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The Assyrian Church (Part 1)
Brothers and Sisters You Never Knew You Had

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By Haydn Jensen


This article is the first of a two-part series, meant to help connect Assyrian Christians in London with fellow believers in our community. After Toronto, London is home the largest settlement of Assyrians in Canada--about 1500 people. We won't be dealing with doctrinal and theological distinctives here, but instead reflect Christ's teaching to make our Christian identity clear by our love for one another (See John 13:34-35). Given recent tragic news of ongoing abductions and executions of Assyrian Christians in and around Syria, we do well to strengthen our ties with our fellow believers whose family members are suffering persecution. I have recently met a group of Assyrians in London who tell me they want to reach out to other Christians and for us to get to know them. Their message: Pray for us. Let's offer them the solidarity of prayer and caring support.

Meet the Assyrians. As a people group they go back about 4,000 years. That's older than the Greeks, Romans, Persians and long before Israel named Saul as their first king. Remember the Old Testament story of Jonah and the big fish? That story featured the Assyrian people. At the time, Nineveh was their capital city, and God sent Jonah to preach to them. Jonah saw them as Israel's enemy, and hated or feared them enough to go in the opposite direction from Nineveh. This, of course, led to his famous "time out" inside a big fish for three days. He finally obeyed God, went to Nineveh and the Ninevites repented and fasted. Even today, Assyrians honour the memory of Jonah and give thanks to God for his mercy on them. They do this by observing The Fast of Nineveh, a three-day total fast (no food or water).

Christians often use words like "heritage" and "tradition" and the need to preserve Christian values from corruption and decay in our increasingly anti-Christian world. Strange then, that most Christians and even scholars are unfamiliar with Assyrian Christians--a people who have faithfully preserved and followed their faith and culture as long or longer than any other Christians. We have among us these Christian brothers and sisters whose families have, despite centuries of devastating genocides and persecutions that continue to this day, preserved spiritual liturgies, language, cultural traditions and even ethnic bloodlines for literally thousands of years. As the oldest branch of the Christian church (see diagram below), they can trace their church leadership back to one of the Twelve Apostle--Thomas--in 33 AD. In fact, their success in preserving faith traditions, language, culture, and family bloodlines has in many ways been due to their care in keeping themselves separate from others. This also suggests why they are not very well known.







Mansour Zindo (back row center)
with family and friends
Assyrian church president Ninos Ismael told me he once took an Ancient Civilizations course and when he told the professor he was Assyrian, the professor didn't believe him. The prof called him to his office and made him prove he was Assyrian by writing in Aramaic for him. After he was convinced, the professor remarked, "You're a living fossil!" Ninos said, “"Yeah, me and about two and half million other people around the world!"

Don't be confused--Assyria and Syria mean different things. The country we call Syria is a relatively recent geographical and political territory first recognized as an independent state in 1946. It’s also a product of nationalism--a Western concept not innate to the Middle East, and many say does not work well in that part of the world. Assyria refers to a kingdom of northern Mesopotamia. This kingdom became the centre of one of the great empires of the ancient Middle East. Mesopotamia literally means "(Land) between rivers" and refers to the broad plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (see map). So, an Assyrian family today could originally be from Syria, but they could also be from Turkey, Iraq or Iran (just like an Ojibway family here could originally be from Canada or the U.S.).

Without any present political or territorial sovereignty for over 2,600 years, you would think it almost impossible to preserve a distinct identity as a people. Here's where the church comes in. If you look up Assyria in Wikipedia, it will say that Assyrians today are exclusively Christian. The main and original Assyrian church is properly called the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East. Although "Catholic" is in the official name, the Assyrian church has no connection to the Roman Catholic Church and any other church.

Assyrian Christian Mansour Zindo moved his family from Syria to Canada in 1999 and they now live here in London. He and his family attend North Park Community Church as well as the Assyrian Church (on Hale St.) He explains how being Christian and Assyrian is an essential to preserving their people’s identity. "Since we don't have a state, the church takes over all our lives." He paints this picture of a traditional Assyrian village to help explain: "At the entrance of the village is the church. Any time you go to the fields to work, you pass the church, pray, and then go out to work. When you come back at the end of the day, you come to the church first, praise God, and then go home." In a similar way, Assyrians traditionally observe many ancient disciplines and rituals, which combine to reinforce their identity as Christians as much as their identity as Assyrians.

The spiritual discipline of fasting offers another distinctive Assyrian cultural tie. They hold different types of fasts, following a prescribed calendar. Some are total fasts, and some are vegan fasts (where nothing from animals is eaten) during daylight hours. In Assyrian church tradition 70% of the days in the year are fast days! Feasts are also a big part of Assyrian church culture. However, due to recent violence against Assyrian family members who are being abducted and executed in the Middle East, the church has decided to cancel traditional feast events for the time being.

Assyrians speak Aramaic (as Jesus did). Mansour explains that the Aramaic word for "church" literally means, "refuge place". The church building is symbolically designed to resemble the Ark which provided a refuge for Noah and his family. So, when Assyrian villagers hear the church bells ring, it is telling them to come to be saved. Their church today also serves to save or preserve Assyrian culture, language, and families. Their liturgy is still done in ancient Aramaic as follows the same liturgy first laid out in the 1st century A.D. Many of these traditions resemble the Jewish faith practice, perhaps due to its early leadership and history. As you can imagine, the service is steeped in symbolism, ritual and ceremony. The liturgy is mostly sung, but no instruments are used. No pictures, sculptures or crucifix is allowed either. Certain steps leading up to the front platform can only be used by specific leaders within the church. Confessions are made to God, and not the priest. The priest's duty is to anoint a petitioner with oil after confession to God as a sign of forgiveness. Assyrians baptize babies and practice total immersion--done three times! In Assyrian tradition, the godfather holds the baby and has the lifelong responsibility to teach the baby who God is. The family tie is a strong spiritual relationship.

Assyrian families are something special. More than just families, the ties actually bind together more than one family. With reference to the passage in James 5:16 calling us to "confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another", Assyrian families take this very seriously through family commitments to care for each other. The church leadership decides to pair two families together to care for each other. This continues for generations so that two families will continue in a bond of mutual partnership for hundreds of years. There is no intermarrying between these two families but each takes pride in supporting the other family through life. The men automatically stand as the best man in the other family’s weddings and godfathers for baptisms. Assyrian young people are encouraged to marry other Assyrians as a way to preserve their bloodline and heritage. This is especially important as a landless people.

As you can see, Assyrians have held close to their history and traditions, and also to each other. They have been without a land to call their own and yet they remain unified around the globe. Assyrians could easily be overlooked as a minority people from a region where growing militant Islamic governments, terrorists, and civil war have destroyed and displaced their families along with any sense of security. They tell me that Western media coverage of the situation in Syria and the Middle East often does ignore them--they in many ways are a forgotten people. They deserve our attention, our respect, and mostly, our prayers. Next month we will look further into the conflict and challenges the Assyrians face, and also how we as the Christian church overall can care for our brothers and sisters who are struggling.