Two Iraqi bishops — leaders of two faith communities — have joined together on an uncommon mission.
Bishops Mar Sarhad Yawsip Jammo and Mar Bawai Soro not only share a common vision of a reunified church of the East, but see that unification as vital to preserving the rich spiritual history of Iraq.
The church leaders discussed the topic, “Christianity in Mesopotamia from Evangelization to the 21st Century,” during the annual meeting of the Eastern Catholic Pastoral Association held Jan. 20 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Sacramento.
They also discussed their personal experiences of growing up in Iraq and the present situation in that country in an interview with The Herald.
Bishop Jammo is head of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of the Western United States (Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle), based in El Cajon, California, and Bishop Soro leads the Christian Assyrian Church of the East (Diocese of Western California), based in San Jose.
“This is a very special church we are talking about,” Bishop Jammo said, referring to the Church of the East. “On a faith level we are the same. We've got to come together again.”
Echoing that sentiment, Bishop Soro spoke of the spiritual bond uniting the two faith communities.
“We realize our mission is really to love one another,” he said. “When we begin the process of imitating God,...we can become real Christians who find themselves united in so many different ways.”
The Assyrian Church, which is rooted in the missionary preaching of the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew, became isolated from other Christians following the Council of Ephesus in 431.
The Chaldean Catholic Church was formed in the mid-16th century by a group of bishops who separated from the Assyrian Church to enter into union with Rome.
“This is a church that has biblical footing; this is a church that is apostolic, where spiritually there is a beginning of humankind,” said Bishop Jammo, as he discussed the history of Mesopotamia, the site of the world's first civilization and land that includes the present-day Iraq. “We have to keep it for all Christianity.”
Bishops Jammo and Soro have played a prominent role in efforts to reestablish full ecclesial unity between the Chaldean Catholic and Assyrian churches. Both contributed significantly toward the signing by Pope John Paul II in 1994 of the Common Christological Declaration with the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.
The religious leaders were both born and raised in Iraq. Bishop Jammo was born in Baghdad and Bishop Soro in Kirkuk.
Bishop Jammo said as a Christian growing up in the Islamic state of Iraq , where he lived until he moved to Rome in 1958 at age 17, he lived within a definite framework of restrictions.
“Freedom of religion was not freedom of religion — it was freedom of worship,” said Bishop Jammo, clarifying the distinction between the two. “The media was dominated by Muslim culture. A Christian could become a Christian but a Muslim was not allowed to become a Christian.”
Bishop Soro left Iraq in his late 20s for the United States to serve as a priest in the Assyrian Church . He said living in the United States reshaped his perception that he lived a “normal life” growing up.
“Assyrians come from a context of isolation. People labored hard,” he said. “Coming to the West... there is an added value to individual liberties and respect for various aspects of our humanity.”
The bishops spoke movingly of the humanitarian crisis the Iraqi people have suffered for decades and the need to rebuild a culture that has long been suppressed.
Bishop Soro said the rise of Islam in 630 under the leadership of the prophet Mohammed “at a time when Christians were killing one another in the absence of a Catholic and general Christianity,” would ultimately prove to be “a most influential factor in shaping the history of humanity today.”
He discussed the impact of the terror and persecution that defined the reign of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“Nobody knew about the atrocities this guy for 35 years had been inflicting,” he said, recalling the amazement several American priests expressed when he talked with them several years ago about Hussein's oppression of non-Arab ethnicities in Iraq. “Now everybody knows, but really the reality hasn't changed. We are still suffering.”
As U.S. officials move through the transition from war to determining the form Iraq 's new government will take, the bishops expressed grave concerns about the violence being inflicted on the Iraqi people. Thousands of prisoners released by Hussein before he was overthrown now kill, steal, rape and kidnap, they said, and churches have not been spared this violence.
Bishop Jammo reported that Christmas night Masses were canceled this year because of the lack of security and many churches are canceling first Communion classes for the same reason.
“People cannot go into the streets or to churches for fear of being kidnapped or attacked, not only because they are Christians,” he said.
Bishop Soro believes the war itself was a positive exercise because it removed oppression. He identified, however, the dissolution by U.S. administrators of the Iraqi army and police force as two mistakes made early on during the occupation.
“As a consequence, there was a huge amount of unemployment, an increase in crime and a gap in security,” Bishop Soro said. “Iraqis know how to handle Iraqis — they know the language and they know the culture.”
He pointed out that Christians and ethnic minorities have always played a “significant and civilized role in progressing the affairs of Iraq ,” and sees the unification of Christians as even more crucial today.
Currently there are about 700,000 Chaldean Catholics and more than a million Assyrian Christians in Iraq. Other Christians in Iraq include Syriac Catholics and members of the Syriac Orthodox and Protestant churches.
But the fact remains, Bishop Soro hastened to add, that the Chaldean and Assyrian population in Iraq is dwindling. Following World War I, about 90 percent of this population lived in Iraq with the balance in other countries in the Middle East and a few in the United States. By World War II, about 70 percent lived in Iraq and the other 30 percent had moved to Western Europe and the United States. By 2003, only about 40 percent of the Eastern Christian population remained in Iraq.
“At this rate by 2010 there will be only 20 percent Assyrians and Chaldeans remaining in Iraq ,” Bishop Soro said. “We have been living in a very dynamic reality for 2,000 years and now need to rethink our differences.”
Whether the United Nations or NATO should take a leadership role in shaping the new government in Iraq is the only matter related to these issues on which the two bishops do not agree.
“For me the United States is a major player, but you need some international global reference (to preserve) the balance of ethnicities,” Bishop Jammo said. “If you don't preserve that, Christianity and freedom will be compromised.”
It is Bishop Soro's opinion, however, that if the United Nations is involved, the struggle of power between “the rising superiority of Europe and the existing superiority of the United States” could be a negative factor in determining the democratic process in Iraq.