The pastor of Moscow’s Assyrian community, Father Khamis Yousif, blesses a child. (photo: Elena Bit-Sargis)
A child is prepared for baptism by priest and deacon. (photo: Elena Bit-Sargis)
Moscow’s Assyrian Church of Mart Mariam was inspired by ancient Mesopotamian architecture. (photo: Elena Bit-Sargis)
The 2,800-year-old remains of the powerful Assyrian Empire lie buried beneath the dust of Mesopotamia. Dispersed throughout the globe, however, are more than one million people – natives of northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey – who call themselves Assyrians. These include an estimated 10,000 people scattered throughout European Russia.
This diaspora proudly bears the name Assyrian, although besides sharing a form of the Assyrian language they hold little in common with their forebears. Modem Assyrians are staunch Christians who belong to a myriad number of churches, most of which stem from the early Christian communities founded by St. Thomas the Apostle.
The historic church of the Assyrian people, the Church of the East, developed independently from the rest of Christendom, sending its missionaries to China, southern India and Mongolia. Presently, however, the majority of Assyrian Christians belong to the Chaldean Church, which shares the ancient rites and traditions of the Church of the East while in full communion with the Church of Rome.
Most of Russia’s tiny Assyrian minority are descendants of refugees who fled the Ottoman Empire during World War I. During the conflict, the Assyrians had turned on their Turkish rulers, siding with the Allied “Christian” powers of Britain, France and Imperial Russia. They had been influenced by American and European Christian missionaries who, since the 19th century, had worked among them. These missionaries urged the Assyrians to support the Allies – their fellow Christians – insinuating, as a reward for their support, the establishment of an Assyrian homeland carved from the Turkish empire.
The Turks and their Kurdish allies responded violently, murdering tens of thousands of Assyrian men, women and children. The Catholicos-Patriarch, Mar Simon XIX Benjamin, six Assyrian bishops, four Chaldean bishops and hundreds of clergy also perished. Some observers claim that more than one third of the Assyrian population was killed between 1914 and 1918. Of those who survived, most lost their ancestral lands, settling in British-controlled refugee camps in Iraq or in southern Russia.
Yet even before this wholesale Assyrian massacre, thousands of Assyrians had been absorbed into Imperial Russia as it swallowed more territory in the Caucasus, particularly Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Assyrian seasonal workers, primarily agricultural laborers, emigrated from areas located in modem Iran and Turkey, settling in the Caucasus in search of work.
Eventually, many Assyrians moved further north, into southern Russia. In 1924, in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, Assyrians founded a village and named it after Urmiya, an important Assyrian center in Iran. This village, which has survived famine, the excesses of totalitarianism, World War II and the unraveling of the Soviet Union, remains the only exclusively Assyrian settlement in Russia.
Although the Russians did not oppress the Assyrian immigrants, they did, prior to the collapse of the Imperial Russian government in 1917, encourage them to adopt the Russian Orthodox faith. At the turn of the century, several Iranian Assyrian families, led by their priest, settled in the southern Russian region of Kuban, in the town of Armavir. There, in a building set aside for them in the local Russian Orthodox monastery, they adopted Russian Orthodoxy, while retaining the use of Aramaic for the celebration of the liturgy.
These efforts were not confined only to Russian territory. In 1898, a bishop of the Church of the East, Mar Ionas, traveled to St. Petersburg and embraced Russian Orthodoxy. With the support of the Russian state, Mar Ionas returned to his Iranian homeland and set up a mission in Urmiya. With the assistance of several Russian Orthodox priests, Mar Ionas substituted for the sacred Qurbana of the Church of the East – the Eucharistic liturgy that includes ritual elements from the Temple in Jerusalem – the Byzantine Orthodox liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. As in Armavir, allowances were made to celebrate it in Aramaic.
In 1905, this mission, which became a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, numbered more than 70,000 Assyrian Orthodox Christians. During World War I, however, the Turks ravaged the diocese, destroying its churches, schools and printing presses.
