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The Assyrian~Chaldean Dilemma:
One Nation, Two Names, Part II

by Ghassan Hanna

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000 at 06:28 PM UT

Published in Al Muntada Magazine, July-August Issue.

“Chaldeans: The name of former Nestorians now reunited with the Roman Church - Strictly, the name Chaldean is no longer correct; in Chaldea proper, apart from Baghdad, there are now very few adherents of this rite, most of the Chaldean population being found in the cities of Mosul, Arbil, and Kirkuk, in the heart of the Tigris valley, in the valley of the Zab, in the mountains of Kurdistan. It is in the former ecclesiastical province Ator (Assyria) that are found the most flourishing of the Catholic Chaldean communities.” — The Catholic Encyclopedia

“I'll continue to discuss the role of the missionaries and present selective parts of the modern history of this great nation, the Assyrian, in all its religious denominations, Easterner, Chaldean, Syrian, and Maronite etc... One nation, one Assyrian name, but different religious sects.”

In part I of this article, I presented historical records as to the origin of the religious name "Chaldean", a name given by the Catholic Church to its followers in Beth Nahrain as well as those in Malabar, West India. That the current days "Chaldeans" are but true descendents of Assyrian of antiquity, a fact that even the Roman Church agrees with. Also discussed were the differences in the ethnical backgrounds between the Assyrian/Babylonians people and those of the Chaldeans of antiquity and the Aramaeans. In that discussion, historical records were presented to show that the Chaldeans of antiquity, were actually a late Semitic migration to Beth Nahrain (around 9th century BC) who lived primarily in southern Babylonia. The Babylonians/Assyrians (being the same ethnic people who were named differently in accordance to their main cities) were in Beth Nahrain 2000-3000 years before that. In later time, the Chaldeans were able to over run Babylonia and become part of its nobility, and when in 612 BC allied themselves with the Medes (that alliance was sealed when Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar, married Cyaxare's (King of the Medes) daughter, to whose honor were built the Hanging Gardens), were able to topple the Assyrian Empire.

The Chaldean Empire did not last more than 74 years at the end of which, Beth Nahrain fell (precisely on 12 October, 539 BC) to the Persian rule and then to a successive of foreign rulers. The natives did not see a major change to their status till the coming of Christianity, a religion that had a devastating impact on the fate of the Assyrian nation.

Christianity and Islam in Beth Nahrain

No nation embraced Christianity with the feverishness and devotion of the inhabitants of Beth Nahrain, and no other nation suffered death and almost total extermination as the Assyrian nation did because of it. Actually, the very word Christian became synonymous with the word Assyrian, for the word "Suraya" (the Greek, whom language was widely used at the beginning of Christianity in Syria and Beth Nahrain, changed "Aturaya" to "Asuraya" which gradually became "Suraya"), is used by current days Assyrians to mean both "Christian" as well as "Assyrian".

With the acceptance of Christianity, the differing religions of the ruled and those of the Persian rulers (Zarostians) at the time, prepared the ground for the first of the continuous massacres and mistreatment that the Assyrian nation went through and to which it still suffers for. This mistreatment increased when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity in the fourth century, with its impact of splitting the Church of the East according to the territory of the two rivals. It's the fate of Eastern Christians that through out the last two thousands years, their religion differed with those who ruled their land, and making matters even worse, it was the religion of states in the West who were rivals or enemies of their own.

During the Parthian rule of Iraq (126 BC - 227 AD), Assyria and Babylonia were resurrected, and old towns were re-inhabited again, and Assur and Mardukh continued to be worshipped by some Assyrians till around the fourth century AD. However, with the spread of Christianity, the lot of the inhabitants of Beth Nahrain changed radically. The new religion molded all the inhabitants of Beth Nahrain from Assyrian/Babylonians, Aramaeans, to Chaldeans into "one nation". However, at present only those inhabitants of "Assyria" (due to its geographical location and its mountainous landscape) were able to survive massacres and resist forceful "religious conversions". Unfortunately, while Christianity at its outset was the melting pot for all the Aramaic-speaking people of Beth Nahrain, currently its different denominations are playing a divisive rule in what's left of the Assyrian nation.

