The Assyrian Church of the East (Classical Syriac: ܥܕܬܐ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ ܕܐܬܘܖ̈ܝܐ ʻĒdtā d-Madenḥā d-Ātorāyē), officially the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East (ʻEdtā Qaddīštā wa-Šlīḥāitā Qātolīqī d-Madenḥā d-Ātorāyē), is an Eastern Christian Church that follows the traditional christology and ecclesiology of the historical Church of the East. It belongs to the eastern branch of Syriac Christianity, and uses the East Syrian Rite in its liturgy. Its main spoken language is Syriac, a dialect of Eastern Aramaic, and the majority of its adherents are ethnic Assyrians. It is officially headquartered in the city of Erbil in northern Iraq, and its original area also spreads into south-eastern Turkey and north-western Iran, corresponding to ancient Assyria. Since 2015, the primate of the Assyrian Church of the East is Catholicos-Patrarch Gewargis III.
The Assyrian Church of the East claims continuity with the historical Church of the East. It has a traditional episcopal structure, headed by the Catholicos-Patriarch. Its hierarchy is composed of metropolitan bishops and diocesan bishops, while lower clergy consists of priests and deacons, who serve in dioceses (eparchies) and parishes throughout the Middle East, India, North America, Oceania, and Europe (including the Caucasus and Russia).
The Assyrian Church of the East considers itself as the continuation of the Church of the East, a church that originally developed among the Assyrians during the first century AD in Assyria, Upper Mesopotamia and northwestern Persia (aka Iran) to the east of the Byzantine Empire – areas where the Assyrian people spoke Assyrian language the Eastern Dialect. A Mesopotamian Language. It is an Apostolic church established by Thomas the Apostle, Thaddeus of Edessa, and Bartholomew the Apostle. Saint Peter, chief of the apostles, added his blessing to the Church of the East at the time of his visit to the See at Babylon in the earliest days of the church when stating, "The elect church which is in Babylon, salutes you; and Mark, my son." (1 Peter 5:13).
The historical distinctiveness of the Assyrian Church of the East resulted from the series of complex processes and events that occurred within the Church of the East during the transitional period that started in the middle of the 16th century, and lasted until the beginning of the 19th century. That turbulent period was marked by several consequent splits and mergers, resulting in the creation of separate branches and rival patriarchal lines. During the entire period, one of the main questions of dispute was the union with the Catholic Church. Ultimately, pro-Catholic branches were consolidated as the Chaldean Catholic Church, while traditional branches were consolidated as the Assyrian Church of the East.
During the patriarchal tenure of Shemon VII Ishoyahb (1539–1558), who resided in the ancient Rabban Hormizd Monastery near Alqosh, an internal dissent occurred over several issues, including the question of hereditary succession to the patriarchal throne, and the question of union with the Catholic Church. By that time, Franciscan missionaries had already gained some influence over several local communities, and they took an active role in organizing the opposition to the current patriarch. By the end of 1552, pro-Catholic party was organized in Mosul under the leadership of priest Yohannan Sulaqa, who decided to legitimize his position by traveling to Rome and seeking confirmation by Pope Julius III (1550–1555). Receiving support from the Franciscan missionaries, he arrived in Rome and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in February 1553. At that point, officials of the Roman Curia were given an incorrect information that elderly patriarch Shemon VII has actually died. After some deliberation, the pope decided to appoint Yohannan Sulaqa as "Patriarch of Babylon" in April 1553.
Upon consecration, Yohannan Sulaqa took the name Shimun and by the end of the year he returned to the homeland and started to organize pro-Catholic party by appointing several metropolitans and bishops, thus establishing the first group of hierarchs in the newly created Eastern Catholic Patriarchate of Mosul. That was the seminal event in the early history of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Creation of the separate Eastern-Catholic hierarchy was not welcomed by the traditionalist patriarch Shemon VII and thus an ecclesiastical rivalry between two parties was born, lasting for decades and centuries. Initial splits and conflicts affected both communities, and marked the beginning of a long series of splits and mergers within both branches.
