St. John the Baptist Church
Authors: Adad Alan Zaya
Foundation and History
St. John the Baptist Church is the only Assyrian church in Ankawa. In 2004, Mar Isaac Yousip, the Bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East in Northern Iraq and Russia, laid the foundation stone of St. John the Baptist Church. The construction took four years. The cathedral was consecrated in 2008 by Dinkha IV, the former patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, who died in 2015. The increasing numbers of Assyrian community members, who arrived from rural areas and settled in Ankawa, highlighted the need to build a church to serve believers of the community. Yet the church itself contains no chronicles of any saint; its name derives from St. John’s Church of Harir, a town where most of the Church’s community members live.
The Church has hosted a considerable number of events. First of all, there was the ordination of the current Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Gewargis III, on September 18, 2015. He was elected after the death of the former Patriarch, Dinkha IV on March 17 of that year. The second event was the ordination of a new priest, Father Martin Nicola, by his holiness Mar Gewargis III Sliwa. Currently, Martin is the priest of St. John’s Church and his ordination took place on the June 23, 2017. The consecration of Bishop Abris Awshalem, who was appointed to carry out duties with Bishop Isaac, took place on May 7, 2017. Gewargis III led the celebration together with several prelates from different congregations and denominations, in the presence of prominent political figures.
The most recent event was held on June 13, 2019. In the presence of most of the parishioners, Bishop Mar Abris ordained eight new deacons to serve at St. John. This is considered a positive step for the church since it reflects the seriousness of its efforts to serve the community. The community celebrated the event together with the newly ordained deacons in the church events hall.
On, September 8, 2019, the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East gathered in St. John the Baptist Church in Erbil and elected Bishop Mar Awa Royel its new Catholicos Patriarch. His Holiness Mar Awa had previously served as bishop presiding over the Diocese of California of the Assyrian Church of the East, and also as Secretary of the Holy Synod. The inauguration of the 122nd patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East was held in Erbil on September 13, 2021.
 Harir is a town and sub-district located in the district of Shaqlawa, Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Displaced Christian Assyrian families from the Nochiya region who fled the Assyrian genocide around 1915, founded Harir. Today it is also the home to Kurds. As of 2018, Harir had a population of 30,100.
 See the Facebook page of St. John the Baptist’s Church-Ankawa at this link: https://www.facebook.com/350861915080566/posts/5481586588674714?sfns=mo
Location and Building
St John Cathedral is located in the very lively street of Ankawa: Hisdandukht Street, also known as Al-Montazah Street. It is a complex that contains the church and four other buildings: a hall for events, bathrooms and a washing room of the deceased, rooms for religious teaching, a small garden, the bishop’s house and office, and a parking lot. The cathedral operates three cars, a minibus, several hearses, a multi-purpose vehicle and the bishop’s car. The four buildings and the church are all made of cinder blocks and concrete and clad with limestone blocks. The church exterior has a modern yet traditional design, including mural symbols of Assyrian civilization illustrating the “tree of life” on the longer side. There are other sculptures on the walls surrounding the church derived from the Lamassu and others from the old Assyrian empire.
Main Church Building
The church is built in a modern style and its layout is shaped like a fish, an early symbol of Christianity. This shape allows parishioners to see the altar from anywhere in the nave. The church has one dome on the eastern side located immediately above the altar, and contains a large Eastern Cross made of bronze. The Church has three entrances: a main door and two front doors. The layout is derived from the traditional structures of churches in which the rear door was used for women and the side doors for men, since the men sit in the front of the nave and the women behind them.
The apse is separated from the nave, and has three gates draped with curtains; the northern gate leads to the vestment room and sound system room, while the southern room leads to the baptizing room. The central curtain is the only one that opens and closes during the mass; the other two are used to block the entrances for the normal parishioners to the sacristan and baptizing rooms from the nave. Father Martin Nabil clarified: “In our church traditions, curtains are open during the mass, and the only time that we close them is when the priest starts preparing the Eucharist.” These curtains bear two decorative Eastern Crosses.
On top of the central curtain is a magnificent arch made of marble, with inscriptions made by a member of the parish. The carving refers to Communion symbols, including the chalice, grapes (for wine), wheat (for bread), a dove, two candles (for Jesus, the light of the world) and three stars (for the Trinity). There is also a verse from the book of vespers written in Syriac (old Aramaic) which in translation, reads “the church with holy voices glorifies the Lord of all creation.” Two chamomile flowers, symbols of Assyrian civilization, are above the painting.
