There are many reasons to respect an Assyrian political leader, perhaps because of their genuine desire to focus the will of this nation toward a common good, be it the unity within a small Syriac-Assyrian community in Sweden or the re-establishment of Assyria in the Middle East. Yet most of us feel inclined to respect Yonadam Kanna because of something rarely any other modern Assyrian political leader can claim as his own – risking one’s life in the streets of Baghdad and catapulting the Assyrian name into the arena of the Middle Eastern politics.
Yonadam Kanna made history by challenging a dictator and plunging this hibernating nation into a civil war over its uncontested identity. Twenty five years after he raised a fist in Baghdad against Baathism and for the struggle which began decades before his times, Zinda Magazine names Yonadam Kanna as the Person of the Year 6753. As evident by the majority votes cast by our readers and for having the greatest impact on the lives of the Assyrians around the world, clearly no single Assyrian person has achieved so much public recognition in the recent history as Yonadam Kanna did in the previous year.
Mr. Kanna is the embodiment of a new kind of Assyrianism that most of us are no longer familiar with – one that combines round-the-clock diplomacy with the historic enemies of the Assyrian people and the “numbers-over-names” policy which has polarized the Assyrians as never before. This new sense of the self promoted by the leadership of the Assyrian Democratic Movement comes as a surprise even to many of the Zowaa comrades in Iraq and abroad. The result is a counterweight to the indigestible Assyrian politics of the last 20 years.
Facts: the Kurds killed the Assyrian Patriarch and have until very recently massacred and assassinated the Assyrians. The Chaldeans are Assyrians who converted to Roman Catholicism and are now encouraged by their Church to assume a separate national identity. Syriac is a term used to denote a form of Aramaic language. Yonadam Kanna’s response to these essentials of the Assyrian socio-political identity: Accept thy Kurdish neighbor, love your Chaldean brother as yourself and respect Syriac as the cultural fiber of your inherent nature that differentiates you from your Moslem neighbor. In short, take a chill pill and let me deal with this mess in Baghdad until further notice.
His antagonists have called him a Kurdish puppet, a Marxist freedom fighter, opportunist, traitor, and our staff’s favorite – a sell-out. In truth, Mr. Kanna is a realist, a tactician par exellance. He carefully walks the thin line between historic truth and modern reality, certain of the weight placed on his shoulders. We all watch his interviews, read his brief comments in the news, and attend his public rallies. We simply cannot get enough of him. Thanks even to the commentators on the AssyriaSat, we have no choice but to learn more about his influence on the political arena of the Assyrian nation. Yonadam Kanna is everywhere. Only when you think that you know Kanna intimately, he will surprise you with an unexpected move. He crosses the thin line and quickly steps back to give us the illusion of his unadulterated determination to bring the Assyrian struggle to the finishing point. Most of us like to believe that he will; in fact most of us ignore the warning signs and just watch him continue his walk.
Yonadam Kanna has been enjoying the photo opportunities of the last 18 months while plannings for bigger roles for himself in the new Iraqi government. He and his ADM advisors in Europe and the United States are carefully fashioning utilitarian policies that will bring greatest good to the greatest number of Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq. It is this unorthodox behavior that troubles most of us who are reluctant to allow tainting of our struggle for a territory in Mesopotamia and the historic Assyrian identity for the sake of greatest good for the maximum number of political partisans. Welcome to the new Assyrian politics!
Long after his relentless power struggle in Baghdad, history will have much to say about Yonadam Kanna. Whether he is reviled or respected for his policies, one thing is certain that he has forever changed the landscape of Assyrian politics and has galvanized a new generation of Assyrian activists and nationalists around the world.
Zinda Magazine congratulates the Honorable Yonadam Kanna, Secretary General of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, and the members of Zowaa on Mr. Kanna’s selection as this year’s Person of the Year.
Rev. Kenneth Joseph Jr.
The Long Predicted Exodus of Christians from Iraq has begun. Facing a June 30th deadline for transfer of power, a `Temporary Constitution` that reads in Article 7 , `Islam is the Official Religion of the State` and the most recent humiliation for the community - the failure to receive even one position on the Executive Council and only one Ministry Post - the Ministry of Emigration , the Christians of Iraq are making plans to leave Iraq.
On a recent night the Church had to spend more time on filling out the Baptismal forms needed for leaving the country than they did on the service. ` says Amir, a deacon at a local Church who does not want his name published.
