Socotra: The Mysterious Island of the Assyrian Church of the East

Stephen Andrew Missick

 

The Nestorian Christians of Socotra

Socotra is an island off of the coast of east Africa that is governed by Yemen. For centuries all the inhabitants of the islands of Socotra belonged the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East, which was known as the Nestorian Church. The Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East was a missionary church that founded Christian communities in Mongolia, China, and India while Western Europe was sleeping through its ‘Dark Ages.’ The Assyrian Church of the East thrived for centuries in these lands yet most of its churches were eradicated by Islamic warriors, leaving only the churches of India and a community in the original Assyrian homeland of the region of modern Iraq and Iran. One of the longest lasting churches established by Assyrian missionaries, that eventually also fell victim to the Muslim Jihad, was the Nestorian Church of the Island of Socotra which endured for over a thousand years.

 

The Assyrian Church of the East and the Island of Socotra

While Western Christendom was slumbering through the Dark Ages in Europe, the Assyrian Christians of the Ancient Church of the East in Mesopotamia were dutifully carrying out Jesus Christ’s Great Commission to carry his message of hope and love to the distant corners of the world1. With a fervent zeal Assyrian missionaries spread the Christian gospel to India, China, Mongolia, and Socotra, an isolated island in the midst of the Indian Ocean2.

The Assyrians speak Syriac, a living form of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus of

Nazareth3. Their ancestral homeland is northern Iraq and western Iran. The Assyrian Church of the East was founded directly by the Hebrew Christians of Jerusalem and by the evangelists who were from among Christ’s twelve apostles and seventy disciples. According to ancient traditions Thomas and Thaddeus were the first to preach among the Assyrians. Since Jesus, his disciples and the Assyrians were Aramaic speakers; Christianity came directly to the Assyrians through its original Semitic source and wasn’t filtered through Greek, Roman or any other pagan culture. The Assyrian church’s primitive Christian origins can be seen in references in the Doctrine of

Addai and the Hebrew Christian origin of the Peshitta version of the Old Testament4. Of the Assyrian Church fathers who were wholly Semitic there are Aphpharat and Ephraim. Later Syriac church fathers were profoundly influenced by the Greek thinking. Sebastian Brock notes in “An Introduction to Syriac Studies”:

The earliest major [Syriac] authors…are virtually untouched by Greek culture and

they offer us an essentially Semitic form of Christianity, quite different in many

respects from the Christianity of the Greek and Latin speaking world of the

Mediterranean littoral. From the fifth century onwards the Syriac speaking

churches underwent a rapid hellenization with the result that no subsequent

writers entirely escaped the influence of Greek culture in some form or another.

This specifically Semitic aspect of the earliest Syriac literature has been curiously

neglected, despite its potential interest for the study of primitive Christianity as a

whole5.

The Assyrian Christians of the Church of the East came to be called Nestorian after Nestorius, a Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 until 432, whose Christological doctrine and method of Biblical interpretation was accepted by the Assyrians in that they mirrored those of their own ancient traditions. Nestorian Christians are not and never were heretics. The Assyrian Church of the East holds fast to the tenants of the Nicene Creed, and affirms the core doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Holy Trinity, the Deity of Christ (meaning that Christ is God the Son as well as being the eternal Son of God), the literal and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as well as the other basic doctrines held by all Christians whether they be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant6.

Assyrians were active in world trade centered along the Silk Road (the Silk Road is the name of the caravan routes frequented by merchants who traded between Europe, China and India). Assyrian merchants and missionaries planted churches in Central Asia, China and India. The Assyrian Church of the East is one of the most dynamic missionary churches in all of Christian history. Ian Gilman and Hans-Joachim give the founding of the church in Socotra as an example of the global expansiveness of the Church of the East. In Christians in Asia Before 1500 they state that:

A further example of Nestorian expansion is provided by the church on the island of Socotra, which dates from the 6th century and was to continue its life down until destruction by the Muslims after the period which concerns us here [1500]. The traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes found Christians there in the 6th century and we have records of consecrations of bishops for the island under the Patriarch Enush in 880 and Sabr-ishu III (d. AD 1072). Marco Polo (d. 1324) reported a bishop there who owed allegiance not to the pope in Rome but to a Patriarch at Baghdad, and the Bishop of Socotra was present at the consecration of Yaballah III as Patriarch in AD 12827.

Socotra serves as an example of the zeal and rigid determination of the Assyrian Christians to take the gospel of Jesus Christ even to the most desolate and inaccessible regions on earth.

 

St. Thomas on Socotra

Saint Thomas is held by tradition to be the founder of the churches in Assyria, Chaldea, Babylonia, India and Socotra. On his way to India Thomas was shipwrecked on the isle of Socotra and he used the wreckage of the ship to build a church. According to the ancient account of the missionary endeavors of Saint Thomas entitled The Acts of Thomas he did visit a mysterious island while in route to India and preformed miraculous feats there8. The Socotran Christians were called Thomas Christians and belonged to the Assyrian “Nestorian” Church of the East. (The Syriac Christians of India also call themselves Thomas Christians.) St. Francis Xavier notes that the people of Socotra, with whom he visited during a sojourn on their island, “… are devotees of the Apostle St. Thomas and claim to be descendants of the Christians he converted in that part of the world9.” Several archeologists, anthropologists and historians working on the Island of Socotra have noted the ministry of St. Thomas among the Socotrans. G. W. B. Huntingford notes that

The inhabitants seem always to have been a mixed people. Some of them at one period were Christians, converted it was said by St. Thomas in AD 52 while on his way to India. Abu Zaid Hassan, an Arab geographer of the 10th century, said that in his time most of the inhabitants of Socotra were Christian… but by the beginning of the 16th century Christianity had almost disappeared. leaving little trace but stone crosses at which Alvares said the people worshipped…However, a group of people was found here by St. Francis Xavier in 1542, claiming to be descended from the converts made by St. Thomas…10

 

Travelers Accounts of the Assyrian Christian community of Socotra

Socotra is a land of myths and legends. The Phoenicians believed Socotra to be the abode of the Phoenix, a mythical bird believed by the ancients to fly from Socotra to Heliopolis in Egypt once every 500 years to rejuvenate itself in a sacred flame. Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Diodorus of Sicily mention Socotra in regards to this legend. The description of Socotra by Diodorus of Sicily however, does contain authentic details about the island11. Later Arabs believed the island to be the dwelling place of the rukh, or roc, the mythological gigantic bird that has a prominent place in the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor12. The Pharaohs of Egypt also sent expeditions to Socotra to acquire Myrrh which was then as costly as gold13.

In ancient times Indians traveled to Socotra. They gave the island its name which is Sanskrit for “Island abode of Bliss”. According to Shipbuilding and Navigation in Ancient India

In those days India had colonies, in Cambodia (Kumbuja in Sanskrit) in Sumatra, in Borneo, Socotra (Sukhadhara) and even in Japan. Indian traders had established settlements in Southern China, in the Malayan peninsula, in Arabia, in Egypt, in Persia, etc. Through the Persians and Arabs, India had cultivated trade relations with the Roman Empire14.

These trade relations enabled St. Thomas to evangelize Socotra and India.

Alexander the Great is believed to have conquered the island of Socotra in order to have the aloe for his army. A Greek presence continued up past the time Socotra was converted to Christianity. Socotra is rich in myrrh and aloes. Ancient peoples recognized medicinal value of aloe. Aloe and Myrrh were even used to anoint the body of Jesus the Christ upon his removal from the cross. Socotra continues to supply the world with aloe as it did in ancient times15.

The Periplyus of the Erythraean Sea is an ancient Greek mariners manual from around the year 60 AD. This book shows that Greek sailors knew the island and it is thus entirely possible that Thomas could have made his journey there. The missionary endeavor of St. Thomas to Socotra and India is believed to have taken place in 52 AD. The author of The Periplyus of the Erythraean Sea describes Socotra by saying,

There is an island…it is called Dioscorida [meaning Socotra], and it is very large but desert and marshy…the inhabitants are few and they live on the coast towards the north, which from this side faces the continent. There are foreigners, a mixture of Arabs, and Indians, and Greeks, who have emigrated to carry on trade there16.

An important early Christian leader who was himself most likely a Socotran was Theophilus. Unfortunately he was also a heretic. He is also known as Theophilus the Arian and Theophilus the Indian. (Until the voyage of Columbus the Indies from the European viewpoint included East Africa and the islands in the Indian Ocean as well as India proper.) Theophilus was an adherent of Arianism, a heresy that was widespread through the church for centuries. Arius, the originator of this pernicious fallacy, denied the Holy Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Samuel Hugh Moffett describes the ministry of Theophilus and his missionary journeys that took place in 354AD. He states

Theophilus “the Indian” a native of the islands in the Arabian or Indian Ocean …was held in Rome as a hostage, converted to Christianity, and was sent by emperor Constantinius on an embassy that included visit to Arabia, to his homeland in the islands, and to “other parts of India17.”

