Category Archives: Church

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.”

ACOE announces election date for new patriarch

By Joe Snell | August 2021

The election of a new patriarch for the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) is back on the books, according to a statement Wednesday from the church’s governing body. The proceedings are slated for Sept. 5 in Erbil. 

In a statement from the Bishop of California and Secretary of the Holy Synod Mar Awa Royel, the event will begin with the current patriarch Mar Gewargis III Sliwa stepping down due to health reasons. The church hierarchs will then elect the 122nd Catholicos-Patriarch.

Gewargis was born in Habbaniyah in 1941. He studied from the School of Education at Baghdad in 1964 and then for 13 years taught English across the country. Gewargis was elected patriarch of the ACOE in 2015, succeeding Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV who died that year after a 39-year term. At the time, Gewargis was the only Assyrian metropolitan still living in Iraq. 

The patriarchal seat of the church left the Middle East in 1933 for Chicago. The construction of a new patriarchate in Erbil began in 2006. The seat returned to the Middle East with Gewargis.

In February 2020, the 81-year-old Gewargis announced his intention to resign due to health reasons. A special session of the Holy Synod was convened in April 2020 to organize a new election. But the election was postponed earlier this year due to a surge in coronavirus cases in northern Iraq. 

Earlier this year, Gewargis welcomed Pope Francis to Erbil. It marked the first visit by a pope to the country. Before giving his final blessing during a mass at Erbil stadium, Francis thanked Gewargis for holding his seat in the city and “honoring us with his presence.”

“Together with him, I embrace the Christians of the various denominations, many of whom have shed their blood in this very land,” Francis said. “Yet our martyrs shine together like stars in the same sky. From there they call us to walk together, without hesitation, towards the fullness of unity.”

The consecration and enthronement of the new patriarch is scheduled for Sept. 13  at the cathedral church of St. John the Baptist in Ankawa.

Election of new ACOE patriarch postponed due to COVID

By Joe Snell | April 2021

ERBIL — The election of a new patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East has been postponed, according to a release from a church official.

A special Holy Synod was supposed to take place in Erbil from April 18-25 and usher in a new patriarch of the church, but a surge in coronavirus cases in northern Iraq encouraged current patriarch Mar Gewargis III Sliwa to write to hierarchies of the church requesting their opinions on postponing. A majority replied recommending the Synod be postponed, according to Bishop Awa Royel, secretary of the Holy Synod, in the release.

No new date for the convocation has been announced. 

The patriarchal seat of the church left the Middle East in 1933 and was reestablished in Chicago. The construction of a new patriarchate in Erbil began in 2006. The seat returned to the Middle East with Gewargis.

Gewargis was elected patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East in 2015, succeeding Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV who died in March of that year after a 39-year term. At the time, Gewargis was the only Assyrian metropolitan still living in Iraq. 

In February 2020, the 81-year-old Gewargis announced his intention to resign his seat due to health reasons. A special session of the Assyrian Holy Synod was convened in April 2020 to set a path for a new election.

Last month, Gewargis welcomed Pope Francis to Erbil. The event was the last public event with the head of the Catholic church during his landmark visit to Iraq where Francis became the first pope to visit the country. Before giving the final blessing during a large mass at the Erbil stadium, Francis thanked Gewargis for holding his seat in the city and “honoring us with his presence.”

“Together with him, I embrace the Christians of the various denominations, many of whom have shed their blood in this very land,” Francis said. “Yet our martyrs shine together like stars in the same sky. From there they call us to walk together, without hesitation, towards the fullness of unity.”

The coronavirus pandemic has been surging in northern Iraq since last month when the Director of Health in Erbil Dlovan Mohammed announced that the rate of infection had jumped from 2.2% to 10%. On March 26, 725 new cases of the virus were recorded. The increase prompted the Ministry of Health to tighten preventative measures. 

Earlier this month in an effort to curb the increasing infection rate, Kurdish health officials launched an online registration platform for residents to schedule vaccine appointments.

