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Friday, 28 March 2014

AINA - "Will the Assyrian Orthodox Church Split After the Death of the Patriarch?"

By Augin Kurt Haninke, 2014-03-27

Stockholm (AINA) -- On the same day I received the news that Patriarch Zakka had passed away in a hospital in Germany (AINA 2014-03-21), I was invited to a cultural event organized by the St. Augin Association in Sweden, in support of the eponymous monastery in Turabdin, Turkey. I received a bouquet of flowers from the association's president Iskender Gabrielsson in recognition of my translation of St. Augin's biography into Swedish. I gave a short acceptance speech and also expressed my condolences on the patriarch's death, which I concluded with the following message: "Let us hope that his successor will work for the well-being of both the Church and the nation."

The Syrian Orthodox Church is split into two rival factions. One wing is anti-Assyrian and hides behind an "Aramean" identity and has gained an increasing foothold in the Church. The other faction rejects any ethnic imprint on the Church, Aramean or Assyrian. A bitter feud over the new patriarch is expected. The main actors are the bishops who are entitled to vote at the synod which will elect a new patriarch, but behind the scenes different interests are at work, such as the Ba'ath regime in Syria and the Turkish government, who is keen to move the Patriarchal See from Damascus back to the Zafaran Monastery in Mardin, Turkey.

Hostile regimes in the Middle East have always attempted to infiltrate the Assyrian churches, with varying degrees of success, since they have great power over their respective parishes. The goal is of course to alienate the Assyrians from their ethnic identity and make them identity themselves as Christian Arabs, Christian Turks or Christian Kurds. The Barzani clan in northern Iraq is the latest among the actors using this strategy, but the Kurds have no direct influence over the Syrian Orthodox Church, unlike the Baathist regime in Syria and the Turkish government.

Different bishops have probably already started plans to take over the patriarch's office and an intense power struggle behind the scenes is what we can expect. The church and its congregations are already divided into two main factions, as a result of the deceased patriarch's policy of forming new and competing archdioceses. The actors in this power struggle are using the name conflict among the Assyrian people as an instrument of their power ambitions. The "Aramean" side is claiming that bishops and parishes that do not support them are followers of the Assyrian side. The Aramean faction's clergy openly attack the Assyrian movement both in their preaching and in various anti-Assyrian media. Bishops who support an "Aramean" identity and their parishioners are happy to cooperate with various hostile forces to change everything named Assyrian to Aramean -- perhaps soon even the church's name as well. This anti-Assyrian faction equates the Assyrian word suraya1 (meaning Assyrian) with "Aramean" and displays the so-called "Aramean" flag on church premises and on its roof in many places in the world.

This may be the start of a split within the Syrian Orthodox Church. Even a hundred years ago a group in India left the Church to protest against the patriarch's actions. The Assyrian Professor Ashur Yousef criticized Patriarch's policy in strong terms in an article in 1914. Before that, the Syrian Catholic Church broke from the Syrian Orthodox Church. The most famous split occurred in the end of 14th century when city of Turabdin, Turkey formed its own patriarchate. In 1839, nearly 500 years later, they would reunite under the same patriarch.

No faction among the bishops to elect a new patriarch will want to settle for half the cake -- it will fight for the whole. But if it can't succeed a split may become a reality. The new patriarch will be very important for the Assyrian nation. If he remains neutral and focuses on managing the internal affairs of the Church, there will be harmony. An anti-Assyrian patriarch will increase tensions within the community.

The experience of the last three patriarchs shows that even if a bishop is an Assyrian patriot he may change sides and become an opponent of the Assyrian national movement. Before we get into potential candidates, it is useful briefly review the three previous Patriarchs.

In January 1933 Bishop Afrem Barsom was elected in his diocese in the city of Homs in Syria, which was then a French Mandate. Thirteen years earlier, he had demanded a free Assyria at the Paris Peace Conference. But the Great Powers who won the First World War betrayed all their promises and Bishop Barsom was deeply disappointed. The Patriarchal See had now move from the Zafaran monastery in Mardin to Homs as the new Patriarch was no longer welcomed in Turkey. He had confronted Turkish representatives about the Assyrian genocide, Seyfo, and was declared by Turks a persona non grata. He eventually began to cooperate with the Arab nationalists in Syria to drive France out of the country. 1946 Syria became independent. As patriarch Afrem Barsom hoped that the remaining Assyrians who had survived the genocide would find peace and safety in the Arab country of Syria.