We have been flooded with parishioners desperate to leave the country and as they cannot get an exit permit without a Baptismal Certificate from the Church we have been swamped with requests.
In recent days nearly 400 families as far as we can tell have filled out Baptismal Forms to leave the country - our community is being decimated.` he continues.
Most of the Christians in Iraq are Assyrians - the original people of Iraq. The Assyrians were the people of Nineveh - present day Mosul - where Jonah in the Bible came.
As the original people of Iraq and due to the fact that they are not Arabs, are Christians in a sea of moslems and by the simple fact that they are Christians always seen as allies of the West they have been subject to long persecution.
The Assyrian Church - known officially as the Assyrian Church of the East, is the oldest continually existing Church in the world, and the people are the only in the world who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
During the Assyrian Genocide, early in the 20th Century it is estimated that nearly 2/3 of the Assyrian people were slaughtered in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
According to figures from the previous regieme there were 2.5 million Assyrian Christians in the country with an estimated 3.5 million outside the country for a worldwide total of as many as 6 million, many of which would return to Iraq if they had a future.
"We thought the Americans were going to bring us Freedom and Democracy" says 31 year old Robert. "Instead, they are promoting Islam. We do not understand it!"
"We love the Americans! We are so grateful for them removing Sadaam and giving us back our freedom. We do not want their effort to be a failure if the disctatorship of Sadaam is replaced by the dictatorshio of Islam."
The American funded TV Station, Al Iraqia broadcasts moslem programs four times every day and for two hours each Friday but nothing for the other religions. The recent inauguration of the new government was opened by a moslem mullah giving a long message from the koran and and prayer, but none of our Priests were invited at all. Why do they do this? Why do the Americans promote moslems? They need to promote equality and democracy and freedom, not moslem dictatorship!
"Iraq is becoming a moslem country! What happened to the American promise to help it become a democracy that would be a place for all to live? This is our homeland! We are the original people of Iraq! We should not have to leave!", he continues.
The community is working on two projects - one to establish a 24 hour nationwide hotline to provide security for the daily acts of intimidation that is much of the cause for the panic and a nationwide network of `safe houses` to take care of the community, when as they believe following the handover Iraq descends into chaos and civil war.
"We are having to take care of daily cases of harrasment of the Assyrians by the moslems," says Father I. I just got back form helping one of our parishoner who was falsely accused by a neighebor and about to be arrested. I had to go and sort it all out.
"Our women are accosted on the street and intimidated to start dressing like moslems, our business are being burned and the constant harassment is because of the attitude of appeasment towatrs the moslems.` he continues.
In addition a proposal for an 'Assyrian Regional Government' based on Article 54 of the Transitional Administrative Law is being circulated in Iraq and in Washinton in a last ditch effort to persuade the community to stay.
We want to stay! This is our homeland! But if we do not have a place where we can go, if we will be daily persecuted by the moslems again we cannot stay. We are appealing to the world to help us - to guarantee us an area where we can be protected, where we can live in peace and where we can worship in freedom.
Will the world listen?
`The American Taxpayers are paying for the propagation of Islam in our country. We think this is different than the ideals of democracy, freedom of religion and a just and fair society` says 32 year old Remon George
I sat in the Inauguration Ceremony room, first enduring a long winded, completely unacceptable and out of place sermon and long winded prayer by a moslem mullah who seemed to be wearing tennis shoes.
It is up to us!
[Zinda: Please note the fax numbers & addresses of the U.S. Congressional representatives, government officials, and the Iraqi Interim Government members below.]
Concerned Congressional Committees
State Department ..................................................................................................2201 C St. NW, Washington DC 20520
Statement of the Assyrian Patriotic Party Defies ADM Leadership
(ZNDA: Baghdad) In a statement released on 3 June the Assyrian Patriotic Party calls the current situation in Iraq as "the poor and 'orphaned' representation of the Chaldean Assyrian Suryani nation". The statement goes on to say: "This does not corresponds to the great part our people took in building Iraq's civilization, whether in the past, present, or our everlasting commitment for its future by working closely with all Iraqi people Arabs, Kurds, and Turkoman."
In response to the appointment of an Assyrian to the post of Iraqi Minister of Immigration and Refugees, the APP's Political Bureau writes: "Why is it that we were assigned a poor and powerless Ministry when Iraq is full of capable and professional Chaldean Assyrian Suryani people? ... as if we are a Diaspora nation despite the fact that it was the unfair policies of the successive Iraqi governments that forced our people to leave Iraq and disperse around the world."
