eastern and orthodox christianity at soas
In 1843 AH Layard, the archaeologist who uncovered the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, romantically and impulsively (but not rationally or scientifically) called the local Christian community "as much the remains of Nineveh and Assyria as the rude heaps and ruined palaces", which led the missionary Revd JP Fletcher to declare the Christians of what is now northern Iraq and north-west Iran "the only surviving human memorial of Assyria and Babylonia." His only 'evidence' being that, to his eyes, the local peasantry resembled the sculpted figures unearthed by archaelogists. This somewhat eccentric scratch has turned into gangrene.
"Yea, so I have stirred to preach the gospel, not where Christ was
named, lest I should build upon another man's foundations: But as
it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see; and
they that have not heard shall understand." (Romans15:20-21)
Ignoring St Paul's strictures the Protestant missionaries had an agenda of their own, deliberately undermining Christian foundations laid and sturdily built upon over an 1800 year period, they set Christian against Christian.
The Roman Catholic Uniates, known as Chaldeans ( another misnomer!)
could be ignored and vilified simply because they were Roman Catholics, the Syriac Orthodox Church was condemned as 'heretical',but the Nestorians were fawned over and idealized as 'long lost' Protestants!
The bitter irony is that Protestantism never really caught on, but because the missionaries' frenetic zeal fused quite nicely with the needs of British foreign policy, a new 'nationalism' was conjured up out of thin air on the outer edges of the Turkish Empire.
Not every missionary in the area swallowed the 'Assyrian'myth. The Archbishop of Canterbury's Mission to the Assyrians (sic) was the most prestigious grouping, but distinguished Syriac scholar JR Coakley reported Anglican missionaries as saying that the term 'Assyrian' was but "a fad of
His Grace, no-one else." Isabella Bird, in her memoir of her travels in the area at the time often recounts visits to outposts of the 'Mission to the Assyrians', but always refers to the mainly Nestorian Christians she met as, correctly, Syrians.
But Frankenstein created and nourished his monster, and today it has become yet another destabilising factor not only in Iraq, but in the ecumenical movement.
The 'Assyrians' plaster the word 'Assyrian' over everything. Not content with misnaming their Church by adding 'Assyrian' to it, they label the language every normal person calls 'Syriac' as 'Assyrian'. With not a word of logical argument or explanation, as if thousands of years of evidence does not exist, they simply say, "'Assyrian'...'Assyrian'... 'Assyrian'". If you dare to disagree you are lied about, vilified, slandered. Look at their Wikipedia entry for an example of crass indifference to truth, or read their abuse of the 120th Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Mor Afram Barsoum, a saintly man and an acknowledged great scholar.
Perhaps their most obscene lie is to label the massacre of Syriac Christians (of all denominations) in Turkey during and just after the First World War as a massacre of 'Assyrians'. This is a blasphemous attempt to gain kudos out of the martyrdom of thousands of non-Nestorian Christians.
Unfortunately there are some academics who, like most journalists, are only capable of repeating the last sentence they've heard, and 'Assyrian' is used all-too-often in the context of Iraq.
Before the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq the Christian denominations of Iraq were as follows:
'Chaldean' RC Uniates 200-300,000;
Syriac Orthodox Church - 80-100,000;
Syrian Catholics 40-45,000;
Nestorian 'Assyrians' 25-30,000.
The 'Assyrians' ignore these figures, claiming that Iraq has anything from 700,000 to 2 million Christians, all of them 'Assyrians', of course!
Those who know and state that they are not 'Assyrians' are labelled so against their will by this vociferous minority.
The USA has taken over the mantel of the British Protestants. Under pressure from 'born again' George W Bush - who also repeats the 'Assyrian' myth, because it accords with US strategic needs - the Iraqi president promised the 'Assyrians' an autonomous region in northern Iraq which is inhabited primarily by Kurds. A recipe for a bloodbath! When I emailed a US evangelical newspaper which had trumpeted this 'success' for the 'Assyrians', asking how a small minority in the itself small Christian minority could run the lives of those it wrongly names and lies about, in an area dominated by Kurds, without murder and mayhem occuring, the reply was - a stunning silence!
The Syriac Orthodox Church, whose faithful have suffered at the hands of Kurds in the past, as have all Christians in the area, has worked strenuously to build up a relationship of trust with the Kurds, whereas the 'Assyrians' seem hell-bent on carnage.
It would be interesting to know the attitude to this 'Assyrianization' of the Church of the East within the Church itself. Ecumenical material written by clergy of the Church of the East and published on an official website is very telling. The texts speak of "the Church of the East" and the Persian Church, but never 'Assyrian'.
The acute need for dialogue, the acute need for becoming peacemakers in, for example Iraq, will hopefully provide the opportunity for those who
are Christians inside the 'Assyrian' funny farm to pray, pray and pray again. It is our duty, whilst explaining the truth, that the real Assyrians no longer exist and that the modern day 'Assyrians' are hate-filled fanatics,
to pray with and for the Christian heart of the Church of the East.
It is my hope that the Syriac Orthodox Church in particular, because of the shared language and culture, be enabled to have ecumenical dialogue with their fellow Aramaens in the Church of the East.