The Assyrian Church of the East, an apostolic Church found primarily in Iraq today, cannot boast of any attraction as spectacular as the Ark of the Covenant, the pride of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. However, it does boast The Book of Protection, a collection of prayers and charms that they say the angels gave to Adam, and which was then handed down and augmented up to the time of King Solomon – including, according to the author William Dalrymple, “the Anathema of the Angel Gabriel for the Evil Eye, the Names on the Ring of King Solomon, the Anathema of Mar Shalita for the Evil Spirit,” and “the Charm for the Cow which is Excited toward its Mistress.” Among these is a charm “Binding the Guns and the Engines of War,” which reads in part: “By the Power of the Voice of our Lord which cutteth the Flame of the Fire, I bind, expel, anathematize the bullets of the engines of war, and the balls of the guns of our wicked enemies away from him who beareth this charm. By the prayers of the Virgin, the Mother of Fire, may the stones which they fling with the machine and with the guns not be moved, nor heated, nor come forth from the mouth of our enemies’ machines against the one who beareth these charms, but let our enemy be as dead as in the midst of the grave.”
It hasn’t worked. Christians who remain in Iraq live increasingly in an atmosphere of terror. Christian women have been threatened with kidnapping or death if they do not wear a headscarf. Muslim gangs have even terrorized Christian neighborhoods in Baghdad, knocking on doors and demanding payment of the jizya, the religion-based tax assessed by Islamic law against Christians, Jews, and some other groups of non-Muslims who live in Muslim lands. Iraqi Christians today are streaming into Syria, or, if they can, out of the Middle East altogether. An Iraqi businessman now living in Syria lamented that “now at least 75% of my Christian friends have fled. There is no future for us in Iraq.”
That is bitterly ironic, since at one time one of the only places that held any future at all for what are now known as Assyrian Christians and Chaldean Catholics was Iraq. Late in the fourteenth century, the fabled and notorious Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, a self-styled ghazi (warrior of Islam) who saw himself as the son and heir of Genghis Khan (who had an Assyrian Christian teacher), unleashed a persecution of the Assyrian Church so ferocious that northern Iraq was one of the few places where it survived.
Once the Largest Christian Church
But for five hundred years, from the ninth century until the bloody advent of Tamerlane, what is known today as the Assyrian Church of the East was the largest communion in the Christian world, stretching from the Levant all across Asia to India and China. This size, however, did not translate into influence upon the theological or liturgical development of either the Catholic or the Orthodox Church, for the Church of the East, as it was known, was in communion with neither and was considered heretical by both. For the Church of the East in the fifth century embraced the heresy of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who was condemned as a heretic at the third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, in 431.
Nestorius was so intent upon maintaining the integrity of Christ’s divine and human natures that he insisted that the Blessed Mother should not be known as Theotokos, bearer of God, but only as Christotokos, bearer of Christ. His foremost opponent, St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, rightly noted that this introduced a division into the Person of Christ that threatened the very idea of the Incarnation itself, and of the salvation God gave us in Christ, and taught that Mary must be known as Theotokos to safeguard the reality that Christ was truly God. (Much later, a Protestant missionary noted that the Assyrian Christians did not venerate Mary or place images in their churches, and, with more zeal than knowledge, proclaimed them the original Protestants!)
Condemned, deposed, and exiled, Nestorius wrote a lengthy apologia, The Bazaar of Heraclides, after the fourth ecumenical council, held in Chalcedon in 451. Chalcedon had declared that Christ was one Divine Person in two natures, divine and human; Nestorius consequently exulted that the Council had come around to his point of view. The losing party at Chalcedon, led by Dioscorus, Cyril’s successor as Patriarch of Alexandria, agreed. As the Alexandrian Patriarchate went into schism for affirming only one nature in Christ as Monophysites, or Miaphysites, as they preferred to be known, it charged that the Churches of Rome and Constantinople had lapsed into Nestorianism.
They hadn’t, but the situation was sufficiently confusing to make many who rejected Chalcedon think so. The orthodox Churches maintained a middle way between Nestorianism and Monophysitism, affirming both Christ’s unity and the integrity of His natures, but the curious and disheartening aspect of these controversies is that both opposing parties insisted they were doing that as well. The Christological controversies were largely – all too largely – matters of terminology, with key words being understood in different ways by different parties. Nestorius, at any rate, was not heretical enough to prevent the Chaldean Catholic Church, which restored communion with Rome in the sixteenth century, to continue to use his anaphora, or Eucharistic prayer, on certain feast days – although they do not call it by his name, and make some alterations, including the substitution of Theotokos for Christotokos.