At the end, the APP Political Bureau holds the Iraqi Governing Council, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the United Nations responsible for "the unfair results", and specifically points to the Hon. Yonadam Kanna who "imposed his rule and control and undermined all our institutions and organizations."
The APP statement is expected to widen the gap between the Assyrian Democratic Movement and other Iraqi-based Assyrian political parties. At press time the Assyrian Democratic Movement has not made any official response to the APP statement. With the dissolution of the Iraqi Governing Council, on June 30th the highest ranking Assyrian position will be held by Mrs. Pascal "Sooriya" Esho. Hon. Yonadam Kanna's future role in the Iraqi government remains unclear.
Some observers believe that the Interim Iraqi National Assembly, which will be elected in July of this year, will comprise of around hundred people, that may include the former members of the Iraqi Governing Council, namely Hon. Yonadam Kanna. A reliable source to Zinda Magazine in Iraq said last week that Mr. Kanna declined a Ministry position in order to serve in the Interim National Assembly (Majlis Watani mu'Aqqat).
The Interim Iraqi National Assembly (Majlis) will oversee the activities of the Iraqi Cabinet (Ministers); give advice and recommendations to the Executive Branch of the Iraqi government (President, Vice Presidents, Prime Minister, and Deputy Prime Ministers). The Assembly also has the right to replace any of the Executive Branch members if and when necessary, and question the actions of the Prime Minister and any Minister in the cabinet. The assembly has the right to veto any decision by the Executive body if two-thirds of the members of the Assembly agreed on such action. The Interim Iraqi National Assembly will prepare the nation for the national elections in Iraq in January 2005. As a result a 'permanent' Iraqi National Assembly will be created to draft and uphold the permanet Iraqi constitution.
Turkey's Ancient Christians Seek to Resettle Villages
Courtesy of Agence France Presse
(ZNDA: Tur Abdin) The ancient Syriac Orthodox monastery outside Mardin is praying for a brighter future as Christians, forced out of their ancestral lands by economic hardship and an armed Kurdish insurgency, start trickling back to their villages.
"It is our pleasure to have our people back from different parts of the world," said Archbishop Filuksinos Saliba Ozmen at the Deyrulzafaran Monastery, which dates back to the 5th century and sits on a bluff overlooking an extensive plain.
"By the grace of God they are coming back. Otherwise we would lose everything, the entire community," he added in his office adorned with pictures of late archbishops and patriarchs.
The Syriac Orthodox community, one of the world's oldest Christian denominations, whose original congregations also settled into what is today Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, numbered some 50,000 to 60,000 members in southeastern Turkey in the 1960s.
Many left for Europe in the 1970s for economic reasons. Emigration to countries such as Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden ballooned over the following decade amid heavy fighting between the army and Kurdish rebels seeking self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
"We were caught in the middle of the clashes," Ozmen said.
The community now numbers 20,000-25,000 with most now living in Istanbul.
Recently some Syriac Orthodox families in Europe decided they would try their luck and return to villages they had abandoned, as the insurgency has almost died out after rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire and took refuge in neighboring Iraq in 1999.
The rebels however issued a statement over the weekend threatening new attacks.
"The situation now is at least safer than before. We have been struggling, working for it to get better," Ozmen said just before that statement was issued.
Also bolstering the community's hopes was an official government call in 2001 for the Syrian Orthodox community to return and a guarantee they would not be hindered from doing so.
Turkey's drive to join the European Union is another influence on the return of this Christian community, as the mainly Muslim country strives to ensure religious freedoms and democratic rights for its minorities in order to join the EU.
Ozmen explained that of 12 Syriac villages abandoned in the region, only one, Marbobo, had been rebuilt and resettled after eight families returned.
Reconstruction was under way in two other villages, Kafro and Arbo, while plans were being drawn up for the rebuilding in some six other villages in the surrounding rugged hills, said the archbishop.
"The authorities are helping us with getting water and electricity to the villages. We are planning to receive some young families", said Ozmen. "If we get five percent of the Syriac community back, it would not be bad," he added.
But all is not rosy. The archbishop pointed to the difficulty of keeping alive the culture of the community which uses Aramaic, the language spoken at the time of Jesus, in its liturgy.
