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Assyrian Church of the East
File:Assyrian Church of the East Symbol.JPG
Emblem of the Assyrian Church of the East
Founder Founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle as well as Saint Mari and Saint Addai as asserted in the Doctrine of Addai.
Independence Apostolic Era[clarification needed]
Recognition Assyrian Church of the East
Primate Catholicos-Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV Khanania
Headquarters Morton Grove, Cook County, Illinois, United States of America
Territory Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Europe, Russia, Georgia, Australia & New Zealand, United States of America, Canada, India, Peoples Republic of China.
Language Assyrian Neo-Aramaic
Adherents 495,000[1]
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The Assyrian Church of the East known officially as the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East[2][3] (in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic ܥܕܬܐ ܩܕܝܫܬܐ ܘܫܠܝܚܝܬܐ ܩܬܘܠܝܩܝ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ ܕܐܬܘܪ̈ܝܐ, ‘Ittā Qaddishtā wa-Shlikhāitā Qattoliqi d-Madnĕkhā d-Āturāyē, in Arabic كنيسة المشرق الآشورية الرسولية الكاثوليكية المقدّسة ), in Persian القدس وابسته به پاپ کاتولیک آشوری کلیسای شرق), which is presently presided over by H.H. Mar Dinkha IV, is a Christian particular church and one of the oldest. It traces its origins to the See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in central Mesopotamia, which tradition holds was founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle (Tooma Shlikha) as well as Saint Mari and Saint Addai in 33 A.D. as asserted in the Doctrine of Addai.

It has also been referred to, inaccurately, by a number of other names. These include the Syrian Church, the Persian Church, and the Assyrian Orthodox Church, which has led some to mistakenly believe that it is a body of the Oriental Orthodox community, although some Assyrians do claim Assyrian Orthodoxy. It is one of the three Churches of the East that hold themselves distinct from Oriental and Eastern Orthodoxy. The church itself does not use the word "Orthodox" in any of its service books or in any of its official correspondence, nor does it use any word which can be translated as "correct faith" or "correct doctrine", the rough translation of the word Orthodox. The Holy, Apostolic and Catholic adjectives were officially added to the Assyrian Church of the East's title in part by the general agreement with the Nicene Creed which declares that "We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church." Holy as in set apart for a purely sacred purpose. Apostolic as in founded by one of Jesus's own apostles. Catholic as in catholicos, Greek for "universal" referring to a worldwide church. In India, it is more often called the Chaldean Syrian Church. In the West it was previously called the Nestorian Church, because Western theologians traditionally identified its teaching with Nestorianism; the church itself considers the term pejorative and argues that this identification is completely incorrect. The church declares that no other church has suffered as many martyrdoms as the Assyrian Church of the East.[4]

The founders 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 distinct from the accusations directed toward Nestorius: his main christological work is called the 'Book of the Union', and in it Babai teaches that the two qnome (essences, or hypostases) are unmingled but everlastingly united in the one parsopa (personality) of Christ.


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 (also known as the synod of Mar Isaak) in 410, the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon assumed the rank of Catholicos.[5][6] At the council of 424, the Christian communities of Mesopotamia rejected all prior authority of the Bishop of Antioch, and of any other power of the Roman Empire.

Self Government

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In 410 the Sasanid emperor summoned the eastern church leaders to the Synod of Seleucia. His purpose was to make the catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon minority leader of his people, personally responsible for their good conduct throughout the Persian empire. In 424 the bishops of Persia met in council under the leadership of Catholicos Dadiso and determined that there would be no reference of their disciplinary or theological problems to any other power, especially not to any church council in the Roman Empire.[7]

The formal separation from the See of Antioch and the western Syrian Church under the Byzantine Emperors, occurred at this synod in 424. Because of their independence there were no representatives of the Persian Church at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and of course they did not feel bound by any decisions of that or subsequent Roman Imperial councils in any way whatsoever.

It was the Council of Ephesus which decided the question of the title of the mother of Jesus and led to the condemnation of Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople. The granting of ‘Theotokos’ as her title rather than ‘Christotokos’, was irrelevant to the Persian Christians and those further east. They were Greek terms, and the Persian Church used Syriac, not Greek.

