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Why Chaldean Church Refuses to Acknowledge its Assyrian Heritage?

When Religion Becomes Divisive 

William Warda

April 2005

According to Zinda Magazine on 24 February 2005 Bishop Sarhad Jammo delivered a speech to his followers in San Diego perhaps a typical lecture by him and others intended to further alienate members of the Chaldean Church from their Assyrian heritage. Judging by the content of this speech it is no wonder that there is so much hostility by the member of the Chaldean Church toward their Assyrian ancestry and Assyrians in general. Christianity claims to be about building bridges, promoting peace, cooperation and brotherly love, but bishop Sarhad Jammo seems not to have much interest in such noble ideas.

In an interview a year earlier bishop Sarhad admitted that for the last 30 years he has been thinking "of the necessity to fix political borders between Assyrians and Chaldeans.." Which means he wished to further alienate members of the Chaldean Church from their Assyrian heritage.

He admits that he was prevented from doing so by the late patriarch of the Chaldean church; Sarhad contends that Mar 'Raphael Bedaweed I', "in the year 2000, declared his being an Assyrian from an ethnic point of view and a Chaldean from the religious one." But obviously Mar Bedaweed was in no position to stop him from indoctrinating members of the Chaldean church against their Assyrian identity.

Sarhad Jammo wants to pretend that Mar Raphael Bedaweed was speaking only about his own Assyrian heritage and not the Chaldean Church which is not the case. In a 1974 interview with the Assyrian Star he said : ". Personally, my family became Chaldean only some 100 years ago, my grandfather Daweed was a Nestorian priest, and the same is true with all the rest of us ...we need to differentiate between nationality and Church, between church and politics ... the Chaldean title for us does not mean ethnicity or nationality,... True Assyrianism is an ethnicity and we all are Assyrian. We could be Assyrian ethnically, but we are Chaldeans religiously. We can not have our Church associated with ethnicity or nationality".[1] Bishop Sarhad himself is an obvious example of how the Chaldean church hides its Assyrian heritage. His proud Assyrian parents named him after the Assyrian king A-Sarhadon but he is not willing to honor their heritage. I was told that even his two sisters have patriotic Assyrian names.

After the death of Mar Raphael, Sarhad Jammo began to put his divisive plans into action. According to AINA, "In a memorandum dated May 10, 2003 from San Diego, "Bishop Sarhad along with Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, of Michigan, formally asserted a separate Chaldean ethnicity, rejecting a common political or nationalist purpose with Assyrians." In september of the same year 19 Chaldean bishops including Sarhad Jammo, in Baghdad, in a letter to Mr. Paul Bremer, Iraq's Civil Administrator, demanded separate rights for the Chaldeans whom they claimed to be a distinct ethnicity other than Assyrian and constitute 80% of the Iraqi Christian population.

In his San Diego speech bishop Sarhad presented several opinions based on false premises intended to prove that members of his Church are not ethnically related to other Christians of Iraq. Following are some of his assertions and false assumptions which have been refuted by this writer.

He said: "Assyrians, and Suryaye are all Suraye, meaning Christians. Suraya is not the name of people (nation); it is a religious term, he stressed. Let us not mix up between Suraya and Suryaya. We say "lishana d' Sureth" (Syriac language), which means the language of the Christian people."

The names Suraya, and Suryaya, Suryoyo, have been used by the Assyrians of the Church of the East, The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Church in reference to their people and contrary to bishop Sarhad they do not mean Christian. He seems to be unaware that suraya and Suryaya are equivalent to the English Syrian and the Greek 'Surios' which according to the Greek and Roman historians it meant Assyrian and was in use five to six centuries before Christianity and 'Syrian' when applied to the christians of Mesopotamia does not mean citizen of Syria.

Herodotus in mid fifth century writing about the Assyrian troops in the Persian empire army stated: "While the Greeks call these people Syrians they are called Assyrians by the Barbarians." meaning the Armenians, the Persians and even the inhabitants of the land west of Euphrates.

