Assyrian Education Network

Arabic, Arabism and the Syriac-speaking Churches in the Middle East: A Historical Perspective

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 07:40 PM CT

Recent declarations by certain clergymen that the Syriac speaking Christians of the Near East are ethnically Arabs had aroused deep resentments and anger among many Assyrians from all religious denominations, whether members of the Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church or Syriac Orthodox Church. The Assyrians were many centuries recognized through their Christian denominations. They were referred to as Suryayeh (singular Suryaya), Jacobites and Nestorians. In the last few centuries members of the last two denominations, i.e. Jacobites and Nestorians, entered into communion with the Vatican and in order to distinguish these newly established congregations they were given the titles Syrian Catholics and Chaldeans respectively.

The Assyrians have dwelled in Northern Mesopotamia (Assyria) for approximately five millenniums and established various dynasties and civilization thousands of years before Arabs were introduced to the region as nomads around the northern outskirts of the Arabian Peninsula desert. The Assyrians, as a stateless nation since their empire had fallen in 612 BC, converted to Christianity in the 1st century and continued to speak various dialects of Aramaic, which has a wealth of Assyrian Akkadian loan words in it, to this very day. A very small percentage of Assyrians living in some remote areas remained loyal to their ancient god Ashur (Assur) even into the very early Islamic period as recorded by the Abbasid Caliph while passing through Harran. The Assyrians, as Christians now, had established communities in the Northern Mesopotamian region for nearly 640 years before Islam swept the region. These Christian communities lived as peasant subjects under many powers that invaded the region ever since. They had witnessed repeated waves of persecutions and when fortunate enough to go through few peaceful intervals, they worked hard to preserve their literary language through the churches of their forefathers until today.

So, if we know all this from history and I am sure that our clergymen know this very well too through a combination of church records; reliable history books; and archaeological excavations, why do clergymen make declarations contrary to these facts? Why do few clergymen make declarations that they, for example, were Arabs? And does the congregation have the right to ask them not to meddle in the national affairs of the community? And how critical are statements of clergymen regarding this issue in these so dangerous times?

In order to analyze this, let us take Syria as a prototype country since many of the latest declarations had come from there and let us try to explain the many questions asked above.

We know that the Roman Catholic Church had maintained correspondences with the Orthodox Churches in the Near East after the Crusaders. But with the Protestant Reformation threatening the "true faith" on the European continent, Rome began to expand efforts to convince the hierarchies of the Eastern Orthodox Churches to enter into communion with the Vatican. The Roman Catholic clerics began to pour into the Near East and began to proselytize in the 17th century, but not among Moslems, rather among the already Christian Orthodox! Some claim that while the Crusaders had opened a new wound in the Eastern Christian flesh, the coming of the Latin priests had destroyed the integrity of Eastern Christianity!

It is recorded that St. Francis of Assisi had signed an understanding with the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil in the 13th century through which many privileges in the sultanate were given to the Roman Catholic priests. Those privileges were honored and renewed routinely by the Ayyubid successors, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. [1] In addition, the capitulatory treaty signed between France and the Ottoman Empire in 1604 granted Roman Catholic pilgrims, priests, and French clerics yet further privileges and proclaimed France as guardian of the holy places. The treaty of 1673 extended diplomatic status to priests and religious serving the French consuls in "Galata, Izmir, Sidon, Alexandria and wherever else Frenchmen resided" under the terms of the capitulatory treaties. These agreements provided the legal pretext under which Latin priests would enter the sultan's realms, openly wearing their clerical garb. France was recognized in these protocols as enjoying pride of place among the Christian nations represented at the Porte. It would persist in its role as the official protector of the Empire's Christians, and especially Catholics, until Russia challenged that preeminence and claimed the right to protect the empire's Orthodox Christians after the treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. [2]

Beyond French intentions and papal ambitions, a necessary condition for the success of the missionary effort was the official Ottoman attitude toward the transfer of loyalties by the dhimmi population from patriarch to pope… France's Ambassador in Istanbul succeeded in convincing the Porte to issue a berat naming the Catholic priests in Aleppo as chaplains to the consul… French activism in support of the missionary activity substantially increased with the consulship of Francois Picquet in Aleppo (1652-1662). Picquet was the first to link France's economic and political interests in the Ottoman Empire directly to the Catholic cause. His consulship also coincided with a growing interest among the leadership of all the Eastern churches for dialogue with Roman Catholic clerics. [3]

