Earliest Churches

Assyrians and Christianity

The Assyrians today come from a myriad of religious denominations fraught with complex histories of unions, schisms and theological hair-splitting.

Despite their differences, all the different Assyrian Churches use the Syriac language in their liturgy and trace their beginnings to Edessa (now Urfa), in present-day southeast Turkey. It was from here that Assyrian King Abgar V allegedly corresponded with Jesus Christ himself. After his resurrection, Jesus sent his apostle St. Thaddeus (Mar Addai) to cure Abgar of an illness. On being cured, Abgar converted to Christianity and made it the state religion in 33 AD. The presence of “people from Mesopotamia” is also noted in the Biblical account of Pentecost.

The founding of Syriac Christianity is also attributed to St. Peter the apostle, who is said to have written his epistle letter from Babylon (I Peter: 1:1-5:13). This apostle is also credited with being the first Patriarch of Antioch before moving on to Rome in 36 AD. Indeed, the Book of Acts mentions that in Antioch the followers of Christ were first called “Christians”. Other apostles include St. Thomas, who passed through northern Mesopotamia and the Urmia region on his way to evangelise India, and St. Bartholomew, who also made many conversions in Syria and Mesopotamia.

Syriac Christianity gradually spread throughout historic Assyria via the different semi-independent kingdoms of the time – Edessa, Hatra and Adiabene (Erbil) – all of which lay along the region’s major trade routes. There are numerous accounts of saints travelling throughout the countryside with their disciples, battling demons, working miracles and converting the locals. By 250 AD Christianity had all but replaced the native polytheistic religion.

The main divide in Syriac Church was always the border between the Roman and Persian Empires. The Patriarch of Antioch (present-day Antakya), a Roman coastal metropolis now near Turkey’s border with Syria, theoretically oversaw all of the Christian communities in Syria, Mesopotamia and everything else to east. But due to the difficulty of managing such a large and divided area, the need was seen to create the position of Catholicos or Maperyana (i.e. fructifier) to administer the faithful across the border.

The Catholicate of the East was established in the 2nd century AD by elevating the rank of the Metropolitan of the twin cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (present-day Salman-Pak, south of Baghdad), then the Persian royal capital. The Catholicos’ sway extended over all Metropolitans and Bishops in the Persian Empire and the East. Traditionally, all candidates for the Catholicate would go to Antioch for selection, and the successful one was ordained personally by the Patriarch of Antioch.

This system served well for keeping the Syriac Church unified, but imperial politics soon began to play a part in dividing it. In 224 AD a group of candidates for the Catholicate were massacred by Romans on the pretext of being Persian spies. This resulted in a decree from the Patriarch of Antioch allowing future Catholicoi to be ordained locally. But this did nothing to stop the continued pressure from both empires and soon, with the theological debates of the 5th century, the divide became more pronounced.

The East Syriac Churches

This name is given to the churches that trace their origin to the Syriac Christians of the Persian Empire. These churches are much simpler in their rituals, architecture, dress, and symbolism – and show some Persian influence. Their liturgy is based on that of Sts. Addai and Mari and they employ the eastern dialect of Syriac in their writings.

The Assyrian Church of the East

In the 421 AD, the Church of the East gravitated towards the radical Antiochene form of Christology articulated by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, and fell out of communion with the church in the Roman Empire. Consequently this church came to be known as “Nestorian” and was deemed heretical. The Christians in the Persian Empire needed to distance themselves from the official church of the Roman Empire, with which Persia was frequently at war.

It was Catholicos Mar Dadishu I, who formally proclaimed the Church of the East independent of Antioch at the Synod of Markabta d-Tayyaye in 424 AD. In addition, the metropolitans and bishops present at the synod elevated Mar Dadishu’s rank to that of Patriarch. In this way they were able to maintain their Christian faith while avoiding suspicions that they were collaborating with the Roman enemy.

The Church of the East was always a minority in largely Zoroastrian Persia, but nevertheless it flourished for many centuries, with its rich scholarly activity centred on the famous universities of Edessa, Nisibis and Gundishapur. The church expanded through missionary activity into areas as far away as India, Tibet, China and Mongolia. This continued even after the Mesopotamian homeland was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century.