Assyrian priests and deacons joined the refugees who found a safe haven in Russian-held lands. But, following the collapse of Imperial Russia and the creation of the Soviet Union, the Russian Assyrian diaspora lived in isolation from their fellow Assyrians scattered throughout the world. In the early years of the Soviet Union, quite a few Assyrian priests traveled to Moscow, looking after their flock and celebrating the liturgy either in private homes or, on occasion, by agreement with Russian Orthodox priests, in their churches. During the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s, however, the majority of the Assyrian clergy in the Soviet Union were annihilated.
In Urmiya, however, one priest, Father Aaron Osipov, faithfully continued to serve his people. His son, who still lives in the village, relates that Father Aaron traveled twice to Moscow in 1947 – at Christmas and Easter – where, with the permission of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexei I, he celebrated the liturgy for Moscow’s Assyrian community in the Epiphany Cathedral. Celebrating with him was the only surviving priest from the Moscow Assyrian clergy. Father Aaron died in 1956, while the other priest, the last remaining priest of the Assyrian Church of the East in Russia, lived until the early 1960s. The last deacon of the Church of the East died in the early 1980s in the town of Penza.
The Assyrians’ Christian identity is closely linked to their national consciousness. Even during the worst years of religious persecution in the Soviet Union they continued to baptize their children, to marry and to hold funerals according to traditional church rites. Descendants of Turkish Assyrian refugees continued to celebrate the patronal feasts of the churches they left behind. The customs connected with baptism and the role of godparents were likewise carefully preserved.
Without their own clergy, however, the Assyrians were drawn to the Russian Orthodox Church. Uninformed of the sophisticated nuances that separated the Church of the East from Orthodoxy, the Assyrians began to consider themselves, like the Russians, as Orthodox from time immemorial. Only the Assyrian intelligentsia continued to cling to the unique identity of the Church of the East.
The events surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union led to new internal migrations. The interethnic conflicts in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, combined with the severe economic climate, forced many Assyrians to migrate to Russia. Curiously, a significant number of these Assyrians considered themselves Roman Catholics and most have settled in the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions of southern Russia.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union has ended the isolation of the Russian Assyrian community. They have suddenly gained the opportunity to renew ties with their fellow Assyrians abroad, including the hierarchy of the Church of the East. In 1982 and again in 1988 (the year of the celebration of the millennium of Christianity in the Eastern Slav lands), Catholicos Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV visited his flock scattered in Russia. In the 1990s, visits by overseas hierarchs have been frequent.
A community of the Assyrian Church of the East was registered in Moscow in early 1994. As an ecumenical gesture, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate provided a baptismal chapel at the entrance to the Vaganskoe Cemetery, where the Assyrian community could celebrate the Qurbana twice a month as well as on major feasts. Also in 1994, the Holy Synod of the Church of the East placed the Assyrian community of the former Soviet Union under the pastoral protection of Mar Gheevarghese, Metropolitan of Iraq.
A great event for the Assyrian community took place on 15 May 1996: the foundation stone for a new parish church, dedicated to Mart Mariam (the Virgin Mary), was ceremonially laid in Moscow. Construction, says the Iraqi-born pastor, Father Khamis Yousif, has been swift.
In addition to Moscow, Assyrian churches are under construction in Rostov-on-the-Don and in the village of Urmiya. When I visited Urmiya in autumn 1995, only the foundation stone had been laid. No one knew when construction would begin or whether the edifice would be a traditional Assyrian structure or a Russian Orthodox church (the cornerstone displayed the three-bar cross of St. Vladimir, the traditional cross of Russian Orthodoxy). Work on the church in Rostov began in earnest in 1993, after a visit from a bishop of the Church of the East, Mar Aprim Khamis, then Bishop of the Western Diocese in the United States. The local Assyrian community collected the necessary documents and registered the community, while city authorities allocated a plot of land on which to build the church. For various reasons, however, work has come to a halt.
In spite of centuries of isolation, poverty and persecution, Russia’s Assyrian Church of the East, one of the most ancient of Christian churches, remains alive and ready to prosper into the next millennium.
This article first appeared in Istina i Zhizn, a Moscow-based Catholic magazine. The author is a staff member of an ethnological research institute in Moscow. Felix Corley translated the article from Russian.