The Syriac Orthodox Community in the Netherlands
Originally published on August 27, 2021, on hlmvandenberg.me
By Heleen Murre-van den Berg Professor of Global Christianity, director Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen
In various places in the Netherlands, Turkish and Moroccan migrants are commemorating their 50th anniversary in the Netherlands these years. The Syriac Orthodox community in the Netherlands too has its roots in the 1970s, because the first Syriac Orthodox migrants came as guest workers, just like Turkish Muslims and Armenians, mainly to work in the textile industry in the east of the Netherlands. However, also the fact that the situation for Christians in the east of Turkey was rapidly deteriorating played a role for the first migrant workers: Syriac Christians were caught between a rock and a hard place in the violent struggle between the PKK and the Turkish army. They soon applied for refugee status in the Netherlands, as they did in Germany and Sweden. Many were granted refugee status, as were the Syriac Orthodox refugees who engaged in opposition movements in Syria in the 1980s. Today, through family reunification, natural growth and ongoing migration, the community in the Netherlands is estimated to number about twenty-five thousand.
In recent years, the community grew by 500 to 1,000 persons who fled the civil war in Syria. Most of them settled in Twente, where eight parishes of the Syriac Orthodox Church can be found in Enschede, Hengelo, Oldenzaal and Rijssen. In addition, there are two Amsterdam parishes and one in Badhoevedorp. The Dutch bishop, Mor Polycarp Augin Aydin, resides in the Mor Ephrem Monastery in Glane near Enschede (Van Slageren 2018).
In this contribution I would like to introduce this now well-established community in more detail. On the basis of an overview of their long Christian history, the position in the Ottoman Empire and the genocide of 1915, I conclude with the current transnational and politicized situation of the Dutch community.
Ancient Christian Community
For today’s Syriac Orthodox, the long and continuous history of their ecclesiastical community in the Middle East is a source of pride, but above all a resource that is constantly drawn upon to renew their tradition. This history goes back a long way: the oldest Christian texts in Classical Syriac – the Aramaic language that continues to be the language used in the liturgy – date back to the late second century AD, and important texts such as the Peshitta, the Syriac Bible translation, – and the hymns sung written by poet Ephrem (“the Syriac”) belonging to the third and fourth centuries. At that time, Christianity was widespread in the region we now call the Middle East. Aramaic-speaking Christianity was present in the region that today includes Lebanon, Syria, southern Turkey, and northern Iraq. Some of the important monasteries, such as the Mor Gabriel Monastery in south-eastern Turkey, were founded during this early period.
In the first centuries AD there was no separate Syriac Orthodox Church with its own episcopal hierarchy. The separation started in the fifth century after the Council of Chalcedon (451) declared the “miaphysite” (previously often “monophysite”) Christology as heretical. This miaphysite Christology had much support in the Aramaic-speaking churches in the Syrian territory. Unlike the majority at Chalcedon, the Syriac and Egyptian theologians and church leaders preferred to describe the divine and human natures of Christ as merged more emphatically into an inseparable unity at the Incarnation. According to them the Chalcedonian compromise – “unmixed, unchanged, undivided, unseparated” – which intended to do justice to the dyophysite position, left room to distinguish the two natures, though not to separate them.
After Chalcedon, gradually more and more pressure was put on local bishops to conform to the imperially approved Christological formula. This pressure led to the formation of counter-hierarchies in both Egypt and Syria in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. In Egypt, much of the church eventually ended up in the miaphysite church which became known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. Syria remained divided, but the Syriac Orthodox Church which then emerged gained a sizable following, in the interior of Syria, in central and eastern Turkey, and later in northern Iraq (Van Rompay 2018, Murre-van den Berg 2007).
In part even before the separation from the Byzantine Empire Church, but especially after, a rich body of church literature emerged in Classical Syriac, with its own liturgy, hymns, and elaborate theology. Many of the works written in this language are still read and sung today – including the hymns of Ephrem the Syriac and, in particular, Jacob of Sarugh (late fifth, early sixth century) and Barhebreaus (thirteenth century). Building on this body of church literature, new hymns, theological works, and stories of saints are being written until this day. This is often done in Classical Syriac, the main liturgical language in Syriac Orthodox parishes. At the same time, other languages were and are being used, depending on the spoken languages of the faithful and the cultural languages of the environment: Greek in the earliest period, Arabic and Persian after the rise of the Islamic empires, Turkish in the Mongolian and Ottoman periods, and today all European languages, including Dutch. In the Netherlands, in addition to Dutch and Arabic, a modern variant of Aramaic is also used – usually called Surayt and sometimes Turoyo. This is the language that many of the Suryoye speak at home. Suryoye is what the Syriac Orthodox usually call themselves when speaking Aramaic.