The Patriarchate was moved to the new city of Baghdad after it became the capital of the Islamic Empire in 766. By 1318 there were some 30 metropolitan sees and 200 suffragan dioceses stretching from Egypt and Cyprus in the west to Japan and Indonesia in the East. The combined membership of the Church of the East and the Church of Antioch at this time is estimated to have numbered well over 80 million.

But this golden age was short lived. During the invasions of Tamerlane in the late 14th century, these Christians were almost annihilated. This marks the gradual decline of the church. By 1450, the office of Patriarch and some other episcopal sees had become hereditary within one family, usually being passed down from uncle to nephew. This often produced unqualified leaders of the church who at times were elected at a very young age.

By the 16th century, the Church of the East had been reduced to small communities of Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia and Indians on the Malabar Coast. The church was then further weakened by the formation of a Catholic counterpart known as the Chaldean Catholic Church. The issue behind this split was the practice of the hereditary patriarchate.
On the eve of World War I, the Church of the East numbered over 250,000 souls. During the war its members suffered massive deportations and massacres at the hands of the Turks who suspected them of supporting the British. There were little more than 50,000 survivors scattered in refugee camps in Iraq, Iran and Russia. The 30,000 in Iraq hoped to be protected by the British.

But in 1933, after the end of the British mandate in Iraq, a clash between Assyrians and Iraqi troops ended in a massacre of 3,000 and the exodus of 12,500 to Syria. The Iraqi authorities then stripped Patriarch Mar Shimun XXIII of his citizenship and expelled him to Cyprus. He later went into exile in San Francisco, California. His changing of the church calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian caused an internal dispute which led to the formation of the Ancient Church of the East in 1968.

In 1973 Mar Shimun resigned as Patriarch and married. As no successor could be agreed upon, the bishops in communion with him attempted to persuade him to resume his office despite his marriage. But in the midst of these negotiations, on 6 November 1975, Mar Shimun was assassinated in San Jose, California. The bishop of Tehran, Iran, was elected Patriarch in 1976 and adopted the name Mar Dinkha IV. He was ordained in London, took up residence in the United States and, with his election, made it clear that the patriarchal dynasty had ended.

A milestone in relations with the Roman Catholic Church was reached on November 11, 1994, when Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II signed a Common Christological Declaration in the Vatican. This international theological dialogue has been accompanied by an improvement in relations between the Church of the East and its Catholic counterpart, the Chaldean Catholic Church.

In November 1996 Mar Dinkha IV and Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid signed a Joint Patriarchal Statement that committed their two churches to working towards reintegration and pledged cooperation on pastoral questions such as the drafting of a common catechism, the setting up of a common seminary in the Chicago-Detroit area, the preservation of the Aramaic language, and other common pastoral programs between parishes and dioceses around the world.

On August 15, 1997, the two Patriarchs met again and ratified a “Joint Synodal Decree for Promoting Unity,” that had been signed by the members of both Holy Synods. In mid-1997 it was announced that the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church had agreed to establish a bilateral theological dialogue. As a gesture to foster better relations with the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Church of the East’s Holy Synod decided in 1997 to remove from the liturgy all anathemata directed against others. In 2001, the Church of the East in Australia established the first Assyrian primary school in the diaspora.

Head: Mar Dinkha IV, Khanania (born 1935, elected 1976)
Title: Catholicos-Patriarch of the East
Residence: Morton Grove, Illinois (USA)
Membership: 400,000 Assyrians + 100,000 Indians

- Diocese of Australia and New Zealand:
- Commission on Inter-Church Relations and Educational Development:

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The Chaldean Catholic Church

As early as the 13th century, Catholic missionaries – primarily Dominicans, Franciscans and Lazarists – had been active among the faithful of the Church of the East. This resulted in a series of individual conversions of bishops and brief unions, but no permanent community was formed.

