His Grace Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East paid a pastoral-cultural visit to the two Middle Eastern countries, Dubai of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan, during the first week of November 2001. Mar Bawai serves as Bishop for California and he is also Secretary-General of his Church’s Inter-Church Relations and Education Development (www.cired.org).
In addition to his visit with Assyrian families, his stop over in the city of Dubai included ecumenical meetings with Fr. Daniel, the head of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Fr. John Basel, the head of the Maronite Church both in Dubai, UAE. A highlight of his Grace’s cordial visit was his tour of (Madrasat Al Rashid Al Salih) the Private Good Shepherd School of the Chaldean Sisters. His Grace showed great interest in the school’s successful history, outstanding achievements and distinguished reputation.
His Grace’s presence in Dubai also marked an unprecedented Assyrian wedding, which he officiated on November 1. Both Assyrians and other nationalities attended the ceremony, some Assyrians having travelled from as far as Europe and the USA. Held within the superb structure of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the marriage was celebrated in accordance with rites and traditions of the Assyrian Church of the East. Throughout the Burakha of the Groom, Roy Emanuel Kelaita (from London, England), and the Bride, Sargina Kelaita (from Vancouver, Canada), His Grace offered the attendance a succinct explanation in English highlighting the symbolism of the Assyrian ceremony. The parents of the Groom, Mr. and Mrs. Emanuel Kelaita were honoured by Mar Bawai’s acceptance of their invitation to preside over their son’s wedding.
The ceremony was followed by a traditionally Assyrian reception and dinner party at one of Dubai’s leading 5-star hotels and was attended by close to 200 invitees who happily took to the dance floor with their vigorous renditions of Khigga, a favourite Assyrian folk dance. The party carried through to the early hours of the morning, enriched by the musical talents of renowned Assyrian singer, Ogin Bet Shmouel of Los Angeles. Accompanying Mr. Ogin were notable saxophonist Johnson Babella of London, England and leading keyboardist, George Esho from Sweden.
For those not familiar with the Emirate of Dubai, it is worth noting that there is an Assyrian population of approximately 150 members (families and singles) hailing from the USA, UK, Australia, Holland, Sweden, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Having come to Dubai for business and employment. The Assyrian community is remarkably active and frequently partakes in social gatherings, parties and picnics especially when commemorating national occasions in the Assyrian calendar such as April 1, Assyrian Martyrs’ Day in the month of August and Kalu Sulaqa.
Following his stay in Dubai, His Grace Mar Bawai proceeded to Amman, Jordan where a significantly higher concentration of 5000 Assyrian individuals is largely comprised of refugees. This figure does not include the considerable number of followers of the Chaldean Church residing as refugees in Amman also.
Sadly, for nearly all Assyrians in Jordan, life is extremely harsh, full of uncertainties and morale-breaking obstacles. Our displaced brothers and sisters do not know what will become of them, nor of their children. Their life is a life of constant fear overshadowed by the serious threat of having their unauthorized presence in Jordan leading to police arrest and probable deportation. Due to their questionable legal status, these unfortunate victims are not in a position to attain employment. Even in the best of circumstances, Jordan is plagued with an escalating rate of unemployment and possesses very meagre resources. There is a general feeling of deep disappointment among the residing Assyrians and even anger towards their compatriots who live in the West. Those in Jordan feel they have been severely neglected and forgotten; not only by their brothers and sisters in Diaspora but also by the Church of the East, so-called Assyrian political parties and by the Assyrian national and international organizations.
The misery of our people in Jordan weighs heavily on the minds of the small Assyrian community living more comfortably in Dubai. The visit of H.G. Mar Bawai served as a catalyst for Dubai-based Assyrians to put their existing plan of assistance into affirmative action. To this end, three Assyrian individuals accompanied His Grace to Amman; Mr. Emanuel Kelaita, a UK businessman; Mr. Toma Rowel Youkhana, a businessman from Jordan, and Mr. Aprim Shapera of London, England. Upon its arrival to Amman, this four-man delegation was greeted by members of the church committee along with three priests of the Church of the East (new and old calendars). The three priests, like all the other refugees, came from Iraq to Amman in a bid to reach their final and more promising western destination. The refugee community in Jordan does not have a permanently appointed priest. The Chaldean Catholic Church, by comparison, does not face this problem because there are a number of existing priests and church-buildings in Amman.
The four-man delegation conducted several meetings with the Church committee and priests to discuss the various issues facing Assyrians in Jordan and how best to alleviate their plight. It was made clear from the outset that neither the Assyrian Church of the East nor any Assyrian organization could provide any effective assistance in such matters as unemployment and residency. The reason for such situation is that questions related to employment and residency permits are exclusively under the control of the Jordanian government and bound by the national laws which are applied across-the-board to 400,000 refugees from Iraq (majority of whom are Arab and Muslims) and to the other illegal emigrants from other countries. Nevertheless, the delegation focused on raising financial assistance from Diaspora and the best way of delivering aid (financial and non–financial) to the Assyrians of Jordan.
