The Assyrian Church of the East known officially as the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East (in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic ܥܕܬܐ ܩܕܝܫܬܐ ܘܫܠܝܚܝܬܐ ܩܬܘܠܝܩܝ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ ܕܐܬܘܪ̈ܝܐ, ‘Ittā Qaddishtā wa-Shlikhāitā Qattoliqi d-Madnĕkhā d-Āturāyē, in Arabic كنيسة المشرق الآشورية الرسولية الكاثوليكية المقدّسة, in Persian القدس وابسته به پاپ کاتولیک آشوری کلیسای شرق), which is presently presided over by Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, is a Christian particular church and one of the oldest. It is a modern successor of the historical Church of the East, also known as the Persian Church, having emerged from a split with the Chaldean Church in the 16th century. It traces its origins to the See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in central Mesopotamia, which tradition holds was founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle (Tooma Shlikha) as well as Saint Mari and Saint Addai in AD 33 as asserted in the Doctrine of Addai.
It is one of the three Churches of the East that hold themselves distinct from Oriental and Eastern Orthodoxy. The church itself does not use the word "Orthodox" in any of its service books or in any of its official correspondence, nor does it use any word which can be translated as "correct faith" or "correct doctrine", the rough translation of the word Orthodox. The Holy, Apostolic and Catholic adjectives were officially added to the Assyrian Church of the East's title in part by the general agreement with the Nicene Creed which declares that "We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church." Holy as in set apart for a purely sacred purpose. Apostolic as in founded by one of Jesus's own apostles. Catholic as in catholicos, Greek for "universal" referring to a worldwide church. In India, it is more often called the Chaldean Syrian Church. In the West it is often called the Nestorian Church, due to its historical associations with Nestorianism, though the church itself considers the term pejorative and argues that this identification is incorrect. The church declares that no other church has suffered as many martyrdoms as the Assyrian Church of the East.
The founders of Assyrian theology are Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, who taught at Antioch. The normative Christology of the Assyrian church was written by Babai the Great (551–628) and is clearly distinct from the accusations directed toward Nestorius: his main christological work is called the 'Book of the Union', and in it Babai teaches that the two qnome (essences, or hypostases) are unmingled but everlastingly united in the one parsopa (personality) of Christ.
The history of the Assyrian Church of the East has its roots in the early centuries of Christianity, though it was not specifically referred to as the "Assyrian Church of the East" until the 15th century. As with many Christian churches, there was great overlap between one church and the next, so the history of the Assyrian Church of the East reaches back into the history of the Persian Sassanid Empire,the Ottoman Empire, and other eras until the modern day.
Early years of the Church of the East
As early as the 1st and 2nd centuries, Christian communities existed in the regions of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. Various schisms in the church) took place in the early centuries of Christianity, dividing Eastern Christianity from Western Christianity. As Christians were persecuted in one area, they would emigrate to another, but were not always able to worship openly. A turning point came in the fourth century, when King Yezdegerd of the Persian Sassanid Empire was open to authorizing the Christians as a valid sect. Christians were still very much a minority in the predominantly Zoroastrian Empire(apart from in Mesopotamia-Assyria), but in 410, the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was held at the Sassanid capital, to allow the leading bishops to select a formal Catholicos, or leader. The Catholicos, Mar Isaac was both to lead the Christian community, and be answerable for it to the King. The King also sought to make the Christian Church in Persia separate from that of the Roman Empire, the better to ensure against popular influence from Persia's great rival power. In 424 the bishops of the Persian Empire met in council under the leadership of Catholicos Mar Dadisho I (421-456) and determined that there would be no reference of their disciplinary or theological problems to any other power, especially not to any bishop or church council in the Roman Empire.
Because of their independence, there were no representatives of the Mesopotamian and Persian Church at various church councils which were attended by representatives of Western Christianity. As such, the leaders of the Persian Church did not feel bound by any decisions of what they regarded as Roman Imperial councils.
Another major turning point came in 431, at the First Council of Ephesus. One of the key issues discussed there was the question of the title of the mother of Jesus. Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who preached the dual nature of Jesus, was branded as heretic at the Council, and deposed, because he declined to call the Virgin Mary 'mother of God' ("Theotokos" in Greek). He preferred to call her 'mother of Christ' ("Christotokos" in Greek). The Persian kings, who were at constant war with the Roman Empire, saw the opportunity to assure the loyalty of their Christian subjects and supported the Nestorian schism, by granting protection to Nestorians, executing the pro-Roman Catholicos Babowai, and replacing him with the Nestorian Bishop of Nisibis, Barsauma. The Persians also allowed the transfer of the School of Edessa from Mesopotamia back to its original home, in the Persian city of Nisibis. The Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Babai I (reigned 497 – 503) solidified the association of the Persian Church with Nestorianism.
