By Sabri Atman
When after a long illness, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I died on March 21, 2014, the Holy Synod elected Mor Ignatius Aphrem II as Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. This was during an uncertain and unstable period in our people’s lives for several reasons. The civil war in Syria was costing the lives of hundreds of thousands and at the same time Iraqi Assyrians and other Christians were facing genocide, and once more fleeing ethnic cleansing. As a church leader, Mar Ignatius Aphrem II tried to be with his people during this painful and cruel time. He did not distinguish between Assyrians, despite their various nominations. Instead of being supportive and helpful during this horrific period, the World Council of Arameans (WCA) attacked him recently.
In order to understand the attack of the Arameans on the Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, we need to put it in proper perspective. Assyrians have been oppressed for decades by the regimes in their own homeland, Mesopotamia. They have been through many persecutions, yet there is not a single country that recognizes their suffering, much less respect their human, ethnic, historical, political, cultural and linguistic rights. This has been going on for decades.
After their devastation, the Assyrians never received acknowledgment and reparation of their incalculable losses not only in human life, but the theft of their lands, homes, and destruction of their national homeland. Their ancient churches were their largest institutions, with 3 major dominations such as the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and other Western derivatives. During the course of history, their church identity became much stronger than their national one largely due to the fact that in some countries they were allowed to be ‘Christian’ to some extent, but not allowed to be ‘Assyrians’ with full ethnic rights. They remained second-class citizens in their own ancient homeland.
Despite all this persecution and the splinter of their nation into various religious denominations, they still always referred to themselves (in their own mother tongue) as Suroye, Suraya, Atoraya, or Aşuraya. Fleeing the Middle East to Europe, America, Australia, and Canada, they finally started to breathe easier. In the Diaspora, they began to establish their associations, federations and other institutions. They were finally free to develop and rebuild their national Assyrian identity and to practice their cultural and linguistic rights in their respective adopted countries. The Assyrian National movement in the Diaspora started to raise awareness and focused on their Assyrian secular identity. However, a small fraction, (mainly from Turkey and Syria that belonged to Syriac Orthodox Church) started to claim their national identity as Aramean. It was a backlash to the Assyrian national movement. It is very hard to claim that the Aramean movement is a secular one. This movement was largely organized inside the Syriac Orthodox churches, and at the same time were using Assyrian people’s fate for their own agenda as some Islamic organizations are doing in the Middle East. They want to control the church leaders. This is the main conflict they have with Mor Ignatius Aphrem II.
The Aramean movement is largely a counter-Assyrian national movement and the proof is in the following developments: Just after the Assyrian Magazine Hujada was established in Sweden, the Arameans started their own magazine, Bahro Suryoyo. Just after the Assyrian Federation was established, they started their own Aramean Federation. Just after Assyriska was established, they started their own soccer team. Just after establishing the Assyrian Genocide and Research Center they started their own Aramean Genocide and Research Center. The list is long as to the way in which they have tried to establish a separatist national movement, to counter the Assyrian one. They have built an Aramean identity based on hostilities towards the Assyrians, even at the expense of innocent Assyrians who have believed their false claims. They did a lot of damage at a very crucial time in our history, when our people, regardless of their church affiliation, should have united and worked together to aid our desperate people. They even damaged those Arameans who believed in unity regardless of the name issue. The people who believe in their Aramean identity and want our people to unite deserve respect.
On January 25, 2015, in an interview with Asharq Al- Awsat, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, was asked about the existence of many names for one nation. His response was, “These are different names of the same people who have been [living in the middle East] for thousands of years.” However, the Aramean movement led by the World Council of Arameans (WCA) is not happy with this statement. According to them, Assyrians do not exist! I was personally attacked by one of their ideologues by the name of Prof. Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis, some years ago. He said, “Sabri Atman: A man of standards and values or… a manipulator and abuser of the Aramean Physical Genocide to promote the immoral western criminal spiritual colonial and slavery product “Assyrians”.” Who is Mr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis to give himself the permission to speak on behalf of all Assyrians, even those who identify with the Aramean name, much less insist that the Assyrians do not exist?
On December 1, 2014, in Switzerland, when our people were facing desperate conditions in the Middle East and elsewhere, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II was able to bring some of the political parties and organizations to work together for the sake of our suffering people. But WCA did not show any willingness to work with ‘others’ because they are ‘Assyrians.’ Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, delivered a message to all of our people, regardless of their name choice. He said, ‘The only flag that the Syriac Orthodox Church has is the cross, and the rest of the symbols should be removed from church buildings.’ But Arameans, influenced by the leadership of WCA, did not show any respect to Mor Ignatius Aphrem II and the Synod. They wrote to the Patriarch several times with the desire to have a meeting with him. When they have disrespected the patriarch and the synod, what is the purpose of this meeting? The intentions of the WCA to meet with Patriarch Mor Ignatius is not clear. Are they seeking photo opportunities to post on their web site?
The Aramean movement under the leadership of WCA has attacked the Patriarchate for trying to open their own TV Channel, Suboro TV. The WCA is not pleased with this development because they want to monopolize the media. However, their hostilities towards the Assyrians will soon backfire on the WCA, and they will eventually lose the power they have in the community due to their divisive actions and attitudes. Furthermore, many members of this new movement and the WCA’s leaders that work for others, not for our people’s agenda, have declared their desire to change the Syriac Orthodox Church name to Aramean Church. This seems wishful thinking, if not completely futile.
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II recently wrote them a letter that was dated on August 2nd, 2017 and was posted in social media. In response to WCA’s letter, the Patriarch wrote: “ You signed the letter as well as your emails on behalf of several organizations. We are wondering how many members of these organizations are aware of your correspondence. We are particularly interested in knowing the reasons for including church youth organizations such as SOKU and SAUF. Do you claim to speak on behalf of church organizations too?” Furthermore, the Patriarch wrote: “ Your April 11 letter was received 10 days after a Viber message from the President of WCA in which he crossed many lines and allowed himself to accuse me and members of the Holy Synod of…….”.
In conclusion, the Aramean movement under the WCA should take many lessons from this communication and learn to respect the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II. He deserves everyone’s respect when he tirelessly tries to unite and aid our people that live under horrendous conditions, particularly in the Middle East. The Aramean World Council, WCA should stop serving agendas that seek to divide our people. They should know the name issue we have today is a result of several factors, and cannot be solved overnight. They should try to be helpful, instead of creating new problems with which to decimate us further.
 To the President and members of the World Council of Arameans, No. EN 426/17, August 2nd, 2017