ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Assyrian Assimilation

How does a Middle Eastern church end up in Illinois?

Abraham Lazar, an Assyrian Christian, decided to leave Iraq with his wife and daughter after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The state-sanctioned “pressure” on the Assyrian community was becoming unbearable, he said. “Year after year, things got worse. We couldn’t stay anymore.”

In 1994, the Lazars made it to Greece and from there pushed on to the United States, where Mr. Lazar found work as an assembly inspector at an electric company. Mr. Lazar’s parents joined him two years later. In 2000, his brother Jacob came on a student visa. In the past few years, each of Abraham’s five siblings has left Iraq for the West.

Abraham Lazar’s decision to settle in Chicago was no accident. For more than a century Assyrians have been coming to Chicago: First, in the 1880’s and 1890’s, as seminarians and medical students and later, most notably following World War I, as refugees fleeing persecution. Just as Lebanese immigrants joined their predecessors in Detroit and its surroundings, Assyrians flocked to Chicago. Today, about 80,000 Assyrians are estimated to live in the Chicago area.

Like most Assyrians living in Chicago, the Lazars belong to the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient faith community that traces its origins to Mesopotamia and St. Thomas the Apostle. Over time, the church expanded throughout to such faraway places as India and China, but its center, or catholicosate, remained in the heart of Mesopotamia, settling permanently in Baghdad after it became the capital in 780. During the invasions of the Mongols in the 14th century, this church was nearly destroyed. The formation of the Chaldean Church (a community of Assyrians who, while retaining the rites and traditions of the Church of the East, are in full communion with the Church of Rome) in the 16th century further weakened the Church of the East.

The 20th century was no kinder to the Assyrian Church of the East. During World War I, the Turks wiped out about one-third of the population, with most survivors fleeing to what is now modern Iraq. After the end of the British Mandate in 1933, Iraqi troops attacked the Assyrians and expelled its leader, Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Simon XXIII, who settled in San Francisco. The catholicos’s adoption of the Gregorian (or Western) calendar and his commitment to the practice of hereditary succession triggered a dispute within the church that threatened to lead to a schism.

Mar Simon, who was forced to resign but later resurfaced as catholicos-patriarch, was assassinated in 1975, prompting his successor, Mar Dinkha IV, to move to Chicago, which has become the home of the Assyrian patriarchal see. Much has been done to relieve the tensions within the church, which since the 1990’s has been engaged in dialogue with the Roman and Chaldean churches.

Today, the Church of the East has about 300,000 members worldwide, with more than one-third in the United States. About 80,000 of U.S. church members live in the Eastern half of the country, most of them in the Chicago area. About 5,000 church members live in California.

Every Sunday at Chicago’s St. George Assyrian Cathedral, priests and deacons chant the office that precedes the eucharistic liturgy, or Qurbana, while in a room behind the altar, Father Antwan Latchen bakes the bread used in the liturgy. Father Latchen, Mar Dinkha’s secretary, usually celebrates the Qurbana at another Assyrian parish later in the day.

“All churches up to the first or second century had the same practice,” said Father Shlemon Heseqial, dean of the cathedral. “We stick to the old way. We make the dough and eat the bread on the same day.”

According to Assyrian tradition, bread made for the Qurbana is derived from the bread that Christ shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. In the Church of the East, a portion of the dough, called the malka (Aramaic for “king”), is reserved and added to the bread for the Eucharist each time it is baked. Theologians of the Church of the East often refer to the malka as a “sacrament.”

“Special prayers are recited during the making of the bread,” Father Heseqial said.

Father Heseqial came to Chicago from Iraq with his wife, three daughters and son in 1990. He has no immediate family in Iraq, though he has friends and cousins with whom he has occasional contact.

Church volunteer Walten Mirza, another Iraqi immigrant to Chicago, also showed up early to help with preparations before the Sunday services. Mr. Mirza owns a manufacturing business in Northbrook, a Chicago suburb. He began volunteering at the cathedral six years ago. “I have three children in Sunday school and that is why I got involved,” he said. “I wanted to help get the next generation involved with the church.”

