Date: December 26, 2016
This ancient Christian group, who still use Aramaic, the language of Jesus, were able to celebrate Christmas this year, despite by being uprooted by Islamic State
By Dan Wooding, Special to ASSIST News Service
MIDDLE EAST (ANS –December 26, 2016) – For around 1,500 years, bells have rung out at Christmastime from Assyrian churches throughout the Middle East -- and now they have again.
This joyous celebration of the birth of Christ was made possible in Iraq and Syria, because Christians were busy restoring their churches vandalized by Islamic State, and the triumphant ringing of the bells on Christmas Day was, for them, a symbolic gesture of hope for the future.
However, Christmas this year was both bitter than sweet for many of the Assyrians with constant reminders of sorrow and loss, and the still-present threat from followers of extremist Islam.
Assyrian Christians in the two countries, as well as the thousands now living in displacement camps in Lebanon and other countries, are the only group of believers in the world who still use the language of Jesus, which is the oldest continuously written and spoken language in the Middle East.
Service in Erbil
Hugh Sykes of the BBC said, via the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), that there was applause in the cathedral church of St Joseph in Erbil when Bashar Warda, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, led a service at a mass of consecration at the cathedral after extensive renovation and modernization.
“More than 1,000 Iraqi Christians attended the service, which was a superbly rehearsed and performed piece of Catholic theatre,” he said. “There was sublime chanting from a choir of men and women in smart cream uniforms. Altar boys and girls in red and white vestments attended the archbishop as he conducted the mass.
Sykes then revealed the size of the Christian community in Iraq:
* Before the 2003 invasion and occupation, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq
* Now, they are believed to number between 200,000 and 400,000
* About a million Iraqi Christians have either left the country or have been killed
* Prince Charles recently used his “Thought For The Day” message on BBC Radio 4 to highlight warnings of the end of Iraq’s Christian community
He went on to say, “Several priests have been killed - one beheaded and dismembered. A previous archbishop of Mosul died after being kidnapped, and a priest in Baghdad was kidnapped and released only when a ransom was paid.
“The new altar in St Joseph’s contains pieces of broken stone which Archbishop Bashar recovered from the altars of two churches that IS destroyed in two Christian villages near Mosul.”
He said that the mass of consecration in Erbil was followed by fireworks, a cake baked in the shape of the church with its new red cross on top - and the choir singing a wistful, nostalgic song - Auld Lang Syne - In Arabic. But, the same tune, and the same words and meaning, “times gone by.” One of its lines is: “Our voices all combine in sweet accord to thank our Lord.”
The pain of the past few years is still evident in the Assyrian community in Iraq, where dozens of Christians have died in bomb attacks on their churches, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, Islamic State, have killed hundreds of Christians, and menaced many more out of their homes.
But this Christmas coincides with some relief for thousands of Iraqi Christians. Several of their towns and villages around Mosul have been liberated from occupation by the violent and uncompromising religious zealots of IS.
Katie Forster of The Independent newspaper said, “Christians in a recently liberated town near Mosul celebrated Christmas this year for the first time since 2013.
“Hundreds of Iraqi worshippers still living in exile travelled to the main church in Bartella, an Assyrian Christian town just 13 miles east of Mosul, on Christmas Eve.”
Assyrians have been in Iraq and Syria for over 2,000 years
Esther Anderson, writing in American Spectator, said, “Once Assyria stretched from Cyprus to Iran and from the Caucasus to Egypt. Successive invasions and massacres have diminished both the land area of Assyria and the Assyrian population, but still there has been a continuous Assyrian presence in Iraq and Syria for over 2,000 years.
“Before adopting Christianity, the ancient Assyrians worshipped a number of gods, including my namesake (Esther, as well as being the name of a Jewish heroine, is derived from Ishtar/Ashtoreth/Astarte, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, war and the morning star). The Assyrians built temples to the goddess Ashtoreth at Nineveh (next to what is now the city of Mosul) and at Arbel (now the city of Irbil/Erbil) in present day Iraq.”
The Assyrian International News Agency (http://www.aina.org/) stated that the Assyrians became Christian in the first century AD, and the monasteries, churches and cathedrals they built from then onwards are part of the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, along with their pre-Christian temples and carvings.
“The Assyrian church bells have rung to celebrate Christmas… even when there has been little else to celebrate. Their recent history, as a minority ethnic and religious group in their homelands, has been one of persecution,” AINA said a story.
From around 2003, there were increasing attacks by Islamic groups on Assyrian Christians, then in 2014 Islamic State started a brutal rampage across the Nineveh plain in Northern Iraq. The unarmed Assyrians were forced to flee from the cities of Qaraqosh and Mosul and the surrounding villages where Assyrians had lived for centuries.
Those who had not managed to escape risked torture, abductions, attempted forced conversion and death (including by beheading or crucifixion). Other minority groups in Northern Iraq were also targeted by Islamic State.
AINA stated that the United Nations and the international community have a responsibility to protect groups subjected to attempted genocide.
Over the past decade, Assyrians have joined waves of Christians who have fled Syria and Iraq because of war and persecution by extremist Muslims. But the latest attacks have added to concerns that this unique Mesopotamian people are in danger of disappearing from the region
During last few Christmases, many Assyrians have spent a lonely existence in displaced persons camps in Iraq, or refugee camps in surrounding countries. However, with the gradual expulsion of Islamic State from Assyrian villages around the city of Mosul, Assyrians have been returning to their devastated homes in the Nineveh Plain and finally have been able to celebrate with the rest of the world’s community of Christians, the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.
And now the bells have finally rung out in celebration that the Assyrians are coming back to their homelands.
Note: We at ANS pledge to continue to bring you vital updates on this situation, and also of the many other Christians who have endured a lonely Christmas, particularly in the refugee camps of the Middle East, or in the prisons of Iran and Pakistan.
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Photo captions: 1) Assyrian Christians light candles for Christmas. 2) Assyrian Christians, who fled unrest in Syria, carry a cross outside St. Georges Cathedral in Jdeideh, in Beirut. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images) 3) Assyrian children light a candle for Christmas. 4) Syrian soldiers pose by Islamic State insignia after liberating a church. 5) ANS founder, Dan Wooding, reporting from outside the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil, Northern Iraq.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 76, is an award-winning journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 53 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder of the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and he hosts a weekly radio show and two TV shows, all based in in Southern California. Dan also is the author of some 45 books and has reported for ANS from Northern Iraq, and met with many Assyrian Christians while there.