Syriac Catholics Emphasize a Need for Unity, Solidarity
July 31, 2017 • Diocese of St. Augustine

By Mariann Hughes

In 2010, ISIS suicide bombers barred the doors of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Mother of Salvation in the center of Baghdad and massacred 58 people inside, including Sabah Haddat’s two sons.

Pictured from left: Bishop Barnaba Yousif Benham Habash of the U.S. and Canada territory, Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan, Ephrem Yousif Abba Mansoor, current Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, and Bishop Paulos Antoine Nassif, the first Syriac Catholic bishop of Canada. (Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

Now living in San Diego, Calif., Sabah – along with his cousins Najlaha and her husband Layth who live in Jacksonville – was among the attendees gathered July 27-30 for the 10th Annual Syriac Catholic Convention at San Sebastian Church in St. Augustine, Fla.

“For us as Christians, we don’t fight them. Because they don’t know Jesus,” said Sabah, his eyes welling up with tears.

“It is not easy for people who are old,” said Najlaha softly. “Our roots are over there. It is not easy.”

When most Americans think of Catholic, they think of the Roman Catholic rite. There are five Patriarchs who shepherd major churches in the following areas of the world:

  • Jerusalem (Melkite)
  • Antioch (Syria, Iraq, Turkey, India, Lebanon)
  • Byzantine (Constantinople, Moscow, Greece, and many churches of Eastern Europe)
  • Latin (Roman and most Western Churches)
  • Coptic (Alexandria Egypt, Ethiopia, Abyssinian, Eritrea)

In all, there are 23 different rites, i.e., styles of celebrating the liturgy and they have their own canon law.

Bishop Barnaba Yousif Benham Habash at the consecration during the Sacred Liturgy celebrated at San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine. (Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

The Syriac Catholic Church falls under the Antiochian rite, and it is one of the oldest. The Syriac Church is considered one of the mother churches; it dates back to St. Paul and is led by a “patriarch.” Most of the dioceses are located in the Middle East. In the U.S., there are nine churches and several missions under Our Lady of Deliverance diocese, or “eparchy” of the Antiochian Syriac rite.

“We feel that our numbers are down back home, and uprooting us is not only traumatic, it’s tragic and fatal because we know that most of those who left their homeland, Christians, aren’t going back. It’s the biggest challenge for us,” said Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan, who was also the first bishop of the North American Eparchy and in attendance at the convention along with several other bishops and archbishops.

Father Caesar Russo, a senior priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine whose full-time ministry is working with the Syriac Catholic Church community in Florida, says people escaping countries like Iraq and Syria aren’t immigrating for economic reasons, but for life reasons.

Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan gives the homily during the Syriac liturgy celebrated at the Syriac Catholic Convention from July 27-30. (Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

“This convention is for the edification of the people, that the Church has not abandoned them, and that Jesus has not abandoned them and that we need to be strong as a Church. We are one,” said Father Russo.

The Holy See established a Syriac Catholic presence in North America 15 years ago because many Christian refugees were fleeing persecution in Iraq due to the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein. Now with the ISIS situation, many more Christians have fled to Europe, Australia, and Canada. Only a restricted group has come to the United States. For those in Jordan and Lebanon, many people are waiting at the American Embassy for a visa. Father Russo says the process is laboriously slow and full of complications.

The convention included the celebration of Mass, prayers, and talks in both English and Arabic. The order of the Mass is a bit different than what most in the U.S. are accustomed to. For example, the gifts are on the altar at the beginning of Mass, and the consecration begins right away. Also, the Mass is said in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, his Mother Mary, and the apostles.

Ephrem Yousif Abba Mansoor, current Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, offers a blessing to a young girl who approaches during Holy Communion. (Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

The leaders of the convention urged more awareness of the plight of Syriac Catholics around the world, especially for those still in danger.

“We always have a dire need for solidarity. We’ve been kicked out, exiled into other countries and living like exiles after losing all our belongings, homes, and places of work,” said Patriarch Younan. “We are not only talking about oppression against individuals and groups. We are talking about destroying the apostolic church communities. We are an endangered species; we are indigenous. We’ve been subject to a kind of genocide.”

Patriarch Younan emphasized the importance of preserving the legacy of the Syriac Catholic rite.

“We still use the language of Our Lord Jesus. It is a loss not only for us but the universal church. We are not only talking about Christian faith, but we are talking about heritage, culture, and civilization,” he said.