Union with Rome was actively opposed by traditionalist patriarch Shemon VII Ishoyahb (1539–1558), who continued to reside in the Rabban Hormizd Monastery near Alqosh. He was succeeded by his nephew Eliya (1558-1591), who was designated as Eliya "VII" in older historiography, but renumbered as Eliya "VI" in recent scholarly works. The same renumbering was applied to his successors, who all took the same name thus creating the Eliya line. During his patriarchal rule, the Eliya line preserved its traditional christology and full ecclesiastical independence. His successor was patriarch Eliya (VII) VIII (1591–1617), who negotiated on several occasions with the Catholic Church, in 1605 and 1610, and again in 1615-1616, but without final conclusion. Further negotiations were abandoned by the next patriarch Eliya (VIII) IX (1617–1660). David Wilmshurst noted that his successor, patriarch Eliya (IX) X (1660–1700) also was a "vigorous defender of the traditional faith".
The Eliya line of traditionalist patriarchs continued throughout the entire 18th century, residing in the ancient Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, that was eventually attacked and looted in 1743, at the beginning of the Ottoman-Persian War (1743-1746). Faced with centuries old rivalry and frequent conflicts between two mighty Islamic empires (Ottoman and Persian), all Christian communities in bordering regions were constantly exposed to dangers, not only in the times of war, since local, mainly Kurdish warlords were accustomed to attacking Christian communities and monasteries. Patriarchs Eliya (X) XI (1700–1722) and Eliya (XI) XII (1722–1778) tried to improve the increasingly worsening position of their Christian flock by staying loyal to Ottoman authorities, but local administration was frequently unable to provide effective protection. The Eliya line of traditionalist patriarchs ended in 1804, with the death of Eliya (XII) XIII (1778-1804).
During the second half of the 16th century, traditionalist patriarchs of the Eliya line were faced with continuous presence of pro-Catholic movement, led by successors of Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa. After his death in 1555, newly established line of patriarchs united with the Catholic Church was continued by Abdisho IV Maron (1555-1570) who remained in full communion with the Catholic Church. He visited Rome and was officially confirmed by the pope in 1562. Soon after his death, connections with Rome were weakened for the first time during the tenure of patriarch Yahballaha V who did not seek confirmation from the pope. That interlude was ended by his successor Shimun IX Dinkha (1580-1600) who restored full communion with the Catholic Church, and was officially confirmed by the pope in 1584.
After his death, patriarchal office was made hereditary, while patriarchs of this line continued to use the name Shimun, thus creating the Shimun line. Hereditary succession was not acceptable for the Rome, and during the tenure of the next patriarch Shimun X Eliyah (1600-1638) ties with Catholic Church were loosened again. In 1616, Shimun X signed traditional profession of faith that was not accepted by the pope, leaving the patriarch without confirmation. Hes successor Shimun XI Eshuyow (1638–1656) restored communion with the Catholic Church as late as 1653, eventually receiving confirmation from the pope. By that time, tendencies towards full commitment to the traditional faith were constantly growing stronger within the Shimun line. When the next patriarch Shimun XII Yoalaha decided to send his profession of faith to the pope, he was deposed by his bishops because of his pro-Catholic attitude. The pope tried to intervene on his behalf, but without success.
Final resolution of conflicted tendencies within the Shimun line occurred under the next patriarch Shimun XIII Dinkha (1662-1700), who definitively broke communion with the Catholic Church. In 1670, he gave a traditionalist reply to an approach that was made from the pope, and by 1672 all connections with the Catholic Church were ended. At the same time, patriarch Shimun XIII moved his seat from Amid to Qochanis. After the final return to the traditional faith, patriarchs of the Shimun line decided to keep their independence, and since that time there were two independent lines of traditional patriarchs, the senior Eliya line in Alqosh, and the junior Shimun line in Qochanis.
