By MSGR. RICHARD LOPEZ, Special to the Bulletin | Published January 28, 2019
I loved to give pop quizzes to my students during my 33 years at St. Pius X High School. One time, to check their understanding of their place in history, I asked them, “Who do you think was president when Father Lopez was born?” They all wrote, “LINCOLN!”
In this column, I’d like to give a pop quiz on history to the Catholics of north Georgia.
See if you can answer the following questions correctly:
- What group of Christians has suffered repeated persecutions for a longer period of time than others?
- What group of Christians was baptized shortly after the death and resurrection of Our Lord?
- What group of Christians sent missionaries and established churches in Tibet and China in the Middle Ages?
- What group of Christians produced scholars who translated the works of Greek intellectuals into Arabic for Muslim scholars?
- What group of Christians included early pioneers in medicine as physicians for Muslim caliphs and sultans for eight generations?
- What group of Christians still speaks the language of Our Lord Jesus, Aramaic, in their homes and in their liturgies?
If you answered the Assyrian Christians, you get a score of 100. Most of the questions are based upon facts from Father Felipe Gomez, SJ, of the East Asia Pastoral Institute.
Most people think the term “Assyrian” belongs to a long-extinct civilization. Today’s Assyrian Christians can trace their roots to that ancient culture. Assyrian Christians are sometimes called Chaldeans, Syriacs or the Church of the East. Many are in union with Rome, while others share ties with Orthodox Christians, but all are the oldest Christian communities.
Historically, their homeland covered south Turkey, parts of Syria, the north of Iraq and western Iran. They especially honor St. Thomas the Apostle, who brought them the faith on his way to India. Sadly, they have been under constant persecution, including conquests, invasions, the massacres of the Ottoman Turks and now the atrocities of ISIS. Under Muslim rule they were at times tolerated, often persecuted and always discriminated against by extra taxes and the denial of basic legal rights.
“The Year of the Sword” by Joseph Yacoub describes the murder of two-thirds of all Assyrians by the Turks and Kurds during World War I. In 1933 they again suffered horrors in the Simele massacres. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish jurist, was so moved by these atrocities in Simele, he coined the word “genocide,” which is used today to describe the destruction of a people.
Recently, Islamists have been doing much the same to the descendants of these people who continue to suffer for one reason—they will not give up Christ. The documentary “Our Last Stand” was made in 2016 and presented a look at current Assyrian struggles. Today Fox News reports that the Turks have seized 50 religious properties of the tiny Assyrian minority, including monasteries that are 1,500 years old. In northeast Syria, the Kurds are shutting down Christian schools to suppress the culture and faith of the Assyrians. So many of the Assyrians languish in refugee camps in Iraq or neighboring countries or struggle to survive in exile.
The number of Assyrians in Iraq has significantly dropped since 2003. If left unaided, they could face extinction, erasing the earliest roots of our faith.
Scripture says: “Is it nothing to you … all who pass by?” How can we watch the final destruction of our brothers and sisters who have kept the faith as martyrs for 1,500 years and do nothing?
One thing we can do is support the efforts of an organization called Aid to the Church in Need (www.churchinneed.org), which has served suffering and persecuted Christians around the world since 1947.
Msgr. Richard Lopez served for many years as a teacher at St. Pius X High School, Atlanta.