Inside the apse, the communion table or altar – in the Assyrian Church of the East’s traditions, it represents the grave of Jesus Christ – is positioned in the center. On that table are a small gilded cross and Gospel, and a bigger cross hangs above it on the wall. The big cross is carved from wood and covered with blue glass. The priest of the church claimed that it is intended to be a focus of attention for the parishioners. The crosses lack any crucifixion or other symbols. Father Martin explained: “We of the Assyrian Church of the East derived our church elements and traditions from the Hebrew traditions. Hence, since they do not have pictures or statues – they see that as paganism – in their temples, we do not have them in our church either.”
The nave accommodates almost 500 parishioners. These visitors – either men or women, with no distinction – use the eastern door of the church due to its position near the main entrance to the cathedral. The southern door is mostly used by the women and the choir members to go to their places upstairs. The western door is used only for the large events, like Easter or Christmas, because there are so many participants during such events. The walls are all covered with marble and ornaments, but no pictures, statues or icons. Supposedly, the Assyrian Churches of the East used to display icons of Jesus Christ, but the church does not use them any more due to the persecutions by Muslims in previous centuries, said Father Martin. The ceiling is made of gypsum board and has no ornaments, apart from LED lights and three chandeliers.
The church, similar to the other Assyrian Churches of the East, has two pulpits in the nave. One is located in front of the chancel and the other one in the middle of the church (in small churches there is only one pulpit). They carry a cross over them, and people are meant to kiss the cross before taking their pew seats. This tradition expresses the respect of parishioners towards Jesus Christ (see the picture below). The deacon’s vestments are hung on a pulpit either side of a cross, to be worn during the daily prayers.
The church has an advanced sound system that was designed by a specialized sound engineer. Six speakers are distributed around the nave, plus there are multiple neck microphones for the priest and deacons, and microphones with stands for the choir. These sound tools are all connected to a mixer that, in turn, distributes a balanced stereo sound within the nave. This facility makes the mass easier for the priest and deacons, as they do not need to raise their voices uncomfortably.
Originally, the church was designed with an air-conditioning system. But when it broke down, the administration chose to change it with a floor-mounted split air conditioner for both cooling and heating. Currently, the atmosphere is easily adjusted through units, whether in warm or cold weather.
The bathrooms are a short distance from the church and other buildings. The bathroom section is separated into three parts: men’s toilets, women’s toilets, and funeral washing rooms. The toilets are only used when the church is open, or when there is an event or funeral in the church. Each section consists of five toilets and five ceramic washbasins for each section, separated for men and women. The funeral washing room is adjacent to the bathroom building, but with an independent door; it can accommodate one funeral at a time.
This large building contains a hall with a kitchen and another small hall. The large hall is used for the primary events of the church, for instance, funerals, Easter and Christmas breakfast gatherings, and other formal events like conferences, exhibitions and church activities. The hall has a capacity of up to 500 people, and is equipped with split air-conditioners. The kitchen beside the hall has all the facilities needed to prepare and store food appropriately.
The kitchen and the hall are organized by church staff, who are mainly female volunteers. The women are responsible for doing the shopping for the kitchen, and for cleaning the hall. The male members contribute to the cleaning and organizing of events.
The small hall is used for lectures, meetings, and training. Simultaneously, it stores some equipment for the large events. Originally it was meant to be a women’s hall for the funerals, but as soon as the practice of separating between men and women disappeared, it was used for other purposes.
Religious Teaching Rooms and the Library
This building has three stories. The basement contains the library, and the other two floors are for religious teaching classes. The religious teaching rooms (approximately 4.5 meters by 5.5 meters each) host eight classes of 20 to 22 people. They are equipped with all the tools required for teaching such as a whiteboard, LCD TVs, a small closet, office tables, and chairs. One room is for the administration. The library contains around 2,500 to 3,500 church books, including Bibles, liturgical books, the Church of the East’s historical books, and so on. The library, which was newly established in the cathedral, is not particularly sophisticated. And as Father Martin clarified: “The church has other priorities for now, rather than the library. Still, that does not mean that the library is not important.” The teaching rooms were used to shelter displaced people during the ISIS crisis in 2014.
 Mesopotamia Heritage website, https://www.mesopotamiaheritage.org.
 Personal interview with Father Martin.
 A chalice is a cup from which parishioners drink the wine. .
 The translation of the text is from: https://www.mesopotamiaheritage.org/en/monuments/la-cathedrale-mar-yohanna-al-maamadan-dankawa/
 Personal interview with Father Martin.
