The Contemporary Situation in the Middle East and the Diaspora

Despite significant migration waves, until the early twenty-first century the majority of Syriac Christians (apart from those in India) lived in the Middle East. Of the Syrian Orthodox, about two-thirds live in the Middle East and one third in Europe and the

United States. As for the Church of the East, the balance is only slightly tilted in favour of the Middle Eastern communities: about 52 per cent in the Middle East, about 10 per cent in Russia, Armenia and Georgia and 38 per cent in North America, Europe and Australia. The Syrian Catholic Church has one diocese outside the Middle East, for the United States and Canada, whereas believers are also found in Europe and Australia. About one third of the members of the Chaldean Church live outside the Middle East, mainly in the United States and France.

The country with the largest number of Syriac Christians is Iraq. Together with smaller groups of Christians (among whom are Armenians, various Protestant and Pentecostal denominations as well as a Latin-rite Catholic Church), the total number of Christians in Iraq has been estimated at about 600,000, around 2.5 per cent of the population. Of these, the Chaldeans form the majority (about 200,000), followed by the Church of the East (115,000) and the Ancient Church of the East (43,000; this is a group that split off from the Church of the East in 1968, among other things over the introduction of the western calendar). The Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic churches, which are about the same size, together number almost 100,000 members. For the Chaldean Church, Iraq always has been the geographical and political centre. Like his predecessors, the popular patriarch Raphael I Bidawid, in office 1989-2003, took up residence in Baghdad, as did his successor, Mar Emmanuel II Delly. In St Peter's Chaldean Seminary in Baghdad most of the Chaldean clergy receive their basic training. It is also the Chaldean Church, together with the Syrian Catholic and to a lesser extent the Syrian Orthodox Church, that has become the most Arabized church of the country. In the Church of the East, Aramaic has been retained to a large extent, not least because a large proportion of its membership lives in the north, where Arabic has less influence. Unfortunately, the Arabization of the Chaldean Church was consciously stimulated by the secularist and Arabic nationalist Baath regime, and encouraged the Chaldean leadership to associate themselves strongly with the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Church of the East in general was less involved here, and its members more likely to become involved in oppositional organizations such as the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), which stressed its Assyrian, non-Arabic identity. Especially after the Gulf War of 1991, Assyrian parties such as ADM became important in semi-independent Kurdistan, whereas the majority of the Chaldean Church had to cope with an increasingly difficult situation in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 stimulated leaders of both groups to overcome the at least partly artificial boundaries that had been caused by his regime. They started to speak of the 'Chaldo-Assyrians' rather than of Chaldeans and Assyrians. The Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics, although often preferring the name 'Syriacs' for their group, usually accept the name 'Assyrians' as a general epithet for the larger group of Syriac Christians. Since the mid-1980s, the situation of the Christians in Iraq has significantly deteriorated; migration continues to deplete the communities of many of their well-educated members. The situation in post-Saddam Iraq is even less stable.

In Iran, Syriac Christians form a small group of fewer than 20,000 people within an already very small Christian minority, which constitutes less than 1 per cent of the total population. One seat in parliament is reserved for the 'Assyrians', a name that unites the members of the Church of the East and the Chaldeans ('Catholic Assyrians'). Although life in general is safe and Christians are allowed a certain amount of freedom in their religious practices, the Islamic constitution of the country does not allow Christians to occupy high governmental or military positions. Restrictions in business are in place, and the juridical system favours Muslims over religious minorities. Most Syriac Christians live in Tehran, but sizeable Church of the East and Chaldean communities are still found in Urmia, which in the nineteenth century was the centre of the Church of the East in Persia. During the First World War, many Assyrians of Iran fled north to what was then Russia. Besides a considerable Assyrian community in Moscow, the now independent countries of Georgia and Armenia have sizeable Assyrian communities, many of which have retained modern Aramaic as their language of communication. Some of these Christians officially belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, but the Church of the East also has parishes in these countries.

In Turkey, the Church of the East and the Chaldean Church have all but disappeared, although many of their village churches in Hakkari still stand today, and a refugee community in Istanbul was formed in the last decades of the twentieth century. The Syrian Orthodox Church is one of the few communities to have survived not only in the major cities, but also in its homeland Tur cAbdin. After the cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish government in 199) 9, conditions for the Christians improved, leading not so much to a re-peopling of the ancient villages as to increasing numbers of Syrian Orthodox visitors from abroad in the summer months. These visitors add to the liveliness of the region, contribute to the maintenance of churches and monasteries, and morally support the small remaining Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic communities.

In 1924, in the aftermath of the First World War, the patriarchate of the Syrian Orthodox Church was transferred to Syria, first to Homs, later to Damascus (1959). The latter city has become the centre of Syrian Orthodoxy worldwide, not only because of the new initiatives of Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I cIwas (from Iraq, in office since 1980) such as the new seminary in Macarat Saydnaya, not far from Damascus, but also because Syria has the largest community of Syrian Orthodox worldwide, about 170,000 people. A considerable number of these came from Tur cAbdin after the First World War, mostly settling in the north-eastern diocese of J azira (in and around the towns Hassake and Qamishli) and in Aleppo. The latter city already had a strong Syrian Orthodox community dating back to the early days of Christianity, comparable to the Syrian Orthodox communities of the dioceses of Damascus and Homs in western Syria. The Jazira region also became the new country for the Assyrians who were driven from the Hakkari mountains in south-eastern Turkey in the First World War, thereby adding Syria to the places where a considerable Church of the East community is found (about 20,000). About 26,000 Syrian Catholics live in Syria, mainly in Aleppo and Damascus. At the time of writing, Syria and Jordan also provide shelter to Iraqi Christians who fled their country in 2003 and 2004.