Cosmas the Indian Voyager, called Indicopluestes, was a Nestorian Christian from Alexandria in Egypt. He was a merchant and traveled widely. He wrote a twelve volume work recounting his travels entitled Tropographis Indica Christiania , which translated is A Christian Topography of the Whole World. He wrote this work in 536 AD recollecting his journeys he made throughout the Indian Ocean, in Ethiopia and the coasts of India in 522 AD. He describes the Assyrian Church firmly established and growing throughout the world saying;

We found the church…very widely diffused, and the whole world filled with the doctrine of Christ, which is being day by day propagated, and the gospel preached over the whole earth. This I have seen with my own eyes in many places and have heard narrated by others. I, as a witness of the truth can relate…18

Cosmas goes on to mention the Assyrian churches in Sri Lanka and Kerela, India. He then continues, “…and in the place called Kalliana (Quilan) there is a bishop usually ordained in Persia, as well as in the isle of Dioscoris (Socotra) in the same Indian Sea…You will find priests ordained in Persia sent there, there are also a number of Christians19.” So by the early 500s we have an account by a member of the Assyrian Church establishing the fact that by that time ‘Nestorian’ Christianity had been firmly established on the Island of Socotra. The famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) accuses the Socotrans of having the supernatural ability to control the weather and to cause shipwrecks. He wrote of Socotra saying:

The inhabitants [of Socotra] are baptized Christians and have and archbishop…I should explain that the archbishop of Socotra has nothing to do with the Pope at Rome, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad [meaning the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East]. The archbishop of Baghdad sends out the archbishop of this island; and he also sends out many others to different parts of the world, just as the Pope does…I give you my word that the Christians of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world. It is true that the archbishop does not approve of these enchantments and rebukes them for the practice. But this has no effect, because they say that their forefathers did these things of old and they are resolved to go on doing them. And the archbishop cannot override their resolve20.

Arab accounts also describe witchcraft and sorcery as being prevalent among the Socotrans.

Afonso the Great, (also known as Afonso de Albuquerque) who lived from 1453 until 1515, was a Portuguese admiral and founder of the Portuguese Empire in the East. He captured Socotra from the Muslims and established Portuguese rule over the island. The memory of the Portuguese lives on among the Socotrans who have many legends about their Portuguese era. The language of Portugal also influenced the vocabulary of the Socotran language. The Portuguese saw themselves as liberators of the Christian Socotrans from Islamic persecution. The Socotrans came to look upon the Portuguese as foreign oppressors so much that they came to prefer Arab rule to Portuguese rule, especially after the Portuguese attempted to force them to adopt European Roman Catholic practices. An early Portuguese report on the island of Socotra was provided for Dom Manuel I, King of Portugal in 1505 by Diego Fernandes Pereira. Near the same time Martin Fernandez de Figuera of Salamanca wrote of the Socotran Christians with whom he dwelt for four months. Nicolau de Orta Rebelo noted that all the Socotran men were named Thomas and all of the women were named Mary. In 1527 Martin Alfonso de Melo remarked that there were many Christians on Socotra21. In 1541 Portuguese Admiral Dom Joao de Castro stated that, “the Socotrans revere the Gospel. They say that they were introduced to it by the blessed apostle St. Thomas through whom they proclaim our religion. There are many churches all over the island, each crowned with the cross of the Most High22.”

Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552) is one of the most important early Roman Catholic missionaries to the Far East. In regards to Socotra and it’s Christians he said

The natives esteem themselves to be Christians and are very proud of it. They can neither read or write, possess no books nor other sources of information, and are very ignorant. But they have churches, crosses, and ritual lamps, and in each of village there is a caciz, who corresponds to a priest among us. Having no bells, they summon the people to services with wooden clapers, such as we have during Lent23.

Other travelers contradict the statement of St. Francis and noted that the Socotrans did possess books written in Syriac characters. St. Francis and other Catholic travelers probably exaggerated the level of ignorance of the Socotrans. This is probably an exaggeration due to the contempt with which the Catholics until very recently have held members of the Assyrian Church who they viewed as ‘vile and pestilent Nestorian heretics’. It should be borne in mind that Francis Xavier himself recommended that the Holy Office of the Inquisition should be activated in India to deal with the Assyrian Christians there.

An example of the hatred of the Roman Catholic towards the Assyrian Christians is their forced conversion of members of the Church of the East in India and in Socotra. Francis M. Rogers notes in The Quest for Eastern Christians that

In the mid-1500s an adaptation of a letter from King Joao III to Pope Paul III was published in both Italian and French editions. It summarizes the conversions affected under Portuguese auspices from Socotra to Moluccas, reports military reverses in Ethiopia, and mentions St. Francis Xavier. It speaks of the “conversion” of the St. Thomas Christians in a manner suggesting the same classification as Saracens [Muslims] and pagans24.

Arabs also wrote important accounts of the Nestorian Christians of the Isle of Socotra. In 1488-1489 Ibn Magdid commented that Socotra was a Christian island ruled over by a woman. Al-Masudi, the famous Arabic geographer, wrote an account of the island. He died in 956 AD. Al-Hamdani, another Arabic geographer, wrote of Socotra and its Christians. He mentions monks being on the island. Al-Hammadi died in 945 AD.25 Yaqut writing in the thirteenth century described the inhabitants as “Christian Arabs”.

Yaqut al-Hammadi also notes that some of the Nestorian Christians of Socotra were Greeks and says,

The Masih, son of Maryam [Jesus Christ] appeared — peace be upon him – and the Greeks who stayed there [on the Isle of Socotra] adopted Christianity and remain Christians until the present time. Allah knows that there is no other place in the Universe except Socotra Island where there would live a population of Greeks which would retain its lineage without having anybody else mix with it26.

Ibn Battutah (1304-1369), the famous Arabian traveler, also traveled by the Island of Socotra27. Later England attempted to dominate Socotra because of its strategic location. In 1886 Socotra became a British Protectorate. During de-colonization Socotra was given to Yemen. In Socotra, the Island of Dreams Ibrahim Al-Ashwami and Abdul Wali Al-Muthabi state that Socotra’s “strategic importance…rises from the fact that its location is in the mid-center of all Arab and African coasts, related to Asia and Africa continents.28

 

The Land That Time Forgot

Socotra is also called Asqo’tra, Sou’qatra and Soqotra. Other spellings include Suqutra and Socotora. The names derives from the Sanskrit word Sukhadara or Dripa Sukhadara which means ‘Island abode of Bliss’ The Ancient Greeks called it Dioskourdiou or Discordia. Socotra is also called the Isle of Mists and the Island of the Dragon’s Blood Tree. The Socotra Archipelago consists of Socotra and three outlying islands, Abd al-Kuri, Samha and Darsa. Socotra is the home of rare liquid products frankincense, black oblillnum and Dragons Blood. It exports aloes and herbal remedies. Socotra is the largest island in the Arab World. The deep waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean surround the island yet the waters immediately around the island are shallow and infested with sharks and pirates.

Socotra is an extremely isolated island due to the monsoon winds that make it impossible to reach for half of the year. Due to its isolation unique plant life lives there, life-forms survive there that became extinct elsewhere in the world tens of thousands of years ago. The best article on the island of Socotra is Soqotras Misty Future written by Diccon Alexander and Anthony Miller and published in the July 1995 edition of New Scientist. This article is available on the Internet on the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh Soqotra page. This site features an awesome virtual reality tour of the island through several panoramic photographs that gives a 360-degree view in which you can zoom in and out of with close-ups.29 Dr. Robert Mill of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburg Scotland wrote me and said, “The small Indian Ocean island of Socotra contains one of the richest and best preserved dry tropical floras in the world, over one third of the plant species and endemic and it is internationally recognized as a centre of exceptional biodiversity.31“The United Nations declared in Soqotra: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Soqotra Island: Present and Future, “The Island of Socotra is undoubtedly a most precious natural asset. It has been nominated as a ‘World Heritage Site’ and as a ‘Man and Biosphere Reserve’. It has a rich and unique biodiversity that is unrivalled in the Indian Ocean and in the Arabian Region31“.

Socotra is often compared to the Galapagos, the South American island whose unique wild life provoked Charles Darwin to invent the theory of evolution. The World Wildlife Federation declared, “The Socotran Archipelago has such a unique assemblage of animal and plant species that it has been described as an Arabian Eden. The islands are known for their plant diversity, including the dragon’s blood tree and a variety of succulents…While currently relatively pristine, the ecoregion has had along history of human occupation and over 50 endemic plants are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Socotran Archipelago remains vulnerable to increased human activity and tourist and industrial development.”32 Strange animals have also been found on Socotra.

