Against All Odds: The Assyrian Church

by Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., Ph.D.
photos: courtesy, Assyrian Church of the East

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Last November, Father James Moynihan and I attended the 25th anniversary of a parish in Yonkers, N.Y. As with any church function, many families had taken tables for the festival and others brought trays of steaming food while the band tuned its instruments and tested the loud speakers.

Typical in some ways, but in other ways this celebration was quite different. Once the speeches ended and the music began, I was transported back to the seventh century B.C., when the paths of the Assyrians, the inhabitants of ancient Babylon and Ninevah, crossed those of the Israelites. The parishioners are members of Mar Mari parish of the Assyrian Church of the East – “Nestorians” we used to call them.

Before the dancing began, Mar Aprim, the community’s bishop – (Mar means “one who is sent” in Aramaic) – spoke to the congregation about their patron, who in Assyrian tradition was one of the 72 disciples referred to in the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter 10). Mar Aprim spoke of how their parish church contained a stone from one of the ancient, now destroyed, churches of the early East Syrian church; a body that flowered in the Persian Empire (modern Iran and Iraq).

Modern scholarship reveals that by the middle of the second century, A.D., the Assyrian Church developed directly from the Judeo-Christian Church of Jerusalem. The tensions of war between the Byzantine and Persian Empires in the fourth century led the Assyrians to adopt a christology that varied from both Rome and Constantinople. The Assyrians also asserted their independence from the bishop of Rome and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople.

Isolated from the churches in the West, and a minority in the Zorastrian Persian Empire, the Assyrian Church focused its missionary endeavors in the East.

Archeological evidence cites the presence of Assyrian missionaries in China, Mongolia and Tibet. Malabar and Malankara Christians in India credit these missionaries for the development of their church in the third and fourth centuries.

By 1318 A.D., more than 30 metropolitan sees (archdioceses) and 200 suffragen dioceses (local dioceses) constituted the Assyrian Church. These Christians were all but annihilated by the Mongol invaders in the 14th century. Two hundred years later, the once-mighty Assyrian Church was reduced to a handful of monasteries and village churches in what is now southeastern Turkey.

As I watched a communal dance in the church hall, a twisting affair alternately led by flag-waving men, women and children, these events were not as far removed as many would think.

The 20th century all but destroyed the Assyrians. During World War I, the Assyrian community, together with the Chaldeans, their Catholic counterparts, were suspected by the Turks of supporting the British war effort. The Turks promptly slaughtered thousands of Assyrians and herded the rest in refugee camps. More than 50,000 died of cholera and malnutrition. The survivors were deported.

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Tags: Iraq Christianity Church history Emigration Assyrian Church