Later European theologians and church historians decided to categorize the Persian Church as the “Nestorian Church”.[8] The present head, Catholicos Patriarch Mar Dinkha 4, explicitly rejected the term Nestorian, on the occasion of his consecration in 1976.[9]

Nestorianism and the Assyrian Church

The Assyrian Church separated from the See of Antioch and the Byzantine Greek Church generally, before the Council of Ephesus. It is therefore historically inaccurate to suggest the separation was for theological reasons. Nestorius, a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia and bishop of Constantinople, was condemned because he declined to call the Virgin Mary 'mother of God' ("Theotokos" in Greek). He preferred to call her 'mother of Christ' ("Christotokos" in Greek). His opponent Cyril of Alexandria accused him of dividing Christ into two persons.

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 the Roman Empire, 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-Roman 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 Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor closed it for its Nestorian tendencies (489).

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.

Apostasy and Counterreformation

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 610–628 between the Persian and Byzantine empires weakened the political standing of the Assyrian church and several sees and villages were lost to the Miaphysites (see Oriental Orthodoxy). The Assyrian church was not allowed to choose a new Catholicos, and its theological tradition was undermined by Henana.

Babai the Great

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 Miaphysites and the Origenist Henana, and developed the only systematic Assyrian Christology. He taught that the two qnome (essence or hypostasis) are unmingled but everlastingly united in the one parsopa (personality) of Christ.

The defenders were successful: at the synod 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 Christians in the Persian Gulf. There they along with the pre-existing Christians are popularly known as Saint Thomas Christians. Letters of Patriarch Timothy I of Baghdad mention churches in both India and China ca.800. 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 ecclesiastical 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 as a part of the Church of the East. The present Metropolitan of India is Mar Aprem.

Eastern Expansion

Debate between Catholics (left) and Oriental Christians (right) in the 13th century. Acre, circa 1290.

During the medieval period, the geographical horizons of the Church of the East stretched well beyond its heartland in Iraq. Assyrian communities sprang up across Central Asia, and Assyrian missionaries took the Christian faith as far as China. The Xian Tablet, an imposing stone monument erected by the Church of the East in 781 in Chang'an (modern Xi'an), the Chinese capital during the Tang Dynasty, contains a long inscription in Chinese and Syriac that describes the Church's missionary activity in China in the 7th and 8th centuries. The Assyrian patriarch Timothy I (780–823), who assumed the leadership of the Church of the East shortly before the erection of the Xian Tablet, consecrated a metropolitan bishop for 'the country of the Turks' (Beth Turkaye), implying that there were already substantial Assyrian communities in Central Asia at this period, and in one of his letters mentioned a large Christian community in Tibet (Beth Tuptaye).

Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in India in 1498, the Church of the East also sent bishops to the Saint Thomas Christians of the Malabar Coast of India, believed to be founded by the apostle Thomas.[10] Assyrian communities in India are attested as early as the 3rd century AD, and were probably established by the Assyrian Church in Fars, which also looked to Thomas rather than to Mari or Addai as its founder. There are also grounds for believing that there were Assyrian Christian communities in Java, as one Assyrian patriarch consecrated a metropolitan bishop for 'Dabagh, Sin and Masin', three regions which have been identified with Java, northern China and southern China respectively.

The links between the Church of the East and its mission field in the Far East assumed considerable importance during the Mongol period, and Assyrian envoys are known to have played an important diplomatic role in negotiations between the Mongols and the Christian kingdoms of western Europe. In the 1280s the Ongud monk Rabban Sauma made a celebrated progress from the Mongol capital Khanbaliq (modern Beijing) to Paris and Rome to call for an alliance with the Mongols against the Mamelukes.

The Assyrian communities in Central Asia and China disappeared during the fourteenth century. In China, the Mongol Yuan dynasty was replaced in 1368 by the Chinese Ming dynasty, and Christian communities which had lived for decades under Mongol protection were expelled. In Central Asia, continual warfare eventually made it impossible for the Church of the East to send bishops to minister to its far-flung congregations. The blame for the destruction of the Assyrian communities east of Iraq has often been thrown upon the Turco-Mongol leader Timur, whose campaigns during the 1390s spread havoc throughout Persia and Central Asia. There is no reason to doubt that Timur was responsible for the destruction of certain Assyrian communities, but in many places Christianity had died out decades earlier. The surviving evidence from Central Asia, including a large number of dated graves, indicates that the crisis for the Assyrian church occurred in the 1340s rather than the 1390s. Few Christian graves have been found later than the 1340s, indicating that the isolated Assyrian communities in Central Asia, weakened by warfare, plague and lack of leadership, converted to Islam around the middle of the fourteenth century. Historic Assyrian Christianity beyond Iraq survived only along the Malabar Coast of India, in the Urmi region of Iran, and in a few isolated outposts such as Hormuz and the island of Soqotra.[11]

