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Press release: ACSYA INC., The Assyrian Journal unveil book review series

Thursday, 8 September 2022


SYDNEY/ WASHINGTON, 8 September 2022 – The Assyrian Cultural & Social Youth Association Inc. (ACSYA Inc.), headquartered in Sydney, Australia, and The Assyrian Journal, based in Washington, are pleased to announce a new book review partnership.

Each month, a written review of an Assyrian book will be published under a newly created Book Reviews section on The Assyrian Journal. Reviews are written by ACSYA Inc. Co-Founder, Jessi Arabou. The first reviewed book is William Warda’s 2013 novel, “Assyrians Beyond the Fall of Nineveh: A 2,624 Years Journey.” You can find the review here: Book review: Assyrians flourish following collapse of ancient empire

About ACSYA Inc.: The Assyrian Cultural & Social Youth Association is an independent non-profit organization headquartered in Sydney, Australia. Established in 2014, the organization strives to revive the Assyrian culture through field trips, exhibitions, workshops and training sessions.

About The Assyrian Journal: The Assyrian Journal is an independent news organization founded in 2017 and based in Washington that remains a source of comprehensive and original reporting on the global Assyrian community.


ACOE youth conference returns to Chicago, sets record participation

By Joe Snell | August 2022 | Photos contributed

The first Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) youth conference was held in Chicago in 1985 and consisted of about 80 people, according to Qasha Gewargis, a priest of the church and president of the National Executive Committee for the church’s youth groups. 

Thirty-seven years later, as the event returned to Chicago after nearly a decade absence, that number swelled to a record-setting 650 participants. 

“After COVID, people are yearning to meet new people and for their lives to be interactive once more,” said Peter Azzo, 22, a member of the conference planning committee who has participated in every conference since 2013. “But also as a youth, we’re becoming more organized and I think it’s having an impact at the parish level.”

The five-day event, held in Chicago from June 30-July 5, drew attendees from California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Texas and Canada and included lectures on growing closer to Christ, self-evaluation workshops and a meeting with the newly-elected patriarch. 

1985: The beginnings of youth conference

Before 1985, communication between North American ACOE parishes was limited to a handful of yearly meetings, according to Sargon Sarkis, who was president at the time of the Mar Gewargis youth group in Chicago.

The youth conference was developed by the church’s late patriarch Mar Dinkha and led by Sarkis, Gewargis and a handful of Chicago youth leaders in an effort to connect young people across parishes. The first event was held at the Mar Gewargis church and included an outdoor picnic, evenings parties and meetings on how to support parish projects. 

“We sent letters to other youth groups to participate,” Sarkis said, and confirmed that enthusiastic responses were received from others parishes in Chicago, New York, California, Detroit and Canada. 

The conference has since been held annually. Attendance has steadily grown as the host city started alternating and with the establishment of a National Executive Committee.

But Gewargis said the conference mission has remained the same: bring young people to Christ and bring them into their Assyrian identity through learning the language, culture, reading and writing and promoting the Assyrian entity as a whole.  

Conference returns to the Windy City

Chicago was slated to host conference in 2020, but the global coronavirus pandemic sidelined those plans. 

Development, however, continued around the conference theme: “Be Rooted,” after John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

The theme is in the vein of “a plant or a tree being rooted,” Gewargis told the Journal. One lecture discussed how the holy scriptures help one become rooted into the church and into Christ. Another was on self evaluation and preparedness in understanding your personal relationship with the Lord.

Attendance at scheduled events was mandatory as each participant had to join five lectures and prayer services. 

Due to the large turnout, lectures were divided between two age groups: 21-years-old and older, and those 20-years-old and younger. A separate hotel was booked across the street as new lecture rooms had to be reserved. 

Attendees also explored the city, taking in boat tours and on the final day, visiting the Six Flags theme park.

The newly elected patriarch of the church, Mar Awa Royel, who was on a US tour before returning to Iraq this month, handed out medals and took photos with each participant. 

“[The patriarch] being with us showed another standing of our patriarch with our youth, especially in the diaspora,” Azzo said.

Royel was elected in September as the church’s new patriarch. He is the first American-born leader of the church and only the ninth new patriarch since 1780. He moved last year from California to Iraq to head the patriarchal seat. Construction on the new patriarchy headquarters is scheduled to finish by next month.

Assyrian Church of The East Youth Association National Executive Committee members alongside chapter presidents and vice presidents of US and Canada parishes.

Growing North American youth presence

The National Executive Committee is an arm of the church that oversees the country’s parish-level youth groups. It’s made up of a president, vice president and three representatives from each of the church’s three US dioceses (Eastern US, California and Western/Southern US). 

Canada returned to this year’s conference after over a decade absence. About 40 youth attended from the country. Gewargis confirmed that representatives from the Canada diocese will soon be added to the National Executive Committee and they are discussing for the country to host the conference as early as 2025.

Conference attendance is not open to everyone. Participants must be active members of their youth parish, having attended at least 50% of their bible study classes and church services. 

