Pope John Paul II meets with Mar Denkha IV, the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East (to the right of the pope), and Mar Bawai Soro, Bishop of the Western United States. To the left of the pope stands Bishop Pierre Duprey, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. (photo: Assyrian Church of the East)
Mar Bawai Soro with Iraqi refugees in a Syrian refugee camp. (photo: Assyrian Church of the East)
Mar Bawai bestows a blessing. (photo: Assyrian Church of the East)
Last November, Father James Moynihan and I attended the 25th anniversary of a parish in Yonkers, N.Y. As with any church function, many families had taken tables for the festival and others brought trays of steaming food while the band tuned its instruments and tested the loud speakers.
Typical in some ways, but in other ways this celebration was quite different. Once the speeches ended and the music began, I was transported back to the seventh century B.C., when the paths of the Assyrians, the inhabitants of ancient Babylon and Ninevah, crossed those of the Israelites. The parishioners are members of Mar Mari parish of the Assyrian Church of the East Nestorians we used to call them.
Before the dancing began, Mar Aprim, the communitys bishop (Mar means one who is sent in Aramaic) spoke to the congregation about their patron, who in Assyrian tradition was one of the 72 disciples referred to in the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter 10). Mar Aprim spoke of how their parish church contained a stone from one of the ancient, now destroyed, churches of the early East Syrian church; a body that flowered in the Persian Empire (modern Iran and Iraq).
Modern scholarship reveals that by the middle of the second century, A.D., the Assyrian Church developed directly from the Judeo-Christian Church of Jerusalem. The tensions of war between the Byzantine and Persian Empires in the fourth century led the Assyrians to adopt a christology that varied from both Rome and Constantinople. The Assyrians also asserted their independence from the bishop of Rome and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople.
Isolated from the churches in the West, and a minority in the Zorastrian Persian Empire, the Assyrian Church focused its missionary endeavors in the East.
Archeological evidence cites the presence of Assyrian missionaries in China, Mongolia and Tibet. Malabar and Malankara Christians in India credit these missionaries for the development of their church in the third and fourth centuries.
By 1318 A.D., more than 30 metropolitan sees (archdioceses) and 200 suffragen dioceses (local dioceses) constituted the Assyrian Church. These Christians were all but annihilated by the Mongol invaders in the 14th century. Two hundred years later, the once-mighty Assyrian Church was reduced to a handful of monasteries and village churches in what is now southeastern Turkey.
As I watched a communal dance in the church hall, a twisting affair alternately led by flag-waving men, women and children, these events were not as far removed as many would think.
The 20th century all but destroyed the Assyrians. During World War I, the Assyrian community, together with the Chaldeans, their Catholic counterparts, were suspected by the Turks of supporting the British war effort. The Turks promptly slaughtered thousands of Assyrians and herded the rest in refugee camps. More than 50,000 died of cholera and malnutrition. The survivors were deported.
Those who could, fled to what is now Iraq, seeking a safe haven in the British-occupied territories. It was, however, a short-lived peace. In 1933, Iraq achieved independence and a clash between Assyrian and Iraqi troops led to yet another massacre and a further scattering of the Assyrian population. Many came to the United States, others sought refuge in Australia, India and Lebanon. Today, however, small communities can still be found in the ancient homeland Iran, Iraq, Syria and in parts of the Islamic republics in the former Soviet Union.
Once again, war in the region has dramatically affected the remnants of this community Last January, the forces of the Coalition initiated a military campaign to drive Iraqs forces from oil-rich Kuwait. In that brief but destructive war, the Coalition achieved its goal and drove Iraq from Kuwait. Iraq, however, was destroyed. The nations electrical plants, water treatment facilities, roads, bridges and factories were destroyed. Malnutrition, cholera and other infectious diseases ravage millions of civilians.
In northern Iraq, the Assyrian and Chaldean heartland, Christians were forced to flee their homes following the war. Many of the Kurdish refugees in Iran, Jordan and Turkey were really Christian.
Once a prosperous and well-educated minority, the Assyrian Christians are regarded as symbols of western colonialism, which some Muslim extremists regard as an exploitation of people and resources. At one time the rulers of the Middle East, the Assyrians now huddle as a remnant in refugee camps scattered throughout Iran, Jordan and Turkey.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association provided support for two of these camps in Turkey, while our Iraqi pipeline supplied much needed material to 24 clinics operated by Chaldean Catholic sisters in northern Iraq. In cooperation with the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, the Archdiocese of Osaka (Japan) and Catholic Relief Services, our Association provided food, medical care and basic assistance to thousands. As of this writing, though, the U.S. sponsored United Nations embargo has prevented regular shipments of supplies from entering Iraq. In a time of extraordinary suffering, the Assyrians have turned to their fellow Christians for assistance.
Those who have emigrated to the United States have established congregations in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas and Washington. This new world community seeks to institute a seminary, re-establish monastic life and bear witness to the Gospel in exile.
Today, 20th century North Americans the inhabitants of the new world are confronting the remains of many communities lost in the pages of history. After centuries of isolation, persecution, corruption and reconciliation, the once-formidable Assyrian Church of the East has arrived in the West to reclaim its vitality and to take its part in the body of Christ.
Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., is the Association’s director of programs.