The Missions to China and Tibet

The Assyrian Church was the first Christian tradition to reach China (in 635), reaching Mongolia at about the same time,[12] 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, commonly (if incorrectly) called the Nestorian Stele, describes the introduction of Christianity into China from Persia in the reign of Tang Taizong. 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 had a substantial revival under the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty. Numerous gravestones written in Syriac survive from this time period in what is today Kyrgyzstan and Inner Mongolia. The Ongud monk Marqos, who was educated in a monastery in China, was elected patriarch under the name 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,[13] and a nearby inscription reveals the presence of a Christian monk as late as 1438.[14]

Recent historical research indicates the presence of Christianity in Tibetan controlled lands as early as the sixth and seventh centuries. A strong presence existed by the eighth century when Patriarch Timothy I (780-823) in 782 called 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.[15][16][17][18][19]

Formation of the Chaldean Catholic Church

In the 15th century, the church decreed[clarification needed] 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 Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa, 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 the pro-Latin patriarch in Diyarbakır. This situation lasted until 1662 when the Patriarch in Diyarbakır, 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 Holy See responded by appointing a new patriarch to Diyarbakır to govern the Assyrian people who stayed in communion with Rome. 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 Catholic Church patriarchs. The line of patriarchs at Qochanis remained independent.

20th Century

Assyrians faced reprisals under the Hashemite monarchy for co-operating with Britain 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, California. The present Patriarch is based in Chicago.

Mar Shimun XXIII

In 1964, the issue of hereditary succession again caused a schism, with the establishment of the Ancient Church of the East in 1974 and the subsequent election of Mar Thoma Darmo as a rival catholicos-patriarch in the newly established church in opposition to the hereditary Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII.

Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun became convinced that nothing in the Canon Law of the Church of the East prohibited the Patriarch from marrying. He therefore married in August 1973 and also announced his resignation in that year, but was asked to stay in office. He was assassinated in 1975 while negotiations were being carried out over the conditions of his reinstatement.

Mar Dinkha IV

In 1976 Mar Dinkha IV was elected as Shimun's successor, and announced the permanent end of the hereditary succession. While this removed the underlying dispute, the rift between the rival Patriarchs of the Assyrian Church of the East and the rival Ancient Church of the East still exists, with Mar Addai II as the successor to Mar Thoma Darmo at the head of a the rival Ancient Church of the East.

In September 2006, Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV paid a historic visit to Northern Iraq to give oversight to the churches there and to encourage the governor of the Kurdish region to open a Christian school as well as a library in Arbil.


Today less than 1 million of the world's 4.5 million Assyrians remain in Iraq.


The Church is governed by Episcopal polity, which is the same as other Catholic churches. The church maintains a system of geographical parishes organized into archdioceses and dioceses. The patriarch is head of the church, and under him there are four archdioceses in the Assyrian Church: one for Australia and New Zealand, one for Lebanon, Syria, and Europe, another for India, and one that serves Iraq and Russia. Individual dioceses exist in the eastern USA (including Chicago), western USA, California, Canada, Syria, Iran and Europe. 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, USA.

Archdiocese of Australia & New Zealand

Overseen by Metropolitan Mar Meelis Zaia - The Archdiocese of Australia & New Zealand consists of 4 Churches, a Mission, Ss Peter and Paul English Parish,and an Assyrian Primary School. It is the first ever archdiocese outside the Middle East, in the western hemisphere.[20] The St. Hurmizd Assyrian Primary School provides education for over 3,600 students. Mar Narsai Assyrian college was also established in Sydney (the first Assyrian high school) and land has been bought for the construction of the multimillion-dollar high school.[21] Currently, the Assyrian Church in Australia is working on building an Assyrian Medical Centre, a retirement village, Mar Narsai Assyrian College, and a church building for the rapidly growing Ss. Peter and Paul English Parish under Reverend, Father Genard Lazar.[22] The Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand under the leadership of Metropolitan Mar Meelis Zaia is the fastest growing Assyrian church diocese and community in the world.

Archdiocese of Lebanon, Syria & Europe

Under Metropolitan Mar Narsai D'Baz

  • Diocese of Europe - Overseen by Bishop Mar Odisho Oraham, the Diocese of Europe consists of 9 Churches and 3 Missions.[23]
  • Diocese of Syria - Overseen by Bishop Mar Aprem Natniel.

