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The Chaldean Church

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, insurgents have targeted the country’s Christian community, systematically bombing churches, kidnapping Christians and attacking Christian-owned businesses.

Officially, some 750,000 people (or 3 percent of Iraq’s population) are reported to be Christian, but less than 300,000 Christians actually live in Iraq. Most of these Christians belong to the Chaldean Church, an Eastern Church with its own spirituality, discipline and liturgy (its eucharistic sacrifice is known as the Qurbana) in full communion with the Church of Rome.

The word Chaldean identifies this Catholic community with an ancient people who once controlled the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq and portions of Syria and Turkey). Iraq’s Chaldeans take pride in their ancient roots, counting Abraham of Ur of the land of the Chaldeans – whom Jews, Christians and Muslims call their father in faith – as one of their own. Yet this pedigree does not protect them from the insurgents, who claim that Chaldeans are foreigners and agents of the Christian West.

A distinguished patrimony. Chaldeans consider themselves the descendants of the indigenous Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia: Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean. These are the peoples who first tilled the soil, lived together and developed a code of law. These are the peoples who invented the principles of agriculture, astronomy, astrology, mathematics and the written word.

Like fibers in a woolen rug, the destinies of these peoples and their neighbors to the West – the Israelites – are intricately woven together. Based in Ninevah, near the modern city of Mosul, the Assyrians waged war on the Israelites, forcing tribute from the king of Judah. Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and the subsequent exile of the people of Israel into the Babylonian empire. For a millennium the language of the Chaldeans, Aramaic with its many dialects, was the language of the people throughout the Middle East, supplanting even Hebrew among the Jews.

Some five centuries before Christ, the Persians destroyed Mesopotamia’s indigenous Assyrian and Chaldean empire. They established their capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the banks of the Tigris (near modern Baghdad) and developed a state that, for more than 1,200 years, linked the Greco-Roman culture of the West with the Far East.

The origins of the Christian faith in Persian Mesopotamia are shrouded in tradition and legend. St. Thomas the Apostle, on his way to India, first evangelized the region’s Jewish communities. An ancient legend also claims that Christ himself is responsible for the evangelization of Mesopotamia, instructing the Apostle Thomas to send a disciple to cure the sickly king of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southeastern Turkey).

Dispatched by Thomas with a cloth featuring a miraculous image of Jesus, Addai (Aramaic for Thaddeus, one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, cured the king and established the church in Edessa. That Edessa is the likely source of the faith in the Fertile Crescent is bolstered by historical and archaeological evidence, which includes the remains of a second-century church found in the heart of the city.

Church development. Sandwiched between two opposing empires, Persian and Roman (the eastern half of which developed into Byzantium), Christian Edessa prospered. Home to one of the greatest theological centers in late antiquity, the church in Edessa and nearby Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey, near the Syrian border) nurtured scholars and monks, hermits and poets. This includes Mar Aprem, known today as St. Ephrem the Syrian.

From Edessa developed a family of eucharistic liturgies – celebrated in Aramaic – that, in a number of forms, is used today by more than 17 million Christians of the Syriac tradition, Catholic and Oriental Orthodox. One form of worship in particular, the Liturgy of Mar Addai and Mar Mari, preserves elements of the liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Those Christians who celebrated this liturgy eventually turned away from the world of Byzantium and looked East, placing themselves by the year 410 under the leadership of the metropolitan archbishop of the Persian capital city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

Commonly referred to as the Church of the East, this community at first remained in communion with the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, though it developed under the watchful eyes of the pagan Persians, who doubted the loyalty of the Church of the East.

Discord and schism. The early years of the church were tumultuous. Because the church became intimately linked to the state, especially in the Byzantine world, questions regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ were politicized. As the church embraced converts from the Greco-Roman and Semitic worlds, these Christological questions were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences. These issues, coupled with the frequent wars between Byzantium and Persia, compromised the position of the Church of the East. And by the late fifth century, the Church of the East parted ways with the rest of the Christian world:

  • A synod of the Church of the East in 410 confirmed the primacy of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon as “Catholicos of all the Orient” and equal to the sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch
  • In 424, the synod of the Church of the East asserted that their Catholicos-Patriarch was no longer subject to Antioch or Rome
  • The Church of the East gravitated toward a form of Christology – frequently described as “Nestorian” after Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople – condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431)
  • In 486, the Church of the East officially adopted Nestorian Christology and affirmed the right of priests and bishops to marry.