“Our goal is to strengthen and educate our youth, not just bring them once a year to a vacation,” Gewargis said. “We didn’t want them to join the youth conference and then forget about it the rest of the year. It’s like a reward for them to go to church, to go to their bible study programs and attend Assyrian bible classes. Otherwise it would be in vain if we just gathered once a year to have fun.”

The requirement has made increasing participation even more impressive. Last year’s conference in Los Angeles drew 450 participants, a record at the time. This year’s event raised that record by another 200 attendees.

Local parishes are typically notified two years prior to their hosting of conference. Next year’s event will take place in California and 2024 will move to Arizona. There are also discussions to host an international youth conference next August in Erbil, Iraq.

“Throughout my experiences at this conference, one thing that has solidified in me is that as a unit, we work better,” Azzo said. “Those five days at the conference you feel more connected to your faith, to your brothers and sisters in Christ, and also as Assyrians you see that if we work all together, our days look brighter and our future is much more clear.”

Returning to Tel Keppe 

My journey from Metro Detroit to the village of my ancestors

By Christina Salem | July 2022 | Photos contributed

After many delays at the tail end of January, the announcement had finally arrived — I was selected to participate in this year’s Gishru birthright trip to the Assyrian homeland, a two-week tour of villages and cities in northern Iraq. 

I was filled with excitement. Being able to connect to my roots gave me a sense of wholeness that left me speechless in the plethora of breathtaking moments. I was flowing in a way only my intuition could guide me. 

Accompanying me on my journey was one of my closest friends, Andrew Najor II (Drew). His father’s friend put us in touch with a relative that would safely take us around Tel Keppe, a town near Mosul.

The town of my father and paternal forefathers, with the land, once held sacred for being a hill of stones, turned into a cell for Islamic State (IS) fighters. Squatters from the extremist group still roam nearby. 

We were told, wrongly, that a visa was required to get into lands guarded by Federal Iraq. It made us question if the journey would be worth it. After much deliberation, however, we asked when would we ever be able to take such an opportunity? 

Once in Iraq, we were connected to Massoud Ayar, a businessman who lives in Nohadra and runs two tahini factories. Little did we know we had run into his wife at the Delal Bridge in Zakho a few days prior. 

Through Ayar, Drew and I were able to discuss a last minute excursion to Tel Keppe that would include breakfast and a tour of his factories. 

Our Gishru group leader Suzan Younan spoke to Ayar about what precautions would be made to keep us safe as the town is still a sensitive travel area. 

Toward the end of the night, she approached Drew and I and whispered: 

“You’re going to Tel Keppe.” 

We shared a look of excitement I can only describe as internally screaming. All of the stories I had heard from my father about Tel Keppe would become real in 12 short hours. 

On the day of our trip, we arrived at his home and were served with the utmost hospitality and kindness as we were fed a delicious breakfast and sampled the tahini made in his factories. 

Any uneasiness I felt about safety was erased when Ayar showed me his family photos. I saw my university classmates standing behind him. I knew in that moment that with Ayar, we were in safe hands.

Ayar not only knew our families, he even cited their extended relations. He could tell us  where their homes were located within the village.

As we left his home and our journey to Tel Keppe began, we moved through KDP checkpoints with ease. When we finally arrived at the village, Ayar pointed out former IS members as we passed. 

I was filled with many emotions. My father always spoke of the richness of his family history on both sides — the Salem’s and the Gabbara’s. I would get to see where and how my grandparents first encountered each other and fell in love, the love my father always described as unconditional. 

Our tour began at the family home of Ayar’s wife. The home was in the process of being remodeled as it was looted years’ prior by the extremist group. It was stunning even in its metamorphosis —  20 bedrooms with multiple bathrooms in each room. It was nothing short of a multi-family mansion. 

We climbed to the rooftop, and I remembered my father often told me they slept here during the hot summer nights. The entirety of the village was in our view. And what a sight it was, it felt ethereal. The air was different. Crisp and flowing through our hair. We basked in the sun’s rays and took in the moment. 

We descended from the rooftop and continued our tour. Names of families I had grown up near in Metro Detroit, their legacies continued in the diaspora, were once neighbors in the homeland. 

Our tour next moved to the houses that belonged to Salem. I had no expectations but many surprises. In the home belonging to my ancestors, there was destruction and trash, but it stood vacant. 

On the outside, handprints stamped in white paint, some Arabic writing and, noticeably different than other houses that had their address spray painted, a rusty metal address sign. 

I needed this sign as a piece of our home I could reclaim. I began tugging at the wall, tears streaming down my face, using every ounce of determination to dismantle and recover this piece of my family history. Ayar’s burly bodyguard stepped in to assist, slicing his hand in the process. 

We were then swarmed by children asking why I was crying and what the commotion was about. Drew explained this house used to belong to my family and that I wanted the sign. 

He told them to return with a hammer. One of the children returned a few minutes later with a hammer that Ayar’s driver used to pry the sign free. It was finally mine. 