Since before christianity and during all the christian centuries while we have called ourselves Suraya, Suryaya and Athuraya Armenian have called us Asori meaning 'Assyrian". A chart by the Assyrialogist Parpola indicates that various Greek and Roman historians used 'Syrian' as an equivalent to Assyrian for the people of Mesopotamia before and after the christian era.[2]

According to the Nagshe Rostam inscription by the Persian king Darius listing the national types of the Persian Empire Assyrian is pronounced as follows: "Iyam Asuryah" i.e. "this is an Assyrian". Very similar to the term "Surya " a name Christian Assyrians have identified themselves by. Parpola indicates that from (930 to 600 B.C.) the term Asuraya was used by the ancient Assyrians themselves to identify their nation which Suraya seems to have derived from and is similar to in meaning. [3]

The Syriac name for Christian is Mshikhaya or christyana. The second century Syriac writer Bardaisan informs us that Christians are called "(kristyônê) after the Messiah". Persian documents of the fourth century AD refer to christians as 'Kristiyan'.[4] The 11th century Syriac writer Abdisho Bar Brikha in the introduction to his "Paradise of Eden" refers to himself as "Allila Suryaya" i.e. obscure As(syrian) and "Mkhila 'd Mshikhaye", feeble of the Christians.[5] He clearly shows that Suryaya and Mshikaya have two different meaning and since the first existed before Christianity it could not have meant Christian. We never call the Armenians who are Christians, 'Suryaye', even though we have lived side by side with them since before christianity. The terms Surit and Syriac and Suryani as we shall see have also derived from Syrian short for Assyrian.

Sarhad Jammo continues to dismiss 'Suryaya', 'Suryan' and Suryani as ethnic terms.

He claims: "Suryan or Suryaya comes from Syria, period. Therefore, Suryaya cannot be a name of our nation..... I cannot say Suryaya or Suryani to reflect an ethnic group in Iraq.We say we are one people; however, we must be careful of what we are saying. The Suryani people in Iraq are the people of Iraq; however, this name does not reflect any ethnic Iraqi group. The language does not prove anything."

Bishop Sarhad again fails to see that 'Suraya' or 'Suryaya' do not mean citizen of Syria when applied to the christians of Mesopotamia. At no time Syria governed the region east of Euphrates but it was ruled by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians annexed to Mesopotamia until mid second century AD. Consequently the terms 'Suraya' or 'Suryaya' have derived from 'Asuraya' which according to Parpola ancient Assyrians identified themselves by and the Greek's Syrian when used as substitute for Assyrian. We need to distinguish between cause and effect to realize the true meaning of these names. The Armenians and Persians have interpreted them as Asuri or Asori.

Bishop Sarhad Jammo continues: "The name Chaldean cannot be treated on equal footing with the name Suryaya or Suryani." He claims, "The center of the Suryani people is Syria; therefore, there is a conflict when we try to equate Suryaya or Suryani with Chaldean."

Chaldeans as applied to the members of the Chaldean church is nothing more than a religious identify which began in 1553. Before then and even now members of the Chaldean Church have used the name Suryaya to identify themselves with which historically has meant Assyrian. In mid 19th century Badger wrote: Even the most important [the oldest] "Chaldean community at Diarbekir could only boast of the name 'Sooraya' and 'Nestoraya'." [6] This means that 300 years after the establishment of the Chaldean church a majority of its members were not calling themselves Chaldeans.

As for 'Suryani' it is an abbreviation of 'Asuriyan' a plural Persian term for 'Assyrian' with a possessive 'I' suffix. Because of its Persian origin this name must have been in use before the Arab conquest. We need to note that Syria from the 7th century until world war one was known to the Arabs and other Moslems as "belad, al-Shum". Only Europeans called it Syria because of Biblical influences. In a C.961-976 AD translation of "Latin History of Paulus Orosius" to Arabic the translator equates the Latin word "Assyri" [Assyrian] with the Arabic word "al-Suryaniyyun" and the word Assyria with "Suria".[7]

Bishop Sarhad also claims that our common language does not prove that we are one people. He explains:

"The language does not prove anything. The Americans speak English language; however, they kicked the British out. Language alone does not make a nation. His Grace continued to state: "Suryaya does not express Iraqi identity." We cannot create a block of people and say that Suryan and Chaldean are one nation No we cannot do that."