The Socotra Kurst Project has reported the recent discovery of more unusual life forms discovered by speleologists, including that of long tailed bats33. Socotra’s plants, which are living relics of the prehistoric world, are often described as ‘most bizarre’ as ‘weird vegetation’ and ‘grotesque’. There are also many examples of gigantism in these relics of ancient flora. The most important odd plants are the Dragon’s Blood Tree, also known as the ‘inside out umbrella tree’, and the grotesque bottle shaped Adenium tree. Socotra was a forgotten island until Quenton Cronk’s botanic expedition in 1985. Diccon Alexander noted that, “Off the Horn of Africa lies the forgotten island of Socotra, for centuries home to some of the worlds most bizarre plants…Relics of ancient species are so abundant that the island looks like most people’s idea of a prehistoric world34” or a strange other-worldly landscape created by a more imaginative writer of science fiction. He further states that, “Until at least 10 million years ago Socotra was part of the African mainland and before that a part of the African-Arabian tectonic plate. Today the ancestors of plants from these ancient landscapes and still be found growing on the island.36

The island is approximately 72 miles long and 22 miles across from north to south, and it lies over 500 miles south-east of Aden and about 300 miles from Mukalla, port of the Hadramawt. The island of Socotra lies in the Indian Ocean near the ancient sea routes from the Red Sea to India and East Africa. Travelers and scholars have long considered it to have great archeological potential. Socotra has also been a source of interests to linguists; in addition there is a wealth of material for specialists in the fields of botany and ornithology36.

Flora of the Arabian Peninsula and Socotra Volume I by A. G. Miller and T. A.Cope relates that;

The Socotra archipelago consists of four islands-Socotra, ‘abd al Kuri, Semhah and Darsa-situated in the northern part of the Indian Ocean due east of Somalia… the climate of Socotra is influenced by both SW and NE monsoons. The SW monsoon blows from April until October bringing hot, dry winds which are generally desiccating but bring a little orographic rain to the mountains. Most precipitation occurs from November to March; during this period the SW winds are replaced by much lighter rains from the NE… Rainfall is very sporadic and in some years the costal areas receive none. Average measurements for the plain are around 150 mm and the mountains probably receive around 500 mm. Most rain falls in winter. The mountains are frequently shrouded in clouds and heavy dews are common37.

Topographically the island can be divided into 3 main zones; the coastal plains, the limestone plateau and the Hagghier Mountains.

According to AYTTA (The Association of Yemen Tourism and Travel Agencies) the best period to visit the island is from 15 October until 15 May. The winds sweep some parts of the island in the remaining period of the year38. According to Island of the Dragon’s Blood

It was a rugged country, with an overall limestone plateau averaging 1,500 feet in height, through which projected a central mountain range, the Haggier Massif, reaching nearly 5,000 feet. These mountains constituted one of the oldest land structures in the world and had been an ark of refuge for many strange and primitive forms of plants and lower animal life, found nowhere else. Frankincense, myrrh, dragon’s blood, cucumber and pomegranate trees grew there, …People lived on this island and they were of two sorts: on the coast were a mixed lot of Arabs and Africans; in the mountains lived the true Sokotri, who were aboriginals isolated on the island “from time immemorial”, living in caves, talking a unique language that nobody knew, subsisting on dates and milk39.

 

The Socotra Tribesmen

Socotrans speak a Semitic language distinct from Arabic. It is called Soqotri. The Enchanted Island: Socotra Reveals Its Secrets it is mentioned that,

The traditions of the Socotran natives differ from those of other Yemenis in that they are influenced by all of the nearby major regions: the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa and India. The Socotran people have their own language, which is a holdover from the ancient Himyaritic language. They share this language or variations of it with the people of Al-Mahara in Yemen and Dhofar in Oman40.

The Socotrans are impoverished and isolated. The population of Socotra is estimated to between 20,000 and 80,000. Many of the mountain dwellers are troglodytes, living in caves. The coastal people are fisherman and pearl divers and are of African origin. They live in shacks made from palm leaves and tree limbs. Arab nomads dwell in the wadis. The Bedouin are shepherds and subsistence farmers41. There is racial diversity on the island. White Arabs live in the mountains and some Africans live on the coast. Tribal culture there is so strong that the people cannot even chop down a tree without consulting the tribal counsel. Socotra is isolated and inaccessible. Its people manage to eke out a wretched and poverty stricken existence. Socotrans are largely cut off from the rest of the world for five month of the year. Indian Ocean monsoon storms whip up violent seas making it impossible for the island to be resupplied by sea. (Socotra is usually reached by Dhow, an Arab sailing boat, from the coast of Yemen)42. The winds also make it dangerous to be reached by plane or helicopter.

 

The Assyrian Christians of Socotra

What were the practices of the Socotran members of the Church of the East? They recited the Syriac liturgy and memorized it even though they didn’t understand the language. According to Douglas Botting

On this outpost of the Arab world a race of people impervious to the great tide of Islam, who had retained some remnants of the Christian faith for nearly a thousand years after the birth of Mohamet. But such remnants had been strangely corrupted. As one Portuguese ship’s writer had noted in the sixteenth century: “The Socotrans call themselves Christians but lack instruction and baptism, so that they have nothing but the name of Christians…” At this time the Socotrans still revered the cross, placing it on altars and hanging it round their necks. Every village had a minister who repeated prayers antiphonetically in a forgotten tounge [probably Edessan Syriac], scattering incense. Words like “Alleluia” often occurred and instead of ringing bells they shook wooden rattles. A century later a Carmelite friar, P. Vincenzo, observed the last vestiges of Christianity on Socotra. The people, though they still professed Christianity, had no real knowledge and practiced a strange jumble of rites-they sacrificed to the moon, abominated wine and pork, circumcised, regarded the Cross with ignorant reverence and carried it before them in processions. They assembled in their low, dark, dirty churches three times a day and three time a night. They burned incense, and anointed their altars with butter. Placing a Cross and candle on top of them. Witchcraft was practiced, and the people often committed suicide in old age. Each family had a cave in which it buried its dead. They were all strictly monogamous.43

The continued rejection of the Islamic practice of polygamy is probably the only Christian custom preserved by the Socotrans44.

Are there old books and are archeological remains pertaining to the Assyrian Church in Socotra? There are remains of churches and shrines and there are several inscriptions bearing the cross. Christian burial was practiced by the Socotrans. In Socotra: island of Tranquility the discovery of Christian tombs is described in the following manner.

Caves in the limestone rocks have been filled with human bones from which the flesh had previously decayed. These caves were then walled up and left as charnel houses, after the fashion still observed in the Eastern Christian Church. Among the bones they found carved wooden objects that looked as if they had originally served as crosses to mark the tombs…45

Most Christian remains have been destroyed by Muslem extremists. Several books deal with archeological excavations that have been undertaken on the island.

Douglas Botting in Island of the Dragon’s Blood

We found traces of this past Christianity on the island. Not in the beliefs of the people but in the enigmatic stone remains dotted all over the island…There was nothing about these buildings which indicated that they were specifically Christian but they were much larger and more elaborate than the houses of the present-day Bedouin, and it seemed reasonable that they were the work of a more energetic and technically advanced people-in fact, the Christian ancestors of the came-dwellers of today…Here they sat chanting in choir alternately the uncomprehended language [Syriac], repeating three times a day the strange warped vestiges of the faith their ancestors had been taught by Thomas46.

Islamic fanaticism brought to the people of Socotra, as it has in many other places, a great decline. Many structures bearing Christian symbolism have been defaced. Ruins that have been confirmed to be the remains of churches have been excavated by archeologists. Several inscriptions of crosses have been preserved. D. Brian Doe in Socotra: An Archeological Reconnaissance in 1967 reports excavations of churches and notes that

My aim was to visit Kalleesa, a name which here indicates a strong link (ekklesia, Greek) with a Christian Church, in this case presumably a very early one. However, if Kalleesa was a village, the name could have also been vested in the district. One might wonder is the families in this area represent the descendents of those people…who, under the guidance of St. Thomas are thought to have built the first Church in Socotra…47

Researchers have tried to search out ancient Syriac manuscripts on Socotra. In Socotra: Island of Tranquility Brian Doe describes his failed attempt.

At as late a period as when the Portuguese visited Socotra they found on it books, written in the Chaldean character [the East Syrian Syriac script]. I hoped consequently to be able to procure some manuscripts or books that might serve to throw light on the history of the island; but in answer to repeated inquiries regarding such, I was assured that some, which they acknowledge to have possessed they left in their houses when they fled into the hills, and that the Wahhabees, during their visit, destroyed or carried them off. The former is most probable, as these sectaries, in the genuine spirit of Omar’s precepts, value only one book.48

 

The Demise of the Church of the East on Socotra

According to Bethany world Prayer Center

The Socotrans remained faithful to their [Christian] beliefs as late as 1542, when St. Francis [Xavier] visited them on his way to India. Sadly, by 1680, Christianity was virtually extinct, due to oppression by the Arabs and the neglect of the Nestorian patriarchs to support the mission on the island.49

The patriarchs are not entirely to blame due to the crisis and persecution they were facing at the time they were unable to support the mission. The Socotrans continued devotion to their Christian identity while they had neither ecclesiastical leaders nor religious education is to be admired. Despite the isolation and loss of contact with it’s mother church, the Socotrans remained committed to their Christian identity. It took an armed attack by Muslim fanatics from Arabia to deal the deathblow the Nestorian Church on Socotra.

