By Joseph Yacoub honorary professor in political science at the Catholic University of Lyon
The Christians of the Middle East are ‘enjoying’ an unusual and increasingly visible media presence because of the grim perils they are undergoing, especially in Syria and Iraq. The media attention they receive in France is unprecedented. Their drama, especially since 2014, has sparked a warm outpouring of sympathy and solidarity, including for preserving the richness of their heritage and protecting their precious manuscripts.
But do we really know them? Are they merely reduced to a rite and liturgy, as we tend to think of them? Is their claim limited to a simple demand for religious freedom (without neglecting the importance of religious freedom)?
When we examine the layers that make up this Christianity, we see that it is far from a monolithic body. The Christians of the Middle East belong to many churches, languages, and traditions. Among them, are the Syriacs who are distinguished by seniority, language, ecclesiology, liturgies, exegesis and dogmas, and the place they hold in society.
The term “Syriac” in fact encompasses various Christian communities which have a common cultural base.
Christians in exile
Their homeland is Syro-Mesopotamia, which serves as the reference point for their identity. We can estimate their number at more than two million in the world, spread over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, and Russia. The Syriacs, naturally, have a dominant presence in Syria-Iraq. The current tragedy forced them on the path of exile, where they reinforced an already existing diaspora in the United States (since 1880), Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and previously too in South America (Argentina, Brazil). Today their number has and is drastically declining in Syro-Mesopotamia – it probably declined by more than half. The majority of Syriacs live in the West, where they experience a process of identity reconstruction, as they integrate peacefully.
What does it mean to be Syriac?
It is a generic term encompassing various Christian communities having, despite their differences, a common civilizational, linguistic, and cultural base. They are called by different names: Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Nestorians, Jacobites, ‘Monophysites’, Aramaeans, or Assyro-Chaldeans. They are called Aïssors or Assoris by Armenians and Russians, known to Turks as Süryani, as Assyrians to the Iranians, and as Syriane by Arabs. They call themselves Surayé or Suryoye.
With regard to their Christian denomination, they are divided over different churches and ecclesiastical traditions, namely the Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon and the autocephalous Assyrian Church of the East, which both originate from the ancient Nestorian Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church (also autocephalous, independent of Orthodoxy and the Latin Church), and the Syriac Catholic Church, which evolved from the latter. Since the 19th century, there have also been Protestants of various denominations among these Syriac churches.
The Syriac language, which derives from Aramaic, brings them together – although it is divided into two distinct spellings. To this language is added a common cultural source; the Syriacs consider themselves closely related with the peoples of ancient Syro-Mesopotamia, where their deep roots are identified.
A long intellectual tradition
The contribution of the Syriacs is considerable in all fields of knowledge and science. They produced their own religious and secular teachings and thought, and are active actors.
The Syriacs were the first eastern nation to study and comment extensively on Greek philosophy.
The Syriac language has had an undeniably and visible influence on the Arabic language and culture, traces of which can be found in the literature of the latter. They have produced great quality thinkers (like Bar Hebraeus) who can be compared to great European thinkers. When it comes to the discipline of translation, one can easily speak of an epic. In their contacts with the Greeks, with Persia and also India, the Syriacs have constantly translated Greek authors, especially in philosophy and medicine. These translations had a great effect on the Arab-Muslim world, granting a place of honor to Galen and Aristotle.
In doing so, they were the first Eastern nation to study and comment extensively on Greek thought, and the Arabs benefitted much from their contribution. They were the first to translate the Bible into the so-called Peshitta or “Simple Version.” Tatian’s Diatessaron (or the harmony of the four Gospels) is an original Syriac work from the second century.
The Syriacs have produced many world-renowned exegetes, theologians, and mystics, such as Jacob of Serugh (6th century) and Isaac of Nineveh (7th century), amply translated into French.
Are we aware that it was the 5th century that saw the first divisions in Christianity, and that the victims were the Syriac churches? Because it was under Byzantium, however Christian, that both the Syriac “Nestorians” and the Syriac “Monophysites” were persecuted, accused of heresy and labeled as schismatics. Over time, they underwent auto-da-fés of their books by the Byzantines and later by the Latins.
In an extraordinary labor, the Syriac Christian Hassan bar Bahloul published an encyclopedic genre lexicon in the 10th century.
With no record in our history books, they wait to take their place. Then we will find that they knew the Crusaders extremely well, a field of knowledge in which they made an undeniable contribution, and in many ways different from that of the Latins and Muslims. And as the debate on Arab-Islamic history gets underway, it would be very constructive to take full notice of the Syriac viewpoint in this.
Another example: The state of Kerala in southwestern India attests to the Syriac historical presence for 2000 years through the Apostle Thomas. A Syriac text from India, dated 1502, records the beginning of Portuguese colonialism in that country.
This heritage is so important that from the 16th century, under the influence of the Renaissance in Europe, it gave birth to what we call Syriac Orientalism. In this field, France has greatly contributed with persons who stand out well beyond its borders: Ernest Renan, Rubens Duval, François Nau, Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, Father Jean-Baptiste Chabot.
So, the Syriacs contributed significantly to shaping the Middle East. To disregard them would mean to mutilate their 2000-year-old history and break their present.
Today, all kinds of dangers lurk around this Christendom. What will be left of it? Will we witness Syriac Christianity’s progressing depletion in its native homeland of Syro-Mesopotamia? Will the torch be handed over to the diaspora?
Joseph Yacoub is honorary professor in political science at the Catholic University of Lyon, the first holder of the UNESCO chair “Memory, cultures and interculturality”, specialist in minorities in the world and Christians in the East. He is the author of many books, including Qui s’en souviendra? 1915: le génocide assyro-chaldéo-syriaque (Cerf, 2014) and Une diversité menacée. Les Chrétiens d’Orient face au nationalisme arabe et à l’islamisme(Salvator, 2018). His new book, Le Moyen-Orient syriaque. La face méconnue des Chrétiens d’Orient (Salvator), will be in bookstores on August 29, 2021.