25 August 2015
Dating back to the sixth century, St. Catherine’s Monastery is one of the world’s oldest functioning monasteries and the sum territory of the Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai. (photo: Mohammed El‑Dakhakhny)
Few monuments from antiquity have come down to us unaltered or unharmed. Just yesterday, 24 August 2015, the world learned that ISIS blew up an important monument of the Classical era: the Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra, Syria.
In Egypt, in the arid and rocky wilderness of the southern Sinai Peninsula, rests a living link to Byzantine emperors, fourth-century pilgrims, third-century Christian hermits and Moses. The Monastery of St. Catherine of Alexandria is a major repository of the early church’s cultural and spiritual heritage. Deep behind its sixth-century walls, the monastery’s monks — who form the smallest of the churches in the Orthodox communion of churches — revere and guard thousands of rare manuscripts, codices, icons and liturgical objects. Many of these precious relics date to the time of the church fathers.
In the last few decades, especially as the enemies of civilization target its patrimony, there is a renewed interest in St. Catherine’s and its position in the ancient Christian East. Sinai’s monks have shared their treasures, loaning parchment and painted wood to museums throughout the world. And record crowds, surprising even the experts, have responded, waiting in long lines to view ancient relics once preserved in an isolated oasis lost in time and sand. Scholars have flooded the monastery, studying its manuscripts and digitizing their pages. And tourists, thanks to daily bus service from Cairo, challenge the monks in their efforts to preserve their ministry from commercialization and economic exploitation.
On 25 November, St. Catherine’s Monastery celebrates the feast of its patron. (photo: Jean-Luc Manaud/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
“The Holy Monastery,” the monks have written, “is a purely religious institution dedicated to the protection of the Sinaitic pilgrimage sites ... the maintenance of the history of Sinai … the values of the great religious tradition of the monastery [and] to cultivate the development of the exalted moral life through the exercise of the Christian virtue that derives from the first commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God…”
These are objectives that Muhammad appreciated, granting the monastery and its monks his protection after visiting it circa 628:
“No compulsion is to be on them,” the prophet wrote in a letter known in Arabic as the “Ahtiname.”
“Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey his prophet. … They are my allies.”
Click here to learn more about the monastery, its monks and miracles.
20 August 2015
Tags: Egypt Orthodox Church Eastern Churches Monastery Monastic Life
Pilgrims gather in Annaya, Lebanon, to venerate the remains of the revered Maronite monk, St. Sharbel. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
The Maronite Church is not known for its architectural achievements, artistic wonders or musical treasures. Driven into the peaks and valleys of Mount Lebanon — a mountain range stretching along the eastern Mediterranean — the Maronites’ greatest accomplishments are perseverance in the faith, the unique relationship forged between patriarch and people, and their role in the creation of modern Lebanon.
The fortunes of the Maronites are often tied to those of Lebanon; to separate either of these symbiotic entities would do neither of them justice. But equally inaccurate is the suggestion that to be Maronite is to be Lebanese, or vice versa. Some 10 million Lebanese live elsewhere, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania; as many as half are Maronites.
The Maronite Church is rooted in the asceticism of the desert saints from Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine and Syria — provinces of the Roman Empire that eventually evolved into Byzantium. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, thousands of men and women, following the Gospel’s call to “pray always,” withdrew from society and dedicated themselves to prayer and penance. One such hermit, a priest named Maron, repaired to a hilltop near the Syrian city of Aleppo. According to one fifth-century Syrian bishop, Maron lived a solitary life of fasting and prayer, attaining a “wealth of wisdom.”
Maron died in 410. Carrying with them the skull of the revered priest, his disciples — known as Maronites — formed Beit Maron (Syriac, meaning “house of Maron”), a monastic community near the great city of Antioch. There, the Byzantine Emperor Marcian sponsored the construction of the monastery, which was dedicated in 452.
Seventeenth-century frescoes decorate the apse of a monastery chapel in Lebanon’s Wadi Qadisha, or Valley of the Saints. (photo: Michael La Civita)
The development of the Maronite community coincided with the great debates rocking the early church in the eastern Mediterranean. And as the church, particularly in the East, became intricately linked to the imperial Byzantine state, the positions assumed by competing parties took on political overtones. The early Maronites were Hellenized Semites, natives of Byzantine Syria who spoke Greek and Syriac yet identified with Greek-speaking Constantinople and Antioch.
