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Church of the East missionaries formed communities throughout China as early as the seventh century. An eighth-century emperor and his court supported the “luminous doctrine” (as Christianity was known), sponsoring the construction of churches and monasteries throughout China. Dynastic troubles and war would ultimately destroy the Church of the East in China, but in 1608 the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, while traveling through China, reportedly encountered a faithful remnant of this once mighty church.

On the southwest coast of India (now the state of Kerala), Church of the East monks bolstered the isolated Christian community founded there by the Apostle Thomas, sending bishops to ordain priests and deacons and organize parishes. Eventually an Indian priest with the title of “Archdeacon of All India” would shepherd this apostolic community, which remained in full communion with the Church of the East, until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. Today their descendants number almost eight million believers, more than half of whom belong to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

The Arab conquest of the Persian empire in 634 did not jeopardize these developments. Accepted as “People of the Book” by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, the Catholicos-Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Timotheos I, moved his see to Baghdad in 780, only 14 years after it became the capital of the Muslim empire. Interested in learning, the Arabs turned to the scholars of the Church of the East, many of them alumni of the school in Nisibis. These scholars are responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy, which eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.

The violent invasions of the Mongols in the late 15th century, however, nearly wiped out this ancient Christian community. Those Christians of the Church of the East who escaped enslavement or death – calling themselves Assyrians – retreated into the mountains near Edessa, to a few obscure monasteries and villages.

Contact with the West. The Crusaders’ conquest of Byzantium’s capital of Constantinople in 1204, the subsequent development of Crusader states throughout the eastern Mediterranean and increased trade between Europe and Asia escalated contact between Assyrians and Catholics. Dominican and Franciscan friars worked among the vestiges of this church, bringing the Chaldeans of Cyprus (as they were known) into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1445. The canonical use of the term Chaldean dates to this union.

Contacts with Rome increased in the mid-16th century. A group of Assyrian bishops, objecting to the dynastic succession of the catholicosate held by one family, elected as patriarch a reluctant abbot, Yuhannan (John) Sulaka, sending him to Rome to seek reconciliation and recognition. Proclaimed Patriarch of the Chaldeans by Pope Julius III in April 1553, Sulaka returned to his homeland where he initiated a series of reforms. Opposed by a number of Assyrians, he was imprisoned, tortured and executed.

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Tags: Iraq Chaldean Church Church history