Assyrian Church of the East Holy Synod Elects New Patriarch
The Holy Apostolic and Catholic (Universal) See based in Selucia-Ctisphon, will again have a Catholicos-Patriarch after the passing of His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, of blessed memory, on 26 March 2015. His name is Mar Gewargis Sliwa (Sliwa means “cross” in Assyrian Aramaic) and following his official consecration on 27 September 2015; His Beatitude will be known ecclesiastically as His Holiness Mar Gewargis III. The Patriarch-Elect will be the 121st Catholicos-Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic See of the Assyrian Church of the East, an Apostolic Church whose origins trace back to St. Peter in Selucia-Ctisphon [Bet Kookhih] (see: 1 Peter 5:13)-close to ancient Babylon and today’s Baghdad-to apostles Mar Addai, Mar Bar Tolmai, and Mar Mari up north in a city called Urhai (Edessa), and to Mar Toma [St. Thomas] in Urmia, Iran (and later India). This is the ancient homeland of the Assyrian Christians, a people whose history traces back over 8000 years, 2000 of it as Christians.
Background of the New Patriarch-Elect
Until now, Patriarch-Elect Mar Gewargis served as the Metropolitan of the Archdiocese of Iraq, Jordan, and Russia. He was consecrated Metropolitan of Iraq in 1981 by His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV in Chicago, IL. Since then, Mar Gewargis has had to preside over an archdiocese in which the diocese of Iraq was rocked by Saddam Hussein’s rule, along with the dwindling of the Assyrian Christian community in Iraq both before and following the US-led invasion of Iraq. His ability to preserve the flock during this tumultuous time has been paramount.
Mar Gewargis has been an avid fan of photography since his earlier years and very active in the collection, preservation, and digitization of classic manuscripts. The Patriarch-Elect has also given numerous presentations and lectures over the years, including his research findings on the Shroud of Turin as well Church history. One of his notable appearances on the global stage was his speech at the World Council of Churches in Geneva in February 2011 regarding the ongoing violence against Christians in Iraq.
In the Grand Scheme
Here, NEC-SE turns to providing an analysis of the Patriarch-Elect and his place in the grand scheme of geopolitics. While the Assyrian Christian population has been dwindling due to persecution in the homeland, it is increasing in diaspora nations. Furthermore, the Assyrian Church of the East is a universal Church. In other words, its members include other ethnicities just as the Roman Church is comprised of a multi-ethnic population. The Patriarch-Elect will not only be presiding over the Assyrians in their ethnic homeland and in diaspora, but His Holiness will also be presiding over the Church on a global level, including the very large population of members in India. The following is a summary of the major strengths of a Patriarchate under His Holiness Mar Gewargis III.
Ties in the Homeland
Mar Gewargis III is in a unique position to lead because throughout the course of the Baath regime under Saddam and in the tumultuous Iraq War years, he has remained in the homeland. As Metropolitan, he presided over his flock in Iraq, Jordan, and Russia from his headquarters in Baghdad. There in Baghdad, he developed close relations with Ayatollah Ali Sistani al-Sistani, an Iraqi Usuli (part of the Shiite branch of Islam) marja (highest authority on Islamic religious laws). It is interesting to note that this relationship reinforces a very old promise and contract between the Assyrian Christians and the Muslims in what is now called Iraq. In the early years of Islam, all of Prophet Mohammed’s commanders signed a contract with the Assyrians, recognizing them as “People of the Book” and a protected class. This agreement, which has been referenced by the ACOE throughout its history, is originally signed by all of Prophet Mohammed’s commanders. NEC-SE has obtained a copy of the historical agreement which when translated is so profoundly sweeping that it will dramatically change the current operational environment in the region. NEC-SE will post the document in the near future.
The warm relations between the new head or Patriarch of Assyrian Christians and the head of the Shia Muslims is a positive step toward repairing relations between these two groups. Furthermore, in June 2014 Al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for the people of Iraq to defend the nation again ISIS/ISIL. Both the Assyrian Christians and the Shia Muslims have been targets of the ISIS attacks.
Mar Gewargis III, having served as Metropolitan of the ACOE in Russia, also has warm ties there. There is a thriving Assyrian community in Russia. On 30 November 2011, Mar Gewargis also met with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, part of a trip to Moscow where he took part in the Conference on the Freedom of Faith: the Problem of Discrimination and Persecution of Christians. During that meeting, Mar Gewargis thanked the Russian Orthodox Church for her assistance to the Christians in Iraq. There, it was mentioned that the Moscow Patriarchate was making an effort to bring the politicians’ and public’s attention to the problem of Christianophobia around the world. It also goes without saying that Russia is a member of the G5 (UN Security Council). Russia has asserted itself as a secular nation but one that respects and protects Christianity, albeit mostly its ties with the Orthodox Church. Over the years, there has been a warming of relations between the two Churches and it is always a positive to have amicable ties.
To the Far East, there is another world power and that is India. India is a NATO member and is also the seat of the former Locum-Tenens (“place-holder”) of the Patriarchal See and Metropolitan of the Archdiocese of Malabar and India, His Beatitude Mar Aprem Mooken. Serving a Metropolitan of the largest province of the Church, Mar Aprem Mooken is a very knowledgeable scholar and author of over fifty books. He has uncanny peace-making skills, having reunited the Church of the East in India in the 1990s. India was also one of the early centers of Christianity, having been Saint Thomas’ stop after the Urmia, Iran region. His Beatitude has helped grow a very strong community in that region and he is an asset to scholarship within the Church. His Archdiocese includes two Auxiliary Bishops of India: His Grace Mar Yohannan Joseph and His Grace Mar Awgin Kuriakose.
