Chaldeans are the indigenous people of Iraq who speak a form of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ. Many also speak Arabic and English. Chaldeans are Eastern Rite Catholic, led by the Patriarch of Babylon and affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church but maintain their own separate Bishops and Dioceses.
Metro Detroit has the world’s largest population outside of Iraq, with an estimated 121,000 people. Another 150,000 Chaldeans/Assyrians reside throughout the United States, particularly in the Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix areas. The population enjoys steady growth thanks to a constant influx of Christian refugees who have fled Iraq in the face of religious persecution. The community feels a deep kinship to these victims of war and helps them in many ways, including through the Chaldean Community Foundation. Like many ethnic groups, Chaldeans began immigrating to the Metropolitan Detroit area in the 1920s in search of better economic, religious and political freedom and opportunities. While some were lured by Henry Ford’s famous $5-a-day working wage, in true Chaldean fashion entrepreneurial endeavors quickly took hold – particularly mom and pop food markets. Today, an estimated 9of 10 food stores in Detroit are owned by Chaldeans.
Chaldeans enjoy large, close-knit families. Introduce two Chaldeans and they’ll soon find myriad connections through family, marriage and/or business. The community is not just defined by hard work – Chaldeans enjoy socializing and place a high premium on gift-giving and stylish entertainment. Weddings, for example, are large, joyous affairs with many hundreds of attendees and elaborate celebrations.
A RICH HISTORY
The origins of the ChaldoAssyrian people of today are the descendants of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations and the Aramean legacy of Mesopotamia. The contributions of Mesopotamia to the civilized world are well-documented.
Modern ChaldoAssyrians are essentially Aramaic-speaking Christians who inhabited northern Mesopotamia and may be categorized into two denominational and linguistic groupings; the “East Syriacs” (members of the Church of the East – often erroneously known as “Nestorians” – and their Uniate offshoots the Chaldeans), and the “West Syriacs” (members of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Syriac Catholics, an offshoot of the former). There are additionally smaller clusters of Catholics and Protestants who converted from the above churches largely after the late eighteenth century, due to Western missionary activity.
In the early Christian centuries, all of the above denominations vaguely belonged to an entity whose hierarch was stationed at Antioch in what is today Greek-dominated Syria. This was generally true until the split with the Christians living under the Persian empire, a division fostered by Byzantine and Persian antagonisms, and accentuated with the rise of Nestorianism among, in particular, ChaldoAssyrians in Mesopotamia. This left an unbridgeable divide between Christians living in the area of present-day Syria and those in Mesopotamia, or Iraq. The latter came to be known as “Nestorians” (and East Syrians or Syriacs), the former Monophysite Jacobites (and West Syrians or Syriacs).
The roots of the theological disputes may be traced back to the councils of the early Christian leaders who gathered to address the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Christianity. In Nicaea, in 325 AD, these prelates, without the presence of the Christians from the Persian Empire, established that the Son was “from the ousia (substance) of the Father,” and of the same substance with the Father. This formulation countered and abolished the teachings of the priest Arius, who taught that only the Father in the Christian trinity was God, the Son was lesser and not of the same substance. As soon as the teachings of Arius were entirely rejected by all sides, the query regarding the relationship of the godly nature with the human element in Jesus arose. What resulted next was the division that could be categorized as Eastern and Western.
Of course, underlying the theological conflict were the tensions and power struggles inherent in a relationship between two world powers; the Byzantine and the Persian empires. When friction between these two forces increased, the Persians suspected the Christians within their realm to be sympathizers or agents of the Byzantine emperor. Even prior to the Christological controversies had begun, the Christians in Persian-dominated Mesopotamia found it beneficial to sever their administrative ties with their coreligionists in Byzantine Syria by electing a Kotholikos, a position below the patriarch (who was stationed in Byzantine Antioch) but above the Metropolitan, in order to gain the favor of their anti-Byzantine Persian governments.
