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Chaldean Church and its Assyrian Heritage

by William Warda

Posted: Monday, April 09, 2001 at 12:02 PM CT


“Uniting the two factions around one national identity, which has always been Assyrian, will promote cooperation in solving countless problems which threaten their mutual existence.”

During the 2000 years of Christianity, Assyrians have suffered not only because of persecutions by their non-Christian neighbors, but also because of disputes within their own churches. Such frictions in many ways have been more destructive because they disunited Assyrians into alienated and disconnected factions. Alienation between these divided communities squandered precious resources which if used collectively could have fostered self sufficiency, growth, prosperity, and would have contributed to the long term survival of their common culture.

The first division happened in mid fifth century AD caused by a theological disagreement about the nature of Jesus Christ which separated the Assyrian Church of the East from the Syrian orthodox church. The second happened in mid 16th century when another dispute resulted in splintering the church in two branches. The original church of the East and the Chaldean Church. This is a brief history of how the Chaldean Church came into existence and the division of the Assyrian nation.

When Shimun Bar Mama Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East died in 1552 his nephew Shimun Dinkha claimed the right to succeed his uncle as it had become a custom since 15th century. A group of bishops who were against the hereditary system of succession met in Mosul and elected as their leader John Sulaga the head of the Rabban Hormuzd monastery located some thirty miles north of Nineveh. With the help of the Franciscans, arrangement were made for Sulaga to visit Rome and make a profession of Catholic faith.

“Armed with proper documents and accompanied by three notables, Adam, Thomas, and Khalaph, Sulaga left Mosul for Rome with an escort of 70 as far as Jerusalem. On Nov. 15, 1552, he arrived in Rome accompanied only by Khalaph. One companion had died on the way, and another had been detained by illness. On the basis of a report by Cardinal Maffei, Pope Julius III promulgated his bull of Feb. 20, 1553, proclaiming Sulaga patriarch of Mosul. This was the official birth say of the Chaldean Catholic Church.” R. Rabban, "Chaldean Rite", New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. III p. 428

In December 1553, Sulaga applied for and received from the Sultan of Allepo a document acknowledging him as the head of the Chaldean Millet. Under the Turkish rule each church denomination was considered as a separate entity. The leader of a denomination was responsible for spiritual and civic needs of his flock and would act as a link between the community and the central government. The name Chaldean was chosen to distinguish the newly formed church from its former origin. R. Rabban, p.428

The Chaldean Church leaders with the help of the Catholic Church and its allies were able to bring the majority of the Assyrian population into the newly formed denomination. It is safe to say that all adherents to the Chaldean Church are converts from the "Assyrian Church of the East" which proves the Assyrian ethnicity of the chaldean church and its members.

Hormuzd Rassam who was a prominent member of the Chaldean Church in his "Asshur and the Land of Nimrod", 1897, describes one of the tactics used to force members of the Assyrian Church to abandon their faith and join the Chaldean church. He writes:

“It is extraordinary to state that the delegates of Roman Church have not succeeded in converting the Nestorians (a misnomer for the members of the Assyrian Church of the East) of Shakh to their dogma, though so near to a Turkish town, where the former possesses so much power under the protection of the French Government... The Nestorians of Shakh told me that the Chaldean Catholics of Jazeerah, who were formerly their coreligionists, had always tried, through the influence with the local authorities, to bully them into submission to the Pope.”
Asshur and the Land of Nimrod, 1897, p. 107

E.B. Soane in his 1907 travel log to Mesopotamia writes:

“Chladeans in nearly all the Turkish territory belong to the Roman Catholics because the old church died under the unscrupulous assaults of the Roman Church who used a Machiavellian policy in bringing over the Old Church to Papal allegiance, a change which has been for nothing but the worse. Chaldeans themselves expressed deep regret to the author about their abandoning the old Church for the sake of the much prized education which Roman Church supplied.” E.B. Soane, "To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan In Disguise", John Murray, London 1912, p. 122

(Because of Hormuzd Rassam's writings and his personal influence on the early Assyriologists such as Layard, writers between 1850 and early 20th century used the term Chaldean indiscriminately as a synonym of the name Assyrian)

Soane continues:

“Lest this statement seem unwarrantable, I beg to support it by the opinion of the Chaldeans themselves. They are in most cases fully aware of the circumstances under which their forebears and contemporaries became absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church, and there are very few of them whom I ever heard express any sentiment upon the matter save deep regret.” Notes p.122

“The Roman Catholic Chaldeans in Turkish territory ( including Mesopotamia) have increased in numbers since the split in 1552, all those above Mosul and in Diarbekr being of that persuasion.” Soane, p.157

A full scale assault against the Assyrian Church of the East was even carried to India among the Christians of Mallabar. Assyrian Missionaries had carried Christianity to the Mallabar province in India since fourth century A.D. Some Assyrian migration to this region had also taken place in that century. These Christians commonly know as Syrian Christians considered the Assyrian Church of the East as their source of religious inspiration and its Patriarch as their spiritual leader. In early 16th century when Portuguese military officials came into contact with them by brute force and treachery they managed to bring this church under the Pope's control.

By the order of the Roman Church in 1599 entire libraries of books written in Syriac language were burned and according to a decree copying or writing of any book in the Syriac language was prohibited. S.G. Pathan, "The Church in the Middle Ages", Asia Publishing House, New York, 1963, pp. 38-53

Finally on Nov. 9th, 1994, by signing a Common Christological Declaration, acrimonious differences between the Catholic church and the Assyrian Church of the East were resolved.

Realizing the futility of discord and divisions among the Syrian Speaking churches Pope John Paul II has taken active interest in cultivating friendly discourse between them. Consequently on Friday, November 29,1996 the patriarchs of the Church of the East and the Chaldean church met to discuss the prospects of unity between the two churches. A joint committee was established to formulate ways to accomplish several joint projects. This indeed is a good news for all concerned but using the term Chaldean as an ethnic identity rather than a religious denomination will continue to divide the Chaldean church members from their Assyrian compatriots.

A short while ago the Chaldean publication "Almuntanda" quoted Bishop Mar Ibrahim as having said that the Chaldean leadership is working on collecting 100,000 signatures to convince the United States census to count members of the Chaldean communities as a separate ethnic group. Such a decision is contrary to the spirit of the intended unity between the two Assyrian churches. It will continue the estrangement of the Assyrians and the Chaldean communities. This may even be unconstitutional because of the constitutional principal mandating separation of Church and State. Given such tactics every religious denomination can qualify as a separate ethnic minority in addition of being a religious denomination.

Advocating a separate national identity for the members of the Chaldean church has had tragic consequences for the members of this church and other Assyrians during the last four and a half centuries. Scarce resources which could have been used to empower their people, culture, language were wasted on religious conflicts. Today both Assyrians and their Chaldean compatriots find themselves driven out of their traditional villages and towns which once served to protect them and their culture from assimilation. Their disunity doubtless played a considerable role in rendering them weak and unable to withstand the atrocities of their common foes. Their divided identity undermines their future survival. Uniting the two factions around one national identity, which has always been Assyrian, will promote cooperation in solving countless problems which threaten their mutual existence.



Dr. Hirmis Aboona (1940-2009)

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