Where were the monks of Beit Maron in this political, social and theological upheaval? Little evidence remains. What has survived has triggered more than a century of debate among historians, particularly in Maronite circles. The general consensus, however, concludes that the Beit Maron community, as loyal subjects of the Byzantine emperor, accepted the decrees of the ecumenical councils called by the emperors to bring unity to church and commonwealth. They implemented them among the local Syriac-speaking Christian community, forming the nucleus of the Maronite Church.
The Arab Muslim annexation of Syria in the mid-seventh century altered the position of the Maronites. With contacts with Constantinople severed, Antioch in Muslim hands, and its ecclesial situation in disarray, the monks of Beit Maron elected one of their own as patriarch of Antioch. Tradition has it this first patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, St. John Maron, was elected in 685.
Bands of Maronites soon began to settle in the northern reaches of Mount Lebanon, where they established autonomous communities and formed alliances among themselves while pledging fealty to the patriarch. They tenaciously defended their autonomy, repeatedly attacking Arab positions and harassing Byzantine scouts eager to retake the area.
Ironically, the Maronites flourished despite the destruction of Beit Maron in the ninth century and the relocation of the Maronite patriarchate to a monastery near the coastal town of Batroun. In the peaks and valleys of Mount Lebanon, the Maronites terraced the difficult terrain, tilled the soil, planted olive trees and fruit trees and cultivated vineyards. Maronite holy men and women, like their hermitic predecessors, lived and prayed alone, carving hermitages in the rock, inaccessible to predators but accessible to those seeking counsel. Thus for more than two centuries the Maronite Church endured in mountainous isolation.
Read a full account of the Maronite Church from ONE magazine here.
18 August 2015
Tags: Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Maronite Church Maronite Eastern Catholic Churches
Young people are active in the faith, according to members of the congregation at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Tbilisi, Georgia. In addition taking part in weekly liturgy (as shown above), they attend formation classes supported by CNEWA to learn more about their
Armenian heritage. (photo: Molly Corso)
The last century or so has not been kind to Armenia or its Catholic minority, who form the Armenian Catholic Church. Sharing the distinct rites and traditions of the Armenian Apostolic Church — while maintaining full communion with the bishop of Rome — this community of faith has contributed considerably to the vitality of the Armenian nation, invigorating monasticism, scholarship and social service even as terror has nearly destroyed it.
2015 marks the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. Although large numbers of Assyro-Chaldean and Greek Christians also suffered deportation or death at the hands of agents of the crumbling Ottoman Turkish Empire, the sheer number of Armenians affected astounds. By 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished.
The perpetrators did not make distinctions between Apostolic and Catholic Armenians. Their actions, however, decimated the tiny Armenian Catholic Church. In all, 7 bishops, 130 priests, 47 women religious and up to a 100,000 faithful died. Churches and schools were leveled. And while the post-Ottoman Turkish government distanced itself from the atrocities, the state appropriated abandoned properties and redistributed them to Muslim Turks.
Some of those who survived fled to Russian-dominated Armenia. Most survivors, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria. There, from their place of exile, they re-established their communities and prospered, that is until war in Syria revisited them.
Sister Arousiag Sajonian leads catechesis programs at summer camps for youth in Tzakhkatzor, Armenia. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
In 1928, surviving Armenian Catholic bishops gathered in Rome, where they agreed to transfer the patriarchate to Beirut. While historically the largest concentration of Armenian Catholics lived in Lebanon and in the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Kamichlié, recent statistics provided by the church indicate upward of 400,000 Armenian Catholics living in Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine.
While the tsars impeded the development of all Eastern Catholic communities in Imperial Russian lands, the Soviets were more brutal. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Stalin suppressed all Eastern Catholic churches. In Armenia and Georgia, party members shuttered Armenian Catholic village churches, arrested and shot parish priests and deported religious sisters. The Soviets wiped out all traces of Armenian Catholicism — or so they thought.
Catholic Armenians began to surface after a devastating earthquake in December 1988 flattened northern Armenia. And as the Soviet Union dissolved, these Catholics boldly petitioned for their churches to be reopened and for personnel to staff them.
The Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were among the first to respond, sending a team of sisters to work with families and village communities in northern Armenia and southern Georgia. And in 1991, the Holy See created a bishopric for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe, but the church is hampered by a lack of priestly vocations. Despite considerable resource shortages, however, the Armenian Catholic Church administers schools, camps and social service centers that offer help to all.
