Muscular Christianity and the Christians of Iraq and Syria!

by | Aug 11, 2023

I am writing to my brothers and sister in the following communions: The Assyrian Church of the East; Chaldean Catholic Church; Syriac Orthodox Church; Ancient Church of the East; Syriac Catholic Church; Assyrian Pentecostal Church; and by extension; I offer this thesis to all Christians for what lessons it might offer to them; it charts out a way of cultural revival and evangelism; for western Europeans. I want to request the reader not to judge the contents of the thesis by the author, but rather to consider the arguments themselves as to whether you find them convincing, and rooted in truth; if you do; then I would ask you to share this thesis with others; with all the brethren to whom it is addressed. The thesis concerns the continuation both of the ethnic and communal identity of Christians from Iraq and Syria; given the fact that you have through the course of your history been driven into exile and made a diaspora from your homelands; and are a persecuted minority within them. I write to you because I believe in the merits of my argument, and my argument is concerned with how you can and should survive as proud Christians; and as a distinct ethnic group and culture. It is up to you about how you judge my arguments; as valid or invalid; as workable or unworkable; however, I pray thee consider them nonetheless; and not surrender to councils of despair or hopelessness; from your Saxon, ecumenical brother in Christ.

I need not address the question of why the Assyrian Christian culture; in its various forms – and by this phrase I address all the aforementioned groups – the question of why should be given and is taken as such; thus I will not spill any ink or time on making the case. The beauty of Assyrian People and their Churches is sufficient on its own merit, and need not be argued further. Therefore, I move to the practical solutions upon which the various groups of Christian Assyrians may preserve themselves. (I will also use the term Assyrian generally, but here I am speaking of your ethnic group; not a specific communion; as I know the term is sensitive to others such as Chaldean Christians – who are also Assyrian by blood, but fiercely independent of the communions that use the term Assyrian in their name.)

We must obviously start with the reality; that for nearly 2000 years your community has been persecuted; for the most of that time by the Islamic world; with more than 3 million of you left in the whole world; I appeal to you to consider your future; there are more Jews in this world (who have also been heavily persecuted) than there are ethnic Assyrians in this world; this is taking into account a combined number of all denominations that are linked to you as a people. Christians sadly often fail one another due to denominational rivalries, and this too has been a feature of your history; and yet despite this; the Church in its various denominations; have helped you all preserve a unique culture; customs traditions, and Christian belief; in the heart of the Islamic world; and in the face of 1400 years of constant persecutions. The trauma of ISIS is still a raw and painful reality, and many Christians have been driven into exile; from their lands in Syria and Iraq. The danger of such diaspora is that over time, you are assimilated into the surrounding cultures of your new homes; and lose your distinctiveness and identity; especially in the liberal secularising west.

How then can you maintain your identity and culture – how can you build again; and thrive without losing yourselves; what strategies and tactics can be followed to ensure, that rather than disappearing from history – you instead grow and thrive; it is to this we now turn.

The first danger of being thrust violently into exile; is that you scatter and find yourself in and amongst those who do not share your faith; beliefs, traditions and customs; to wit history has a living example of survival with a tried and tested modal of success; the Jewish people. I want to offer a breakdown of how the Jews survived for 2000 years in exile; to the point at which they were ready to return to their homeland in Israel.

