A little bit of history
Whether they identify themselves as Chaldeans, Assyrians or Arameans, one thing they all have in common, namely their liturgical and linguistic heritage. They are Christians from the Middle East (South-East Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran) who have been the victims of persecution and oppression for the sake of their faith since the beginning of Christianity. After so many centuries this has ensured that they have fled their homeland on a large scale since the 20th century and have found a new home all over the world
In their homeland they were Christians belonging to the so-called Syrian (Syriac) Churches, but once in the diaspora they have more than ever experienced the necessity to bring their ethnic identity alongside their religious and ecclesiastical identity. This was because people wanted to profile themselves as a nation. There was a need to represent themselves worldwide, so that despite the diaspora one could still remain connected.
Chaldeans do not have a separation from Church and state because they had a Church as a minority, but no state. Their ecclesiastical leaders who defended their interests and guarded their rights.
Their search for their ethnic roots, however, led to much discussion in the 20th century, where there has been much speculation about who their real forefathers were. Ethnic links have been sought with the ancient Mesopotamian peoples such as the Chaldeans, Aramaeans and Assyrians.
This is not because they differed only religiously from the great powers under which they lived, but because they could not associate themselves with the language. They speak a language that was proper to them and had no connection with the languages of the great powers (Persians, Arabs, Ottomans, Turks), but rather with those of the ancient Mesopotamian peoples.
They are indeed the continuations of these Mesopotamian peoples, but it is impossible to prove scientifically today whether they are pure descendants of only one of these peoples. This has created a great deal of debate and disagreement on the world stage and has in fact become a political-ethnic-religious twist over which no consensus has been reached.
From a purely theoretical point of view we can say that Chaldeans belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church that has gone into union with the Church of Rome, while retaining its own rite. Assyrians belong largely to the Assyrian Church of the East and partly also to the Old Church of the East and some Protestant church communities. Arameans belong to the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian-Catholic Church.
In addition to these Churches, there are some other branches that belong to the Syrian Churches, such as the Maronite Church, the Melkite Church etc.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century there were nationalists who wanted to put one name on all these groups, namely the Assyrian name. A name that came back into use after archaeological excavations in northern Iraq, where spectacular cases of the ancient Assyrian Empire were discovered (mid 19th century).
This name was propagated on a large scale and has been accepted by many of these Christians and was mainly used by the Chaldean Nestorians (Christians of the Church of the East who had not become Catholics). Later the non-Catholic branch of the Church of the East took over the name Assyrian. The Chaldean name, officially restored to use since the 15th century, lost its national character and was only used for the Catholic Christians of the Chaldean Church.
The Aramaic name has been used mainly by the Christians of the Syrian Orthodox Church in response to Assyrian nationalism, but also has great historical reasons.
They are indeed ethnic names / identities of the ancient Mesopotamian peoples. Today all three denominations exist side by side and unfortunately none of the three can serve to appoint all these groups. Simply because they are not accepted by each other.
Situation Mechelen, Brussels and Antwerp
This story is no different in Mechelen and surroundings. The people we know today as Assyrians are largely Chaldeans and Arameans / Syrian Orthodox. In Belgium there are hardly any Assyrians who belong to the Assyrian Church.
In practice, however, they identify themselves as Assyrians for the sake of familiarity with the term or because of the belief that they are ethnic Assyrians of the ancient Assyrian Empire (Assyrian nationalism 20th century). To give you an idea of the appeal of Assyrian nationalism, many Chaldeans identify themselves in their mother tongue as ‘Keldayé’ (= Chaldeans), but in Dutch as Assyrians.
The theory is often used that ‘Chaldean’ is a religious movement and one is Assyrian on ethnic level. A theory that is not founded and is also part of the Assyrian propaganda. ‘Chaldean’ is not a religion, but as mentioned above also the identity of an ancient people from Mesopotamia. This term was used as a national label for the Christian minority group in Mesopotamia that formed the Church of the East.
Historical reasons were the basis for the official re-use of this ethnic identity.
In Mechelen there are today two Chaldean Catholic parishes. They celebrate their Masses in the St. Peter and Paul Church and in the St. Libertus Church. The Chaldean parish of St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church mainly consists of Catholic Christians from the village of Hessana (Turkey) and this parish is led by priest Suleyman Oz. The Chaldean Parish of St. Libertus includes Catholic Christians from the villages of Herbul, Geznakh and Bespin (Turkey) and this parish is led by priest Idris Emlek.
It is disputed from the Chaldean Church that there are two Chaldean parishes in Mechelen and even more that these are divided over the former Christian villages, which in itself is not encouraging. Before 2005 this was not the case and there was only one Chaldean parish in the St. Peter and Paul Church, led by Mgr. Antun Göral. This included all the Catholic Christians from Herbul, Hessana, Geznakh and Bespin.
In 2005 the Chaldean Church brought priest Suleyman Oz from Marseille to Mechelen to lead the Chaldean parish there. In this way, however, an additional Chaldean parish was founded alongside the Chaldean Saint Peter and Paul parish, which was not originally intended. In fact, this is the first division that has been created within the Chaldean community in Mechelen. Priest Suleyman Oz, a priest from the village of Hessana, led from this period the Chaldean parish in the Saint Catherine Church, which mainly includes the Christians from Hessana.