The developments led, then, to the formation of what came to be called the Church of the East or the Assyrian Church of the East. On the other side of the Euphrates, the church became known as the Syriac Orthodox Church. This Church was erroneously known as the “Jacobite Church,” so named after Yacoub Bar Addai (Jacob Baradeus, c.500 AD), an early pillar of the Church. The Syrian Orthodox Church carried on its activities mostly in Syria and northern Mesopotamia. It was thus geographically limited mostly to these two regions. The Church of the East, however, converted to its fold Persians, Arabs, Indians, Tartars, Mongols, Chinese and other Asian peoples. At the time of the Islamic conquest of the Fertile Crescent, there was no other significant church contending with the Church of the East for Christian theological hegemony in Asia.
After the fall of Persia to the Arabs, and Byzantium to the Turks, Islamic domination overtook the ChaldoAssyrian people and subjected them to periodic waives of persecutions and a new status as second-class citizens, although the new conquerors also discovered early on the invaluable service the Christian ChaldoAssyrians rendered to society as artisans, physicians, merchants, scholars and tax collectors.
During the expeditions of the Crusades, beginning in the eleventh century, the stability of Christian and Muslim relations became further disrupted, leaving behind “a legacy of mistrust and antagonism that would be revived in modern times, despite the fact that ChaldoAssyrians did not participate in the military conquests and struggles of the Crusades. In addition to this, inter-Christian rivalries, further persecutions by Muslim rulers, and, finally, the Mongol invasions of Timur in particular, devastated the Mesopotamian Churches. Timur’s massacres and pillages of all that was Christian drastically reduced their existence and efforts. At the end of the reign of Timur, the Churches had almost been eradicated. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, Bar Hebraeus (or Bar-Abraya), the noted Syriac scholar and hierarch, found “much quietness” in his diocese in Mesopotamia. Syria’s diocese, he wrote, was “wasted.”
In two locations, however, these churches survived and clung to their existence tenaciously; in the provinces of Assyria – in the districts of Nineveh, Beth Garme, Adiabene, Arbil (or Irbil), Karkh dlbeth-Seluq (modern Kirkuk), Nuhadra (modern Dohuk), where the church had acquired much of its nourishment – and in the Hakkari mountains and Tur Abdin mountains in today’s Southeast Turkey. These latter areas, containing difficult and inhospitable terrain, were inhabited by ChaldoAssyrians who lived largely an isolated existence until being evicted by Kurds militias and Turkish troops during the First World War.
In 1553, the Church of the East met further misfortune in the form of a split that came to be known as the “Assyrian-Chaldean” split, with the “Chaldean” denoting the Church of the East’s faction in communion with Rome, and the “Assyrian” having no communion. Over time, with resulting confusion of history and the intermingling concepts of ethnicity with theological positions or church factions, terms such as Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac, came to represent perceived separate ethnic entities. This division was further fostered by outside powers for various gains. It is, however, a historical falsity to divide the ChaldoAssyrian people along ethnic names and terms, which are, in truth, historically interchangeable.
The tragedies of the First World War, and the successive massacres of the ChaldoAssyrian people in the Ottoman empire, Iran, and Iraq, caused population and geographic losses of epic proportions, resulting in the forced transfer of inhabitants of thousands of villages districts to other parts of the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. In one area, however, the ChaldoAssyrians remain, clinging to their cultural traditions and ancestral land; the Nineveh Plain. The villages darting the plain of Nineveh, just north of the ancient city, contain churches, monasteries, and villages that are thousands of years old. Here, one can hear Aramaic being spoken and written, just as it was centuries ago.
It is largely to the Nineveh Plain that ChaldoAssyrians of Iraq have returned, after having previously emigrated to cities such as Baghdad and Basra, where they have been targeted for persecution by various extremist groups. It is hoped that once again, a people so renowned in history for their contributions to civilization, and so well-known for their successive tragedies through the centuries, can now build their future in peace in a Middle East that tolerates their existence and reveres their legacy.