and the United States.
Old Testament Background
The word Assyria or Assyrian appears more than 150 times in the Old Testament (most often in Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jonah). The word frequency does not account for the kings of the Assyrian empire and other cognate names: Chaldeans, Arameans, Ninevites, and even the Babylonians. The Scriptures unfold the story of the Assyrians in two ways: God judges the people for their disobedient actions of worship and treatment of Israel (Is. 37), and God grants grace to the Assyrians through a prophet’s message (Jonah 3:10).
The Assyrians emerged as the superpower in the Middle East for several hundred years. By 733 B.C., King Tilgathpileser took the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity (2 Kin. 15:29). Three years later, King Shalmaneser conquered Samaria and took more slaves (2 Kings 18:9-12). The Assyrians eventually sieged Israel in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that God would use the Assyrians as his “rod of anger” (Is. 10:5-19). God protected his people from the onslaught of the Assyrians by killing 185,000 troops in one night (Is. 37:36).
Two Prominent Stories
Two prominent Old Testament stories show God’s gracious heart for the Assyrians. First, the Old Testament reveals Jonah’s account and his refusal to go to Nineveh. Vicious Nineveh repented in humility and was spared by God. A second story is the leprous commander, Naaman. He receives healing by the prophet Elisha (2 Kin. 5). Both narratives illustrate God’s redemptive means to save people. A simple message turns the evil of their heart. “Yet forty days and God will destroy” is a call to repentance. “Wash and be clean” is a call for all people to hear the gospel that cleanses from sin.
Modern Assyrians believe God will bless them and will make a highway for worship for Israel and Egypt so that the three peoples will worship together. They believe Isaiah’s promise in Isaiah 19 is still yet to be accomplished (vv. 23-25) and that God’s affectionate words of Israel are now applied to both Egypt and Assyria: “My people” (Is. 10:24; 43:6-7) and “the works of my hands” (Is. 60:12).
Assyrians and the Gospel
In the New Testament, the Assyrians are mentioned again as a testimony of God’s grace. Jesus uses them to illustrate nonrepentant religious leaders who reject Jesus as Messiah (Matt. 12:41ff; Lk. 11:32ff). The “men of Nineveh will rise up” is a testimonial that even a ruthless nation can surrender to God’s grace.
The passage does not mean that Assyrians are going to heaven, of course, only that they must embrace the gospel of Christ. They especially need to hear the message of grace during these great times of persecution. “The men of Nineveh will rise up against this generation” is a testimony to the world that even in dark times we can see pictures of grace.
Why are the Assyrians so important to me? Because I am a first-generation Assyrian living in the United States. My family fled during the second wave of persecution in the 1970s. The decision to leave one’s homeland is not made in haste. Leaving our country meant giving up our identity, yet my family felt the words of Jesus applied to them: “If they persecute in one town, flee to the next!” (Matt. 10:23).
Persecution is no stranger to the Assyrians. The Assyrians have felt two previous waves of persecution in the 1900s. The first wave took place in the 1918 (during World War I) as the Ottoman Turks invaded Iran. They forced Assyrians to drink poison (known as the Assyrian genocide). Then, from the 1960s to 1980s, the rise of Islam forced Assyrians to make drastic changes again. Convert or die, serve in the military, or face injustice were their options. Young Assyrian males were drafted to wage war in the front lines from the 1960s to late 1970s.
My uncles, aunts, cousins, and immediate family made the decision to leave Iraq because they sought a better situation and ultimately safety for their family. After my family arrived in the United States, they worked hard not to succumb to poverty. My father and uncles worked several jobs while learning English and earning their citizenship. Later, my grandparents also came to the United States seeking, like other Assyrian families, relief from persecution.
Our family often tells the stories of old, the struggles of the past, and the great uncertainties they faced. They tell stories of hardship, war, lack of medicine, money, and religious freedom. Yet, despite the struggles, God did not leave our family destitute. These stories serve as reminders of God’s grace, not only for them but also for my children, who know Jesus in part through the testimony of my Assyrian heritage.
Pray that “the men of Nineveh will rise up in this generation” and know Christ. And pray that they will finally be free from their persecution. Push B’ shlama (‘Stay in Peace’)!