His Grace conveyed the concern and sympathy of His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East and those of the Assyrians in California for the hardships endured by their brothers and sisters in Jordan. On behalf of some Assyrians in the State of California, namely, Diocese of Western California, Assyrian Foundation of America in San Francisco and Bet-Eil Assyrian Evangelical Church of San Jose. His Grace presented the Amman Church Committee a sizeable contribution designated for the use of the Assyrian school - Madrashta (some 300 boys and girls study the Assyrian language) and for the benefit of the congregation’s needy families and sick people.
Several conclusions were reached following these meetings:
The meetings held in Jordan left a deep and lasting impression on the members of the community since it represented the inaugural gesture of financial and moral support. Several individuals spoke of a renewed hope in coping with their crippling circumstances.
H.G. Mar Bawai and his three-man delegation visited several of the most destitute Assyrian families in Amman and they also attended several constructive meetings with CARITAS, Pontifical Mission to Palestine(of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association), the Vatican Embassy to Jordan, the Italian Catholic Hospital, the Committee of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church (Melkites) in Amman where the Assyrian Church of the East (Old Calendar) and Assyrian Madrashta perform their activities in its hall.
As is customary, such a prominent and spiritual visit does not end without Holy Communion (Qurbana). On Sunday November 4, H.G. Mar Bawai, assisted by the three priests from the Assyrian Church (both Old and New Calendars) and Fr. Emanuel of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and seven deacons offered the Holy Qurbana at the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Afram (Mar Aprim) to a congregation of nearly 600. This was followed by a breakfast gathering in the church hall, which was marked by the remarkable vocals of the Assyrian Choir and a welcoming speech by the Chairman of the Church committee. At this time, His Grace also addressed the attendees explaining the purpose of his visit and expressing his heartfelt sympathy, and that of the Dubai-based Assyrians, for the difficulties they are facing in Amman.
In an unprecedented gesture by any high-ranking cleric of the Assyrian Church of the East, His Grace invited questions from the audience. Expectedly, many of the questions dealt with issues of unemployment and residency coupled with the possibility of financial aid from the Church and the Assyrians in the West. Again in his replies, Mar Bawai emphasized the fact that such issues like employment and residency permit in Jordan are matters beyond the Church’s ability as well as the Assyrian national organizations. In regards to the questions of financial assistance, His Grace assured those in attendance that he would steadfastly continue in his endeavours to assist them.
A momentous occasion during the course of His Grace’s visit was his lecture on the evening of Sunday November 4. Organized by The Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS) and through the untiring efforts of Mr. Toma Rowel Youkhana and his personal contacts. Mar Bawai spoke on “The Assyrian Church of the East – A Brief Modern History” at the Diplomatic Institute Hall. This event was a first in the modern history of the Church and the Assyrian people since it embodied a pioneering platform whereby an Assyrian could so eloquently speak about his church and his nation’s history at a prestigious institute in the Middle East.
RIIFS was established in Amman in July of 1994 as a centre for the study of Christian and Jewish traditions. It later broadened its field of academic interest with a view to becoming a clearing-house for knowledge and ideas relating to cultural contact in the broadest possible sense. RIIFS is chaired by HRH Prince El Hassan Bin Talal (the former Crown Prince of Jordan). The director of the institute, Dr. Kamal Salibi is a member of the Rome Orthodox Church and is a professor in the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut. The speakers and lecturers of the RIIFS are mainly professors, high-ranking members of academic institutes, well-known writers, historians, political figures and religious leaders. More details can be obtained from the RIIFS website (www.riifs.org).
Following the presentation, there was a lively question and answer session from this audience of a selective group of intellectuals (including some Assyrians). Everyone acknowledged the significance of the lecture and the new information it presented on modern Assyrians and the history of their Church. Officials of the Institute then expressed their desire to obtain documents and books about Assyrian Church and nation so that it may all be included in the RIIFS library. On the following day, Monday November 5, there was a visit to the Head Office of RIIFS and a meeting with its Director and executive committee members during which several points of cooperation and information exchange were discussed and agreed upon.
The jam-packed visit of H.G. Mar Bawai along with a few Assyrian activists to Amman was not a mission of charity or merely to express sympathy for the needy Assyrians there. Nor was it to express support for emigration or to berate those who have fled the homeland while we, who call ourselves “Omtanayeh”, enjoy our lives in the West. The visit was in part to discharge the duty of all Assyrians to look after their desperate brothers and sisters, to share their sufferings, to strengthen their resolve in the face of adversity, and to hopefully make a small contribution to the betterment of their future.
Finally, the visit was a clear reminder to all Assyrians, their national organizations & political parties and their Church leaders that desperate and needy Assyrians are a part of us and that they must not be forgotten, ignored or brushed aside in the face of their adversities, otherwise who can dare and call himself or herself Assyrian or a Leader of Assyrians if he or she has no such duty towards his needy and desperate brothers or followers.