In February 1690, the French ambassador in Istanbul obtained an imperial decree, directed to the governors of the provinces of Egypt, Aleppo, Damascus, Tripoli, Diyarbakir, Mosul, Raqqa, Baghdad, Erzurum, and Cyprus, informing them that the Jesuits and other French priests who were teaching the principles of the Christian faith were to be left alone…Not only was the term millet absent from the order, but the French were implicitly given the right to "convert" members of the Eastern-rite churches to Catholicism. The order came in the wake of a major Ottoman defeat at the hands of the Hapsburgs and, undoubtedly, reflected an attempt by the sultan to curry favor with France. Although this was the first time that the Catholics missionaries were given explicit permission to proselytize openly, it is also clear that there was concurrently an awakening concern in Istanbul that the Catholics were indeed subversive. [4]

By 1700, many Syrian seminaries belonging to all four sects, Rum, Jacobites, Maronites and Armenians were in Rome getting trained in the Vatican. Upon their return, these Latin-trained clergymen began to occupy some of the already existing Orthodox Churches while their original owners stood helpless. [5]

To answer why Christians of Syria chose Catholicism, various historians give divert reasons, but they agree, argued Bruce Masters, that "the pull of localism was also a strong factor in the Syrian Christians' choice of the Catholic option. The Uniate churches allowed their congregations to participate in the mass through the medium of Arabic, replacing the traditional Greek and Syriac. As the result of their linguistic choice, Arab nationalists historians have often represented the Uniates as being in the vanguard of a nascent Arabist movement." [6] TheCzar Nicholas I (1825-1855) envoy to the region, Uspenski, reported that the Catholics and Protestants were making gains over the Orthodox due to the respect the prior had shown to the Arabic language. [7]

It is well established that the inter-religious events of Moslem-Christian communal warfare changed the whole picture of the Syriac speaking Christians in Syria. The sectarian tension and the anti-Christian incidents of the 1850 in Aleppo, the 1860 in Damascus, the 1870s in Damascus again, and the other potential flash points changed the mentality of the Syriac speaking Christians. These events led to outburst of Christian immigration or at best cases their isolation within the country. Christian elite, mostly Orthodox and Protestant, began to articulate a new pattern of relations with their Moslem neighbors. They were very much aware of the dangers of the blind loyalties emerging from religious sectarian groups throughout history. [8] Christian elite likes Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883) began to stress Syria as a focus of loyalty. He declared: "Syria is our fatherland … and the inhabitants of Syria, whatever their creed, sect, or race, are the sons of our fatherland." [9]

The mid 19th century sectarian conflicts were not going to stop and no one could guarantee that they were to end in the future, the 1975 Lebanese Civil War was another example. The Christian elite began to articulate a non-sectarian Syrian Arab national identity in order to maintain a political reconciliation among the religious factors. The Christian intellectuals deeply involved themselves in the classical Arabic culture and established links with like-minded Moslems. Together they established the foundation for political ideals known today as "Arabism". [10] Although the trend continued towards Pan-Syrianism with the ideologies of Antun Sa'aada, a Greek Orthodox intellectual who founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), but the failed attempt to overthrow the Lebanese government and its experience by the SSNP in December 1961 changed completely the party's path. To avoid persecution and isolation, the SSNP stressed that it "agree on clear Pan-Arab objectives." [11] And the Christian elite, especially the Catholics, started this drive towards using the Arabic language in church services and the Orthodox elite ultimately promoted Arabic culture because of the emergence of the sectarian blind loyalties.

Now, what seemed like a step by the Christian intellectuals and elite to revive the Arabic literary movement ended up in national catastrophe for the non-Arab Syriac speaking Christian community. With the defining element of inclusion transferred from religion to language, the sectarianism of the 19th century was overran by the Arab nationalists ambitions of the early 20th century. In addition, Christian intellectuals feeling so proud of Arabic literature began to incorporate Arabic literary standards as their own and went yet further when they started to look at themselves as culturally Arabs. This path was aided by the tendency of other Christians to identify themselves as Syrians, i.e. people of Syria, as early as 18th century. Once Syriac speaking Christians began to establish their identity based on set geographical boundaries, which included a clear acceptance that Moslems could also be fellow Syrians, the issue of accepting an identity based on the language spoken by those sharing that geographical set territory became relatively easy. This was the beginning of a progression towards Arabism. The Arab's cultural 'nahdha' (renaissance) surely encouraged some Syriac speaking Christians to recast themselves as Arabs. The 'nahdha' of the Christians of Syria and Lebanon helped in the emergence of an Arab cultural consciousness among both Christians and Moslems. By adopting Arab identity and language, the Syriac speaking Christians of Syria, as many believe, no longer feel outsiders as they used to be looked at. [12]