In order to gain the favor of their government the Christians in the Persian Empire, early on found it necessary to sever their ties with their co-religionists in Syria whom were part of the Christian Byzantine Empire. This they did even before the christological controversies had started. After the condemnation of Nestorius, many of his adherents, persecuted in the Byzantine Empire, found refuge among the Christians of the Persian Empire whose rulers found it advantageous to tolerate and protect Christians considered heretical in an enemy state. Barsumas, founder of the Nestorian theological school in the Persian Empire and a refugee from Edessa, is said to have taken an active part in the Persian persecution of non Nestorian Christians under Peroz (457-484), telling the king that it would be best for the Persian authorities if all Persian Christians were made to accept Nestorianism. When the Persian armies occupied Edessa during the wars between Heraclius and Khusraw Nushirwan, the Persian governor ordered the assembled inhabitants to choose one of two things: ". . either become Jacobites or Nestorians. If you embrace one of these two doctrines you will remain in your native country with your own manner of living; if you refuse, I will put you to death or send you off to the court of the king with your families, your goods and possessions."

In general, the Sasanians were tolerant toward their Christian subjects especially the Nestorians, who held a favorite place among the non-Zoroastrian subjects of the emperor. They were occasionally persecuted but even during the reign of an intolerant sovereign such as Nushirwan, the Patriarch was the acknowledged head of all the Christians of the land. The Church, partly impelled by conviction and vitality and partly driven by persecution, was able as early as the sixth century to send out missionaries as far as China and India. In southwestern India a large ex-Nestorian congregation still exists.

When the Arab conquests in the seventh century brought most of the Christians of the Near East within the boundaries of the Muslim Empire, the Nestorians continued to be in favor. The Muslim rulers who, like the Persians, wanted native churches that did not carry appeals to external authorities, favored the Nestorians over all the other sects. Unlike the Persians, the Arabian conquerors were inferior to their conquered subjects in culture; it was, therefore, politically and economically desirable to treat them well. Without the aid of their subject yet more sophisticated population, the Muslims would not have been able to cope with the problems of urban civilization. The result was that when the Christians themselves welcomed the conquerors, they were admitted to many offices of trust.

First among the various bodies to initiate the new conquerors into the new culture were the Syrian and Mesopotamian Christians, most of whom were Nestorians. The Nestorians were treated with special toleration and their patriarchs were considered the most important Christian dignitaries under Islamic domination. Nisibin, Urhai, Jundishapur, and Merv flourished as centers of Nestorian Culture. "The majority of the inhabitants of Syria, Iraq and Khurasan," wrote al-Biruni in the eleventh century, "are Nestorians." When toward the end of the eighth century the Nestorian patriarchate was moved from Seleucia-Ctesiphon to Baghdad, the Patriarch was for some centuries a considerable political figure. At times civil authority over all Christians in the Abbasid Empire was given to him. In a charter granted to the newly appointed Nestorian patriarch, the latter was empowered to act as head of the Nestorian Christians and the representative also of the Greeks, Jacobites, and Melkites in the Muslim lands.

Under the Muslim rule, the millet system, whereby a non-Muslim community was ruled through the intermediacy of its religious hierarchy, was consolidated. Under Islam, the system was found necessary for religious, political, and economic reasons; the law of the Qur'an, which was civil as well as religious, could not be applied integrally to Christian and Jewish communities. Like true theocracies, the non-Muslim sects were put under the jurisdiction of the religious heads of their respective creeds and were designated as "millets," or nationalities distinguished by their religious profession. The various churches were thus transformed into a kind of ecclesiastical state whose jurisdiction extended not merely to matters of personal status, such as marriage and inheritance, but also to most of the disputes occurring among the community. The non-Muslims were not debarred from seeking relief in a Muslim court if they so desired, but this was regarded with displeasure by the Church. The Patriarch of the Church of the East, Timotheus, in the ninth century published rules intended to remove all excuses for "those who always run to the law courts of the non-Christians for lack of judicial decisions and laws... If they are Christians how can they go to non-Christian judges?"

Gradually, however, the Nestorians, together with the other Christians, lost their dominant position over the Muslims and began to decline to the status of a tolerated religion on a level with the other local sects. Many Christians found it advantageous to embrace Islam. There were times when they were subjected to excessive exaction and temporary persecutions. Hardships such as those they endured during the short reign of the zealous Umar II (717-720) and the repressions, which occurred under Mutawakkil (847-861) were, however, exceptions. During its years of decline the Abbasid Empire as a whole lacked law and order. The rulers more and more employed mercenary troops, and the leaders of these armies undermined stability by frequent uprisings. Lacking a strong bond between the subject peoples, the government emphasized religion as a uniting factor. The Crusades during this period, unfortunately, left a legacy of hatred against the Christian population.