Read a full account of the Armenian Catholic Church from ONE magazine here.
13 August 2015
Bishop Amba Tadros, Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Port Said, pays a visit to Marina House and distributes sweets following a pre-Lenten feast. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Egyptian Christianity is as old as Christianity itself, predating Islam and the Arab invasion of the country by six centuries. But for Egypt’s 8.85 million Christians, social inequity — exacerbated by anti-Christian violence with the arrival of the Arab Spring — is a fact of daily life.
Until the overthrow of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptian Christian leaders preferred not to call too much attention to the injustices or the occasional acts of violence. Most Christians, or Copts (a derivative of the Greek word, Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian), lived side by side with their Muslim neighbors, particularly in the country’s densely populated cities. Copts made accommodations in exchange for security and the freedom to worship. But the rise, and fall, of the Muslim Brotherhood has challenged that approach as more and more lay Copts demand full respect as citizens of a secular Egypt.
Despite the turmoil of the past 50 years or so, the Coptic Orthodox Church, which embraces more than 93 percent of all Coptic Christians, thrives. Churches are packed with young and old; ancient monasteries flourish with monks and nuns; social outreach programs touch the needy and catechetical programs instill values and a sense of identity for the young — who are increasingly emigrating to the West.
At the Church of Mary Queen of the World in Port Said, Egypt, Orthodox gather for liturgy on Sunday morning in the Angel Chapel. (photo: Sean Sprague)
St. Mark the Evangelist, disciple of St. Peter, brought the Gospel to the Egyptian city of Alexandria — second only to Rome in the ancient world — establishing a church among the Jewish, Greek and native Egyptian communities as early as the year 42. The church of Alexandria grew quickly. By the early third century, its reputation as the primary center of learning, biblical scholarship and theological exploration was unchallenged in the Christian world. The Alexandrian church was not confined to cosmopolitan Alexandria — many Christians, seeking solitary lives of prayer and contemplation, fled to the desert and uninhabited hinterlands south of the Nile Delta. It was in Egypt where Christian monasticism started, and eventually spread to Asia Minor and Syria in the fourth century and to the West in the early sixth century.
Debates regarding the nature and person of Jesus inflamed the Christian world, especially as they assumed an increasing ethnic, linguistic and political tone. Ecumenical councils were called to advance peace and unity, define orthodoxy and condemn heresy. Yet, the decrees, and the methods used to employ them, divided the church further.
Significant numbers of Alexandria’s Christians opposed the Council of Chalcedon (451). Over time they joined like-minded Syriac Christians and separated from the rest of the church. Today, this group of non-Chalcedonian churches (now called Oriental Orthodox) includes the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara Syrian and Syrian Orthodox churches. It is generally agreed this schism reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophic differences more than differences in matters of faith.
For centuries, Egypt remained primarily Christian even after Muslim Arab tribes conquered it in 641. The Arabs retained the civil structures set up by the Romans, employed Coptic bureaucrats, sanctioned the development of a Coptic code of civil law, and later a code of canon law, and approved the construction and refurbishment of churches and monasteries. Conversion to Islam was gradual, and by the 12th century, Copts had declined in number and influence, fading into obscurity until the birth of modern Egypt 700 years later.
Click here for more on the Coptic Orthodox Church from the pages of ONE magazine.
11 August 2015
An Iraqi refugee prays the rosary at a Chaldean church in Amman, Jordan.
(photo: CNS/Ali Jarekji, Reuters)
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 1.5 million Christians accounted for nearly 6 percent of Iraq’s population, down from about 12 percent in the World War II-era. While hard figures are unavailable, fewer than 200,000 Christians — only 1 percent — remain in Iraq today. Many of these Christians are displaced Chaldeans, members of an ancient church who share the history and traditions of the Church of the East yet profess full communion with the church of Rome.
The word Chaldean identifies this Catholic community with an ancient people who once controlled Mesopotamia, the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq and portions of Syria and Turkey). Chaldeans take pride in their ancient roots, counting Abraham of Ur of the land of the Chaldeans — whom Jews, Christians and Muslims call their father in faith — as one of their own.
This pedigree has not protected them for the ferocity unleashed in the Middle East, particularly in the last few decades, driving many Chaldeans to the West. In 1990, according to official Chaldean records, only 50,000 Chaldean Catholics lived in North America, shepherded by one bishop in a Detroit suburb. Today, nearly 200,000 Chaldean Catholics live on the continent, with bishops in Detroit, San Diego and Toronto.
