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Aphrim Barsoum's Role in distancing the Syrian Orthodox Church from its Assyrian Heritage

By William M. Warda 
April 2005

By a decree on December 2, 1952 Aphrim Barsoum the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox church gave orders that the name Assyrian should no longer be used as the identity of his church or its members. He stated it was historically incorrect because it was contrary to the traditions of fathers in reference to his church. Furthermore the use of Assyrian according to him created ambiguity about the identity of the church which is historically known as Syrian in India and the homeland. He added; the name Assyrian came to be used by the Anglican missionaries for the Nestorians.(
1) The correct term for his Church and its people according to him was Syrian but since it was in use by the Rum Orthodox (Antiochian) Church in North America he suggested that Aramean should be used instead, and their language historically known as Syriac should be called Aramaic.(2

Patriarch Aphrim Barsoum was being disingenuous about the reasons for the name change. When he was the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church he represented his people as Assyrians in the 1919-20 Paris Peace Conference.

"We have the honor of bringing before the Peace Conference the information that H.B. the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch has entrusted me with the task of laying before the Conference the suffering and the wishes of our ancient Assyrian nation who resides mostly in the upper valleys of Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia..."(3)

Evidence indicates Aphrim Barsoum had identified himself and his people as Assyrian before and after 1920. The Worcester Telegram and Gazette published an interview with him in 1927 about the "historic significance of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch". It stated:

"His Eminence has given lectures on the psychology of the Assyrian people in the United States. His mission has been to create an understanding of the Assyrian people by Americans, because most of them, although well-educated in Assyria have been forced by a changed atmosphere into menial occupations." The article concluded by mentioning Archbishop's participation in the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris where " he appeared to demand indemnity for the Assyrian churches sacked during the World War One."(4)  

Other prominent leaders of the Syrian Orthodox Church have historically equated the term Syrian with Assyrian in reference to their church and people. Patriarch Michael the great (1126-99) wrote; in the first half of the 9th century Greeks were offending the Jacobites by saying:

"your Syrian sect has no importance neither honor, and you did never have a kingdom, neither an honorable king'. The Jacobites answered by saying that even if their name is "Syrian", but they are originally 'Assyrians' and they have had many honorable kings..." He further  wrote: "Syria is in the west of Euphrates, and its inhabitants who are talking our Aramaic language, and who are so-called 'Syrians', are only a part of the 'all', while the other part which was in the east of Euphrates, going to Persia, had many kings from Assyria and Babylon and Urhay.(5) The Greeks evidently directed their comments to the Jacobites of Syria therefore Michael differentiates between them and those who lived east of Euphrates, he adds: " 'Assyrians, who were called 'Syrians' by the Greeks, were also the same Assyrians, I mean  'Assyrians' from 'Assure' who built the city of Nineveh".(6)

Horatio Southgate who visited the Syrian Orthodox communities of Turkey in 1844 reported that members of the Syrian Orthodox Church identified themselves as Assyrians i.e. "Suryoyo Aturoyo". He further wrote: they consider themselves sons of Assour (Ashur) who 'out of the land of Shinar went forth, and build Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resin between Nineveh and Calah; the same is a great city."(
7) About fifty years later Anglican Bishop O.H. Parry in his book, "Six Months in a Syrian Monastery" wrote; the term Syrian is used interchangeably with the 'Assyrian' by the members of the Jacobite church.(8)

After the 1885-86 massacres in Diarbekir and other cities in Turkey members of the Syrian Orthodox community began their migration to the United States and Canada brought with them their pride in their Assyrian identity. The first organization established by them in the united States was called the " Assyrian National School Association of America" later renamed the " Assyrian National School Association". Among its commendable achievements was the establishment of an orphanage in 1921 in Adana Turkey to take care of the children orphaned during Turkey's massacre of the syrian Orthodox community during world war one. When it was closed due to the governmental orders it was reopened in Beirut Lebanon where it still exists thanks to the struggle of the said organization. Starting in 1923 The Assyrian National School Association was also instrumental in publishing and distribution of the "Assyrian New Beth-Nahreen" magazine .(9)

In 1901 A women organization called "The Assyrian Ladies Aid" was established. It succeeded in raising enough funds to build the first Syrian Orthodox Church in North America completed in April of 1927 and consecrated as the "Assyrian Apostolic Church of the Virgin Mary" by no other than Archbishop Aphrim Barsoum.(10