In 1450 a tradition of hereditary patriarchal succession (passing from uncle to nephew) took effect in the church. As a result, one family dominated the church, and untrained minors were being elected to the patriarchal throne.

When such a patriarch was elected in 1552, a group of bishops refused to accept him and decided to seek union with Rome. They elected the reluctant abbot of St. Hormizd’s monastery near Alqosh, Yuhannan Sulaqa Beth-Ballo, as their own patriarch and sent him to Rome to arrange a union with the Catholic Church. In early 1553 Pope Julius III proclaimed him Simon VIII “Patriarch of Mosul over the Assyrians” and ordained him in St. Peter’s Basilica on April 9 of that year.

The new Patriarch returned to his homeland in late 1553 and began to initiate a series of reforms. But opposition, led by the rival Patriarch, was strong. Simon was soon captured by the Pasha of Amedia, tortured and was executed on 12 January 1555. For over 200 years, there was much turmoil and changing of sides as the pro- and anti-Catholic parties struggled with one another. But by 1662 Sulaqa’s group had returned to the Church of the East.

A new Chaldean patriarchate was founded in Diyarbakir (in present southeast Turkey) and endured from 1681 to 1828. The situation finally stabilized on 5 July 1830, when Pope Pius VIII confirmed Metropolitan John Hormizd as head of all Chaldean Catholics, with the title “Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans”. His see was located in Mosul.

On the eve of the First World War the Chaldean Catholic Church numbered about 200,000 faithful. They suffered heavily from massacres during the war, when three metropolitans, a bishop, many priests, and about 70,000 faithful died.

The location of the Patriarchate shifted back and forth among several places, but gained a measure of stability after it was set up at Mosul in 1830. In 1950 it moved to its present location in Baghdad after substantial migration of Chaldean Catholics from northern Iraq to the capital city, where the largest concentration of Chaldeans remains today. Here the church runs the Babylon Theological and Philosophical College, as well as St. Peter’s Seminary.

Head: Mar Raphael I, Bidawid (born 1922, elected 1989)
Title: Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans
Residence: Chaldean Patriarchate, al-Mansour, Baghdad (Iraq)
Membership: 1 million

- Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, Detroit (Michigan):
- Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, San Diego (California):

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The Ancient Church of the East

At the beginning of the 1960s Mar Shimun XXIII, with the majority of the church hierarchy, decided to change the church calendar from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one, thus celebrating Christmas on December 25 rather than January 7. A dispute thus arose within the Church of the East.

The move to change the calendar was persistently objected to by many church members supported by Mar Thomas Darmo, the Metropolitan of India. The dissidents also held that a Patriarch was needed who could live with his community in Iraq. This led to the Metropolitan’s suspension in 1964.

On 7 September 1968 Mar Thomas Darmo travelled to Baghdad and ordained three new bishops over the course of a month. They then met in synod and, with the support of the then Iraqi government, elected him Patriarch in opposition to Mar Shimun.

Mar Thomas Darmo died on 7 September the following year and was succeeded in 1973 by Mar Addai, the Metropolitan of Iraq. At the time, Mar Addai was only 25 years of age at the time. Although the rift has not yet been healed, recent meetings between bishops of the two sides and correspondences between the two Patriarchs appear to have made substantial progress towards gradually resolving the dispute.

Head: Mar Addai II (born 1948, elected 1973)
Title: Catholicos-Patriarch of the East
Residence: Patriarchal Palace, Hay al-Riyadh, Baghdad (Iraq)
Membership: 100,000

- St. Shalleeta Parish, Los Angeles (USA):
- St. George Parish, London (UK):
- St. George Parish, Jonkoping (Sweden):
- St. Odisho Parish, Arhus (Denmark):

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The West Syriac Churches

This name is given to the churches that trace their origin to the Syriac Christians of the Roman Empire. These churches are quite complex and intricate in their rituals, architecture, dress, and symbolism – and show some Byzantine influence. Their liturgy is based on that of St. James the brother of Christ and they employ the western dialect of Syriac in their writings.