The Suryoye invest considerably in teaching their children Classical Syriac. They often learn the language during intensive summer courses in the monasteries – both in the countries of the diaspora (including the Netherlands) and in the Middle East. This language training is particularly focused on their participation in the liturgy: the children are ordained as deacons to help carry the liturgy as choristers. This choral tradition, in which women have traditionally participated to a significant degree, is at the heart of Syriac Orthodox spiritual life (Jarjour 2018; Bakker Kellogg 2018; Varghese 2004).
The Classical Syriac literary and theological tradition continued not only in the miaphysite Syriac Orthodox Church, but also in the Church of the East, often referred to as ‘Nestorian’. This Church had its center of gravity further east in comparison with the Syriac Orthodox Church, in what was then the Persian Empire, present-day Iran and Iraq. It is therefore often referred to as the ‘East Syriac’ Church (alongside the Syriac Orthodox as the ‘West Syriac’ Church). As the reference to Nestorius suggests, this Church took a strictly dyophysite ‘Nestorian’ position which was rejected by the majority of churches despite its similarities to the formulations of Chalcedon. Despite their almost diametrically opposed Christological position, both churches recognized and continue to recognize each other’s connection to the Classical-Syriac literary tradition and the secular Aramaic-language traditions that have emerged from it (Teule 2018). The Netherlands hosts a small community of what is now called the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East, the Mar Benyamin parish in Zeist. It holds bi-weekly church services. Most of these Assyrians arrived in the Netherlands as refugees from Iraq in the 1990s. Catholic churches in full communion with Rome were established from both churches during the Ottoman period: the Syriac Catholic Church with its center in Sharfeh, Lebanon, and the Chaldean Church, with its center in Iraq. Both churches function in the Netherlands as independent parishes of the Roman Catholic Church (Teule & Murre-van den Berg, 2018). Together with the Maronite Church of Lebanon and the Indian Thomas Christians, they form the “Syriac Tradition” within Christianity (Brock & Taylor 2001; Butts et al. 2011; Murre-van den Berg 2007 and 2015; King 2018).
The Ottomans, who controlled much of the Middle East from the sixteenth century onward, largely adopted the older Islamic dichotomy between “Muslims” and “peoples of the book” – i.e., mainly Jews and Christians. The latter category, although protected (dhimmi), were obliged to pay extra taxes in return for protection. Jews and Christians also had to deal with all kinds of restrictions, mainly aimed at the public recognition of Islam as primary religion of the Ottoman Empire and the visible distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. These restrictions included, for example, dress codes and restrictions on expanding or renewing church buildings. However, both the level of additional taxes and the implementation of the other restrictive rules were highly dependent on local rulers, changing from time to time and place to place, under influence of local and international factors (Sharkey 2017).
An important aspect of what gradually came to be called the millet system was the fact that the religious community, the millet (group, nation), increasingly took on a strong social and legal significance. By definition, all inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire were members of a religious community, which largely determined your social rights and duties. These include much of what falls under civil law in the Netherlands: marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. All these family law matters were handled by the church authorities. At the time when the millet system was radically modernized in the nineteenth century – including making Muslims and Christians equal before the law and giving laypeople more influence on the administration of the millets – the socio-legal aspect of the millets was actually further strengthened. This bureaucratization and legalization of the religious community contributed to a growing sense of self-identity that increasingly began to be defined in ethnic or national terms during this period.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the modernization of the millets coincided with a strong rise in nationalism. On the one hand, the Ottoman Empire tried to create a broad and inclusive ‘Ottoman’ identity in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims would be on equal footing. On the other hand, the influence of nationalists grew within almost all groups that made up the Ottoman Empire. In many cases, this nationalism aimed at reducing not only the power of the centrally ruled Ottoman Empire, but also that of religious leaders. In some cases, most importantly with Arab nationalism, this led to attempts to transcend religious differences and politically unite Muslims, Jews, and Christians. In doing so, Arab nationalists opposed the growing Turkish nationalism which aimed to unite Islam and Turkish ethnicity in the new Turkish nation.