Emerging in the region of Oceania is a potential economic superpower in the 21st Century. On 21 AUG 15, NEC-SE posted an article stating that Australia was given the keys to the Asian-Pacific. Mar Gewargis III has strong relations with a fellow bishop, His Beatitude Mar Meelis Zaia, Metropolitan of Australia, New Zealand, and Lebanon. Mar Meelis Zaia and the members of his archdiocese have been instrumental in the development of a strong Assyrian Christian community in Australia and New Zealand. This includes schools and retirement homes. The thriving community there continues to expand, consecrating new churches and community centers. The same can be said for Australia as a whole. Economically, it is beginning to boom. Part of this boom includes its trade ties to other nations in the Asian-Pacific region. Mar Meelis Zaia’s relations with the government of the Australia will be crucial to future support for the Assyrian community in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Furthermore, his business acumen can serve to bolster both the community there and abroad.
In the United States of America, Mar Gewargis III will be further strengthened by the support of the Secretary of the Holy Synod, His Grace Bishop Mar Awa Royel, who earned his Ph.D. at the Vatican’s Pontifical Oriental University. Additionally, His Grace serves as the President of the Commission on Inter-Church Relations and Educational Development (CIRED). Mar Awa Royel is knowledgeable in Church Canon and History and can provide further support to the Church. He is also the first American-born Bishop of the ACOE.
Part of the footprint of the ACOE in the Americas also includes His Grace Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis, Bishop of the Western United States; His Grace Mar Paulus Benjamin, Bishop of the Eastern United States; and His Grace Bishop Mar Sargis Yosip, Bishop Emeritus of Baghdad residing in Modesto, California. To the north is His Grace Mar Emmanuel Yosip, Bishop of Canada, who has presided over a growing community of Assyrian Christians who have escaped upheaval in the Middle East.
Moving to Europe, we find His Grace Mar Odisho Oraham, Bishop of Europe. His Grace has contributed much in the form of musical contributions to the Church. Just as importantly, Mar Odisho has provided leadership over a growing diocese. Part of that growth has been due to the influx of refugees following the start of the Iraq War and especially now with the refugee crisis during the war in Syria.
A tremendous effort has also been made by another bishop, His Grace Mar Aprem Nathniel, Bishop of Syria. His Grace has had to preside over his flock during a time of great upheaval and the abduction of over 200 Assyrian Christian hostages from the Khabour River Valley region in Syria.
Nearby is His Grace Mar Isaac Yousif, Bishop of Dohuk-Erbil, Iraq and Russia, under the former Archdiocese that Mar Gewargis Sliwa had been presiding over. Mar Isaac has also had to deal with part of the effects of the refugee crisis, with many internally displaced persons (IDPs) escaping the Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul, Iraq to head to KRG-controlled Dohuk-Erbil.
Further east is His Grace Mar Narsai Benyamin, Bishop of Iran. His position is strategic in that it ties to the newly emerged power of the Middle East, Iran, a nation that has provided significant humanitarian aid to the Assyrians and other Christians in Northern Iraq following the Islamic State’s takeover of key cities and supply lines.
With an effective and capable Council of Bishops flanking him in strategic global positions, along with all of the other capable clergy of the Church and key advisors whom he can look to, Mar Gewargis III is gearing up as a religious and political leader to position the Church well for the decades to come in the Middle East region.
A Bonus in Inter-Church Relations
Although not as crucial to the overall picture, but still important nonetheless, is Mar Gewargis III’s relationship to the Patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East, a denomination which split from the ACOE back in the 1960s (See NEC-SE’s article from 24 May 2015). Mar Gewargis III is a cousin of the aforementioned Patriarch, Mar Addai II. In recent times, bishops of the Ancient Church of the East have expressed interest in the possibility of the Ancient Church returning to the ACOE for the purpose of unity in Christ but also to give a morale boost to the suffering Assyrian Christians. Could this relationship between the two Patriarchs accelerate this unity? Only time will tell. However, prospects look good thus far. We await the next Synod meeting’s aftermath.
Finally, let us not forget the power of symbolism. While the Church strengthened itself in the northern region of Assyria (today’s northern Iraq, Southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Iran), its Apostolic See was originally established in Selucia-Ctisphon, not far from Baghdad. This was the Church’s headquarters for many centuries, even into the years following the spread of Islam. Returning the Patriarchate to its homeland sends a powerful message that Assyrian Christians are determined to stay in their ethnic homeland and will stay steadfast in their beliefs as well as their Assyrian heritage, both targets of the Islamic State. And who better to lead this move than a man who has humbly lived amongst those suffering during the years following the US-led invasion of Iraq? Furthermore, this move sends a strong message that the Assyrian Church of the East-and the Assyrian people-will be in Iraq. Regardless if the Patriarch resides in a residence in Baghdad and/or Arbil, the Patriarchal See is now linked to the country of Iraq/Baghdad. This sends the message that the Assyrians wish to have strong relations with the US and NATO, and major countries within the region. This also states that they do in fact have very shrewd leadership team, especially in their Church. Make no mistake, regional and more importantly global powers will take notice!
The NEC-SE would again like to congratulate Mar Gewargis III on his election to the Patriarchal See of Selucia-Ctisphon. We wish him the absolute best in his leadership role in guiding the ACOE. Furthermore, we hope that his relations with key powers and individuals will lead to global powers offering relief and assistance to the Assyrian Christians being persecuted in Iraq and Syria. Now, the work begins. NEC-SE 26 SEP 15