The Syriac Orthodox were not recognized as an official minority in 1923 when the Turkish Republic was founded - unlike the Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities - leaving them without the right to open official schools.
The community resorted to sending their children to Turkish state schools during the day and afterward to informal schooling in both Deyrulzafaran as well as in the Mor Gabriel Monastery - the oldest monastery in the world - in the nearby town of Midyat.
"That is why we would like to see Turkey in the EU to live better and practice our culture better. We, as Christian minorities, have a great task in establishing ties between Turkey and the European Union," said Ozmen.
(ZNDA: Sydney) The office of His Grace Mar Meelis Zaia, Bishop of the Church of the East for Australia and New Zealand confirmed in a statement last week that the recent rumors regarding his actively promoting emmigration from Iraq to Australia are untrue and unsubstantiated. In a letter written by Mar Meelis to Mar Giwargiz, Bishop of Iraq, the former categorically denies any effort on his behalf to encourage Assyrian emmigration from Iraq to either New Zealand or Australia.
"I am unhappy to know that there are families in Baghdad and elsewhere being sacrificied because of such untrue information, selling their properties and planning to leave for Jordan and Syria" writes Mar Meelis in his letter. Mar Meelis continues to write: "There are no doors open for emmigration to Australia or New Zealand." Mar Meelis pleas Mar Giwargis in his letter to contact other bishops of the Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church to discourage any such attempts by the families in Iraq.
Last week during a ceremony in Baghdad, Mrs Pascal Esho of the Assyrian Women's Union was selected as Iraq's Minister of Immigration and Refugees. Sources to Zinda Magazine in Baghdad indicate that the spread of such rumors days before the appointment of Mrs Esho may have been an attempt to reduce the chances of the appointment of an Assyrian into this highly visible post in the new Iraqi government and also encourage the emmigration of Christians from Iraq and North Iraq in particular.
[Zinda: To view copy of Mar Meelis' letter in Assyrian (Syriac) click here.]
Passion of the Christ Inspires Passionate Interest in Aramaic
Courtesy of the AsiaTimes
According to a Biblical scholar, Aramaic and its dialect have been in use as a liturgical language among Christian communities in Kerala for centuries. But now, inquiries to learn the basics of Aramaic have been pouring in from Europe and America.
Mar Aprem, Metropolitan of the Assyrian Church of the East (pictured here), heads one of the smallest but most ancient Christian Communities in India. He is the author of the book, “Teach Yourself Aramaic”, and believes that the release of the film, “The Passion of the Christ” could be a reason for the increased demand for learning the language. Mar Aprem’s doctoral thesis, the ‘History of the Assyrian Church’, said there was a jump in the sale of his book after the release of the film.
According to him, about 1.5 million people around the world know Aramaic, the present variants of which are slightly different from the tongue used by Christ. He says Aramaic is not a difficult language to learn grammatically, though more difficult than English or Malayalam, the languages commonly spoken in Kerala.
According to Mar Aprem, Aramaic has only 22 letters in the alphabet beginning with ‘alap’. Being a semantic language, Aramaic is written from right to left. He said his church has about 100 works in Aramaic in its library, including a 16th century hand-written prayer book written by a native of Kerala, and a text on Canon Law believed to be compiled by Mar Abdisho in the 13th century. Besides universities, including some in India offering courses in the language, a world symposium is held on Syriac every four years in different centres of learning. According to one theological expert, Aramaic is an ancient language with a history of its own and is not derived from Hebrew, as many believe. “The word Aramaic comes from Aram, the son of Sehm, according to the Book of Genesis”. Aramaic language and its variants had been in use in Kerala churches for centuries.
Dr (Fr) Augustine Kanjamala, a native of Kerala and the Director of the Institute of Indian Culture in Mumbai, stated that according to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kerala is 52 AD. Pro- Thomasin’s believe that St. Thomas initially came to evangelize the migrant Jewish population settled in Cochin, (a prosperous city even those days). Like any other migrant group, these Jewish settlers would have spoken Aramaic among themselves. Aramaic and its deriving dialects have been transmitted down the centuries through their descendants. Hence the Aramaic language in varied dialect still exists among the local Malayalam population today. Another tradition holds that the use of Aramaic-Syriac dialect could be the result of the migration of Christians from the Middle East to Kerala during the Roman persecution in 3rd to 4th centuries. Dr. Augustine said in his student days pre-1960’s mass in Kerala was in Syrian, which is the more developed form of Aramaic.
