Foreigner But Your Brother, the Chaldean Church in Belgium
The following article was published in "Kerk en Leven", an official weekly magazine of the Flemish Catholic Church in Belgium which has approximately 1.8 million readers.
The tenth anniversary of the Gulf War coincides with the first extensive presence of Iraqi, Iranian, Syriac and Turkish Christians in our land. Through their arrival in our cities they enriched our local churches and parishes with their Chaldean rites, traditions and Christian customs.
"Baaben dilee beishmaayaa". In that language Jesus must have spoken when the Twelve asked Him how they had to pray to the Lord Almighty and He teached them the words of the Lord's Prayer. Generation upon generation Christians from all over the world have passed this prayer to one another. They have translated this prayer in all the languages of the world.
But there is a people that has kept the original words in the old language in which is was told, throughout the centuries: the Assyrians who still speak Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus the Messiah, here in Belgium. The Assyrian Christians, to which belong also f.i. the Melchites , which we presented in the passed month (our edition 31th. january last) and the Chaldeans, which we present today.
Patros Yusuf Iliya came eight years ago to Belgium, with his wife and his seven children and the grandparents. After a long and dangerous voyage which took him two years and which started in the mountain area in the north of Iraq. His eldest son Yacup was indeed very young when under the regime of Sadam Hussein, the Assyrian-Christian villages in that mountain area along the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, were burned down. "We were driven out, chased like dogs to the inland of Iraq because we were suspected of have helped the uprising of the Kurds in our region. In that civil war we were between the hammer and the anvil: a very dangerous, even a deadly position. Most of the Assyrian familys were forced to go to the cities Zakkho and Bagdad. During the bombardments of Bagdad in the Gulf War we could escape back to our villages in the mountains. At that stage there was total chaos in the region." says Yacup: "Each group or 'gang' of Kurds that possessed weapons tried to overrule the others and rule the region. At our return to our village we found our houses plundered, destroyed, burned out or occupied by the Kurds.
There was no other solution than crossing the border into Turkey and there we met old friends and family. My parents with seven children and my grandparents then risked the voyage to Western Europe, not knowing in which country we would arrive and how we would survive."
YARAMIS: The Turkish and Iraqi Assyrians are related through family ties. They live in the same region and are both Christians since many centuries. Although the history of the states Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria isn't the same, the Assyrians which originally lived in Mesopotamia (Bet-Nahren) since more than five thousand years, lived until now in the border regions of those states.
In Turkey during and after the first world war there was the Armenian Genocide and because Assyrians were Christians too, the persecution and the slaughter turned also on them: about 250.000 Assyrians were killed or slaughtered to use the exact word. Until this very day persecution of the Christian minority goes on and Christian Assyrians have still no human rights at all. They live in far away villages in the mountains of Hakkari. Their priests can but visit them once or twice a year. The children can go to Turkish State schools only for five years and Islam is what they have to learn. Their own language, nor their own culture nor their own religion cannot be learned. The Turkish authorities even decreted after the first world war a common name for the whole village of Geznagh. It is that name that we find today in about 100 families here in Antwerp and Brussels.
YARAMIS: What means 'Those who have served us' is none other than the name of a "slave". This name made it easy for the government to recognise Christians while drafting new recruits for the army so they could be employed in the first and most dangerous lines in the war against P.K.K. in Iraq the situation was different. After their villages were destroyed, almost all of the majority of Assyrians had to move into cities like Zakkho, Mosul or Baghdad. There they had to become anonymous or even choose an Arabic name and keep very, very quiet. But in these cities there were good schools and even Christian churches. "During the Gulf War, the distance between Assyrians and Muslims kept growing very wide." says Yacup Patros Iliya. "The Americans, the enemies were depicted as "christian-dogs" and of course we were suspected of being treators. This idea of being constantly suspected as allies of the Western Christian World was so strongly pressured upon us that we ourselves had to fight the idea of being really an enemy in our own land."