According to Vitaly V. Naumkin in The Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra.

In the Mid-17th century there were still traces of Christianity on Socotra,

according to Vincenzo , and Carmelite monk and Samuel Purchas…In 1800 the

Wahhibis landed on Socotra, destroying the cemetery and the churches in the

coastal area around Hadiba and establishing control over the Muslem ritual by the

inhabitants50.

Douglas Botting in Island of the Dragon’s Blood states that, “The Bedouin [of Socotra] are well aware that their ancestors were Christian There is no indication of Christian practices at the present day.51

The non-Arab Semitic island of Socotra is now ruled over by the Arabs of Yemen. In historical overviews of the island the disingenuous Yemenis omit any reference to the existence of Christianity on the island. Typically the Arabs not only discount the Socotrans former tenacious Christian faith but also their current distinct ethnic identity. The language is misleadingly described as “Arabian”, (it may be ‘Arabian’ but it is not directly related to Arabic). Yemen Exploration Tours states that, “The inhabitants of the mountains…are nomads and descendants of an old South Arabian tribe speaking still the old Arabian dialect Soqotri related to the Mahri dialect.52” These languages are not dialects of Arabic as implied but distinct Semitic languages. The Island is described as the largest island in the Arab world it would be more accurate to describe it as the largest non-Arabic island in the Arab world. Assyrians, Berbers and Kurds receive similar treatment in other parts of the Arab world. These ethnic minorities suffer their culture denigrated, their historical and cultural contributions ignored and their very existence denied. The cultures of the indigenous peoples are under serious threat in these lands. Also Christian artifacts that are discovered may be vandalized by Muslim fanatics. We should remember the fate of pre-Islamic antiquities in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This is why we must document our history so we can at least preserve records of it before Islamic extremists attempt to erase the memories. The Assyrians should begin a museum that documents the achievements of the Church of the East to serve this purpose.

 

Conclusion

Currently Yemen is very welcoming to all scientists interested in doing field work on Socotra and may also welcome an Assyrian expedition, but the expedition if it ever sets off should be discreet and thorough in its documentation53. The prospects of finding additional remains are slim. Botting states

In 1800 the fanatical and puritanical south Arabian tribe, the Wahabees, attacked Socotra, destroyed tombs, churches, and graveyards on the coast around Hadibo, and terrified the Bedouin into formally accepting the Mohammedan faith54.

After his expedition in 1880 Professor Balfour declared

What has been done by this expedition is but a fragment of what is there to be accomplished…It happens that on this island within but three weeks’ journey from England, there dwells a people whose origin is lost in myth, and of whose speech the true relations are undetermined, who according to received reports, having obtained some degree of civilization and embraced Christianity have gone back from their advance position to the lower state in which we now find them and thus present to us a feature of great interest to the history of mankind. There is now on Socotra alone a wealth of material for explanation and investigation, which would amply reward the work of another expedition55.

Though technological advances have reduced travel time drastically, his words hold true today, much work remains to be done on Socotra. Recently environmentalists, spelunkers, biologist, biochemists, algologists, ichthyologists, ethnologists, botanists, ornithologists, philologists and speleologists have descended on Socotra for various scientific pursuits. Assyrians should also support research to find and preserve relics from the past of the Church of the East.

 

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Johanna Sidey of the World conservation Monitoring Center, Dr. Robert A. Mill of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland and Bette Craig of the Inter-library Loan Office of Sam Houston State University.

 

_____________________________

Endnotes

1 Matthew 28:19 “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and

of the Holy Spirit , teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded thee.” See also Mark 16:15-

18 and Acts of the Apostles1:8. Scripture taken from The Holy Bible: 21st Century King James Version (KJV21)

Copyright 1994 Duel Enterprises, Inc. Gary , SD 57237, and used by permission.

2 Concerning the missionary accomplishments of the Assyrian Church see Marin Palmer The Jesus Sutras:

Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Ballatine Wellspring, New York 2001) This is a good

collection of Assyrian Christian texts discovered in China and Central Asia. It is useful but I take offense at Mr.

Palmer calling the holy Church of the East “Taoist Christian”. Mr. Palmer attempts to take a radical departure from

orthodoxy based on his misinterpretations of these texts. I will explore the ‘Jesus Sutras’ and the Assyrian Church in

China and its contributions in an upcoming paper.

3 Assyrians speak Neo-Aramaic today which is sometimes called Syriac yet distinct from Classical Syriac of Edessa.

According to S. G. Pothan in The Syrian Christians “Aramaic was the language of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic and became the language of the mother church of Persia.” S. G. Pothan The Syrian

Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p. 36 For more information about the Syriac

Christian heritage see: W. Stewart McCullough A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of Islam (Scholars

Press, Chiro, CA 1982) and also Sebastian P. Brock and David G. K. Taylor The Hidden Pearl: The Syrian

Orthodox Church and its Ancient Aramaic Heritage Volume I: the Ancient Aramaic Heritage Volume II: The Heirs

of the Ancient Aramaic Heritage Volume III At the Turn of the Third Millennium , the Syrian Orthodox Witness

(Trans World film, Italia, 2001) accompanied with 3 videotapes.

4 For the issues concerning the origin of the Assyrian Church and of the Peshitta Bible see Han J.W. Drijvers “Facts

and Problems in Early Syriac Speaking Christianity” East of Antioch: Studies in Early Syriac Christianity (Variorum

Reprints, London 1984) p. 157-175 M. P. Weitzman The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction

(Cambridge University Press) George Howard trans. The Teaching of Addai (Scholars Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan,

1981).

5 Sebastian Brock “Introduction to Syriac Studies” J. H. Eaton, Ed. Horizons in Semitic Studies: Articles For the

Student (University of Birmingham 1980) p.4-5.

6 The Roman Catholic pope cleared the Assyrian Church of the heresy libel in “Common Christological Declaration

Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East” in November 11, 1994 presented in The

Messenger: The Official Publication of the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East Issue Number 11 March 31,

  1. However, the theology of the Assyrian Church was declared orthodox by the western church several times in

the past. According to Samuel Hugh Moffett this occurred during the times of Acacius (485-496 AD), Mar Aba

(early 6th century), Yeshuyab (early 7th century) and during Rabban Sauma the Mongol’s delegation to Europe in

  1. It should also be noted that Nestorius declared the Tomeof Pope Leo as an expression of his own position.

Samuel Hugh Moffett A History of Christianity in Asia Volume I: Beginnings to 1500 (Harper San Francisco 1992)

  1. 196,219,256 & 434.

7 Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit Christians in Asia before 1500 (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor,

Michigan1999) p.81.

8 According to The Acts of Thomas, after embarking by ship to India Thomas’ boat stops at Andrapolis, presumably

an island in route. J. K. Elliot The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in

English Translation (Claredon Press, Oxford 1993) p. 488-454.

9 S. G. Pothan The Syrian Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p.29.

10 G. W. B. Huntingform ed. Trans. The Periplus of the Eryphraean Sea (The Hakluyt Society, London, 1980) p.103.

11 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993) p.

24-27.

12 Tim Severin “In the Wake of Sinbad” National Geographic July 1982 p.2-40.

13 Charles K. Moser “The Isle of Frankincense” National Geographic March 1918 p. 267-278.

14 Shipbuilding and Navigation in Ancient India http://india.coolatlanta.com/GreatPages/sudheer/ship.html .

15 History of Aloe Vera http://www.aloeveraproducts.com/history_aloe_vera.html .

16 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.9.

17 Samuel Hugh Moffett A History of Christianity in Asia (Harper San Francisco 1992) p.267.

18 S. G. Pothan The Syrian Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p.27.

19 Ibid.

20 Ronald Latham Trans. The Travels of Marco Polo (Penguin books, London, 1958) p. 296-298.

21 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993)

p.43-29.

22 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993)

p.43.

23 S. G. Pothan The Syrian Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p.29.

24 Francis M. Rogers The Quest for Eastern Christians: Travels and Rumor in the Age of Discovery (University of

Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 1962) p.169.

25 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, 1992) p.136-144.

26 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited) 1992) p. 137.

27 Thomas J. Abercrombie “Ibn Battuta: Prince of Travelers” National Geographic December 1991 P. 5-49.

28 Ibraham Al-Ashmawi & Abdul Wali Al-Muthadi “Socotra: Island of Dreams” Tiaz Magazine No. 796. March

19,1998 http://yemeninfo.gov.ye/ENGLISH/CULTURE/islandofdreams.html Concerning the British presence on

Socotra, John Farrar served in the British Royal Air Force and Army Expedition on the island during 1964-1965 and

has created a wonderful website dedicated to Socotra and its people at www.soqotra.com .

