By Kurt Nagl
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Assyrian Church of the East has elected a new leader to become the 111th patriarch during a time of instability and turmoil in the Middle East.
Gewargis Sliwa will be consecrated as the new patriarch elect on Sunday at St. John the Baptist Church in Ainkawa, the Christian quarters of Erbil.
Pope Francis offered his well wishes to Sliwa through a message sent to the patriarch on September 21.
“I join your Holiness in prayer and solidarity with all who suffer because of the tragic situation in the Middle East, especially our Christian brothers and sisters and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria,” the Pope’s message read. “With you, I ask the Lord to grant them strength so that they may persevere in their Christian witness.”
Theological disputes caused the Assyrian Church of the East and Catholic Church to formally split ways in the 5th Century, though the two churches today maintain dialogue and a working relationship.
Sliwa was born in Habbaniya, Iraq, in 1941. He studied in Baghdad and the US before being becoming a priest in 1980. Stationed in Baghdad, he served as Metropolitan of Iraq, Jordan and Russia. As the only Assyrian metropolitan still residing in Iraq, Sliwa has seen first-hand the displacement and persecution of his people.
Thousands of Christians have been persecuted by the Islamic State in the past two years. Many have sought refuge after the terrorists took over Mosul and other cities in Iraq and Syria.
The headquarters of the Assyrian Church were moved to Chicago in 1940 due to political tensions and violence and have remained in the US city since. Sliwa’s patriarchy, some have speculated, could very well see the seat move to Erbil.
Sam Nissan, 48, is a Kurdistan region native who moved to Melbourne, Australia, and made the flight back to Erbil so he could witness Sliwa’s consecration.
“It was a bit difficult returning to see the ceremony for the new patriarch, but I made it happen,” said Nissan, who serves as a deacon for the Assyrian Church. “It’s a historic day. It doesn’t happen every Sunday.”
Sliwa will be seceding Mar Dinkha IV, who died in March after 39 years at the helm of the Assyrian Church.
Nissan, like others from the Assyrian community, is looking forward to another leader who can connect with the Assyrians like Dinkha.
“Mar Dinkha did a lot of work for the Assyrians, which should make it easier for Mar Gewargis to continue that work as Holy Father,” Nissan said.
Sliwa will take the ecclesiastical name ‘Mar Gewargis III’ following his consecration.