Few more words are worth mentioning about the lot of the Christians under the Islamic rule. The Ummayad caliphs (661-750) lived as Arabs first and Muslim second. As a consequence, their era was liberal in both political and religious matters. Actually, Muawiya himself, the first Ummayad caliph, had a Christian wife, Maysum, and a Christian court poet, Al-Akhatal, as well as a Christian physician who presided over his health. However, during the rule of the Ummayad caliph Umar II (717-720) there arose the concern to summon conquered peoples to Islam and to create favorable conditions allowing an equitable or better participation of all Muslims in the social and political life of the community. Umar was shocked that non-Muslims should exercise authority over Muslims, and tried to prevent it. Also due to external political circumstances, Umar II reacted with some vehemence against the Christians. He abrogated the jizyah for any Christian who converted, and imposed other demeaning restrictions, such as:

Christians may not be witnesses against Muslims. They may not hold public office. They may not pray aloud or sound their clappers. They may not wear the qaba', nor ride on a saddle. A Muslim who would kill a Christian would be liable to a fine, not death. He abolished the financial arrangements whereby churches, convents and the charities were maintained. Despite these exceptions, Ummayd rule was characterized on the whole by political as well as religious and intellectual liberalism. That is why Ummayad caliphs, with the exception of Umar II, did not press for or even favor conversion to the Islamic faith.

The Abbasids who toppled the Umayyad Caliphs, chose Baghdad for headquarters, though for a short period of time al-Mutawakkil (847-861) transferred his seat back from Iraq to Damascus (858). As the Melkites were few in numbers in Mesopotamia it was the Nestorians and the Jacobites who under Abbasid rule shared more strongly in the literary life of the country and brought greater contributions. The beginning of the Abbasid caliphate until the reign of al-Mutawakkil marked the zenith of the Nestorian Church from mid 8th century to mid 9th century. This prodigious success was made possible by the great number of zealous and educated monks, formed by the many schools existing at the time. In Baghdad itself, there were apparently many important monasteries, groups of professors, and students. There were, for example, the school of Deir Kalilisu and Deir Mar Fatyun and the school of Karh. In the last two schools medicine and philosophy were taught along with the sacred disciplines. Among important Christian towns were, Kufa (from Kartha river), Najaf, Karbala (Kerb Alah.. God's village), Basra (Basraya), and Sammra (from Aramaic "Shammra" and not Arabic "sora min ra" (pleased who saw) as wrongly claimed. Its "Melweya" was built by the Christian Aramaic engineer, Daleel bin Yaqob al-Nasrani). Tikrit (Takrath) was famous for its sons (Antoine al-Tikriti, Yahya bin Udai al-Tikriti, and Abi Ratta al-Tikriti were known for their poetry and philosophy, Mar Qiriaqos al-Tikriti for his religious writings, and Abi Nasr bin Garir and his brother Abi Saad for their medical reputation). Christian physicians and especially scribes exerted some kind of tutelage within the Nestorian Church, and tried their best to obtain for their community a more benevolent legislation from Muslim rulers.

Before, al-Mutawakkil, Abu Gafar al-Mansur (754-775) imposed many vexing measures upon the Christians. In 756, he forbade Christians to build new churches, to display the cross in public, or to speak about religions with Muslims. In 757, he imposed taxes on monks, even on those who lived as hermits, and he used Jews to strip sacristies for the treasury. In 759, he removed all Christians from positions in the treasury. In 766 he had the crosses on top of the churches brought down, forbade every nocturnal liturgical celebration and forbade the study of any language other than Arabic. In 722, he required both Jews and Christians to exhibit an external sign to distinguish them from other believers. Abu Gafar al-Mansur also put in prison, for different reasons, the Melkite Patriarch Theodoret, the Patriarch Georges, and the Nestorian Catholicos James. The Caliph al-Mahdi (775-785) intensified the persecution and had all the churches built since the Arab conquest destroyed. The Christian tribes of Banu Tanuh, which counted 5000 fighters, were forced to embrace Islam. Angered by the defeats he incurred at the hands of the Byzantines, al-Mahdi sent troops to Homs in Syria, to have all the Christians abjure their faith. However, during the Muslim rule many of these laws were not enforced. For example, when Umar II tried to dismiss all dhimmis from government services, such confusion resulted that the order was ignored.