In the meantime, Christian groups such as Armenians and the Assyrians of the Church of the East increasingly interpreted their religious community as an ethnic community which might be rebuild as a modern nation. For some (though certainly not all) Armenian activists, this also included to actively seek a way to establish an independent Armenian state. In this, they were supported by the Russians on the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the Syriac Orthodox were attracted to nascent Assyrian nationalism, while a larger part remained aloof from this strong political coloring of their community (Becker 2015; Atto 2011).
These different movements of nationalism within the Ottoman Empire, combined with growing pressure on Ottoman external borders, led the Ottoman Empire to choose the German side in 1914, against Russia, England, and France. Russia in particular posed an immediate threat to Turkey’s eastern border. This was reinforced by the fear that Armenians in eastern Turkey would take the Russian side in their hope of creating an independent Armenia. In response, the Young Turks attacked not only the Russian-Armenian troops, but also decided to remove all Armenians from the eastern provinces. After the Armenian leaders were rounded up and killed in Istanbul in April of 1915, orders were given to local mayors and provincial heads to arrest and kill all Armenian men in their areas, and to transport women and children to the Syrian territories. These deportations were organized in such a way that – with little surveillance and no provisions for lodging or food – not only many died from hunger and exhaustion, but all sorts of itinerant gangs were given the opportunity to loot the scarce food and possessions of the deportees, to rape or force women into marriage, and to enslave them along with their children. The few who survived these gruesome deportations ended up in Syrian camps (Akçam 1999/2006). From there, some left for Europe and the United States; others managed to build new lives in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.
However, the ‘Armenian genocide’ did not only concern Armenians. Although in most cases the official orders speak explicitly of Armenians, the other Christians in eastern Turkey were usually treated in the same way. In the east, this mainly concerned Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Chaldeans, and Assyrians of the Church of the East. Their villages were treated in the same way as those of the Armenians, while in the cities a local mayor sometimes differentiated between Armenians and Syriac Christians, targeting only the Armenians. In some cases, the Syriac Orthodox managed to defend their village, for a short or longer time, against Turkish or Kurdish troops (Gaunt 2006).
Although the Syriac Orthodox community had suffered enormous setbacks, the survivors of the genocide, called Sayfo (‘the Sword’) in Aramaic, managed to rebuild some of the villages in Turkey. At the same time, like the Armenians, large-scale migration of the Syriac Orthodox began to largely the same destinations: the United States, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine (Atto 2011). Although more than a hundred years have passed since the Sayfo, it is only in recent years that its healing process has begun. For a long time, the stories about the genocide were passed on by the survivors and their children mostly within the family. Some of their testimonies were written down or recorded on video, but in many cases they were hardly talked about at all.
In recent years, especially since the Armenian genocide came into full focus because of the centennial commemorations in 2015, the stories of the Syriac Orthodox receive more public attention, showing how much of what happened has hardly been processed. The Dutch novel by Stire Kaya-Cirik, Echo uit een onverwerkt verleden [Echo from an Unprocessed Past] (2013), makes this poignantly visible. There is both a personal aspect to healing and processing the past (as in the case of Holocaust survivors where traumas continue for two or three generations), and a communal and public aspect. In order for healing to happen and for survivors to come to terms with the genocide, this history must be told and acknowledged publicly, not only by the Syriac Orthodox themselves but also by those with whom they live – in the Middle East, in Europe, and elsewhere. This call for recognition can now be based on a growing scholarly consensus about what happened in 1915 (Gaunt et al. 2017; Talay & Barthoma 2018).
The genocide of 1915 gave rise to the formation of the current transnational Syriac community. Some Syriac Orthodox stayed in the region and settled in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. In Syria, the deportees and refugees joined the already existing communities in Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, but also formed new communities in the northeast, especially in and around the cities of Hassake and Qamishli. A good many of the refugees left the region and emigrated to North and South America. In 1923, the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate was forced to leave its traditional residence in Turkey and settle in Homs in Syria; this was followed by a move to central Damascus in 1959. Although the old church premises in the Bab Touma neighborhood are still in use, the monastery in Ma’arat Sayednaya which was built in the 1990s has taken over many of its core services. A new patriarchal center has now also opened in Atchaneh (Bikfaya) in Lebanon.