Growth and decline. Cut off from the rest of the church, the Church of the East nevertheless prospered. Its theological school in Nisibis became renowned throughout the Christian world. And its monks traveled deep into Asia, reaching as far as Japan. By the 14th century, the Church of the East spanned much of Asia, with some 30 metropolitan sees and more than 200 dioceses.

Church of the East missionaries formed communities throughout China as early as the seventh century. An eighth-century emperor and his court supported the “luminous doctrine” (as Christianity was known), sponsoring the construction of churches and monasteries throughout China. Dynastic troubles and war would ultimately destroy the Church of the East in China, but in 1608 the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, while traveling through China, reportedly encountered a faithful remnant of this once mighty church.

On the southwest coast of India (now the state of Kerala), Church of the East monks bolstered the isolated Christian community founded there by the Apostle Thomas, sending bishops to ordain priests and deacons and organize parishes. Eventually an Indian priest with the title of “Archdeacon of All India” would shepherd this apostolic community, which remained in full communion with the Church of the East, until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. Today their descendants number almost eight million believers, more than half of whom belong to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

The Arab conquest of the Persian empire in 634 did not jeopardize these developments. Accepted as “People of the Book” by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, the Catholicos-Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Timotheos I, moved his see to Baghdad in 780, only 14 years after it became the capital of the Muslim empire. Interested in learning, the Arabs turned to the scholars of the Church of the East, many of them alumni of the school in Nisibis. These scholars are responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy, which eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.

The violent invasions of the Mongols in the late 15th century, however, nearly wiped out this ancient Christian community. Those Christians of the Church of the East who escaped enslavement or death – calling themselves Assyrians – retreated into the mountains near Edessa, to a few obscure monasteries and villages.

Contact with the West. The Crusaders’ conquest of Byzantium’s capital of Constantinople in 1204, the subsequent development of Crusader states throughout the eastern Mediterranean and increased trade between Europe and Asia escalated contact between Assyrians and Catholics. Dominican and Franciscan friars worked among the vestiges of this church, bringing the Chaldeans of Cyprus (as they were known) into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1445. The canonical use of the term Chaldean dates to this union.

Contacts with Rome increased in the mid-16th century. A group of Assyrian bishops, objecting to the dynastic succession of the catholicosate held by one family, elected as patriarch a reluctant abbot, Yuhannan (John) Sulaka, sending him to Rome to seek reconciliation and recognition. Proclaimed Patriarch of the Chaldeans by Pope Julius III in April 1553, Sulaka returned to his homeland where he initiated a series of reforms. Opposed by a number of Assyrians, he was imprisoned, tortured and executed.

Sulaka’s death marked the beginning of two centuries of turmoil between anti-Catholic and pro-Catholic parties in the Church of the East, as families and factions jockeyed back and forth to achieve prominence. The papacy grew weary and perhaps confused as families switched loyalties, causing additional confusion when the terms Assyrian and Chaldean became interchangeable.

The papacy did not recognize a Catholic patriarch until 1830, when Rome confirmed Mosul Archbishop Yuhannan Hormizdas as Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans. With Hormizdas’s profession of faith, the Chaldean Church stabilized. For the next 85 years it strengthened its position at the expense of the Assyrian Church of the East, led by, ironically, a descendant of the first Catholic patriarch, who rejected communion with the Church of Rome.

While Assyrians and Chaldeans continued to share the same traditions and rites of the Church of the East inherited from Edessa and Nisibis, all references to Nestorius and his alleged Christology were expunged from the liturgical books of the Chaldeans.

Near annihilation. During World War I, the Christians of Mesopotamia – Assyrians and Chaldeans, as well as Syriac Catholics and Orthodox – again found themselves caught between two opposing cultures at war, the Ottoman Turks, Sunni Muslims who had dominated the Arab world since the 15th century, and the Christian powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. Encouraged with promises of independence, these Christians supported the Allies in their great war with the Ottomans.

