Without a state, this persecuted Christian people, formerly known as Syriacs, has come together to ensure their continued existence
The World Council of Arameans (Syriacs) encompasses Syriac-Aramean organizations around the world. They represent a population that is scattered between East and West because of the persecutions that Arameans have had to face, especially after the massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century and more recently by ISIS. The Arameans are a people with no state; they belong to different groups and churches that began, years ago, to combine their efforts through an international lobby and are represented today in many parliaments and governments across Europe.
If Arameans were to have their own state, Mr. Johny Messo would be President. In an exclusive interview with Aleteia, Mr. Messo — a dynamic young man at the service of the Christian Syriac society around the world — talked about the Council’s latest news and updates.
Tell us about yourself and your work with the council.
In October 2008, I was elected President of the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs) – this is our name in Western languages (until 2012, it was Syriac Universal Alliance), but our name stayed the same in Aramaic (Huyodo Suryoyo Tibeloyo), Arabic (Ittihad as-Siryani al-‘alami) and Turkish (Dünya Süryaniler Birliği).
The WCA was founded in 1983 as a global umbrella federation. We have member organizations in the USA, Australia, Syria, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria. We have good relations with the Aramean people in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In the coming years, we expect to have member organizations from these countries too. We have a number of activities, ranging from establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations with parliaments and governments to identity and diaspora related questions among the Aramean people worldwide. Through Aleteia, we take the opportunity to call upon our fellow Arameans in the Arabic world – from Maronites to others, let us, for the sake of our amazing past — and our threatened future presence in the homeland — unite in Arameanism.
Two important projects which the WCA with its member organizations and other partners have initiated and completed are The Hidden Pearl: The Syrian Orthodox Church and Its Ancient Aramaic Heritage (2001; 3 richly illustrated books by renowned professors and 3 DVDs) and the documentary Sayfo: The Forgotten Genocide (2015). This last documentary which appeared on Dutch TV and has been translated into English, German and Swedish and has been shown in many cinemas in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Sweden and even at the UN in Geneva.
Since 1999, we have a Special Consultative Status as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. This allows us to be active at the UN Offices in New York City, Geneva and Vienna. Our focus is largely on Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which are our home countries. Themes we focus on include (but are not limited to) human rights, minority rights, indigenous rights, and humanitarian and development aid for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria and Iraq as refugees from these countries.
Tell us more about the Aramaic identity.
The Aramean identity is incredibly rich, but it is largely hidden, unknown and therefore unappreciated by most Aramean (Syriac) Christians themselves for different reasons. For example, because numerous Arameans in the homeland and diaspora countries such as South America are no longer able to speak Aramaic – only Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish or the language of the host country – they lost a critical emotional connection with the identity of their grandparents and forefathers. In addition to this important language loss, many Arameans have not been taught their history and cultural heritage. For that reason, the Aramean identity may appear as foreign to them and they have no idea how to assess the riches of their own cultural heritage. In fact, depending on the different church communities, some still have retained Aramaic in their liturgies – one more than the other. However, I dare say that the vast majority of the members of all traditionally Aramaic (Syriac) churches cannot read the books of their forefathers. Therefore, they cannot or do not want to study, understand and appreciate their own historical literature, which often contains the answers to many of their present-day questions – from identity issues to our declining presence in the homeland.
For example, what do we know about the important role our forefathers played in educating and enlightening the Arabs to whom they passed on ancient Mesopotamian and Greek sciences like philosophy and medicine?
Who knows that the original Semitic name for our people and language was “Aramean; Aramaic,” while our forefathers adopted the originally Greek-inspired name “Syrian; Syriac” (Suryoyo) after the late 4th century? Who knows that they understood and used these two names as synonyms and always remained aware of their Aramean roots, which they expressed in their own writings? (Other nations in the world who use two names, regardless of their distinct origins and how they look like or sound, include Persian/Iranian, Holland/Netherlands, British/English, Ottoman/Turkish, etc.). In fact, how many of us are actually aware that our forefathers identified “Aram,” a son of Shem mentioned in Genesis 10:22 as our ancient ancestor?
We often forget that our weak self-awareness and self-appreciation have a critical bearing on our present and future situation, both in the homeland and the diaspora countries where tens of thousands have already assimilated and many more are about to lose their Aramean identity. Because we know so little about our past, we keep making the same mistakes in the present and cannot secure our future presence in the homeland. Because we know so little about our own history, we keep talking with each other and with others about ourselves as if we have an identity crisis and don’t understand why we are divided into different churches or why we live in different parts of the homeland. We don’t realize that such negative self-talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the end. Instead, we must develop a more positive self-perception and start believing again, like our forefathers did, that we are able to develop a vision for our people and play a role again in our own societies, and even beyond our countries, if we just know ourselves better and believe in ourselves again.
