WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- A nun belonging to Iraq's Christian minority that still speaks a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was found beheaded in Baghdad, the U.S.-based Chaldean News Agency reported Tuesday.
CNA blamed "Muslim terrorists" for this murder of Sister Cecilia Hanna, 70. According to this wire service of Iraq's Christian exiles, she "was knifed down savagely and her head was severed from the rest of her body by a group of thugs while she was staying in the Chaldean monastery located in Palestine Street in Baghdad."
When asked about this report, a State Department spokeswoman told United Press International Tuesday, "We are not aware of this case."
Shortly after the start of the U.S. war on terrorism, Albert Yelda, a London-based Iraqi opposition leader, had warned that Iraq's ancient Christian community would be made a whipping boy for this conflict.
Yelda told UPI at the time that Iraq's Christians "no longer dare to wear their traditional crosses. They are being called crusaders. They do not receive food rations. They are being told, 'Ask the Americans to feed you. You have no business being here.'"
In an interview, Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim of the Chaldean Church's Eastern diocese in the U.S. referred UPI to the CNA story Tuesday but denied that Christians in Iraq were being singled out for persecution.
However, CNA now ranks Sister Cecilia Hanna among the long line of martyrs in present-day Iraq, whose Christians are the descendants of one of the oldest known civilizations -- Mesopotamia. Collectively, these Christians are known of Assyrians.
Assyians say they were the first nation to adopt Christianity as state religion in 179 AD, more than 100 years before Armenia, which prides itself with being the first Christianized country. The Assyrians also claim were the ones to have built the first Christian churches and to have been the first to translate the New Testament from Greek into their vernacular, which still resembles the language of Christ.
The Chaldean Church, to which the murdered Sacred Heart of Jesus nun belonged, is in union with the Vatican and has approximately one million members, half of whom still live in Iraq, while the rest is spread around the world, Bishop Ibrahim said.
Another 300,000 to 500,000 Assyrian Christians belong to the venerable Church of the East. This denomination was once condemned as heretical because it followed the teachings of Nestorius, the 5th-century bishop of Constantinople, who taught that the Virgin Mary was not the "theodokos," or mother of God, but simply the mother of Jesus Christ.
Nestorian missionaries were the first the reach Mongolia, China and Japan in the 8th century. However, in the 16th century, a segment of the Nestorian Church recognized the Pope and united with Rome, which persecuted the remaining Nestorians for centuries, especially in India.
"Today, our two churches are very close," Bishop Ibrahim said. While not in full communion, they practice Eucharistic hospitality under certain circumstances. In other words, they commune each other's members if they have no church of their own denomination to go to.
"Our liturgies are very similar," Ibrahim explained. "Assyrian services consist of 99 percent liturgy with lots of incense," Yelda said. The difference is that while the Chaldeans allow icons in their churches, the Nestorian sanctuaries are as stark as synagogues. But for a simple cross above the altar, nothing adorns them.
There are other parallels between the Nestorians and the Jews as well. Nestorians call their priest "rabi" (teacher), and like orthodox Jews they eschew mixed marriages. "We want to preserve a Christian people in our country," Yelda explained.
While Bishop Ibrahim allowed that "Christians like all others suffer from the turmoil in Iraq, but are not targeted for persecution," the Chaldean News Service accused Saddam Hussein's government of appeasing "the rising tide of Muslim fanaticism."
This movement, it said, "has at its final goal not only the murder or the complete subjugation of non-Muslims but all those who do not measure up to its doctrine of terror and hatred."
According to Albert Yelda, Saddam Hussein, too, has set out to destroy the venerable Assyrian culture, "not out of any Muslim convictions but because, like every tyrant, he hates minorities."
Yelda described how Saddam had banned the Assyrians' cultural clubs, where their literary language was kept alive. "Saddam had hundreds of Assyrian villages razed, including recently a 2nd-century church."
Yelda also accused Saddam's son, Uday, of raping and killing an Assyrian woman and then making this act public knowledge.
As for the repression of Iraqi Christians in the name of Islam, Yelda said it ran counter the stated wish of the Prophet Mohammed, who was so impressed by the Assyrians' knowledge of medicine and sciences that he issued a Firman, or letter of protection, for them.
The Firman disappeared without trace over 150 years ago.