Tel Tamer, Syria – The village church of Tel Hormiz, Syria, was dedicated to Saint Pethyon, a third-century saint of the Assyrian tradition who was originally from Egypt. “Was” dedicated, or “is” dedicated, perhaps — which is appropriate for a church that has been destroyed and now lies in ruins?
In either case, ISIS took over Tel Hormiz in the early morning of February 23, 2015. The village, then with a few hundred residents, is the last in a string of Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur River Valley in the Hasakah province of northeastern Syria. This church (pictured above, in ruins), named after Saint Pethyon, belonged to the Ancient Church of the East, which split with the Assyrian Church of the East in the 1960s over the issue of the liturgical calendar and patriarchal succession, but both Churches are heirs of the historical Church of the East.
The Church of the East was originally the Church of the Christians in the Persian Empire, removed from the history of the Church that we usually understand in the West, that of the Roman Empire. After Muslim conquerors took over the area and destroyed the line that divided the Roman west and the Persian east, the Church of the East remained a powerful force, once stretching all the way to China and Mongolia. The last millennium or more has been difficult on this struggling community, however, and ISIS’s destruction of the Assyrian villages of the Khabur is just the latest in centuries of oppression.
In all that history of trauma, the story of the church of Tel Hormiz is a curious one to note.
Belonging to the Ancient Church of the East, Tel Hormiz’s Church of Saint Pethyon represents a minority within a minority. Most churches in the 35 villages along the Khabur belong to the Assyrian Church of the East (and another few to the Chaldean Catholic Church, whose roots are also in the Church of the East). While the distinctions among these Churches are confusing to an outsider, suffice it to say that the Church of Saint Pethyon in Tel Hormiz is part of a very small, dwindling community, even when compared to the other small, dwindling communities of Middle Eastern Christians.
ISIS destroyed the church the day after they took over the village, as they did in ten other villages.
Residents of Tel Hormiz had already fled to a nearby village and later to the city of Hasakah, but over 200 Assyrians from neighbouring villages were kidnapped and held for about a year by ISIS, before a large ransom was paid and the hostages were released. But in Tel Hormiz, where residents had already fled before the ISIS attack, a curious thing happened when ISIS destroyed Saint Pethyon’s church, according to talk among local Arabs (some of whom helped ISIS take over the villages of their Assyrian Christian neighbours).
As they prepared to destroy the church, to them a symbol of polytheism and idolatry, ISIS fighters lined it with explosives and pressed the figurative red button. But the church didn’t detonate, at least not right away. The young ISIS fighter in charge of this holy destruction called his boss and asked him what he should do. He was told to go back into the church and check that everything had been set up properly. As he went in, his handiwork exploded, destroying the church and killing him in the process.
Of course we can’t know if the story is true, but that is how it was told to Tel Hormiz’s Assyrian residents by their Arab neighbours after a few of them finally returned home. Saint Pethyon, as it happens, is a patron saint of the crazy or possessed in the Assyrian tradition. One has to wonder if maybe Saint Pethyon will take special pity on that poor soul who felt God had called him to destroy the small village church built in his name. Whatever it was that brought him to Tel Hormiz that day, to destroy both the church and a people for whom genocide and displacement have become way too normal, we know without a doubt that he was in need of Saint Pethyon’s intercession.
He may have destroyed Pethyon’s church building, but with a good deal of courage we can pray to the good saint for his intercession on behalf of a truly crazy or possessed, and certainly misguided, soul who thought that in destroying the cement and rebar of a tiny village church he could somehow stamp out the light of Christ.
Saint Pethyon, pray for him, for us, and for those who have remained in the Khabur despite ISIS’s best efforts.
Samuel Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.