The Church in Kerala faces its own rank disputes. Some say the Syrian Catholics feel superior over their Latin rite brethren, as being the original beneficiaries of St. Thomas the Apostle. It was mainly the Brahmins and upper classes of society who were the first to convert to Christianity. Later conversions were the fruits of Catholic missionaries, but to the Latin rite.
Kerala, popularly known as ‘God’s own country’, boasts of incredible scenic beauty, but also Portuguese-built churches, Jewish synagogues and churches of a number of different Christian rites. More than 20% of the population is Christian.
Dr George Habash
Yonadam Kanna showed us his true face as a Kurdish puppet and the price for this is the loss of our second struggle in advancing our cause for the Assyrian nationhood in the land of ours.
Humanitarian Aid from New Zealand Reaches the Homeland
In April 2004, two Assyrian Aid Society-New Zealand Excecutive Committee members; Emanuel Dawood and Mounir Toma, visited Atra (the homeland) carrying AAS-NZ’s annual contribution of US$10,000.
Later in May, the two AAS-NZ delegates along with representatives from AAS-I purchased two mini-buses to transport ChaldoAssyrian pupils/students to and from their schools in the plain of Nineveh. One bus is allocated to Bakhdeda and the other to Shekhan and its surrounding ChaldoAssyrian villages.
This project was adopted by AAS-NZ after the return of its president Ashoor Yalda from Atra last year.
The Syriac-Mesopotamian Library at Örebro City, Sweden
The Syriac-Mesopotamian Library and Archive, located in the same building as the City library, was created through the joint efforts of the Örebro City Library and the Syriac-Mesopotamian Library and Archive Association. The project leading to the foundation of this special collection began 2001.
One of the objectives of the Örebro City Library is to reflect the interests and needs of the society it serves. The Syriac community represents one of the largest and most established groups of immigrants within the city of Örebro. The Syriac-Mesopotamian Library will function as an archive and research centre, and will be open and accessible to students, scientists and individuals interested in Mesopotamian culture, the Syriac language and literature.
The collection consists of books, periodicals, documents, photographs and audiovisual material. It has been created through individual gifts, donations and loans of materials. The libary is located at:
For further information please contact:
Got to Say Something Right Now?
242 delegates representing the following institutions participated in a Congress held in Brussels between 14 and 15 May:
On the first day of the Congress the draft of the constitution was presented to the delegates and was accepted through democratic elections. According to the constitution, the name of the new organization is the “European Syriac Union (ESU)".
Then the president and the executive council of the union were elected. The president was elected first and then 18 members of the board as well as 12 deputy members of the board, altogether 31 members of the board, were elected as the Board Council of the ESU in separate ballots. Later, the Managing Board Committee selected six members of the Board as the Executive Committee of this organization. The Executive Committee consists of following persons and their tasks:
President...................................................................................Mr. Iskender Alptekin (Switzerland)
Numerous guests and representatives of the press joined the delegates for the second day of the Congress. Mr. Iskender Alptekin, the chairman of the European Syriac Union, started the second day with an inaugural address. After explaining the goals of the ESU he presented the Managing Board to all participants.
Professor Dr. Herman Teule, Director of the Institute of Christian Orient from the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands)
The Syriacs are one of the oldest people if the Middle East. They appeared in the year 4000 B.C. with different names and at different times. Starting from 2350 B.C. they formed political states, empires and kingdoms under the names of Akkad, Assyria, Babylon, Aram and Osrohene (dynasty of Abgarits). The Syriacs are one of the first people who converted to Christianity. Because of their particular civilization and Christian characteristics they spread their culture in the entire Middle East.
For more than 1600 years the Syriacs have been persecuted due to their Christian faith. Although they had no political power they could retain their existence. The events of the First World War, which took place within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, took a great toll on the progress of this people. At that time hundreds of thousands of Syriacs were massacrated and foreced out from their homes. Afterwards they were excluded from the political re-organization in the Middle East. In the period between the First World War and the end of the Cold War, the Syriac people confronted complete extermination. The policy of the great forces, directed and determined in the Cold War, was driven by oil and led to the non-consideration and isolation of the Syriac people. While in the region the rulers were determined, there were no democratic conditions for the Syriacs in the whole Middle East, which could ensure their future existence. Due to the unstable and uncertain situation and the constant suppression they had to leave their homeland into all four directions.
