London, UK – Chaldean scholar, author, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Dr. Suha Rassam was named as one of the four Catholic Women of the Year at a reception in London this past week. The founder of the charity Iraqi Christians in Need (ICIN) was honored among an assembly of some of the world’s most notable leaders and in the presence of the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Faustino Munoz.
Dr Rassam is originally from Mosul in northern Iraq. She is a medical doctor and professor of Medicine in the University of Baghdad. Arriving to England in 1990 she worked in London hospitals until her retirement when she took an MA in Eastern Christianity at the school of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London.
Dr Rassam, author of the book 'Christianity in Iraq' set up ICIN last year with a group of fellow Iraqis, to provide financial and spiritual support to Iraqi Christians both in Iraq and in countries such as Syria and Jordan, where many are now refugees.
Earlier this year, she visited Iraqi refugee families in Syria to assess how best ICIN could help them. In Aleppo, she met with Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo of the Chaldean Catholic Church and Bishop Yuhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Since then her impact in helping Iraqi refugee families has been remarkable.
The celebrated Chaldean writer follows in the footsteps of her distinguished ancestors. During the heyday of mediaeval Arab civilization many famous Christian physicians had written works about history and theology, or conversely, many theologians had produced works about medicine. Uniquely, Rassam is the first woman to combine the two disciplines.
Most educated Westerners have heard of the Copts in Egypt, the Maronites in Lebanon, but the presence of the Chaldeans and other Christian groups in Iraq is largely unknown. Dr. Rassam’s book presents a history of Christianity in Iraq from the very beginnings until our own time.
Although the book is written with the general reader in mind, the Orient scholar will find much useful information in it. Its scope extends beyond its stated subject matter. Iraq is not an island, geographically or figuratively speaking, and Iraqi Christianity is placed within a wider context.
According to tradition, Christianity was first preached in Iraq by the Apostle Thomas on his way to India and his fellow-Apostle, St. Thaddeus. In his Prologue to the book Monsignor Mikhael Al Jamil mentions the three Magi who had visited the Infant Jesus in Bethlehem. The book goes on to discuss the Parthian Arsacid rulers of Iran and Iraq, the overthrow by the Sassanids, and the first wave of Christian Orient persecution in the early centuries (339-379 AD) during the reign of Shah Shapur II The event is memorialized as a Chaldean church in Montreal is dedicated to its numerous victims, Les Saints Martyrs d’Orient.
The book continues with the independence of the Church of the East and the 5th century division over the formula of expressing the human and divine nature of Christ. The so-called Melkites or “Royalists” (from Syriac malkâ, Arabic malik, “king”) accepted the doctrine promoted by the Byzantine Emperor (and the Pope), as defined by the Council of Chalcedon. The West Syrian or Syrian Orthodox Church (better known as Jacobite after its famous preacher Jacob Baradeus) was accused of denying Christ’s true humanity. Finally the East Syrian Church or Church of the East, best known as Nestorian for accepting the doctrine preached by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, condemned by the Council of Ephesus, refused to accept the term Theotokos (Mother of God), insisting that Mary was the Mother of Jesus the Man only.
Dr. Rassam takes us through all those controversies showing us that most of them were simply misunderstandings. The disputants had been trying to apply Greek logic to issues which belonged to faith more than to philosophy.
The book chronologically continues with the Arab Muslim conquest of oppressive Iranian rule and control over infidels. At the time of the Arab conquest the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Christians spoke Syriac. Gradually they began to change their language from Syriac to Arabic although they continued to attend Syriac churches. Today Syriac-speakers are a minority, even among the Christians of Iraq.
Shortly thereafter, the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 and an effort in 1287 at reconciliation between the Church of the East and the Catholic Church. The Patriarch Yahballaha III sent his Bishop, Bar Sauma to Rome with letters from the pro-Christian ilkhan of Iran, Argun Khan proposing a Mongol-Christian alliance. Perhaps fortunately no military alliance materialized, but Bar Sauma was warmly received by the Pope and allowed to participate in all church ceremonies like a Catholic Bishop in good standing. The Christian-Mongol “honeymoon” ended in 1295 when Argun’s son and successor, Ghazan converted to Islam. Muslim Sharia was reinstated, including all restrictions on the dhimmis.
In 1534 the Mongols were taken over by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans governed their recognized non-Muslim minorities through the millet system. Millet, derived from Arabic milla (“sect”) means “nation” in Turkish. Each “nation” was given a large measure of inner self-government with the Patriarch or leader holding civil as well as ecclesiastical authority with the responsibility of collecting taxes for the Ottoman Government.
The book shares the origins of the Chaldean “Uniate” Catholic Church can be traced to 1552 when a rival Patriarch of the Church of the East, John Sulaqa asked for and was granted recognition by the Pope. The Patriarch Shimcon VIII Dinkha, recognized as head of his millet had him thrown in prison by the Ottoman authorities. The union lasted on and off with the two lines of Patriarchs exchanging their positions until it became permanent in 1830 when John VIII Hormiz was given by the Pope the title “Patriarch of Babylon over the Chaldeans”. The Chaldean Catholic Millet was recognized by the Ottoman authorities in 1844.
Other millstone topics in Chaldean history is covered by the book. Including the First World War, Christian genocide, British abandonment and relinquishing of Iraqi rule to Faysal I as king in 1932, the expulsion of the Patriarch of the East. In 1958 the Iraqi Monarchy was overthrown and a Republic proclaimed. In 1968 power was seized by the Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party and rise of Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr as President in 1979 and eventual dictorial rule of Saddam Hussein.
The event highlighted Dr. Rassam’s contribution and work to serve Iraqi refugees and keep alive the rich history of Iraqi Christianity.
The other women awarded were: Sister Ann-Teresa who runs the Medaille Trust' Julia Houlston Clark, a Catholic prison worker and probation officer Diana Sanderson,