Analysis: Attacks defy the Prophet’s wish

United Press International
August 3, 2004 Tuesday 11:18 AM Eastern Time

Analysis: Attacks defy the Prophet’s wish


GENEVA, Switzerland, Aug. 3 (UPI)

The lethal attacks on five churches in Iraq violated the stated will
of the prophet Mohammed, who in the 7th century issued a “Firman” –
or letter of protection — for Assyrian Christians.

Assyrians make up the majority of the 700,000 Christians in
present-day Iraq. Mohammed was so impressed with their ancestors’
knowledge of medicine and the sciences that he decreed for them to be
left in peace, according to Albert Yelda, formerly the Christian
representative in the leadership of the London-based Iraqi National

The Firman disappeared without trace in 1847, Yelda told United Press
International. Assyrians believe that the then-Turkish rulers
destroyed this document before setting out to kill 30,000 Christians.

Joseph Yacoub, a political science professor at the Catholic
University of Lyon, France, fears that the coordinated car bombings
of churches may accomplish what Mohammed had tried to prevent. “There
exists a definite risk that the Christian presence will be reduced to
a level of insignificance,” he told the French newspaper, Le Figaro.

“So far there had just been attacks on Christian individuals,” this
leading expert on Middle Eastern Christianity continued. “But now the
bombers have taken on the entire community. Their message is clear:
This is Muslim territory; it does not belong to you.”

Thus one of the most remarkable set of Christians is once again
threatened with extinction. The Assyrians, of whom there are 1.5
million worldwide, are descendants of one of the oldest civilizations
– Mesopotamia. Almost three millennia ago, they excelled in
astronomy, jurisprudence, the arts, architecture, medicine and the
natural sciences.

Assyrians were the first nation to adopt Christianity as their state
religion in 179 A.D., more than a century before Armenia. They claim
to have been the first to build churches and to translate the New
Testament from Greek into their vernacular – Aramaic, the language of

In the 8th century, not long after Mohammed’s death, Assyrians were
the first to send missionaries to China, Mongolia and even Japan.
They were Nestorians, heretics in the eyes of the rest of the church
because they followed the teachings of Nestorius, a 5th-century
bishop of Constantinople who taught that the Virgin Mary was not the
“theodokos,” or mother of God, but simply the mother of Jesus Christ.

This fine point of theology has long ceased to stand in the way of
Christian unity in Iraq. In the 16th century, a major segment of the
Nestorian church united with Rome while retaining its ancient
liturgy. They are now called the Chaldean Church to which most
Assyrian Christians belong.

The remaining Nestorians are on excellent of terms with the
Chaldeans, while maintaining different traditions. Their liturgy is
extremely “high;” yet their incense-filled sanctuaries appear as
stark as synagogues or Reformed churches.

There is no iconostasis – a partition or screen decorated with icons
separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church. There are no
graven images. A simple cross above the altar is the only adornment
of a Nestorian church. Nestorians call their priests “rabi;” like
orthodox Jews they eschew mixed marriages.

While the Assyrians lived in peace for much of the first 11 centuries
since the Muslim conquest of their homeland, martyrdom has been their
fate for the past 150 years.

The massacre of 30,000 Christians in 1847 was succeeded by another in
1896. In 1915 the Turks slaughtered not only over one million
Armenians but also 250,000 Assyrians, a fact seldom mentioned when
the first holocaust of the 20th century is being discussed.

There are still some old men alive in Iraq who were forcible
converted to Islam in their childhood but remained Christians in
their hearts, fasting during Lent and making merry at Christmas,
Easter and Pentecost.

During Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the Assysians’ persecution was
in a sense more of a cultural than a religious nature. “Tyrants hate
minorities,” said Yelda. Hence Saddam had hundreds of Assyrian
villages razed, including one 2nd-century church. He also banned the
Assyrians’ cultural clubs where they had kept their literary language

But in Saddam’s days, too, Muslim mobs terrorized Iraqi Christians,
beheading on Aug. 15, 2002 a Chaldean nun, Sister Cecilia Hanna,
whose monastery they had stormed.

Like their cousins, the Jews, Assyrians are now scattered around the
world. Almost 300,000 went to America, primarily the Chicago area.
Others live in Jordan, Australia, France, Germany and the United

It is with a heavy heart that Pope John Paul II reacted to the news
of the murderous attacks on Iraq’s churches by stressing his
closeness to the marvelous and venerable Christian culture, which is
at the point of oblivion.

The pontiff appealed to those believing in one God to show mercy.
Instead, Iraq’s Christians are being murdered — in the name of that
merciful God.