New Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East Has a lot of Challenges Ahead but He Is the Perfect Man for the Job

His Holiness MAR AWA III , new CATHOLICOS PATRIARCH of the Assyrian Church of the East
By Ashur Sada, founder and webmaster of 

The Assyrian Church of the East recently elected its new patriarch, His Holiness MAR AWA III CATHOLICOS PATRIARCH, replacing Patriarch Gewargis III. The newly installed patriarch is the first to be born outside of the Assyrian homeland, having been born in the United State in 1975. He is also the 122nd to occupy this historical chair.

This comes at a time when the Assyrian community in Iraq and the middle east – and Christians in general – are at a very critical point in their thousands of years of existence in this region. A region they where they were once the original owners, but lately been relegated to a minority that has almost overstayed its existence there. Their numbers continue to dwindle, mostly thanks to migration, and a lot of those who remain may one day pick up and leave too. You also have the other threat of Islamic extremism which is something Assyrians in Iraq and Syria have been dealing with for over a decade now, ever since Al-Qaeda and ISIS took a foothold in the region. With this a backdrop, and having been born, raised and educated in the comfort of the west – with no ability to speak Arabic or Kurdish – it is no secret that the new patriarch has his work cut out for him. The challenges are too enormous for any leader out there.

But he is the perfect leader to face and tackle these challenges!

First off, he knows what challenges lay ahead. He may have been living in the United States, but in his previous position as the secretary of the holy synod of the church, he was familiar with the situation back home and what the church was going through in terms of this bleeding of its people leaving to the west. I mean, what is the point of having a church based in the Assyrian homeland if you don’t have much people left to serve? In a recent interview with an Iraqi news channel, his holiness made a very interesting remark when asked about the future of Christians in Iraq. His reply was brilliant, and to paraphrase: “we are a minority and a minority may mean different things, depending on the place. For example, in the west, being a minority is a great thing, whereas in the middle east, that may mean persecution and no rights.” This extremely clever answer makes it clear that he is very aware of the situation on the ground and what it will take to lead his people in this critical juncture.

While the new patriarch can’t do much about those who have already left the homeland and would be virtually impossible to convince them to come back, the least he could do is to stop the bleeding. In fact, if I was in his role, one of the very first things I would do is to conduct an accurate census of the base of the Assyrian Church in all of Iraq, in addition to those in Syria, Iran and Lebanon. The idea is to have a very good idea of how many remain – including expats who return for months at a time – and review these numbers once every 3-5 years to gauge where things are heading. If he is able to keep the numbers near their current levels in 5 years from now, then his mission will have been a success. Obviously, a church’s spiritual leader is not in a position to give someone a job or provide the youth with assistance with their academic or career future. But he can at least offer hope and lead by example – after all he himself returned to serve his people in the homeland – and the hope is that the people will see some significance in that and decide to see the silver lining in that. He can also be close to people of influence in the government to improve things for his people. More on that below.

The new patriarch should also feel comfortable venturing away from just being a man of the church and get more involved with other cultural and political matters relating to the Assyrian cause. The idea is that he has influence and clout and that should help get more things done. This is not to suggest he should become a politician. But he should at the very least be in touch with politicians in the country from all political and religious stripes. This is something the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church has been doing for close to a decade, promoting the interest of his base and people first. This, unfortunately, is the only way to get by in a country like Iraq and a region as complicated as the middle east: by forming alliances, talking to others, and putting your name out there, even if the seat of the church happens to be in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. The good news is, HH has already making contacts with various political and religious leaders in the country, including the Iraqi president, prime minister and the leaders of all major churches in the country.

I am actually quite optimistic that the church has some bright days ahead, despite the reality of the enormous challenges it is currently facing and will continue to face in the years ahead. Mar Awa III is young, yet experienced and knowledgeable enough, to steer the church in the right direction. Last but not least, it is important to remember that the former patriarch – Gewargis III – is still alive, and he can offer a lot of advise to the younger patriarch. This is a unique situation, and one the Catholic Church experienced when the still living Pope Benedict resigned the papal office , to be replaced by the current Pope Francis.


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