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To the Assyrian Heritage of the Church of the East and the Chaldean Church


Assyrian Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church

      Syriac and other historical documents attest to the Assyrian heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church as well.
The Chaldean Bishop Addai Scher writes according to the Syrian Orthodox Church Patriarch Michael the Great (1126-99) the Greeks were offending the Jacobites in the first half of the 9th century 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." This is in line with the contemporary Assyrian claim that the terms Syrian, Suryoye applied to them mean Assyrian.      He furthere 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. (39) The Greeks evidently directed their comments to the Jacobites of Syria therefore Michael difrentiates 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". (40) This concurs with his contemporary Gewargis Arbilaya's [from Arbil] and others before and after him who have identified their people as Assyrians and Babylonians.

      During Mor Michael's life time, between 1160 and 1170 John of Wurzburg who visited Jerusalem refers to the Syriac speaking christians of the city as Assyrians. There were both Nestorians and Jacobite communities among others in that city. He writes:

 "For the Assyrians [ local Syrian Christians] whose fathers were the settlers of that country from the first persecution, say that after Our Lord's Passion the city was seven time captured and destroyed, together with all the churches, but not wholly leveled to the ground." (41)

      Later documents continue to identify the Syrian Orthodox Church and its members as Assyrian before the 19th century. When Mehemt II organized the Millet system he appointed the Patriarch of the Armenian as the head of Millet. He was also given authority over other Christian communities such "as the Gypsies ...the Assyrians, the Monophysites of Syria and Egypt, and the Bogomils of Bosnia, ....". Later each of these communities were recognized as Millet independently of the Armenians. (42)

assyrians-ottoman map
This 1626 map by John Speed clearly shows Assyrians as important inhabitants of the Turkish Empire
second from the top

      When Horatio Southgate visited the Syrian Orthodox communities of Turkey in 1843 he reported that its followers were calling themselves Assyrians in the form of "Suryoye Othoroye". He writes: 
" I began to make inquiries for the Syrians. The people informed me that there were about one hundred families of them in the town of Kharpout, and a village inhabited by them on the plain. I observed that the Armenians did not know them under the name which I used, SYRIANI; but called them ASSOURI, which struck me the more at the moment from its resemblance to our English name ASSYRIANS, from whom they claim their origin, being sons, as they say, of Assour, (Asshur,) 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..(43)

      Anglican Bishop Oswald H. Perry who visited the Syrian Orthodox community at the invitation of Patriarch Mar Ignatius Peter III in a book published in 1895 titled, "six Months in a Syrian Monastery writes the term Syrian is being used interchangeably with the 'Assyrian' by the members of the Jacobite church. After the massacres of 1895-6 large number of the Assyrians of Turkey migrated to the United State where they established churches and institutions such as. The "Assyrian Benefit Association" founded in 1897 by Dr. Dr. Abraham K. Yoosuf in Worcester. and "the Assyrian National School Association of America" later called "The Assyrian Orphanage and School Association of America." (44)

"According to the French consul, the notorious sheikh of Zeilan, responsible for mass incitement at Sassun in 1894, had taken part in the plans for the massacre. During the onslaughts, about 500-700 Armenians and Assyrians took refuge in the French consulate which was 'practically besieged'." (45)

The fact that members of the Syrian Orthodox church considered themselves Assyrians is evident in the writings
of their writers such as Naum Faiq.

(February 1868 – February 5, 1930)

Here are two of his poems. Naum Faiq

Awake, son of Assyria, awake.

“ Awake, son of Assyria,
Awake and see the world how enlightened.
The chance is fleeing from us
And time is running out
Awake son of Assyria,
Awake! In vengeance you will take refuge.
Rise up and band together to strengthen.
And if one does not awake we have lost our chance
Without a purpose, misfortune will befall our land. „

—Naum Faiq, Homeland

“ Did our hearts become of stone
Did our hearts become of iron
Or did our eyes become blind
Let our red blood flow
Let our silent hearts whine
Let the Assyrian youth always say
Oh, are there still any catastrophes which we haven't gone through yet
From the moment that we came to this world
From the womb till our grave we cannot keep our homeland out of our minds
The only thing I desire from the Lord
Is that He will not take away my soul until I have seen you...homeland.