Such division was additionally caused by complex structure of local Assyrian communities, traditionally organized as tribal confederations, with each tribe being headed by a local lord (malik), while each malik was ultimately subjected to the patriarch, who mediated between Assyrian Christians and the Ottoman authorities. In spite of the prolonged rivalry between two patriarchal lines, they often faced similar problems and during the 18th century occasional cooperation was achieved, paving the way for the restoration of unity.
In 1780, at the beginning of the patriarchal tenure of Eliya (XII) XIII (1778-1804), a group seceded from the Eliya line in Alqosh, and elected Yohannan Hormizd who entered full communion with the Catholic Church and was officially appointed Archbishop of Mosul and patriarchal administrator of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in 1783. Only after death of the last representative of the Josephite line Joseph V Augustine Hindi in 1827, Yohannan was recognized as the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch by the Pope, in 1830. By this official appointment, final merger of various fractions committed to the union with the Catholic Church was achieved, thus forming the modern Chaldean Catholic Church.
At the same time, long coexistence and rivalry between two traditionalist patriarchal branches, the senior Eliya line of Alqosh and the junior Shimun line of Qochanis, ended in 1804 when last primate of the Eliya line, patriarch Eliya (XII) XIII died and was buried in the ancient Rabban Hormizd Monastery. His branch decided not to elect new patriarch, thus enabling the remaining patriarch Shimun XVI Yohannan (1780-1820) of the Shimun line to become the sole primate of Assyrian traditionalist branches. Consolidated after 1804, the reunited traditionalist church led by patriarchs of the Shimun line became widely known as the Assyrian Church of the East. Still based in Qodchanis, Assyrian patriarch Shimun XVI Yohannan was not able to secure control over the traditional seat of the former Eliya line in ancient Rabban Hormizd Monastery, and around 1808 that venerated monastic institution passed to the Chaldean Catholics.
Next Assyrian patriarch Shimun XVII Abraham (1820-1861) also led his church from Qodshanis. In years marked by political turbulence, he tried to maintain good relations with local Ottoman authorities. In 1843, he was faced with renewed hostilities from Kurdish warlords, who attacked and looted many Christian villages, killing 10,000 Christian men and taking away women and children as captives. Patriarch himself was forced to take temporary refuge in Mosul. He was succeeded by patriarch Shimun XVIII Rubil (1861-1903) who also resided in Qodshanis. In 1869, he received an open invitation from the Vatican to visit Rome and attend the First Vatican Council as an observer, but he did not accept the invitation, In following years, he also rejected other initiatives for the union with the Catholic Church.
By the end of 19th century, the Assyrian Church of the East consolidated itself as sole representative of all traditionalist Assyrians. It also managed to secure a certain level of autonomy within highly complex system of Ottoman local governance in the bordering regions. On several occasions, Assyrian patriarchs refused to enter communion with the Catholic Church or merge with the Chaldean Catholic Church. On the other side, by the end of 19th century some of its communities were converted to Protestantism by various western missionaries, while other communities were drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. That movement was led by Assyrian bishop Mar Yonan of Supurghan in the region of Urmia, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1898, through the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Urmia. Activities of foreign missions among Assyrians represented not only religious, but also a political challenge, since Ottoman authorities were very suspicious of any foreign presence among their Christian subjects.
After all the tragedies and schisms which thinned the church out, no other was as severe as the Assyrian genocide. At this point the Assyrian Church of the East was based in the mountains of Hakkari, and had been since 1681. During 1915 The Young Turks invaded the region despite their plea of neutrality during the Caucasus Campaign by Russia and their Armenian allies out of fear of an Assyrian independence movement. In response to this, Assyrians of all denominations (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and Assyrian Protestants) entered into a war of independence and allied themselves with the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire and the Armenians against the Ottomans and their Islamic Kurdish, Iranian and Arab allies. Despite the odds, the Assyrians fought successfully against the Ottomans and their allies for three years throughout south eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north western Iran and north eastern Syria until they were abandoned by their allies, the Russian Empire and the First Republic of Armenia, due to the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Armenian defense, leaving the Assyrians vastly outnumbered, surrounded, and cut off from supplies of ammunition and food. During this period their see at Qodchanis was completely destroyed, and the Turks and their Islamic allies massacred all of the Assyrians in the Hakkari mountains. Those who survived fled into Iran with what remained of the Assyrian defense under Agha Petros, where they were pursued into Iranian territory despite the fact they were fleeing. later on in 1918, after the murder of their de facto leader and Patriarch Shimun XXI Benyamin and 150 of his followers during a negotiation, and fearing further massacres at the hands of the Turks and Kurds, most of the survivors fled from Iran into what was to become Iraq by train, seeking protection under the British mandate there, and joined the already existing indigenous Assyrian communities of both Eastern, Orthodox and Catholic rites in the north and formed communities in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, etc.
