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One Step Forward, Five Backward

Perspective: Guest-Editorial

by Bailis Yamlikha Shamun. The Assyrian Star, Volume 34, No. 2, March-April 1985.

Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 03:19 PM UTC


The sacred emblems of Assyria which have been adopted by other religions.

The sacred emblems of Assyria
which have been adopted by other religions.

I shall tackle a sensitive but important issue. It deals with the role of foreign missionaries in the development of our recent history. There are those Assyrians who are adamant in their thinking that the Western missionaries who visited the Middle East during the 19th century were not only Godsent to "properly" Christianize the Assyrians, but also responsible for our survival following the turbulent years of World War I. This is a fallacy. We are neither religiously better off nor nationally. To render credence to my argument, perhaps a brief review of history might be necessary.

Assyrians collectively embraced the Christian religion during the first century. More importantly, in the following centuries, missionaries of our ancient Church of the East embarked on the most zealous missionary undertaking the Christian World has experienced. They headed in all directions proselyting NON-CHRISTIANS to the new faith. It was literally an explosion of missionary work spreading throughout Asia, from the lower tip of Arabia to India, China and Mongolia. Our Lord had commanded, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.... (Matthew 28:19). With total disregard for their well-being, devoid of any political ambitions, and carrying the barest necessities, these Assyrian believers proceeded to spread the message of Jesus Christ with relentlessness unsurpassed in Christian history. They followed the Lord's command to the letter. This work was so extensive that, in Dr. John Stewart's book "Nestorian Missionary Enterprise" the Assyrian Church of the East is referred to as "The greatest missionary Church the world has ever known" (Chapter 4, page 88).

The Westerners, on the other hand, came supported by strong missions and backed by powerful governments. Their religious appearance, on occasion, concealed political motives. And they did their work not among heathens but among Christians. Christianity was born in the Middle East. Our Lord not only looked like us but also spoke our language. We have been Christians since the dawn of the religion. Is it not ironic that these latter-day Christians should cross the oceans to the birthplace of Jesus and preach His message to those who had willingly accepted it in the first place?

Having failed to convert non-Christians, either as a result of pressure from the local governments or for other reasons, the foreign missionaries directed their attention to the Christian minorities. The Assyrians, an old, innocent and religiously contented people, now found themselves bombarded from all sides with religious dogmas alien to their nature. The tactics of this onslaught was not always ethical either, as material enticement, at times, played a part in the process of conversion. The result was that the Assyrians, who had practiced and spread Christianity for centuries under the banner of their Ancient Church of the East, were split into denominations that did not, and do not today, concur with each other. This separation and the subsequent thinning of the Assyrian entity constitute a serious blow dealt this poor minority. Indeed, the results have been quite damaging.

Politically, the influx of Western missionaries has had a negative effect as well. The common religious beliefs they shared with the Assyrians and other" Christian minorities, alienated the non-Christian inhabitants of the area. And when the major Western powers, with whom these foreigners were associated, began demonstrating their political intentions in the Middle East, the suspicions of the local Moslems were to be expected. The Assyrians, who had lived with their neighbors for centuries, were now perceived as enemies. The ensuing frictions, massacres and the dislocation of our people are common knowledge on which further dwelling is spared in this article.

In fairness, we must also point out the positive contributions of the foreign visitors. Prior to their arrival, some of these missionaries were probably under the impression that their hosts-to-be were hordes of primitive savages. As these Americans and Europeans mingled with the Assyrians, they found them to be industrious, honest and self-sufficient. They also found them to be genuinely religious. In fact, some of these visitors were so impressed with us and the way we conducted our affairs, that they were totally absorbed into the Assyrian society. They learned our language and customs, spent their entire lives among our people and are buried in our cemeteries. Moreover, they rendered their assistance not by converting us to a different brand of Christianity, but by improving our lot while we adhered to the beliefs of our ancestors. These emissaries of American and European missions were instrumental in the establishment of schools, clinics and printing presses. This kind of authentic and sincere association produced benefits which objectivity dictates be recognized with gratitude.

All this notwithstanding, the final outcome of such contacts has been unfavorable. A people that is united religiously, culturally, socially and politically, has a much better chance of survival as a body than one that is divided. This is particularly true with respect to a minority with no government of its own. Before the arrival of the missionaries, we were practicing our Christian faith as followers of the Assyrian Ancient Church of the East probably the oldest Christian institution. Today, there is not a denomination from which Assyrians are absent. Such dilution has rendered all our churches ineffective. The disadvantages of this unfortunate state of affairs are not limited to the religious side of the coin either. Religious disagreements filter down to affect secular behavior and attitudes. Today, in Chicago, we do not have a formal school or a cultural center worth mentioning although our language is taught here and there. We cannot boast of a reputable organization to assist the needy of our people and there exists no effective political leadership. Yet, we have ten churches each trying to prove its true interpretations of the scriptures. To some extent, religious denominations are responsible for this preposterous imbalance.

Again, objectivity demands that part of the condemnation be directed at our own people. There is a tendency among the Assyrians to find scapegoats for their ills. Somehow, our troubles are always caused by certain governments, this group or that individual. Let's remember that we are not the only nation that has suffered. History abounds with examples. Yet, other people, at some point, have come to analyze their problems and find the necessary solutions. If the time and effort wasted on blaming other parties for our misfortunes were spent in search and application of alternative remedies, our condition would be much better indeed.

Such hackneyed approaches, coupled with religious differences, are the source of the problem. We have a sector which is so busy throwing blame at others, that it, literally, has no time to accomplish anything productive. On the other hand, there is a second group which has directed all its energies toward religious endeavors and has become totally oblivious to the fact that survival as a nation requires more than religion. Religious divisions, planted among us by Western missionaries, have to bear part of the blame. I reiterate, that such religious denominations, in themselves, do not necessarily have to be causes for problems. But, in our case, they are because quite a few of the people involved are limited in their scope of comprehension. It is like handing a matchbook to a child on a cold night to start a fire and keep warm. If he ends up burning himself, whoever gave him the matches must be held responsible for the mishap, regardless of how well-intentioned he originally was.

It is said that truth hurts. Thus, some readers might be distressed by this article. It is also said, however, that the only time truth hurts is when it should.

I would conclude by stating that the disadvantages of our association with foreign missionaries far exceed the benefits. For the one step forward, we have retreated five steps from which, in the absence of a fundamental change in direction, we shall continue to suffer for a long, long time.



Editors' Note: The following information is provided here for reference and historical purposes only and does not reflect this website's perspective.

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Zakka Iwaz

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas

We, in our Apostolic power, declare our distress and disapproval to the new names which have appeared lately and which have been attached to our Church and our people such as 'Assyrian', 'Aramaean' and the like.  These names aim at distracting the existence of our Church, dividing its children, destroying the landmarks of its glories, and annihilating its civilization and its spiritual and humanitarian traditions.  But Christ is in its midst and she is unshakable; its shepherds are vigilant and awake, protecting its walls, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

His Holiness, Ignatius Zakka I Iwas
November, 1981: Syrian Orthodox Church Patriarchal Encyclical


Wikileaks: Assyrian Orthodox Patriarch Criticizes U.S.

November, 1981: Syrian Orthodox Church Patriarchal Encyclical

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