Prayer and Worship
St. John’s Baptist Church holds mass twice a week, while vespers are held daily. The number of parishioners at masses is noticeably higher than at the vespers. The lower attendance is due to the small size of the Assyrian Church community in Erbil.
Mass and Vespers
Mass is held on Sunday and Friday. On Sundays, the mass is held at 8 am. Usually there are fewer worshippers on Sundays, and with average attendance estimated at 40 people. Some 40% of them are male, while 60% are female. Father Martin attributed the low number of attendees to work: “Sunday is a work day for the large portion of the community, especially the youth and adults, thus, the majority of the participants are elders and retired people.” The total number of parishioners is smaller than at other churches because there are few Assyrian Christian families in Ankawa. Masses are led either by the church priest or the bishop. There is no fixed schedule for that, as it depends on their availability.
On Fridays, the attendance is higher with an average of 80 people. Most of them are female of various ages, which amounts to 65% of participants. The remaining 35% are male. On the downside, few children and youth under 18 take part, either in masses or in prayers. This is considered a challenge for the church, which is seeking a solution. Unfortunately, no studies have yet been conducted find the key reasons for this problematic phenomenon. Thus far, many people have blamed family attitudes and the impact of modern technology.
Vespers are held daily at 5:30 pm. The participants are extremely low in number. In the priest’s estimation, they are about 10 attendees, eight being older men from the community and two women. On Saturdays, the numbers increase compared to other days; the worshippers reach up to 30 in number. Most of them are women, accounting for around 20 people, with the remainder being men. Most of the time, vespers are led by the priest, deacons and choir members. Sometimes, the bishop participates as well.
Usually, the parishioners come early to the masses and vespers, but they do not stay afterwards, except for on Fridays, when they stay at church for refreshments. The fact that Friday is a regional holiday offers the opportunity for people to gather and meet one other.
The church has a priest, deacons, sacristan, seven guards and many volunteers. The priest, sacristan and guards are the only paid staff; all others do their jobs voluntarily. The number of volunteers is estimated at around 50. The sacristan is also responsible for maintaining the garden.
“Most frequently the sermons are interesting and concerned with people’s daily life,” says Father Martin. The sermons are derived from Biblical texts to strengthen people’s faith and make them confident in daily life by depending on Jesus’s wisdom. For instance, the priest reads a story from the Bible for the mass, then connects it to a current situation or phenomenon happening in society. This strengthens people’s faith and leads them to pursue Jesus Christ’s discipline in their own life. This kind of sermon also helps people learn about Christianity, since few people bother to read about religion nowadays. Finally, the sermons tend to focus on ethics and pearls of wisdom, for instance, how to tolerate others living around them, whether they be Muslims, Yezidis or people of other faiths.
The most prominent meetings are Christmas and Easter. At Christmas, people join the priests, deacons, bishop and the patriarch in the function hall to have breakfast together after the mass. At these events, people contribute by preparing food to share with other community members. The hall is decorated with Christmas trees and ornaments that make the people experience the joy of Christmas.
At Easter, the congregation and community gather to share breakfast with their friends, relatives and church staff. The difference at these events is that the church servants paint eggs and sell them in the church after the Easter holy mass. The income goes to the church. In the Assyrian traditions, there is a game played by people with eggs. Each game has two players, who each pick an egg and tries to hit the other’s egg. Whoever gets their egg broken, loses.
Another kind of meeting is the celebration of commencement. Every year, the church celebrates the graduation of its members by holding a music party with Assyrian folklore dance, and token prizes are awarded. The church aspires to have as many knowledgeable and intellectual people as possible at these events, as this encourages the graduates.
Other meetings are memorials and events that draws the church community to celebrate together. The most prominent one is the annual memorial of St. John, which is held two weeks after Christmas. The event includes a lecture by the bishop, who explains the story of St. John the Baptist. The event includes traditional games with prizes for the winners.
Life Cycle Events
Life cycle events differ yearly. The number of funerals averages about 10 to 12 per year, while around 20 baptisms five weddings take place (see table).
Sample of three years of life cycle events of St. John the Baptist Church.
Community and Group Activity
Religious and Syriac language classes comprise a large part of church activities. This instruction is usually given once a week, on Friday, and is mostly for children and teenagers (five to 18 years old). In summer, the classes are more intensive, meeting up to four times a week. The number of students is always the same, and they participate in both summer and winter classes. When the classes finish, prizes are awarded to the students.
