A 6th-century Nestorian church, St. John the Arab, in the Assyrian
village of Geramon
The Assyrian Church of the East considers itself as the continuation of the Church of the East, a church that originally developed among the Assyrians during the first century AD in Assyria, Upper Mesopotamia and northwestern Persia, east of the Byzantine Empire. It is an Apostolic church established by Thomas the Apostle, Thaddeus of Edessa, and Bartholomew the Apostle. Saint Peter, chief of the Apostles, added his blessing to the Church of the East at the time of his visit to the See at Babylon in the earliest days of the Church when stating, "The elect church which is in Babylon, salutes you; and Mark, my son." (1 Peter 5:13).
The historical distinctiveness of the Assyrian Church of the East resulted from the series of complex processes and events that occurred within the Church of the East during the transitional period that started in the middle of the 16th century, and lasted until the beginning of the 19th century. That turbulent period was marked by several consequent splits and mergers, resulting in the creation of separate branches and rival patriarchal lines. During the entire period, one of the main questions of dispute was the union with the Catholic Church. Ultimately, the pro-Catholic branches were consolidated as the Chaldean Catholic Church, while the traditional branches were consolidated as the Assyrian Church of the East.
Schisms and branches
During the patriarchal tenure of Shemon VII Ishoyahb (1539–1558), who resided in the ancient Rabban Hormizd Monastery near Alqosh, an internal dissent occurred over several issues, including the question of hereditary succession to the Patriarchal Throne, and the question of union with the Catholic Church. By that time, Franciscan missionaries had already gained some influence over several local communities, and they took an active role in organizing the opposition to the Patriarch at that time. By the end of 1552, a pro-Catholic party had been organized in Mosul under the leadership of the priest Yohannan Sulaqa, who decided to legitimize his position by traveling to Rome and seeking confirmation by Pope Julius III (1550–1555). Receiving support from the Franciscan missionaries, he arrived in Rome and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in February 1553. At that point, officials of the Roman Curia were given incorrect information that the elderly Patriarch Shemon VII had actually died. After some deliberation, the Pope decided to appoint Yohannan Sulaqa as "Patriarch of Babylon" in April 1553.
Upon consecration, Yohannan Sulaqa took the name Shimun and by the end of the year he returned to his homeland. He started to organize the pro-Catholic party by appointing several metropolitans and bishops, thus establishing the first group of hierarchs in the newly created Eastern Catholic Patriarchate of Mosul. That was the seminal event in the early history of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Creation of the separate Eastern-Catholic hierarchy was not welcomed by the traditionalist Patriarch Shemon VII Ishoyahb; thus an ecclesiastical rivalry between two parties was born, lasting for centuries. Initial splits and conflicts affected both communities and marked the beginning of a long series of splits and mergers within both branches.
The senior Eliya line of Alqosh
Union with Rome was actively opposed by Patriarch Shemon VII Ishoyahb, who continued to reside in the Rabban Hormizd Monastery near Alqosh. He was succeeded by his nephew Eliya (1558-1591), who was designated as Eliya "VII" in older historiography, but renumbered as Eliya "VI" in recent scholarly works. The same renumbering was applied to his successors, who all took the same name thus creating the Eliya line. During his patriarchal rule, the Eliya line preserved its traditional christology and full ecclesiastical independence. His successor was Patriarch Eliya (VII) VIII (1591–1617), who negotiated on several occasions with the Catholic Church, in 1605 and 1610, and again in 1615-1616, but without any conclusion. Further negotiations were abandoned by the next Patriarch Eliya (VIII) IX (1617–1660). David Wilmshurst noted that his successor, Patriarch Eliya (IX) X (1660–1700) also was a "vigorous defender of the traditional faith".
