Op-Ed: A modest but great challenge for the Church of the East

Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Awa III, in a recent church opening ceremony flanked to his left by Bishop Mar Shimun of the Ancient Church of the East and Bishop Mar Abres to his right of the Assyrian Church of the East. (Facebook: His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Awa III)

Will the Eastern Christian church overcome internal division and walk down the road to progress?

By Robert DeKelaita | May 2022

The Church of the East has been through turbulent times across the centuries; conquests, persecution, genocide, and the destruction of whole communities. Despite the many difficulties, the Church survived largely among the very people that formed its foundations and are most associated with it, the Assyrians, maintaining its own unique Christian faith and cultural heritage. This month, bishops of the Church of the East have come together to lessen their difficulties and end the most recent schism.

Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII (MarShimun.com)

Since 1920, the Church of the East was headed by Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII , who had been patriarch since his consecration at the age of 12, having succeeded his uncle, Mar Polous Shimun in a line of hereditary succession going back hundreds of years. As a result of Mar Shimun’s involvement in his nation’s political struggle in Iraq after the First World War, he was exiled to Cyprus by the Iraqi government with the support of the British in 1933. In 1940, he came to Chicago and lived there until moving to California in 1954. Unlike their patriarch, most of the Assyrian members of the Church of the East had lived in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

In 1964, a dispute erupted between the patriarch and Metropolitan Mar Toma Darmo, who had been consecrated by Mar Shimun for India. Mar Toma was critical of the patriarchal hereditary succession that he felt was advocated by his patriarch, and of the ‘modernization’ being advocated by Mar Shimun in the West, including Mar Shimun’s switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The dispute between the patriarch and Mar Toma led to a schism within the Church in 1968, when Mar Toma came to Iraq and was elevated to the position of a rival patriarch in Baghdad.

One year after his consecration as patriarch, Mar Toma died. Mar Addai II succeeded Mar Toma and became patriarch from 1972 until his death in Arizona in 2022. Though the two hierarchies had no Christological disputes, they operated independently of each other. Mar Shimun had difficulties of his own within his Church and in 1975, after his resignation and subsequent marriage, he was assassinated in California and a new patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, who had been the bishop in Iran, was elected in 1976 in London.

Mar Toma Darmo (Facebook: Mark Gewargis)

The two patriarchs, Mar Addai II, who resided in Baghdad, and Mar Dinkha IV, who resided in Morton Grove, Illinois, tried but failed to reunite their Church. With the passing of both Mar Dinkha and Mar Addai, and the selection of a young, American-born, new patriarch for the Assyrian Church of the East in Erbil, Mar Awa III, expectations of a reunion grew. The new patriarch made clear that resolving the 1968 schism was a priority and so Chicago, the patriarch’s birthplace, has become a place to attempt to solve the problems that occurred in 1968 Baghdad.

Why is this attempt important? Many speculate that there has never been a time when the Church’s faith and cultural heritage have been in greater danger of losing their existence. For the first time in its history, most adherents of the Church are no longer in the East, but in the West, where the Church of the East’s role as a religious, social, and cultural gravitational force is of paramount importance. Although Mar Awa was consecrated in Erbil and has brought back his patriarchal seat there, the survival of the Church in the West is critical.

If the Church is unable to organize itself and tackle issues that have threatened larger denominations, such as the growing secularism and assimilation into larger societies in the West, it is doubtful that it could live on – either in the East or the West. On the other hand, the Church and the Assyrians in charge could view ending the schism as a challenge they are both willing and able to undertake and solve before moving on to greater tasks; improving their pastoral skills and reach, enhancing their administrative services, building better and more innovative relations with parishioners, introducing necessary liturgical reforms, and establishing libraries and schools for their coming generations and priests.

Mar Addai II (Facebook: Mark Gewargis)

The current schism offers the Church – both clergy and parishioners – an opportunity to get on the ‘right side’ of history and eliminate this internal division. This effort is viewed by the Assyrian public as a litmus test of sorts, a symbolic gesture of competence in handling difficulties. If the Church is unable to heal its own wound, its chance of succeeding in other matters is questionable. Indeed, Assyrian Christianity , as a unique religious and cultural institution, could be on the road to extinction one misstep at a time. And the inability of Church leaders to ‘fix’ this internal division is a step toward extinction.

On the other hand, a healing of the schism would present members of the Church and outsiders as well a symbolic and concrete indication that this accomplishment is a step toward a renaissance. A renaissance, like extinction, will not come all at once. It will come in steps, sometimes big and sometimes small, but always in the right direction. One direction that is right is the recent attempt to end the existing schism. A recent article in Asia News noted that the “union, formal but also practical, is the only way to face the danger of [the Assyrian Christians’] slow but inexorable disappearance that has hung over them for decades.” (Asia News, April 23, 2022)

Being mindful of this, the six bishops have indicated that they are hopeful and positive about their chances to end the schism and reclaim their glorious past. That past is important to the Church, the Assyrians, and the world. It is also an essential part of the collective memory of Assyrian Christians.

Assyrian Christianity is linked to the apostles. According to the Doctrine of Mar Addai and Mar Mari, Assyrians witnessed “the signs which Mar Addai did, and those of them who became disciples, received from them the hand of the priesthood, and in their own country of the Assyrians they taught the sons of their people, and houses of prayer they built there secretly…”

The advancement of the Christian faith came gradually in Assyria as it competed with and even adopted the ancient faith practices of the Assyrians. As the Christian creed grew, competing doctrines explaining the nature of Christ developed and eventually led to the formation of two prominent churches on Assyrian soil; the Church of the East, centered in the heartland of Assyria, and the Syriac Orthodox Church, mainly out of Antioch and in Western Assyria. Both the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church based their liturgy in the Syriac language and grew out of the same cultural and linguistic environment rooted in the Assyrian population and landscape.