The Barmakid viziers, of Turkish origin, who were the strong arm of the Abbasid caliphs, seem to have manifested a certain measure of benevolence towards ahel-al-Thimma (the tributaries) and especially towards the Christians. It is only at the end of the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809), i.e., after the disgrace of the Barmakids, that some measures were taken against the Christians. Harun al-Rashid re-enacted some of the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish measures introduced by Umar II. In 807, he ordered all churches erected since the Muslim conquest demolished. He also decreed that members of tolerated sects should wear a prescribed garb. But evidently much of this legislation was not enforced. Under his son al-Ma'mun (813-833) there was in 814 a general persecution in Syria and in Palestine. Many Christians and church dignitaries escaped into Cyprus and into Byzantine territories. Conditions under al-Watheq (842-847) did not improve and were sad indeed for the Christians. Under al-Mutawwakil (847-861) there was intensification of discontent on the part of Christians due to harsh conditions imposed on them. In 850 and 854 al-Mutawwakil revived the discriminatory legislation and supplemented it by new features, which were the most stringent ever issued against the minorities. Christians and Jews were enjoined to affix wooden images of devils to their houses, level their graves even with the ground, wear outer garments of yellow color, and ride only on mules and asses with wooden saddles marked by two pomegranates-like balls on the cantle. Basing their contention on a Qur'anic charge that the Jews and the Christians had corrupted the text of their scriptures (Suras. 2:70; 5:16-18), the contemporary jurists ruled that no testimony of a Jew or Christian was admissible against a Muslim. However, despite these stringent laws, the social status of Christians was not that bleak. The consequences of this anti-Christian legislation were mitigated to a certain degree by the number and influence of some Christians in prestigious and vital professions, such as in medicine and high positions of government; e.g., Abu al-Hasan Sa'id ibn Amr-ibn-Sangala, who occupied the position of secretary under the Caliph al-Radi (934-40), and who was as well appointed as special secretary for the two sons of the Caliph in 935, and also Minister of Expenditure, and who rendered inestimable services to the Christians. On the whole, relations between Muslims and Christians were peaceful and unfair laws were not always enforced.

On 11 February 1258, Holako entered Baghdad and with him came the end of the Arab Muslim Empire. Holako being married to a Christian wife spared the Christians from his indiscriminate killing of the inhabitants of Baghdad. However, his successors (Holako stayed 10 days only in Baghdad) treated them according to their own convictions. Those Christians among them were kind to their coreligionists, those not, applied the same method of destruction and killing that the Mongols were famous for. In 1260, many Christians in Nineveh were massacred, followed by another killing spree in Baghdad in 1263, then again in 1267 in Nineveh and Arbil. This continued on and off during the gradual conversion of the Mongol to Islam. The turning point in the life of the Christians of Beth Nahrain was the great massacres of the zealous Muslim Timorlink, whose storm and level of destruction of Christianity changed the map of the Near East for ever. Timorlink entered Baghdad in 1400 and initiated a great massacre of its Christians as well as Muslims inhabitants. He destroyed many Mosques that were built during the Abbasid era. However, his hatred of Christians generated such destruction that many left their homes and fled into the mountains. In 1401, Nineveh was attacked and many perished. At the end of Timorlink's storm and what followed for the next century of massacres and persecution left Christianity, which had a strong footing in Persia and the whole of Beth Nahrain, in such a state that it shrank to a small fraction of its original size, out of which it was never able to recover (the Church of the East had 29 metropolitans containing 250 bishops which Timorlink's massacres reduced to 1 metropolitan with just few bishops!).