We have already seen that Suryaya and Suryan have derived from Assyrian and members of his church have used those terms to identify themselves with. His analogy of Americans and the English relations can not apply to the Syriac speaking people. The United States was a country ruled as a colony from 3,600 miles away with the intention of exploiting its resources. There is no such relationship between members of the Chaldean Church and other Christians of Iraq. They are one people with the same history, geography, language, culture, heritage, and the indigenous inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia divided only by religious affiliation and not ethnicity.

In the following statement Mar Sarhad contradicts his often repeated opinion that members of his church are not Assyrians

He says: "Now, let us come to the name Athuraya (Assyrian), the bishop continued. Athur is Iraq Athur is our ancestors our heritage our pride. That is Athur Ashur yes.... However, an Iranian is not an Iraqi and an Iraqi is not an Iranian."

One has to wonder if bishop Sarhad believes that; "Athur is our ancestors our heritage our pride. That is Athur Ashur yes.." then why he denies the Assyrian ancestry of the Chaldean Church? He should teach his people about their Assyrian heritage instead of alienating them from it.

While Sarhad Jammo previously contended that speaking a common Syriac language does not prove that Christians of Iraq are ethnically related he agrees that they have a common language but it is not the same language spoken by the Assyrians of Urmia.

He says: " ...If we examine the Suraye in Iraq, whether the mountaineers or plain people, we see that they understand each other's dialect. The grammar is the same. Meanwhile, in Urmia they have different grammar. When a Suraya speaks the Urmia dialect, the Suraya of Nineveh plain does not understand anything, and the opposite is true as well, meaning, when a Suraya of Nineveh plain speaks his dialect, the Suraya of Urmia does not understand. Therefore, we cannot say that we are all one umtha (nation)." By his logic Australians do not speak english because some times they use words that are not understood by the Americans

His intentions are to divide Assyrians between those who live in Iraq and those outside the country and to alienate them from each other based on his flowed reasoning. I am an Assyrian from Iran and have never lived in Iraq but in several occasions I have heard Sarhad Jammo speaking to the members of the Chaldean Church on video and a radio program but had no problem understanding him. In San diego several years ago during a convention of the 'Assyrian American Federation', I had a chance to apeak with several members of his church from Iraq. We had no problem communicating with each other. I have also a copy of a book published in Mosul in 1896 by the Dominicains Press titled: "Ktava d'Mattli Ta Eskulayee b'Leishana Swadaya" or 'the book of tales for the students in the Vernacular Syriac Language'. I have no problem reading any part of this book which shows that the language spoken in Urmia is not much different from the one spoken by the members of the Chaldean Church, perhaps with slight dialect variation. It was this common language which allowed tens of thousands of Assyrians in Urmia to convert to Catholicism during the 19th and the 20th century and join the Chaldean Church which they considered as an Assyrian denomination.

In all countries people of different regions isolated from each other speak different dialects of the same language. Only in recent years because of Radio and T.V. influences such variations have become less noticeable. Anyone who has seen the "My Fair Lady" Movie made in 1960's knows that it was about picking up a woman who spoke with an almost uncomprehensible dialect from a marketplace in London and refining her accent to the point that every one believed that she was a high class Londoner. Her practice line was: "The rain in spain falls mainly in the plain".

John Maclean a prominent Syriac linguist who studied the various dialects spoken in the Plain of Nineveh, the mountains of Kurdistan and the plain Urmia at the end of the 19th century wrote: "The variations of the dialects is geographic; there are no differences of class among people, and all in the same place have more or less the same tongue. The examination of the peculiarities of speech in different districts would lead us to divide the language into four main divisions.." From Urmia to Algosh he lists: I- The Urmia Group - II. The Salamas Group - III, the Ashiret group; including Tiari, Tkhuma - Ashita and Mar Bishu. and IV, The Algosh dialect which also included Tilkief , Teleskof and other towns.