Syriac Orthodox monasteries, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, are important centers of the transnational community. They range from the small but important Mor Markos Monastery in Jerusalem, which annually welcomes many Syriac Orthodox visitors from around the world, to the large and ancient monasteries in Turkey, the most important of which is the Mor Gabriel Monastery (Omzigt et al. 2012; Murre-van den Berg 2013). Despite the importance of the monasteries in the Middle East, the communities in the lands of migrations – sometimes referred to as those of the galutho or ‘exile’ have become increasingly important in the transnational church. In this international diaspora, the European dioceses – in particular, those of the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden – constitute important centers.
The core of these communities was initially formed by Syriac Orthodox from southeastern Turkey, the region of Tur ‘Abdin between Midyat, Nusaybin, and Mardin. Later, Syriac Orthodox refugees from northeastern Syria and Iraq joined them. While the first group was mostly Aramaic-speaking, the refugees from Syria and Iraq were mostly Arabic-speaking. The Arabic-speaking group is much smaller than the Aramaic-speaking one, but it has grown in recent years with refugees from Syria. They come mainly from Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus and are often descendants of those who settled in Syria after the Sayfo. When these new refugees are granted temporary residence status in the Netherlands, they often choose to settle in Enschede and the surrounding area because of the large Syriac Orthodox community there. This makes it easier for them to find work and housing.
The Dutch Syriac Orthodox are connected in different ways with the local and transnational community. First of all, there is the close circle of the extended family. Often, some relatives live in the same Dutch village or city, others are scattered all over the world: some relatively close in Europe (besides Germany and Sweden there are also Syriac Orthodox communities in Austria, Switzerland, England, Belgium), and others far away in North America or Australia. A few continue to have relatives in the Middle East and, when they visit the Middle East, meet relatives from other migrant countries. In addition, most Suryoye also stay connected with the broader community through a variety of cultural associations and political parties. These political and cultural organizations make extensive use of modern means of communication, ranging from satellite television and from printed publications to visual publications on a variety of social media. Undoubtedly, the church is the most important transnational factor in this transnational community. Although training centers have been established around the world, some of the religious training still takes place at the Patriarchal Center near Damascus. The Syriac Orthodox patriarch closely monitors what is happening in the various dioceses. The appointment of bishops is managed centrally, and clerics and priests are dispersed and often end up in countries and parishes other than those of their origin.
The political and cultural associations represent a broad spectrum of views, some of which have clear political overtones. Traditionally, the Assyrian group was most active politically. It traces its origins to the late nineteenth and early twentiety century Middle East, where it sought cooperation with Assyrians from the Assyrian Church of the East. In addition to localizing their pre-Christian roots primarily in the Assyrian history of Mesopotamia, this group, especially in the context of the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) has a long history of opposition to the regime in Syria, in cooperation with Kurdish parties in northeastern Syria. Cooperation with Kurds, which is also at play in northern Iraq, also leads to conflict: in an attempt to establish their own province or state in confrontation with the majority in Baghdad or Damascus, Kurds and Assyrians (and Christians more generally) are long-time allies, but eventually rivals over governance, land, and school curricula (see also the Assyrian International News Agency AINA).
For a long time, the non-Assyrian group was less politically active and remained predominantly focused on ecclesiastical and cultural traditions, with an emphasis on liturgy, language, and history. Meanwhile, part of this group has become very active under the Aramean label in lobbying for the recognition of the rights of Christians as original inhabitants of the Middle East. The main Aramean party is the World Council of Arameans (WCA) which seeks the support of UN and EU commissions as well as of mostly right-wing organizations whose political goal is the protection of Christians in the Middle East on the other hand. In the lobby towards both international NGOs and national governments, the recognition of the 1915 genocide is high on the agenda. Sometimes, an anti-Islamic agenda is present, since one of the most difficult discussions in the Syriac Orthodox community is that of the relationship with Muslims and Islam – both in terms of the countries of origin and the countries of migration. Depending on individual experiences and the history of the home village and region, the positive experiences of friendship and political cooperation with Muslims sometimes predominate. More often however, an anti-Islamic agenda dominates, fueled by the Turkish denial of the Sayfo genocide or failed cooperation with Kurdish parties in Syria and northern Iraq. This is reinforced by fears of an Islam-dominated Europe. This discussion is further complicated by the fact that Syriac Orthodox are often seen by Europeans as Muslims and their churches as mosques. The problems of secular and sometimes even Christian Europeans to distinguish between Christian and non-Christian migrants confronts Syriac Orthodox Christians with the fact that their Christian faith is not only difficult to recognize for Europeans, but that also after further explanation is given this does not imply self-evident inclusion in European culture and society.
