September 3, 2009

Assyrian Orthodox Community Trying to Preserve Its Identity

Ancient Faith of Their Middle Eastern Fathers

Guardian Weekly
Catherine Ann Lombard
Tuesday September 1st 2009

The morning is hot and sticky, but I have promised Dayrayto Shmuni to help in the monastery kitchen and put on my long-sleeved T-shirt. How the nun manages during the summer months in her long black habit and cowl is a miracle. After a short bike ride through the wooded fields, I walk into the kitchen that is bustling with women and the sounds of Aramaic.

I am on the far eastern border of the Netherlands, but I might as well be in southeastern Turkey. The madrashto, or summer school, is in session at Mor Ephrem, the Syrian Orthodox Monastery, and 45 hungry boys will be lining up after the midday prayer for lunch. My husband works as a teacher for the church and so I volunteered to help.

With only a few words in Aramaic, the ancient language that Jesus spoke, I spend these mornings chopping vegetables and washing pots and pans. It is Wednesday, which is a fasting day, so the menu is simple. Baked potatoes, lentil soup, sesame-covered rolls, fish cakes, pickled vegetables, and melon. No meat, eggs, milk products or sweets.

The boys are all Dutch, learning to read and chant in kthobonoyo, the litur­gical language that only about 300 people in the world speak today. Their parents are immigrants, having fled the Turkish government and Kurds in the 1970s and 80s, leaving their homes and farmlands in Tur Abdin. Others escaped from Iran and Syria, and, recently, from Iraq. They are a complex diaspora community of 300,000 worldwide, only united by their Aramaic dialect and Christian faith. As man in his 30s told me, “We have no land. We have no ­nation. We only have the church. Without it, we are left with no identity.”

One of the women is now humming a chant; the window is open and I can hear some of the boys chanting as they sit outside. I am slicing melon and its juicy sweetness makes my mouth ­water. We women will eat only after all the teachers, priests, monks, boys and archbishop have finished their meal, which is eaten in silence. I steal a piece of melon and hurry to finish my task before the chapel bell rings, calling us to prayer.

Afterwards, I have to remind myself that I am in the Netherlands. What will happen to all this as the newer generations become more European? How will this refuge of ancient Christian life survive in our secular world?