Some Chaldean Catholics who claim the "Chaldeans of Antiquity connection", site the 4-years of Timorlink's anti-Christians' rule which resulted in some Christians fleeing their original lands in Baghdad and south of Mesopotamia as to the reason for their current location in "Assyria". Needless to say, that those immigrations were limited in number and were in the direction of all of the mountains in Assyria and Persia. It would be ludicrous to claim that they ended up with the complete replacement of the native Assyrian inhabitants of Nineveh and its surroundings (home of the current days Chaldean Catholics) with that of their own. Since those of Babylonian blood are of the same ethnic background as that of the Assyrians, the question that arise is to the ability of those "Chaldeans" to filter out their own blood and make the connection with the non Assyrians/Babylonians, that of the Chaldeans! Also, worth repeating are the massacres in Nineveh and its surroundings in 1401, one year after Timorlink destroyed Baghdad and pushed the Christians to flee. It's doubtful that those who fled the death of Baghdad would choose Nineveh as their new residence, and if they did, some could just as well have perished along with its Assyrian inhabitants, which would leave their numbers in an even more doubtful figure with that of the natives.

In any case, the Assyrian nation, as any other nation in this globe, does not subscribe to the fascist definition of "ethnic purity" which after all has its roots deep in the Greek and Roman systems of slavery. The Mesopotamian civilization, in contrast with the Western that followed, did not develop a slavery system (which was made of native as well as foreign people), but one that could be called, "displacement system", by which foreign rebels were disbursed in the Four Corners of the Empire. In contrast, natives of Mesopotamia, whether Chaldeans, Babylonians or Assyrians never applied that to themselves in their continuous quarrels among themselves. The example of the Jews in Babylon is but a well known one. Interestingly, it did not take the Hebrews more than 50 years (between their capture in 587 BC and the fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 BC) to greatly assimilate in that great cosmopolitan society of Babylon. Actually, when Cyrus, the Persian Emperor, ended the Chaldean era and gave the Jews their freedom to return home, many refused to do so preferring the civility and life in Babylonia, not a reaction of "slaves" or ill treated people, as some circles falsely claim. Their Iraqi descendents are but witnesses to that fact.

With that in mind, the ethnic make up of the Assyrian/Babylonian nation, as it stand today, could well include remnants of Sumerians, Akkadians, Chaldeans, Aramaeans, Phoenician, Hebrews, Kurds, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and some blood linkage to every kind of people who passed through Mesopotamia. What makes a nation is not its "ethnic purity", for that does not exist anywhere, what makes it up is the assimilation of the new in the majority's culture, with what it entails of accepting its language, its way of life, even its religion, and developing a pride in its history and love for its land. Saying that, the case of the religious name "Chaldean" should not be understood beyond its "Catholic invention".

The Western Missionaries and Eastern Christianity

Few words should be mentioned here as to the term "Nestorians", a heretical name according to the Catholic Church, which was applied to the Church of the East till recently. Nestorius was born in Germanicia, in Syria Euphoratensis and died in Thebaid, Egypt in 451 AD. He was chosen by Emperor Teodosius II to be Patriarch of Constantinople in April, 428. He had a high reputation for eloquence and made an excellent impression on his audiences.

As Christianity left Palestine to Rome as a simple message of Jesus the Savior calling upon the people to follow God's word, it returned back with a heavy dose of Greek philosophy. The most paramount, was the concept of "Two Natures and One Person" of Jesus Christ, the God and the Man, which became the corner stone of Christianity. Nestorius while believing in the unity of the two natures insisted on the completeness of the Man nature. That the Incarnate God did not suffer or die, but raised up from the dead him in whom He was incarnate. That Mary did not bring forth the Godhead as such nor the Word of God, but the organ, the temple of the Godhead. The man Jesus Christ is this temple, "the animated purple of the King" as Nestorius stated. A heretical concept according to his more influential rivals, such as Cyril of Alexandria, who in 430, at a council that was originally summoned by Nestorius himself and which was awaiting his arrival, gathered his followers and issued a condemnation of Nestorius' teachings. Emperor Theodosius, after much delay and hesitation, ratified its finding. Pope Sixtus III confirmed it.

The Westerner missionaries arrived to the Middle East with a zealous drive to convert the "heretical" Muslims, only to end up in splitting the Eastern Church into pieces. A church they accused of being just as heretical, is worth just as much "Christian cleansing". The first splinter started with the creation of the Chaldean church in 1551.