29 Diccon Alexander and Anthony Miller “Socotra’s Misty Future” New Scientist Vol. 147 No. 1988 29 July 1995 p.

32-35 http://www.rbge.org.uk/arabia.html Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh The Flora of the Arabian Peninsula and

Socotra http://www.rbge.org.uk/arabia.html .

30 Personal correspondence of the author dated 2/23/1996.

31 From book description. Soqotra: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Soqotra Island: Present and

Future (United Nations, New York 1998).

32 Socotra Island xeric shrublands (AT1318)

http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestial/at.at/at1318full.html.

33 Socotran Karst Project: Flemish Caving Expeditions

http://home2.planetinternet.be/Ido26187/Eng_aim.html For other interesting creatures see Simon Aspinall

International Research on Socotran Cormorants http://arabianwilklife.com/vo2.3/corres.html.

34 Diccon Alexander and Anthony Miller “Socotra’s Misty Future” New Scientist Vol. 147 No. 1988 29 July 1995 p.

32.

35 Ibid.

36 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.5.

37 A. G. Miller and T. A.Cope Flora of the Arabian Peninsula and Socotra Volume I (Edinburg University Press in

association with Royal Botanic Gardin Edinburg, Royal Botnaic Gardens, Kew, 1996) p.7,11.

38 AYTTA http://www.aytta.org/soqotra.html .

39 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p.22-23.

40 The Enchanted Island: Socotra Reveals Its Secrets http://www.yementimes.com/97/iss42/lastpage.html .

41 Yemen Exploration tours: Socotra http://www.al-bab.com/yet/socotra.html .

42 Marion Kaplan “Twilight of the Arab Dhow” National Geographic September 1974 p. 330-351.

43 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p. 215.

44 M. A. AL-Dailami “Socotra: the Forgotten Diamond of Yemen” World Magazine No. 609 12 Feb 1998

http://www.yemeninfo.gov.ye/ENGLISH/CULTURE/socotra.html .

45 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.33.

46 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p. 216.

47 D. Brian Doe Socotra: An Archeological Reconnaissance in 1967 (Field Research Projects, Miami, Florida 1970)

p.91.

48 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.214.

49 “The Socotran of Yemen” http://www.bethany.com/profiles/p_code3/891.html .

50 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993)

Samuel Purchas in 1625 wrote Purchas, His Pilgrims, a collection of travel narratives. In it he mentions William

Rubrucks travels among the Nestorians in Mongolia as well as the accounts of the Nestorians of Socotra..

51 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p. 214.

52 Yemen Exploration Tours http://www.al-bab.com/yet/soqotra.html Also in a recent article on Socotra Saleh

Abdulbaqi seems incredulous towards the possibility that Christianity was ever known on the island and cynically

makes a true statement, “This issue still requires more studies”. The condescending attitude towards non-Arabs also

appears in his comment, “Despite the spread of education in the island, Socotri unique language is still most used by

its inhabitants.” Using a non-Arabic language such as Soqotri or Assyrian must mean one is uneducated! This shows

that in some Arab countries ‘education’ is used as a tool of cultural genocide. Saleh Abdulhaqi “Socotra: The Island

of Wonders” Yemen Times 5 November 2001, Vol. XI http://www.yeenimes.com/1.is45.culture.html .

53 Yemen does have many ancient ruins, unique architecture, and a past of glorious civilizations, such as that of the

Biblical Queen of Sheba. The Yemenites are a proud and hospitable people who are eager to share their fascinating

heritage with the rest of the world. On the other hand there are serious terrorist threats in Yemen and practically the

entire population is addicted to a drug called qat. A bulk of the population spends most of the day procuring large

quantities of qat which they chew until they reach the drug-induced stupor. Nevertheless, a visit to Yemen would be

a rewarding experience to a cautious and intrepid traveler.

54 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958)p.125 Unfortunately the

Wahibis are still around and are particularly active in Saudi Arabia. They are behind many of the acts of religious

terror carried out in the name of Islam in many parts of the world today from the Philippines to the United States.

55 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p.23.

Planting the Church of the East In Beth Kokheh

Philimon Darmo

 

We have two important historical facts which confirm the founding of the Church of the East in the Southern region of Beth Nahrain (Mesopotamia), in Babylon during the early years of the spread of Christianity.

 

  1. The first letter written by St. Peter[1] the Apostle

We read the first proof in the New Testament, at the end of St. Peter’s first letter where he wrote:

“The chosen church which is at Babylon and Mark, my son, salutes you.” (5: 13)[2]

When reading this plainly worded passage from St. Peter’s first letter, the reader is entitled to conclude that St. Peter wrote his letter from Babylon. However, a number of biblical scholars and academics say that this interpretation of this biblical passage is incorrect and is no more than a popular tradition that has had its roots and has evolved in the teachings of the Church of the East over the past two thousand years. They further add that the interpretation is not based on a historical fact, and that St. Peter went straight from Antioch to Rome where a few years later he received the crown of martyrdom between the years of 64 and 68 AD, and that he at no time went to the Church of the East territory in Bet Nahrain. These interpreters of the Bible say that the word ‘Babylon’, which St. Peter used in this particular passage of his letter, referred symbolically to the city of Rome, a city which at the time was known for its evil and ungodliness, just as the ancient city of Babylon had been depicted in the Old Testament.

There are many who view this interpretation as strange and somewhat fanciful, because St. Peter clearly wrote in his letter: “The chosen church which is at Babylon…” which clearly specifies the geographical location of the Church from where the greetings were conveyed.

Even if we, for one moment, think that St. Peter did not physically go to our forefathers’ homeland in Bet Nahrain, it is not beyond the realm of probability that he may have received a letter from a Church leader or from a faithful member of the Church of East residing in Babylon in which the sender would have asked St. Peter to convey their greetings to their brothers in Christianity who resided in various provinces of the Roman Empire which at that time were located in what is now modern Turkey.

It is pleasing to note that the probability of St. Peter’s journey to Babylon in Beth Nahrain has not been completely dismissed by all biblical scholars and academics. For example, Dr. J. Barton Payne, A.B., M.A., B.D., Th.M., Ph.D., Late Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri USA, wrote in Young’s Bible Dictionary[3]:

“When Peter fled from Herod Agrippa I in AD 44 (Acts 12:17) he may have removed to Babylon (Pet. 5:13), unless this last is merely a symbolic name for Rome as the corresponding harlot-city of that day (compare Rev. 17:3-6). (J.B.P.)”[4]

 

  1. The Church of Beth Kokheh

The second proof relates to Mar ( ܡܵܪܝ – Syriac for ‘my lord’, but generally translated into English as ‘Saint’) Mari’s visit, during the second half of the first century of Christianity, to the city of Seleucia[5] (Sliq or Saliq – ܣܠܝܼܩ\ܣܵܠܝܼܩ in Syriac) situated on the Western side of the River Tigris in Southern Bet Nahrain. Mar Mari was one of the disciples of Mar Addai (also known as St. Thaddeus). It was Mar Addai who sent Mar Mari from Edessa to Bet Nahrain.

The book of Acts of Mar Mari[6] teaches us that Mar Mari spent some time in the Kingdom of Urhai (Edessa). He left Urhai, on instructions from his teacher Mar Addai, and headed to Nisibin and then on to Adiabene (Arbil of present day). He continued his journey southwards through Beth Garmai (situated between the Little Zab and Diyala rivers and centred around Karkha Beth Slokh which is Kirkuk of the present time) until he and his companions reached the city of Saliq[7] on the River Tigris in Babylon.

At the beginning Mar Mari and his companions did not get a friendly reception from the pagan citizens of the city. A group of the citizens crossed the River Tigris and went straight to King Artabanus IV[8] of Parthia’s palace in Qtispon[9] (or Ctesiphon) and complained about these strange intruders in their midst.

King Artabanus wanted to know how true was the new faith which Mar Mari and his companions were preaching to his citizens. The King asked Mar Mari to cure his sister who was suffering from the dreadful leprosy. Mar Mari cured the King’s sister. The King was duly impressed with this and other miracles that Mar Mari performed in the locality. The King rewarded Mar Mari with a piece of land in the area called Kokheh which was located to west of his capital Qtispon. This piece of land already had a pagan temple on it which Mar Mari duly converted into a small Church and which became known as the Church of Kokheh throughout the history of the Church of the East.

The word ‘Kokheh’ – ܟܘܼܟ݂ܹ̈ܐ – is the plural for ‘kokha’[10] ܟܘܼܟ݂ܵܐwhich means a hut normally built from clay or cane or from twigs. That area contained a number of huts where the King’s servants and farmers lived.

The small Church of Kokheh was enlarged and modified as years went by, especially during the reign of Catholicos Mar Awa the Great ܡܵܪܝ ܐܵܒ݂ܵܐ ܪܲܒܵܐ (552 – 540).

