Assyrian Education Network

George Kiraz and the Syriac Digital Library

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2001 at 05:57 AM CT


“We Assyrians with our origins among the five tribes of the Hakkari or in the Urmi/Salamas plain generally are confident of our secular identity as Assyrians. We accept, in fact glory in, our identity as Suryaya/Assyrian. For decades, those who call themselves Suroyo did the same. Then in the aftermath of the Genocide, when all of us were weak and driven into close contact with each other, we began to see differences among us: church differences, dialect differences, and most of all, social differences embodied in the relative integration into the larger cultural setting of urban dwellers and the independent lifestyle of mountain dwellers.”

The Assyrian community faces an issue as serious to our national identity as the US Census 2000 issue. The Syriac Digital Library, endorsed by Zinda Magazine, needs careful consideration so that a few years down the road, we do not find that we have sold our heritage with our own hands. We cannot afford to support a project that is uncertain in its goals and confused in its breadth. It brings the seeds of considerable underlying danger. In the case of the US Census issue, we found ourselves having to defend a position that had been eroded through efforts made while we were napping. When we finally realized the extent of the damage done at the US Census Bureau, our only choice was compromise. The situation we face now with regard to our heritage and identity is similar. In the following few paragraphs, I will lay out the danger as I see it from the vantage of six months of familiarity with this issue. You may ask why I did not air my reservations earlier. I did not think that any groups outside the small academic circle that works closely with the Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox Church would support such a project. Now the situation is changed: George Kiraz has won endorsement from Zinda Magazine, and he is making the rounds of conventions speaking about this project (and his encyclopedia project) in the hope of raising funds. He is scheduled to speak at the San Jose AANF Convention.

Let me begin by stating, without reservation, that I find Dr. George Anton Kiraz a personable, intelligent, enterprising and ambitious young man. Born in Bethlehem, of Harput ancestry, his family of merchants has nurtured many generations of supporters of the Western Assyrian Church, at the time of his grandfather called the Assyrian Apostolic Church. He himself is a Deacon of the church in Teaneck, New Jersey, the site of the seat of Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, the very same cleric who succeeded (1999) in changing the name of the St. Mary's Assyrian Orthodox Church in Worcester to "Syrian" at the expense of the Harput families who had built that church community during the 1920s.

George received his graduate education at Oxford University: he has an MA in Syriac studies. He studied with Sebastian Brock, the well known anti-Assyrian Syriac scholar quoted on various web sites, where he was a fellow graduate student with Susan Ashbrook Harvey, now the Syriac specialist at Brown University. Instead of continuing in Syriac studies, George received his PhD in computer science, hence his title of Dr. and his high profile involvement with Syriac digital fonts, the digitalization of Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox melodies of the Beth Gazo, the digital Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, and other works. Nothing in all this array of activity mentions Assyrians.

Whatever the native language of George's family may have been in Harput (many urban Assyrians in the Ottoman empire had dropped the vernacular Assyrian in favor of Turkish and Armenian), his first language now is Arabic, increasingly the language of the Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox Church. Trained in Church Syriac from an early age, when he is not speaking Arabic or English with community members, he can also converse in Church Syriac. When pressed on his ethnicity, he calls himself Palestinian.

The emphasis on the background of the person who is proposing the Syriac Digital Library is important because this project grows out of his personal concerns and ambitions. It is not a university project. It is an academic project in a very loose sense. If, God forbid, something happened to George, the project would either fall apart or more likely, revert to shelter wholly under the umbrella of the Archbishop in Teaneck, New Jersey, a possible next Patriarch of a church that, for the past eighty years, has tried to erase the name Assyrian.

The institution that sponsors the Syriac Digital Library is Beth Mardutho: the Syriac Institute, an organization headed by George Kiraz. Its Board of Directors are not mentioned in the literature that is provided. What are mentioned prominently are the following:

  • A letter of endorsement from "His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I, the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church" for the Syriac Digital Library.
  • Hopes to connect Beth Mardutho to St. Aphrem Theological Seminary in Ma'arrat Seydnaya (the main locale for training Bishops and other clerics of the Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox Church)
  • Plans to digitalize books (articles, pictures etc. ) in Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, English, German and other languages from any place and any time. These will be available to any and all on the internet under the aegis of "Syriac."

THE IMPLICATIONS: THE IDENTITY ISSUE

We Assyrians with our origins among the five tribes of the Hakkari or in the Urmi/Salamas plain generally are confident of our secular identity as Assyrians. We accept, in fact glory in, our identity as Suryaya/Assyrian. For decades, those who call themselves Suroyo did the same. Then in the aftermath of the Genocide, when all of us were weak and driven into close contact with each other, we began to see differences among us: church differences, dialect differences, and most of all, social differences embodied in the relative integration into the larger cultural setting of urban dwellers and the independent lifestyle of mountain dwellers. Secular Assyrian identity, embodied in people like Naoum Faik, Ashur Yusuf and others in the Suryoyo community, splintered as the urban dwellers linked with the Church institution almost exclusively. The spoken Suryoyo, preserved for generations in Tur Abdin was prohibited by the Church from becoming a written language. Instead Church Syriac was promoted. On the initiative of the Church, many Suryoyo (Siryani in Turkish) are coming to regard "Assyrian" as a created term and the domain of the Church of the East.