Accession to the highest office in the church hierarchy was the cause of controversies. In 1450 the elected patriarch of the Eastern Church enacted a law which restricted his office to members of his own family (a result of Timorlink's holocaust that left a new reality, with the patriarch concluding that the remnants of the church could survive only within its core Assyrian following and their social structure). Since the primate was a celibate, his office passed on to his nearest relative, usually a nephew succeeding his uncle. Hereditary succession, however, was contrary to the canons of the Church, which provided that "no Bishop may nominate his successor"; consequently, the new arrangement became a fruitful source of dissension among the people. But the ordinance was not seriously challenged until a whole century had elapsed, when the dispute erupted into a schism. In 1551, when Simon Dinha succeeded his uncle, some influential families, encouraged by recently arrived Roman Catholic missionaries, elected a monk from the monastery of Rabban Hurmizd, Yohanna (John) Sulaqa, as a more suitable person. With the aid of the Franciscan missionaries at Mosul, Sulaqa was sent to Jerusalem and thence to Rome where he was accepted as Catholic and ordained as the first Uniat patriarch. The Sulaqa line, which started in 1553, came to an end after about a century and a half, in 1692, when the patriarch then in office renounced Catholicism. The previous patriarch of the Eastern Church, Mar Shamoun, a name adopted by Sulaqa's successors soon after his death, is a descendant of the line founded by Sulaqa ...the founder of "Chaldean Catholic Church"!

The original line of patriarchs, successors of Simon Dinha, continued as Nestorian primates. Some of his successors, who called themselves Mar Eliyya (Elias), tried to reconcile with Rome in order to bring to an end the rival branch started by Sulaqa. In 1607, Mar Eliyya VI was accepted as Catholic and received into union, thus creating two "Chaldean" patriarchs, both Uniat. The successors of Eliyya VII, however, renounced Catholicism, thus creating after 1692 two "Nestorian" patriarchs, one residing in Azerbayjan, a Mar Shamoun from the Sulaqa line; the other at Alqosh near Mosul, a Mar Eliyya from the old and venerated "Bayt al-Ab" (House of the Father).

As if to add to this confusion, Yusuf, the Chaldean Archbishop of Diarbakir, a particularly Catholic center, followed the advice of the Capuchin missionaries there and withdrew from communion with Mar Eliyyas in 1672. In 1681 he was granted the title of patriarch (without specifying of where or of whom) by Pope Innocent XI and was known as Mar Yusuf. His successor, Mar Yusuf II, received the title of Patriarch of Babylon and the line continued until 1828 when Yusuf V died. For a short time before 1692, therefore, there were two Chaldean Uniat patriarchs: the Mar Shamouns from the Sulaqa line and the Mar Yusufs of Diarbakir.

Of the two "Nestorian" lines, the older one came to an end in 1804 when Mar Eliyya XIII died without having a nephew to succeed him. His brother, Hanna Hurmizd, had turned Catholic and was granted license "to minister and perfect the office of patriarch" but was not allowed to use the patriarchal seal. When Mar Eliyya XIII died, Hurmizd was tempted to renounce Catholicism in order to occupy the still popular office which his brother had left vacant. For a time the Catholic Church suspended Hurmizd from his office and it was not until 1838 that he was recognized as Patriarch of the Chaldeans and only after he had agreed that he would abstain from admitting any of his relatives to the Episcopal order. Having thus abrogated the law of lineal succession, the Vatican appointed a stranger to the Chaldean patriarchate to succeed Hurmizd. The new Uniat patriarch was not only the first primate who was not from the Nestorian "Bayt al-Ab," but in 1844, he became the first to obtain (through the influence of the French government) an imperial firman recognizing him as Patriarch of the "Chaldeans" instead of the "Nestorians", the term used in all the previous firmans. Thus it was as late as 1844 that the Chaldean Uniat Church was finally established on a strong foundation, independent of the Nestorians, and its members, as Catholics, were legally recognized by the Ottoman government as "Chaldean millet distinct and separate from the Nestorians."

