Iran’s small Assyrian community is part of an ethnic and religious community scattered across the Middle East, which was among the first to adopt Christianity.
This community speaks a form of Aramaic and traces its roots back to the mighty Assyrian empire that once dominated Mesopotamia, now Iraq.
In recent decades, Assyrians have emigrated from their homelands, which include Iraq, Syria and Turkey as well as Iran, and are now found all over the world, from Australia to the United States. Iraq, in particular, has seen a wholesale exodus because of attacks on Christians, part of the violence and chaos that ensued after the 2003 invasion.
In Iran, the Assyrians are a recognised minority, entitling them to a seat in parliament. The present incumbent, Yonatan Bet-Kolia, estimates the current Assyrian population at about 20,000.
Among the world’s earliest Christians, the Assyrians are divided, in Iran, between two main churches – the original, independent Assyrian Church of the East, sometimes referred to as Nestorians, and the Chaldean Catholic Church, which owes allegiance to the Vatican. There are also well-established Assyrian Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
In 2008, Bet-Kolia was elected head of the International Union of Assyrians, and a decision was taken to transfer its main office from Chicago to Tehran.
Iranian officials seized on the move as something of a coup, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he hoped it would mean that “American power would continue to diminish”.
Babak Kermani is the pseudonym of a Tehran-based journalist.