Until about the end of the first century AD, Kokheh was located on the eastern side of the River Tigris, not far from Qtispon. However, a change in the course of the river occurred between the years 79 and 117 AD which altered the flow of the river. The river changed its course eastwards for a short distance and ended up cutting off the suburb of Kokheh from the city of Qtispon. This meant that Kokheh was now located on the Western side of the river, and all that now separated it from the city of Saliq was the dried up bed of the river before it shifted its course eastwards.

 

The Spread of Church of the East under the Sassanids

When the Sassanid King Ardashir I (224 – 241 AD) defeated the Parthian rulers in the year 224 and adopted the city of Qtispon as his capital, he respected the Christian followers of the Church of the East which had spread in that region. He included Beth Kokheh as a part or suburb of his capital Qtispon. He at the same time renewed and rebuilt Saliq which had been destroyed by the Romans in 165 AD and changed its name to ‘Weh Ardashir’ which means Ardashir’s good deed.

The cities of Saliq and Qtispon were joined together by two rivers. These two historical cities, together with a few other cities in the neighbourhood, were later given the collective name of Al Mada’in المدائن (Cities). Al Mada’in is the plural of المدينة (city).

The Church of the East was not only spread in the Saliq Qtispon region during those early centuries of Christian era. History teaches us that at the beginning of the third century AD the Church of the East had also centres in Adiabene (Arbel of present day), and in Karkha D’Bet Sloq (Kirkuk of the present day), and in Nisibin and also in Beth Lappat (presently located in Khuzestan in South/West Iran).

 

Autonomy of the Church of the East during the early Centuries

There was only one Christian Church in the early centuries of Christianity. The Church of the East used to receive guidance from the Church in Antioch or Antakya which was located within the sphere of the Roman Empire. All of the bishops of the Church of the East used to be consecrated by the Patriarch in Antioch. However, communications between the Church of the East, which was spread to the east of the Roman Empire and within the boundaries of the Persian Empire (ruled by the Parthians and later by the Sassanids), and the Church Fathers in Antioch, which fell within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, were at times difficult and dangerous due to the political situation of that era as well as the wars and disagreements that happening between the Roman and Persian rulers. This situation created the necessity for the Church of the East to be given a certain amount of autonomy. Thus, by the end of the third century the bishop of the Church of the East in Saliq Qtispon, or Bet Kokheh, was granted the title Catholicos (الجاثليق in Arabic which means general, universal) and also the administrative power over the Church affairs in the East as well as the power to consecrate bishops.

 

The Catholicos of the Church of the East invited to the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD

The close ties that existed between the Church of the East and the Christian Church in the Roman Empire are well recorded in The Concise Collection of Synodical Canons which was compiled in early 14th century by Mar Audisho Bar Brikha, Metropolitan of the Church of the East, diocese of Nisibin and Armenia, who died in 1318.

We read on page 22 of the handwritten Classical Syriac edition of the book King Constantine, the Roman Emperor, sent a letter in about 324 AD to all of the Bishops in the world inviting them to a Council which was to be held in Nicea (ܢܝܼܩܝܼܵܐ in Syriac) in the region of Betonia[11].

One of the bishops who received the Emperor Constantine’s invitation was Mar Shimun Bar Sabba’eh, Catholicos of the Church of the East in Saliq Qtispon or Beth Kokheh. Mar Shimun Bar Sabba’eh could not go the Council due to the disturbances that prevailed in the neighbouring lands. But he wrote to the Emperor Constantine saying:

“If it was not for fear from the heathens who are thirsty for our blood, I very much wanted to attend the Council in order to be blessed by the sacred Council and by your victorious kingdom. However, I shall be happy to abide by all decisions made by the Council…”

The Council of Nicea did convene in 325 AD and between 270 and 318 bishops were able to attend. Only five of the attendees came from the Western regions. The rest came from the lands that were situated to the east of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Separation of the Church of the East from the Western Church

The first attempt at establishing the Church of the East as independent from the Church in the West happened in the Synod of Mar Iskhaq (Isaac) Catholicos which was convened in the Church of Kokheh in Saliq Qtispon in 410 AD.

The Synod was organised with the help of Bishop Marutha of Maipherqat[12] who brought with him letters from the Church fathers in the West. One of the letters was for Mar Iskhaq Catholicos and another letter was for the Persian King Yazdegerd I. Mar Marutha and Mar Iskhaq went to see the King to seek royal permission to invite all of the bishops of the Church of the East in Beth Nahrain and Persia to attend a Synod in the Church at Beth Kokheh in Saliq Qtispon. Mar Marutha was a skilled physician and had managed to gain the King’s favour through medical services he had provided to the King. The King gave his permission to go ahead and convene the Synod.

Forty bishops of the Church of the East attended the first such Synod held in the East. Mar Marutha, the ambassador of the Church in the West, was also present at the Synod which became known as the Synod of Mar Iskhaq. A set of canons, which included a number which Mar Marutha brought with him from the Western fathers, were enacted by the Synod[13]. It was also at this Synod where the creed of Nicea was adopted by the Church of the East.

Shortly after the Church of the East gained its independence and autonomy, the Church began sending missions to spread the message of Christianity in the various regions in the Persian Empire and in Central Asia and China, to the Gulf region, Yemen and various corners of the Arabian Peninsula.

 

Beth Nahrain under Arab Muslims

Beth Nahrain fell under the rule of Arab Muslims after the battle of Al Qadesiya[14] which was fought in the year 636 between the Arab Muslim army and the Sassanid Persian army. Following this historical battle, Beth Nahrain was governed by the Umayyad Caliphate from the city of Damascus in Syria till the year 750 when the Abbasid dynasty of caliphs took over and moved the centre of power to Iraq. The Abbasid kings set up their initial capital in Kupha until their new capital of Baghdad was built in 762.

The Church of the East continued to prosper and expand during the first three centuries of Islam, even though the number of its followers continued to drop as a result of the harsh rules[15] enacted for non-Muslims which consequently forced many Christians to convert to Islam. For example, Mar Temateous I (Timothy) who occupied the Patriarchal See of the Church of the East for 43 years (from 780 to 823) worked under five different caliphs and maintained cordial relations with each one of them. During his Patriarchate the Church of the East had 230 dioceses and 27 Metropolitans (Archbishops), including a new bishop for Yemen.

 

What became of the Church of Beth Kokheh

The name of the Church of Beth Kokheh is mentioned many times in the history of the Church of the East. The Church was the main centre for the Catholicos of the Church who was later given the title of Patriarch. In the year 544 Mar Awa Gabbarah (the Great) decreed that the consecration of a Catholicos would not be legitimate unless the consecrations ceremonies were conducted in the Church of Beth Kokheh.

As mentioned earlier in this paper, the Church was built by Mar Mari in about the year 100 AD. It was renovated and enlarged and rebuilt several times over the years and centuries. The Church remained the main centre of the See of the Catholicos, and later of the Patriarch, until the year 780 when Mar Temateous I moved the Patriarchal See from Saliq Qtispon to the new city of Baghdad. However, the great Church of Beth Kokheh retained its revered sanctity. Even though the Patriarchal See moved to the city of Baghdad in 780, the Church of Beth Kokheh retained its status as the place for the consecration of the Catholicos Patriarch. It also remained the venue for a number of Church Synods. Its holy grounds contained the graves of 24 Catholicoses, the first of whom was Mar Abris (121 – 137) and the last one was Mar Khnaneshoo II (774 – 779) in the year 779.

The last Patriarch to be consecrated in the Great Church of Beth Kokheh was Mar Temateous II (1318 – 1328).

In the year 2000 the Assyrian Church of the East conducted a church service in the approximate location of the Church of Kokheh, as part of the celebrations conducted by all of the Eastern Churches to welcome the third millennium of Christianity.

Of the few ruins of the Saliq Qtispon which remain standing to this day is the Tak-i-Kisra, or Arch of Kisra (ancient Qtispon) at Salman Pak which is located approximately 25 kilometres to the south of the city of Baghdad. The shape of this historical arch has been incorporated into the logo of the magazine Church of Beth Kokheh as a symbol of the historic spot that Saliq Qtispon and Kokheh hold in the glorious history of the Assyrian Church of the East.