The choir has a schedule for its rehearsals: in summer every Wednesday, and in winter every Friday. The singers are trained by a musician and composer named Waleed Zaya. The choir participates in every church event and various life-cycle events.
Additionally, the parish has a group of teenagers, which consists of almost 35 dedicated people between the ages of 14 and 18. The church is aiming to build a new generation of youth who are committed to the church, unlike the previous generation that was neglected, said Father Martin. Nowadays, the group conducts various activities in Ankawa and the region, for instance, paying visits to elderly care centers, childcare and orphanages, or helping the sick. To train group members, the church held a 10-day program for them in the summer of 2019. The program included religious instruction, teaching of the Creed, team-building activities, language classes, and watching documentary movies.
The church conducts other activities such as courses in music (specifically, the violin and piano), and youth empowerment programs such as computer skills development. The first music course was successful, but the empowerment programs did not attract enough turnout and were canceled.
Additional activities include a Bible study session each Saturday at 6:15 pm. The sessions discuss religious issues, and are open to everyone. Recently, the church has hosted a meeting every two months for young people in order to strengthen the ties among them.
The Assyrian Church of the East in Ankawa now has a membership of about 400 families. Sadly, member numbers are going down due to security reasons as well as economic, political and other issues. Nowadays, the situation of Christians is better in Erbil and Kurdistan compared to other Iraqi cities. Yet, Christians do not enjoy their full rights because of endemic corruption and a weak justice system. In that regard, the Iraqi constitution has some biases against minorities; for instance, non-Christians cannot convert to Christianity because it is prohibited by the law. So, this obliges some Christian women who are in a relationship with Muslim men to convert to Islam in order to get married. On top of that, the mass emigration of Christians, especially during the ISIS crisis in 2014-2015, was a huge loss to the community. About 35% of the Christian community emigrated.
Families who belong to the Assyrian church are all registered in lists or a database. However, there is not a standard procedure for becoming a member, and usually membership is inherited. The only registration that occurs in the church lists is through the internal migration of Christian members, in which the members of the Church of the East who come from Duhok, Sulaimani or other cities and reside in Erbil can change their family profile from their church of origin to be registered at St. John’s Baptist Church.
Father Martin noted: “Most of our community members participate in the masses and other church activities, except for the youth and children who scarcely join masses.” Modernity is affecting people’s lives; some young people think that it is not necessary to visit the church frequently, and that attending at Christmas and Easter is enough, the father adds. He goes on to say that some people turn to atheism or agnosticism, thinking that there is no need for religions, which of course adds to the loss of members.
The expenses of the church are financed by the annual membership payments – which are not obligatory – including funds from overseas, donations and the money collected during the holy masses. Nevertheless, other income is collected through the offertory box, which is located near the door entrance door to the church. The income of the church is used for maintenance, helping poor people, and paying the clerics and the sacristan. As Father Martin pointed out, “clerics and guards are the only fully paid ones in the Church,”
The guards are all Zeravani members, thus they are paid by the Kurdish regional government. The deacons are sometimes paid by the office of Sarkis Aghajan, since he provides funds and support for the church. But this is not considered a permanent salary, because the funds are not generally available.
 Security forces operated by the KRG.
Father Martin said that there is no website for the church yet, but there are plans to build one. Meantime, announcements are shared on social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Hence, people are informed about upcoming events, funerals, and masses. This is the best way, at least temporarily, to spread the news and the church activities on the web. Additionally, the church has a notice board near the administration room which is mostly used to share the monthly budget and expenditure plans.
There are no publications, only a CD of the church hymns. As Father Martin observed: “Unfortunately, no one has documented anything about the church and it has no publications.” He expressed the church’s support to start a journal publication or newsletter, but that it is a struggle to find staff. Currently, the church simply does not have enough potential employees to run a newspaper.
The parish of St. John the Baptist belongs to the Church of the East’s Archdiocese of Erbil and Kirkuk. The bishop’s office, which is responsible for arranging and meeting with officials, guests and clerks from different archdiocese and religions, is located in the parish. Therefore, the church has good relations with the other archdioceses in the city and the region, and has friendly ties to other churches. The church is independent of political party influence.
St. John’s parish is not engaged in any activities with other parishes of the Assyrian Church of the East.
 You may access the Facebook page of St. John the Baptist Church using the following link: [https://www.facebook.com/mar.youkhanna/?epa=SEARCH_BOX]