Role in distancing the Syrian Orthodox Church from its Assyrian
By William M. Warda
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
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
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."
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
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
Drop me on the cliffs, merciless rocks.
To Atour (Assyria) my nation sacrifice
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
"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 iraq.com/reply.html
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
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
"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,
"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.
"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
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
"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
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. http://www.saintgabrielsyouth.com/syriac_church.htm
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." http://christiansofiraq.com/joseph/reply2.html
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: http://www.bethsuryoyo.com/Code/Articles/Nationalism.html
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," http://www.aanf.org/America/assyrians/great_assyrian_man.htm
18- Shapera ibid.
19- Shapera ibid.
20- (David Barsoum Perley in Yosuf Malik's,
"British Betrayal of the Assyrians", Self Published
1936, Chapt. VII.)
Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church