Not just the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia is also the cradle of the Christian faith. In its fertile soil, the seeds of Christianity took root quickly and eventually spread like wildflowers throughout Asia. The early years of the church were tumultuous. Because the church became intimately linked to the state, especially in the Mediterranean world, questions regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ were politicized. As the church embraced converts from the Greco-Roman and Semitic worlds, these Christological questions were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences. These issues, coupled with the frequent wars between the eastern Roman (that is, Byzantium) and Persian empires, compromised the position of the church in Mesopotamia, which styled itself the “Church of the East.” As a result, by the late fifth century, this Church of the East parted ways with the rest of the Christian world.
Chaldean Catholics receive Holy Communion at a liturgy in a destroyed church in Baghdad. (photo: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the Church of the East became renowned for its scholarship, especially in grammar, history, logic, mathematics, philosophy and theology. Arab Muslims, who conquered the Persian Empire in 634, employed church scholars, who are largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe.
At its height in the 14th century, the Church of the East spanned most of Asia and included some 30 metropolitan sees and more than 200 eparchies. But the church’s successes were nearly destroyed overnight when, at the end of the 14th century, Timur the Lame and his army invaded the Middle East, sacked its cities, massacred the inhabitants and leveled what remained. Those Christians who escaped death or enslavement retreated into the mountains, hunkering down in remote monasteries and mountainside villages.
Even as isolation intensified, pockets of the church came into contact with Latin Catholic missionaries. In 1445, friars received the Chaldeans (as they were known) living on the island of Cyprus into full communion with Rome. The use of “Chaldean” dates to this union. Subsequently, individual communities and families of the Church of the East formed pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic parties, marking centuries of turmoil as families and factions jockeyed back and forth.
The papacy did not recognize a Catholic patriarch until 1830, and for the next 150 years — despite the atrocities during World War I — the Chaldean Church strengthened its position at the expense of the Church of the East. The seat of the patriarch moved from Mosul to Baghdad in 1950 as large numbers of Chaldean Catholics settled in the capital. Well educated and industrious, the Chaldeans eventually constituted a significant portion of Iraq’s middle and professional classes.
While the unraveling of Iraq has decimated the nation’s Christian communities of all rites and traditions, it has intensified collaboration between the two historic churches; relations between the Chaldean Church and the Church of the East have improved dramatically.
Read here a full account of the Chaldean Church from ONE magazine.
6 August 2015
In this image from May, Msgr. Kozar meets a few of the displaced Iraqis who are rebuilding their lives in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: CNEWA)
One year after ISIS extremists stormed the villages of the Nineveh Plain in the middle of the night, driving out more than 120,000 Christians, most of those who fled remain in their places of exile. Largely due to the heroic efforts of the priests and religious sisters exiled with their community, however, panic and fear have been replaced by resilience and grace, said CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar.
“The churches are working together, Chaldean and Syriac, Catholic and Orthodox, setting up educational and catechetical programs for children; health care facilities for expectant mothers, infants and toddlers, the handicapped and the elderly; counseling for all those struggling to cope; and temporary housing to replace the tents,” he added.
“The community is beginning to display some of the daily rhythms of normality again,” reported CNEWA’s correspondent in Kurdistan, Don Duncan. “Kids are going off to school, mom is cleaning the house or preparing dinner for when they come home.” But, he added, “the male population is still chronically underemployed, domestic tensions continue to flare in households, living conditions remain cramped and disease is rampant.”
“While much dignity has been restored — thanks largely to the work of the parish priests, religious sisters and parish volunteers, most of whom are displaced themselves — displaced Christians remain in limbo, and their long-term needs are great,” said Msgr. Kozar, who accompanied the Holy See’s Cardinal Leonardo Sandri on a pastoral visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in early May.
During his many pastoral visits to displaced Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and Jordan, CNEWA’s Msgr. Kozar said he is always struck by the indomitable spirit of the people he meets.
“Again and again,” he said, “I have encountered resilience and hope. They want us to know one thing: They love the Holy Father. And they are grateful for his prayers. They want us to know they remain steadfast in their faith in Jesus.
