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Assyrian Church of the East Symbol

The symbol of the Assyrian Church

The Holy Apostolic and Catholic Assyrian Church of the East under His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, is a Christian church that traces its origins to the See of Babylon, said to be founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle. It sometimes calls itself the Assyrian Orthodox Church, but should not be confused with the distinct Syriac Orthodox Church, which is an Oriental Orthodox body. In India, it is known as the Chaldean Syrian Church. In the West it is often known, inaccurately, as the Nestorian Church.

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The Assyrian Church is the original Christian church in what was once Parthia; today Iraq and western Iran. Geographically it stretched in the medieval period to China and India: a monument found in Xi'an (Hsi-an), the Tang-period capital of China (originally Chang'an), in Chinese and Syriac described the activities of the church in the 7th and 8th century, while half a millennium later a Chinese monk went from Beijing to Paris and Rome to call for a crusade with the Mongols against the Mamelukes. Prior to the Portuguese arrival in India in 1498, it provided "East Syrian" bishops to the Saint Thomas Christians. Patriarch Timothy I (727-823) wrote of the large Christian community in Tibet.

The foundations of Assyrian theology are Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, who taught at Antioch. The normative Christology of the Assyrian church was written by Babai the Great (551-628) and is clearly different from the accusations of dualism directed toward Nestorius: his main christological work is strikingly called the 'Book of the Union', and in it Babai teaches that the two qnome (essence) are unmingled but everlastingly united in the one parsopa (personality) of Christ.

Early history[]

The consolidation of the Church[]

Christian communities existed in the regions of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia as early as the second century. A council is known to have been held at Seleucia-Ctesiphon about 325 to deal with jurisdictional conflicts among the leading bishops. At a subsequent Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410 the Christian communities of Mesopotamia renounced all subjection to Antioch and the "Western" bishops and the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon assumed the rank of Catholicos.

  • J.-M. Fiey, Jalons pour une histoire de l'eglise en Iraq, (Louvain: Secretariat du CSCO, 1970).
  • M.-L. Chaumont, La Christianisation de l'empire Iranien, (Louvain: Peeters, 1988).

Schism with the Western Church[]

The Assyrian Church was split from the western churches as a result of the Nestorian schism in 431, but the theology of the Assyrian church cannot be defined as Nestorianism. Nestorius, a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia and bishop of Constantinople, was condemned because he refused to call the Virgin Mary 'mother of God'. He would only call her 'mother of Christ'. His opponent Cyril of Alexandria accused him of dividing Christ into two persons, which he clearly denied. The affair was complicated by the unclear arguments of Cyril, which soon after provoked the Monophysite schism.

Cyril of Alexandria worked hard to remove Nestorius and his supporters and followers from power. But in the Syriac-speaking world Theodore of Mopsuestia was held in very high esteem, and the condemnation of his pupil Nestorius was not received well. His followers were given refuge. The Persian kings, who were at constant war with Byzantium, saw the opportunity to assure the loyalty of their Christian subjects and supported the Nestorian schism:

  • They granted protection to Nestorians (462).
  • They executed the pro-Byzantine Catholicos Babowai who was then replaced by the Nestorian Bishop of Nisibis Bar Sauma (484).
  • They allowed the transfer of the school of Edessa to the Persian city Nisibis when the Byzantine emperor closed it for its Nestorian tendencies (489).

Subsequent history[]

At the time of the arrival of the Nestorian refugees from Edessa, the prelate was Babaeus or Babowai (sometimes also called 'Babai', not to be confused with 'Babai the Great') (457-484), who appears to have received them with open arms. But Bar Sauma, having become Bishop of Nisibis, the nearest important city to Edessa, broke with the weak Catholicos, whom he had deposed at the Synod of Beth Lapat in April, 484. In the same year Babowai was accused before the king of conspiring with Constantinople and cruelly put to death.

At the synod of Beth Lapat it was also decided that monks and all church dignitaries should marry. This led to apostasy and a weakening of spiritual life, and already by 544 some of the reforms had been reverted. The counter reforms reached their zenith in 571 when Abraham the Great of Kashkar founded a new monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisibis to revive the strict monastic movement, and Henana of Adiabene became head of the school of Nisibis. Henana then broke with the Antiochene tradition of Theodore and openly followed the teaching of Origen. Attempts by the Bishops to censor and condemn Henana failed because of his protection by the royal court and he remained head of the school, even though almost all the students left.

The wars of 610628 between the Persian and Byzantine empires weakened the political standing of the Assyrian church and several sees and villages were lost to the Monophysites. The Assyrian church was not allowed to choose a new Catholicos, and its theological tradition was undermined by Henana. Babai the Great together with Archdeacon Mar Aba administered the church without the authority vested in the position of the Catholicos. But in his official position as 'visitor of the monasteries of the north' Babai had the authority to investigate the orthodoxy of the monks and monasteries of northern Mesopotamia and to enforce discipline. In particular, he drove out married monks.

Babai the Great and his co-religionists worked hard to defend the legacy of Theodore: rival schools were set up in Nisibis and Balad, and the monastery of Mar Abraham, headed by Babai, took in a number of students from the school of Nisibis. Babai himself wrote a great number of commentaries and hagiographies to defeat the Monophysites and the Origenist Henana, and developed the only systematic Assyrian Christology. He taught that the two qnome (essence) are unmingled but everlastingly united in the one parsopa (personality) of Christ.

The defenders were successful: at the episcopal gathering of 612 the teachings of Theodore were canonized. Soon Babai's writings and Christology became normative, and the writings of Henana were doomed to oblivion. Assyrian monasticism was purged and gathered momentum. The church proved to be well organized during the Arab conquest that followed the Byzantine-Persian wars, and flourished for many centuries after.

