WASHINGTON — The genocide carried out by the Islamic State group (ISIS) has sought to wipe out the Christian peoples of Syria and Iraq from their ancient homelands, but also to destroy the historical identity of the survivors.
Hundreds of ancient Christian monasteries, churches and cemeteries have been leveled and countless manuscripts burned and lost to future generations. Even as it loses its grip on territory with battlefield loses, ISIS has committed military-grade munitions and bulldozers to destroy ancient Assyrian sites such as Nineveh or demolish the famous ruins of Palmyra, once the center of an Aramaean empire that challenged Rome.
But while the miracle of 3-D printing gives hope that even these artifacts, such as Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph or Nineveh’s famous lamassu (huge granite winged bulls), may be restored from the shards and pulverized dust of their originals, the Bible’s most ancient living witnesses — the Aramaic and Assyrian peoples — are completely irreplaceable, and their survival is a matter of grave urgency.
“We are a people on the brink of extinction,” Juliana Taimoorazy, a Chaldean Catholic and ethnic Assyrian, told the Register.
Taimoorazy, the executive director and founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, said Assyrians in Syria and Iraq are caught on the one hand between ethnic and religious cleansing in their ancestral lands by Islamic militants, and assimilation into the West on the other hand, if they are extracted from their homelands and not given the tools they need to sustain their language, culture and identity.
“We gave a lot to Christianity as Eastern Christians, and we gave a lot to humanity as the Assyrian people: Our history is 6,700 years old, and we established the first library in the world, among other contributions,” she said. After the Assyrians received the Gospel from St. Thomas the Apostle, they spread it as far as India and China.
The sustained presence of these Assyrian and Aramaean Christians, both Aramaic-speaking peoples with ancient histories, in their ancestral lands of Syria and Iraq is also essential for the identity of the entire Catholic Church.
“We need them for our roots,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told the Register in an interview after returning from a visit to the Church in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, where more than 100,000 Christians expelled from the Nineveh Plain by ISIS have taken refuge. He explained that it was imperative for the Church in America and the West to be invested in their survival, by having their parishes pray for them daily and stepping up advocacy and material support. If the Church fails to take care of them, he warned, “they will despair and leave.”
“These are our roots, and we see them displaced, see them threatened and see them wondering about their very survival,” he said, adding that the Christians are heavily dependent on support from Catholic agencies like Catholic Relief Services, Aid to the Church in Need and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Creating a Safe Haven
Taimoorazy said the Assyrians need “a serious presence” in their ancestral homeland of the Nineveh Plain of Iraq in order to survive as a nation with their language and culture.
“All these Christians, these Assyrians, say: ‘We will go back to our homes if we’re protected by international forces and if we’re protected by our own people,’” she said.
Building a safe and secure home for Iraq’s Christians is, at last, starting to make its first real steps toward a concrete reality. Rob Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting positive Christian involvement in the Middle East, said he is working on completing a “white paper” by the end of May that will finally provide a blueprint for State Department officials and Capitol Hill lawmakers, explaining step-by-step how to turn this safe haven into a concrete reality.
“We need to make the idea credible and tangible in those circles that matter,” he said.
The idea is that a minority province situated in the Nineveh Plain for all the “Suryaya” — a name that encompasses ethnic Assyrian and Aramean Christian peoples — can be put into action swiftly after ISIS falls.
For the safe haven to be a reality, Nicholson pointed out that it requires a diaspora community to make a conscious effort to pass on its language, traditions, culture and memory to the next generations.
“There has to be a vision of returning,” he said. In this regard, the Jews have provided useful lessons for how a diaspora community can be uprooted from its homeland for nearly 2,000 years and eventually return. He noted that Jews, every Passover, say “next year in Jerusalem,” and this helps keep their identity alive.
“We need to have a ‘next year in Nineveh’ for the Assyrian people,” he said.
Encouraging the Diaspora Communities
While other diaspora communities such as the Chaldean-Catholic churches are more established in the U.S., due to a spread of 30 years of immigration, the tasks are daunting for many of the Syriac Catholics who were driven from Iraq and Syria by ISIS and other Islamist militants.
“We have come here as broken pieces,” Bishop Yousif Habash, who leads the Syriac Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance in Newark, N.J., told the Register.
“People are making real efforts to sustain our history, language and liturgy,” he said. “We are making marvelous efforts to survive.”
The Syriac Catholic Church is one of the Eastern Churches formed from Christians that descend from the Aramean tribes that once spread throughout the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia and concentrated in Aram (modern-day Syria), overlapping with the Assyrians. The Syriac Church itself was also very close to the Jewish Church in Jerusalem, celebrating the Liturgy of St. James the Just, the apostle who was martyred around A.D. 65.
Bishop Habash explained that St. Peter founded their church in Antioch and said that, according to the Syriac tradition, Jesus corresponded with Aramean King Agbar V of Edessa and sent the king a portrait of his face miraculously impressed on a cloth.
Bishop Habash praised the U.S. bishops for giving Syriac Catholics and diaspora Christians such a warm welcome. But he said that the big challenge that they face in sustaining their communities, physically and spiritually, to “keep them under the tent of the Syriac Catholic Church,” is a serious lack of resources.
Because so many were fleeing persecution, they left behind the money and property needed to build their churches and a new life in the U.S.
“We are here to stand and give witness for the Christian faith,” he said. “We told ISIS, ‘You can take everything, but not our faith.’”
What they have been able to accomplish so far, he said, has been due to the heroic sacrifices of their people, who are still looking for jobs to support their families and learning the language and customs of the U.S., as well as from some generous benefactors who choose to remain anonymous.
The bishop is hopeful that more dioceses will come forward with closed churches that they can make use of, and he is hoping to see the creation of a center for teaching and promoting the ancient Aramaic language.
“We need the help of others — the openness of others — to build a joyful world, a joyful life here.”
Symbol of Hope
The focus of the Christians of Syria and Iraq right now is survival.
“Restoring the people is the most important thing right now,” Taimoorazy said. “Restore these people’s spirit, and then comes the rebuilding.”
For the beleaguered Christians, there are signs and wonders amid the destruction of ISIS that give hope: Amid the bulldozed remains of the ancient Syriac-Catholic monastery of Mar Elian, the bones of the third-century martyr St. Elian were discovered intact.
Taimoorazy also said that something remarkable happened with the tomb of Jonah. When ISIS destroyed the Shiite mosque, it revealed the tower of the church, which had been built to honor the prophet and buried beneath the mosque for nearly 800 years — a unique sign of Jonah.
She said, “That is a symbol of hope that the Church can live on — if there are people there who will go on building.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.