Assyrian Assimilation

An eastern church in search of an identity in the West

by Matthew Matuszak

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Abraham Lazar, an Assyrian Christian, decided to leave Iraq with his wife and daughter after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The state-sanctioned “pressure” on the Assyrian community was becoming unbearable, he said. “Year after year, things got worse. We couldn’t stay anymore.”

In 1994, the Lazars made it to Greece and from there pushed on to the United States, where Mr. Lazar found work as an assembly inspector at an electric company. Mr. Lazar’s parents joined him two years later. In 2000, his brother Jacob came on a student visa. In the past few years, each of Abraham’s five siblings has left Iraq for the West.

Abraham Lazar’s decision to settle in Chicago was no accident. For more than a century Assyrians have been coming to Chicago: First, in the 1880’s and 1890’s, as seminarians and medical students and later, most notably following World War I, as refugees fleeing persecution. Just as Lebanese immigrants joined their predecessors in Detroit and its surroundings, Assyrians flocked to Chicago. Today, about 80,000 Assyrians are estimated to live in the Chicago area.

Like most Assyrians living in Chicago, the Lazars belong to the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient faith community that traces its origins to Mesopotamia and St. Thomas the Apostle. Over time, the church expanded throughout to such faraway places as India and China, but its center, or catholicosate, remained in the heart of Mesopotamia, settling permanently in Baghdad after it became the capital in 780. During the invasions of the Mongols in the 14th century, this church was nearly destroyed. The formation of the Chaldean Church (a community of Assyrians who, while retaining the rites and traditions of the Church of the East, are in full communion with the Church of Rome) in the 16th century further weakened the Church of the East.

The 20th century was no kinder to the Assyrian Church of the East. During World War I, the Turks wiped out about one-third of the population, with most survivors fleeing to what is now modern Iraq. After the end of the British Mandate in 1933, Iraqi troops attacked the Assyrians and expelled its leader, Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Simon XXIII, who settled in San Francisco. The catholicos’s adoption of the Gregorian (or Western) calendar and his commitment to the practice of hereditary succession triggered a dispute within the church that threatened to lead to a schism.

Mar Simon, who was forced to resign but later resurfaced as catholicos-patriarch, was assassinated in 1975, prompting his successor, Mar Dinkha IV, to move to Chicago, which has become the home of the Assyrian patriarchal see. Much has been done to relieve the tensions within the church, which since the 1990’s has been engaged in dialogue with the Roman and Chaldean churches.

Today, the Church of the East has about 300,000 members worldwide, with more than one-third in the United States. About 80,000 of U.S. church members live in the Eastern half of the country, most of them in the Chicago area. About 5,000 church members live in California.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Immigration Assyrian Church Assimilation