Recently, Philos Project Canada Chapter President Amanda Achtman sat down with Bishop Bawai Soro, an Iraqi Christian leader serving Canada’s approximately 40,000 Chaldean Catholics. Bishop Soro is passionate about exploring the common heritage of Iraqi Jews and Iraqi Christians. In this interview, Achtman spoke with Bishop Soro about some of the shared patrimony, the Jewish roots of the Chaldean liturgy, and how, surprising as it may sound to some, Middle Eastern Christians can help combat antisemitism.
Achtman: Tell me about yourself and what led you to where you are now.
Soro: I was born in Kirkuk, Iraq, and baptized at Saint George Assyrian Church of the East. My parents and I then moved to Baghdad where they gave me a religious upbringing. At age 19, I was ordained a deacon in the Assyrian Church. In 1973, sensing the instability of the future, my family emigrated to Beirut, Lebanon, on their way to Australia. But in 1974, matters got complicated because a civil war began in Lebanon. My family then returned to Iraq, but I couldn’t. I became a refugee in Lebanon and ultimately left for the United States, settling in Chicago in 1976.
In 1982, I was ordained a priest for the Assyrian Church in Toronto and, in 1984, was chosen to become the Assyrian Church bishop of San Jose. I pursued a master’s in theology at the Catholic University of America in 1992, and then a doctorate in ecclesiology from the Angelicum in Rome in 2002. Then, in 2008, I, along with 3,000 faithful in the US and Australia, entered in full communion with the Catholic Church. In 2017, I was appointed a diocesan bishop of the Chaldean Church in Canada by the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
My Episcopal See is now in Toronto at the Good Shepherd Chaldean Catholic Cathedral. We provide liturgical services and spiritual guidance to 3,000 families in Chaldean, English, and Arabic. Considering everything, during my service of 36 years of episcopal ministry for both the Assyrian Church and the Chaldean Church, I have strived to promote church unity between Assyrian and Chaldean churches, mainly by attempting to eliminate hostilities or divisions among all Iraqi Christians.
Achtman: What do Iraqi Jews and Iraqi Christians have in common? Does anyone care about or even recognize this common background? Why do you think it matters, and why do you find it meaningful?
Soro: Iraqi Jews and Iraqi Christians have a strong relationship and a lot in common, perhaps more than many other adherents of any two distinct religious communities. According to biblical tradition, this relationship starts with Abram, the “Exalted Father,” who was a Mesopotamian-Iraqi, a native of the Sumerian city of Ur of the Chaldees. We know from the Bible that Abram had a religious transformation. God called him to leave Ur and settle in the land of Canaan—a promised land that God gave to him and his posterity. Abram obeyed. He left Ur to Haran with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and then to Shechem in Canaan across the Euphrates, thus attaining the appellation “Hebrew” (i.e., “those who have crossed over”). God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and he became the founder of the special relationship and covenant between God and his people, thus initiating a new age for the “People of God” in their Promised Land.
Judaism, as the first monotheistic religion, begins with Abraham and the Jewish people and becomes fulfilled by the life, ministry, and passion of Jesus of Christ, and Christianity. For the Jews, Abraham is their father both physically and religiously. He holds a paramount position in their thought because it is due to his faith in God that his descendants will be saved. But Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people, came from Mesopotamia, which meant that somehow Mesopotamia was a “home” for them, as well. After numerous exiles, which resulted in the Jews actually establishing a home in Mesopotamia for more than a millennium, they enjoyed life in large numbers within large territory under circumstances much better than their fellow Jews in Palestine or elsewhere. Since the social, religious, and economic conditions of the Jewish people in Mesopotamia over a long period of time became established, prosperous, and widespread, it is incomprehensible to assume that these people could have vanished or simply ceased to exist. And, given the longstanding indigenous Christian presence in the region, the same was thought of Christians, too.
Achtman: In the Chaldean liturgy, the congregation prays, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, Almighty God. Heaven and earth are full of his glory. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna to the Son of David.” And, during the Eucharistic Prayer, after the priest says, “Lift up your thoughts,” the people respond, “To you, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, the king of glory.” What do you think when you pray this? And does the community realize the Jewish sources throughout the mass?
