The modern Assyrians are descendants of a people who date back nearly 7,000 years to before the rise of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations in the Near East.
They were among the first Christians, with the founding of the Assyrian Church of the East by the apostles Thomas, Bartholomew and Thaddeus in 33 A.D. The Syriac Orthodox Church, founded by St. Peter, began in 37 A.D., according to multiple historical references. Aramaic, the language they speak, was the language of Jesus Christ.
Assyria ceased to be a national entity in the seventh century after the Arabic invasion, which gave rise to the spread of Islamic religion and the Arabic language through much of the region, according to historians. But the indigenous Assyrians, who have lived continuously in the same region, retained their Christian faith and the Assyrian (Neo-Aramaic) language.
Assyrians remain in their ancestral homelands in modern-day northern Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. But they have also spread to more than 26 other countries worldwide. There are an estimated 3.3 million Assyrians throughout the world, according to the nonprofit group Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization: 1.5 million live in Iraq and 700,000 live in the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria). There are about 400,000 in the U.S.
They have largely emigrated because of massacres, such as the Assyrian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire during World War I and the 1933 Simele massacre by the government of Iraq. Many fled during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and thousands were exiled to Iran by Saddam Hussein's regime before the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
There have been so many massacres of against Assyrians -- more than 33 major incidents between 339 and 1992 -- that Assyrians commemorate Aug. 7 as Martyrs Day, according to data complied by AINA, the Assyrian International News Agency.
Church leaders and many who are familiar with the current situations in Iraq and Syria say the spread of Islamist extremism and Islamic State group (ISIS) could spell the end of Assyrians living in their homeland.
Religious minorities represent 36 percent of those in Iraqi refugee centers, while accounting for only 3 percent of the total Iraqi population, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
Most recently, more than 150,000 have been forced out of their homes in their native Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. They live in temporary shelters with poor living conditions. Many have been beheaded, raped or shot by Islamist militants, said Vladimir Moghaddasi, a board member of the Assyrian Evangelical Church of San Jose, which is working to help refugees.
They are escaping "by various methods ranging from obtaining refugee status and fleeing or flying to other countries to using human traffickers to bring them through the mountains to Turkey and then to Eastern Europe and finally to the rest of the world," he said.
Assyrians are not the only indigenous people of the region whose history dates back thousands of years and are now being persecuted. Chaldean Christians, who trace their ancestry to Babylonia, Syriac Christians, and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethnic community practicing a faith rooted in Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions, are also being killed, said Margaret Petros, executive director of Mothers Against Murder, a nonprofit Palo Alto-based organization that is working to help refugees obtain amnesty in the U.S.