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The Church of the East

Mesopotamia — from the Greek meaning, “land between the rivers” — is the cradle of civilization. There, the development of agriculture and commerce, law and government, the arts, cities, culture, written language and the division of labor and skilled trades converged, creating the world’s first complex human society. While this cradle roughly corresponds to modern-day Iraq, Mesopotamia included all of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, which extends from eastern Turkey to northeastern Syria and southwestern Iran.

It is less commonly known that Mesopotamia is also the cradle of the Christian faith. In its fertile soil, the seeds of Christianity took root quickly and eventually spread like wildflowers throughout Asia, reaching Afghanistan, China, India and Mongolia.

The Church of the East, the community of faith whose missionaries took the Gospel East via the Silk Road, has all but vanished. Today, a handful of communities — calling themselves Assyrians — survive in India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. But the head of the church, Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, leads his community of some 400,000 people not from the Fertile Crescent, but from a Chicago suburb. While more than a third of those who belong to the Church of the East live in North America, the fastest growing Assyrian community is in Australia.

Patrimony. Assyrian Christians consider themselves the descendants of the indigenous Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia: Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean. The destinies of these peoples and their neighbors to the West — the Jews — are intricately woven together. Based in Nineveh, near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, the ancient Assyrians waged war on the Israelites, forcing tribute from the king of Judah. The prophet Jeremiah also prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and the subsequent exile of the Jews in Babylon.

Some five centuries before Christ, Cyrus the Great conquered Mesopotamia and established a Persian empire that, for more than 1,200 years, linked the East with the Greco-Roman culture of the West. The Persians established their capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the banks of the Tigris (near modern Baghdad) and employed Aramaic as the administrative language of the domain. Eventually, Aramaic, with its many dialects and variants, became the lingua franca of the Middle East, supplanting even Hebrew among the Jews.

The origins of the Christian faith in Persian Mesopotamia are obscure. Some credit St. Thomas the Apostle with evangelizing the region’s Jewish merchant communities as he traveled to India. An ancient legend recorded by the fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, connects a sickly king of Edessa to Christ, who promised to send a disciple after his ascension. The Apostle Thomas sent Addai (Aramaic for Thaddeus, perhaps one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, who consequently cured the king and established the church.

That Edessa is the likely source of the faith in Mesopotamia is supported by historic and linguistic evidence: the Aramaic dialect of Edessa, commonly called Syriac, became the literary language of the non-Greek-speaking Christian community throughout the region.

Development. By the fourth century, Syriac Christianity flourished within Roman- and Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. For centuries, these archrivals clashed, jockeying for control of the Fertile Crescent. Home to two of the greatest intellectual centers in late antiquity, the Mesopotamian cities of Edessa and Nisibis nurtured scholars and monks, hermits and poets. Among them is the great theologian, St. Ephrem the Syrian.

From Edessa developed a family of liturgies — celebrated in Syriac — that is used today in a number of forms by more than 15 million Christians of the Syriac tradition in as many as 10 different churches. One form, the Anaphora of Mar Addai and Mar Mari, includes elements of the Jewish tradition, such as its eucharistic prayer, which stems from the Jewish prayer of thanksgiving after meals. Curiously, this eucharistic prayer does not include the institution narrative.

While Syriac Christians within the eastern Roman Empire participated in the great Christological debates of the fourth through seventh centuries, Persia’s Syriac Christians developed independently. By the year 410, the bishop of the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon emerged as the senior hierarch of the Persian church, assuming the title of catholicos then patriarch.

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. Yet, it grew under the watchful eyes of the Sassanid Persians — followers of the prophet Zoroaster — who suspected the church of harboring loyalties to Byzantium.

Long after Christianity received state support in Armenia and Byzantium, Persian Christians suffered bouts of persecution, forcing them to look away from the world of Christian Byzantium and its ecumenical councils.

Schism. As the church embraced converts from the Greco-Roman and Semitic worlds, theological questions regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ, compounded by cultural and linguistic differences, assumed political importance. These issues, coupled with the frequent wars between Byzantium and Persia, compromised the position of the Church of the East.