The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD provoked a further split in the Patriarchate of Antioch. This time it was between the Hellenised upper class and the Syriac-speaking common people. The council’s teachings were enforced by the Byzantine imperial authorities in the cities, but they were largely rejected in the countryside. Those that did not reject these teachings were labelled “Melkites” (i.e. the Emperor’s men).

In the 6th century, the Bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradaeus, ordained many bishops and priests to carry on the faith of those who rejected Chalcedon in the face of imperial opposition. Consequently, this church became known as “Jacobite”. Some communities were also established in the Persian Empire in an effort to “purge” the region of the “Nestorian heresy” and bring the Assyrians there back to Antioch. The Catholicate was re-established at Tikrit, north of Baghdad, and later moved north to Mosul.

The conquest of northern Mesopotamia by the Persians and later the Arabs ended Byzantine persecution and created conditions favouring further development of this church. There was a great revival of Syriac scholarship in the Middle Ages, when the community possessed flourishing schools of theology, philosophy, history and science. At its height, the church included 20 metropolitan sees and 103 dioceses extending as far to the east as Afghanistan. There is also evidence of communities of without bishops as distant as Turkestan and Sinkiang (western China) during this period.

The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs resided in Antioch until 518. After this the patriarchate wandered to and from different monasteries in Cilicia and northern Syria, until it finally settled at St. Bar-Sawmo’s monastery (between present-day Malatya and Adiyaman in southeast Turkey) in 969. In 1034, persecution by the Melkites forced the patriarchate to mover again to the monastery of the Mother of God in Diyarbakir. In 1293 it was again moved officially to the Saffron monastery on the outskirts of Mardin.

But the Mongol invasions under Tamerlane in the late 14th century, during which most churches and monasteries were destroyed, marked the beginning of a long decline. Also starting in this century, the Patriarchs of this church began to take the title of Ignatius, in honour of the 2nd century martyr and Patriarch of Antioch St. Ignatius the Illuminator. In 1364 a schism developed in the church and a new patriarchate was proclaimed in Tur-Abdin. This lasted, on and off, until 1839 when the Tur-Abdin patriarchate was finally united to the mainstream church.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the ongoing turmoil in southern India between the native Christians and the Portuguese, who blocked off the their contact with the Church of the East, led many to turn to the Patriarch of Antioch. This union resulted in what is now called the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, which is headed by a Catholicos under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch.

Late in the 19th century many Syriac Orthodox immigrated to Western Europe and the Americas for economic and political reasons. The first parish in the USA was founded in West Yew York (New Jersey) in 1909 and named, St. Mary’s Assyrian Apostolic Church. The church is now located in Paramus, but is now called St. Mary’s Assyrian Orthodox Church.

On the eve of World War I, the Syriac Orthodox Church numbered well over 300,000 souls. Terrible losses were suffered during and after the war because of persecutions and massacres, leading to the widespread dispersion of the community. Almost 200,000 people lost their lives as well as many metropolitans, bishops, monks and priests. The refugees that managed to survive fled south to Aleppo, Damascus and the Jazira region in Syria, as well as Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.

After the war, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Elias III Shakir sent his secretary, Mar Severius Ephrem Barsoum, Bishop of Homs, to join the Assyro-Chaldean Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to demand an Assyrian state. The disastrous treaty of Lausanne in 1923 sealed the date of the Assyrians in the Middle East and the Patriarch went to India, where he dies in 1932. He was succeeded in the patriarchate by his secretary who moved to Homs in Syria. In turn, the next Patriarch, Mor Ignatius Yaqoub III, moved the patriarchate in 1959 to Damascus, where it remains today.

Even now the Syriac Orthodox population is still shifting. In the 1950s and 1960s many emigrated from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Within Iraq, they have been moving from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad. The most serious erosion of the community has taken place in southeast Turkey, where only a 2,000 Syriac Orthodox remain.

This church has a strong monastic tradition, and a few monasteries remain in the Mardin province of Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. There are now three monasteries in the diaspora, located in the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland.