Assyrians were some of the British Administrations most loyal subjects, and so they employed Assyrian troops ("Iraq Levies") to put down Arab and Kurdish rebellions in the aftermath of World War I and to protect the Turkish and Iranian borders of British Iraq from invasion. In consequence, Assyrians of all Christian denominations endured persecution under the Hashemites, culminating in the Simele massacre in 1933, leading thousands to flee to the West, in particular to the United States. Patriarch Shimun XXIII Eshai himself went into exile in 1940–1941 and relocated the patriarchate to Chicago which became the centre of the Assyrian–Chaldean–Syriac diaspora. However, the Assyrians who remained continued to work alongside the British, even playing a major role in bringing down the pro-Nazi Iraqi forces during World War II, and remaining attached to British forces until 1955.
During this period the British-educated Patriarch Shimun XXIII Eshai, born into the line of Patriarchs at Qodchanis, agitated for an independent Assyrian state. Following the end of the British mandate in 1933 and a massacre of Assyrian civilians at Simele by the Iraqi Army, the Patriarch was forced to take refuge in Cyprus. There, Shimun petitioned the League of Nations regarding his peoples' fate, but to little avail, and he was consequently barred from entering Syria and Iraq. He travelled through Europe before moving to Chicago in 1940 to join the growing Assyrian–Chaldean–Syriac community there.
Due to the Church and the Assyrian community in generals disorganized state as a result of the conflicts of the 20th century, Patriarch Shimun XXIII Eshai was forced to reorganize the church's structure in the United States. He transferred his residence to San Francisco in 1954, and was able to travel to Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, and India, where he worked to strengthen the church.
In 1964 he decreed a number of changes to the church, including liturgical reform, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, and the shortening of Lent. These changes, combined with Shimun's long absence from Iraq, caused a rift in the community there which led to another schism. In 1968 traditionalists within the church elected Thoma Darmo as a rival patriarch to Shimun XXIII Eshai, forming the independent Ancient Church of the East, based in Baghdad, Iraq.
In 1972, Shimun decided to step down as Patriarch, and the following year, he married, in contravention to longstanding church custom. This led to a synod in 1973 in which further reforms were introduced, most significantly of which included the permanent abolition of hereditary succession- a practice introduced in the middle of the fifteenth century by the patriarch Shemʿon IV Basidi who had died in 1497); however, it was decided that Shimun should be reinstated. This matter was to be settled at additional synods in 1975, however Shimun was assassinated by an estranged relative before this could take place.
In 1976, Dinkha IV was elected as Shimun XXIII Eshai's successor. The 33-year-old Dinkha had previously been Metropolitan of Tehran, and operated his see there until the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. Thereafter, Dinkha IV went into exile in the United States, and transferred the patriarchal see to Chicago. Much of his patriarchate had been concerned with tending to the Assyrian–Chaldean–Syriac diaspora community and with ecumenical efforts to strengthen relations with other churches. On 26 March 2015, Dinkha IV died in the United States, leaving the Assyrian Church of the East in a period of sede vacante until 18 September 2015, during which Aprem Mooken served as the custodian of the Patriarchate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
On 18 September 2015, the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East elected the Metropolitan of Iraq, Jordan and Russia, Warda Sliwa, to succeed the late Dinkha IV as Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East. On 27 September 2015, he was consecrated as Catholicos-Patriarch in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist, in Erbil, Iraq. Upon his consecration, he assumed the ecclesiastical name Gewargis III.
