Assyrian Church of the East
ASSYRIAN CHURCH OF THE EAST
Historically known by the derogatory term "Nestorian Church." The Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East has requested that the term "Nestorian Church" not be used, because of its historically negative connotations. Strictly speaking, The Assyrian Church holds the moderate Antiochene christological position, and the 1994 Common Christological Delaration signed between Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II recognizes the Assyrian Church's de facto acceptance of the substance of Chalcedonian christology.
Origins. Very little is known about the introduction of Christianity into Persia. Later Greek, Syrian, and Persian legends variously maintain that the Apostles Peter and Thomas preached to the Parthians and that Thaddaeus, Bartholomew, and Addaeus (addai), one of the 72 Disciples, evangelized Mesopotamia and Persia. An ancient chronicle notes the destruction of a Christian church by a flood at Edessa in 201. It is quite possible that the first real Christian communities were founded in 260, when, after the defeat of Valerian, many Christians with their priests and bishops were carried off from Coelesyria into Mesopotamia. The inner organization of the Persian Church was effected by Papa bar Aggai, who was bishop of the royal city Seleucia-Ctesiphon in the last decades of the 3d century and the first decades of the 4th.
Under the relatively weak Arsacids (c. 247 b.c.–a.d. 224) Christianity was largely tolerated; but when the Sassanids (224–651) came to power, conversions from Zoroastrianism were regarded as a capital offense. This opposition to Christianity was sharpened in the 4th century, when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christians were subject to intermittent and, at times, violent persecutions. For 40 years (348–88) no patriarch, or catholicos, could be elected to the See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Since no theological school could be erected in Persian territory and the schools of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople were so far distant, it was extremely difficult to provide instruction for future priests.
The problem was partially solved by James, Bishop of nisibis, a Roman city near the Persian frontier. On his return from the Council of Nicaea in 325 he founded a theological school at Nisibis and entrusted its direction to the future saint and Doctor of the Church ephrem the syrian. The school flourished until 363, when Nisibis was handed over to the Persians by the Emperor Jovian after Julian's disastrous campaign against Ctesiphon. Transferred to Edessa, the school became famous for its adaptation of Aristotelian philosophy to theology and for its translations of Greek works into Syriac.
In 399, when Yazdgard I became King of Persia, Emperor Arcadius sent Bishop Maruthas of Martyropolis to congratulate him on his accession. Maruthas, a Mesopotamian and a skilled physician, was able to win the monarch's favor for the Christians. With the help of his governors, Yazdgard (also Yazdagrid) in 410 convoked a synod at Seleucia under the direction of the Catholicos Isaac. The plenary session that was held February 1 with 40 bishops in attendance adopted the Nicene Creed and the principal disciplinary decrees of Nicaea and of the provincial synods that completed it. Toward the end of his reign Yazdgard was influenced by the magi, who were alarmed by the spread of Christianity; and he ordered the destruction of Christian churches and the exile of Christians themselves. Though he died soon after giving this order, the persecution was continued by his son, Vahrām V (421–38). When the Persians demanded the return of Christians who had fled into Roman territories, war broke out. In the treaty of peace that followed, theodosius ii obtained from Vahrām (also Vaharam, Bahram) a promise of freedom of conscience for Christians in Persian lands, and at the same time he guaranteed a similar liberty for Mazdakites living within the Roman Empire.
A synod held in 424 under Patriarch Dadisho' with 36 bishops present decreed that the Persian catholicos was subject only to the tribunal of Christ. This implicit declaration of independence from the Church of the West was followed in later years by the adoption of the radical Christological doctrines of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius. In its teaching on Christ the school of edessa, where the Persian clergy were educated, was essentially Antiochene; that is, it so stressed the distinction between the two natures in Christ as to give the impression, albeit unintentional, that there was no really personal union but only one that was moral or accidental. At the time of Nestorius's condemnation, rabbula, a violent opponent of Nestorius, was bishop of Edessa. On his death in 435 he was succeeded by Ibas, head of the school at Edessa and staunch defender of Theodore of Mopsuestia. In 449 at the "Robber Synod" of ephesus Ibas was deposed on the basis of a letter that he had written to the Persian Bishop Mari of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (433 or 436), in which he defended Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia while strenuously rejecting Nestorius. Though Ibas was reinstated at Chalcedon (451) after anathematizing Nestorius, his letter was condemned at the Council of constantinople ii (553) as one of the "Three Chapters." On the death of Ibas in 457 Narses, who had succeeded him as head of the school of Edessa, was driven from the city by the Monophysites. Going to Nisibis, he founded a school there that continued to keep alive the teachings of Theodore and Nestorius on the two natures in Christ. The college eventually accommodated some 800 students and became so famous that Pope agapetus i and cassiodorus thought of founding a similar one in Italy.