  1. Religious Practices and Observances: The Jewish community emphasises religious practices that made them a distinct people from their host cultures; expressed i in primarily in dietary laws, sabbath observance; deliberately distinctive dress; and even the development of a distinctive language; they carved out for themselves a religious expression that made them different from their hosts. Their attendance at the Synagogue helped them to have a focal point for their communal activities; and a place of sharing information and reception of new migrants to their community. Assyrians therefore should encourage the learning and speaking as a first or second language of Aramaic; amongst all of their children; a common language among all Assyrian Christians of whichever denominational background. The liturgies of Addai and Mari; West Syriac Rite; and East Syrian Rite; are something that should be jealousy guarded, but not the exclusion of others; it has been a long-standing amongst you as a people to practice ‘intercommunion’ which is a rebuke to western European divisions. Please maintain that intercommunion; and challenge the rest of the Christian world to adopt your modal of intercommunion over its European modal of division; let this be a source of pride to you. Maintain distinctive cultural practices like the Mor Gabriel; Feast of the Cross; Feast of the Assumption; The blessings of the Waters at Epiphany; the Qyamta Celebrations; the Akitu celebration of Kha b Nisan; amongst others, not as things that happen in Church; but things that happen at the home; as part of an ethnic Assyrian practice. All the things that pin your Assyrian Christian Identity must be made part of a communal celebration of yourselves.
  2. Education and Study: The Jews in exile created institutions to study and to teach about ‘being Jewish’ where the study of works about Judaism was paramount, and the practice of being Jewish was emphasised. Assyrian Christians of every denomination; must make efforts to preserve and study; the literary history; and wider cultural norms of their communions and culture; works like Threni, Risq Makuta, Zqiptha d’Yerushalayim, Ktawa d-Dershashe, Fenqitho, Kitab al-Maghāzi; and other works (best known by you) that speak into and of, your culture and religious identity; should be studied deliberately and consciously; to raise up a cultural awareness of your own identity. The priest and Bishops should organise the communities resources for this maintenance.
  3. Language: The Jews used successfully the cultivation of Yiddish and Ladino as a means of communication within the community; to the exclusion of others and as a marker of identity. Assyrian Christians of every denomination should make strenuous efforts to cultivate; the various dialects of Aramaic; Turoyo; and Lishana Deni; as a cultural marker. Don’t lose this language; but maintain it; as a fluent first or second language among your whole population. It will serve to help carve you out of your surroundings and prevent the total assimilation of your people.
  4. Community Organizations: Wherever the Jews are; they gather in what can only and is best described as the ‘Benedict Option’; that is to say they move into the same areas of the city; and the same countries. This consolidation has helped them to pool resources, organise their economy, magnify their influence, accumulate wealth; offer a higher degree of communal security; and build the necessary infrastructure. Christians of Assyria; of each denomination; should do the same; migrating to where their community is strongest in the world, or in the city; so that they might be closer together. Once coalesced; the establishment of Churches, cultural centres, mutual welfare societies and other organisations for the benefit of the community is far easier to do and maintain. Communal gatherings, matchmaking, celebrations and support networks all form easier. You should abandon the ‘parish’ modal and no longer appropriate to your reality as a scattered people. Once again the Bishops and Priests should be hard at work to foster solidarity amongst your community and belonging to new arrivals to it.
  5. Cultural Expressions: The Jewish people deliberately cultivated unique expressions of art, music and literature; and used the full gambit of artistic expression to underscore their Jewishness; they used these to focus on their historical experiences as a people; likewise the Assyrian Christians can do the same; deliberately use art; to reflect upon and instil the story you have travelled through; as part of your long and illustrious history of a Christian people. This could include themes like the conversion of the Assyrian people; the separation of the Church of the Persian Empire from that of the Roman Empire; Its life in the Persian Empire; the rise of Islam and the persecutions under the Islamic Yoke; The Mongol invasions; the Genocides under the Ottomans; the exile of the 20th Century; the American invasion and Isis. Tell yourselves your own story as a Christian people – and instil a sense of pride in who you are; in each generation through telling the story. This should include acts of commemoration for such events; and the creation of museums; memorials and cultural centres. These should be supported by educational programs running throughout the community.
  6. Endogamy and Marriage: The Jews practised Endogamy; marrying within the faith to great effect; in fact, this practice alone – is one of the keys to maintaining their identity as Jews. and I would encourage the same; but; I would (forgive my boldness here) encourage you to the same; requiring non-Assyrian Christians; to adopt your particular rite (obviously it would be wrong to say ‘don’t marry a fellow Christian’ but you could ask that they agree the Children be raised in your communion. I would also be so bold, as to say; that amongst yourselves as Assyrian Christians; you should be happy to intermarry amongst the Churches of your people; after all, you already practice intercommunion; (and this is no bad thing) perhaps if you stitch enough Assyrian families together; the Churches themselves may find ways to reunite; and that can be no bad thing.
  7. Zionism: Was a very latecomer to the Jewish people; born of nationalism which came from the enlightenment; and the ancient hope of the Jewish people; it did eventually lead to the establishment of the nation of Israel. Since the establishment of Israel, great efforts are made to connect the Jewish Diaspora to the state; and the two are known to have deep networks and interconnection; for instance, Jews of the Diaspora go on holidays to Israel; members of the Diaspora serve time in the Armed Forces of Israel; and the return to Israel; Aliyah; has taken on a special significance. Christians from Iraq and Syria; must never lose sight that this is their homeland; that it has been stolen from them by Islamic colonialists who pushed an Arabisation over the peoples of the region. Assyrians are referred to in scripture more than 150 times; especially in the prophets; and therefore they are the concern of biblical prophecy. Their history was interwoven with salvific history; being the people GOD used in history to punish his people. GOD desired the salvation of the Assyrian people even before Christ; as we see from the Prophet Jonah and Nineveh. The promise of GOD to the Assyrians in Isaiah 19 is yet to be completed, and the Assyrians as Christians are adopted into the people of GOD. Therefore this identity; as a people with whom GOD will deal; and is dealing; should give rise to a political ideology; seeking both to secure the continuity of the communions of the Assyrian people; and the return and rule of Iraq by Christians; or the conversion again of Iraq; to the Christian faith; in anticipation of this prophecy! Assyrian Christians more than any other people; should work for the conversion of Syria and Iraq to the Christian faith; and do all they can; to see justice, equity, and the freedom of the Gospel and the faith in those regions.
  8. Engagement with Global Jewish Networks: Finally, the Jewish people excelled at maintaining global connections between Jews across the world, and constantly concern themselves with the preservation of their Jewish identity; and solidarity amongst themselves. Christians from Assyria should reach across the denominational divides and seek to build an interconnectedness amongst themselves that focuses on two things: solidarity amongst all Assyrian Christians regardless of denomination and the preservation of your unique identity as a Christian people. You must identify as a people – what is core – to your identity, and maintain that whilst being willing to adapt to whatever particular circumstances you face.

I want to be stark – we are discussing here the survival of the Assyrian people; nothing less than that is at stake; you can not really afford your formal divisions along church lines; however much those boundaries are lowered; and a real desire for closer intercommunion should be cultivated; which is a patient and careful work. The institutional Churches are critical to this; but their modal of scattered parishes works against their effectiveness; consolidation; is one of the watchwords of this strategy; as well as solidarity. However, the Church is the nervous system by which the people can bind themselves together across the world; martial resources. I pray that the whole priesthood of believers, from laity to patriarch; work together on this matter; for Nineveh will rise again!