He writes: "It is possible that these classes represent separate migrations from the plains of Mesopotamia and Assyria." He was able to establish a pattern of migration from the mountains of Kurdistan to the plain of Urmia. For example Assyrians living in villages near the Nazlu river had the closest dialect to the Assyrian tribes in the highlands of Kurdistan which means they were late comers. Those who had arrived before the 16th century had the most deteriorated dialect. [8] We need to add that the Algosh group must have been the original dialect and the other three were its extensions.[9] Maclean also wrote in the "town of Mosul Syriac almost entirely gives place to Arabic" and there are small differences between the Syriac spoken in Algosh and the "villages Telkief, Teleskof, and the rest..."[10] One has to ask; why does Bishop Sarhad accepts the Arabic speaking members of his church as part of his nation but is unwilling to do the same with the Syriac speaking people in Urmia only 150 miles away?

As if what he said before was not enough Sarhad Jammo further added: "One who is from Urmia has a continuous heritage of Iran; it is not related to Bet Nahrain (Mesopotamia).....with my respect to the Iranian people. They cannot say we are one nation."

No one is asking Bishop Sarhad to consider himself Iranian. Every country has people of different ancestry including Iran and Iraq. The heritage of Syriac speaking people of Iraq is not the same as that of the Kurds, Arabs, and Turkemans living in that or other countries of the Middle East. By the same token the heritage of the Assyrians of Urmia has little in common with the culture and the ancestry of the Azari Turks, The Kurds and Persians of Iran. Assyrians of Iran who primarily survived in isolated villages speak the same language as that of the Plain of Nineveh, worship the same religion i.e. christianity and proudly consider themselves the descendants of the ancient Assyrians. It is well known that Assyrians have been often driven out of their homeland because of wars and persecutions and have settled in the neighboring regions. Not living in their ancestral homeland does not make them any less Assyrian.

It is unconscionable to question the heritage of the Assyrians of Urmia living only 150 miles from Nineveh but falsely claiming to be Chaldeans living in Assyria. Before world war one a chain of Assyrian communities leading from the plain of Nineveh to Urmia dotted the mountains between them, such as Tiari, Thumi, Diza, ashita, Mar Bishu, Barwar, Jillu, Tar Gawar, Mar Gawar, Salamas. No such chain of communities were connecting the Plain of Nineveh to Chaldea 500 miles to the south. Only during the last two centuries Christians of the northern Iraq have lived in southern cities of the country. Mandeans were the only Christians who have lived continuously in the homeland of the ancient Chaldean and are still there. They are the true descendants of the ancient Babylonians and Chaldeans.

During the last two years more than fifty thousand christians from Iraq were forced to flee to Syria and Jordan because of terrorism. While some may return the rest may choose to remain. It is unconscionable to claim that these people few generations from now can not be considered related to the Christians of Iraq even if they preserve their culture and heritage. Most members of the Syrian Orthodox Church were massacred during world war one and the rest were driven out into Syria but that does not wipe out their history in their former homeland. During world war one the Assyrians of Kurdistan were massacred, the survivors fled to Urmia, a considerable number of the Assyrians from Urmia fled to Russia where they still live. In 1918 Assyrians of Kurdistan and urmia were driven out of Iran into Iraq. They had come a full circle to where they had started from. Similar exiles were the rule rather than exceptions during most centuries.

Having admitted that; "Athur [Assyria]is our ancestors our heritage our pride. That is Athur Ashur yes." he goes on to contradict himself by explaining why members of his church are not Assyrians: "we have Suraye living in Telkepe, Alqosh, Karamlesh, Batnaya and these villages are next to Nineveh in the heart of Assyria. Why do they call themselves Chaldeans?

The answer to his question is very simple. For the last two hundred some years bishops and priests like himself have falsely taught them that they are Chaldeans and not Assyrians and warning them that if they call themselves Assyrians they will be considered Nestorians. During the last two years many Assyrians were driven out of the Chaldean Church in Los Angeles because they considered themselves and their church ethnically Assyrian.

Bishop Sarhad's answer to his own question was: " living in Nineveh Plain would travel to Mosul and pass by Nineveh and Ashurbanipal palace; however, when you ask them what they are, they say that they are Chaldeans. Why, because they return to their origin, to their center that was Babylon and the last dynasty of Chaldeans."