When the Catholicos Dadisho' died in 456, he was succeeded by Bâbôe (457–84). His position was sought by Bar Sauma, Metropolitan of Nisibis, patron of Narses, and friend of King Peroz. At court Bar Sauma urged the advantages of a married Christian clergy, a project favored by the Magi, and a Christian teaching or doctrine that would be different from that of Byzantium. In 484 Bâbôe was arrested because of a letter he had written to Constantinople that was intercepted at Nisibis. When he refused to "prove" his loyalty to the king by worshiping the sun, he was cruelly executed. Bar Sauma's hopes of obtaining the catholicate were, however, shattered by the death of King Peroz shortly after that of Bâbôe.
In 485 Acacius was elected patriarch, and in February of the following year he held a synod at Seleucia in which the Antiochene formula for the dogma of the two natures in Christ was adopted and permission was granted to deacons and priests to marry even after ordination. In 497 a synod held by the Catholicos Bābai extended this permission to bishops and the catholicos.
During the 6th century the Assyrian Church was torn by a long schism (521 or 522–37 or 539), a violent persecution (540–545) under Chosroes (Khusro) I (531–79), and by various ecclesiastical scandals. Order was restored through the reforms of the great Patriarch Mar Aba (540–52), but his successor, Joseph, was deposed for simony and oppressing his subject priests and bishops. When the Catholicos Gregory I died in 609, Chosroes II ordered the confiscation of his goods and forbade the election of a successor. The see was vacant until 628. At a synod held by the Assyrian bishops in 612 without the presidency of a patriarch, the Christology of the energetic monk Bābai the Great was adopted. Unlike other earlier Assyrian formulas of the Antiochene position, that of Bābai can in no sense be interpreted in a way that would make it harmonize with the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon.
In 628 Chosroes was assassinated, and his son Kavādh II came to the throne. A secret convert to Christianity, the new king permitted the Assyrians to elect a catholicos, Ishojabh (also Ishō’jab; 628–44 or 646), but he died after six or eight months of a troubled reign. Yazdgard III (631–51), the last of the Sassanids, was unable to muster sufficient forces to ward off the attacks of Islam and in 637 saw the fall of his capital city Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
Monasticism and Missionary Endeavors. Despite the frequent persecutions from without and the scandals, schisms, and dissensions from within, the Assyrian Church showed a remarkable vitality under the Sassanids, especially in the growth of monastic institutions and in the founding of numerous missions. Already in the 3d century there were hermits in Persia leading ascetical lives in solitude. In the writings of aphraates in the following century mention is made of the "sons" and "daughters of the covenant," men and women dedicated to study and prayer, leading celibate lives in a community. This native monastic movement was influenced by the ideals and practices of immigrant monks from Egypt. The great organizer and reformer of monasticism among the Assyrians was Abraham of Kashkar (501–86). After traveling in Egypt and spending some time in Nisibis, he established a retreat on Mount Izlā. Numerous other monasteries were founded by his disciples. A distinctive characteristic of Assyrian monasticism was the active interest that the monks took in the physical and spiritual needs of their peoples.
The missionary labors of the Assyrians were partially due to the persecutions to which they were subject. Driven from their homes, they established new centers of Christianity in remote parts of the kingdom or in foreign lands. But they also engaged in active missionary activities along the great trade routes leading to the north, south, and east. Before the Arab conquest of Persia they had brought Christianity to Yemen and the eastern coasts of Arabia. Other missionaries were active on the islands of Socotra and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and in South India, as is evidenced by Pahlavi inscriptions of the 6th and 7th centuries on stone crosses found at Saint Thomas's Mount near Madras and at Kottayam in Travancore. During this period there were Assyrian churches, bishops, and even metropolitans in the great caravan cities of Central Asia, including Merv, Herat, and Samarkand.
The first Assyrian missionaries reached China in 631. Four years later one of them, Aluoben (Alopen) visited Emperor Taizong (T'ai Tsung) in his capital of Changan, more recently known as Xi'an (Sian). He received permission to preach the "Luminous Doctrine," as Christianity was then known in China. During the course of the next century several monasteries and a metropolitanate were established. The early history of this mission has been recorded on the so-called "Nestorian Monument" of Xi'anfu erected in February 781 and discovered in 1625. The imperial edict of 845 primarily against the Buddhists caused serious harm to the Assyrian Church in China, and by the 10th century Christianity had completely disappeared from the empire.
Assyrian Church under Islamic Rule. The conquest of Persia by the Arabs brought two centuries of relative peace and prosperity to the Assyrian Church. The Muslims granted the Christians, who were monotheists and to a great extent Semites like themselves, freedom of worship and the right to make converts among the Persians. Realizing their own cultural inferiority, they employed Christian scholars to translate the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers into Arabic and were thus able to acquire the Hellenic culture that they later communicated to the Christians of the West. But Islamic rule also had its disadvantages. Ordinary Christians were forced to accept a lower position in society and to pay a special tax. The Assyrian catholicos came to be regarded as the civil head of his community, especially after the patriarchate was moved to Baghdad, and this increased the rivalry for election. But, despite these difficulties, the missionary activities of the Assyrians continued to flourish, especially under Timotheus I (780–823). Missionaries sent out by him made numerous converts in Tibet and Chinese Turkestan, who were to be of great importance because of the connections these peoples had with the Mongols.