The Eliya line of traditionalist Patriarchs continued throughout the entire 18th century, residing in the ancient Monastery of Rabban Hormizd - which was eventually attacked and looted in 1743, at the beginning of the Ottoman-Persian War (1743-1746). Faced with a centuries-old rivalry and frequent conflicts between two mighty Islamic empires (Ottoman and Persian), all Christian communities in the bordering regions were constantly exposed to danger - and not only in the times of war, since local, mainly Kurdish, warlords were accustomed to attacking Christian communities and monasteries. Patriarchs Eliya (X) XI (1700–1722) and Eliya (XI) XII (1722–1778) tried to improve the increasingly worsening position of their Christian flock by staying loyal to Ottoman authorities, but local the administration was frequently unable to provide effective protection. The 'Eliya line' of traditionalist Patriarchs ended in 1804 with the death of Eliya (XII) XIII (1778-1804).
The junior Shimun line of Qochanis
During the second half of the 16th century, traditionalist Patriarchs of the Eliya line were faced with the continuous presence of the pro-Catholic movement, led by successors of Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa. After his death in 1555, the newly established line of Patriarchs who were united with the Catholic Church was continued by Abdisho IV Maron (1555-1570), who remained in full communion with the Catholic Church. He visited Rome and was officially confirmed by the Pope in 1562. Soon after his death, connections with Rome were weakened for the first time during the tenure of Patriarch Yahballaha V who did not seek confirmation from the Pope. That interlude was ended by his successor Shimun IX Dinkha (1580-1600) who restored full communion with the Catholic Church, and was officially confirmed by the Pope in 1584.
After his death, the Patriarchal office was made hereditary, and Patriarchs of this line continued to use the name Shimun, thus creating the 'Shimun line'. Hereditary succession was not acceptable to Rome, and during the tenure of the next Patriarch Shimun X Eliyah (1600-1638) ties with Catholic Church were loosened again. In 1616, Shimun X signed a traditional profession of faith that was not accepted by the Pope, leaving the Patriarch without Rome's confirmation. His successor Shimun XI Eshuyow (1638–1656) restored communion with the Catholic Church as late as 1653, eventually receiving confirmation from the Pope. By that time, movement towards full commitment to the traditional faith was constantly growing stronger within the Shimun line. When the next Patriarch Shimun XII Yoalaha decided to send his profession of faith to the Pope, he was deposed by his bishops because of his pro-Catholic attitude. The Pope tried to intervene on his behalf, but without success.
Final resolution of conflicts within the Shimun line occurred under the next Patriarch Shimun XIII Dinkha (1662-1700), who definitively broke communion with the Catholic Church. In 1670, he gave a traditionalist reply to an approach that was made from the Pope, and by 1672 all connections with the Catholic Church were terminated. At the same time, Patriarch Shimun XIII moved his seat from Amid to Qochanis. After the final return to the traditional faith, Patriarchs of the Shimun line decided to keep their independence and after that time there were two independent lines of traditional Patriarchs - the senior Eliya line in Alqosh and the junior Shimun line in Qochanis.
Such division was additionally caused by the complex structure of local Assyrian communities, traditionally organized as tribal confederations with each tribe being headed by a local lord (malik), while each malik was ultimately subject to the Patriarch, who mediated between Assyrian Christians and the Ottoman authorities. In spite of the prolonged rivalry between two patriarchal lines, they often faced similar problems and during the 18th century occasional cooperation was achieved, paving the way for the restoration of unity.
Consolidation of remaining branches
Mar Elias (Eliya), the Nestorian bishop of the Urmia Plain village of Geogtapa, c.1831. The image comes from A Residence of Eight Years in Persia Among the Nestorians, with Notes of the Mohammedans
by Justin Perkins (Andover, 1843).
In 1780, at the beginning of the Patriarchal tenure of Eliya (XII) XIII (1778-1804), a group seceded from the Eliya line in Alqosh and elected Yohannan Hormizd, who entered full communion with the Catholic Church and was officially appointed Archbishop of Mosul and Patriarchal Administrator of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in 1783. Only after the death in 1827 of the last representative of the 'Josephite line', Joseph V Augustine Hindi, was Yohannan recognized as the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch by the Pope, in 1830. By this official appointment, the final merger of various factions committed to the union with the Catholic Church was achieved, thus forming the modern Chaldean Catholic Church.
