Why Christians Who Speak Jesus’ Language Can’t Agree on Their Name

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It took Aramaic speakers 1,500 years to agree on Christology, now their main debate is over Assyrian identity. Could Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq encourage unity?

Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Iraq in March is bound to attract attention to the nation’s peculiar Christian minorities. These fascinating groups have a uniquely Middle Eastern history that is far too little known and appreciated in the West, even though they are now present in sizable diaspora communities in North America, Europe, and Australia.

When over 20,000 Iraqi asylum seekers came to my home country, Finland, in 2015, I realized that as a half-Iraqi theologian it was finally time for me to find out about my roots. I knew they went deep and had something to do with Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs—but who was who, and what was the difference?

Welcome to the heated debate over the identity of the Christians who still speak the language of Jesus.

Assyrian continuity and churches

Who are the Assyrians? There is no country called Assyria on today’s map, but from Old Testament history we remember the Assyrian Empire. Its capital city, Nineveh, was destroyed in 612 B.C., and its ruins lie in modern-day Mosul, in northern Iraq.

Could it really be the case that Assyrians have existed since then and converted to Christianity?

Indeed, average Assyrian Christians see themselves as belonging to the people that once ruled one of the greatest empires of the Middle East, which repented at the preaching of Jonah. According to this narrative, the Assyrians survived under the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, as well as in small kingdoms of their own like Osrhoene in northern Mesopotamia.

According to tradition, Osrhoene’s king, Abgar V, exchanged letters with Jesus and converted to the new faith following a later visit from one of the 70 disciples. Assyrians therefore consider themselves to be …

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