Interview of Fr. Yousif Habbi
with alJazeera Arab Satellite TV station
Broadcasted on November 5th, 2000
Complete Interview in Arabic, both Voice as well as Trasncripts
Link to "Lapse of a Prophet": A poem to the memory of Fr. Yousif Habbi
Narration by Mr. Mohammad Kreshan of alJazeera
Chaldeans and Assyrians are the old inhabitants of Iraq. They accepted Christianity and were faithful to it and to Iraq. Their language is still holding its ground till today written as well as spoken. Despite their careful guardianship of their uniqueness, they were able to be part of this area and its national fabric without any chauvinism or confrontation. All this will be talked about by our guest this week, Dr. Yousif Habbi, Dean of Babylon College for Philosophy and Liturgy.
- Full name: Dr. Farouq Dawood, but was known
by his literature nickname, Youisf Habbi.
- Born in Mosul in Iraq in 1940 and died two weeks ago in a tragic car accident in Amman.
- Earned several high degrees in philosophy, liturgy, and a doctorate in Church Law.
- Fluent in many langauges among them, Chaldean, Italian, French, Latin, German, and others.
- Member of Syriac Language Group since 1972.
- Member of Iraqi Scientific Group since 1978.
- President of Syriac Language Committee, Editor in Chief of “Bayn Nahrain” (Mesopotamia) quarterly civilizational magazine since its inception in 1972.
- Deputy Patriarch of the Chaldeans for Cultural Affairs.
- Dean of Babylon College for Philosophy and Liturgy since its establishment in 1991.
- President of Chaldean Church Court of Appeals in Iraq since 1990. Priest since 1961.
- Has 26 books between literature and theology.
alJazera Arab TV: Dr. Habbi, welcome. When we talk about Chaldean people we also talk about Assyrians and Syriacs and about the Babylonians. Could you explain this to us?
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Sure, for Chaldeans today are the largest segment of the Church of the East, which is a church as well as a specific people, that include Chaldeans, Assyrians and their language is Syriac, hence, the term Syriacs. This church and this Christianity started from the First Century AD with its domain being East of Euphrates, Gulf countries, Iran, south Turkey, till far away in south and east Asia in China, India, Japan and Tibet. Today, it’s spreading in the opposite direction, to the West in America, Australia, New Zealand i.e. countries in the opposite direction to where it started from. All those nations (meaning east of Euphrates countries –GS) were Christians in the first centuries. They (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs – GS) belong to the peoples that lived in this area, especially, Mesopotamia and its surroundings. As a people, they belonged to the old people that inhabited this land from Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Arabs and other groups.
alJazera Arab TV:
So, as a people, they’re (from ethnic point of view) different peoples,
but belong to same Church of the East.
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Yes, yes, they belong to the same civilization, church, as well as have the same language.
alJazera Arab TV: What’s left of those people in Iraq at this time?
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Well, thanks God, those peoples did not vanish as some believe. Sometimes in the internet and in newspapers some remarks are made that are untrue and have no foundations. Church of the East in both of its major branches, the Chaldean, and the Assyrian is alive church. The Patriarch of the Chaldeans currently resides in Baghdad, while that of the Assyrians resides in Chicago. There is a third Patriarch for another section of the Assyrians who resides in Baghdad. There is also another Patriarch for the Syriacs whose seat is in Syria…in Beirut for the Catholics and in Syria for the Orthodox.
It’s (i.e. Church of the East –GS) alive church with large numbers of followers and there are still close to 6 million people who originally reported to this church when it was in Seleucie-Ctesiphon, close to Baghdad. There are 6 millions of Malabarians and Manakarians from East India and Kelagars’s who are in south India.
This church and this people and this Christianity
is alive, first in its rites and language, second in its history and heritage,
and third in its current achievements today. There are in many places prosperous
parishes, prosperous monasteries, clubs, books, magazines, and even media
like TV and radio.
alJazera Arab TV: You’re talking in general and not necessarily in Iraq.