During the medieval period, the geographical horizons of the Church of the East stretched well beyond its heartland in Iraq. Assyrian (and Nestorian) communities sprang up across Central Asia, and missionaries took the Christian faith as far as China and the Malabar Coast of India..
Formation of the Chaldean Catholic Church
In the 15th century, the church decreed that the title of Patriarch could pass only to relatives of then-patriarch Mar Shimun IV. This upset many in the church's hierarchy, and in 1552 a rival Patriarch, Mar Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa, was elected. This rival Patriarch met with the Pope and entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of the East now had two rival leaders, a hereditary patriarch in Alqosh (in modern-day northern Iraq), and the pro-Latin patriarch in Diyarbakır. This situation lasted until 1662 when the Patriarch in Diyarbakır, Mar Shimun XIII Denha, broke communion with Rome, resumed relations with the line at Alqosh, and moved his seat to the village of Qochanis in the mountains of Hakkari. The Holy See responded by appointing a new patriarch in Diyarbakır to govern the Assyrian people who stayed in communion with Rome. This latter group became known as the Chaldean Catholic Church. In 1804 the hereditary line of Patriarchs in Alqosh died out, and that church's hierarchy decided to accept the authority of the Chaldean Catholic Church patriarchs. The line of patriarchs at Qochanis remained independent.
Since then, a minority of Chaldean Catholics have been led to regard themselves as ethnically distinct from Assyrians, mainly due to meddling by Ottoman, Kurdish and Iraqi powers who sought to fracture the unity of the Assyrian people for political reasons.
Assyrians faced reprisals under the Hashemite monarchy for co-operating with Britain during the years after World War I,(Assyrian troops were used to put down Arab and Kurdish rebellions) and many fled to the West. The Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, though born into the line of Patriarchs at Qochanis, was educated in Britain. For a time he sought a homeland for the Assyrians in Iraq but was forced to take refuge in Cyprus in 1933 after a massacre of Assyrian civilians at Simele by the Iraqi Army, later moving to Chicago, Illinois, and finally settling near San Francisco, California.
Mar Shimun XXIII
In 1964, the issue of hereditary succession again caused a schism, with the establishment of the Ancient Church of the East in 1974 and the subsequent election of Mar Thoma Darmo as a rival catholicos-patriarch in the newly established church in opposition to the hereditary Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII.
Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun became convinced that nothing in the Canon Law of the Church of the East prohibited the Patriarch from marrying. He therefore married in August 1973 and also announced his resignation in that year, but was asked to stay in office. He was assassinated in 1975 while negotiations were being carried out over the conditions of his reinstatement.
Mar Dinkha IV
In 1976, the current Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, was elected as Shimun's successor. He announced the permanent end of the hereditary succession, which removed the underlying dispute, but the rift between the rival Patriarchs of the Assyrian Church of the East and the rival Ancient Church of the East still exists, with Mar Addai II as the successor to Mar Thoma Darmo at the head of the rival Ancient Church of the East.
Mar Dinkha also explicitly rejected the term Nestorian, on the occasion of his consecration in 1976.
Today less than 1 million of the world's 4.5 million Assyrians remain in Iraq.
The Church is governed by Episcopal polity, which is the same as other Catholic churches. The church maintains a system of geographical parishes organized into archdioceses and dioceses. The patriarch is head of the church, and under him there are four archdioceses in the Assyrian Church: one for Australia and New Zealand, one for Lebanon, Syria, and Europe, another for India, and one that serves Iraq and Russia. Individual dioceses exist in the eastern USA (including Chicago), western USA, California, Canada, Syria, Iran and Europe. Several congregations exist in Georgia, India, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. A single parish exists in the People's Republic of China, whose existence stretches back to antiquity, and another in Moscow. The present Patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, has his headquarters (along with four other houses of worship) in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Archdiocese of Australia & New Zealand
Overseen by Metropolitan Mar Meelis Zaia - The Archdiocese of Australia & New Zealand consists of 4 Churches, a Mission, Ss Peter and Paul English Parish,and an Assyrian Primary School. It is the first ever archdiocese outside the Middle East, in the western hemisphere. The St. Hurmizd Assyrian Primary School provides education for over 3,600 students. Mar Narsai Assyrian college was also established in Sydney (the first Assyrian high school) and land has been bought for the construction of the multimillion dollar high school. Currently, the Assyrian Church in Australia is working on building an Assyrian Medical Centre, a retirement village, Mar Narsai Assyrian College, and a church building for the rapidly growing Ss. Peter and Paul English Parish under Reverend, Father Genard Lazar. The Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand under the leadership of Metropolitan Mar Meelis Zaia is the fastest growing Assyrian church diocese and community in the world.
