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Christians from the Middle East

A dozen people were sitting talking in different groups around the "musicians' table" in the Assyrian National Federation's new Cultural Centre in Södertälje, Sweden. There was a break in the music programme and the musicians were taking the opportunity to relax and have a bite to eat. There were musicians from the Assyrian group Qenneshrin (the house band for the evening) at the table, as well as a couple of singers and a few friends. "Are you all Christians", I asked.

Christians from the Middle East. Christians as distinct from Jews and the Muslim majority. In my ears the religious identity of the group of Christian emigrants who had come to Sweden from the region in South East Turkey and Northern Syria seemed a homogeneous and uncomplicated starting point.

"Yes, all Assyrians are Christians", somebody answered. "But we are Christians in different ways, of course."

A quick inquiry showed that the people round the table represented four different Christian churches: the Evangelical Lutheran Church (myself), the Church of the East (Nestorians), the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobites). Within the group that call themselves Assyrians we also find people belonging to several other Christian churches and even Muslims, although not represented at our table in Södertälje.

Well then, Christian, but with a definitely toned-down Christian identity. This is a prominent feature among those who call themselves Assyrians in Sweden today. Underlying the Assyrian identity there is a conscious choice of ethnically defined community, an affinity with the ancient Assyrian high culture which ceased to exist more than 2,500 years ago. This distinguishes them above all from the Syrian group in Sweden, who instead claim a religious identity, as Syrian Orthodox Christians.

At the same time the Assyrians would hardly claim that they are non-religious or atheist. Among the people of the Middle East the term "Christian" means something more than it does in Swedish. To be a Christian is to be part of a collective identity, which goes back to the classification of inhabitants according to their beliefs, and not on the basis of language or ethnicity, as practised in the Ottoman Empire and the Arab Empire. To a Swede, Christianity is an individual matter, based on more or less active religious worship. The classification of people according to membership of different churches in the Ottoman Empire can be compared to how we classify people according to nationality. To be a Christian means to be a member of a collectively based grouping, the significance of which does not need to be questioned any more closely. A Christian can speak Arabic, Turkish or Kurdish and live in the same manner as his Muslim neighbours, but nevertheless be regarded as something very different from a Muslim.

The complex pattern of religious and ethnic identity, respectively. From the Swedish Assyrians' ethnic perspective, the most important questions are often what one is not. For example, it is important not to be Turkish, Swedish, etc. Ethnic identity does not involve saying no to religious identity, which for instance means that Assyrians in Sweden don't consider that the "Swedish" Syrians are "on the other side".

How come there are representatives for most of the early Christian churches within a region that stretches like a belt between the Caspian Sea and the north eastern corner of the Mediterranean? Well, first and foremost because this was the cradle of Christianity and also because from a historical viewpoint the Middle East has always been a cultural crossroads – this was where traders, missionaries, crusaders and caravans of military conquerors from the East and the West drew by. The major political (religious) powers have succeeded each others as rulers in the region – Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Frenchmen and Englishmen – all have taken turns to rule in the Middle East.

In the article Shaikh fathullah. The Assyrian "modern" identity Denho Özmen draws up a "map" of religious membership in populations with "Assyrio-Aramean" origin (published in Hujådå in the autumn of 1997).

Özmen includes many folk groups that are not normally reckoned as part of this group.


  • Maronits
         Lebanon and Syria. C:a 3 millions
  • Orthodox Melchites
         Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan och province of Antakia in Turkey. C:a 4 millions.
  • Chaldeans
         Iraq. C:a 1 millon.
  • The Church of the East
         Iraq och Syria. C:a 1/2 millon.
  • Syrian Orthodox
         Syria, Iraq och South east Turkey.
  • Syrian Catholics
         Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine.
  • Catholic Melchites
         Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine.
  • Syrian Protestants
         Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine.