In any case, the Church of the East’s alienation from the Church in Europe did not begin with Nestorius and the Council of Ephesus. Tracing its origins back to St. Thomas and his fellow apostle St. Thaddeus (Addai), the Church of the East first developed in Edessa, which is now (like so many other ancient Christian cities) a backwater, the sleepy town of Sanliurfa in southeastern Turkey. Before Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, many Christians made their way out of the Roman Empire to Edessa and points east in order to escape persecution. Edessa became a thriving Christian center, and missionaries took the Gospel from there into the Persian Empire.
Christianity grew quickly in Zoroastrian Persia, and finally in the year 410 the Sassanid Persian King Yazdegerd issued an edict of toleration for the Church. That same year, the Christians held a council in the Sassanid capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (which is now a ruin that can be found about thirty miles outside of Baghdad), and organized the Church of the East under the leadership of the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, who was given the title Catholicos and later, that of Patriarch of the East. The Persian Emperors, bitter rivals of the Eastern Roman Emperors, pressured the Church of the East to sever ties with the Church in the Roman Empire. Accordingly, in 424 the Church of the East declared that it would settle all theological matters on its own, without reference to the Church in the rival Empire, and sent no bishops to the Council of Ephesus. When Nestorius was condemned, his followers left the Roman Empire and entered Sassanid domains in large numbers, and the Church of the East adopted Nestorian theology.
So Eastern was the Church of the East that it considered all Christians of the Roman Empire, even those otherwise universally classified as “Eastern,” such as the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, as “Western.” And indeed, its orientation was decidedly Eastern, as is seen most spectacularly in its remarkable expansion into China. The Persian Nestorian missionary priest Alopen arrived in China in 635 and so impressed the Tang Emperor Taizong that just three years later, Taizong issued a decree protecting the Church of the East in China. After that the Church grew rapidly in China, but was banned again and persecuted in the ninth and tenth centuries, such that by 986 a monk of the Church of the East reported back to the Patriarch Abdisho: “Christianity is extinct in China.” Yet even after this, the Church of the East returned there, and doesn’t seem to have disappeared altogether from the Middle Kingdom until the fifteenth century. It maintained a considerable presence in Central Asia, even among the Mongols, such that in 1287 the Mongol ruler Arghun Khan sent a Nestorian Christian official in his court, Rabban Sauma, as an emissary to Europe to try to conclude an alliance between the Mongols and European Christians to fight their common enemy, the Islamic jihadists. Rabban Sauma met with, among others, the Byzantine Emperor, the Pope, and the King of England, but ultimately no alliances were concluded. Rabban Sauma’s meeting with a group of cardinals in Rome (the pope had recently died) is revealing of the theological knowledge and controversies of Rome in those days: faced with the specter of a Mongol Christian, the cardinals quizzed him about his faith. They had never heard of Nestorius or of the by-then ancient controversy over his Christology, but they did get irritated when Rabban Sauma recited the Creed and left out the Filioque. Rabban Sauma, however, would have none of the controversy. “I didn’t come here to argue with you,” he explained. “I came to venerate the Lord Pope (Mar Papa).”
The fact that nothing came of Rabban Sauma’s fascinating journey is one of the great missed opportunities of history, for in the next century Tamerlane destroyed most of the dioceses of the Church of the East between Iraq and China, and the Church of the East would never again recapture its former numbers, power, or presence in the expanses of central Asia. A remnant remained in India, a portion of which later became the Syro-Malabar Church in communion with Rome. The Patriarch of the East relocated to Alqosh, near Mosul, where he oversaw his own remnant – among whom fresh controversy arose when the Patriarch Shimon IV Basidi, whose lengthy reign lasted over fifty years (1437-1493), declared the patriarchate the hereditary property of his family alone. Henceforth only the nephews or other blood relatives of the Patriarch, who was himself celibate in accord with universal Eastern discipline for bishops, could become Patriarch of the East.
Assyrians defended the hereditary succession as a way to protect the Church from interference from Muslim officials, who would often appoint prelates they could control. The hereditary succession, Assyrians maintained, kept the patriarchate from falling into the hands of forces that did not have the best interests of the Church at heart. Nonetheless, discontent over this practice brewed for the next half-century, until finally in 1552 a group of bishops who were presumably all unrelated to Shimon IV Basidi chose a new Patriarch, Yohannan Sulaqa, in preference to the hereditary standard-bearer, Shimon VII Ishoyahb. Sulaqa then made his way to Rome, where he appealed to Pope Julius III for help and made a profession of the Catholic Faith. Julius named him Patriarch of Mosul and Athur, a title he quickly changed to Patriarch of the Chaldeans. Sulaqa returned to Mosul and reigned there as Shimon VIII until 1555, when the local Muslim ruler had him jailed, tortured, and ultimately executed, apparently at the instigation of Shimon VII or his followers.