His later transformation was stunning. He no longer spoke in terms of an independent Assyria, but became an anti-Assyrian of the first degree. He began a smear campaign against the Assyrian name. He claimed afterwards that Assyrian was synonymous with Nestorian (Eastern Assyrians) and asserted that it was the British who had given the name Assyrian to the Nestorians of Hakkari, Turkey2. Even today anti-Assyrians in Sweden and other countries claim the term Assyrian applies only to the Eastern Assyrians. In March, 1920 Bishop Barsom met with Lady Surma, the sister of the Eastern Assyrian Patriarch, in London and said that "our people had come a step closer to unity." But in 1947 he issued a patriarchal decree forbidding his congregation from cooperating with Nestorians "because Nestorius was still banned."

In December 1952 Patriarch Barsom ordered the three churches in the United States, which he himself had consecrated in 1927-1928, to change the name Assyrian Orthodox Church to Syrian Orthodox Church. This created major tensions and conflicts among Western Assyrians in the United States. In recent years, two of those churches were renamed to Syrian or Syriac, but the third is registered as a foundation that prohibits changing its name. Thus there is now a single Syrian Orthodox church in the world which in English is called Assyrian Orthodox Church. It is located in Paramus, New Jersey.

1957 Barsom was succeeded of Patriarch Yakub III. The Assyrian patriot bishop Dolabani held the synod's opening speech and gave his support to Bishop Yakub, who won by just one vote. The other candidate, Boulos Behnam, was one of the most educated bishops in church history, but Dolabani preferred bishop Yakub because he was considered to be an Assyrian patriot. Four years earlier bishop Yakub had written a book about the history of the church in which he said in the preface that the church nationally belongs to Assyrians and Arameans who had given the civilization to the world. But as patriarch he soon began acting against the Assyrian national movement and in 1977 he nearly banished Assyrian leaders in Sweden.

Patriarch Zakka Iwas took office in September 1980 and promised to introduce more democracy in the church. His predecessor was known as a dictator. Patriarch Zakka introduced a system in which each bishop had a free hand to take care of his diocese in the best way. This was abused by bishops Cicek and Abboudi in Europe. They created major conflicts among the Assyrians when they refused to perform religious services to members of Assyrian Associations. The patriarch had probably no involvement in this.

Another struggle for power within the leadership of the Church in Sweden led to the patriarch contributing to a brand new division within the church. Bishop Abboudi had been driven away from Sweden when the church's central board published tape recordings revealing incriminating information about him. He was succeeded by Bishop Abdullahad Gallo Shabo in 1987.

But in 1990 a new power struggle flared up when Bishop Shabo demanded transparency in the church's finances. That led to his banishment from the church. He gathered around him members who were unhappy with absolutism in church governance, and managed to remain in Sweden. Several delegations of bishops visited Sweden and met with both sides to report to the patriarch. The general opinion of all who had followed the development was the Patriarch would take action against the civil church council which had driven out its bishop. There were also rumors that the old church board planned to join a splinter group in India. It is said that the board also had purchased an ambulance as a gift for those in India. But the decision by the patriarch was not forthcoming. Meanwhile, Bishop Shabo's opponents became directly subject to the Patriarch. After a few years Patriarch Zakka decided to appoint a new bishop to the old board and in February 1996 the split was sealed when Bishop Benyamen Atas became known as patriarchal deputy. Since then there have been two distinct camps within the same church with their own bishops. Both are registered as Syrian Orthodox Church, but one side uses the name Syrianska Orthodox Church on their church buildings. The two episcopals are located just steps away from each other in the town of Sodertalje, Sweden. The system of two or more episcopates soon spread to other countries.

Read the full article at AINA here:

Will the Assyrian Church Split After the Death of the Patriarch?

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