Today, the people who come under most pressure to abandon their ancestral name and find it hardest to maintain their Assyrian identity are the descendants of victims of the Genocide in Turkey, the Suryoyo, who belong to the Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox Church. Whether in the Middle East or in the US, they join with other Assyrians to achieve our goals. They are members of the Assyrian American National Federation.

Of the original Assyrian churches on the East Coast, gradually all but one has been forced to abandon the term Assyrian and adopt Syrian/Syriac. The one remaining church, in Paramus, N. J., retains it name thanks to the legal training of David B. Perley. Another four churches in Sweden also have insisted on keeping the name Assyrian. The other five churches in Sweden, and all of the other churches in Europe and the Middle East follow the dominant church culture in the Orthodox community and use only the term Syrian or more recently Syriac. In 1999, the Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox Church changed its name to the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Here is where we have a problem with the Syriac Digital Library: the church name is now the name of our language, in the West, during the Christian period. If this were the sole problem, the confusion of church name and the Church Syriac as a language, we might be able to find some resolution. But the identity issue has further ramifications:

  • The Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox Church is the sole church whose endorsement has been sought for this project. What about the other Syriac based Christian churches?
  • To what extent does this Syriac Institute fall within the folds of the patriarchal robes?
  • If the Syriac Digital Library will include materials in all languages "from any place and time," what happens to Urmi's Zahrira d Bara? Does this too become Syriac instead of the vernacular Assyrian that it is? What about Naoum Faik's Beth Nahrain: The Assyrian Newspaper? Does this too become Syriac when the editor went to great lengths to keep it Assyrian? Examples abound. What about the Synhados, what about Bar Hebraeus?

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVING THE PROJECT

No one should discourage an ambitious young man. But let us be clear: This is a person who will not call himself Assyrian nor should we expect him to have our interests at heart. We can benefit still from mutual aid where our interests converge. Through this project, there is barely minimal convergence at present. We should not support the project as it is. This project needs much honing to better serve our community. This is the prime concern. Here are some suggestions.

  • If this is a project intended to preserve and make available materials related to our culture, why not start with the digitalization of Syriac (only) manuscripts - hundreds of them are falling apart in monasteries and in western libraries. They are not available to any one save a few who ought not to be handling them in their present physical condition anyhow.
  • If this is a project with a clear goal, why not seek funds from the multitude of sources beginning with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Preservation of a culture as rich as ours deserves and will get attention IF the project is well defined and the goals and methods of achieving the goals are understood.
  • To how many people will the digitalization of books already in major libraries be of any use? Maybe a hundred. But if the printed books that are less available, in private monastic and church libraries were digitalized, at least they would be preserved and disseminated to scholars who are present have no opportunity to examine them at all. The project scope is far too broad and unclearly defined. The initiators of this project, and its church and academic endorsers, if they do not have a hidden agenda, need to think through their project goals and scope carefully.
  • Exactly what defines the books (and articles, pictures and so forth) that they wish to digitalize? Where do they draw the line between what is Syriac in the narrow academic sense and what is Syriac in the way that term is defined by the Syriac/Assyrian Orthodox Church and in the community at large?
  • Whom is this project going to serve? Are there layman who need to access the sermons of John Stylis, Michael the Syrian, Elyas of Nisibis? If so, some notion of the numbers of people whom this will serve will be needed. Scholars can get this material through inter-library loan.
  • Is the goal to make Church Syriac materials more easily available to scholars in digital form? This project fills that need but how much of a priority is this goal when we, in the Assyrian community have such pressing needs in education and preservation of vanishing materials?
  • Who makes the decisions on what will be digitalized? The donor of the $250? Not to our knowledge. Then who makes the decision?

These are among the leading questions any funding organization would demand to have clarified. We too should be asking these questions and getting clear, not obfuscating answers.

The goals and the methods as well as the institutional basis of the Syriac Digital Library remain far too ill-defined to merit support as is. Indeed, the chances are that this project could become a source of division rather than enhancement of our culture. To those who see the initial merits of this project, one can say, bravo for recognizing the need to make good use of internet capacity. But just because a technology is available does not mean we should leap into it carelessly. Perhaps George Kiraz will direct his considerable energies to re-examining this project as should anyone who is concerned with it. Take some time to examine how it can be enhanced to serve our culture and to bring us into cooperative arrangements. We cannot afford to divert funds from educational projects of real merit and long term benefit for something that is dubious in all but its superficial aspects.



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