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As Refugees Stream Out of Middle East, One Exiled Church May Be Headed Back

SAFIN HAMED / AFP
The newly-elected Catholicos-patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Gewargis Sliwa speaks after he was elected by the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East during a ceremony at Saint Youkhana church in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on September 18, 2015. Mar Gewargis Sliwa was elected by a council of Prelates and will succeed to the late Mar Dinkha IV under the ecclesiastical name Mar Gewargis III. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED
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Assyrian Church of the East elects a new leader, and they are already building his home in war-weary Iraq

As hundreds of thousands of people stream from war-torn areas of the Near East and Africa into Europe—and Christian leaders are desperately trying to keep their flocks in their ancestral homelands—the home base of an ancient Middle Eastern Church may be retuning to the troubled region.

Since 1940, the seat of the Assyrian Church of the East, a Church with deep roots in Christianity, has been outside of Chicago due to political trouble in the early 20th century. But with the election of a new patriarch on Sept. 18, there is a good chance the patriarchal seat will be moving to Erbil, in the north of Iraq.

Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where tens of thousands of Christians have been living as internally displaced persons since the Islamic State invaded Mosul and other towns in the summer of 2014.

It was also the location for the Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East for two days last week, which gathered to elect a successor to Mar Dinkha IV, who died in March in Minnesota. Mar Dinkha had led the Church of the East for 39 years.

The synod elected Mar Gewargis Sliwa III, who has overseen the Church in Iraq, Jordan and Russia. He was the only Assyrian metropolitan still residing in Iraq.

Mar Gewargis (Mar is the term for bishop) will be consecrated at St. John’s Cathedral in Erbil on Sunday, Sept. 27.

Born in 1941 in Habbaniya, Iraq, Mar Gewargis studied in Baghdad and in the US and was ordained a priest in June 1980. In 1981, in Chicago, Mar Dinkha consecrated him Metropolitan of Iraq, Jordan and Russia. Since then he has been headquartered in Baghdad, where he has witnessed political upheaval, displacement and persecution of Assyrians.

The Church is also present in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Australia and India.

Pope Francis sent a message of “good wishes and prayerful solidarity” to the new patriarch. The Pope added that it is his prayer that he may be an inspirational pastor and “an untiring builder of peace and harmony, serving the common good and the good of the entire Middle East,” according to Vatican Information Service.

“I join your Holiness in prayer and solidarity with all who suffer because of the tragic situation in the Middle East, especially our Christian brothers and sisters and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria,” the Pontiff wrote. “With you, I ask the Lord to grant them strength so that they may persevere in their Christian witness. In expressing gratitude to Almighty God for the bonds of fraternity between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, I hope and pray that our continuing friendship and dialogue may be further developed and deepened.”

One Assyrian American, David Arkis, told Aleteia that members of the Church have mix reactions to the news that the patriarchate may be moved back to the Middle East. “That is understandable due to a safety concern and the instability conditions in Iraq,” Arkis said. “I would advocate moving the patriarchate to northern Iraq (Erbil)—it will lift up the morale of the Assyrians, and Christians in general, and of what is remaining of them in our homeland, Iraq.”

The Church of the East fell out of communion with Rome in the 5th century over a Christological dispute. It survived over the centuries in spite of the rise of Islam in the 7th century and several schisms, including the formation of a Catholic counterpart, the Chaldean Church.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association describes more recent history:

During World War I, the Assyrians suffered massive deportations and massacres at the hands of the Turks who suspected them of supporting the British enemy. About one third of the Assyrian population perished. Most of the survivors fled south into Iraq, hoping to be protected by the British. But in 1933, after the end of the British mandate in Iraq, a clash between Assyrians and Iraqi troops ended in another massacre and a further scattering of the community. The Iraqi authorities then stripped Assyrian Patriarch Mar Simon XXIII of his citizenship and expelled him. He went into exile in San Francisco, California, USA.

The patriarchate moved to Chicago in 1940. Since 2006, the Church has been building a new patriarchal residence in Erbil.

Mar Dinkha, who died March 26, was born in 1935 in a village near Erbil. He later became bishop of Tehran, Iran, and was elected patriarch in 1976.

In 1994, he and Pope St. John Paul II signed a Common Christological Declaration at the Vatican. The statement affirms that Catholics and Assyrians are “united today in the confession of the same faith in the Son of God,” Catholic Near East Welfare Association explained. The Pope and Patriarch also established a mixed committee for theological dialogue and charged it with overcoming obstacles that still prevent full communion. It began meeting annually in 1995.

In 1996, Mar Dinkha also signed an agreement with the then-leader of the Chaldean Church, Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid, in the hopes of working toward reintegration.

 

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

 

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Christians in the Middle EastIraq
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