My last name Salem came from a story my father always used to tell me. One that said we would always come back in one piece.

Assyrian mother, daughter caught amid chaos of Highland Park shooting

By Joe Snell | July 2022

“I want to go back outside, what happened to the parade?” Isabel Badalpour recalls her daughter, 7, crying as they rushed inside her parents’ home in Chicago’s northern suburb of Highland Park. 

Shaking as she closed the front door behind her, Isabel, an Assyrian, watched through the window as people darted across her lawn and hid in her driveway while clutching strollers and mangled lawn chairs. 

Isabel and her daughter are among hundreds of families that fled the scene of Monday’s mass shooting in Highland Park during the city’s annual Fourth of July parade, an event Isabel has attended every year since she was a child. 

“Seeing this happen in your own home, you don’t know how it feels until you see it,” she said. “And then looking at your child and realizing you have to run in that moment, that was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through as a mother.”

The city of Highland Park is just north of Chicago, home to over 30,000 people and near Assyrian communities that reside in Chicago’s northern suburbs, including Skokie.

Isabel was at the center of Monday’s violence, only two blocks from the start of the parade, when she noticed something unusual — as she took a photo of her daughter, an unmarked police car sped by. 

“It started coming toward the parade really fast and I thought that wasn’t normal, there were kids everywhere, why would they do that?” she said. 

A friend told Isabel that someone might be running around with a gun. Seconds later, the pair looked up the street to see a large crowd sprinting toward them.

“I froze for a second,” Isabel said. “My heart dropped. I grabbed my daughter and felt this gut wrenching feeling. I didn’t know how to tell her without scaring her, I didn’t want to traumatize her. I was shaking for at least two hours… I wasn’t sure if the guy armed was in the crowd running toward us.”

Police had instructed parade-goers to run from the scene, Isabel later learned. And the gunman had fired his weapon from atop Ross Cosmetics, the business she works at.

Seven people died in the shooting, and more than 30 were wounded. The gunman, arrested after he was spotted by a police officer and following a short chase, was charged with seven counts of first-degree murder. 

Despite the shooting, Isabel said she will never leave her Highland Park community. She was born and raised in the city and has attended the town’s Fourth of July parade every year since she was young. It’s a tradition she’s since passed on to her daughter.

But their early memories of the parade will be starkly different. Isabel recalled one year when the parade was canceled because it was hailing. She now fears her daughter will get older and find out “it wasn’t rain” that canceled this year’s parade, “it was gunshots”.

“I don’t ever want her to find out.”

Inaugural Assyrian conference kicks off in Washington

By Joe Snell | July 2022 | Photos by Stephney Martin

It was on Reine Hanna’s birthday in 2015 that she learned the Islamic State (IS) had invaded the Khabour region of Syria, the birthplace of her parents. 

“My coworkers surprised me with a birthday cake and I saw it and started crying,” Hanna said. “I couldn’t understand why I get to live in a place where I’m safe, where I have all of these opportunities and somebody that’s just like me… everything is uprooted; their work, their dreams, their jobs, and their families separated.”

Hanna shared the story at the welcoming session of the Assyrian Policy Institute’s (API) inaugural Washington conference. The three-day event began June 16 and comprised of meetings with state representatives, exhibits on ancient and modern artwork, panels on language preservation and discussions on the future of Assyrians and other minorities in the Middle East and the diaspora.

The event comes amid increased pressure facing Assyrians to leave their homeland, confronted with growing attacks by IS sleeper cells, efforts by authorities to silence government critics and threats by non-Assyrians to seize Assyrian lands with impunity.

“The stakes are higher than ever,” Hanna said. “We’re at a turning point for our community and we have to assess the broader situation for what it is. We have to understand what’s worked in the past and what we need to do differently.”

While Washington’s coronavirus restrictions were largely lifted, lingering pandemic guidelines remained. This forced the API to adopt hybrid meeting formats while on Capitol Hill, limiting attendance at some talks while holding others outdoors. 

Author Alda Benjamen discusses her latest book, “Assyrians in Modern Iraq,” in a conversation moderated by Lincolnwood Trustee Atour Sargon. / Photo by Stephney Martin

The first day of the conference gathered nearly fifty attendees to meet with members of Congress on the hill to share stories and discuss community priorities. 

Modesto City Planning Commissioner Carmen Morad spoke on the importance of community-led advocacy. Participants later met with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA).

At an outdoor session, Rep. Josh Harder (CA) announced the relaunching of the Assyrian Congressional Caucus. The caucus was formed in 2018, chaired by Harder’s predecessor, Rep. Jeff Denham. Harder now leads the caucus that includes membership from Eshoo, the only Assyrian-American serving in Congress, and Schakowsky, who represents one of the largest Assyrian communities in the US.

“We’re here to be as strong an advocate for Assyrian issues as we can,” Harder said in a statement. “We’re going to get more folks involved to make sure that the Assyrian voice is heard.”

