Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 1.5 million Christians accounted for nearly 6 percent of Iraq’s population, down from about 12 percent in the World War II-era. While hard figures are unavailable, fewer than 200,000 Christians — only 1 percent — remain in Iraq today. Many of these Christians are displaced Chaldeans, members of an ancient church who share the history and traditions of the Church of the East yet profess full communion with the church of Rome.
The word Chaldean identifies this Catholic community with an ancient people who once controlled Mesopotamia, the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq and portions of Syria and Turkey). 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.
This pedigree has not protected them for the ferocity unleashed in the Middle East, particularly in the last few decades, driving many Chaldeans to the West. In 1990, according to official Chaldean records, only 50,000 Chaldean Catholics lived in North America, shepherded by one bishop in a Detroit suburb. Today, nearly 200,000 Chaldean Catholics live on the continent, with bishops in Detroit, San Diego and Toronto.
Not just the cradle of civilization, 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. The early years of the church were tumultuous. Because the church became intimately linked to the state, especially in the Mediterranean 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 the eastern Roman (that is, Byzantium) and Persian empires, compromised the position of the church in Mesopotamia, which styled itself the “Church of the East.” As a result, by the late fifth century, this Church of the East parted ways with the rest of the Christian world.
Nevertheless, the Church of the East became renowned for its scholarship, especially in grammar, history, logic, mathematics, philosophy and theology. Arab Muslims, who conquered the Persian Empire in 634, employed church scholars, who are largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe.
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 nearly destroyed overnight when, 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. Those Christians who escaped death or enslavement retreated into the mountains, hunkering down in remote monasteries and mountainside villages.
Even as isolation intensified, pockets of the church came into contact with Latin Catholic missionaries. In 1445, friars received the Chaldeans (as they were known) living on the island of Cyprus into full communion with Rome. The use of “Chaldean” dates to this union. Subsequently, individual communities and families of the Church of the East formed pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic parties, marking centuries of turmoil as families and factions jockeyed back and forth.
The papacy did not recognize a Catholic patriarch until 1830, and for the next 150 years — despite the atrocities during World War I — the Chaldean Church strengthened its position at the expense of the Church of the East. The seat of the patriarch moved from Mosul to Baghdad in 1950 as large numbers of Chaldean Catholics settled in the capital. Well educated and industrious, the Chaldeans eventually constituted a significant portion of Iraq’s middle and professional classes.
While the unraveling of Iraq has decimated the nation’s Christian communities of all rites and traditions, it has intensified collaboration between the two historic churches; relations between the Chaldean Church and the Church of the East have improved dramatically.
Read here a full account of the Chaldean Church from ONE magazine.