Church leaders have proposed moving the patriarchal see from Chicago back to Erbil.
There have also been talks of reunification. In the Common Christological Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East in 1994, the two churches recognised the legitimacy and rightness of each other's titles for Mary.
Theologically, the Assyrian Church of the East still adheres to the Church of the East's traditional christology, that is often labeled as nestorian. The use and exact meaning of that term was the subject of many debates, not only throughout history but also in modern times, since the Assyrian Church of the East has distinctive views on several christological questions and claims that its theological doctrines and traditions are essentially orthodox, while admitting the need for further inter-Christian dialog that would resolve various questions in the field of comparative christological terminology. Unlike most other churches that trace their origins to antiquity, the modern Assyrian Church of the East is not in communion with any other church.
The Nestorian nature of Assyrian Christianity remains a matter of contention. Elements of the Nestorian doctrine were explicitly repudiated by Patriarch Dinkha IV on the occasion of his accession in 1976.
The Christology of the Church of the East has its roots in the Antiochene theological tradition of the early Church. The founders of Assyrian theology are Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, both of whom taught at Antioch. 'Antiochene' is a modern designation given to the style of theology associated with the early Church at Antioch, as contrasted with the theology of the church of Alexandria.
Antiochene theology emphasised Christ's humanity and the reality of the moral choices he faced. In order to preserve the impassibility of Christ's Divine Nature, the unity of His person was defined in a looser fashion than in the Alexandrian tradition. The normative Christology of the Assyrian church was written by Babai the Great (551–628) during the controversy that followed the 431 Council of Ephesus. Babai held that within Christ there exist two γνώμη (essences or hypostases), unmingled, but everlastingly united in the one prosopon(personality).
The precise Christological teachings of Nestorius are shrouded in obscurity. Wary of monophysitism, Nestorius rejected Cyril's theory of a hypostatic union, proposing instead a union of will. Nestorianism has come to mean radical dyophysitism, in which Christ's dual natures are eternally separate, though it is doubtful whether Nestorius ever taught such a doctrine. Nestorius' rejection of the term Theotokos ('God-bearer', or 'Mother of God') has traditionally been held as evidence that he asserted the existence of two persons – not merely two natures – in Jesus Christ, but there exists no evidence that Nestorius denied Christ's oneness. In the controversy that followed the Council of Ephesus, the term 'Nestorian' was applied to all upholding a strictly Antiochene Christology. In consequence the Church of the East was labelled 'Nestorian', though its theology is not dyophysite.
The church employs the Syriac dialect of Eastern Aramaic in its liturgy, the East Syrian Rite, which includes three anaphoras, attributed to Thaddeus (Addai) and Mari, Theodore of Mopsuestia and later also Nestorius.
The Assyrian Church of the East does not currently make large use of icons, but they are present in its tradition. A Nestorian Peshitta Gospel book written in Estrangela, from the 13th century, currently resided at the State Library of Berlin. This illustrated manuscript from northern Mesopotamia or Tur Abdin proves that in the 13th century the church was not yet aniconic. Another Nestorian Gospel manuscript preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which contains an illustration that depicts Jesus Christ (not a crucifix) in the circle of a ringed cross (in the form of celtic cross) surrounded by four angels. Moreover, a life-size male stucco figure discovered in a church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon from the late 6th century. Beneath this church are found the remains of an earlier church. Although it cannot be determined which Nestorian church was involved, the discovery nevertheless proves that the Church of the East also used figurative representations.
The Church is governed by an episcopal polity, which is the same as other apostolic churches. The church maintains a system of geographical parishes organized into dioceses and archdioceses. The Catholicos-Patriarch is the head of the church. The Synod comprises Bishops who oversee individual dioceses, and Metropolitans who oversee episcopal dioceses in their territorial jurisdiction.