Neither do we realize that ignorance of our own past and national literature are keeping us from reaching national unity by means of our original Aramean identity, which has been greatly shaped by our unique Aramaic language which has played a critical role in the history of the Middle East.For example, Aramaic was the language of different empires and it served for almost 15 centuries as the dominant language in the Middle East until it was supplanted by Arabic in the 7th and 8th centuries. In fact, Aramaic was the language in which Jesus Christ, His apostles and almost all our church fathers (irrespective of what church they belonged to) spoke, wrote, prayed, chanted, laughed and even cried.
What is your mission and what the Aramaic people want from the Vatican, and from the world?
As the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs), we are dedicated to answer the call to protect and secure the rights, liberty and equality of the Aramean people, safeguard and promote the cultural heritage of its ancestors, ensuring justice, and uniting all its people as a self‐determined and internationally recognized Aramean nation. Each of these components also finds support in international law, UN declarations and other international conventions.
We have been working with the Holy See at the UN in Geneva — we even organized an event together — and have good relations with them. Nevertheless, we hope to see the Vatican pushing still harder for the threatened presence of Christianity in the Middle East. His Holiness the Pope and all Ambassadors of the Holy See, who represent about a sixth (16.2%) of all people on this planet, could demonstrate a sense of urgency to the world with respect to this critical question that could shock and awaken governments, parliaments and mainstream media. Without a presence in the birth place of Christianity, the world will suffer a huge loss. Christians from the West may also lose the sources of inspiration for their religion and faith in the lands that gave birth to their much beloved faith and the first churches.
The Arameans ask the world for recognition of the past and present injustices done against them, such as the genocides of 1915-1918 and since 2014 by ISIS.
In addition, we also ask for support to help the diminishing Aramean population survive in its homeland.
However, the basis of these questions is recognition of our people as a people – not only are we a people in our own right, but we are in fact the indigenous people of Southeast Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. With such a recognition, we should be able to get a legal and acknowledged status in our homeland and the world, and thus appeal for support for our national questions. For example, why is there a National Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, who are worldwide recognized and receive billions (not millions) in aid from the international community, while the Arameans receive no recognition, no support and no protection?
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We should no longer be silent and accept to be ignored and neglected by the international community, especially if we see that other peoples receive — one could almost argue — preferential treatment. If the world chooses to remain indifferent and silent on our questions, we must keep working harder and harder until we break this deafening silence. We can only do so effectively when we begin to understand, recognize, embrace and appreciate our own past, present and future value as Arameans (Syriacs).
What is your message for our people the Aramaic people all around the world?
We must wake up and begin to embrace, appreciate, love and safeguard the Aramaic language, heritage and identity of our forefathers. We must wake up and begin to realize that our church communities, from Maronites to Syriac Orthodox, Chaldeans and others, are not competitors, but different reflections of the same faith that should be seen as an enrichment to the Aramean people just like other developed nations in the world have different religious and non-religious groups who contribute to the protection and well-being at large of their nations at large; we must see ourselves and each other as colorful, beautiful flowers in a unique Aramean garden. We must wake up and begin to realize that united we stand, divided we fall.
Moreover, we must also learn to see ourselves as more, as bigger than only different religious communities. We must see ourselves as one Aramean (Syriac) body, which can be called people or nation. For example, I may be Syriac Orthodox, but I equally appreciate our sister churches like the Maronites for example and cherish them as part of my national heritage. I feel that my identity gets so enriched by the amazing and inspiring histories of each of our distinct churches.
And what obstacles are the Aramaic people facing now?
We have external and internal obstacles. Externally, for instance, we have no state and receive no state support to protect the Aramean people or heritage in the homeland. Internally, the Arameans still must learn to organize themselves more effectively, ignoring who is more important or who has a higher position. Again, we must set aside our personal ambitions and gains, but realize that as individuals we are part of a collective. Without the Aramean collective, there is a small chance that we are able to survive as Aramean(Syriac) individuals. Without an Aramean collective, each Aramean will gradually adopt and assume a language, culture, (sur)names and even an ethnicity and ultimately probably also religious beliefs that are completely foreign to what their ancestors had built up.
Therefore, we must see ourselves as one Aramean (Syriac) body, realizing the crucial words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” If we replace the term “limb” or “part” here in our minds with “church,” we will immediately recognize the critical importance and the strength of our national unification – this latter term reflects the name of our NGO in Aramaic, Huyodo Suryoyo Tibeloyo, which stands for the Worldwide Union (which includes the ongoing process of Unification) of the Aramean body or people.