In the last 40 years active emigration of the Syriacs to the Wesern European countreis has taken place. In Europe the Syriac people could develop and become active in social and cultural fields, and found numerous associations and federations. Due to these political and social movements, that took place for 10 years, the consciountous search for an ethnic identity was once again conceived and promoted. Furthermore innumerable demonstrations, hunger strikes, political, cultural and social events and actions were organized, in order to refer to the persistant suppression for hundreds of years of the Syriac people and to terminate the current discrimination and persecution. Therefore, the demands for democratic rights could develop within the Syriac people.
On the other hand the demands of our people were published on the agenda of the European parliaments and other platforms. Therefore a necessity became apparent. Because the legitimately entitled rights of our people had to be transmitted more professionally to the responsible international authorities. Due to this challenge and due to the global change process taking place now, and their requirements of the Syriac people, the European Syriac Union (ESU) was founded. The scope of the ESU will be in the context of the European right terms.
The goals of the European Syriac Union (ESU):
1. To represent the Syriacs in the homelands of the Middle East and in the Diaspora.
We believe that the Syriacs could play an important role in the democratization of the Middle East because the Syriacs are an integral component of the Middle East and Europe. The Syriacs living in Europe for the last 40 years are integrated in the European society and could therefore act as a bridge between the cultures of the East and the West. This point of view and confidence rely on the historical experiences and values, which could be won in the last years of our movement. Additionally the Syriacs could participate due to their peaceful and friendly relations to all denominations in the Middle east in the construction of a democratic environment. Therefore we are convinced that in this way the understanding of friendship, brotherliness and the mutual confidence between the Orient and Occident could grow and could be spread widely.
[Zinda: Our special thanks to the staff of Renyo Hiro magazine in Sweden].
Assyrians & the Army Intelligence Inquiry into Abu Ghraib Tortures
Courtesy of the Signal.com
Three months after it completed its investigation of military police at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Army has launched a full investigation of the military intelligence personnel who oversaw them.
Pope Zakka on Preserving the Ancient Language of Aramaic in a Modern World
Courtesy of the Daily Star
(ZNDA: Damascus) With the recent release of the film, "The Passion of The Christ," Aramaic has likely been heard by more people in the past months than in it's entire history. Once the vernacular, it is now reduced to subtitles, spoken daily by a few. The man in front of me has a less brutal way of keeping the language alive.
Patriarch Zakka sits in a gold encrusted chair in a fading cathedral in the Old Quarter of Damascus, but the power of this holy man is not contained in a chair. Or in his extensive title: His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas. The power of Pope Zakka rests in words.
Pope Zakka is the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church, the planet's second oldest church, founded by the Apostles.
As intriguing as the longevity of the institution, is its charge to keep alive Aramaic, the language in which Christ spoke. That is, the words in which The Word spoke.
Words have consequence, but few take words as seriously as Pope Zakka.
We all know one phrase in Aramaic: Abracadabra. Childish magical gibberish to the rest of us, loosely translated from Aramaic it has a vastly more serious meaning: "Create what I speak, or, May my words be brought to life." These are not men who dangle their participles.
The church has come within a breath of extinction at least twice in its long history, and its survival is a miracle.
In the 6th century, following doctrinal splits in Christology, the church was down to three tattered bishops hiding underground from persecution.
Empress Theodora, daughter of a Syriac Christian priest and wife of the Byzantine Justinian, intervened, giving the green light for Jacob (after whom the church is often mistakenly named) to establish missions and bishops throughout the East, into Arabia and Ethiopia.
In the early 21st century, the church and the language so intimately linked to it again struggles to survive. This time it has found an oddly modern ally; the internet.
"The most important thing is that Aramaic was spoken by Our Lord Jesus Christ," the Patriarch says. "That's why we love it. It has been the liturgical language of our church from the beginning of Christianity and, of course, it was the ancient language of Syria before Islam. That's also why we love it. And we feel it is our duty and responsibility to keep it alive because we can't imagine that, one day, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ will be forgotten. It's something we can't imagine."
Monks and holy scholars have kept the flame alive for almost 2,000 years, but can they survive the tornado of Western culture?
Syria has been isolated from much of the recent technology and communications boom and it is yet to be seen what will happen to these protected enclaves when exposed to global culture and technology.
