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The Chaldean Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, insurgents have targeted the country’s Christian community, systematically bombing churches, kidnapping Christians and attacking Christian-owned businesses.

Officially, some 750,000 people (or 3 percent of Iraq’s population) are reported to be Christian, but less than 300,000 Christians actually live in Iraq. Most of these Christians belong to the Chaldean Church, an Eastern Church with its own spirituality, discipline and liturgy (its eucharistic sacrifice is known as the Qurbana) in full communion with the Church of Rome.

The word Chaldean identifies this Catholic community with an ancient people who once controlled the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq and portions of Syria and Turkey). Iraq’s 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. Yet this pedigree does not protect them from the insurgents, who claim that Chaldeans are foreigners and agents of the Christian West.

A distinguished patrimony. Chaldeans consider themselves the descendants of the indigenous Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia: Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean. These are the peoples who first tilled the soil, lived together and developed a code of law. These are the peoples who invented the principles of agriculture, astronomy, astrology, mathematics and the written word.

Like fibers in a woolen rug, the destinies of these peoples and their neighbors to the West – the Israelites – are intricately woven together. Based in Ninevah, near the modern city of Mosul, the Assyrians waged war on the Israelites, forcing tribute from the king of Judah. Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and the subsequent exile of the people of Israel into the Babylonian empire. For a millennium the language of the Chaldeans, Aramaic with its many dialects, was the language of the people throughout the Middle East, supplanting even Hebrew among the Jews.

Some five centuries before Christ, the Persians destroyed Mesopotamia’s indigenous Assyrian and Chaldean empire. They established their capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the banks of the Tigris (near modern Baghdad) and developed a state that, for more than 1,200 years, linked the Greco-Roman culture of the West with the Far East.

The origins of the Christian faith in Persian Mesopotamia are shrouded in tradition and legend. St. Thomas the Apostle, on his way to India, first evangelized the region’s Jewish communities. An ancient legend also claims that Christ himself is responsible for the evangelization of Mesopotamia, instructing the Apostle Thomas to send a disciple to cure the sickly king of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southeastern Turkey).

Dispatched by Thomas with a cloth featuring a miraculous image of Jesus, Addai (Aramaic for Thaddeus, one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, cured the king and established the church in Edessa. That Edessa is the likely source of the faith in the Fertile Crescent is bolstered by historical and archaeological evidence, which includes the remains of a second-century church found in the heart of the city.

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Tags: Iraq Church history Chaldean Church