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
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
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
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
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: www.assyrianchurch.com.au
- Commission on Inter-Church Relations and Educational Development:
here for a table of Church organization.
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
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
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
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): www.chaldeandiocese.org
- Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, San Diego (California):
here for a table of Church organization.
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
Head: Mar Addai II (born 1948, elected
Title: Catholicos-Patriarch of the East
Residence: Patriarchal Palace, Hay al-Riyadh, Baghdad (Iraq)
- St. Shalleeta Parish, Los Angeles
- St. George Parish, London (UK): www.marganetha.subnet.dk
- St. George Parish, Jonkoping (Sweden): www.assyrianchurch.net
- St. Odisho Parish, Arhus (Denmark): www.atour.com/~maraddi
here for a table of Church organization.
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
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
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
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
Head: Mor Ignatius Zakka I Sanharib Iwas (born 1933, elected
Title: Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Residence: Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, Bab-Touma, Damascus
Membership: 750,000 + 1 million Indians
- Archdiocese of Eastern
- St. Mark’s Cathedral, Teaneck, NJ: www.stmarkscathedral.com
- St. Ephrem’s Parish, Washington DC: www.soc-dc.org
- Archdiocese of Western USA: http://sor.cua.edu
- St. Paul’s Parish, San Diego, CA: http://syriac.homestead.com
- St. Ephrem’s Monastery, Santa Fe, NM: http://stephrem.domainvalet.com
- Archdiocese of Canada: www.syrianorthodoxchurch.com
- St. Severius’ Parish, Calgary (Alberta): www.geocities.com/~saintseverius
- Archdiocese of Istanbul and Ankara (Turkey): www.suryanikadim.org
- Yeni Günisigi Community Magazine, Istanbul: www.geocities.com/Athens/Agora/8641
- St. Ephrem’s Monastery, Losser (Holland): www.morephrem.com
- Archdiocese of Germany: www.gwdg.de/~grabo/sok/
- Syriac Orthodox Church Youth (Sweden): www.soku.org
- Patriarchal Vicariate of Brazil: www.sirianort-santamaria.org.br
- Patriarchal Vicariate of Australia: www.syriac.cjb.net
here for a table of Church organization.
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
Title: Patriarch of Antioch and all the East
Residence: Beirut, Lebanon
- Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance,
Newark, NJ (USA): www.syriac-catholic.org
here for a table of Church organization.