New ACOE church opens in time for Christmas

Gilbert, Arizona Assyrians rewarded for years of never quitting on their dream

February 2019 | By Maryam Ishaya and Joe Snell | Photos contributed

ARIZONA — A week before Christmas, as the new Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish in Gilbert, Arizona was scheduled to open its doors to the public for the first time, a technicality threatened to keep the doors locked until 2019.

Church officials were informed they could not use the facility in a public manner, including having to cancel all upcoming Christmas services, until city inspectors visited the property and issued a permit. The inspection was scheduled to be completed a week before services but city scheduling issues delayed a visit to the site.

“Wednesday morning was our final hope of doing the inspection before the holiday,” said Shamasha (deacon) Andrew Aziz. That morning, church priest Qasha Khoshaba Sholimun sat inside his car in the church parking lot waiting to see if the church would be able to open its doors.

“The contractor came up to his car window and said, ‘Rabi are you ready to celebrate Christmas?’” Aziz said.

The week of Christmas, the newly opened church would celebrate three masses. One of the highlights of the first services, according to the Secretary of the Church Committee Nenwe Geeso, was seeing the curtains covering the altar.

“If you looked around the room, everyone had tears in their eyes when the curtain first opened,” Geeso said. “We have celebrated mass for years without curtains in the altar. It’s a big deal for the Assyrian Church of the East to have curtains covering the altar so as soon as those curtains opened and we celebrated our first mass, we were so thankful to have the opportunity to finally have our own church to call home.”


In the early 2000s, nearly 30 Assyrian families in Gilbert, Arizona had finally grown tired of traveling sometimes over an hour to attend church services at St. Peters ACOE in Glendale, Arizona. They reached out to Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis, bishop of the Western United States ACOE, and by 2005, the Mar Yosip Mission Parish was established.

The parish initially celebrated Eucharist twice a month, renting out a local school auditorium and bringing in an ACOE priest from a sister parish. Within a year, the mission parish had its own priest and began establishing a church committee.

Beginning in 2005, the church committee concentrated on building up the mission’s membership and spreading the word about the parish.

In 2012, the church committee began seriously evaluating land for a church. Two unsuccessful attempts were launched until 2015, when a new piece of land was approved by the congregation. The land was purchased for $240,000 and, including additional construction, design, and extra costs, the total price was just over $1 million.

“A majority of the money came from donations and we also received loans for the rest of the payments,” Aziz said. “Also from all of the other ACOE churches, aside from individuals donating, we had clergy send us things. They would send us a chalice and the paten that we now use for Eucharist and different sets of books that we needed for the liturgical services. Everyone’s been helpful.”

The church belongs to the Assyrian Church of the East Western Diocese. Led by His Grace Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis, the diocese has seven churches and three mission parishes across California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas.


In 2009, Goriel Yaro organized a group of five young members of the mission parish to join their fellow Arizona church, St. Peters ACOE in Glendale, and together they would attend the Assyrian National Youth Conference.

“Gorial was that older figure, the role model that we all looked up to,” Aziz said.

A few years later, Julie Benyamin became the youth leader and encouraged more youth in the area to get involved.

“When Julie came around, she shaped us to take leadership on our own,” Geeso said.

The main challenge, Aziz and Geeso admitted, was not having a church.

“You look at other youth groups and they’ll be at church every night of the week, whereas we were renting a rec center for youth bible studies that we could only use for an hour and a half on Friday nights,” Aziz said. “But once we were all 18 or 19, we had this drive to get the church and it came with the help of hundreds and thousands of other people that were able to donate and support.”

Today, the youth group boasts 25 active members. Together, they help organize major events and fundraising efforts. Some of these initiatives, including a telethon, were key to helping grow the church monetary fund.


Two months before the church was scheduled to open in December, church members began discussing creative new fundraising ideas. Someone in the group had heard about the telethons that the Central Valley Diocese of California had been conducting. These telethons were marketed and live streamed across social media and KBSV (Assyrian Sat).

“We reached out to KBSV (Assyrian Sat) and Steven Melham from Turlock and he came out to help us with the recording and live streaming,” Aziz said.