The Job of ridding the Syrian Orthodox church from its Assyrian identity was given to the Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue Samuel who had been a Metropolitan of the Saint Mark's Convent in Jerusalem known also as the "Assyrian convent" according to a street sign leading to it. Like Aphrim Barsoum he had proudly identified himself and his people as Assyrians previously. In a letter to the editor of the Syrian Orthodox magazine Beth-Nahreen dated 6th of June 1947 he wrote: "May the Almighty confer upon you, your staff, the readers of the issue and the Assyrian community all over the world his blessings and benedictions and crown your efforts with success."(11) When Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel arrived in the United  States his title on his letterhead was the 'Assyrian Orthodox Archbishop to the United States and Canada' which he used to address his Parishioners on August 12, 1952 by writing: "I shall need the cooperation of every Assyrian who has the love of his church and nation at heart."[13]

A year or so later through court orders he succeeded in removing the Assyrian name from most church properties despite strong opposition by the parishioners. Members of the 'Assyrian Apostolic Church of the Virgin Mary' in Worcester, Massachusetts and the Paramus of New Jersey refused to comply with the identity change. They succeeded in keeping the Assyrian name 'by registering their parishes independent of the main church under a trustee group'. Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrim Karim later succeed in removing the name Assyrian from the Virgin Mary church in Worcester, but in Paramus the Assyrian identity of the church still prevails.

To justify the name change Aphrim Barsoum published a book in 1953 titled, 'The Syrian Church of Antioch in Name and History' where he rejected the term Assyrian in reference to the Syrian Orthodox Church and its members.He wrote: "The 'Assyrian' name is the English Protestant invention going back to 1900 A.D. It was bequeathed to the Nestorians in the regions of Mosul 1919-1920 A.D. for a malicious,, political purpose, so that the English politicians might create for themselves out of the Nestorian youth a militia they named 'Assyrian' aiming at the realization of their political plan in Iraq, a plan which failed in 1933 and resulted in the exile of the Katholikos of the Nestorians and his exile from the country with his followers, the result being that all the nations refused to permit his return to the near East."

This argument was intended to appeal to the religious prejudices of his followers who were willing to reject their Assyrian identity lest they be confused with the hated Nestorians. In reality the name Aturoyo and Aturaya the Syriac equivalent of Assyrian had been used alongside Suryoyo or suryaya and Syrian as a national identity of the Syrian Orthodox church and the Church of the East (Nestorian) during all christian centuries.(12)

The militia which Barsoum speaks of were the Assyrian levies who like the Kurds and Arabs before them were recruited by the British to protect the integrity of Iraq which was under attack by Turkey and the internal forces determent to dismember it. Barsoum's implication that those who joined the Levies were not known as Assyrians before doing so is absurd. Many Assyrians still remember a poem by Fraydune Aturaya in 1917, sang in a song titled "Ya Nishra D' Tkhumi" where the poet wishes that the 'Eagle of Tkhumi', an Assyrian district in the mountains north of Mosul, would take him on its wings and fly him to Assyria so that he could pay homage to the martyrs of his nation. At the end he has a fatalistic wish:

"When we reach our final destination.
O' Eagle of Assyria and the greater Zab. 
Drop me on the cliffs, merciless rocks.
To Atour (Assyria) my nation sacrifice my life.
On the shores of Zab as old as Ashur let me fall.
Bury me as one who sacrificed all."

 Fraydune Aturaya's compatriot, Ashur Yosef, of the Syrian Orthodox Church arrested by the Turks on Sunday April 19th 1915 before being executed wrote to his brother in the United States:  

"Do not worry over my death-it is God's will- I am going to heaven to protect the rights of the assyrians at the presence of the biggest and greatest Judge..."(13)

It is naive to believe that such devotion to Assyrian nationalism was learned entirely from the Anglican missionaries. It takes many generations for such deep rooted sentiments to evolve and to gain widespread acceptance. False premises when contradicted by previously accepted facts are often rejected especially coming from outside sources.

The New york Times of March 26, 1915 in describing the massacres of Assyrians in northwest Iran wrote 'The people of Urmia , who are members of the Assyrian Christian Church, are described as "a historic nation with noble traditions". Traces of the ancient Assyrian culture had survived among the mountain Assyrians before they were massacred by the combined forces of Turkey's army and their Kurds allies. Only those who managed to flee survived.

Syriac documents since the dawn of christianity refer to the inhabitants of northern mesopotamia as Assyrians. According to the fourth century 'Teachings of Addaeius the Apostle':  

"people of the East, in the guise of merchants, passed over into the territory of the Romans, that they might see the signs which Addaeius did. And such as became disciples received from him ordination to the priesthood, and in their own country of the Assyrians they instructed the people of their nation, and erected houses of prayer there in secret, by reason of the danger from those who worshiped fire and paid reverence to water."(14)

A Homily About the Town of Antioch corroborates the same.