In recent decades, political and cultural differences between the Aramean and Assyrian groups among the Syriac Orthodox have led to highly charged conflicts. In the Netherlands, the diocese has remained united in this regard, while in Sweden two dioceses have been created by the Church to channel the tensions between the two groups. Cultural associations, soccer clubs, and other non-church organizations are often organized along these two party-lines. In general, the Aramean view has more support, but not everyone in this group is intensely involved. In addition to the difference between the Assyrian and Aramean self-identification, differences have arisen on the basis of the regional origin, i.e., between the Arabic-speaking Syriacs from Syria and the Aramean-speaking Syriacs from Turkey. These differences can also lead to further subdivisions, especially if the dividing line coincides with Assyrian versus Aramean political-national orientations. Attempts to make the modern Aramaic language (Surayt) the dominant spoken language within the community have had only limited success: a combination of Arabic, Surayt, Dutch, English and German usually remains in use.
A final point of tension within the community concerns the position of women and girls. In general, the community is organized patriarchally, with the extended family at the core of a distinct Syriac Orthodox-Dutch identity. At the same time, in most families both boys and girls are encouraged to get a good education, preferably at college or university level. These well-educated women usually continue to hold paid jobs after they marry and have children, sharing the care of the children with (resident) parents or other older family members. Although this provides opportunities for women to continue to develop themselves socially and intellectually, also outside the Syriac Orthodox community, the patriarchal model remains largely in place. Unmarried women have to be much more socially sensitive in comparison to single men. Women with a family bear a heavy burden of care for husband, children and elderly relatives in addition to their work outside the home. Within church life, the pattern is the same as in other Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches where women play a (sometimes large) role in church administration but cannot be ordained as clergy.
Girls are only ordained choristers as deacons in the lowest rank. This makes for a very visible and audible contribution by women and girls in the liturgy, but it also creates tensions. They cannot participate in full like their male peers and cannot rise up to the higher ranks of deacon. Whereas today women’s ordination to the priesthood is unimaginable for the majority of Syriac Orthodox laity and clergy, much thought is being given to whether women deacons and the women religious (nuns) could fulfill broader social, theological, and liturgical functions in the church.
In the past fifty years a strong Syriac Orthodox community has firmly established itself in the Netherlands. It is rooted in Dutch society with strong ties with the transnational Syriac Orthodox community. Many of those whose parents arrived in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s have good education and good jobs, even if this has not worked out for everyone. Many of those of the second and third generation act on their Syriac Orthodox identity through social and political organizations. Above all, however, it is the church, with its monasteries and parishes, that plays a central role in the transnational community.
Though quite some research has been done regarding the Syriac Orthodox in the Netherlands and in other countries of migration, more research is urgently needed to study the way in which the Syriac Orthodox community finds its place in Dutch society. This should concern relationships with Dutch citizens outside the Syriac Orthodox community, and other aspects of integration, such as the use of other languages besides Dutch and the level of education and income compared to other Dutch citizens. In addition, for understanding ecclesiastical practice in Dutch society, contacts with Catholic, Protestant, evangelical and, in particular, churches of the Eastern Oriental Orthodox traditions are important topics for further study.
Finally, the question arises about how processes of the form of secularization and de-churching affect the Syriac Orthodox community in the Netherlands. Research so far has focused on the growing distinction between religious and non-religious realms, which is expressed, for example, in the growing emphasis on ethnic identity alongside or even instead of religious identity. Whether there is also a decline in religious involvement and daily religious practice, or perhaps a conscious exit from the Syriac Orthodox Church, has not yet been studied in depth even though incidental observations suggest that these processes are taking place among Syriac Orthodox.
Very visible, however, is the great élan with which the Syriac Orthodox Church motivates its members to communal life and mutual care, to an active Christian life in the affirmation of its very rich Christian tradition and culture, which despite violence and exclusion in the Middle East is still passed on to the new generations.
Heleen Murre-van den Berg is Professor of Global Christianity and director of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (Instituut voor Oosters Christendom) at the Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands. You can follow Heleen Murre-van den Berg on her Twitter account @hlvdberg and personal blog hlmvandenberg.me.
The Radboud University, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies in cooperation with the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in 2019, started the project Rewriting Global Orthodoxy.
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