Patriarch Mar Louis Sako: Chaldeans-Suraye-Assyrians are brothers in diversity

BAGHDAD – In Iraq, the Suraye are the Syriacs, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Arameans. They are the ancient and indigenous people of Iraq. After the 2003 toppling of the Ba’ath regime, the new constitution recognized the Suraye under their Chaldean and Assyrian ethnicity. It was quite a task to agree on the inclusion of the Suraye people in the Iraqi constitution, i.e., not so much with the other non-Syriac and Muslim components in Iraq, but rather internally. Which name(s) should be included in the constitution? The winners were Chaldean and Assyrian. Syriac and Aramean lost out, although Syriac (Sureth), close to the Aramaic Jesus Christ spoke, was identified as the official language of the Suraye in Iraq.

In the last couple of decades, heated debates on name and common history have created distance and division in church life, social cooperation, and in the political landscape of the Suraye in Iraq and its diaspora. This is especially prevalent in the diaspora and increasingly so on social media where debates over the name have intensified. Century old-church divisions have played an important role in keeping these debates alive.

Since the start of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, its dramatic climax in WWI, the aftermath of this war, and the different waves of Suraye emigration to (mainly) the West, Suraye have tried to maintain their identity in the secular West. The Suraye started a long adaptive process of shaking off their Christian denominational references and emphasizing ethnic denominational references in adaptation to the concepts of state, people, and ethnicity which characterize the Western world (ironically, the West persists in calling the Suraye Christians where e.g., the neighboring Kurds are not called Muslims).

The Suraye in Iraq seem to generally agree on the common Mesopotamian history legacy and heritage, but disagree (yet) on what common name to use for their people – this is for example visible in articles of this website which frequently clusters the different designations in the name-chain Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian to indicate the Suraye people in Iraq. And where the Suraye have trouble agreeing on the common name, they also disagree on a joint social and political strategy in Iraq.

Here Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael Sako of the Chaldean Church comes in. In a recent message published on the patriarchal website, Mar Louis Sako takes up the topic of common roots of the Chaldeans-Suraye-Assyrians by emphasizing the need of a common political strategy.

His strategy of political cooperation respects each component’s own right, while emphasizing unity in diversity and kind. Mar Louis Sako has made statements in the past advocating the establishment of a Christian political platform or congress in Iraq that includes the many political parties, social organizations, and intellectuals in the scattered Chaldean-Syrian-Assyrian political arena, bypassing the name issue, and which would act as a joint authoritative body for the demands of the political, cultural, and constitutional rights of the Suraye in Iraq.

In his message, the Chaldean primate alludes to the continuity of distinct Assyrian and Chaldean empires and people. First, the political end and military dominance of an entity, empire, or kingdom does not mean that the Chaldean, Assyrian, Aramean, and Syriac people have ceased to exist, he states. Critics could argue that this is a pro-Chaldean argument. Mar Louis Sako and his Chaldean Church, by far the largest and most influential church in Iraq, have in the past been the subject of insults about (alleged) statements or Chaldean advocacy by the Patriarch and the Chaldean Church. Second, every individual or people has the right to determine their historical and ethnic affiliation and to name themselves according to how they feel. And no one has the right to determine or overrule that national identity or feeling of that person or people. This second argument gives everyone the freedom and the right to use the denomination as they see fit, and this choice should be respected.

Mar Louis Sako rejects the inflexible and intolerant claims in imposing one fixed and undisputed name for history and people. The Church leader seems not to endorse the group-under-one-name claims made by some Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political parties, social organizations, influential personalities, or individuals on social media, but puts it in terms of a brotherhood in diversity in kind. And giving every component its own right of existence; “From time to time, in the discord of voices that come to us, there are people who repudiate the historical diversity between Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs. They claim that all are Assyrians, or that all are Syriacs, or that these designations are merely doctrines, or that the Chaldeans and Assyrians are not descendants of the ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians.”*

The intolerant and often little scientific opinions, statements and claims do nothing to improve the current complex and disturbing circumstances that threaten the historical Suraya presence on the land of their parents and forefathers. It rather deepens the division between the brothers of seeking to reunite them. “I hope these people will stop these harmful and scientifically unfounded debates, accept and respect the national diversity, and work towards reunification and solidarity with each other in love,” Mar Louis Sako says.

And there is much to say in favor of the Patriarch’s arguments. Rather than sticking to fixed ideas, engaging in endless name unconstructive discussions, the establishment of a joint and strong e.g., Mesopotamian or Christian political platform would park or settle the name question (at least for now) and engage in what really matters, i.e., keeping the Suraye presence alive in Iraq. And the Chaldeans-Suraye-Assyrians must not pretend they have much choice. The water is up to their necks in Iraq. From 1.5 million Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians in 2003 to somewhere between 250 and 350 thousand today. And more are leaving unstable Iraq every day. Hence Mar Louis Sako’s plea is well worth pursuing.

And it is not impossible. Only last week, did we see the 5 Suraye Members of Iraqi Parliament join hands in their rejection and boycott of a vote in Iraqi parliament on amendments to the Federal Court Law to appoint Federal Islamic legal experts.

Such a united Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political body could (but not exclusively) build on the June 2017 Position Paper signed by most of the Chaldean-Suraye-Assyrian political parties. In the Position Paper they demand the establishment in the Nineveh Plain of a form of self-rule and self-defense (the Nineveh Plain Protection Units and the Nineveh Plain Forces are obvious candidates for the latter role).

The June 2017 Conference “A Future for Christians in Iraq”, of which the Position Paper is the final statement, was attended and endorsed by Syriac Patriarchs Mor Ephrem II and Mor Yawsef III Younan. Mar Louis Sako had indicated he would attend the Conference but seemed to have changed his mind and did not attend. Knowing very well that it will not solve all problems and will also generate new complex dynamics, it would be fitting for the Chaldean primacy to, in return, also support some form of self-rule in Iraq for the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians.

Considering the current downhill path, it is either that or more of below images in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains.

* Disclaimer translated from the original Arabic