The Chaldean Syrian Church, which encompasses India and the Persian Gulf, is the largest diocese of the church. Its history goes back to the Church of the East that established a presence in Kerala, but the two communities maintained only a sporadic connection for several centuries, and consistent relations were only established with the arrival of the Portuguese in India around 1500. The church is represented by the Assyrian Church of the East and is in communion with it.
The current hierarchy and dioceses is as follows. The patriarchal seat was moved several times throughout history. Up to the 1804, patriarchs of the senior Eliya line resided in the ancient Rabban Hormizd Monastery, while patriarchs of the junior Shimun line resided in the cathedral church of Mar Shallita, in the village of Qudshanis in the Hakkari mountains of the Ottoman Empire, and continued to do so up to the First World War. After the beginning of conflict in 1915, the Patriarchs temporarily resided between Urmia and Salmas, and from 1918 the patriarchs resided in Mosul. After the Simele massacre of 1933, the then Patriarch Shimun XXIII Eshai was exiled to Cyprus due to his agitation for independence. In 1940 he was welcomed to the United States where he set up his residence in Chicago, and administrated the United States and Canada as his Patriarchal province. The patriarchate was then moved to Modesto, California in 1954, and finally to San Francisco in 1958 due to health issues. After the assassination of the Patriarch and the election of Dinkha IV in 1976, the patriarchate was temporarily located in Tehran, where the new patriarch was living at the time. After the Iran–Iraq War and the Iranian Revolution, the Patriarchate again returned to Chicago, where it remained until 2015, when it reestablished itself in the Middle East by organizing in Erbil's Ankawa district in Iraq after the enstatement of Gewargis III. The Diocese of Eastern United States served as the patriarch's province from 1994 until 2012.
Due to the unstable political, religious and economic situation in the church's historical homeland of the Middle East, many of the church members now reside in Western countries. Churches and dioceses have been established throughout Europe, America, and Oceania. The largest expatriate concentration of church members is in the United States, mainly situated in Illinois and California.
Mar Gewargis Sliwa: 121st Catholicos-Patriarch
Pope John XXIII invited many other Christian denominations, including the Assyrian Church of the East, to send "observers" to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). These observers, graciously received and seated as honored guests right in front of the podium on the floor of the council chamber, did not participate in the Council's debate, but they mingled freely with the Catholic bishops and theologians who constituted the council, and with the other observers as well, in the break area during the council sessions. There, cordial conversations began a rapprochement that has blossomed into expanding relations among the Catholic Church, the Churches of the Orthodox Communion, and the ancient churches of the East.
On November 11, 1994, a historic meeting between Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II took place in Rome. The two patriarchs signed a document titled "Common Christological Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East". One side effect of this meeting was that the Assyrian Church's relationship with the fellow Chaldean Catholic Church began to improve.
In 1996, Patriarch Dinkha IV signed an agreement of cooperation with the Chaldean Catholic Church Patriarch of Baghdad, Raphael I Bidawid, in Southfield, Michigan, Bidawid himself being keen to heal theological divisions among Assyrians of all denominations. In 1997, he entered into negotiations with the Syriac Orthodox Church and the two churches ceased anathematizing each other.
The lack of a coherent institution narrative in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, which dates to apostolic times, has caused many Western Christians, and especially Roman Catholics, to doubt the validity of this anaphora, used extensively by the Assyrian Church of the East, as a prayer of consecration of the eucharistic elements. In 2001, after a study of this issue, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, promulgated a declaration approved by Pope John Paul II stating that this is a valid anaphora. This declaration opened the door to a joint synodal decree officially implementing the present Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, which the synods of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church signed and promulgated on 20 July 2001.
This joint synodal decree provided that:
The joint synodal decree identified several issues that require resolution to permit a relationship of full communion,[a] though from an ecumenical perspective it marks a major step toward full collaboration in the pastoral care of their members.
St Peter, the chief of the apostles added his blessing to the Church of the East at the time of his visit to the see at Babylon, in the earliest days of the church: '... The chosen church which is at Babylon, and Mark, my son, salute you ... greet one another with a holy kiss ...' (I Peter 5:13–14).
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