  • Mhalmoye
         The area between Midyat and Mardin in Turkey. C:a 1,5 millons.
  • Tai
         Syria och Iraq.
  • Tagritoye
         Iraq. C:a 1 millon.
  • Barazan
  • Shammar
         Syria och Iraq

If one adds Özmen's figures, the total far exceeds the population figures of three and a half million (Assyrians/Syrians) which were quoted in the electronic newsletter Zenda in 1997, for example. In Sweden the Syrian Orthodox Christians are in an overwhelming majority among the Assyrians. Of the ca. 50,000 Assyrians /Syrians (Atman 1996) living in Sweden today they constitute more than 90%. The Nestorians are estimated to be a couple of thousand and constitute the next largest group. Other groups are therefore relatively small.

The dividing line in Sweden between Syrians and Assyrians lies between the religiously defined group: Syrians, who are Syrian Orthodox Christians, and the politically or ethnically determined category: Assyrians, whose members belong to several different Christian beliefs (the majority are of course also Syrian Orthodox Christians) but whose religious affiliation is toned down.

How, then, have all these Christian beliefs managed to get a foothold in the Middle East? The difference between the two largest churches, the Syrian Orthodox church and the Church of the East, emanates from early Christianity's theological disputes, where disputes concerning the interpretation of the relationship between God and Jesus were in the foreground.

A short history

The Roman emperor Constantine's endeavours to establish an ideologically homogeneous foundation for the Roman State included the battle against various heretical beliefs in order to create a homogeneous Christian doctrine for the Roman Empire. After the death of Jesus different Christian beliefs and interpretative disputes concerning the biblical message arose in various areas around the Mediterranean. The most fundamental questions concerned the interpretation of the Holy Trinity. Was Jesus God or human, or perhaps both, in one and the same person? One of the most influential interpretations is usually known as Arianism and originated from the Alexandrian priest Arius, who claimed that there was a divine hierarchy in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost represented different degrees of holiness.

When Emperor Constantine became a Christian in the year 312, one of his most important aims was to link together the Christian church with the state in the Roman Empire. To achieve this it was necessary to unite all the different Christian beliefs. To achieve this Constantine called a council of churches in Nicea in the year 325. The Council decided that the Father and the Son are one and the same essence. But discussions about the divine or human nature of Jesus continued, and the question gradually came to focus on how Jesus could be born of woman if he was God.

In 428 Nestorius was elected patriarch in Constantinople. After his appointment he claimed that Jesus has two different, independent natures: a human and a divine nature. Nestorius's statement led to further debate within the Christian church and at the Council of Churches in Ephesus in 431 he was accused by Cyril (who represented the Alexandrian theology) of trying to abolish the divine unity. Nestorius's doctrine, diophysitism, "two-nature doctrine", was rejected by the Council of Churches as heretical and Nestorius was removed from his office as patriarch. Cyril's theological work resulted in the approval of monophysitism, the "one-nature doctrine", by the Council of Churches in Ephesus in 449. The principle of monophysitism was that God had entered completely into Jesus through a kind of incarnation. It is God who is born, dies and rises from the dead through the life of Jesus, and in this way Mary is the mother of God. Only two years later, however, a new Council of Churches was called, this time in Chalcedon in the Bosporus where a new formulation was approved:

He (Christ) is one and the same Son, perfect in humanity, true Godhead and true manhood, confessed in two natures free of all separateness, intermixture, confusion, mingling, change and transformation: the difference in natures is in no way abolished due to the unity. On the contrary, the typical characteristics of each nature are preserved and both are united in one person and in one figure (after Karlsson 1991:18).

The Council's definition of the Holy Trinity was accepted by the Byzantine Church. Still today this "Chalcedonian" belief is fundamental to the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches and also to most Protestant churches.

Cyril's followers in Alexandria did not accept the decision of the Council of Churches, however, but continued to confess to the monophysitic doctrine. The same applied to the Aramaic-speaking Christians in present-day Syria. Today we find these followers in the Coptic Church and also in the Syrian Orthodox church and the Armenian Orthodox Church.

