Syndicated News
Sacred But Troubled Feast for Assyrians
By Ruth Pollard
Bookmark and Share

The wings of an angel curl around his shoulders and the image of a large cross travels down his spine, accompanied by 16 lines of prayer in the ancient script of Aramaic. The word "Suryoyo", or Assyrian in Aramaic, is written over his bicep and under that the symbol of an eagle, while around his wrist curve the names of his parents, also written in Aramaic. Among the younger generation of the tiny Assyrian community that lives in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is made up of just 50 families, tattooing the symbols of their culture and religion is part of what binds them together. Praying in Aramaic - the language Jesus spoke - is another. The tattooed 20-year-old university student Mark Aho - named, he says, after St Mark - studies engineering in Netanya during the week but comes home to Jerusalem's Old City on weekends.

Standing outside the Syriac Orthodox Club on the cobblestoned Ararat Street, bordered by the Armenian and Jewish Quarters of the Old City, Mark is preparing for the annual Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives into the Old City - for him that means donning a Scout's uniform and playing the bagpipes. The scouts and the bagpipes are a legacy of the British mandate in Palestine, which ran from 1922 to 1948, while the symbol of the eagle, so prominent in many of the young men's tattoos, goes back millenniums, taking in the four ancient rivers of the bible: the Gihon, Indus, Pison and the Tigris.
"It is a tradition for us to have these tattoos," Mark says. And the youth club? "I have been a member since I was four years old." Just an hour earlier the community had gathered in a tiny chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre known as the Chapel of St Nicodemus for a mass to celebrate the second Sunday of Lent in the lead up to the Orthodox Easter, which this year falls on May 4.
With carpets laid over the uneven floor of the centuries-old chapel, a small group of 30 worshippers crowded in to hear a sermon on the theme of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and in the broader Middle East. The main liturgy is delivered in Aramaic and it is at the very heart of the faith, says Archbishop Mor Severios Malke Mourad, the Patriarchal-Vicariate of Jerusalem and Jordan. The archbishop is one of the other ties that binds this close-knit community together. He has overseen a revival of the Aramaic language among the congregation, with prayer books printed in the ancient language and an Assyrian school in Bethlehem now teaching Aramaic as part of the general curriculum.
"It was a dying language, but it is now being revived, thanks to new technology that exposes many more people to it," the archbishop says. He was just 30 when he made the move to Jerusalem from his home in the small Syrian city of Al-Malikiyah that borders Turkey and Iraq - at the time he says he was the youngest archbishop in the Middle East. Now 47, he says he has seen more than 1000 families leave Jerusalem and Bethlehem since he arrived, driven away by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the economic restrictions and the difficulty of travelling to their place of worship.
Still, the archbishop is clearly loved and respected by the tiny congregation - he has overseen a restoration of parts of the historic St Mark's Church, where the Assyrians believe the Last Supper was held and where Jesus washed the feet of the lepers. His door is open to all. "Perhaps it is also because I was so young when I came here, so the youth relate to me more than they might have otherwise," Archbishop Mourad says after a busy Sunday morning of prayer and socialising. It is estimated that the Assyrian church has about 7 million members, the bulk of them - 5.6 million - are in India. The rest include 680,000 Syriac Orthodox members in Syria, 5000 in Turkey, and 2000 in Israel and the occupied territories (500 in Jerusalem and 1500 in Bethlehem). Outside the Middle East, most Assyrians live in the US and Sweden, as well as Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, Switzerland, Austria and Australia. Here in Jerusalem, which has long been a divided city, the tight travel restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinians significantly curtails people's ability to participate in religious celebrations such as Easter or Ramadan. Archbishop Mourad applied for 1000 permits for people in his congregation to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Easter; despite repeated applications only 600 have been granted. "We will keep reapplying to try to get the other 400 approved," he said. Many Palestinian Christian communities, along with several scout groups, were forced to cancel their Easter celebrations in Jerusalem because Israel would not issue them with permits to enter the city, said Hanan Ashrawi, an executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Some parishes from the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas only received 30 to 40 per cent of the permits they requested from the Israeli authorities, she said. "This is a religious and national occasion, a time for collective worship and celebration," Dr Ashrawi said. "The fact that so many Palestinian Christian communities are denied their simple human right to worship freely in their own capital city is unacceptable."

Type your comment and click
or register to post a comment.
* required field
User ID*
enter user ID or e-mail to recover login credentials