On Oct. 20 and 21, the telethon live-streamed different speakers involved in the church, including the priest and deacons, Sunday School teachers, the choir, and the youth group. Callers were encouraged to donate anything they could and those that donated $200 or more were eligible for a prize.

In two days, the videos generated over 3,000 views on Facebook and raised $55,000, with money coming from all over the United States as well as Iraq and Australia.  

A number of additional fundraising initiatives were organized, including a “Brick Campaign” that allowed church members as well as non-members to buy a brick as a donation to the new church. These bricks, engraved with the family’s name, were ordered from all over the world and now line a wall near the main entrance.


The new church, which holds up to 272 individuals, is currently preparing to hold the sacred consecration. A consecration is an important event in the timeline of a church where the Bishop and priests and deacons anoint the altar.

“The consecration is a very historical and memorable day for the church,” Aziz said. “When the altar is anointed, it’s sort of sealed. It’s sacred for the church and the faithful of the church.”

After nearly a decade of working toward the building of the church, as the Gilbert, Arizona community prepares for the consecration, Geeso reflects on her first mass inside the building.

“Seeing the congregation come together in the name of our Lord to put their efforts in building their own home goes to show what can be achieved when you put your faith in God,” she said.

Learn more about the new Mar Yosip church by visiting their Facebook page.

Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish opens doors in time for Christmas

December 2018 | By Joe Snell | Feature photo by Andrew Aziz

Gilbert, AZ  – The Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish of Gilbert, Arizona is opening doors to its new church this Sunday. 

The church, part of the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE), was issued a permit by city inspectors on Dec. 19. They will host their first Raza Qaddisha on Dec. 23 beginning with morning prayers at 8:00 am followed by service at 9:00 am.

Church Entrance
Photo by the Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish

After 13 years of fundraising, the Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish broke ground on construction of a new facility in February of this year at 1287 North Recker Road, Gilbert, AZ 85234. Previously, the congregation had been meeting in rented spaces. The new facility will hold up to 250 people.

Part of the fundraising efforts were selling memorial bricks engraved with names of donors. Those bricks were placed at the entrance of the new church.

His Grace Mar Aprim Khamis will officiate Sunday’s Raza Qaddisha. A number of other Christmas services this week will take place at the church. A full schedule is available on their Facebook page. 

Look out for more information on the founding of the church later this week.

Visit the Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish of Gilbert, Arizona Facebook Page for more information. 

Dallas, Texas fights to restore Assyrian community

The Assyrian Journal | March 2018 | Featured photo by Ted Campbell | By Joe Snell

Dallas, TXRachel Sangsura and her family file into an old Armenian building in Dallas, Texas. Once inside, they joined nearly 50 other Assyrians that are gathered to celebrate an Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) service.

Rachel’s family had just driven over three hours from Shreveport, Louisiana. Like many Assyrians growing up in the South, she was fighting to keep the culture alive for her family.

“Growing up in Shreveport, there was nobody else around like our family,” Sangsura said. “Despite not having that really close connection to Assyrians, I’m also not like anybody else around me.”

The service, held on February 17, was part of the Saint Jacob Assyrian Church of the East Mission, a group established in 2012 to serve a growing community of Assyrians in the Southern United States.

Dallas and Houston have become hubs to serve these isolated communities, and February’s ceremony was as much a religious celebration as a cultural one. This was the first Assyrian Church of the East mass in Dallas in nearly two years and drew Assyrians from hours away and sometimes even across state borders.

“I’m trying to make up for the lack of a community that we had growing up,” Sangsura said. “Our blood keeps diluting, but I still think that keeping the Assyrian culture alive is important. It’s unfortunately something that I’m not intimately familiar with because I didn’t grow up around it.”



For decades, if a wedding or baptism needed to take place in the South, families would individually reach out to priests in major Assyrian hubs including Los Angeles or Chicago. These individual families would have to arrange travel, housing, and church rental.

It wasn’t until 2012 when Raumin Benjamin, a deacon in the ACOE, moved to Dallas from San Jose. After discovering there was no organized Assyrian community, he called on a few Assyrians and discussed regularly bringing in a priest.