Southern expansion[]

Assyrian Christians reached India at an early date, either overland or via the Persian Gulf. There they are popularly known as Saint Thomas Christians. Bishops from the Church of the East were sent from Mesopotamia to India until the Sixteenth Century, but ecclesio-political considerations related to Portuguese missions meant that for the next few centuries bishops for India were ordained only with authorization from Rome, or from the Chaldean Catholic Church (a particular church in communion with Rome). Those who sought independent ecclesiatical organization looked mainly to the Syrian Orthodox Church. During the Nineteenth Century, Christians in Trichur again sought the ordination of a native bishop under authority of the Church of the East. This resulted in the organization of the Chaldean Syrian Church. The present Metropolitan of India is Mar Aprem.

Eastern expansion[]

The Assyrian Church was the first Christian tradition to reach China (in 635), reaching Mongolia at about the same time, and its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi'an (Sai-an Fu), at that time the capital of China. An inscribed stone, set up in February, 781 at Chou-Chih (Pinyin, "Zhouzhi"), fifty miles to the south-west, describes the introduction of Christianity into China from Persia in the reign of Tang Taizong; see the entry for Nestorian Stele. However when Tang Wu Zong decided to suppress all foreign religions; Christianity largely ceased to exist in China. The church appears to have survived for a time, however, among the Uyghur, and even had a revival under the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty. A native of China was elected Patriarch as Yaballaha III in 1281, and his colleague Rabban Bar Sauma journeyed as far west as Gascony. A Fourteenth Century monument in the remains of the Monastery of the Cross at Zhoukoudian in the Fangshan District near Beijing can still be seen. In 2003, it was discovered that a single church body of the Assyrian Church still existed in China, cut off from any contact with its Patriarch for centuries.

Recent historical research indicates the presence of Christianity in Tibet in as early as the sixth and seventh centuries. A strong presence existed by the eighth century when Patriarch Timothy I (727-823) in 782 calls the Tibetans one of the more significant communities of the Church of the East and wrote of the need to appoint another bishop in ca. 794. ("The Church of the East in Central Asia," Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 78, no.3 (1996)).

Modern times[]

In the 15th century, the church decreed that the title of Patriarch could pass only to relatives of then-patriarch Mar Shimun IV. This upset many in the church's hierarchy, and in 1552 a rival Patriarch, Mar Yohanan Soulaqa VIII was elected. This rival Patriarch met with the Pope and entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The Assyrian Church now had two rival leaders, a hereditary patriarch in Alqosh (in modern-day northern Iraq), and a Papal-appointed patriarch in Diyarbakir (in modern-day eastern Turkey). This situation lasted until 1662 when the Patriarch in Diyarbakir, Mar Shimun XIII Denha, broke communion with Rome, resumed relations with the line at Alqosh, and moved his seat to the village of Qochanis in the Turkish mountains. The Vatican responded by appointing a new patriarch to Diyarbakir to govern the Assyrians who stayed loyal to the Holy See. This latter group became known as the Chaldean Catholic Church. In 1804 the hereditary line of Patriarchs in Alqosh died out, and that church's hierarchy decided to accept the authority of the Chaldean patriarchs. The line of patriarchs at Qochanis remained independent.

Assyrians faced reprisals under the Hashemite monarchy for co-operating with the British during the years after World War I, and most fled to the West. The Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, though born into the line of Patriarchs at Qochanis, was educated in Britain. For a time he sought a homeland for the Assyrians in Iraq but was forced to take refuge in Cyprus in 1933, later moving to Chicago, Illinois and finally settling near San Francisco. The present Patriarch of Babylon is based in Chicago, and less than 1 million of the world's 4.5 million Assyrians remain in Iraq.

The Chaldean community was less numerous at the time of the British Mandate of Palestine, and did not play a major role in the British rule of the country. However with the exodus of Assyrians, the Chaldean Catholic Church became the largest non-Muslim group in Iraq, and many later rose to power in the Ba'ath Party government, the most prominent being Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

In 1964, the issue of hereditary succession again caused a schism, with the subsequent election of Mar Thoma Darmo as a rival to the hereditary Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII. Mar Shimun resigned in 1973, and was assassinated in 1975 during negotiations over his possible reinstatement. Mar Dinkha IV was elected as Shimun's successor, and announced the permanent end of the hereditary succession. While this removes the underlying dispute, the rift between the rival Patriarchs still exists, with Mar Addai as the successor to Mar Thomas Darmo at the head of a group called the Ancient Church of the East.

On November 11, 1994, an historic meeting of Mar Dinkha IV and Catholic Pope John Paul II took place in the Vatican and a Common Christological Declaration was signed. One side effect of this meeting was that the Assyrian Church's relationship to the Chaldean Catholic Church was improved.


There are three archdioceses in the Assyrian Church, one for Lebanon, Syria, and Europe, another for India, and the last serves Iraq and Russia. Individual dioceses exist in the eastern United States (including Chicago), western United States, eastern California, Canada, Syria, Iran, Europe, and one for both Australia and New Zealand. Several congregations exist in Georgia, India, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. A single parish exists in the People's Republic of China, whose existence stretches back to antiquity, and another in Moscow. The present Patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, has his headquarters (along with four other houses of worship) in Chicago, Illinois, United States.

See also[]

  • Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East
  • List of Christian denominations
  • List of Christian denominations by number of members
  • List of Patriarchs of Babylon
  • Nestorianism in China

External links[]

This article was forked from Wikipedia on March 28, 2006.

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