The last country to be mentioned as an important place for Syriac Christianity is Lebanon. Apart from the Syriac roots of the Maronite Church and to a certain extent also of the Greek Orthodox Church, all Syriac churches have sizeable communities in this country, albeit mostly due to nineteenth- and twentieth-century migrations. Despite the fact that the Syrian Catholic community in Lebanon is smaller (with about 23,000 people) than those of Syria and Iraq, the country has become an important centre for the Syrian Catholic Church. Patriarch Ignatius Moussa Daoud, in office 1998-2001, succeeding Ignatius Antoine II Hayek, became Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in Rome. He was followed by Patriarch Ignatius Peter VIII, who resides in Beirut (Charfeh), where there is also a seminary.

Besides immigrant communities of Syriac churches in Egypt, Kuwait, Oatar and Jordan, the Syriac communities in Jerusalem and Bethlehem deserve to be mentioned separately. Although many of the present-day Syrian Orthodox are descended from recent migrations from Turkey, the Syrian Orthodox Church has a long history in both places, going back to early Christianity. The ongoing tension in the region has been especially hard on the Bethlehem community, most of whose members have left the country. St Mark's monastery in Jerusalem attracts visitors and pilgrims from all over the world, as does the Syrian Orthodox chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of the East no longer has a church or chapel in Jerusalem.

The Church of the East is the only church whose patriarchal see is no longer in the Middle East but in the diaspora. After years of exile in Cyprus and Great Britain, Mar Shimun XXIII Eshay (1920-75) settled in the United States, around 1961. After his assassination in San Jose in 1975 (by another Assyrian, probably for (church) political reasons), his successor Mar Dinkha IV, who was the first to be canonically elected in 1976 after centuries of hereditary succession, moved the patriarchate to Chicago; from here he endeavoured to maintain good relations with all countries where Assyrians lived. The community in the United States and Canada, about a 100,000 people in 1996, is divided between California (San Jose, Modesto, Turlock) and the Chicago region. As mentioned above, the Syrian Orthodox and the Chaldean Church also have considerable communities in North America. In South America, especially in Brazil, Syrian Orthodox communities are found, most of these dating from the early twentieth century. In Australia, communities of Syriac churches were formed in the 1960s and 1970s, and were considerably strengthened by a migration wave after 1992.

The Syrian Orthodox communities in Europe, most of which were formed in the 19 70s and 1980s, for the most part consist of Syrian Orthodox from Tur cAbdin. The Mor Ephrem monastery and the Mart Maryam cathedral in Glanerb rug in the Netherlands developed into their European centre. Close to the German border, its extensive cemetery has become a popular site for burials of Syrian Orthodox believers from both countries, while its press, the Bar Hebraeus Verlag, caters for the needs of scholars, clergy and the faithful. Two other monasteries in Germany add to the spiritual vivacity of these diaspora communities, which consist of at least 50,000 people. Apart from smaller communities in Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and England, the community in Sweden is significant, consisting of about 40,000 people concentrated mainly in the southern Sodertalje region. The Assyrian Church of the East is also present in Sweden, whereas smaller communities, most of which came into being after the Gulf War of 1991, are found in Germany and the Netherlands. Chaldeans from Turkey and Iraq had already migrated to Europe before that time, especially to France and Belgium.

In all four churches, leadership is basically in the hands of the patriarchate and the patriarchal administration, whether it is located in or outside the Middle East. However, the Synod of Bishops, in which the metropolitans and bishops of the diaspora dioceses become more and more influential, has important legislative powers in all churches, for instance in the appointment of bishops and the election of a new patriarch. In addition to the hierarchy, heads of families or larger groups play a significant role in the leadership of the community as a whole. The church leaders in particular are concerned about the ongoing migration, because in the diaspora the links with the Church tend to loosen while the communities in the Middle East become weaker.

Since about the mid-1990s, the possibilities of cheap and easily available means of international communication (mainly internet, but also increased access to the telephone and to air travel), have set off important changes within the Syriac communities worldwide. The increased exchange of news and ideas between the various diaspora communities and the churches in the Middle East fuelled the debates on ethnicity and denominational belonging, inducing members of all communities to explore the meaning of 'Assyrian', 'Syrian', 'Chaldean', 'Aramean', and 'Christian'. Until the late twentieth century, converging and diverging tendencies apparently balanced each other, but more recently the converging trends seem stronger. As already stated above, this is partly to be attributed to the situation in Iraq, where the 'Chaldo-Assyrian' group strives for a strong, united, Christian party, but this development apparently ties in with changes in the diaspora where young people from all these churches find each other at gatherings and meetings advertised under an 'Assyrian-Aramaic' flag.

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