The small Dallas group approached Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis in Arizona and was granted mission status under his diocese. A church committee of six individuals was quickly established.

To fund services, including flying a priest and deacon into town, the committee began collecting $200 each year from member families. Originally, eight families contributed to the fund.

Despite money coming in, a number of ways to save money were also approved, including driving the priest between Houston and Dallas instead of buying an extra plane ticket.

“For about two years, Raumin Benjamin and I would drive down to Houston for their service,” said Ramel Nasseri, the current mission church committee president. “After the service, we would take the priest with us back to Dallas and he would fly back home from here.”

Father Youkhana was the traveling priest at the time, but around 2015 he was given his own parish in San Diego. Months later, Benjamin moved away from Dallas and the mission church found themselves back at square one.

The mission church rarely held a service during that span, partly due to a priest shortage and also because of difficulties raising money within the city’s Assyrian community.

“A lot of things happened in the last few years and we fell on the backburner,” Nasseri said.

Then in January 2018, Father Youkhana in San Diego contacted Nasseri about putting the Dallas mission under the jurisdiction of Father George in Los Angeles. Father George’s church now had two new auxiliary priests and could afford to regularly send one to Texas.

“I remember Father George said to us, ‘If you guys do a service two or three times a year, you are never going to get anywhere. You aren’t going to build a community that way,'” Nasseri said.

Picture of Father Paulis_edited


Father Paulis of Los Angeles was assigned to host the first service in Dallas in over a year. February’s trip would be his first trip to the city, but the recently ordained priest is used to spreading his message across the world, at one point even hosting a Bible study show on ANB (Assyrian National Broadcast).

According to Father Paulis, Saturday’s service in Texas is much more significant than just a gathering of local Assyrians.

“This is not just about Assyrians, we’re talking about Christianity,” Father Paulis said. “We have to know our heritage and our language, but at the same time we’re doing it as being part of the body of Christ. We have to do what God taught us to do – to get together, to be strong, to strengthen each other, and to strengthen the body of Christ as a whole.”

While also working as a full time chiropractor, Father Paulis will now work in rotation with two other priests in Los Angeles to travel monthly to the mission.

IMG_0424_editedHe cautioned Dallas Assyrians to build a church only if that’s what the people truly want. What’s most important, he urged, was bringing the community together.

“There are a lot of Assyrians in Dallas and I see the hunger for the word of God,” he said. “I see the hunger of this gathering to be in a community and that’s something that we Assyrians are known for, we have to be around Assyrians.”


Today, the Dallas mission receives support from the local Armenian community. The Saint Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church now offers their space free of charge.

“The support we get from the Armenian Church is tremendous,” said Father Paulis. “That made it extremely easy for us not to bring a lot of items except our books and our clothing.”

The church committee relies heavily on word of mouth and Nasseri is the first to admit, “we’re definitely in need of a better communication method, not only for the church but also overall for the community.”

IMG_0427_editedToday, Nasseri estimates the Dallas Assyrian population is around 200. He hopes to grow that number by promoting Assyrian events on social media.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been welcomed to receive communion in any other ancient Christian community like I have in this one,” said Southern Methodist University (SMU) Professor of Christian History, Ted Campbell.

Campbell heard about the service through the mission’s Facebook page and had previously attended The Mar Gewargis Assyrian Cathedral in Chicago.

“What fascinates me about this church is that it carries on its existence despite enormous persecution through the centuries,” Campbell said. “It’s very moving and impressive. I’ll share this service with my students about what the Assyrian churches are like.”

The next service is scheduled for Friday, March 23 at 4pm with Father Paulis and will also include a baptism. For now, Nasseri hopes that the monthly services will encourage the Assyrian community in Dallas to support more initiatives, including the city’s upcoming Assyrian New Year’s party, which will be the first since 2012.

“Once people see that something is happening on a regular basis, they will make the commitment to be a part of it,” he said. “They won’t mind investing both time and money. If we can offer them stability, they’d be more willing to come.”

Check out the Saint Jacob Assyrian Church of the East Mission, Dallas Texas Facebook page.