The line of Catholic Patriarchs is not continuous after Shimon VIII. Factions of the Church of the East entered into communion with Rome and broke with Rome so often that tracing an unbroken line of succession is impossible: the question of the hereditary succession continued to roil the Church of the East. It was even reintroduced in 1600 by the Catholic Patriarch Shimon IX Dinkha (1580-1600), who thereby ceased to be the Catholic Patriarch, as the Vatican never found this practice acceptable. There is an unbroken line of Catholic Patriarchs, now known as the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, since 1830. The Patriarch Yousef VII Ghanima (1946-1958) moved the patriarchate to Baghdad, where the current Patriarch, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, still lives.
The Assyrian Church of the East, meanwhile, continued the hereditary succession of Patriarchs until the reign of Mar Eshai Shimon XXIII, who became Patriarch at the age of 12 in 1920. The escalating difficulties that Christians were facing in Iraq led him in 1940 to move his patriarchal offices to Chicago, where the current Assyrian Patriarch, Dinkha IV, still lives. In 1973, at the age of 65, after shepherding his Church as patriarch for 53 tumultuous years, Mar Eshai Shimon told Church officials that he was retiring. He demonstrated the seriousness of his intention by marrying and fathering two children, declaring that although bishops were traditionally celibate, Church law did not actually prevent him from marrying. Assyrian Church leaders, however, asked him to stay on until a new Patriarch could be named, as Mar Eshai Shimon had no nephews who could succeed him. The Patriarch agreed, despite considerable discontent among Assyrians over his marriage. Finally, in yet another tragedy of bloodshed, an Assyrian Church member, son of one of Mar Eshai Shimon’s close friends, murdered the Patriarch in his home in San Jose, California, while his wife tended their baby upstairs — apparently because he disapproved of the patriarchal marriage.
The main killers of Assyrian Christians, however, are not other Assyrian Christians. On December 2, 2011, I received this chilling email from an Assyrian Christian in Iraqi Kurdistan: “Today after Friday prayers, Muslim Kurds in Zakho (near Dohuk) attacked and besieged liquor shops, salons, hotels, massages that are owned by Christians. The security didn’t do anything and the rampage has continued till now!”
Several hours later he wrote again: “The attacks haven’t stopped, and I just got the word that they are attacking a Catholic Diocesan office. The security is standing still and watching as I am writing this to you. Christian homes are being fired upon as well.”
As captured on video, the Muslim mob shouted “Allahu akbar,” “jihad” and anti-Christian slogans as it rampaged. One Christian liquor storeowner reported that the mob did half a million U.S. dollars’ worth of damage to his businesses—and stole $300,000 from his safe. Another Christian sent me pictures of a small club, destroyed in a fire the mob set, and explained: “This was a small social club for us Christians that we spend our nights. As you see, we live very poorly and humbly. They had no reason to attack us. All we want is to enjoy a beer after a hard day of work. Is that too much to ask? Are Muslim minorities in the West treated like this?”
This attack came about because a local imam, Mullah Mala Ismail Osman Sindi, had preached a Friday sermon that day railing against moral corruption, after which a man in the congregation, roused to a pitch of moral indignation, stood up and started calling out the names of local businesses that Christians owned. An archdeacon of the Assyrian Church of the East, Emanuel Youkhana, noted: “The interesting thing with this incident is the place where it happened. [The Kurdish Regional Government] is, for the most part, safe and secure, and all inhabitants enjoy prosperity and security, until now at least. The future is, by all means, bleak for Christians and other minorities living there.”
Indeed, and it has been for quite some time. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, escalating Muslim persecution has caused over half of the prewar population of around a million Christians to flee the country. Jihadis have particularly targeted clergy: on April 5, 2008, Youssef Adel, a Syriac Orthodox priest in Baghdad, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he was opening the gate of his house. Just weeks before that, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of the Chaldean Catholic Church was kidnapped and murdered in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
The current Patriarch, Dinkha IV, has concluded a Christological agreement with the Vatican that demonstrated that the ancient dispute was more about wording than about substance:
Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us in all things but sin. His divinity and his humanity are united in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation….The humanity to which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth always was that of the Son of God himself. That is the reason why the Assyrian Church of the East is praying [to] the Virgin Mary as “the Mother of Christ our God and Savior.” In the light of this same faith the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as “the Mother of God” and also as “the Mother of Christ.” We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety.”
Another significant obstacle to the restoration of full communion was removed on July 20, 2001, when the future Pope Benedict XVI, as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, declared that the ancient Anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer) of Saints Addai and Mari effected the consecration of the Eucharistic elements even though it did not contain the precise words of institution, since the Assyrian Church of the East had preserved the orthodox understanding of the Eucharist and Holy Orders (even throughout the period of the hereditary succession), and thus intended to consecrate the elements, and because the Anaphora dated back to the earliest ages of the Church.
Full communion has not yet been restored, but the ongoing persecution of Assyrian Christians and Chaldean Catholics in Iraq demonstrates that unity – of faith, of prayer, of purpose – is needed more than ever. And above all, we Christians of the as-yet free West should not forget our brethren in their hour of need.