Introduction

The Syriac churches are among the most intriguing and fascinating sections of the eastern churches. Their heritage encompasses Greek and Jewish, Roman and Persian, western and eastern elements; this multiplicity of sources forged a number of different churches, each with its distinctive features. Generally speaking, the Syriac churches are those that trace their origins to the Syriac-speaking and Syriac-writing Christian communities of the fourth to seventh centuries in the region now covered by Syria, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. These are the Maronite Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Church. The members of these churches today are dispersed all over the world, but have their homelands in the Middle East and south-western India (Kerala). In India, besides archdioceses of the Syrian Orthodox Church and of the Church of the East, additional Syriac communities are found, such as the Syro-Malabar Church (Catholic, Church of the East rite), the Malankara Orthodox Church (Syrian Orthodox rite, independent), the Mar Thoma Church (the result of a nineteenth-century reformation), the Malabar Independent Syrian Church and the Catholic Syro-Malankara Church. All of these have their origins in the Indian Syrian Church, which, at least between the eighth and the sixteenth century, was subordinate to the patriarch of the Church of the East. In this chapter, I will concentrate on the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East, and in addition pay attention to those branches of these traditions that are in union with Rome, i.e., the Syrian Catholic Church and the Chaldean Church. The Indian churches and the Maronite Church will be treated in other places in this book. Figures supplied by church leaders suggest that the total number of Christians of the various Syriac traditions towards the end of the twentieth century was more than 2.5 million. Of these, a little over half belong to the Syriac churches in India. Of the remaining 1.3 million people, about 400,000 belong to each of: the Syrian Orthodox Church outside

India, the Church of the East and the Chaldean Church; 100,000 belong to the Syrian Catholic Church.

In these four churches, Classical Syriac, the language shared by all churches of the Syriac tradition, is in active use, although at different levels in the various churches. In the Syrian Orthodox Church, Classical Syriac, called Kthobonoyo (originally the term for the written 'book' language), is not only the language of liturgy and classical theological literature, but is also used for speaking and writing, especially among the clergy. Alongside the languages of the countries of the diaspora, such as English, Swedish, German, Dutch and French, which are used within the communities and to a limited extent also in the liturgy, the languages of the home countries in the Middle East play a large role in all four churches. Of these, Arabic is the most important. In the Syrian Orthodox, the Syrian Catholic and the Chaldean churches, Arabic not only functions as the language of daily communication of many of its members but is also used in the liturgy. Among the members of the Church of the East, a modern variety of Syriac, often called Sureth by the people themselves but also known as North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic, is used not only in speaking, but also for writing and publishing. The Central Neo-Aramaic language of eastern Turkey, Turoyo, spoken by many members of the Syrian Orthodox Church, has never quite managed to reach the same level of acceptance as a literary language, but to a limited extent is used in writing, especially in diaspora communities in Sweden.

One of the most sensitive issues within the Syriac churches is that of a shared ethnic identity and the nomenclature used to denote that shared identity. The twentieth century saw the birth of 'Assyrian nationalism', through which mainly lay opinion leaders in the Syriac churches (sometimes including people from the Maronite community) of the Middle East tried to stress a common, non-denominational, secular and non-Arab identity, based on the belief in a common descent from the ancient Assyrians. The development of such an ethnic identity was stimulated on the one hand by secularization and modernization in the Middle East from the late nineteenth century onwards, on the other hand by the late twentieth-century western diaspora situation, where the older religious and denominational identities from the Middle East did not fit into existing categories. Understandably, this shift in emphasis from a religious Christian identity to a secular ethnic identity was not very well received by a large part of the clergy, although the level of acceptance differed from church to church and from region to region. Within the Church of the East, this reformulation of identity was the most easily accepted, leading to the addition of 'Assyrian' to the official name of the Church. Within the Syrian Orthodox Church, acceptance in the early years of the twentieth century, especially in the communities in the United States, was relatively widespread, but this development was brought to a stop by the clergy half a century later. An alternative 'Aramean' identity was developed, in which, through lack of great Aramean empires, more space was left for the Christian aspect of such an identity. Among the Chaldeans, who in general were much more integrated into Arab Iraqi society than their counterparts of the Church of the East, either identification with secular Arab (rather than Muslim) nationalism took place (as was also the case in some circles of the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic Church in Syria), or a distinct 'Chaldean' identity was forged. In recent years, ecumenical developments in the diaspora

(see below), as well as the changing political situation in Iraq following the toppling of the Baath regime in 2003, led to a compromise between the two groups by advocating a 'Chaldo-Assyrian' identity, in order to make as strong a case as possible in the new Iraq.

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