The second day of the conference welcomed over a hundred more attendees and included a screening of the Assyrian short film Grace that tells the story of a father living in Iraq during the reign of IS. He attempts to protect his daughter from extremists by playing a game of hide and seek. The film was nominated for a Short Form Drama prize during the Australian Academy Cinema Television Arts (AACTA) awards.

Bedril Diril, an Assyrian from Turkey, gave remarks about his family’s fight for justice following the murder of his parents in southeast Turkey. Presentations were later given on topics about the future of Assyrians, the impact of genocide on Assyrian identity as well as language preservation. Dr. Alda Benjamen discussed her new book, Assyrians in Modern Iraq

A separate room invited participants to a virtual reality experience by Yazda, a global Yazidi organization, called Nobody’s Listening Exhibition. The space highlighted the suffering and plight of the Yazidis during the reign of IS as participants chose one of three storylines: a young girl or boy abducted by extremists and a story through the eyes of an IS fighter.

In the evening, a pop-up video exhibition by Diaspora in Bloom curators Akadina Yadegar and Nardin Sarkis showcased prominent movies, television, music videos and contemporary video art by Assyrians in the diaspora that highlighted what the curators called “the evolution of Assyrian society and popular culture.”

Sargon Donabed on a panel discussing the early history of Assyrian-Americans. / Photo by Stephney Martin

Isa Yaramis, the President of the Assyro-Chaldean Association of France, welcomed guests to the conference’s final day. Panels were led by Joseph Hermiz, Dr. Arianne Ishaya, Dr. Ruth Kamber and Dr. Sargon Donabed and explored the early history of Assyrian-Americans in the United States. After the panels, attendees participated in roundtable workshops to discuss the future of Assyrians in the Middle East and the role of diaspora in sustaining these communities.

Donabed said the conference addressed issues connected to his Assyrian Studies Association, an organization launched in 2019 for which he helped found and is now a board member.

The question becomes “who gets to create, participate and propagate the narrative or narratives of Assyrians and their history and culture,” Donabed said. “The conference is a good example of the ways in which people can utilize their own power to affect positive change.”

This positive change, however, has yet to translate to a brighter outlook. Security and economic concerns remain in much of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, pressuring Assyrians to uproot their homes. A growing list of land theft cases drags Assyrians into sometimes years-long legal battles that often provide no resolution. And reported electoral injustices deprive Assyrians of proper local and national political representation.

In the diaspora, Hanna said communities are contending with cultural preservation and maintaining a sense of community despite being scattered.

For now, Hanna said, prospects across the board are bleak. 

“We need to recalibrate and also start expanding our focus and tackling issues that are relevant to Assyrians in the United States and wider diaspora,” she said.

API was formed in 2018 and advocates for the rights of Assyrians and other minorities in the Middle East, including Yazidis and Mandeans. The group, composed of 12 board members, told the Journal it is revamping its focus. It will remain committed to “amplifying the voices of Assyrians in the homeland,” Hanna said, and expanding on issues concerned with the diaspora. New offerings will include improving access to cultural resources and language preservation.

“Wherever we can help fill the gaps and speak to legislators and emphasize the importance of cultural preservation, we’ll be doing that,” she said. 

The focus on diaspora is important for Berta Kaisr, an Assyrian in Canada. Kaisr said the conference refreshed her desire to speak on Assyrian issues and advocate for better conditions, both in the homeland and Canada. 

“Being at the conference and simply belonging under the name of Assyrians/atouraye without needing to prove myself was a priceless feeling,” Kaisr said. “Especially living in a city now where I don’t have an Assyrian community, I need to speak louder and insert our people in conversations we are often left out of.”

Assyrians from Canada and Michigan at the opening session of the conference. / Photo by Stephney Martin

Assyrian awarded Medal of Valor by Simon Wiesenthal Center

By Joe Snell | July 2022

An Assyrian activist on June 26 was presented the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor at a ceremony in downtown Chicago, joining the ranks of US Congressman John Lewis, journalist Ann Curry and Sir Winston Churchill. 

Photo by Rine Photographics

Juliana Taimoorazy is the founder of Iraqi Christian Relief Council, an organization that supports displaced Christians and other minorities throughout Iraq and refugees in neighboring countries. She is also a UN delegate at Geneva. Last year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

“I don’t see the medal for me, the medal is for my Assyrian people and for all those that continue to suffer,” Taimoorazy said. “Every time I look at it, it is my duty, my responsibility to answer the call.”

The Medal of Valor, presented annually at sites in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, recognizes individuals for their humanitarian work and for “stepping up against hate.”

“Many people have no idea about the plight of the Assyrian community,” said Simon Wiesenthal Center Midwest Director Alison Slovin. “How often do we talk about the genocide or oppression of others? That’s why it’s important to highlight the work of people like Juliana because we all need to be activists against the hate in this world.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is an international Jewish human rights organization established in 1977 to honor ambassadors for peaceful coexistence. ABC7 Chicago, home to Assyrian journalist Diane Pathieu, was also awarded the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Community Service Award.