At the same time, the long coexistence and rivalry between two traditionalist Patriarchal branches - the senior Eliya line of Alqosh and the junior Shimun line of Qochanis - ended in 1804 when the last primate of the Eliya line, Patriarch Eliya (XII) XIII died and was buried in the ancient Rabban Hormizd Monastery. His branch decided not to elect new Patriarch, thus enabling the remaining Patriarch Shimun XVI Yohannan (1780-1820) of the Shimun line to become the sole primate of both Assyrian traditionalist branches. Consolidated after 1804, the reunited traditionalist church led by Patriarchs of the Shimun line became widely known as the 'Assyrian Church of the East'. Still based in Qodchanis, Assyrian Patriarch Shimun XVI Yohannan was not able to secure control over the traditional seat of the former Eliya line in the ancient Rabban Hormizd Monastery; and around 1808 that venerated monastic institution passed to the Chaldean Catholics.
The next Assyrian Patriarch Shimun XVII Abraham (1820-1861) also led his Church from Qodshanis. During years marked by political turbulence, he tried to maintain good relations with the local Ottoman authorities. In 1843, he was faced with renewed hostilities from Kurdish warlords, who attacked and looted many Christian villages, killing 10,000 Christian men and taking away women and children as captives. The Patriarch himself was forced to take temporary refuge in Mosul. He was succeeded by Patriarch Shimun XVIII Rubil (1861-1903) who also resided in Qodshanis. In 1869, he received an open invitation from the Vatican to visit Rome to attend the First Vatican Council as an observer, but he did not accept the invitation, In following years, he also rejected other initiatives for union with the Catholic Church.
By the end of 19th century, the Assyrian Church of the East consolidated itself as the sole representative of all traditionalist Assyrians. It also managed to secure a certain level of autonomy within the highly complex system of Ottoman local governance in the bordering regions. On several occasions, Assyrian Patriarchs refused to enter communion with the Catholic Church or merge with the Chaldean Catholic Church. On the other hand, by the end of 19th century some of its communities were converted to Protestantism by various western missionaries, while other communities were drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. That movement was led by Assyrian Bishop
Mar Yonan of Supurghan in the region of Urmia, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1898, through the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Urmia. Activities of foreign missions among Assyrians represented not only a religious, but also a political challenge, since the Ottoman authorities were very suspicious of any foreign presence among their Christian subjects.
St. Mary Assyrian Church in Moscow
. In spite of both ethnic and religious persecution and a serious decline in membership since their height around the fourth century, the Assyrian Church of the East has survived into the 21st century.
Among all the tragedies and schisms which thinned the Church out, no other was as severe as the Assyrian genocide. At that point the Assyrian Church of the East was based in the mountains of Hakkari, as it had been since 1681. In 1915, The Young Turks invaded the region - despite the Assyrians' plea of neutrality during the Caucasus Campaign by Russia and their Armenian allies - out of fear of an Assyrian independence movement. In response to this, Assyrians of all denominations (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and Assyrian Protestants) entered into a war of independence and allied themselves with the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire and the Armenians against the Ottomans and their Islamic Kurdish, Iranian and Arab allies. Despite the odds, the Assyrians fought successfully against the Ottomans and their allies for three years throughout southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria. Eventually, however, they were abandoned by their allies, the Russian Empire and the First Republic of Armenia, due to the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Armenian defense, leaving the Assyrians vastly outnumbered, surrounded, and cut off from supplies of ammunition and food. During this period, their see at Qodchanis was completely destroyed and the Turks and their Islamic allies massacred all of the Assyrians in the Hakkari Mountains. Those who survived fled into Iran with what remained of the Assyrian defense under Agha Petros, but they were pursued into Iranian territory despite the fact they were fleeing. Later, in 1918, after the murder of their de facto leader and Patriarch Shimun XIX Benyamin and 150 of his followers during a negotiation, fearing further massacres at the hands of the Turks and Kurds, most of the survivors fled by train from Iran into what was to become Iraq. They sought protection under the British mandate there, and joined the already existing indigenous Assyrian communities of both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic rites in the north, where they formed communities in Baghdad, Basra, and other areas.