In spite of these formal distinctions, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the people of the plain of Mosul were more Nestorian than Catholic in sentiment as well as in legal status. The desire to join the Catholic Church was partly politically motivated because of the protection which the French government afforded to the Catholics of the Ottoman Empire. Although relations between the Roman Catholic and Assyrian churches go back to the sixteenth century, it was not until the middle of the eighteenth that Catholic missionary work started on an organized basis. According to a historian of nineteenth-century Catholic missions, when the Dominicans arrived in Mosul in 1748 the name of Catholic was hardly known. It was not until 1840, most probably as a result of Protestant missionary activities in this region, that Catholic work-slowed down and interrupted by the French Revolution- was taken up in earnest. Until about the end of the last century, the people, and even some of the Chaldean patriarchs, were still emotionally attached to their old church and were growing jealous of too many alterations in their ancient customs. As late as the eve of the First World War many Chaldeans, would have gladly rejoined the old Nestorian Church under Mar Shamoun if he could only provide foreign protection equal to that which they received through the Papal delegate. With that in mind, and to exert a better control on the Chaldean priesthood, the Catholic Church developed a program by which Chaldean priests were encouraged to study Catholicism in Rome itself. At the moment, most of the Chaldean hierarchy has gone through this "Roman Indoctrination".

Starting with the nineteenth century, however, as European colonies multiplied and commercial markets increased, the missionary call of an open world for which they felt responsible came to Protestantism with irresistible force. The first two missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions arrived in the Middle East in 1820 at Smyrna, Turkey. Three years later, work was started in Beirut, and in 1831 the station at Constantinople was established. By the end of the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was well covered.

In the Muslim world, the "Nestorians" were given a prominent place even though practically nothing had been known about them in the Protestant West until the twenties of the last century. Two distinguished members of the American Board, Eli Smith and H.G.O. Dwight were sent to Urmiyah in Azerbayjan in 1831 to survey it. In their correspondence with the Board, they referred to the extreme liberality of the Nestorians towards other sects, their ideas of open communion, and their rejection of auricular confession "that efficient police system of the other old churches". Considerations, which had produced in their minds a firm conviction that a mission to the Nestorians would meet with far fewer obstacles than among any other of the old churches.

Another factor which gave the "Nestorians" a peculiar interest, was the missionary character which they had once borne and which it was hoped they might bear again. Located as they were among the Persians, Kurds, and Arabs, they would make ideal missionaries if educated and supported. On the basis of the foregoing report a mission was sent to Urmiyah in 1834 to reside among the "Nestorians" there. The head of the mission, Justin Perkins, who was to live and labor in Urmiyah for 36 years, wrote about the day when "this ancient church, once so renowned for its missionary efforts would again awake from the slumber of ages, and become clear as the sun, fair as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners, to achieve victories for Zion". The "Nestorians" were equally enthusiastic in their welcome of the foreign missionaries whose aid and sympathy they thought would deliver them from their oppression and insecurity. Smith and Dwight gained the impression that the hope that " we would free them from their oppressions was the uppermost in their minds". Even the Sunni Kurds, oppressed by the Shiah Persians were happy to see the two Americans. However, not the case with Persians who looked upon their arrivals with suspicions and jealousies. This attitude which entails a greater oppression had no "political bearing" so far as the missionaries were concerned. Indeed to Perkins, one could not "reasonably anticipate permanent quite in these lands until they shall yield to the dominion of the Prince of Peace". The political expansion of the Christian powers was an indication to him that the Lord was "shaking down the power of the false prophet, preparing the way for Him whose right it is to reign, in these and all lands".

When a "Nestorian" Bishop was beaten brutally for having invited the missionaries to his village, the missionaries acted according to their principle of non-interference in local politics. The "Nestorians" must have been very disappointed in this "un-Russian" behavior of the missionaries from the New World. Russia, being the northern neighbor of Persia, and who's Persian possessions was expanding constantly. To a militant missionary such as Perkins, these inhumane acts must have been very painful, even though "the moral degradation" of the Nestorians was "still more affecting" to him! However, later on the missionaries did use their influence for the political betterment of their proteges, and the Persian government was usually cooperative.

In 1836 Perkins wrote to Mar Shamoun of "the trials and sufferings and your people so long endured in these lands of Mohammedan oppression" and spoke of the deep interest and sympathy which his fellow Christians in America felt for the Patriarch's people. Three years later, Dr. Grant, a missionary physician, visited the patriarch, who kept him as his guest for five weeks. Soon after Grant left, the Assyrian patriarch had two other Western visitors, this time from England. Messrs. Ainsworth and Rassam. It is interesting to note that when the two visited Julamark, the seat of Sulayman Bey, the second chief of the Kurdish tribes in Hakkari, they found the Assyrian patriarch alone, serving as acting-governor in place of Sulayman who had gone to Bashqala, the seat of his uncle Nurallah, the Amir of Hakkari, to plan their joint move against the Assyrians. Both men must have felt threatened by the Western influence which the Assyrians seemed to be inviting in their midst.