The Dairo d-Zaafaran monastery in Mardin in Turkey.
Source: Deuro d'Mor Ephrem: calendar from 1987

In the group of Assyrians/Syrians in Sweden we therefore find representatives for both the monophysitic and diophysitic beliefs. The Syrian Orthodox Christians from the northern parts of Syria and Tur'Abdin in South East Turkey are reckoned among the former. Members of the Church of the East originating mainly from Lebanon and Iraq are reckoned among the latter. Others names which have been used for these religious groups are Jacobites, after the Syrian church leader Jacob Baradai in the 6th century (Syrian Orthodox), and Nestorians (Church of the East). Incidentally, the name Nestorian was officially rejected a few years ago.

The Church of the East has its origin in what is now South East Turkey in the Christian church in Edessa (today Urfa), of which there are records from the end of the 2nd century. The name Nestorian was taken after Nestorius, whose doctrine was accepted in 484, after which Nestorianism was widely spread during the following thousand years. By the end of the 13th century there were twelve Nestorian dioceses in a strip from Peking to Samarkand. At the height of their powers they were estimated to have had nearly 80 million members (Karlsson 1991. 23). This age of greatness came to an abrupt end, however. When Timur Lenk conquered Persia, Mesopotamia and Syria at the end of the 14th century, the civilian population was decimated. Of the Nestorian Christians only scattered remnants survived. Their most powerful stronghold came to be in the region between the two lakes Van (East Turkey) and Urmia (North West Iran).

In the 16th century the Nestorian church was split into two movements, named after the people who lived in these regions: Chaldeans and Assyrians. The Western world again became aware of the existence of the Nestorians in connection with the Kurdish massacres in the 1830s and 1840s. When Western missionaries tried to spread Anglican and Presbyterian beliefs in the Middle East during the second half of 19th century, they encountered Nestorians in these regions. These missionaries preferred the designations 'Assyrians' and 'Chaldeans' since the name of Nestorius was associated with heresy.

Bishop Mar Odisho Orahan, Church of the East:

Doctrinally, the teaching of the Church of the East is based on the belief and faith of the universal Church which was declared in the Nicene Creed The mystery of the Holy Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation are central to its teaching. The Church believes in one triune God: Father, Son and Holy spirit. It also believes and teaches that the Only-Begotten Son of God, God the Word became incarnate for us men and for our salvation and became man.

In one of his hymns of praises, Mar Bawai the great, Patriarch of the Church of the East in the fifth century, states briefly the doctrine of the Church as follows:

"One is Christ the Son of God, worshipped by all in two natures. In his Godhead begotten of the Father without beginning before all time. In his humanity born of Mary in the fullness of time, in a body united. Neither is His Godhead of the nature of the mother, nor is His humanity of the nature of the Father. The natures are preserved in their Qnume in one person of one Sonship. And as the Godhead is three essences in one nature, likewise the Sonship of the Son is in two natures, one person. So the Holy Church has learned to confess in the Lord who is the Christ". (reproduced in Hujådå 1997).

The Chaldean Catholic Church mentioned above has its origin in the Church of the East. Several of the Bishops of the Church of the East converted to Catholicism in the 14th century. This led to a schism and a new Catholic movement was established. This new church came to be called the Chaldean Catholic Church. Today the Chaldean Patriarch resides in Baghdad. The Chaldeans have emigrated in large numbers, mainly to America, where it is estimated that the Chaldean population amounts to ca. 100,000 people in the Detroit area alone (Andersson 1991. 85). Information about the history of the Chaldeans and their situation today can be obtained through Chaldean American Student Associations

The Syrian Orthodox Church in Sweden

Since 1978 the Syrian Orthodox Church in Sweden is part of the Archbishopric of Sweden. The Archbishop Mor Dioscoros Benyamin Atas resides in Södertälje, south of Stockholm. The diocese consists of more than 30 parishes and in 1995 had 26,000 members.

Further information about the Syrian Orthodox Church in Sweden and throughout the whole world can be found in the catalogue, World Archdiocese Directory