 

Bibliography

  1. The Old and New Testaments – in English and Classical Syriac
  2. Young’s Bible Dictionary, General Editor Dr. G. Douglas Young, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois USA 1984
  3. Christianity in Iraq, Suha Rassam – Gracewing UK 2006
  4. A number of the issues of the magazine نجم المشرق (Star of the East) which was published in Arabic by the Chaldean Church Patriarchate in Baghdad, Iraq in the 1990s. The various issues of this valuable magazine contained a number of articles by the celebrated and renowned author and historian of the Church of the East, Father Alber Aboona. The articles were taken from Father Aboona’s book تاريح الكنتسة السريانية الشرقيت (The History of the Syrian Church of the East) which was published in 3 volumes by the Librairie Orientale (المكتبة الشرقية) in Beirut, Lebanon
  5. The Concise Collection of Synodical Canons by Mar Audisho Bar Brikha – the handwritten Syriac edition.
  6. The History of the Syrian Church of the East – Volume One: during the era of the Sassanid Kings   ܟܬܵܒ݂ܵܐ ܕܡܲܟ݂ܬܒ݂ܵܢܘܼܬ ܙܲܒ݂ܢܹ̈ܐ ܕܥܹܕܬܵܐ ܡܲܕܢܚܵܝܬܵܐ ܕܣܘܼܪ̈ܝܵܝܹܐ – ܒܲܡܕܲܒܪܵܢܘܼܬܵܐ ܕܩܵܬܘܿܠܝܼܩܹ̈ܐ ܕܲܣܠܝܼܩ ܘܲܩܛܝܼܣܦܘܿܢ – ܐܲܨܲܚܬܵܐ ܩܲܕܡܵܝܬܵܐ: ܒܕܵܪܹ̈ܐ ܕܫܘܼܠܛܵܢܵܐ ܕܡܲܠܟܹ̈ܐ ܣܲܣܲܢܵܝܹ̈ܐ – ܐܸܬܚܬܸܡ ܒܲܡܕܝܼܢ݇ܬܵܐ ܕܐܘܿܪܡܝܼ ܒܡܲܛܒܲܥܬܵܐ ܕܲܫܠܝܼܚܹ̈ܐ ܕܐܲܪܟܐܲܦܸܣܩܘܿܦܵܐ ܕܟܲܢܬܸܪܒܘܿܪܝܼ ܒܫܲܢ݇ܬܵܐ ܡܫܝܼܚܵܝܬܵܐ ܐܨܙ 1907.

This volume was published in the vernacular Syriac in 1907 in Ormi by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission.

  1. A book in the Arabic language called: السريان – الاسم الحقيقي للاراميين والاشوريين والكلدان – موفق نيسكو – بيسان للنشر والتوزيع والاعلام, بيروت لبنان – 2012

(Al Siryan – The true name for the Arameans and Assyrians and Chaldeans – by Muwafaq Nisko, published by Bissan Bookshop in Beirut, Lebanon in 2012).

 

ctesifonte

 

The ruins of Tak-i-Kisra at Salman Pak, approximately 25 kilometres to the south of the city of Baghdad

 

 

 

ܢܢܨܵܒ݂ܬܵܐ ܕܥܹܕܬܵܐ ܕܡܲܕܢܚܵܐ ܓܵܘ ܟܘܼܟܹ̈ܐ

This map of Iraq shows the approximate location of Saliq, Qtispon and Kokheh

 

_________________________

Endnotes

[1] Also called Simon – see Mathew 10:2

[2] Taken from Holy Bible, From Ancient Eastern Manuscripts, Containing the Old and New Testaments Translated from the Peshitta, The Authorised Bible of the Church of the East, by George M. Lamsa,– Published by A. J. Holman Company, Philadelphia USA 1967.

The Peshitta (from the Syriac word ܦܫܝܼܛܬܵܐ which means simple, straight) is the Classical Syriac version of the Bible which was translated from the Hebrew in the 2nd Century AD. By the 5th century AD it became the standard bible among numerous divisions of the Syriac Christianity. Some New Testament scholars argue that Aramaic, which later became widely known as Syriac, was the original language in which portions of the New Testament were written (see Overview to Leiden Peshitta on the Logos Bible Software website).

[3] Young’s Bible Dictionary was published in 1984 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois USA. Its General Editor was Dr. G. Douglas Young, S.T.M., Ph.D Institute of Holy Land Studies, Jerusalem.

[4] See page 77 of Young’s Bible Dictionary.

[5] The ancient city of Seleucia (I have referred to it as ‘Saliq’ as most members of the Church of the East know it) was situated on the Western side of the river Tigris. It was modernised and expanded by Seleucus I Nicator, one of the Alexander the Great’s officers. He ruled over the Seleucid Empire from 311 BC to 280 BC. A few years later he moved his capital to Antioch in Syria, but Seleucia remained an important cultural and trade centre. During the third and second centuries BC, its fame matched that of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria.

[6] The Acts of Mar Mari is a book which records the itinerary and preaching of Mar Mari in Mesopotamia until he reached Kokheh which ended up being the patriarchal seat of the Church of the East for many centuries. A copy of the book, which contains the Acts of Mar Mari in Syriac and a relevant account from Kitab al-Majdal in Arabic, both of which have been translated into English by Professor Amir Harrak (who was born and raised in Mosul, in the vicinity of Nineveh in Bet Nahrain and teaches at the University of Toronto, Canada) can be obtained on the internet.

[7] People within the Church of the East community often use the two names of Saliq and Qtispon joined together as ܣܵܠܝܼܩ ܘܲܩܛܝܼܣܦܘܿܢ (Saliq and Qtispon). The two cities are also referred to as ܡܕܝ̈ܢܵܬ̈ܐ ܩܵܬܘܿܠܝܼܩܝܼ (the cities forming the See of the Catholicos).

[8] A list of Parthian kings printed in the scholarly book The Cambridge History of Iran contains the name of a king called Artabanus IV of Parthia who ruled from 80 to 81 AD. This confirms that Mar Mari and his colleagues arrived in the region at around the same time.

[9] Qtispon or Ctesiphon was also already an ancient city at that time. Some biblical scholars and historians say that Qtispon was first mentioned in history in the Old Testament, Book of Ezra (Ezra 8:17) under the name Casiphia. The Book of Ezra was written sometime between 460 BC and 440 BC. The Armenians had the name ‘Tizbon’ for Qtispon.

[10] The classical Syriac word for singular Kokha is ܟܘܼܪܚܵܐ with the plural being ܟܘܼܪ̈ܚܹܐ.

[11] The present day town of Iznik situated in North West of Turkey.

[12] The city of Maipherqat was located in the Roman Empire between Syria and Armenia.

[13] Jean-Baptiste Chabot, a leading French Syriac scholar, published in 1902 in Paris a volume which included the proceedings of the first 13 Synods held by the Church of the East from the year 410 to 775, including the Synod of Mar Iskhaq held in 410 AD. The volume was titled Synodicon Orientale, copies of which can be obtained from various sources including Atour Publications. The volume is an important source of the history of the Church of the East during those early centuries of Christianity.

[14]Al Qadesiya is a historical city in southern Beth Nahrain located southwest of al-Hillah and al-Kūfah in Iraq.

[15] Rules enacted in accordance to the Islamic Sharia laws that applied to non-Muslims (referred to as the Al-Dhimma – people enjoying the protection, which referred mainly to Christians and Jews).

Is the Theology of the Assyrian Church Nestorian?

His Beatitude Dr Mar Aprem Mooken

This paper was originally given at the First Non-Official Consultation on Dialogue within the Syriac Tradition, held in Vienna between June 24th – 29th 1994 under the auspices of the Pro Oriente Foundation. It was later published in the record of proceedings of the Consultation and edited on behalf of the Pro Oriente Foundation by Alfred Stirnemann and Gerhard Wilflinger.

His Beatitude Mar Aprem is the Metropolitan of Malabar and India. The Metropolitan holds a Master of Theology from the United Theological College (Serampore, 1966) and a Master of Sacred Theology from Union Theological Seminary (New York, 1967). He later undertook postgraduate theological studies graduating with a Doctorate of Theology from Serampore University (1976). He completed and was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Syriac by Mahatma Gandhi University in 2002. His Beatitude has also been a student at St Boniface College (Warminster, England), St Augustine’s College (Canterbury, England) and at the Ecumenical Institute (Bossey, Switzerland). His Beatitude has published almost 70 books and numerous monographs largely focused on church history, theology, biographies and travelogues in both English and Malayalam. Since his consecration as Metropolitan in Baghdad in 1968 His Beatitude has been intimately active in the ecumenical movement both in India and abroad. This has included ecumenical dialogues via the Pro Oriente Foundation (Vienna, Austria) and other bi-lateral theological consultations. He was previously co-chairman of the Joint Committee for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. Most recently, a second edition of His Beatitude’s PhD dissertation entitled The Assyrian Church of the East in the Twentieth Century (Kottayam: SEERI, 2003) has been published.

 

 

The question whether the Theology of the Church of the East (known as the Assyrian Church, East Syrian Church or the Nestorian Church) is Nestorian has been debated in the present century by some individual scholars. One problem in finding a suitable answer to this question is the difference in understanding the word Nestorian.

The Churches who accept the council of Ephesus of 431AD presided over by Cyril of Alexandria consider Nestorianism as a heresy because they thought that Nestorius taught two personalities in Jesus Christ and Jesus was born as a human being to Whom divinity was joined later at the time of baptism or so. But the truth is that Nestorius did not teach any such heresy. He believed like all bishops in his time that Christ was God and Man.