I asked the Patriarch whether he fears this will be the final demise of The Word of God?
The internet, with its disrespect for man-made borders, is his ally.
"Technology has always been with the human being," he states. " Those who believe the world was created by God, they will always be loving God through Our Lord Jesus Christ."
With the help of technology - and the savvy leadership of the Patriarch - Aramaic is undergoing revival among members of the Syriac Orthodox Church connected across the globe and scholars attracted to its cerebral mission.
"We have many scholars here and there," the Patriarch says with enthusiasm. "And they learn the language and they teach it and, of course, we are proud of those people, too. And grateful, too. Yes."
Although he admits he doesn't fully understand the new technology, Pope Zakka visited Los Angeles to bless it.
The Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch, formed in the time of the Apostles, has its own website, with libraries, chatrooms, youth groups and CDs of liturgical music for sale through Amazon.com.
Pope Zakka has his own page where you can access copies of his encyclicals and writings. The Syriac-Aramaic language project has a worldwide center that the peripatetic Apostle Peter, first Bishop of the church, would definitely approve of.
For the Patriarch also, globalization and technology are positive developments.
When asked about the commercialization of the globe and the loss of individual identity, he shrugs it off. I'd forgotten that Syrians are hard-wired as world traders - just check out the chambers of commerce from Buenos Aires to Brisbane. The first in formation highway was the famed Silk Route which moved goods and ideas from one side of the known world to the other and terminated in Syria.
The Patriarch immediately identifies the positive and sellable side of Damascus.
"We may not have McDonald's here," he says, "But we have much to offer. The spirit. Nature. This city is a blessing of God. We call it the City of Saint Paul, of course, because when he came to Damascus, he had the experience of the faith."
Apostle Paul is instrumental in explaining the openness of the Syriac Orthodox Church toward technology and new ideas. The church was grafted from Jerusalem onto Antioch, the former capital of Eastern Rome (now Antakya in south-eastern Turkey), by Aramean and Gentile converts among the local Greek population. A simple and central act of the Antiochians inspired Paul in his writings on inclusiveness: converted Gentiles and Jews broke a pre-Christian taboo by eating together at the same table.
The locals coined a new term for these peculiar church members - "Christian" - and thereby introduced a new word into the planet's lexicon.
Inclusiveness has contributed to the quiet survival of the church and the preservation of the language. The Patriarch greets the advent of Westernized culture with the same careful openness.
"We have Coca-Cola here, already," he continues on his discussion of globalization. He shrugs. "It is the same all over the world. If they don't have Coca-Cola, for example, they have something similar to that. People always try to get the best."
He adds, quietly: "I think we don't have our lives in the bread. We have it in the spirit. That's something very important."
The Patriarch's concerns about the future are larger than fast food and Western movies, or even about the continued existence of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Syria. His concern is for the continuation of the church on this planet.
"What does peace look like to you?" I ask the holy man in front of me.
Ceremonially poised until this question, he now slumps. He sighs deeply and grinds his forehead with the foot of his palm.
"Ayyy. Peace, you ask?" he says, slowly. "Peace is a tired, old man."
His Holiness knows all about being tired. Even the boon of technology cannot reduce the weight of a long history.
"Let me say," the Patriarch continues after a sigh, "in my opinion, first there must be peace with God."
According to the Patriarch, peace between God and humankind has already been given through Christ.
Globalization, advances in science and technology, faster communications, these we chase after out of novelty and need. They will each impact our present lives and the future of our planet in ways we are just beginning to understand, but they will not bring peace. As the Patriarch says: Peace is a given. It is we humans who don't accept the gift.
[Zinda: Yvonne Seng, author of Men in Black Dresses: Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East, is a cultural historian specializing in the Middle East and Turkey.]