Strengthened by his alliance with the Turkish Pasha of Mosul, Nurallah began to assert his full authority as the feudal lord. The Pasha, while being just as annoyed by the Frankish influence, was planning the direct control of the Porte of those independent tribes by setting each against the other. Soon after his return from Erzerum, Nurallah offered peace to the Assyrian patriarch on condition he lays aside all civil authority and settle down as head of the church and leave politics to the Maliks (civil heads of Assyrian tribes) and the Amir himself. Many of the Maliks sided with the Amir and accused their patriarch of overreaching his power.

This was the situation when Grant visited the patriarch a year later (July 1841). After Grant's departure to Mosul, Nurallah decided to subjugate Mar Shamoun. In a show of strength, he sent a party of his men who attacked and burned the residence of the patriarch. The latter unable to maintain either his authority among his people or his independence, had fled to a friendly Assyrian tribe the night before the attack. To Grant, who heard of this incident while he was in Mosul, these seemed temporary disturbances which would make the "Nestorians" more receptive to the word of God. A few months after the clash between Nurallah and the patriarch, a partial reconciliation was affected between the two chiefs, but the Amir claimed jurisdiction over all the Assyrian tribes in Hakkari.

As the missionaries presence increased, so did the "threat" the Kurds felt. That finally they planned their biggest move against the Assyrians, which under Bader Khan, the Chief of Buhtan, resulted in great massacre. It's interesting to note, that before that massacre, Grant visited Bader Khan where he found his friend Nurallah. Just before he left the Assyrian land, hundreds of Assyrians had come kissing Grant's hand, hoping that as a result of his visit there might result in some kind of security. But Grant true to his principle of noninterference in local politics, would promise no such thing. Grant spent ten days among Bader Khan and Nurallah, witnessing their preparations for the invasion of the Assyrian land. The two chiefs had spoken "to me as freely on the subject as though I was one of their own numbers". Grant was relieved, however, by Bader Khan's assurance that "our house and property should remain entirely safe", and moreover all "Nestorians who might take shelter with me should remain unmolested".

The Kurdish army descended upon the Assyrians soon after Dr. Grant had departed. The massacre that followed was the ugliest which the Assyrians had experienced since the ravages of Timorlink.

Reporting the massacre, Grant concluded with this "consoling" thought: "In our own trials for that people, let us have the great consolation that we have been instrumental, in some measure, of awakening an interest and a spirit of prayer for them". Unfortunately, he had been also instrumental in inspiring fallacious hopes and exciting dangerous prejudices.

In the next and final Part III, I'll continue to discuss the role of the missionaries and present selective parts of the modern history of this great nation, the Assyrian, in all its religious denominations, Easterner, Chaldean, Syrian, and Maronite etc... One nation, one Assyrian name, but different religious sects.


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 Edition. Definitions of: "Assyria" Vol. II pp.7, "Babylonia" Vol. II pp. 179, "Chaldeans" Vol. III pp. 559. "Syrian Rite". "Nestorius and Nestorianism".
  2. Is the Theology of the Church of the East Nestorian?, article by CIRED,
  3. The Nestorians and their Muslim Neighbors, by John Joseph, 1960, pp. 30-37, 46-65.
  4. Ancient Iraq, Georges Roux, 1992 Edition.
  5. The Flickering Light of Asia, by Joel E. Werda. 1990 Edition.
  6. The Assyrian Question, by Joseph Yacoub. Second Edition 1993.
  7. History of Iraqi Christians (in Arabic), by Rofael Babo Ishaq. 1989 Edition.
  8. History of Syrian Nation, by George David Malich. 1910 Edition.
  9. The Advent of Islam And Arab Christians, an article by Dr. George Khoury.
  10. The Arab Christian, by Kenneth Cragg. 1991 Edition.
  11. History of Chaldo and Ator (in Arabic), by Edi Sheer. Second Volume. 1993 Edition.
  12. Darbo, magazine of Assyrian Democratic Organization. Year 15, Issue 28, January 1998. pp. 18-19.

Dr. Hirmis Aboona (1940-2009)

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