The Assyrian Church of the East on Wednesday elected their new patriarch in Erbil after Mar Gewargis III Sliwa stepped down due to health reasons.
The church on Wednesday elected Mar Awa Royel as the new patriarch in a ceremony held in St. John the Baptist Church in Erbil's Ainkawa neighborhood.
"We believe that the patriarchal election is a gift from the Lord, so therefore we depend on his blessings and the grace of God and the prayers of the faithful. That is a very sublime and very high responsibility, but the Lord gives it as he wills," Royel told Rudaw after his election.
"The Assyrian Church would like to stress the fact that our roots are here in Iraq, and in this blessed land, in the region as well," he added.
In 1933, the seat of the Assyrian Church was moved from the Middle East to the United States. In 2006, construction of a new patriarch began in Erbil and the election of Royel's predecessor saw the return of the authority of the church to the place of its roots.
"By bringing back the patriarchal sees, since 2015 with the election of his holiness Mar Gewargis and now with this election, the church wants to stress that our roots are here and we will keep them here by the grace of God, so that our church and our people can remain and continue to keep their heritage, and their language, and their culture and civilization," he said.
Gewargis had expressed his intention to step down in February of 2020 due to health reasons, but election of his successor was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Gewargis welcomed Pope Francis to Erbil in his historic visit to Iraq in March.
Royel previously served as bishop, presiding over the diocese of California. He was the first American-born bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East. He had also served as secretary of the Holy Synod of the church since 2015.
There are only a few hundred thousand Christians left in Iraq. Following the US-led invasion of 2003, sectarian warfare prompted followers of Iraq's multiple Christian denominations to flee, and attacks by the Islamic State group (ISIS) in 2014 hit minority communities especially hard. According to data from Erbil's Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda, there were more than one million Christians in Iraq before 2003. Fewer than 300,000 remain today, many of them reside in the Kurdistan Region.
Additional reporting by Farhad Dolamari.