  When Metropolitan Mutran Aprim Barsum went to the Paris peace conference in 1920 to plead the case of the Syrian Orthodox his petition identified members of his church as Assyrians.

courtesy of www.bethsuryoyo.com

The Assryian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference from Left to right: Captain A.K. Yousuf, Secratary of Mor Barsum, Joel Warda. Mar Barsum Siting at the center

The text of Mor Barsum's petition dated Feb. 1920 reads:

 "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 reside mostly in the upper valleys of Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia..." (46)

Some Members of the Orthodox Church on the main street of the city of Worcester in 1922. Captain A.K. Yousuf M.D. in front . The sign behind them reads "Sons of Assyria

According to a 1927 issue of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette Mor Aprim Barsum who had become the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church continued proudly to identify his people as Assyrians

 "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." (47)

      The article also mentions the participation of Aprim Barsum in the 1919 conference held in Paris: 

 "During the peace conference he appeared to demand indemnity for the Assyrian churches sacked during the World War, and on this occasion was presented with a gold-headed cane by President Doumergue of France. He is also a familiar figure in the educational centers of Europe such as Oxford, Paris and Vienna." (48)

Changing Ethnicity for the sake of religious politics

      After identifying himself and his people as Assyrians for most of his life Mor Aprim Barsum issued a decree to revise the ethnicity of his followers to Arameans.His sealed document dated December 2, 1952, written in Syriac and Arabic was later published together with English translation by the Archdiocese of the Syrian Church of Antioch under the title: "The Syrian Church of Antioch, in Name and History."

Aprim Barsum's decision was perhaps influenced by the fact that the Patriarch and most of his followers were driven out of Turkey in 1924 and were forced to reside in Syria where the native Christians that made up a majority of his church members did not want to be known as Assyrian.

      Aprim Barsum's book was clearly intended to give a new identity to his followers. If as he and others have suggested Suryoyo meant Aramean it would have been a common knowledge for the last 2000 year and the Suraye and suryoye would have been calling themselves Aramean and there would have been no need to write a book about it.In reality they had not done so.

      Aprim Barsum justified his drastic change of mind by stating that church in India and homeland [Middle East] is known as "Syrian Orthodox" therefore the use of the Assyrian in the diaspora creates ambiguity about the church and its unity." He further claimed that "The name Assyrian came to be used in English for the Church of the East during the nineteenth century" through the efforts of Anglican Missionaries. (49) 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 as shown previously the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East long before the arrival of the Anglican missionaries had identified themselves as Assyrians. 

The Syrian Church of Antioch in Name and History

      Barsum further maintained historically it would be incorrect to use the title Assyrian for his Church since it has been known as "Syrian". However because this title was used by the Rum Orthodox (Antiochian) Church in North America, to avoid confusion, he recommended the name Aramaic to be used for the Syriac language and the term Aramaean to refer to the Church.(50) Ironically on the cover of his book the name of its language was identified as suryoyo or Syriac. The use of Aramaic and Aramean instead of Assyrian dictated by Aprim was not based on historical truth but was intended to stop his followers from identifying themselves as Assyrians as they had done so previously.

Among other reasons that motivated Aprim Barsum to separate the Syrian Orthodox Church from its Assyrian identity was partly because of ongoing theological animosity between the Assyrian denominations as described by the prominent German Orientalist Eduard Sachau in 1899.

He wrote, "Nestorians and Jacobites hate each other almost as the common enemy, the Mohammedan, their discord has facilitated the latter to rule over them. [...] From personal contact conveys the impression that the fact of common descent from the very same people has vanished from their consciousness completely and utterly and their Christian confession deriving from from the same original source exerts no sense of alliance or unity or even reconciliation.' [Aryo Makko, The historical Routs of the Contemporary Contraversies, Natinal Revival and the Assyrian 'Concept of Unity', Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies Vol. 24 No. 1, 2010 pp. 60-61]