Some theological education is still provided by the monasteries. But St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Seminary is the major theological institute of the Patriarchate. It was founded in Zahle, Lebanon, but moved to Mosul, Iraq, in 1939. It moved back to Zahle in the 1960s, and relocated to Atshana, near Beirut, in 1968. The outbreak of civil war in Lebanon forced the removal of the students to Damascus, Syria. New facilities for the seminary at Ma’arat Sayedniya, near Damascus, were consecrated by the Patriarch on 14 September 1996.

In April 2000 the Holy Synod changed the church’s official name to “The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch” in order to avoid confusion with Syrian nationality. The new name applied only to the English language, and was to be adopted gradually over the course of time.


Head: Mor Ignatius Zakka I Sanharib Iwas (born 1933, elected 1980)
Title: Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Residence: Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, Bab-Touma, Damascus (Syria)
Membership: 750,000 + 1 million Indians

- Archdiocese of Eastern USA:
- St. Mark’s Cathedral, Teaneck, NJ:
- St. Ephrem’s Parish, Washington DC:
- Archdiocese of Western USA:
- St. Paul’s Parish, San Diego, CA:
- St. Ephrem’s Monastery, Santa Fe, NM:
- Archdiocese of Canada:
- St. Severius’ Parish, Calgary (Alberta):
- Archdiocese of Istanbul and Ankara (Turkey):
- Yeni Günisigi Community Magazine, Istanbul:
- St. Ephrem’s Monastery, Losser (Holland):
- Archdiocese of Germany: and
- Syriac Orthodox Church Youth (Sweden):
- Patriarchal Vicariate of Brazil:
- Patriarchal Vicariate of Australia:

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The Syriac Catholic Church

During the Crusades there were many examples of warm relations between Catholic and Syriac Orthodox bishops. Some of these bishops seemed favourable to union with Rome, but no concrete results were achieved. There was also a decree of union between the Syriac Orthodox and Rome at the Council of Florence on 30 November 1444 but this also came to nothing.

Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries began to work among the Syriac Orthodox faithful at Aleppo in 1626. So many of them were received into communion with Rome that in 1662, when the Patriarchate had fallen vacant, the Catholic party was able to elect one of its own, Andrew Akhidjan, as Patriarch. This provoked a split in the community, and after Akhidjan’s death in 1677 two opposed patriarchs were elected, an uncle and nephew, representing the two parties. But when the Catholic Patriarch died in 1702, this brief line of Syriac Catholic Patriarchs died out with him.

The Ottoman government supported the Oriental Orthodox against the Catholics, and throughout the 18th century the Syriac Catholics underwent much suffering and persecution. There were long periods when no Syriac Catholic bishops were functioning, and the community was forced underground.

In 1782 the Syriac Orthodox Holy Synod elected Metropolitan Michael Jarweh of Aleppo as Patriarch. Shortly after he was enthroned, he declared himself Catholic, took refuge in Lebanon and built the still-extant monastery of Our Lady at Sharfeh. After Jarweh there has been an unbroken succession of Syriac Catholic Patriarchs.

In 1829 the Turkish government granted legal recognition to the Syriac Catholic Church, and the residence of the Patriarch was established at Aleppo in 1831. Catholic missionary activity resumed. Because the Christian community at Aleppo had been severely persecuted, the Patriarchate was moved to Mardin (now in southeast Turkey) in 1850.

Steady Syriac Catholic expansion at the expense of the Syriac Orthodox was ended by the persecutions and massacres that took place during World War I. More than half of the 75,000 Syriac Catholics were massacred. In the early 1920s the Patriarchal residence was moved to Beirut, to which many Syriac Catholics had fled.

The Syriac Catholic Patriarch always takes the name Ignatius in addition to another name. Although Syriac Catholic priests were bound to celibacy at the Synod of Sharfeh in 1888, there are now a number of married priests. A patriarchal seminary and printing house are located at Sharfeh Monastery in Lebanon.

Head: Mor Ignatius Peter VIII Abdulahad (born 1930, elected 2001)
Title: Patriarch of Antioch and all the East
Residence: Beirut, Lebanon
Membership: 200,000

- Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance, Newark, NJ (USA):

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