Archdiocese of Lebanon, Syria & Europe
Under Metropolitan Mar Narsai D'Baz
Archdiocese of India
Overseen by Metropolitan Mar Aprem, the Archdiocese of India consists of over 28 Churches and 1 Mission. In India this church known as the Chaldean Syrian church of the east. It has more than 35000 population in India mostly in south India. Head Quartered at Thrissur in Kerala. Two new Bishops Mar Yohannan Joseph and Mar Augin Kuriakose were consecrated on 17 January 2010 by Mar Dinkha IV at a Thrissur.
Archdiocese of Iraq & Russia
The Catholic Pope John XXIII invited many other Christian denominations, including the Assyrian Church of the East, to send "observers" to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). These observers, graciously received and seated as honored guests right in front of the podium on the floor of the council chamber, did not formally take part in the Council's debate, but they mingled freely with the Catholic bishops and theologians who constituted the council, and with the other observers as well, in the break area during the council sessions. There, cordial conversations began a rapproachment that has blossomed into expanding relations among the Catholic Church, the churches of the Orthodox Communion lead by the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the other ancient churches of the east.
On November 11, 1994, a historic meeting of Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II took place in Rome. The two patriarchs signed a document titled Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. One side effect of this meeting was that the Assyrian Church's relationship to the Chaldean Catholic Church began to improve.
In 1996, Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV signed an agreement of cooperation with the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad, Raphael I Bidawid, in Southfield, Michigan. In 1997, he entered into negotiations with the Syrian Orthodox Church and the two churches ceased anathematizing each other.
The lack of the Words of Institution used by Jesus at the Last Supper ("This is my body"..."This is [the cup of] my blood") in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, which dates to apostolic times, has caused many Western Christians (especially Roman Catholics) to consider the sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East to be invalid. However, in 2001, after a study of this issue, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, then being prefect) promulgated a declaration approved by Pope John Paul II stating that this is a valid liturgy, opening the door for Chaldean Catholics to receive the Eucharist in an Assyrian Church if unable to attend their own churches.
The hierarchies of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church subsequently promulgated a joint synodal decree implementing the present Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East on 20 July 2001. These guidelines permit liberal sharing in sacraments of communion (qurbana), reconciliation, and annointing of the sick for the diaspora of the respective churches.
This document includes following provisions: (1) Assyrian faithful are permitted to participate and to receive Holy Communion in a Chaldean celebration of the Holy Eucharist (2) Chaldean faithful are permitted to participate and to receive Holy Communion in an Assyrian celebration of the Holy Eucharist, even if celebrated using the Anaphora of Addai and Mari in its form without the Words of Institution. (3) Assyrian ministers are invited (but not obliged) to insert the Words of Institution in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari when Chaldean faithfuls are present to the liturgy.
The provisions above are intended exclusively to pastoral necessity, i.e. when it is not possible for a Assyrian or Chaldean faithful to attend their own Church. This document does not express a relationship of Full Communion, even if it marks the mutual recognition of the validity of the apostolic succession of the other Church, as well as its priesthood and sacraments, a recognition by the way never contested. It also has been possible because the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, even without the Words of Institution, has been officially declared valid by the Holy See with the very same document.
From a canonical point of view this document hasn't brought breaking news: actually canon 671 of the 1991 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches of the Catholic Church already stated that "If necessity requires it or genuine spiritual advantage suggests it and provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is permitted for Catholic Christian faithful, for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers, in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. 3. Likewise Catholic ministers licitly administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick to Christian faithful of Eastern Churches, who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, if they ask for them on their own and are properly disposed" (see also canons 843 and 844 of the Latin rite Catholic Code of Canon Law). It shall also be noted that the Assyrian Church of the East follows an Open Communion approach allowing any baptized Christian to receive its Eucharist.
From an ecumenical point of view this document wanted to mark a further step in the relation between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, possibly beginning a pastoral collaboration. Anyway in the following years the dialog between the two Churches slowed down and was suspended in 2002 and not yet resumed.