"To Simon was allotted Rome, and to John Ephesus; to Thomas India, and to Addaeius the country of the Assyrians. And, when they were sent each one of them to the district which had been allotted to him, they devoted themselves to bring the several countries to discipleship."(15

Other early christian traditions speak of the conversion to christianity of Mar Gardakh and Mar Behnam who were from the Assyrian family of Sennecherib II the governor of Nineveh in mid fourth century. The 13th century Gewargis Arbillaya of the Church of the East as did other Syriac writers identified his people as Assyrians and Babylonians in a prayer during the occasion of the Ninevite Fast observed by the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Church of the East and the Chaldean Church. For more references visit the: www.christians of

Because of greater contacts with the west during the 19th century nationalism flourished among all people in the Middle East who previously took pride in their religious affiliation. For example both Kurds and Arabs had been content to be ruled by the Turks until world war one because they considered the Turkish Sultan as Khalif or leader of their religion. Due to their new found sense of nationalism they rose up to free themselves from their Turkish rulers. It should not surprise us that members of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East become more willing to assert their Assyrian national identity about the same time which was an acknowledgement of already known historical facts.

As for Barsoum's claim of British "malicious, political purpose which failed" it is a common refrain asserted by the Arab nationalists to justify the massacre of the Assyrians in 1933. The British policy in the Middle East was always to please the Arab population so that it could benefit from their friendship to gain access to the Middle Eastern oil. After their liberating Iraq from Turkey there was a need to protect the new country from being invaded by the Turks or dismembered by the internal conflicts. The English recruited Assyrians to assist them in this task.

During the Iraqi mandate the British and the Iraqi government as well as the League of Nations had promised to settle the Assyrians as a group instead of scattering them in the hostile Arab and Kurd villages. When the British Government officially announced its intentions to terminate its mandate over Iraq in 1932 it became evident that neither they nor the Iraqi government had any intention of fulfilling their promises. Fearing the scattering of his people patriarch Eshai Shimun appealed to the League of Nations for redress. Iraqi politicians and the Press angered with such move incited the population and the Army against them which led to the massacre of the, defenseless Assyrians, followers of the Church of the East, inhabitants of the village of Simail and the environ.(16

The Semail massacres less than twenty years after those of world war one which had decimated the Assyrians of the Syrian Orthodox church, the Church of the East, (Nestorian) and the Chaldean church in Turkey, Mountains of Kurdistan, and Persia evoked panic among christians of Iraq. Not only it led to the departure of thousands of Assyrians members the Church of the East out of the country also prompted the Syrian Orthodox Church leaders, to refrain from advertising their Assyrian identity. Aphrim Shapera writes:

"The Syriac Orthodox Church's documents and memorial evidences show that nearly all its clergies who were born in the northern part of Iraq (Assyria) proudly titled their names or surnamed by "The Assyrian" ­ Al Athouri - including the Patriarch who was known as Mar Ephrim Barsoum Al Athouri. But sadly, after the Semail massacre and the physical, national, legal and political tragic consequences which befell the Assyrians of Iraq, all clergies began to delete the title of Assyrian from their names including Mar Ephrim, who was well-known as a nationalist following WW1. After the Semail event, and particularly, after Mar Ephrim's ascended to the Patriarchal See, [in 1933] he became an anti-Assyrian attacking anyone claiming Assyrian identity or involved in the national case, including Mar Shimoun Eishay the Patriarch of the Church of the East who was involved with the Assyrian national case. .... Mar Aphrim [Barsoum] started promoting Arabism and became known among Arab nationalistic circles as ' The priest of Pan Arabism' and 'The great magnate of Arabs' as described by the Metropolitan Mar Ishaq Saka in his book (The Syrians ­ Faith and Civilization, Aleppo archdiocese publications, Syria, 1983, P.145)."(17

"The Syriac text reads: On the days of Patriarch Afrem I Assyrian and bsihop Afrem of
The Turabdin from Botoyo village by contribution of the Suryoyo and....." this church was restored.

Further evidence of Syrian Orthodox Church inclination to distance itself from its Assyrian identity after the 1933 massacres comes from a letter in 1939 to Farid Nuz'ha, an Assyrian nationalist, a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Argentina who had established the 'Association Asiria" for his community there, he also published a magazine called the"Asiria" [Assyria]. The letter to the editor by a prominent member of the church in Iraq suggested that he should change the name of his magazine to something else because his government [Iraq] was against anyone promoting the names Assyria or Assyrians.(18)
In Reply Farid Nuz'ha reasoned: such appeasements can lead to other restrictions and further future difficulties. 

"What you will do if your dictatorial master said to you pull out the cross from the door of your church and if he forbids the Christian community from ringing the bells? What you will reply to him if tomorrow he said to you that Syriac teaching is contrary to the official education system? You do not expect such disasters to occur! However, since you submitted to him with subservience and cowardice, this will encourage him to greater immoderation of oppression and absolutism. Tomorrow he will say to you; Hey, you Syrians if you are faithful to your country and government, then the only way to demonstrate it is by replacing your Syriac language with Arabic. What will you then give as a reply to your government?"