One of the sons of Genghis Khan (1162–1227) married a Christian princess of the Keraits, and she became the mother of his two most famous grandsons, Kublai (1216–94) and Hulagu Khan (1217–65). Hulagu's favorite wife was a Christian, and Mangu, grand khan from 1251 to 1259, is said to have been baptized by an Armenian bishop. Under Mongol rule Christian missionaries were again able to enter China, and the Assyrians had an archbishop in the Mongol capital of Kambaluk (modernday Beijing).
After falling into the hands of the Seljuk Turks in the 10th century and then passing through a period of political anarchy, Persia was subjected to the Mongols by Hulagu Khan in 1258. In 1281 Mark, a Mongolian monk and son of an archbishop, who had come to Baghdad to visit the center of Assyrian Church, was named catholicos and took the name of Yabhalaha III. Of a kindly disposition, he ruled the Assyrian Church through a stormy period under seven Mongol kings and had the consolation of baptizing some of them. His hope that the Mongols would join forces with the Christians of the West to crush Islam was doomed to failure. After a period of vacillation the Mongols turned to Islam rather than to Christianity, finding it more compatible with their temperament. Under the Muslim Timurlane (1379–1405) the Assyrian Church suffered a terrible persecution. All those who failed to escape to the mountains were put to the sword, and very little is heard of the Assyrian Christians in these areas until the accession of ’Abbas the Great in 1582.
Attempts at union with Rome. The Latin Crusades provided various contacts between the Churches of the East and the West, and these in turn led to more or less successful attempts at reunion with Rome. Negotiations were frequently conducted through Franciscan, Dominican, and, in later centuries, Jesuit missionaries, but not always with sufficient understanding and prudence. In the spring of 1235 the Dominican William of Montferrat was sent by Gregory IX to the Catholicos Sabrīshō’ V, who had shown some interest in a reunion. This embassy proved to be fruitless, but soon after it an Assyrian archbishop, probably from Damascus, on the occasion of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem made his submission to the Holy See and was congratulated by Pope Gregory IX in a letter dated July 29, 1237. In 1304 the Catholicos Yabhalaha sent to Rome from Maragha a profession of faith through a Dominican returning to Italy, but his desire for reunion was frustrated by the Assyrian clergy and faithful. In 1340 Elias, Archbishop of Nicosia in Cyprus, made a profession of faith in which he upheld the authority of the Holy See, but it was only in 1445 that a reunion of the Assyrian Church in Cyprus was officially recorded in Rome. This is to be found in a bull of eugene iv, which he promulgated after the Metropolitan Timotheus had made his profession of faith before the archbishop of Colossae.
In 1551 a group of Assyrian Christians eager for re-union met at Mosul and delegated Sullāqā, superior of the monastery of Rabbān Hormizd, near Alkōsh, to go to Rome. There he made his profession of faith and on April 28, 1553, received the pallium and the title of Chaldean patriarch. He returned to the East with two Maltese Dominicans to help him with the work of reunion. After taking up residence at Diárbekr, he was imprisoned and executed at the beginning of 1555. The united Chaldeans chose as his successor ‘Abdīshō, the metropolitan of Jeziret ibn-Omar (Beit-Zabdaï), who went to Rome and received the pallium from Pius IV.
During the 17th and 18th centuries reconciliations with various Assyrian groups continued to be made. By the 19th century the Assyrian Church was greatly diminished in numbers. Their chief center was around Lake Urmia in the mountainous regions of northwestern Persia. In the 1830s and 1840s they were frequently attacked and massacred by the neighboring Kurds. During these same decades they were visited by English and American Protestant missionaries, and toward the close of the century, by Russian missionaries as well. During World War I their numbers were further diminished by marauding bands of Turks, Kurds, and Muslim Persians. Many fled from the mountains of Kurdistan to the plains of Mesopotamia, then under English colonial rule. In 1933, after Iraq's declaration of independence, many Assyrian Christians fled to Syria. In that year, the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Simon XXIII was sent into exile in the United States. Since then, the Assyrian patriarchs have resided in exile in the United States.
The 1990s was a period of significant ecumenical developments. On Nov. 11, 1994, Mar Dinkha IV of the Assyrian Church and Pope John Paul II signed a Common Christological Declaration in the Vatican, recognizing that the Assyrians and Catholics are united in a common christology. In 1996, Mar Dinkha IV met his Chaldean Catholic counterpart, Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid and signed a joint patriarchal statement on joint collaboration between the two churches. The Holy Synods of both churches subsequently ratified a "Joint Synodal Decree for Promoting Unity" in 1997. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Assyrian Church is not in formal communion with any church.
Bibliography: a. atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity (London 1968). h. hill, ed., Light from the East: A Symposium on the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches (Toronto 1988). r. roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey (6th ed. Rome 1999).
[m. j. costelloe/eds.]