  • In 410, the synod of the Church of the East accepted the findings of the Council of Nicea (325), confirmed the primacy of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon as catholicos of all the East and declared his see to be equal with that of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch.
  • In 424, the synod of the Church of the East asserted that the catholicos-patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was no longer subject to Antioch or Rome.
  • The Church of the East held to an understanding of Christ — developed in the Syrian city of Antioch by the theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia and espoused by his student, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople — that the Council of Ephesus (431) had condemned.
  • In 462, Persia’s leaders, at war with Byzantium, received the Byzantine Empire’s “Nestorian” refugees, executed the pro-Byzantine catholicos and in 484 installed as catholicos another student of Theodore, Bar Sauma.
  • In 484, Catholicos-Patriarch Bar Sauma called a synod that formally adopted Nestorian Christology and affirmed the right of priests and bishops to marry.
  • In 489, soon after the Byzantine emperor shuttered the theological school of Edessa because of its sympathies with the teachings of Theodore and Nestorius, the Persian emperor reopened it in Nisibis.

Growth. Though cut off from the rest of the church, the Church of the East prospered. Nisibis, its intellectual center, became renowned throughout the Christian world for its scholarly activity, including major advances in the fields of grammar, history, logic, mathematics, philosophy and theology. The Arab Muslim conquest of the Persian Sassanid Empire in 634 did not jeopardize these developments.

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 largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, one of the most prominent figures in all of Eastern Christian spirituality, entered monastic life in the Church of the East from his home in the Persian Gulf. Later installed as bishop of Nineveh, the saint’s works have been translated into Arabic, Ge’ez and Greek, influencing especially the spirituality of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.

Monks of the Church of the East traveled deep into Asia, preaching the Gospel and building Christian communities in what is today Kazakhstan and neighboring central Asian republics, Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent, Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan.

According to a stele found in the former imperial Chinese capital of Chang’an, the Emperor Taizong formally recognized monks of the Church of the East in 635. Constructed in January 781 during the reign of the Tang Dynasty, considered the zenith of Chinese culture and power, the Chinese and Syriac text etched on the stele also celebrates the accomplishments of the “luminous doctrine” (as Christianity was known) and refers to the numerous communities established throughout China.

In the middle of the 13th century, two monks of the Church of the East left their native Beijing for Jerusalem. But on account of war, Rabban Marcos and his mentor, Rabban Bar Sauma, never reached their destination. Perhaps of mixed Turkic and Mongolian ethnicity, the two were detoured to Baghdad where, in 1281, Rabban Marcos was elected catholicos-patriarch. He then named his travel companion and mentor to be his ambassador to Europe. Bar Sauma, who visited a number of royal courts and was received by Pope Nicholas IV, recorded his European travels in a book that observes the continent at a pivotal time.

Dynastic troubles and war would ultimately destroy the Church of the East in China. But in the 17th century, the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, reportedly encountered a faithful remnant of this once mighty community as he traveled through the Far East.

Monks of the Church of the East bolstered the Christian community founded by the Apostle Thomas along India’s southwest coast (now the state of Kerala), sending bishops to ordain priests and deacons and organize parishes as early as the fourth century. The head of the Church of the East in India, which had considerable autonomy, occupied a senior place in the church’s hierarchy and held the title of metropolitan and gate of all India. Real jurisdiction, however, was exercised by an Indian priest who was titled archdeacon of all India.

India’s Thomas Christians did not interpret their communion with the Church of the East as separate from communion with the universal church. The arrival of the Portuguese in 1498, however, challenged this point of view. Today, India’s Thomas Christians number almost nine million souls. But they are divided into six jurisdictions, including a tiny group that remains in full communion with the Church of the East.

At its height in the 14th century, the Church of the East spanned most of Asia and included some 30 metropolitan sees and more than 200 eparchies. But the church’s successes were short-lived.

Decline. The Church of the East’s long isolation from the rest of the Christian world quickly ended with the Crusades, which began in the late 11th century. The rise of Crusader states, the Latin Catholic capture of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1204 and increased trade between Asians and Europeans disrupted the well-defined and stratified roles of the region’s Muslim majority and its Christian and Jewish minorities.

Eager to restore the unity of the church and extend the influence of the papacy, Dominicans and Franciscans worked among the eastern Mediterranean’s Eastern churches, many of which embraced the Latin friars as brothers. In 1445, the Chaldeans of Cyprus (as island members of the Church of the East were then called) entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. The association of the region’s Eastern Christians with Europeans have had lasting affects, which continue to be felt to this day.