“It’s important for the Simon Wiesenthal Center to recognize the plight of others because so many stood silent during the holocaust when we knew what was going on,” Slovin said. “We cannot remain silent ever again against any genocide or oppression of any people.” 

Photo by Rine Photographics

New pizzeria in Tur Abdin region of Turkey opens amid spike in local tourism

By Joe Snell | June 2022

Nestled inside the mountains of southeastern Turkey’s Tur Abdin, a new pizzeria opened on June 3 to a crowd of local politicians, government officials and residents from as far as Europe. 

Those in attendance celebrated the business, İzla Pizzeria Arkah,  and praised the return of its owners Gevriye Cil and Morris Dal, who left Germany a year ago to return to their native village of Arkah. 

Map of Tur Abdin /Source MIzizah

The restaurant, which took 10 months of construction and features panoramic views of the region’s rolling landscape, opened amid a surge of local investment that has driven tourism to the region. Nusaybin District Governor and Deputy Mayor Ercan Kayabaşı said the province of Mardin, the eastern half of which is located in Tur Abdin, is making strides toward becoming the capital of tourism.

“New businesses are opening every day,” Kayabaşı said during the restaurant’s grand opening and later continued, “Although Nusaybin is a rural neighborhood, such beautiful businesses are opening that I believe it will become one of the most important tourism destination centers in the future.”

A small café in the city of Mardin. /Photo by Athra Kado

Tur Abdin consists of more than 80 villages and was home primarily to followers of the Syriac Orthodox church. Many Assyrians, however, were forced to abandon the region in the 1980s and 1990s during Kurdish and Turkish clashes, made to choose between leaving their homeland or death if they refused to lodge and feed fighters from either side.

The situation became more stable in the 2000s, and encouraged families that had previously fled to Europe to return and rebuild their homes and businesses; but recent threats by Turkey of a military incursion into northern Syria have unsettled some locals, who are bracing for another round of violence.

The Mor Qeryaqos monastery in the village of Zergal in the Batman province. The village is empty of inhabitants, leaving only shadows of what once stood here. /Photo by Athra Kado

Vote Assyrian names new executive director

By Joe Snell | May 2022 | Photo provided

A Chicago-based Assyrian political group last month appointed a new executive director. Ashur Shiba was named new chief of Vote Assyrian, effective immediately. He previously served as one of four executive board members. With the new role, he’s become the group’s first-ever executive director.

“We’ve lost quite a few board members over the years,” Shiba said, citing some members that have gone on to run for office or others that will serve as community center directors. “We had to have someone realign and restructure Vote Assyrian.”

Founded in 2015, the group began registering Assyrians to vote. Within one election cycle, it had reportedly registered almost 5,000 new voters, a large number for an area where just a few thousand votes can sway a local election. 

As the organization grew, it started hosting candidate forums for both Assyrian and non-Assyrian candidates, and later organized workshops to certify community leaders as deputy registrars.

The group most notably led a 2020 campaign for the US census to encourage Assyrians to check the “Other” box under the Ethnicity category and to write in “Assyrian.” The initiative, aimed at recognizing Assyrians as a distinct ethnic group and to better understand community population figures, was formally recognized by the State Department.

Shiba, who joined Vote Assyrian in 2018, wants to steer the group back to its roots of registering and educating voters, especially about the importance of primary elections.

“People typically don’t vote in the primary elections, they vote in the general elections,” Shiba said. “The general election is very important, but picking a local board that runs the city you actually live in is just as important. We’re able to win more seats that way and we’re able to get more representation.”

The organization has big plans for the future, he said. By the end of this year, it hopes to reopen the Assyrian Chamber of Commerce and break the tape on a new Assyrian Mental Health and Drug Addiction Center. 

“The opportunities in front of us are greater than ever, yet the challenges we face grow with every new opportunity,” Shiba said. “Non-Assyrians have started to take notice of us. Prior to Vote Assyrian, there weren’t any Assyrian elected officials in the area. Today, there are six in the Cook County area.”

Assyrians that hold elected office in the Chicagoland area

Naema Abraham
School Board President, District 219

Shamoon Ebrahimi
Alderman of the 8th Ward

Sargon Guliana
Board member, District 72

Tony Kalogerkas
Trustee, Village of Golf
Former trustee of Morton Grove

Mary Oshana
Skokie Park District Commissioner

Atour Sargon
Trustee, Village of Lincolnwood

Opinion: A modest but great challenge for the Church of the East

Will the Eastern Christian church overcome internal division and walk down the road to progress?

By Robert DeKelaita | May 2022

The Church of the East has been through turbulent times across the centuries; conquests, persecution, genocide, and the destruction of whole communities. Despite the many difficulties, the Church survived largely among the very people that formed its foundations and are most associated with it, the Assyrians, maintaining its own unique Christian faith and cultural heritage. This month, bishops of the Church of the East have come together to lessen their difficulties and end the most recent schism.

Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII (

Since 1920, the Church of the East was headed by Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII , who had been patriarch since his consecration at the age of 12, having succeeded his uncle, Mar Polous Shimun in a line of hereditary succession going back hundreds of years. As a result of Mar Shimun’s involvement in his nation’s political struggle in Iraq after the First World War, he was exiled to Cyprus by the Iraqi government with the support of the British in 1933. In 1940, he came to Chicago and lived there until moving to California in 1954. Unlike their patriarch, most of the Assyrian members of the Church of the East had lived in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

In 1964, a dispute erupted between the patriarch and Metropolitan Mar Toma Darmo, who had been consecrated by Mar Shimun for India. Mar Toma was critical of the patriarchal hereditary succession that he felt was advocated by his patriarch, and of the ‘modernization’ being advocated by Mar Shimun in the West, including Mar Shimun’s switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The dispute between the patriarch and Mar Toma led to a schism within the Church in 1968, when Mar Toma came to Iraq and was elevated to the position of a rival patriarch in Baghdad.

One year after his consecration as patriarch, Mar Toma died. Mar Addai II succeeded Mar Toma and became patriarch from 1972 until his death in Arizona in 2022. Though the two hierarchies had no Christological disputes, they operated independently of each other. Mar Shimun had difficulties of his own within his Church and in 1975, after his resignation and subsequent marriage, he was assassinated in California and a new patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, who had been the bishop in Iran, was elected in 1976 in London.

Mar Toma Darmo (Facebook: Mark Gewargis)

The two patriarchs, Mar Addai II, who resided in Baghdad, and Mar Dinkha IV, who resided in Morton Grove, Illinois, tried but failed to reunite their Church. With the passing of both Mar Dinkha and Mar Addai, and the selection of a young, American-born, new patriarch for the Assyrian Church of the East in Erbil, Mar Awa III, expectations of a reunion grew. The new patriarch made clear that resolving the 1968 schism was a priority and so Chicago, the patriarch’s birthplace, has become a place to attempt to solve the problems that occurred in 1968 Baghdad.

Why is this attempt important? Many speculate that there has never been a time when the Church’s faith and cultural heritage have been in greater danger of losing their existence. For the first time in its history, most adherents of the Church are no longer in the East, but in the West, where the Church of the East’s role as a religious, social, and cultural gravitational force is of paramount importance. Although Mar Awa was consecrated in Erbil and has brought back his patriarchal seat there, the survival of the Church in the West is critical.

If the Church is unable to organize itself and tackle issues that have threatened larger denominations, such as the growing secularism and assimilation into larger societies in the West, it is doubtful that it could live on – either in the East or the West. On the other hand, the Church and the Assyrians in charge could view ending the schism as a challenge they are both willing and able to undertake and solve before moving on to greater tasks; improving their pastoral skills and reach, enhancing their administrative services, building better and more innovative relations with parishioners, introducing necessary liturgical reforms, and establishing libraries and schools for their coming generations and priests.

Mar Addai II (Facebook: Mark Gewargis)

The current schism offers the Church – both clergy and parishioners – an opportunity to get on the ‘right side’ of history and eliminate this internal division. This effort is viewed by the Assyrian public as a litmus test of sorts, a symbolic gesture of competence in handling difficulties. If the Church is unable to heal its own wound, its chance of succeeding in other matters is questionable. Indeed, Assyrian Christianity , as a unique religious and cultural institution, could be on the road to extinction one misstep at a time. And the inability of Church leaders to ‘fix’ this internal division is a step toward extinction.

On the other hand, a healing of the schism would present members of the Church and outsiders as well a symbolic and concrete indication that this accomplishment is a step toward a renaissance. A renaissance, like extinction, will not come all at once. It will come in steps, sometimes big and sometimes small, but always in the right direction. One direction that is right is the recent attempt to end the existing schism. A recent article in Asia News noted that the “union, formal but also practical, is the only way to face the danger of [the Assyrian Christians’] slow but inexorable disappearance that has hung over them for decades.” (Asia News, April 23, 2022)

Being mindful of this, the six bishops have indicated that they are hopeful and positive about their chances to end the schism and reclaim their glorious past. That past is important to the Church, the Assyrians, and the world. It is also an essential part of the collective memory of Assyrian Christians.

Assyrian Christianity is linked to the apostles. According to the Doctrine of Mar Addai and Mar Mari, Assyrians witnessed “the signs which Mar Addai did, and those of them who became disciples, received from them the hand of the priesthood, and in their own country of the Assyrians they taught the sons of their people, and houses of prayer they built there secretly…”

The advancement of the Christian faith came gradually in Assyria as it competed with and even adopted the ancient faith practices of the Assyrians. As the Christian creed grew, competing doctrines explaining the nature of Christ developed and eventually led to the formation of two prominent churches on Assyrian soil; the Church of the East, centered in the heartland of Assyria, and the Syriac Orthodox Church, mainly out of Antioch and in Western Assyria. Both the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church based their liturgy in the Syriac language and grew out of the same cultural and linguistic environment rooted in the Assyrian population and landscape.