Soro: For me, when the congregation prays, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord,” it is like I am in Jerusalem with the multitude of Jews who received and welcomed the Messiah in the Holy City. Furthermore, there is no other way to understand the human connection of Jesus apart from his relationship with King David. Isn’t this what the Gospel of Matthew tells us? And, as a Christian believer, the God I worship cannot be other than “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” whom our father in faith Abraham preached about in Ur and in Canaan, and who, at the fulfillment of time, was fully revealed in the Person, life, preaching, passion, and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This Abrahamic appellation is not unique to the Chaldean liturgy. The Roman Catholic Church calls Abraham “our father in faith” in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Canon, recited during the Latin Mass. Unfortunately, I don’t think the common Iraqi Christian shares the same understanding of history and theological nuances. Two reasons come to mind: lack of religious training and living for a long time in a culture that is characterized by its tendencies to antisemitism, particularly in Middle Eastern countries. And so, the duty of the church is to explain the history of Christianity and to teach its theology in order to spread the true apostolic teaching of the early church that is based on the virtues of the Gospel.
Achtman: I heard you say during a homily once that “the Church existed before Christ; it’s called Judaism.” Do you think this surprises Iraqi Christians to hear? And how are Christians to understand modern Judaism considering this comment?
Soro: Christ was a Jew who read and preached on the Torah and the Prophets. He prayed at the synagogue and, as required by Jewish Law, he fulfilled his religious obligation every year at the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). The mere advent of Jesus into this world was a fulfillment of God’s promise in the Torah and the Prophets. This way, Christianity (the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church) becomes the one and the same, the consequence and the fulfillment of Judaism (which is based on the Covenant between God and Abraham). Separation between the two is destruction of Providence.
Many Iraqi Christians are yet to be updated by what the Church Councils in the twentieth century have taught about Judaism. At the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the Catholic Church repudiated the belief in the collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus, stating, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” (Nostra Aetate 4). In fact, Eastern and Western Christian spiritualities blame the crucifixion of Jesus on every Christian who sins, because Jesus took the Cross precisely and solely to redeem us from our sins.
Achtman: Do you think antisemitism is a problem among the Middle Eastern Christian community? To what extent does the modern State of Israel impact how Middle Eastern Christians view modern Judaism? And do Middle Eastern Christians have any sense of the Jewish diaspora community with whom they live as neighbors in Canada?
Soro: Yes, I do think it is a problem. I myself was raised in Iraq in the 1950s and ’60s to be a person critical and fearful of the State of Israel. Such political doctrine was instilled in the minds of schoolboys and girls since childhood. Plus, the anti-Jewish material in church literature and liturgical texts made the case for loving Judaism and the Jewish people, if not impossible, then surely very difficult.
But leaving Iraq at a young age and living in the United States for decades changed everything. Attending higher Catholic education in Washington, DC, and Rome surely clarified many things in my spiritual and intellectual journeys. Two facts emerged for me. Christians are equally, if not more, guilty of various sins throughout history, and the aim of a Christian is to learn from past mistakes in order to improve the future, in accordance with the will of God.
I think the effect of Middle East politics—particularly the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian question—has made Middle Eastern Christians’ view of modern Judaism a very difficult case. Unfortunately, not much work has been done yet to bridge the gap between the Jewish diaspora community and their Middle Eastern Christian neighbors in Canada. That is why I took the daring initiative to break silence on our mutual existence. I think there is great potential in restoring relations between the two groups. First, it is always a good thing when people come in peace to one another. Second, there is so much that we have in common, and we can establish a process to bring awareness to why we should do this also in other communities in Canada and the US.
Achtman: Can Middle Eastern Christian clergy and laity help combat antisemitism and cultivate a greater reverence both for the Jewish sources of Christianity as well as for the Jewish people in our modern communities today?
Soro: Absolutely! Again, if this subject is treated with the method and conviction that it is the fulfillment of the salvation of humanity through peaceful coexistence and reciprocal appreciation of one community to the other, I think it is very possible that Middle Eastern Christian clergy and laity will help combat antisemitism and cultivate a greater reverence both for the Jewish sources of Christianity in their respective traditions as well as for the Jewish people in modern communities everywhere.
Achtman: You participated in a vigil to honor the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and you also recorded a video reflection one year after the attack, saying, “Chaldeans of Canada can easily identify with the victims of evil acts of violence, especially innocent worshippers in synagogues and churches. We therefore reject any act of antisemitism and hatred, and do stand with the Jewish people.” How can Jewish and Christian communities show greater solidarity with one another through Holocaust and genocide recognition, education, and remembrance?
Soro: By starting to talk with one another with open-mindedness and courage, motivated by the virtues and ethics of our religions that have built the Judeo-Christian Western civilization. I am sure any time Jews and Christians become true to their One God and religious beliefs that ultimately reveal the will of this God, who loves his creation, they can learn together how to stand against the Evil One, who lured humanity to commit the crimes of the Holocaust and so many other genocides, and to keep the memory of those who died guiltless and saint-like deaths, through education and remembrance.