Few clergymen have claimed in recent years that their Syriac-speaking congregation was an integral part of the Arab population. Some out there today justify those declarations by stating that such clergy were anticipating this phenomenon known today as the "clash of civilization" as those intellectuals had in the past. The Patriarchal magazine indicated that Patriarch Zakka I Iwas, for example, had said in speech on January 24, 2000 in Damascus: "… we are one Arab Nation …" The speech was printed in the Patriarchal Magazine. [13] Others have claimed that Patriarch Raphael BiDawid of the Chaldean Catholic Church, while he was a Bishop of Lebanon, had made remarks that his congregation was ethnically Arab. Although the Chaldean Patriarch declared differently in other occasions and most remembered has been his interview on the LBC international TV station where he declared that Chaldean is a religious sect and that Chaldeans were in fact Assyrians. Other clergymen in Iraq when interviewed are forced to claim things in parallel to such.

The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon building in Washington on September 11, 2001, and the consequent war on terrorism added to the dilemma of Christians of the East in general and those of the Middle East in particular. Few fanatic Moslems took advantage of the war on terrorisms introduced by the United States and presented it as a war of Christian west (new Crusaders) against Moslem east. Here, we began to witness higher-ranking Christian clergymen coming out with statements that they were Arabs and so forth in order to fuse, in my opinion, any tension. This reaction is being looked at as natural in the minds of few due to the circumstances since these clergy have big congregation in many of those Arab Moslem states. In around December 9, 2001, for example, all the Patriarchs residing in Syria, at a gathering with the Moslem leaders on the occasion of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, announced through their speeches tones steered towards that general direction. Those statements were heard and viewed by millions on al-Jazeera TV station. Patriarch Zakka I Iwas, for example, stated clearly in his speech "nahnu al-'Arab …" (we, the Arabs…). Sabro magazine showed that in a letter by Archbishop Clemis Eugene Kaplan, Archbishop of the Western United States Archdiocese, sent as an insert inside the Sabro magazine in which he claimed that he and his community were Syrian/Arab Orthodox Christians. Kaplan was originally born in Northeast Syria, but his family was originally from the city of Azakh/Beth Zabday in Southeast Turkey. [14] Molphono Gabriel Afram and Qolo Radio Station in Sweden had an interview with Bishop George Saliba, in around November 18, 2001, the Syraic Orthodox Church bishop in Lebanon, to clear the latter's statement with Ozgur Politika (the Turkish newspaper of the PKK) where the bishop was quoted stating that we were Arabs. The bishop very clearly claimed that the Christians who came from Turkey were Turkish and those from Syria and Iraq were Arabs.

These declarations are not out of the ordinary when the Christians of Syria have taken this path much earlier. Many of these clergy reside in the Middle East or are in the west but are under Patriarchs who reside in the Middle East and they are under the authority of the Arab Governments. Many believe that these clergymen have no option but to say so in these very dangerous times that add to the problem created earlier.

Should Assyrians in the west protest such declarations? I say, absolutely. Let the Arab governments understand that the Syriac Speaking Christian congregation in the west will not tolerate the Arabization process that has been followed by those governments since those Arab states were established in early and mid 20th century. And if Christians in Syria and Lebanon had in the past taken steps towards diffusing tensions between Moslems and Christians during the Arab Renaissance by promoting the Arab culture, that should not mean under any manner that these communities are ethnically Arabs. At the same time we must understand the position the clergy they are in. Many say that under any democratic and normal circumstances these clergymen would never make such declarations. But there is another opinion out there that disagree with the above and demand that clergymen should stand their ground and be proud of who they are even if that results in their personal persecution since they have devoted their lives to serve their people, the truth, and the word of God. These latter voices see such clergymen as weak and unworthy of the position they are occupying. They assert that clergymen must reflect the voice of the congregation and not their own and since the various Syriac-speaking congregations in general do not see themselves as Arab, clergymen should not make such declarations accordingly, and one must admit that these people have a valid point too.


[1] Bruce Masters. "Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism." 2001, p. 70.

[2] Ibid, p. 80.

[3] Ibid, p. 82.

[4] Ibid, pp. 84-85.

[5] Ibid, p. 85.

[6] Ibid, p. 87.

[7] Ibid, p. 153.

[8] Moshe Ma'oz. " Middle Eastern Minorities: Between Integration and Conflict." 1999, p.57.

[9] Daniel Pipes, "Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition", 1999, p. 36.

[10] Bruce Masters. "Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism." 2001, p. 172.

[11] Daniel Pipes, "Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition", 1999, p. 50.

[12] Bruce Masters. "Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism." 2001, p. 173.

[13] Patriarchal Magazine. Issues 191-193 / January-February-March 2000. Vol. 38.

[14] Sabro magazine. Vol. 3, July, August, September 2001, Issue 10.

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