The Chaldeans from Herbul, Geznakh and Bespin continued their parish, led by priest Antun Göral, who also led the Chaldean parishes in Brussels (mainly Chaldeans from the village of Bespin / Turkey) and in Antwerp (mainly Chaldeans from Geznakh / Turkey) . In Mechelen, a Chaldean community house was founded under supervision of priest Antun Göral in 2005, namely the ‘Association of the Chaldean Church’ (Nekkerspoelstraat). This is known as the community house of the villagers from Herbul, Geznakh and Bespin who live in Mechelen.
In 2010, a Chaldean priest was ordained from the village of Herbul, Idris Emlek. He continued the parish of St. Peter and Paul in cooperation with Priest Antun Göral. This parish has been moved to the Sint-Libertus Church due to renovation works of the Saint Peter and Paul Church. Priest Idris Emlek has been appointed for the city of Mechelen, despite the fact that Suleyman Oz was appointed since 2005. After the renovation works in the St. Peter and Paul church, the parish of Suleyman Oz moved from the Saint Catherine Church to the Saint Peter and Paul Church.
Because of old age and health reasons, from 2012 onwards, replacement has been started for the priest Antun Göral for the parishes Brussels and Antwerp. In 2012, a new priest was appointed for the city of Antwerp, namely Paulus Sati. He continued the parish in Antwerp until December 2018. After that priest Suleyman Öz was made responsible for the parish in Antwerp.
For the Chaldean parish in Brussels, priest Musa Yaramis was appointed again. He was already ordained as a priest for Belgium previously, but because of personal reasons he had been inactive for several years.
From 2012 there are four separate Chaldean parishes in Belgium, each led by another priest. In Mechelen, there have remained two parishes. The reason that both priests stayed in Mechelen was the disagreement between the Christians from Herbul and Hessana. In this way the Mechelen parishes remained divided in terms of the village from which they originated. Priest Antun Göral eventually died in November 2013.
Apart from Chaldean Christians from Turkey (Herbul, Geznakh, Bespin and Hessana), there are also many Chaldean and Aramean Christians from Iraq and Syria who also belong to the various Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian-Catholic parishes in Belgium.
Outside the two Chaldean parishes in Mechelen, a third parish has been established in Mechelen for several years, namely the Assyrian Christian community Beth-El. This parish does not belong directly to a Church, but has its own autonomy and vision. The name Assyrian is chosen here because of the fame of the term and the conviction and not because it belongs to the Assyrian Church of the East. This parish has its own church, which also serves as a community house (Hertstraat). The people who belong to this parish are mainly Christians from Hessana.
Apart from the abovementioned parishes in Mechelen, there is also a significant proportion of Christians from Hessana who are Protestant.
Besides the Chaldean community house of the St. Libertus parish and the Assyrian community house of Beth-El (House of God) there’s one other: Beth Hessana and Flemish-Assyrian House. Beth Hessana focuses on the broader community with respect for the Assyrian, Chaldean and Aramean identities. Their main activity is food distribution for the poor.
Above we talked about the community houses, which each time an association is linked to. There are other associations active in Belgium, which are separate from the existing community houses.
ACOM is an association that has existed since 1994. This association was founded under the name ATOR (neo-Aramaic for Assyria). Since this association was meant for the whole community in Mechelen (villagers from Hessana, Herbul etc.), villagers from Herbul have been trying to change the name to ACOM (Assyrian-Chaldean Organization Mechelen).
This has ensured that the Assyrian-minded persons (villagers from Hessana) have stepped out of this association and the association has become a dormant non-profit organization that has still worked on the administrative level. Since 2015 the association has become active again and because of the exclusion of the Chaldean name it has changed its name to ‘Active Chaldean Organization Mechelen’.
‘Chaldean League Belgium’ is an international overarching Chaldean organization founded on the initiative of the Chaldean Church led by the patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako. The head office is located in Iraq and in all countries with large Chaldean communities there is a branch (in some countries there are several branches) of the Chaldean League.
Confusion about the names
As mentioned earlier, there is no Assyrian parish belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East in Belgium. Yet this name has also been used for the Chaldeans and the Aramaeans, as a result of Assyrian nationalism. Assyrian nationalism has been propagated mainly in Mechelen in Belgium.
This propaganda has often been conducted by persons with political interests, with a lack of respect for the existing vulnerable identities.
The Assyrian name is propagated in the Dutch-speaking areas (Antwerp-Mechelen) in such a way that it is widely known in these cities. However, the contradiction of this name is great, because Chaldeans identify themselves in the mother tongue as Chaldean (Keldaya) and not as Assyrian (Atoraya)
The remarkable thing is that the Chaldean community in Brussels identifies itself as Chaldean, both in its mother tongue and in French (Chaldéen).
Many villagers from Hessana, however, have also started to identify themselves as Assyrian (Atoraya) in their mother tongue, although they never did this in Turkey. The name ‘Chaldean’ was never really popular in Hessana, because this was mainly linked to the Catholic Church and in this village there were both Catholics and Protestants (influence of the Protestant missionaries in the 18th century). There has even been a period where there were three priests in the village: a Syrian Orthodox, a Chaldean and a Protestant priest.
The Assyrian propaganda has also influenced the villagers from Herbul and Geznakh in recent years in such a way that here too people have started to identify themselves in their native language as Assyrians (atoraye) with the conviction of the false theory mentioned above, which makes a distinction on religious and ethnic level.
All this makes the already vulnerable identity of the Chaldeans even more vulnerable and that it threatens to lose its value. The future of Chaldean identity, however, lies in the hands of the Chaldeans themselves. It is therefore up to them to attach the right value to their identity and to keep it, with respect for the other identities.