He also explained the folly of sacrificing ethnic identity for the sake of denominational supremacy:

"A religion or faith could be shared by many nations, as it is our status with Copts and Ethiopians, but there is no sharing of ethnicity. If we deprive the ethnicity from our people what will remain of their singularity? I am sure you will say: religion. I say, they can get the same religion elsewhere, such as Egypt and Ethiopia and that is happening because of your teachings. If Syriac is nothing more than a religion or denomination then I truly say we are not in need for it."

Evidently the letter writer had suggested the name of the magazine to be changed to Syrian or Syriac as a substitute for  Assyrian. Nuzah wrote:

"Anyone with a minimum knowledge of language and history knows that Syrian word is originated from the Greek term "Assyrian" which is same name as "Ashori". Apart from that, everybody knows that Assyrian is not a religious name...." 

He ended his reply by stating:

"However, if the name Assyrian refers to those who had rejected merger with or melting in Arabism and resisted the oppressive governments, and who consequently suffered murder, persecution, looting and all kinds of injustices & horror, that is an exclusive great honor to them. Future generations will commemorate that martyrdom and will remember those disasters committed by the foes of God and humanity as long as there is a human being on this earth." Signed: Syriac Writer (Farid Nuz'ha) Buenos Aires, February 1939.(19)

The letter to the Editor had evidently cited the Semail massacre as a compelling reason to heed the Arab nationalist's wish to prevent the use of the Assyrian name in reference to the Syriac speaking people.

Additional factors which may have contributed to Mar Barsoum's decision was the exile of the Syrian Orthodox church and its members from Turkey to Syria where the Monopysite christians preferred to identify themselves as Arameans and Arabs.

Meanwhile in the United States close relationship were evolving between the Assyrians of the Syrian Orthodox Church and members of the Church of the East. In 1933 the Assyrian National Federation was jointly established in response to the Semail massacres . It must have come as a shock to Aphrim Barsoum when David Perley an influential member of his church defined Assyrian nationalism as follows: 

"Such is the revolt of the new generation that has united us all, against the narrow provincialism of the past regardless of creed, under the banner of our Ethnarch, Mar Eshai Shimun XXI, [the Patriarch of the Church of the East] our hero, both spiritual and secular, in our struggle for survival. Over a period of about a decade, the spirit of the political activities of this youth of seven-and-twenty who commenced his career  in the field of battle has been characterized by a sane desire to establish a homeland where liberty might reign supreme."(20)  

This was published in Yosuf Malik's 'British Betrayal of the Assyrians' who was a member of the Chaldean church but considered himself and his people as Assyrians.

Directors of the Assyrian National Federation mostly members of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the United States were instrumental in having the Patriarch Eishay Shimun to Present the "Assyrian National Petition" to the "World Security Conference" at San Francisco on May 7, 1945. Such cooperation between members of the two denominations were unraveling centuries of segregationist practices by the Syriac speaking churches dedicated to keeping their flocks as far away from each other as possible. Redefining the national identity of the Syrian Orthodox Church was a mean by Aphrim Barsoum to stop at its track the national unity evolving between members of his church and that of the Church of the East.

1--Edip Aydin "The History of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch in North America: Challenges and Opportunities," Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Crestwood, New York May 8, 2000.   

2- ibid

3-- 4- Ibid Edip

5--(History of Mikhael The Great" Chabot Edition (French) P: 750) as quoted by Addai Scher, Hestorie De La Chaldee Et De "Assyrie")

6-(ibid P: 748)

7- (Horatio Southgate , "Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian [Jacobites] Church", 1844 P 80)

8- O.H. Parry, " Six Months in a Syrian Monastery, 1895- Reprinted, Gorgias Press, 2002.

9- Edip Aydin, ibid.

10 - Edip ibid.

11- William Warda , "Assyrian Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church."

12- ibid

13- Among prominnat Assyrian nationalists of the Syrian Orthodox church before and after world war one were, Naoum Fayiq, Shamiram Khouri, Senharib Bali, Dr. David B. Perley. For more information about them visit:

14- Eusebius of Caesarea, Ed. Alexander Roberts, Ancient Syriac Documents, Book 1 Chap. XIII, p.25) see also: doctrine of ADDAI in W.CURETON ( ed , and tr), Ancient Syriac Documents, London and Edinburg 1864 , pp. 15-16.

15- Alexander ibid p.135

16- Samir al-Khalil, "Republic Of Fear," Pantheon Books, New York 1989 pp.166-175.

17- Aprrim Shapera, "A Great Message from a Great Assyrian Man,"

18- Shapera ibid.

19- Shapera ibid.

20- (David Barsoum Perley in Yosuf Malik's, "British Betrayal of the Assyrians", Self Published 1936, Chapt. VII.)

See also:Assyrian Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church