As the ancient state structure of Assyria disintegrated, the hierarchical structure of the Church became the lead organizing force for the Assyrian population. The Church of the East developed both a provincial center in Assyria, centered in the cities of Nineveh, Arbela (modern Erbil), and numerous other Assyrian towns and villages, and a more cosmopolitan church in central Mesopotamia, in the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, where the Sasanian empire reigned prior to the arrival of Islam . From central Mesopotamia, under both the Sasanian empire and later the Abbasids, the Church’s missionaries went forth to convert non-Christians into its fold.

Mar Awa III’s first mission has been to strengthen the presence of the Assyrian Church of the East in the heartland of Assyria (northern Iraq), where he has set his patriarchal seat. (Facebook: His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Awa III)

Starting from the Sixth century, the Church of the East began the greatest missionary enterprise undertaken by any Church. At its Apex, the Church of the East’s members in Asia outnumbered the Christians of the Catholic and Orthodox churches combined as its churches dotted the landscape from China to the borders of the Byzantine empire. The Church of the East converted Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Indians, Chinese, and other peoples in Asia.

Unlike European Christians, who were supported by powerful monarchs with military might, the Church of the East used intellect and diplomacy to win converts. “For behold,” states Mar Timotheus, Patriarch of the Church of the East (780-823 AD), “in all of the lands of Babel, Persia, and Assyria, and in all of the Eastern lands and amongst Beth Hinduwaye (India) and indeed amongst Beth Sinaye (China), amongst Beth Turtaye (Tatars) and likewise amongst Beth Turkaye (Turks) and in all of the domains under this patriarchal throne – this [throne] of which God commanded that we be its servants and likewise its ministers – that one who…is from eternity, without increase, who was crucified on our behalf – is proclaimed, indeed in different and diverse lands and races and languages.”

Patriarch Mar Timotheus personified the spirit of the Church of the East at the time; a love of learning and intellect combined with energetic zeal to spread the Christian faith and to grow and strengthen the Church. Through the efforts of Mar Timotheus and many patriarchs, bishops and priests like him, the Church of the East left its mark on the spiritual and physical landscapes of various countries in Asia. Today, millions of Christians in India trace their membership in the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church to the missionary efforts of the bishops, priests, and monks of the Church of the East from Assyria.

The once-thriving community of the Church of the East, however, was unable to maintain its existence like the Christian communities of the West. Inter-Christian rivalries, periodic persecutions by Muslim rulers, and, finally, the Mongol invasions of Timur in particular, devastated the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Timur’s massacres and pillages of all that was Christian reduced Assyrian Christianity to a miserable state in the Middle East.

At the end of the reign of Timur, Assyrian churches were nearly eradicated. In two locations, however, they survived; in the provinces of Christian Assyria (in the districts of Beth Garme, Adiabene, Arbela, Karkh dlbeth Seluq [Kirkuk], Nuhadra [Dohuk], Nineveh [Mosul], etc.), where the church had acquired much of its sustenance, and in the Hakkari mountains of today’s southeastern Turkey as well as in Urmia and Salamas in today’s Iran, where the Assyrians lived largely an isolated existence until being evicted by Kurds and Ottoman troops during the First World War.

Additionally, the Indian members of the Church remained faithful in the Malabar district in southern India. All the other diocese of the Church of the East were lost.

The Syriac Orthodox Church suffered much as well. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, Bishop Bar Hebraeus found “much quietness” in his diocese in Mesopotamia. Syria’s diocese, he wrote, was “wasted.” Only a few, according to a scholar of the Syriac Orthodox Church, survived the “blood-soaked decades.”

Despite all the difficulties and calamities they had endured, Assyrian Christians survived and persisted. In the Sixteenth century, the Church of the East splintered because of internal disputes, resulting in the formation of the Chaldean Church, which came into union with Rome. The Syriac Orthodox Church also fractured and from it was formed the Syriac Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. Still later, the Church of the East splintered again, resulting in the formation of the Ancient Church of the East in 1968 being now addressed in Chicago. The split between the two sides of the Church of the East is based on administrative, rather than Christological differences.

Dialogue committees between the Ancient Church of the East and Assyrian Church of the East during the second days of church reunification talks in Chicago. (Facebook: Assyrian Church of the East – Diocese of the Eastern USA)

In Chicago, bishops from both sides struggle together in the hope of reviving confidence in their ancient Church and, perhaps for the first time in decades, taking a concrete step toward the much-anticipated reunification. One announcement asks parishioners to pray for the bishops so that they can “restore the Church of the East to its glory.”

If the history of the Church of the East, and of the Assyrian people, inspires the bishops, they will likely find a way to take a step in the right direction toward reunification and end of the schism. They will likely recall the glory of their ancient Church, realize the dangers they face as a people and a faith community, and become inspired, just as their ancestor Patriarch Mar Timotheus, to build and strengthen their Church and to become a stronger gravitational force for their people in the diaspora and the Middle East.