“ ‘They have taken our homes,’ ” he recalled one girl telling him, “ ‘but they will never take our faith.’ ”
In the last year, CNEWA has disbursed more than $7.2 million to assist Iraqis and Syrians — many of them Christian — displaced by extremists in the “cradle of civilization.” These funds represent the generosity of Catholics from North America and Europe and have enabled CNEWA’s on-the-ground partners, the local churches, to respond to the needs of men, women and children devastated by the agents of hate. CNEWA activities include:
- Rushing essentials to families fleeing ISIS in the Nineveh Plain and northeastern Syria. Monies purchased milk and diapers, food packages, water supplies, bedding, medicines and sanitary kits
- Securing bedding, clothing, hygienic supplies, food and water for Iraqi and Syrian Christian refugee families hosted by church communities in Jordan and Lebanon.
Health care initiatives
- Setting up, equipping and operating clinics in Erbil, Dohuk and Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan
- Subsidizing Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zerqa, Jordan, which offers refugee women pre- and post-natal care
- Supporting the daily clinic at the Italian Hospital in Amman for the treatment of refugees
- Providing medical care for displaced families in Syria and refugees in Lebanon.
Educational and pastoral outreach
- Providing counseling, tutoring, catechesis and English classes to Iraqi and Syrian Christian refugee families at the Pontifical Mission Community Center in Amman
- Securing a social worker to assist the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in their work at the Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zerqa
- Hosting summer Bible camps for refugee children in Jordan. Run by parishes and congregations of sisters, Bible camps offer children a respite from the drudgery of poverty. Camps provide counseling, catechesis and recreation
- Supporting educational programs for displaced Syrian and Iraqi children as well as assistance for refugees attending Catholic schools in Jordan.
To learn how you can be a part of CNEWA’s work in the Middle East, visit this page.
6 August 2015
Continuing a tradition stretching back to the first millennium, Orthodox Christians gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday in Jerusalem. (photo: Paul Souders)
Almost half of the earth’s 6.8 billion people associate Jerusalem with the Divine. Christians identify Jerusalem with Jesus, revere it as the place of his passion, death and resurrection, and celebrate it as the birthplace of the church.
From the beginning, Christians have called Jerusalem the “Holy City,” a title that reveals the spiritual and political paradoxes plaguing it. Revered as a shining city on the hill, Jerusalem has come to represent conflict as it lies at the heart of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.
The city’s chief church, the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem, has not remained above the fray. For centuries, this smallest of the ancient patriarchal churches of the East has weathered instability. Today, it includes fewer than 130,000 people — Arabs primarily — scattered throughout the Holy City, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an Orthodox priest pauses to pray during Holy Week. (photo: Paul Souders)
According to ancient accounts, the apostle James “the Just” guided the church of Jerusalem after Pentecost, and was stoned to death about eight years before the Roman destruction of the Temple in the year 70. After his death, 15 bishops “of the circumcision” guided the mother church until the Romans nearly annihilated the Jews and leveled what remained of Jerusalem in the year 135.
The mother church carried on, keeping alive the deeds and words of Jesus and, in 451, the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon recognized Jerusalem as a patriarchate, according its bishop a special status after Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. The Liturgy of St. James, which developed during this period, is considered the oldest complete form of the Eucharist to have survived and is used on feast days by the churches of the Byzantine and Syriac traditions.
Pilgrims from throughout Christendom flocked to the shrines of the Holy Land even after the Muslim Arabs occupied Jerusalem in 637. The patriarch surrendered it to Omar, the successor of Muhammad, provided he left its churches untouched and allowed its Christians of all rites to worship unhindered. The caliph agreed and received the keys to the city. Though more than 13 centuries old, the Covenant of Omar remains an important legal document, outlining the rights of Christians in a Muslim state.
Centuries later, responding to calls for help from the Byzantine emperor, Crusaders from the West seized Jerusalem, returning Christian sovereignty to the city. But the Crusaders installed a Latin patriarch and displaced the incumbent Byzantine patriarch, a Greek, whose line descended from the apostolic period. Relations deteriorated further when the Latin patriarch forbade the celebration of Eastern Christian liturgies in the Holy Sepulchre. These actions further widened the rift between the “Orthodox” East and the “Catholic” West even after the Crusaders kingdom collapsed and the city reverted to Islamic control.