Archdiocese of India

Overseen by Metropolitan Mar Aprem, the Archdiocese of India consists of over 28 Churches and 1 Mission.[24] In India this church known as the Chaldean Syrian church of the east. also it had more than 35000 population in India. in India this church only found in south India ( in Thrichur) only.

Archdiocese of Iraq & Russia

Overseen by Metropolitan Mar Gewargis Sliwa who resides in Baghdad, Iraq.

  • Diocese of Baghdad - Overseen by Bishop Mar Sargis Yosip
  • Diocese of Nohadra and Russia - Overseen by Bishop Mar Iskhaq Yosip

Individual Dioceses

  • Diocese of Canada - Overseen Bishop Mar Emmanuel Yosip, the Dioceses of Canada consists of 3 Churches and a Mission.[25]
  • Diocese of Eastern United States - Overseen by Mar Dinkha IV Catholicos Patriarch, the Diocese of Eastern United States consists of 9 Churches.[26]
  • Diocese of Iran - Overseen by Mar Dinkha IV Catholicos Patriarch, the Diocese of Iran consists of over 3 Churches and 15 Missions.[27]
  • Diocese of California - Currently overseen by Bishop Mar Awa Royel, the Diocese of California consists of 5 Churches.
  • Diocese of Western United States - Overseen by Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis, consists of over 6 Churches and a Mission.[28]

Ecumenical Relations

On November 11, 1994, a historic meeting of Mar 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 to the Chaldean Catholic Church was improved.[29] In 1996, Mar Dinkha IV signed an agreement of cooperation with the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Raphael I Bidawid, in Southfield, Michigan. In 1997, he entered into negotiations with the Syrian Orthodox Church and the two churches ceased anathematizing each other.

The lack of the Words of Institution used by Jesus at the Last Supper ("This is my body"..."This is [the cup of] my blood") in some liturgies of the Church has caused many Western Christians (especially Roman Catholics) to consider them invalid. However, in 2001, after a study of this issue, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, then being prefect) declared that this was a valid liturgy and that Chaldean Catholics could receive the Eucharist in an Assyrian Church if unable to attend their own churches. This declaration was approved by Pope John Paul II.

See also


  1. [1]
  2. An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches, By John Binns, page 28 [2]
  5. J.-M. Fiey, Jalons pour une histoire de l'eglise en Iraq, (Louvain: Secretariat du CSCO, 1970)
  6. M.-L. Chaumont, La Christianisation de l'empire Iranien, (Louvain: Peeters, 1988).
  7. Henry Hill, Light from the East, (Toronto Canada: Anglican Book Centre, 1988) p105.
  8. Leonard M Outerbridge, The Lost Churches of China, (Westminster Press, USA, 1952)
  9. Henry Hill, Light from the East, (Toronto Canada: Anglican Book Centre, 1988) p107.
  11. Nestorian Church
  12. Weatherford, p. 28
  13. Article on the 14th Century monument at Zhoukoudian in China
  14. Marco Guglielminotti Trivel, "Tempio della Croce - Fangshan - Pechino," in Orientalia Christiana Periodica 71 (2005): 457.
  15. Hunter, pp. 129-142
  16. Klein
  17. Moule
  18. Saeki
  19. Oskar Braun, "Ein Brief des Katholikos Timotheos I," Oriens Christianus 1 (1901), pp.308-311, cited in, Raphael J. Bidawid, Les Lettres du Patriarche Nestorien Timothee I, Studi e Testi 187 (Vatican: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1956), pp.36-37.
  21. St. Hurmizd Assyrian Primary School - About Us
  22. Assyrian Church of the East - Church projects
  29. Mar Aprem Mooken, p.18

Further reading

  • Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East, an Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006), ISBN 184511115X
  • Baum, Wilhem, and Dietmar Winkler, The Church of the East: A Concise History (London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003)
  • Mar Aprem Mooken, The Assyrian Church of the East in the Twentieth Century. Mōrān ’Eth’ō, 18. (Kottayam: St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 2003).
  • Jenkins, Phillip "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008)
  • Weatherford, Jack (2004). Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-609-80964-4.
  • Erica Hunter, "The Church of the East in Central Asia," Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 78, no.3 (1996), 129-142.
  • W. Klein, Das Nestorianische Christentum an den Handelswegen durch Kyrgyzstan, Silk Road Studies 3 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000).
  • A. C. Moule, Christians in China before the year 1550, (London: SPCK, 1930).
  • P. Y. Saeki, Nestorian Documents and Relics in China, 2nd ed., (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1951).

External links

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