No doubt, the turbulent centuries and the recent experiences of the Church and its people will be recalled and contemplated by the bishops as they consider the judgment of future generations if they fail.

All eyes are watching and waiting for hopeful signs of the end to the schism and a new beginning. It is now in the hands of the bishops to lead their Church and people to overcome a challenge that may seem modest but could have great consequences that may “restore the Church of the East to its glory.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the The Assyrian Journal.

The beekeeper of Qaramlesh

By Joe Snell | May 2022 | Photos provided

Only after Aysen Sameer Uoshewh was stung in the face five times did he realize he was ready to become a beekeeper.

As his face grew swollen and he couldn’t open his eyes, he was forced to stay home for an entire week. But those pains, he said, were encouraging.

“One of my biggest fears when I started beekeeping was that I would have allergies and couldn’t work,” he said. “I was lucky to find out I didn’t have any.”

For years, beekeeping was just something Uoshewh did to help his grandfather, Touma Yusuf Mamuka, in the northern Iraqi village of Qaramlesh, an agricultural area in the Nineveh Plain located less than a 45-minute drive from Mosul.

But as the coronavirus pandemic sidelined his usual academic studies and pickup games of volleyball, the work with his grandfather increased and with it, so did his interest in bees.


Beekeeping in Iraq has existed for 8,000 years, according to UNDP Iraq, when Sumerian tablets carried recipes that used honey to treat skin infections and disease.

Increased conflict, displacement and the use of chemicals beginning in the nineteenth century severely reduced the practice. It wasn’t until the 1980s that beekeeping once again flourished as new technologies simplified the production process. At one point in the 1990s, over 500,000 hives were active across the country.

At one point to sidestep sanctions placed on Baghdad following the Gulf War, it became trendy for families to buy and maintain personal beehives on their rooftops.

It’s a trend that appears to be reemerging. The cultural and environmental importance of bees can’t be understated, said Dr. Hashim Najim Khthur al- Zuhairi, the head of the beekeeping department of plant protection in the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture.

“There are a lot of benefits that are countless,” Zuhairi said. “This wealth must be taken care of because it is very important in the country and is considered the same as any wealth in Iraq.”

There are about 6,000 registered beekeepers today with the Ministry of Agriculture, Zuhairi said. He hopes that number increases through increased workshops on the education of proper beekeeping and the emergence of new technologies.


Beekeeping in Uoshewh’s family traces back to 2003. As an agricultural professor at the University of Erbil, Uoshewh’s grandfather was assigned on a project to study bees. Mamuka’s research led him to invest in bee cells. He soon recruited family members for help maintaining the growing hives. By 2014, he managed a small empire of 30 hives.

At the height of this project, however, it was abandoned as the rapid advance of the Islamic State (IS) into Qaramlesh in 2014 forced Mamuka’s entire village to flee.

Three years later when Mamuka returned, he found the hives destroyed.

With the help of his grandson in 2017, Mamuka slowly began rebuilding the colony. It took years to grow back the hives, Uoshewh said, as they faced a number of fresh challenges, including decreased amounts of rain that make it difficult to plant flowers and the illegal importation of synthetic honey claiming to be 100% pure that drives down costs.

The Ministry of Agriculture is now trying to tackle another growing issue, the spread of diseases among bee hives.

“The beekeepers need supplies that can be provided by the Ministry of Agriculture in a subsidized or free form so that it will become popular,” Zuhairi said.

The Ministry received requests to develop laboratories dedicated to combating diseases that affect bees, he said. These sites would also provide artificial insemination to produce fertilized queens.

Iraq isn’t alone in fighting these challenges. The Ministry receives support from international aid groups to champion campaigns to revive the practice. The Zhako Small Village Project (ZSVP), with support from UNDP Iraq and the government of Germany, selected 200 households in 2017 across the Nineveh Plains and Dohuk to receive a small number of hives along with safety clothes, tools, training and business management including marketing honey in offseasons.


The market is now swelling with new beekeepers, Uoshewh said. To keep up fresh competition, he helps his grandfather install new technologies, including a device that detects the purity of honey, designing different styles of cells to improve efficiency, and digitizing recordkeeping of each cell to review which are spreading diseases and which are producing the most honey.

They also find other ways to monetize their business, creating and selling online candles with the beeswax.

Sales blossomed as Uoshewh introduced his grandfather to an online marketplace that was craving the honey. They recently began shipping orders internationally.

The family now produces enough honey to make beekeeping a full-time profession. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish. Beekeeping is largely season. The grandfather-grandson duo are busiest in the springtime, working around-the-clock to produce enough honey to sustain them through the slower winter months.

The constant labor does have its minor drawbacks. Uoshewh admits he gets stung at least once a day. “It’s a little pain, and then it just goes away,” he said, and admitted he no longer notices the relentless buzzing of the colony.