The consequences were grave. By 1918 the Turks had massacred more than 250,000 Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac Christians; it has been reported that perhaps one-third of the Assyrian community perished. Those not killed were deported or fled. Assyrians escaped to what is today southern Iraq. Chaldeans gathered around the ancient monasteries near Mosul. Syriac Catholics and Orthodox dispersed, seeking refuge in Beirut, Damascus and Mosul.

Modern developments. Modern Iraq (from the Arabic, al-iraq, meaning the shore or grazing area) is a creation of the Allied powers, who carved up the spoils of the Ottoman empire after its defeat in World War I. Placed under a British mandate by the League of Nations, Iraq was formed by uniting three former Ottoman provinces, bringing together in an uneasy union Arab and Kurdish Sunni Muslims, Arab Shiite Muslims and various Christian communities.

Despite decades of war, oppressive governments and economic instability, the Chaldean Church at first prospered. The seat of the patriarch moved from Mosul to Baghdad in 1950 as large numbers of Chaldeans settled in the capital. Well educated and industrious, the Chaldeans eventually constituted a significant portion of Iraq’s middle and professional classes. Large parish complexes comprised of churches, classrooms for catechesis, social halls and residences for the clergy and religious were built. Social service institutions, such as Baghdad’s St. Raphael and Al Hayat hospitals, served the poor, Christian and Muslim. St. Peter’s Patriarchal Seminary moved from Mosul to a prosperous Baghdad suburb in 1960.

Though Chaldeans began to emigrate from Iraq in the 1970’s, more than 147,000 Chaldeans have left since the conclusion of the first Gulf War in 1991. Crippled by the imposition of an economic embargo by the United Nations and now a vigorous insurgency following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many Chaldeans have found refuge in nearby Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (other Christians have also left).

Today the largest concentration of Chaldeans, led by Patriarch Emmanuel III, remains in Baghdad (approximately 140,000 people). There are 9 additional eparchies in Iraq, numbering some 100,000 Chaldeans, 4 eparchies in Iran and 4 in the rest of the Middle East.

Some 125,000 Chaldeans – most of them of Iraqi descent – have settled in the United States, more than half in the last dozen years or so. Two eparchies, St. Thomas of the Chaldeans in Detroit and St. Peter the Apostle of the Chaldeans in San Diego, have been established to care for them. And while some U.S. Chaldeans eagerly keep abreast of developments back home, even voting in the recent elections, most intend to stay.

Ecumenical advances. There is some good news to report. Relations between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East have improved dramatically since a Common Christological Declaration was signed by the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in November 1994.

Meeting in Southfield, Michigan, in 1996, Mar Dinkha and his Chaldean counterpart at the time, Patriarch Raphael I, pledged to assist one another in addressing pastoral concerns, such as the drafting of a common catechism, the erection of a joint seminary for the formation of priests and the preservation of Aramaic – all in an effort to re-establish the unity of the Chaldean-Assyrian Church.

A year later, in Roselle, Illinois, the synods of both churches accepted each other’s diversities as legitimate and recognized the validity of one another’s orders and sacraments. Under consideration are plans to work toward reintegration of the two churches that will respect the Assyrians’ desire to retain autonomy while affirming full communion with the Church of Rome.

Chaldeans and Assyrians know that, in an increasingly homogenized world, only by working together and sharing resources will the rich legacy of Christian Mesopotamia prosper.

“At the dawn of a new millennium we have to realize that having established two jurisdictions within the frame of the legacy of the Church of the East has led gradually to the formation of two distinct communities,” writes Mar Sarhad Jammo, Chaldean Bishop of St. Peter the Apostle in San Diego.

“Therefore,” the bishop continues, “to restore this church to its primordial unity and to bring its Chaldean and Assyrian people to share, in a united nation, the same heritage and walk together toward a common destiny will require [us] to deal not only with theological and ecclesiastical matters, but with cultural and social issues as well.

“That is the challenge of our generation.”

Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of ONE magazine.

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