A pilgrim lights candles in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (photo: Paul Souders)
In 1852, the Ottoman Turkish sultan issued an order delineating the rights of the churches in the Holy Sepulchre and other holy places. He confirmed Greek Orthodox control, but granted concessions to the Armenians and the Franciscans. Scrupulous adherence to this “Status Quo” continues, but this fidelity has paralyzed dialogue and hampered restoration efforts.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has eroded the Christian community, especially the dominant Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem. Christians once led civic, cultural and intellectual life. Today, their influence is limited, even in the centers of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. In 1948, about 20 percent of the people in what is today Israel and Palestine was Christian, mostly Orthodox. Today, fewer than 2 percent remain. And whereas the patriarchal church of Jerusalem once commanded the allegiance of most Christians in the Holy Land, today only about half remain in the Orthodox Church.
The revival of the Orthodox churches in Romania and Russia has bolstered the patriarchate of Jerusalem and heightened its profile, but its ultimate fate depends on a just political resolution between Israelis and Palestinians.
Click here to read the complete profile.
4 August 2015
According to tradition, the sacramental bread made for the eucharistic liturgy in the Church of the East is made and consumed the same day. The leaven used in the bread, called malka, is derived from the bread that Christ shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. A portion of the sacramental bread is reserved and added to subsequent loaves each time the liturgy
is to be celebrated. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Barbaric describes best the ferocity unleashed in Iraq and Syria. Ironically, these “nation states” largely correspond to the lands of ancient Mesopotamia — the cradle of civilization. There, thousands of years before the birth of Christ, the world’s first complex human societies emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
It is less commonly known that Mesopotamia is also the cradle of the Christian faith. In its fertile soil, the seeds of Christianity took root quickly and eventually spread like wildflowers throughout Asia, reaching Afghanistan, China, India and Mongolia. But the Church of the East, the driving force behind the missionaries took the Gospel east via the Silk Road, has all but vanished. While a handful of the church’s members — who identify as Assyrians — remain in Mesopotamia, more than a third live in North America. The headquarters for the church of 400,000 people has been moved to a Chicago suburb, but increasingly its members are settling in Oceania and Scandinavia.
The origins of the Christian faith in Mesopotamia are obscure. An ancient legend connects a sickly king of Edessa to Jesus. Others credit St. Thomas the Apostle with evangelizing the region’s Jewish merchants as he traveled to India. That Edessa is the likely source of the faith in Mesopotamia is supported by linguistic evidence: The Aramaic dialect of Edessa, commonly called Syriac, became the literary language of the non-Greek-speaking Christian community in the Middle East.
Syriac Christianity flourished in a divided Mesopotamia. While Syriac Christians living in Byzantine-occupied territories participated in the great debates of the early church, Syriac Christians living in Persian areas developed independently. By the year 410, the Syriac bishop of the Persian capital (near modern Baghdad) emerged as the senior hierarch of the Persian church.
Pope John Paul II and Church of the East Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV exchange gifts after signing a historic Christological agreement in November 1994. The declaration, which acknowledged that the two churches share a common understanding of Jesus, ended nearly 1,600 years of isolation between the two churches. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano)
Commonly referred to as the Church of the East, this community retained its ties to the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Yet, it grew under the suspicious eyes of the Persians — followers of the prophet Zoroaster — who suspected Christians of harboring loyalties to Christian Byzantium. By the end of the fifth century, as war raged between Byzantium and Persia, the Church of the East severed union with its sister churches in the Christian West.
Nevertheless, the Church of the East became renowned throughout the Christian world for its scholarship, especially in grammar, history, logic, mathematics, philosophy and theology. Arab Muslims, who conquered the Persian Empire in 634, turned to its scholars, who are largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.
At its height in the 14th century, the Church of the East spanned most of Asia and included some 30 metropolitan sees and more than 200 eparchies. But the church’s successes were nearly destroyed overnight. Although the Crusades upset the Middle East’s carefully balanced Middle East societies, the near deathblow came from the east. At the end of the 14th century, Timur the Lame and his army invaded the Middle East, sacked its cities, massacred the inhabitants and leveled what remained. Those Christians who escaped death or enslavement retreated into the mountains, hunkering down in remote monasteries and mountainside villages. Isolation intensified, poverty set in and generation after generation either abjured their Christian faith and embraced Islam or became Catholics as contact with Latin missionaries increased.
During World War I, up to a third of those who belonged to the Church of the East were murdered by agents of the Ottoman Turkish sultan, which governed most of Mesopotamia. Survivors fled to the British-held cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra — and points farther west.