That is an absurd answer. The history of the Chaldean Church is well documented. Those who established it and joined it were of Assyrian ancestry. It was clergies like himself who indoctrinated them to believe that Chaldean is not only the name of their church also their national identity. That they were the descendants of the Chaldeans and not Assyrians. In the process they have done them a great disservice by alienating them against their true identity and giving them another which is impossible to justify historically , Geographically and religiously. There was no Christian community in Mesopotamia which called itself Chaldean before 1553. One can not falsify history and expect others to believe it. Such misinformation always collides with irrefutable historical facts. Eager to have members of their church reject their Assyrian ancestry Sarhad Jammo and others have turned a great christian denomination into a an antagonistic, and, divisive movement which prevents cooperation between a people who share the same homeland, heritage, religion [Christianity], culture, language, history and destiny. In doing so they are undermining the survival of the christians of Iraq including those belonging to their own Church.

Bishop Sarhad and others take pride in the fact that Chaldeans represent 75 to 80 percent of the Christian population in Iraq but they do not want to explain how it happened. They also don't want to mention the role of the Vatican, its missionaries, the diplomatic and financial help from the French government which forced the other two Christian denominations into submission by enticing or forcing their members to join the Chaldean church.

Henry Lobdel who about the end of the 1800 spent a considerable amount of time in Mosul, Algosh and other towns of the Plain of Nineveh wrote: "Patriarch of the valley [Mosul and Nineveh] had gone over to the Pope and taken most of the people with him. The Papists [Chaldeans] had possession of the churches and the schools, the convents the revenues all the ecclesiastical property, so long as the fugitives adhered to the faith of their fathers [Church of the East] they could expect neither charity nor justice. They were denied the needful food, raiment, and shelter. Nay they were even refused burial in the churches that were properly their own. But if they would only turn Papists, not only charity but bribes were distributed with a liberal hand, "Forty thousand piasters of French gold are said to have aided the arguments employed to convince them [ to change] the identity of that church [Chaldean] with their own."[11] Faced with such discrimination also persecution by the Valli of Mosul instigated by the Catholic missionaries to force them into submission those who refused to join the Chaldean Church had no choice but to flee into the mountains.[12]

Rassam a member of the prominent Chaldean Church family admits that followers of the Church of the East were often forced to join the Chaldean rite through coercion. In one instance he writes: "It is extraordinary to state that the delegates of the Roman Church have not succeeded in converting the Nestorians of Shaikh to their dogmas, though so near a Turkish town, where former possess so much power under the protection of the French Government".The Roman Church often used the influence of the French government to encourage the Ottoman and the Kurds to terrorize those who refused to join the Chaldean church. Rassam adds: "..the Nestorians of Shakh told me that the Chaldean Catholics of Jezeerah, who were their co-religionist, had always tried through their influence with the local authorities to bully them into submission to the Pope".[13]

Such prctices prompted an Englishman of early 20th century to write: It is unfotunate that the Asiatic Christian "is a very undesirable creature, more bigoted than the most fanatical Muhammadan .....[his] attitude towards his coreligionist of different tenets can be only described as traitorous,"[14]

Those who became Catholic were gradually convinced that they were chaldeans not only religiously also ethnically. Anyone who dared to call himself Assyrian would be accused of being Nestorian. It is no wonder that there were no members of the Church of the East living in the plain of Nineveh before 1918, though before the mid 18th century the region was the power center of that denomination. From 1830 to the end of the world war one the Christian inhabitants of the Plain of Nineveh consisted mainly of members of the Chaldean Church and Syrian Orthodox Church, only for a brief period members of the Church of the East who had fled the massacres of Bader Khan in the mountains were allowed to stay in Mosul. While going to another church changes a person's religious beliefs it does not alter his/her ancestry or nationality.

Chaldean means nothing more than belonging to the Chaldean church. According to all sources including the Vatican. When Sulagga arrived in Rome he was first proclaimed patriarch of "Mosul and Athur" (Assyria) on Feb. 20, 1553 by Pope Julius III.[15] Roman documents also refer to Sulagga as the elected patriarch of "the Assyrian Nation".[16] This is a testimony to the fact that those who lived in the plain of Nineveh were considered Assyrians. The Carmelites in their Chronicle assert that Sulagga was proclaimed "Patriarch of the Eastern Assyrians" but on April 19, 1553 he was redefined as the "Patriarch of the Chaldeans".[17]

It was logical for the Roman Catholic Church to call the Patriarch of the newly established church by a name other than Assyrian because the inhabitant of the Plain of Nineveh were already known as Assyrians and were predominantly members of the Church of the East and Syrian Orthodox Church.