      Since 1952 all references to the church and its members as Assyrians have been expunged but some evidences of its former use have survived. In a letter to the editor of the Syrian Orthodox magazine Beth-Nahreen dated 6th of June 1947 Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, Basum's Metropolitan of Jerusalem at Saint Mark's Convent, 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." A picture taken from the Saint Mark's Convent in Jerusalem shows that its name plate in English originally was 'Assyrian convent' later the first A and the s were painted over to make it read 'Syrian Convent' but the Jewish script above it still reads Ashurim or Assyrian. When Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel arrived in the United States his title on his letterhead was 'Assyrian Orthodox Archbishop to the United States and Canada'. In a letter dated August 12, 1952  to the Parishioners he wrote: "I shall need the cooperation of every Assyrian who has the love of his church and nation at heart."

courtesy of www.bethsuryoyo.com

Saint Mark Convent In Jerusalem  before the name change

Same place after the name change

      Since then the clergies of that church have carried out a cruel crusade of ethnic cleansing toward their members who dare to identify themselves as Assyrians. The late Frank Chavor up to his death vividly remembered how members of his church fought attempts to remove the name Assyrian from their church in Harport Connecticut but were locked out by the court order obtained by the Archdiocese to drive them out.

      Reasons which led Aprim Barsum to adopt his anti Assyrian policy included the close relationships evolving between Assyrians of the Syrian Orthodox Church and members of the Church of the East. In 1933 in response to the Semail massacres of the Assyrians in Iraq the Assyrian National Federation in the United States was jointly established by members of both denominations. It must have come as a shock to Aprim Barsum 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." (51) 
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.


   A 1964 book by Jibrail Iydin published in Turkey attests to the Assyrian Heritage of the Suryoye and Suryaye of Mesopotamia. the Title is: "History of the Suryoyto Kingdom." courtesy of www.bethsuryoyo.com

      Directors of the Assyrian National Federation including members of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the United States arranged for the Patriarch Eishay Shimun to Present the "Assyrian National Petition" to the "World Security Conference" at San Francisco on May 7, 1945. Cooperation between members of the three 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 therefore something had to be done to stop it. On May 12, 1952, His Holiness Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum appointed Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel as Patriarchal Vicar over the United States and Canada.Despite protest by the members of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the United States archbishop Mor Athanasius began the removal of the Assyrian name from all but two churches in the United States. Members who objected were locked out excommunicated and driven out.

      Parishioners of the 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 Aprim Karim later succeed in removing the term Assyrian from the Virgin Mary church in Worcester, but in Paramus the Assyrian identity of the church still prevails. This is a classical example of a house at war against itself divided into insignificance by its clergies.

      Aprim Basum's anti Assyrian policies succeeded in stopping a trend which would have united the Syriac speaking people under a common name but instead the term Aramean was introduced to promote divisiveness. Factions of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Europe, the United States and the Middle East still proudly proclaim their Assyrian heritage while the rest insist that they are Arameans because their patriarch Aprim Barsum told them.

      The change of name from "Assyrian Orthodox Church" to "Syrian Orthodox church" led to a dispute with the Rum Orthodox Church in North America. The matter was resolved by court litigation which awarded the right to use the name to Aprim Barsum's denomination. (52)

      During the United States census of 2000 to prevent the possibility of counting members of the Syrian Orthodox Church as Assyrians the US Archbishops Cyril Aprim Karim and Clemis Eugene Kaplan issued a declaration to change the name of the Church to "Syriac Orthodox Church" and refer to its members as Syriacs.(53) Since then the name Syriacs has been used sided by side with Aramean to drive members of the church further away from their Assyrian identity.

courtecy of the www.bethsuryoyo.com 

      Syriac in this context means nothing more than a religious denomination and has nothing to do with national identity . This term previously pertained to the language spoken by the christians of Mesopotamia and Syria, and does not necessarily means Aramean. The fact that Syriac is often used side by side with Aramean by those wishing to distance themselves from their Assyrian heritage means the two names are not synonymous and neither one of them adequately explains the identity of the "Syrian Orthodox Church" or its members. Identifying our people by the language they speak rather than their national and historical heritage is akin to forcing the European people to identify themselves as Latin rather than their respective nationality. 