THE "CHRISTIAN" WEST: "And then that very dangerous voyage to Western Europe... At our arrival in Antwerp it was a big shock for me. I was impressed: almost at every corner of the street there was a church... but all those churches were practically empty on Sundays." Having only fifteen years, Yacup returned to school and after only a year, he speaks the Dutch language. Many Assyrian youngsters take the opportunity to go to good schools and colleges and become someone now that they have the chance to get a good education.
Most of the Assyrian families found new homes in Antwerp, Malines and Brussels. All together there are at this very day about 14,000 Assyrians in Belgium. Because there cannot be a return to Assyria, many Assyrians became Belgians. In the Church of Saint Ann in Schaarbeek near Brussels, an Assyrian priest celebrates each week the Holy Mass in the Chaldean rite for the Assyrian community in Brussels. He may soon be assisted by a newly consecrated Assyrian priest, who found his vocation here in Belgium. Patros, Yacup's father is enthusiastic about the welcome and good reception of the Assyrian refugee families in the parish of Saint Eligius, here in Antwerp. The parish priests, Jan Peeters and Johan Huybrechts received the many Assyrians with open arms. They found help by some volunteers as Gabriël van Hoorick, who became a very good friend of the Assyrian people in our district. "The Assyrian Christians are a blessing sent by God to our parish" he says, "They have brought a fresh wind in our church and community. When I met the family of Patros, six years ago at first I was very interested in their culture, their language and how it came that they had such a strong belief in God. I was deeply touched by their Faith and that inspired me very much. Each time I visited the family (I helped a bit for getting through their request to get humanitarian asylum), it seemed that I had taken a bath in love amidst parents, children, grandparents and Assyrian housefriends. It was a wonderful experience: their hospitallity and friendliness have inspired me to be a better man."
BIBLE LESSONS: Since a couple of years the parish of St. Eligius organises a series of bible afternoons for the Assyrian youth from 8 to 11 years. They are told the great stories of the Old and New Testament, they learn about Abraham from Chaldea, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Mozes, Joshua and also about Jona, the man who was sent to Nineveh by God. These bible afternoons are a success because the parents asked for these and they stand firm behind our initiative. The books of the Old Testament are strongly related with the history of our Assyrians friends ... remember the book Daniël a.s.o. The Gospel as it is written down in the New Testament is the base of Assyrian Faith and that is what they fought and died for in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
And Yacup says: "It is a pity that the lessons in religion in Belgian schools are nowadays no more than lessons in philosophy. What our children need is a truly Christian education in the Faith of our forefathers. Our language is the language that was spoken by the Messiah, Jesus Himself. We want to behold this language and learn to write and read it. Our Faith is the most important heritage for us. We fought and died for It." "Our parish has helped the Assyrians to take part in the life of our local community by strengthening them in their own Assyrian identity and being proud to be Assyrian" says priest Johan Huybrechts. "They are very important for our parish and our local church. Again we see young children coming to our church with their parents and not alone only older men and women. It is good that they can play their role as being youngsters here in our district. Young people attract other young people so we hope we can revitalise our local church. Economically speaking, the Assyrians are important for the liveableness and spirit of our quarter of the city with a population of most elderly people and also with the Islamic Turks and Kurds who are also inhabitants."
Patros Yusuf Iliya became a well known man in our community: he is active in the parish and in all kinds of cultural associations. The battle against racism in our city and the conquest for a more tolerant way of life is fought here by the Assyrians themselves. But we have still a long way to go: many older people consider the Assyrians still as foreigners, not as brothers and sisters of the same Faith. But what can they do about the unimaginable friendliness and hospitality of our Assyrian friends: sooner or later they have to surrender and become friends.
(article by Mrs. Lieve Wouters - translation by G. van Hoorick from the Dutch.)
Copyright "Kerk en Leven" Halewijnlaan 92 B 2050
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