The near deathblow for the Eastern churches came, not from the West, but from the East. At the end of the 14th century, Timur the Lame and his army invaded the Middle East, sacked its cities, massacred the inhabitants and leveled what remained. Timur did not single out Christians, who were nearly annihilated. Nominally a Muslim, Timur’s bloodthirsty devastation of Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad earned him condemnation from Islamic leaders, who labeled him an enemy of Islam.

Those Christians who escaped death or enslavement retreated into the mountains near Edessa, hunkering down in remote monasteries and mountainside villages. Isolation intensified, poverty set in and generation after generation of Christians of all denominations either abjured their Christian faith and embraced Islam or entered into full communion with Rome as contact with the Latin Church increased in the mid-16th century.

For more than two centuries, anti-Catholic and pro-Catholic parties within the Church of the East competed for prominence and position. Though the papacy grew frustrated as parties and families switched loyalties, Rome eventually recognized a Catholic patriarch in 1830, confirming Archbishop Yuhannan Hormizdas of Mosul as patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans. With his profession of faith, the Catholic Chaldean Church stabilized and for the next 85 years it strengthened its position at the expense of the Church of the East. And while the two churches continued to share the same rites and traditions inherited from Edessa and Nisibis, all references to Nestorius and his alleged unorthodox Christology were wiped out of the liturgical books of the Chaldeans.

Disaster. Europe’s colonial quests and the gradual decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire (which governed the eastern Mediterranean, including Mesopotamia, since the 15th century) coincided with the rise of nationalism among its peoples. In 1895-96, some 25,000 Christians — Armenian, Assyro- Chaldean and Syriac — were murdered for suspected separatist sentiments.

During World War I, the sultan’s Christian subjects found themselves caught further between two opposing cultures at war — their Sunni Muslim rulers and the “Christian” powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. Encouraged by the Allies, who offered vague promises of independence, Christian subjects of the Ottoman sultan turned against his government. Consequences were grave.

In what is described in Syriac as the Year of the Sword, up to a third of those who belonged to the Church of the East (or Assyrians, a term coined then by the British) perished between 1914 and 1918. In a report issued after the war, the Assyro-Chaldean National Council estimated that up to 250,000 people died. Survivors fled to the British-held cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

But in 1933, as the British concluded their mandate in Iraq, clashes between troops loyal to the Hashemite king of Iraq and Assyrians who advocated an Assyro-Chaldean homeland resulted in another massacre and a further dispersion of the community, primarily to North America. Iraqi authorities stripped Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Simon XXIII of his citizenship and deported him. Elected at the age of 11 following the murder of his uncle — since the mid-15th century, the office of catholicos-patriarch passed from uncle to nephew — Mar Simon eventually settled in Chicago. Later, he moved the patriarchate to northern California, where in 1975 he was assassinated, reportedly by an Assyrian nationalist.

Today. In the 1960’s, a dispute divided the Church of the East. Triggered by Mar Simon’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar, his opponents disagreed with his decision to remain in North America as well as the manner of his election.

Those who opposed Mar Simon elected the Assyrian metropolitan of India as catholicos-patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East in 1968. Now led by Mar Addai II from Baghdad, this church includes eight jurisdictions scattered throughout the Middle East, Europe, North America and Oceania.

The election in 1976 of Mar Simon’s successor, Mar Dinkha IV, the former bishop of Tehran, ended the patriarchal dynasty that led to the rift. While the two groups have yet to reconcile, significant progress has been made.

Meanwhile, relations between the Church of the East and the Catholic Chaldean Church have improved since a Common Christological Declaration was signed by Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in November 1994.

In a meeting in Southfield, Michigan, two years later, Mar Dinkha and Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I pledged to assist one another in addressing shared 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 the Syriac language. The following year, the synods of both churches gathered in Roselle, Illinois, where they accepted each other’s diversities as legitimate and recognized the validity of one another’s orders and sacraments.

The two churches have also explored the possibility of reintegrating as a unified Assyro-Chaldean church that would respect the Church of the East’s desire to retain autonomy and affirm full communion with the Church of Rome.

War and emigration have nearly decimated the presence of the church in the cradle of civilization. Yet, the sufferings of the Church of the East have brought to light not just the very existence of this ancient apostolic community, but the richness of a tradition that unknowingly influenced the cultures and churches of the West.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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