The name Chaldean was chosen for the new church and its followers to distinguish them from the other two denominations. They were called Chaldean to describe their religious affiliation just as members of the Church of the East were called Nestorians and those of the Syrian Orthodox Church were called Jabobites. The name Chaldean for a Christian Church could be justified based on the Old Testament claim that Abraham the father of the Jewish and consequently Christian religion lived in the so-called Ur of Chaldee in Mesopotamia, but it does not make those who attend it ethnically Chaldeans. This name was clearly chosen for religious reasons and not ethnic identity. It is unfortunate that it has led to  such historical confusions.

It took some time before the name Chaldean was used as substitute for Assyrian. After Sulagga's death there was an attempt to unite the two factions of the Church. Mar Obdisho Bar Yohanan Bet Maron of Jezireh succeeded Sulagga. He was unable to travel to Rome until late 1561. On February 19, 1562, Cardinal Amolis in a codex to the committee of the cardinals in Tredando introduced Sulagga's successor Patriarch Obdisho Bar Yohanan Bet Maron (1555 -1570) as "..The Patriarch of the Assyrians who has been elected by the clergies and approved by their people".[18]
Obdisho unlike Sulagga resided in Sarit. In letters from India to the Pope Mar Abraham a bishop of the newly formed Chaldean faction in that country continued to refer to Obdisho as the "Patriarch of the Assyrians" or "Patriarch of Assyria" . (Venerabili Fratri Abdisu Patriarchae Assyriorum sive de Muzal Pius Papa Quartus (1)". and "Abdisu Patriarca d' Assiria".) [


1. Assyrian Star interview;/ No. 5, September-October issue 1974.
2. Journal of the Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol 18, N0. 2, 2004, pp 5-49.
3. Parpola JAAS.
4. Josef Wiesehofer translated by Azizeh Azodi, "Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD p. 199.
5. Yoab Benjamin, " A Comparative Study of 'Abdisho's Paradise of Eden and the Makamat of al-Hariri", Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society, Vol. VIII, NO.1, 1994 p.57.
6. Hurmuzd Rassam, Assur and the Land of Nimrud, Cincinnati; Curts & Jennings, 1897 pp.. 173-74.
7. Abdel Rahman Badawi Ed. "Orosius, Tarikh Al 'Alam", Al Muassasa al Ararabiyya lil Dirasat wal Nashr, Beirut, First Edition, quoted by Fred Aprim in his Assyrians: the Continuous Saga.
8. Arian Ishaya, "B. Nikitine and the Assyrians", JAAS, Vol. VII, No. 1 spring 1993, p. 54.
9. Arthur John Maclean, " Grammar of Vernacular Syriac Spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan- Northwest persia and the Plain of Mosul", Cambridge University Press 1985 p. XIII.
10. ibid. p-XV.
11. Rev. w. S. Tayler, "Memoir of Rev. Henry Lobdel (Mission of the American Board at Mosul)", 1895 p. 166.
12. See Catholicism in the Plain of Nineveh in the middle of the page at:
13. Rassam p.389)

14- Soane Ely Bannister, "To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in disguise, with Historical notices of the Kurdish Tribes and the Chaldeans of Kurdistan", London 1912 p. 64.
15. Rabban, "Chaldean Rite", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. III, pp.427-428.
16. Xavier Koodapuzha, "Faith and Communion in the Indian Church of Saint Thomas Christians, Oriental Institute of Religious Studies, Kerala, India, p.59.
17. A Chronicle of the Carmelites in Persia and the Papal Mission of the XVII and XVIII Centuries, Vol. I, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1939.
18. Dr. Sarhad Jammo, "The Two Branches of Eastern Church," Bayn-Al-Nahrayn 95/96, Baghdad 1996 p. 196.
19. Sequens expositio excerpta est ex Archivio Vaticano, Archivio de Castello, Armad VII, cap. 5. N, IX) also (Ex Archivio Vaticano Secreto, Archiv. de Castello, Armad. VII, Caps. V. N. 9)