Assyrians were some of the British Administration's most loyal subjects, so they employed Assyrian troops ("Iraq Levies") to put down Arab and Kurdish rebellions in the aftermath of World War I and to protect the Turkish and Iranian borders of British Iraq from invasion. In consequence, Assyrians of all Christian denominations endured persecution under the Hashemites, culminating in the Simele massacre in 1933, leading thousands to flee to the West, in particular to the United States. Patriarch Shimun XXI Eshai himself went into exile in 1940–1941 and relocated the Patriarchate to Chicago which became the centre of the Assyrian–Chaldean–Syriac diaspora. However, the Assyrians who remained continued to work alongside the British, even playing a major role in bringing down the pro-Nazi Iraqi forces during World War II, and they remained attached to British forces until 1955.
Patriarch Shimun XXI Eshai
During this period, the British-educated Patriarch Shimun XXI Eshai, born into the line of Patriarchs at Qodchanis, agitated for an independent Assyrian state. Following the end of the British mandate in 1933 and a massacre of Assyrian civilians at Simele by the Iraqi Army, the Patriarch was forced to take refuge in Cyprus. There, Shimun petitioned the League of Nations regarding his people's fate, but to little avail, and he was consequently barred from entering Syria and Iraq. He traveled through Europe before moving to Chicago in 1940 to join the growing Assyrian–Chaldean–Syriac community there.
Due to the Church's and the general Assyrian community's disorganized state as a result of the conflicts of the 20th century, Patriarch Shimun XXI Eshai was forced to reorganize the Church's structure in the United States. He transferred his residence to San Francisco in 1954, and was able to travel to Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, and India, where he worked to strengthen the Church.
In 1964, the Patriarch decreed a number of changes to the Church, including liturgical reform, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, and the shortening of Lent. These changes, combined with Shimun's long absence from Iraq, caused a rift in the community there, which led to another schism. In 1968, traditionalists within the church elected Thoma Darmo as a rival Patriarch to Shimun XXI Eshai, forming the independent Ancient Church of the East, based in Baghdad, Iraq.
In 1972, Shimun decided to step down as Patriarch, and the following year he got married - in contravention to longstanding Church custom. This led to a synod in 1973 in which further reforms were introduced, the most significant of which included the permanent abolition of hereditary succession - a practice introduced in the middle of the fifteenth century by Patriarch Shemʿon IV Basidi (who had died in 1497) - and it was also decided that Shimun should be reinstated. The second matter was supposed to be settled at another synod in 1975; however, Shimun was assassinated by an estranged relative before this could take place.
Patriarch Dinkha IV
In 1976, Dinkha IV was elected as Shimun XXI Eshai's successor. The 33-year-old Dinkha had previously been
Metropolitan of Tehran, and operated his see there until the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. Thereafter, Dinkha IV went into exile in the United States and transferred the Patriarchal See to Chicago. Much of his patriarchate had been concerned with tending to the Assyrian–Chaldean–Syriac diaspora community and with ecumenical efforts to strengthen relations with other churches. On 26 March 2015, Dinkha IV died in the United States, leaving the Assyrian Church of the East in a period of sede vacante until 18 September 2015. During that time, Aprem Mooken served as the custodian of the Patriarchate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
Patriarch Gewargis III
On 18 September 2015, the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East elected the Metropolitan of Iraq, Jordan, and Russia, Warda Sliwa, to succeed the late Dinkha IV as Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East. On 27 September 2015, he was consecrated as Catholicos-Patriarch in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist, in Erbil, Iraq. Upon his consecration, he assumed the ecclesiastical name Gewargis III.
Church leaders have proposed moving the Patriarchal See from Chicago back to Erbil.
There have also been talks of reunification. In the Common Christological Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East in 1994, the two Churches recognized the legitimacy and rightness of each other's titles for Mary.
In 2010, the Assyrian Church of the East had about 170,000 members, mostly living in the United States, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.