Mr. Mirza, 55, said he came to Chicago 33 years ago in search of a better life. “My oldest brother was in college in Chicago and there were lots of Assyrians here, so this is where I wanted to come.”

Through the church and other social clubs, he interacts with fellow Assyrians on a daily basis. Mr. Mirza also married a fellow Assyrian, Maryam. (Among recent immigrants the intermarriage rate is only 10 percent.)

To a remarkable degree, Assyrian Americans have held on to their culture and ancient Semitic language, Aramaic, a tongue related to Amharic, Arabic and Hebrew. Mr. Mirza speaks a modern version, Assyrian, also called Neo-Syriac, and his children learn it in classes held at St. George.

Liturgies are celebrated in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, though sermons and Bible readings are in Neo-Syriac. According to Mar Bawai Soro, the Assyrian Church of the East Bishop of Western California, some parishes have introduced the vernacular into their liturgies. (The Church of the East also has two English-language parishes, one in Seattle, one in Sacramento. These parishes, which originated from reformed ecclesial communities, were received into the Church of the East in 1968 and 1978 respectively.)

In general, the Church of the East’s rituals retain much of its Semitic connections. “The seat of Moses is preserved, now used by the bishop,” Mar Bawai said. “The eucharistic prayer is an augmentation of the Jewish thanksgiving prayer after meals.”

Perhaps another link to the Assyrian Church of the East’s Semitic roots is the absence of icons or religious imagery in its churches. Mar Bawai traced this development to living in a predominantly Muslim society, where images of the sacred are prohibited. “But there are clear liturgical traces” calling for the use of images, he said.Mar Bawai believes that liturgical reforms are essential to keeping the Church of the East alive. “We have trouble evangelizing, because at most churches the liturgies are in Aramaic, and there are not many Americans who speak it or are willing to learn,” he said. “And we are losing young Assyrians, who have grown up in the United States, because of the language too.”

Many younger Assyrians join Catholic or Protestant churches, Mar Bawai said.Stronger ties with the Chaldean Church would strengthen the Church of the East, Mar Barwai added. Already, there is some cooperation, as is evinced by the two Chaldean parishes in Chicago.

“We cooperate,” Father Heseqial said. “For example, when somebody passes away, we go to that church. Frequently, there are marriages between Chaldeans and Assyrians, special dinners in which we invite them and they invite us.”

Though only 40,000 Assyrians live in Iraq, the vast majority of vocations to the priesthood and the diaconate come from the Middle East. “So the mentality of the Church of the East remains overwhelmingly Eastern,” Mar Bawai said.

Assyrian seminarians receive their theological education at the Chaldean College in Baghdad. Assyrian bishops and priests who pursue graduate studies also benefit from CNEWA scholarships in Catholic universities throughout the world. There was talk of moving the catholicosate back to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Mar Bawai said.

“In terms of the credibility of our church, I think it is essential to return to Iraq. But for now, while there is so much instability, that is not a possibility.”Just as the church hierarchy, based in Illinois, looks to the Assyrian homeland of Iraq, so too does the greater Assyrian community of Chicago.

Though he no longer has family in Iraq, Mr. Mirza closely follows events back home.“Generally, Assyrians were very happy to see the old regime of Saddam toppled,” he said. “There was a feeling of excitement, which has given way to uncertainty with all the terrorist attacks, including attacks on Assyrian churches in Baghdad.

“The hope was that after the war, Assyrian Americans would either go back to Iraq or invest there, but that has been put on hold for now,” Mr. Mirza said.

Until some sort of stability returns to Iraq – allowing for return visits, investments and, in some cases, emigration – the Assyrians of Chicago will continue to hold on to their Mesopotamia-born traditions by looking inward. For Mr. Mirza, his work at St. George Assyrian Cathedral allows him to stay rooted in both the religious and cultural life of his ancestors. On Sundays, his day at the cathedral usually begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m.

“Believe me, it’s a lot of work,” he said, adding that he did not mind it one bit.

Matthew Matuszak is director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español