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Yes, in Iraq and outside it for as I said the Chaldeans and Assyrians and also the Syriacs are spread currently in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt. Also, as I said in European countries, especially, Holland, Germany, Belgium, France, and England. Also, in Scandinavian countries. There is also a large number in America, in Australia, and New Zealand and other places.
alJazera Arab TV: What are the feelings of the Chaldeans in Iraq? Do they believe they got Arabized and hence their identity is now mainly religious Christian or is it in addition to their religious identity, there is a cultural identity as customs and language which distinguish them from the rest of the Iraqi people?
Dr. Fr. Habbi:
Belonging to a certain identity changes from one era to another e.g. when
Christianity spread, especially in our East, it tried somehow to distance
the people from their old heritage, since it consider it as based on idol
worshipping. However, part of the old heritage stayed and that was unavoidable,
especially, beliefs and literature. Those stayed all the way.
The civilization of the land between the two rivers, Mesopotamia, the old Iraqi civilization, it’s not only a well known civilization, but everyone knows it was the first civilization in the world. It started with the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and then the Assyrian. Writing was invented in this land. Add to that record-keeping and literature, and we have great epics. Some epics were adopted by Christianity as stories. Take for the example the story of Mar Gorgees or Jarjees or George, this story is originally a Sumerian epic. This epic of the killing of the dragon. Mar Gorgees or Jarjees or George, this martyr was added to this epic and was made to fight the dragon, while the original story is Sumerian. It’s a nice and symbolic story. Also, the monastic impressions that we see in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it continued in the Chaldean/Assyrian/Syriac Church of the East. That is when we talk about our spiritual Fathers like Is-haq alNinevehi, Youhanna Dalyathi. Even among Sofi Muslims, they got close to those areas, for they always considered God as too lofty for man to ever reach. Man can reach the water of the stream, but can not dive in it i.e. can not dive in the meaning of God’s self.
In other words, the Eastern, whether Chaldean,
Assyrian or Arab or whatever the name is, managed to preserve his civilizational
characteristics as well as heritage and history throughout times. Religion
was not able, if I may say, to sever those belongings; attachment to the
land, to history, and attachment to the civilization in general and that
was a positive thing in my opinion. Religion, for sure, did not come to
cut off, but to add on. However, when religions increased in variety
as they did in the past, when Christianity started to spread, majority
of the people were believers in their Idol-worshipping religions. The new
religious regimes, of course, at the beginning they had differences with
this old society, but they could not nor they wanted to distance themselves
100% from their civilization’s heritage, from their linguistic heritage..etc.
but this happened many years later after the coming of Islam to the country.
alJazera Arab TV: Talking about this linguistic heritage, was the Chaldean language able to survive? Is it till today a spoken and used language in Iraq and surrounding countries?
Dr. Fr. Habbi: About 95% of all those who belong to the Church of the East from Chaldeans, Assyrians, and even the Syriacs, however, in a smaller percentage, speak as a mother tongue what we call “Soureth” which is Aramaic language, dialect that belong to the old languages. The first language known here is the Akkadian which corresponds to it the “Ebly” language in Syria, which could also be Akkadian after all. It has branches like the Babylonian, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Aramaic and even…
alJazera Arab TV: Are there similarities between them?
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Yes, there is a big similarity between all of them. They are also called Western Aramaic and Eastern Aramaic, and here we could also add the Arabic language, Hebrew, Ethiopian, and other languages. It’s one family. Those peoples are of similar origins or same origin eventually, of course, all the holy books of different religions talk about the same origin for Mankind. Science also tries to speak about same origins. Anyway, at the end we for sure are facing common origins, not only as peoples or races, but as languages. This language (Aramaic –GS) is alive.
alJazera Arab TV: Is it still alive at homes in daily usage?
Dr. Fr. Habbi:
Even among those who migrated abroad. If you go to Detroit or Chicago or
Australia or Melbourne, you’ll see those Easterns or Chaldeans or Assyrians,
those Christians speaking this language.
alJazera Arab TV: Do they mix between it and Arabic?