      To justify their new Aramean identity members of the Syrian Orthodox Church who identify themselves as such contend that the terms 'Syrian, Suraya and Suryoyo mean Aramean because in the third century B.C. when the Greeks translated the Old Testament they substituted Syrian for any mention of the Arameans. The fallacy of this logic is that the term Syrian was in use before the 5th century B.C. and according to Herodotus, Strabo and Justinus and other Roman and Greek historians meant Assyrian. Furthermore the inhabitants of Mesopotamia did not speak the Greek language when they became Christians therefore it would not have mattered what the Greeks called the Arameans, and would not have influenced them in one way or another. By the third century B.C. the population of Abar-nahra west of Euphrates consisted of not only the Arameans also of Greeks, Romans, Canaanites, Arabs, and Assyrians. The 12 century patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox 'Michael the Great' acknowledges that both Arameans and Assyrians were known as Syrian Suryaye and Suryoye but he clearly distinguishes between the two by writing those who lived "in the east of Euphrates, going to Persia, had many kings from Assyria and Babylon and Urhay." In other words the homeland of the Arameans was considered West of Euphrates even at his time. He further wrote: 
 " Assyrians, who were called 'Syrians' by the Greeks, were also the same Assyrians, I mean 'Assyrians' from 'Assure' who built the city of Nineveh". (See 40)

    John Joseph has also attempted to confuse the identity of the contemporary Assyrians by stating that Asore or Asuri used by the Armenians, Georgians and Russians for the Christian Assyrians long before the 19the century means Syrian, not Assyrian. According to him the correct Armenian name for Assyrians is "Asorestantji" and cites the 1884 Anorayre De Byzance Dictionary as evidence. We have already seen that Syrian was used historically as substitute for Assyrian. Armenian Asore or Persian Asuri are composed of 'Asor' or 'Asur' meaning Assyria plus an ending possessive pronoun to make them Assyrian. In fact if the Armenian Asore means Syrian it validates all the other assertions that Syrian is another form for Assyrian when applied to the christians of Mesopotamia. In the classical Armenian literature such as the fifteenth century version of the 'Wisdom of Khakar ' (Ahikar) ancient Assyrians are called "Asores" and Assyria is Asorestan. This is compatible with the Indo-European formula for nations and their country.  For example Afghani are the people of Afghanistan, Hindi are the people of Hidustan, Armani are the people of Armanistan and so-forth. One has also to wonder; if 'Asor' in "Asorestantji" means Assyria why it would not in "Asore". 

Another derivative from Asuri is the Persian term Surian which is short for Asurian and means Assyrians. It was used by the Arabs after their 7th century invasion as "al-Suryaniyyun" which it means Assyrian as acknowledged by the tenth century translator of the "Latin history of Paulus Orosius" (cr. 961-976 AD), where it is equated with the Latin "Assyri" [Assyrian].(54)

      Despite all attempts by the Syrian Orthodox Church to distance itself from its Assyrian heritage, its Assyrian legacy is still alive in Turkey. Articles about Christians in that country written by Turks still refer to members of the church as Assyrians. On one internet site under the title: "Mardin and Surrounding Areas; Assyrian Monasteries." after praising the Assyrian stone masons for having built magnificent buildings in Mardin it continues:

"Perhaps even more striking than Mardin itself are the Assyrian
monasteries that dot the landscape around it. The Assyrians consider
themselves the real deal, the original Christians who still speak the
ancient Aramaic language Jesus spoke." (55)

      As if unaware of facts mentioned in this and other articles Joseph ends his commentary by writing:    "I seriously believe that the single most important problem facing our Assyrian community and the reasons for our disunity stem from the fact that nobody takes us seriously on the question of our identity--not our friends, not our enemies. Actually, they all seem to know our history better than we do, be they Kurds or Arabs, the Syrian Orthodox or the Chaldeans , the Iraqi [political] parties or the scholars at Oxford, Harvard, Yale or Chicago, or the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington D.C., let alone the Department of State there..."

      It is astonishing for Joseph to state that all the above "know our history better than we do". This is typical Joseph's lack of understanding of reality. The confusion of our identity has been invented by religious rivalries and not historical facts. The Chaldean church, the Syrian Orthodox church, the Church of the East and their followers have spent centuries attacking and disowning each other for theological reasons. Their clergies have found it advantageous to divide, separate, and segregate their followers from the other two. Any unity of our people based on ethnicity is considered as a threat to their denominational interest therefore they come up with artificial ethnic identities for their parishioners to keep them segregated.

