Assyrian Bishop Wants Friendship With Israel
“Israel has stability, the ear of the world community, and the ability to be a modern state in the Middle East. Israel has withstood the test of time,” says Mar Awa Royel, the first American-born Assyrian bishop in history. Born David Royel in Chicago, Illinois on July 4, 1975, His Grace Mar Awa, Bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, who presides over the Diocese of California, conveys his desire for friendship between Israel and the Assyrian people.
Noting that “we’ve had a long history,” he cites prophecy in the Book of Isaiah in order to provide a biblical foundation for his desired brotherhood with Israel, and describes several church-organized pilgrimages that he has led to Israel.
While there are very few Assyrian Christians in Israel, until 1853 the Assyrian Church of the East shared a part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Numerous records and Assyrian manuscripts are now in the possession of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Israel.
Bishop Royel also described the relations and commonalities between Jews and Assyrian Christians in Iraq prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. Even after the Arab Muslim conquest of the Middle East, which installed Arabic as the lingua franca of the region, Assyrians continued to speak Assyrian.
The Nash Didan (Aramaic for “our people”) refers to Jews who lived in villages in northern Iraq (modern-day Kurdish Regional Government) and near the borders of Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Tradition indicates that the community was founded by Jews who fled to that area during the Babylonian Exile, and did not return to their homeland after the declaration issued by Cyrus II of Persia. Assyrian and the Nash Didan dialect are very close. It is currently estimated that about 300,000 of the Nash Didan live in the state of Israel.
“We are the most Semitic of the churches,” says Bishop Royel. Jews and Assyrians in the region were bound by more than a common linguistic heritage. Royel describes the Targumim (the Aramaic translations/paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible and accompanying rabbinic teachings) as an influential text in Church doctrine. In fact, the Targumim are the antecedents of the version of the Old (and New) Testament of the Assyrian Church of the East. Queen Helena of Adiabene, an Assyrian who converted to Judaism in about 30 C.E., spent the latter part of her life in Jerusalem, where she gave gifts to the Second Temple of Jerusalem and was meticulous in her observance of the precepts of Judaism.
Assyrian churches themselves are a fusion of synagogue and Jerusalem Temple worship. “There are no examples like it in any churches that are found in North America,” says Royel. “Facing east, there is a Holy of Holies, and a bima in the middle of the church building where the Scriptural readings take place.” The Assyrian Church of the East also follows the Jewish practice of not pronouncing the holy name of God when the Bible is read in church. Readings from the Old Testament are also featured more prominently than in other church services.
The Assyrian Church at one time had an estimated 80 million adherents. As it now stands, their worldwide numbers have been reduced to a little less than 4 million people collectively. In Iraq, 1.5 million Assyrians lived in the country at the start of the US invasion in 2003. Today, the Assyrian Christians in Iraq number around 150,000. That is a 90 percent reduction of Assyrian Christians in their ancient homeland.
“Iraq does not view Assyrians as part of their society,” says Royel. “Maybe, it is time to reconsider Sykes-Picot. There is talk of establishing martial law in Iraq, like in Egypt, but that doesn’t seem practical. Egypt is more homogenous than Iraq.”
When asked what a modern state of Assyria would look like, Royel stated that he would like very much to see a free Assyrian homeland for his people to live in peace within its borders. Friendship between Israel and Assyria would be mutually beneficial, with both countries being strong allies. Whereas Israel would serve as a model for a successful Middle Eastern state for Assyria, Israel would gain a strong ally in an increasingly tumultuous region.
Bradley Martin is a Fellow for the Haym Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and Research Assistant for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.