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Yes, majority, but not all. Those who are from Iran or Turkey speak this language, Soureth/Chaldean/Assyrian/Syriac in addition to the language of their countries. As we said majority of them live in the Arab world, consequently, Arabic is wide spread among majority of them as the language of literature and correspondence. This also what happened as a civilization belonging after the flourishing of the Arab civilization. Also lately from the 19th-20th century when Arabic got strengthened. Arab literature, Arab civilization became dominant in the area among the people of the area. Also, the owners of this language and the Christians of this language tagged the line with minor differences. The Jordanians and the Palestinians who are more closely connected to the Arabic language and civilization for its their mother tongue, while for the others it’s not their mother tongue, usually, but it’s the…
alJazera Arab TV: old language.
Dr. Fr. Habbi: the old language, the sister language. There are similar expressions, the viewer can attest to that the difference is very minor. We say, “Shemsha”, you say “Shames”. We say, “Meya” you say “Ma”. We say, “Ara” you say “ardh”. The origins are the same.
alJazera Arab TV: Is this language used in literature as it was in the past?
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Yes, especially there is now a movement that encouraged and strengthened this language to spread and be used in magazines, newspapers, and other media means, especially, in the countries of Diaspora. As I said, the countries of Diaspora brought together the owners of this language, for the common among them is this language more than other languages. Hence, the language was encouraged and strengthened, in addition there are European studies of the Syriac literature or the literature of the Soureth language which is spoken by the Assyrians and Chaldeans of this world. Today, it’s the language of literature, the language of poem, and the language of Journalism, but let us say, in many applications it was mixed with Arabic. Those people do not feel strangers to the Arab language and Arab civilization, on the contrary.
alJazera Arab TV:When Islam came and with it specifically came the Arabic language, the language of the blessed Quran, how was the reaction of those Chaldeans and Assyrians towards that, especially as its known the Church of the East was one of the oldest churches?
Dr. Fr. Habbi: There are historical documents that the Patriarchs, the heads of this church in Iraq in Seleucie-Ctesiphon (before the establishment of Baghdad) did not object to the spread of Islam, on the contrary, there was sympathy. There was no confrontation between the Christians of Mesopotamia in general, and in Iraq in particular, and the Muslims. Also, there were at the time Christians who were Arabs like those of Hira, the alManathera, as well as alGhassanis who were Arab groups. Also, there were other Arab tribes that were Christian, like bani-Taglob and bani-Tay and others. Those entered Islam very easily because it was their civilization and their language. However, most of the Christians kept their religion. Those that entered Islam were the Zoroastrians, or other idol worshipping religions. Why? Because, Islam did not force the Christians to become Muslims, but only to pay “Jezya” (annual financial penalty- GS). They were considered people of the book. Many years later, you find not only peaceful living but shared living conditions between Christians and Muslims. The proof to that, is there was religious dialogues at the highest level, for example, the dialogue between the Patriarch Timthaowes the Great, around 800 AD with the Khalifa alMahdi. Also, the dialogue of Bishop Eliya Bershinaya, Bishop of Nissibin with the minister alMaghrebi.
alJazera Arab TV: Dialogue as between…
Dr. Fr. Habbi: Dialogue
between Christians and Muslims about God, about miracles, about salvation
and about punishment..etc. Add to that there were dialogues between scientists
and philosophers between Christians and Muslims. For example, in Baghdad,
the capital of the Abassid Khalifate, especially, at alZaera and alMajeda,
the schools were mixed i.e. there was no discrimination between Christians
and Muslims, especially in science schools and philosophy, in science of
logic. The head of "House of Wisdom" was a Christian, but had Muslims working
in it , or was run by a Sabian and had Christians and Muslims working in
it or was run by a Muslim and vice-versa. Same in hospitals like "alRadi"
we see working in Fr. Ibin alTayab.