War and emigration have nearly decimated the presence of the church in the cradle of civilization. Yet, the sufferings of the Church of the East have brought to light not just the existence of this ancient community, but the richness of a tradition that unknowingly influenced the cultures and churches of the West.
Read here a full account of the Church of the East from the pages of ONE magazine.
30 July 2015
The children of Father Sharbel Iskandar Bcheiry, a native of Lebanon, watch their father celebrate the Divine Liturgy in their suburban Chicago parish. (photo: Karen Callaway)
Resilient best describes the Syriac Orthodox Church. Persecuted by Byzantines, murdered by Mongols, massacred by Ottoman Turks and caught in the Kurdish-Turkish crossfire, Syriac Orthodox Christians have managed to endure, preserving their legacy while enriching the entire church.
The Syriac Orthodox Church shares in the heritage of ancient Antioch, the commercial, cultural and political center of Rome’s eastern Mediterranean province of Syria. Founded by St. Peter and nurtured by St. Paul, the church in Antioch emerged as the center of the church of the East, stretching beyond the borders of the Christian Roman (or Byzantine) Empire.
The development of the church of Antioch coincided with the confluence of cultures in the eastern Mediterranean world. Debates raged as Antioch’s Christians explored the nature of Jesus, which prompted councils, the decrees of which drove a wedge between Antioch’s Syriac-speaking Christians and Greek-speaking Christians allied with Byzantium.
Syriac Christians generally welcomed the Muslim Arabs invaders, who accepted them as “People of the Book.” Safe from Byzantine authorities, Syriac scholars flourished. Poets fashioned hymns that simplified complex ideas. Scholars translated Greek texts and wrote biblical commentaries. Monks explored grammar, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric and science. Theologians and poets continued the tradition of composing liturgies, borrowing elements from other Christian traditions.
In southeastern Turkey, the area known as Tur Abdin (Syriac for “Mountain of the Servants of God”) remains the heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Every Saturday night, in a small chapel of the Saffron Monastery, a liturgy is celebrated to commemorate the 53 patriarchs and more than 100 bishops who pastored the area’s flock between the fifth and 20th centuries. The seat of the patriarchate was moved from Tur Abdin to Damascus in 1932. (photo: Karen Lagerquist)
Drawn by this erudition, the Arabs employed Syriac scholars, who are largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.
At its height in the mid-14th century, the Syriac Orthodox Church stretched from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan and included 20 metropolitan sees and more than a 100 eparchies. This golden age ended violently with the invasion of the Middle East by Timur the Lame in the 15th century. Those Syriac Christians who escaped death or enslavement retreated into the mountains, huddling in fortress-like monasteries and villages. Though scholarship did not vanish completely, isolation intensified, poverty set in and generation after generation of Syriac Orthodox families abjured their Christian faith.
Scholars estimate that by the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than 270,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians remained in Mesopotamia.
The trials for the church have only intensified in the last 100 years, even as membership has recovered: The church now counts as many as 5 million members, although two thirds live in India. In 1915 — the “Year of the Sword” — soldiers affiliated with the Ottoman authorities murdered more than 13,000 families and 150 priests. Survivors were deported or fled, many seeking refuge in Beirut, Damascus and Mosul. Some later settled in North America’s burgeoning industrial cities.
Many of the families who fled to Baghdad, Beirut and Mosul as provincial peasants are now leaving as professionals for Europe, North America and Oceania. The emigration of Syriac Christians, who once formed the core of Syria and Iraq’s middle classes, has created a regional “brain drain,” as they establish new lives far from their historic center in the cradle of civilization.
28 July 2015
The world of the Eastern churches is a complex web of history and culture. CNEWA is privileged to work for, through and with these churches, a mandate given to us when Pope Pius XI founded CNEWA in 1926. But navigating this labyrinth of patriarchs and popes, councils and creeds, can be daunting and confusing.
To help clear up this confusion, we’re launching a new series that we hope will provide our readers with a better understanding of the church and its rich history. Each Tuesday and Thursday, our ONE-TO-ONE blog will feature a short overview for each of the Eastern churches.
Each post will conclude with a link to a fuller account of that particular church as featured in CNEWA’s award-winning magazine, ONE.
We hope you’ll find this journey enlightening and enriching, and come away with a deeper appreciation for the diversity of our shared faith. We also think you’ll come to see, in the midst of all this complexity, a clarity and continuity that truly make us one.