The Eastern Orthodox Mission to the Assyrian Christians

[The following is the transcript for the video embedded above and is taken from the larger video “A History of Eastern Orthodox Missions Part II” which can be found here]

In the early 1800s, just over 100,000 Nestorians lived in the region inside the red rectangle on-screen. Due to encroachments by Muslim Kurds, Turks, and Sunni Arabs, the Assyrians were highly desirous of assistance from the only Christian power within striking distance, that being the Russian Empire. Now, one might wonder how that would be the case as Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were blocking Russia from entering the southern Caucasus Mountains but after two wars in the early 19th century, Russia claimed all of those territories and Nestorians began moving into them seeking safety from the Muslims. Along with these migrations came a desire to unite with the Orthodox Church during the mid-19th century and so Archimandrite Stephan Sokolsky was dispatched to Urmia to negotiate a union in 1861 and 1862 but the union stalled due to various political circumstances. Despite that, the Nestorian bishop Mar Gabriel of Ardishai in Urmia converted to Orthodoxy in 1875.

In 1898, another Nestorian bishop, Mar Yonan of Sipurgan, converted to Orthodox Christianity along with his entire flock of nearly 15,000. It should be noted that they were accepted not by chrismation nor by baptism, but instead by the Rite of Renunciation and Confession of Faith. By 1904, Mar Elias, a nephew of Mar Gabriel, was consecrated a bishop to assist in serving the Assyrian Orthodox community in Urmia. Later, in 1912, the bishop Mar Sawrisha Abraham also brought his diocese into communion with the Russian Orthodox Church perhaps doubling the number of Assyrian Orthodox Christians. 

Shortly thereafter in 1900 Archimandrite Theophilact Klementyev was named head of the Urmia mission with the goal of bringing the rest of the Assyrians into the fold. Anglican and Catholic missionaries were active among the Assyrians and in the 16th century, many Assyrians went into communion with Rome in the form of the Chaldean Catholic Church meaning that the Russian mission was in competition for believers with them. 

The mission hit hard times though and infighting among the missionaries themselves began until the mission staff was ordered to come to St. Petersburg and a close friend of St. John of Kronstadt, the widowed Archimandrite St. Cyril Smirnov was assigned to the mission along with a hieromonk named Fr. Sergius. St. Cyril built an entire mission complex, translated a book of prayer and the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom into Assyrian, establishing an Assyrian printing press, and several schools in which the children were taught literacy both in spoken Assyrian, classical Syriac, and Russian. St. Cyril was recalled to Russia in 1904 where he was consecrated a bishop and assigned to a Russian diocese. In 1937, he was martyred by the socialists and his feast day is celebrated on November 20th. When St. Cyril left for Russia, his assistant, Fr. Sergius, took the helm and between 1904 and 1913, he built 26 new churches, rebuilt 10 dilapidated churches, and constructed 60 schools with roughly 2,000 students. Further, Fr. Sergius oversaw the translation of numerous other books as well as the publication of a monthly newspaper in modern Assyrian. In 1913, the Archimandrite Sergius was consecrated as an additional bishop for the Urmia mission to help Mar Jonah.

Bishop Sergius was even in the midst of negotiating with the Nestorian Catholicos Mar Shimon Benyameen to bring the entirety of the Assyrian Church into Orthodox Christianity but the negotiations were interrupted by the First Word War. 

With the genocides wrought by the Muslims both leading up to and during World War I, the Assyrians, along with the Greeks and Armenians living under Muslim dominion, were targeted and Assyrian refugees began moving towards Russian-held territory in modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Mar Elijah was tortured but escaped while another bishop was shot. By 1915, the Russian military had captured the region restoring some semblance of order and it is unclear how much of the mission had survived the Islamic onslaught but when Bishop Sergius was able to return, the communities were largely vacant and almost all the buildings had been ransacked and/or destroyed by the Muslims. Bishop Sergius returned to Russia by the order of the Holy Synod and Archimandrite St. Pimen Belolikov was elevated to the episcopate taking over the mission until 1917 when he was recalled to Russia only to be martyred by the socialists the following year. His feast day is September 16th.

Mar Elijah, who had survived torture, headed the Assyrian mission until 1928 but had to do so under patronage from both ROCOR and the Serbian Church as the Moscow Patriarchate was unable to sustain any missions. In 1931, an Assyrian priest in Baghdad was elevated to the episcopate and became Mar Yohanna Gewargis of Urmia though he served in Baghdad until the 1950s when he immigrated to Chicago, Illinois, and became involved in the Assyrian Orthodox community there. He later retired to Novo Diveyevo Monastery in Spring Valley New York where he reposed in 1960. There is little to no trace left of the Urmia mission today. Most of the Orthodox Assyrians were either martyred by the Muslims or fled into Russian territory where they were quickly Russified, though a few thousand Assyrian Orthodox Christians still reside in the Republic of Georgia and keep their Assyrian identity while using Assyrian Aramaic in the liturgy. 

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