As the ancient state structure of Assyria disintegrated, the hierarchical structure of the Church became the lead organizing force for the Assyrian population. The Church of the East developed both a provincial center in Assyria, centered in the cities of Nineveh, Arbela (modern Erbil), and numerous other Assyrian towns and villages, and a more cosmopolitan church in central Mesopotamia, in the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, where the Sasanian empire reigned prior to the arrival of Islam . From central Mesopotamia, under both the Sasanian empire and later the Abbasids, the Church’s missionaries went forth to convert non-Christians into its fold.

Mar Awa III’s first mission has been to strengthen the presence of the Assyrian Church of the East in the heartland of Assyria (northern Iraq), where he has set his patriarchal seat. (Facebook: His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Awa III)

Starting from the Sixth century, the Church of the East began the greatest missionary enterprise undertaken by any Church. At its Apex, the Church of the East’s members in Asia outnumbered the Christians of the Catholic and Orthodox churches combined as its churches dotted the landscape from China to the borders of the Byzantine empire. The Church of the East converted Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Indians, Chinese, and other peoples in Asia.

Unlike European Christians, who were supported by powerful monarchs with military might, the Church of the East used intellect and diplomacy to win converts. “For behold,” states Mar Timotheus, Patriarch of the Church of the East (780-823 AD), “in all of the lands of Babel, Persia, and Assyria, and in all of the Eastern lands and amongst Beth Hinduwaye (India) and indeed amongst Beth Sinaye (China), amongst Beth Turtaye (Tatars) and likewise amongst Beth Turkaye (Turks) and in all of the domains under this patriarchal throne – this [throne] of which God commanded that we be its servants and likewise its ministers – that one who…is from eternity, without increase, who was crucified on our behalf – is proclaimed, indeed in different and diverse lands and races and languages.”

Patriarch Mar Timotheus personified the spirit of the Church of the East at the time; a love of learning and intellect combined with energetic zeal to spread the Christian faith and to grow and strengthen the Church. Through the efforts of Mar Timotheus and many patriarchs, bishops and priests like him, the Church of the East left its mark on the spiritual and physical landscapes of various countries in Asia. Today, millions of Christians in India trace their membership in the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church to the missionary efforts of the bishops, priests, and monks of the Church of the East from Assyria.

The once-thriving community of the Church of the East, however, was unable to maintain its existence like the Christian communities of the West. Inter-Christian rivalries, periodic persecutions by Muslim rulers, and, finally, the Mongol invasions of Timur in particular, devastated the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Timur’s massacres and pillages of all that was Christian reduced Assyrian Christianity to a miserable state in the Middle East.

At the end of the reign of Timur, Assyrian churches were nearly eradicated. In two locations, however, they survived; in the provinces of Christian Assyria (in the districts of Beth Garme, Adiabene, Arbela, Karkh dlbeth Seluq [Kirkuk], Nuhadra [Dohuk], Nineveh [Mosul], etc.), where the church had acquired much of its sustenance, and in the Hakkari mountains of today’s southeastern Turkey as well as in Urmia and Salamas in today’s Iran, where the Assyrians lived largely an isolated existence until being evicted by Kurds and Ottoman troops during the First World War.

Additionally, the Indian members of the Church remained faithful in the Malabar district in southern India. All the other diocese of the Church of the East were lost.

The Syriac Orthodox Church suffered much as well. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, Bishop Bar Hebraeus found “much quietness” in his diocese in Mesopotamia. Syria’s diocese, he wrote, was “wasted.” Only a few, according to a scholar of the Syriac Orthodox Church, survived the “blood-soaked decades.”

Despite all the difficulties and calamities they had endured, Assyrian Christians survived and persisted. In the Sixteenth century, the Church of the East splintered because of internal disputes, resulting in the formation of the Chaldean Church, which came into union with Rome. The Syriac Orthodox Church also fractured and from it was formed the Syriac Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. Still later, the Church of the East splintered again, resulting in the formation of the Ancient Church of the East in 1968 being now addressed in Chicago. The split between the two sides of the Church of the East is based on administrative, rather than Christological differences.

Dialogue committees between the Ancient Church of the East and Assyrian Church of the East during the second days of church reunification talks in Chicago. (Facebook: Assyrian Church of the East – Diocese of the Eastern USA)

In Chicago, bishops from both sides struggle together in the hope of reviving confidence in their ancient Church and, perhaps for the first time in decades, taking a concrete step toward the much-anticipated reunification. One announcement asks parishioners to pray for the bishops so that they can “restore the Church of the East to its glory.”

If the history of the Church of the East, and of the Assyrian people, inspires the bishops, they will likely find a way to take a step in the right direction toward reunification and end of the schism. They will likely recall the glory of their ancient Church, realize the dangers they face as a people and a faith community, and become inspired, just as their ancestor Patriarch Mar Timotheus, to build and strengthen their Church and to become a stronger gravitational force for their people in the diaspora and the Middle East.

No doubt, the turbulent centuries and the recent experiences of the Church and its people will be recalled and contemplated by the bishops as they consider the judgment of future generations if they fail.

All eyes are watching and waiting for hopeful signs of the end to the schism and a new beginning. It is now in the hands of the bishops to lead their Church and people to overcome a challenge that may seem modest but could have great consequences that may “restore the Church of the East to its glory.”

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