I am Tiglath-Ramsin, senior scribe to the King of Assyria and the Royal House of Sargon. It is now 3 years after the fall of our great capital city, Nineveh. Here in Harran, in the corner of our nation, I write for our displaced King, Ashuruballit. I have been the senior writer for the past 10 years, and my ancestors have been richly rewarded for their royal writings over the ages. My father and my father’s father also did Akkadian writings for the Royal House. Even before Sargon, the legitimate king as he is called, we wrote for royalty. My great grandfather worked for Shalmaneser V, who was overthrown by Sargon, who was only the Governor of Nineveh at the time. Our commitment to the Royal Assyrian household goes back to the time of Hammurabi of Babylon. Supposedly, my oldest ancestor wrote for King ShamshiAdad of Assyria over 1000 years ago! Can you believe that? We are still going strong in the Malik family! Now something you should know is that while other scribes write in Aramaic, I still write primarily in the traditional Akkadian. Akkadian is a symbolic Assyrian language like that of the Egyptians (who use hieroglyphs). Few speak Akkadian today although it isn’t uncommon to hear it from those who read rites in the temples and churches of our nation. You can hear it too during any prayer or religious ceremony, even those outside buildings. Take the Royal Lion Hunts for example. All of those ceremonies, where the King praises the courage of the dead animals are done in Akkadian. Perhaps it pleases God more if we speak his language, the language of Akkadian. But the truth of the matter is that Aramaic is the language of modern Assyria. The power of a phonetic language such as Aramaic has become clear to us all, even people like me. It is not unusual these days to hear people refer to the language of our lands as Assyrian Aramaic. One day, they will just call the language Assyrian I am sure.
My friend, Tarkan, is an Egyptian scribe and like me he writes in the ‘old’ language for his Pharoah. We compare notes and talk about how we write. My writings for the King are always so very different depending on where it is going. For example, when I write on the Royal Campaigns, I generally write on clay reliefs some of which will be installed in the palaces. These are formal and very boring. I just list the King’s victories, his ancestry, how great he is, and how many temples he fixed. But the papyrus writings I do are always interesting. Those are written with great frequency and are sent to the corners of the empire to explain actions of the King or to promote a new political policy. They are also preserved in royal archives, which is the part I do. If there is a new Safari Park, a religious development, some astronomical occurrence, or world event they are transmitted in communiqués, first in Assyrian, then translated into Akkadian for the Royal Archives. The only Aramaic I write involves any treaties that are formed. I am an expert in International Law, and therefore I am often called to draft this language. This can often be in the form of guarantees, and rights of succession. My father and grandfather for example wrote all of the Esarhaddon succession letters whereby leaders of countries signed a statement promising their allegiance to Esarhaddon and acknowledging publicly their support for Ashurbanipal’s succession as King. That stuff got a bit obsessive frankly, but it was interesting. To clarify, the basic rule about what I write is that if it’s written on clay, I will be the only one doing it. But if it’s written on papyrus, and it will be in Assyrian Aramaic, then it won’t be me…unless of course the subject is international law.
Today at dinner, the Pharaoh told our King a joke, supposedly the oldest joke known to man! I wasn’t at the dinner but Tarkan told me the story a few hours ago. 2000 years before the Fall of Nineveh is how old the joke was! Can you believe it? Well it was a pretty funny joke actually although supposedly most Assyrians just laughed hard to please our king and our Egyptian allies. The joke was told to an old Pharoah, Sneferu. Sneferu, the chief magician of the Pharoah, told the original joke to the Pharoah himself. “How do you entertain a bored Pharaoh?” asked Djadjamankh. “Well, you sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishnets down the Nile, and urge the Pharaoh to catch fish!” Hehe. It is actually funnier now I am writing it, than when it was told at dinner, but we Assyrians prefer the zany jokes to the naughty ones preferred by Egyptians. Perhaps this is because woman are nowhere respected more than in Assyria. Whether in Calah, Nineveh, Arbela, Nimrud, or even the more traditional city of Assur, women have property rights and marriage rights. Some women hold some of the highest offices in Assyria. The head of the Department of Liquor Control is always a woman, and she is responsible for setting all rules regarding liquor consumption, as well as controlling its flow and price.
Well tonight I am tired, as I have written many communiqués as we try to inspire people to join our cause to retake our lands from the barbarians. Every day that passes we hear of some atrocity or some wanton destruction of antiquities. It is a crying shame that our country is in the state that it’s in. It is a backward step for humanity and for civilization. No more freedom of religion, no more free trade, no more cultural respect and diversity and no more respect for our planet and the other creatures that live here. When Nineveh fell, even the creatures of the earth moaned to know that the Assyrians – the guardians of nature – would no longer be there to protect it from the evils of a selfish man.
Be well my fellow Assyrian. We will speak again soon, when I will uncover the Akkadian writings of my ancestors, and we will explore some of our glorious and free history once again…
[Zinda: The Chariot is a representation of historical facts about Assyria, presented in a likely context that has been created by the author.]
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