      When a new church was established in 1553 it was called Chaldean by the Roman Church a name which is now being used as an ethnic identity by its clergies and members. Starting at 1952 Syrian Orthodox Church leaders for religious reasons decided to call their church and members Aramean. Joseph has further contributed to such confusions in his three book, various articles, and lectures to students and public by misrepresenting the historical facts. Given such reality his claim that "Kurds or Arabs, the Syrian Orthodox or the Chaldeans , the Iraqi [political] parties or the scholars at Oxford, Harvard, Yale or Chicago, or the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington D.C. know our history better than we do." sounds preposterous.

      The United States government and the new Iraqi government had recognized our people collectively as Assyrians until the Chaldean clergies bombarded them with letters claiming that members of their church are not Assyrians. The name change game played by the clergies of the Syriac Orthodox church have divided members of the same families between various ethnic identities. How is it possible for one brother to be Assyrian, the other Aramean and the third Syriac. These are the result of silly games our clergies have played with our identity.

      While the rest of the world fully understands the magical power of unity and working in harmony our religious leaders have spent centuries in conflict over theological controversies and have divided our people into hostile factions each claiming to belong to a different nationality. Each denomination still clings to its exclusive medieval religious domain complete with dynasties of priests, bishops and patriarchs ready to wage holy wars against others at a moment's notice.

      After reading a Syrian Orthodox Church bulletin in 1965 which blamed the Nestorians of the Persian empire for having delivered a severe blow to the ancient church in 480 AD David Perley wrote: 
"Imagine this statement is made by a presumptivly spiritual leader in the Age of Ecumenicity, when brotherhood of all men, of every faith, is the guiding star! Which do you think is more important now-the future of the Faith of our fathers, and our continued collective existence, or memories of the dastardly days of Ephesus or Chalcedon, when word-splitting definitions of obscure points of doctrine led men to do battle against their brothers as the 'enemies of God'? In my opinion the Assyrians are too enlightened to be led back to those days!"

      Centuries of religious conflicts have prevented our people from forming a none sectarian leadership to look after their common interest and guide them wisely during the crucial times. Today they are in danger of being driven out of their homeland in Iraq. Tens of thousands have already fled to Jordan, Syria and more to follow. Others are being kidnaped and killed. The Kurds are busy confiscating Christian villages and are happy to incite the Chaldeans against the Assyrians and help members of the Syrian Orthodox Church to reject their Assyrian heritage. There is no consultation or cooperation between our denominations to agree on how to help our unfortunate people. The only help they are willing and able to provide is to ask for prayers probably just for their own members.

39-(History of Mikhael The Great" Chabot Edition (French) P: 750) as quoted by Addai Scher, Hestorie De La Chaldee Et De "Assyrie")
40-(ibid P: 748) 
41- (F. E. Peters, "Jerusalem", Princeton University Press 1985 pp. 297-8 citing Saewulf 1896; "Saewulf. 'Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land', Trans. the Lord Bishop of Clifton. 'Palestine Pilgrims Text Society 4' Reprint New York Ams Press, 1971)
42- (Stanford Shaw "Empire of the Gazis: Rise of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1566" Volume I, p. 152)
43- (Horatio Southgate, "Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian [Jacobites] Church", 1844 P 80) 
44- (Edip Aydin, "The History of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch in North America: Challenges and Opportunities", http://www.saintgabrielsyouth.com/syriac_church.htm, April 1, 2004) 
45- (Christopher J. Walker, "Armenia The Survival of a Nation," Martin's Press, New York 1980 p. 161)
46- http://bethsuryoyo.com/Code/Articles/Articles.html
46A- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naum_Faiq
47- 48- 49- 50- (Edip Aydin ibid )
51- (David Barsum Perley in Yosuf Malik's, "British Betrayal of the Assyrians", Self Published 1936, Chapt. VII.) 
52-- (Edip Aydin ibid0
53- (http://www.bethsuryoyo.com/currentevents/Census/bishopseng.html) 
54- ((Abdel Rahman Badawi Ed. "Orosius, Tarikh Al 'Alam", Al Muassasa al Ararabiyya lil Dirasat wal Nashr, Beirut, First Edition, 1982.)
55- http://www.gokdemir.com/nj/august-2000-trip-turkey-borderlands.html


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