AssyrianS IN ARMENIA
In his inaugural speech, President Robert Kocharian declared his intention to make Armenia a "dear home" for all ethnic minorities living within the borders of the newly independent republic. Despite the expulsion of the largest - the Azerbaijanis - at the beginning of the Karabagh conflict, three per cent of the population still consists of a variety of ethnic groups ranging from the Yezidi and the Molokans to the Jews and the Greeks.
Armenia is also home to an estimated 7,000 Assyrians who - like the Kurds - are a nation without their own state and who have experienced a history that closely mirrors that of the Armenians. Indeed, according to Pavel Tanrazov - President of the 'Assyrians of Armenia' - not only did the Assyrians adopt Christianity in the 1st Century but they were also the main disseminators of the religion in pagan Armenia and elsewhere. In the aftermath of the Russo-Persian war of 1826-28 the Russian government allowed one hundred Assyrian families to resettle in transcaucasia, and in Armenia these families settled in Dimitrov, Dvin, Arzni, Yerevan Province and other regions. Descendents of these families - and other Assyrians that joined them after fleeing persecution, massacre and genocide - are still to be found in these locations, and the community has evolved to form a vibrant component of a cultural diversity that every country requires in order to develop maturely.
However, that is not to say that problems do not exist for the community. As with other minorities in the republic - and for Armenians themselves - the period of Soviet rule and the economic problems now faced by the country today have had their effect. Like the rest of the population one key concern is in the area of education. In 1924, primary schools taught Assyrian children their own language - albeit in Latin script - but in 1936-38 repression of the Assyrian intelligentsia saw the closure of these classes and the Assyrians became a Russian-speaking people. The re-introduction of the Assyrian language into the school curriculum only came about in 1972, according to Irina Sagradova Gasparyan - President of the Assyrian Youth Association - but problems still remain with regards to an absence of teachers and textbooks.
"The situation was very serious in Armenia for so many years," explains Gasparyan. "There were no teachers and no concern with the preservation of the Assyrian language. Faced with the same financial problems as Armenian schools, the only way to protect the language was through self-preservation. For example, as a child I was sent to stay with my grandmother in her village - and only Assyrian was spoken." Indeed, in earlier years, many children were sent abroad in order to learn their mother tongue, but now classes have been established in the Pushkin school in Yerevan, and in schools in the regions. As a result, in villages such as Dimitrov with a mixed population of Assyrians and Armenians, not only do the Assyrians speak Armenian fluently, but so too do many Armenians speak Assyrian. Marriage between the two communities is also common, and at the recent Shekhane festival in Dimitrov towards the end of July both Assyrians and Armenians were in attendance. One other problem for the Assyrian community however, is the absence of an Assyrian priest in the country - priests from the Russian Orthodox Church conduct services instead. However, attempts to preserve Assyrian culture are very much alive, and the Assyrian dance group in the village even has Armenian members.
The Assyrians - like the Armenians - are an ancient nation, and despite the emigration of an estimated 3,000 from the country the Assyrian community has a great deal to offer Armenia. Not only through the continuation of centuries of coexistence, cooperation and mutual friendship, but also by offering an extra-dimension to any development of tourism to the republic. The music, culture and hospitality of the Assyrian community in the Republic of Armenia has an important role to play in the development of a truly independent, democratic and culturally diverse society as the country prepares to enter the new millennium and seeks admission into the Council of Europe.