How exactly was this union of two nature, divinity and humanity in Christ, united in one person in Christ, this was the burden of the council of Chalcedon twenty years after the council of Ephesus of 431AD.

The Church of the East does not recognise the council of Ephesus presided over by Cyril of Alexandria. The history of the two rival councils held at Ephesus in June 431AD is ery complicated and unfortunate.

The anathematisms and counter-anathematisms have been discussed by the present writer in his M.Th. Thesis submitted to the Senate of Serampore in 1966 (Published by Mar Narsai press, Trichur, Kerala, India in 1978).

A short evaluation of the Council of Ephesus of 431AD would bring us to the conclusion that the Council of Ephesus of 431AD was guided also by the personal enmity of Cyril against Nestorius, rather than the Christological issue which was evidently the cause according to the “official version.” Moreover, the help of the Pope of Rome given to Cyril resulted in the ultimate victory.

It appears that unless and until one is able to produce the documents redeeming

1) the lack of authority in Cyril of Alexandria to convene the Council in spite of the protests of the Imperial Commissioner,

2) the absence of right intention in Cyril of Alexandria who presided over it,

3) the irregularity of the procedure of the Council when the accuser himself was the judge,

4) the absence of the patriarchs or authorised representatives of Constantinople and Antioch,

5) the incompleteness of the Council as the anticipated joint session of the Council could not take place even after the union of 433AD,

6) the lack of form in the manner of conducting it and,

7) the lack of integrity of the sayings of Nestorius cited,

the validity of the Synod of Ephesus of 431AD as an ecumenical Council of the universal church and its subsequent acceptance by the Church of the East remains doubtful.

The reasons for the refusal of recognition to this Council by the Church of the East are many. The Church of the East was neither invited nor present in this Council. The Council of Cyril was declared null and void, as per the oder of the Imperial Commissioner in June 431AD and the repeated orders of the Emperor till the “political” settlement, and such a settlement did not affect the Persian Church as it was beyond the jurisdiction of Theodosius II. Moreover, the Council of Cyril did not settle any issue, but, on the contrary, created more problems as seen the Eutychian heresy which was a development of the mia physis thought of Cyril of Alexandria. Aoart from the dangerous use of the ambiguous title Theotokos, the Christology of the Church of the East was much similar to that of the Council of Chalcedon, two decades later.

These factors demand a change of outlook by the other churches in regard to the recognition of the council of Ephesus of 431. Individuals have come out with statements in sympathy with, and in favour of, the stand of the Church of the East. Adolf Harnack and many others challenged the propriety of calling the Council of Ephesus the ecumenical council[1].

The French Roman Catholic theologian, Pére J. Mahe, who made a fresh examination of the writings of Theodoret, was led to the conclusion that the two Christologies of Antioch and Alexandria, in spite of notable differences, were alike perfectly orthodox[2]. If Theodoret, who wrote against the twelve anathematisms of Cyril against Nestorius, was considered orthodox in the Council of Chalcedon, Nestorius also would have been considered orthodox if he had been present. What is required is not individual opinions, but official statements by the Churches.

 

The Necessity for a “Nestorian Christology” Today

The relevance of Nestorianism for today is the appreciation of the humanity of our Lord. Such an emphasis was necessary at the time of Nestorius became of the influence of the Appollinarians. It is just as relevant today. G.L. Prestige says:

           “Redemption requires a human response and human appreciation, God Himself supplied a perfect human agent to lead the response and a perfect human instrument to convey the means of appropriation[3].”

Donald Baille argues that if the human nature of Jesus Christ lacks a human person (a human centre, subject and principal of identity) it is incomplete[4]. Cyril C. Richardson in his article “A Preface to Christology,” states that only Nestorians can answer the question “Wherein lies the reality of Jesus’ temptation? Wherein is His human freedom?[5]” The Christology of the Church of the East is relevant to modern times because of its teaching of perfect human nature. The Nestorian Christ is one who was subject to the conditions of life of the first century, tempted, triumphant and obedient and thereby being a perfect example to mankind of every nation for all times.

The necessity for a “Nestorian” Christology becomes inevitable when we think of the greatest position ascribed to Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic Church. The fear expressed by Nestorius against the use of Theotokos should not be ignored. It is one of the positive contributions of Nestorius to have exposed the ptoential danger of this title.

As far back as our records of history go there was nobody to speak against this title before 428AD though it was used by certain individuals. Perhaps it would have become the standard expression of all Christians if Nestorius did not wage such a crusade against this title. Till the Reformation in the 16th century, the Church of the East was the only Church which shared the concern of Nestorius against the use of Theotokos. Since the Reformation, however, many churches share this attitude and thus the position taken by the Church of the East singularly, down through the centuries, is vindicated.

In these days, when the announcement such as the “Immaculate Conception of Mary,” Assumption of Mary to Heaven, Proclaiming Mary as the Queen of Heaven, are made, the Christians have begun to open their eyes to the dangers of the over-emphasis of the imprtance of Mary. The opposition to excessive Mariology demonstrated at the Vatican II and the opposition to a seperate Schema on Mary from many bishops at the Council show that even in the Roman church some at least are beginning to see the dangers of the title of Theotokos. Therefore, the position explained by Nestorius and consistently maintained by the Church of the East, deserves the appreciation of Christians.

Now many protestants have reocognised that the fears expressed by Nestorius against the use of the title Theotokos were genuine. This justifies the stand that the “Nestorian” Christology is relevant for today. The “Image of Nestorius” has changed considerably in the recent years. Bethune Baker proved that Nestorius was not a Nestorian![6] Wigram could see the Christological formula of the Church of the East as free from any charges of heresy[7].

F. Loofs, who did not give much importance to the “transactions of Ephesus” of 431, showed considerable sympathy to Nestorius and his Christology. Against the charge of dualism in Nestorianism, he argued that Nestorius emphasised the unity of the Person of Christ[8].

A.R. Vine, who felt it impossible to comprehend the meaning of the Christology of Bazaar of Heracleides, without a “metaphysical and Christological system” endeavoured to formulate a system by “working backwards and forwards,” and claimed to have succeeded in the “evolution of a self consistent metaphysics and Christology[9].” He reached the conclusion: “There are elements in the thought of Nestorius which provide a helpful mode of approarch to the Christological problem[10].” At present many take a position, which was long ago taken by Mosheim even before the “discovery” of the Bazaar, that “Nestorianism” is an error in words rather than in thought[11].

The present writer has gone a step furhter. The Christology of the Church of the East, as well as that of Nestorius himself, is not far from the Chalcedonian formula. Though the words are different the teaching is very much the same. The Christology of Chalcedon is Antiochene in emphasis. In other words, the Chalcedonian formula was the triumph of Nestorian Christology.

In 1907, William Edward Collins, Bishop of Gibraltar, made the first Angilcan episcopal visit to the Assyrian Church to meet the Patriarch Mar Benyamin Shimun with a view to discuss the terms of inter-communion, During the interesting interview Bishop Collins explained the Anglican position in regard to the doctrinal requirements if such an inter-communion was to be made possible and frequent. Regarding Assyrians living in an area where there was no church of their denomination there ought to be no difficulty. Bishop Collins writes:

          “Not that we should ask them to disavow their fathers, not that we should ask them to revise their doctrinal books or to make a new creed, for but simply that we should say, ‘This is the faith as we hold it. Is this what you believe?[12]’

 

Three years later the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Davidson, following a resolution by the Lambeth Conference of 1908, wrote to the Patriarch of the Church of the East to clarify the doubts regarding the Christology of the Church of the East. After consultation with his bishops, the Patriarch replied on June 13, 1911, accepting the statement of faith propounded to him (the Quicunque vult) as expressing the belief of the Church of the East. The statement was sent by W.A. Wigram, head of the Archbishop’s Assyrian Mission, who in a covering note to the Archbishop remarked:

          “I venture to hope also that the letter of Mar Shimun to your Grace will suffice to clear this church from the charge of heresy, that has been levelled against it for so long.[13]”

His wish was fulfilled, for the Commission set up by the Lambeth Conference was completely satisfied by the explanation given to the use of the term Christokos. Due to the outbreak of war in 1914 the attempt for inter-communion could not immediately bear fruit, but the following Lambeth Conference[14], received the report from the Committee. The report reads:

          “… The watchword Theotokos is absent from their service books, and in one place is repudiated; on the other hand, its equivalent in other words is several times found, and strong instances of the language known as communicatio idiomatum occur.[15]”

Even the problem of two Qnome did not seem to be an obstacle to this Committee. The report states:

          One phrase which has caused some perplexity, that which asserts that there are in Christ one parsopa (prosopon), two qnome, and two natures. The word qnoma is equivalent of “Hypostasis” and if used in the later sense of that word, i.e. as meaning “person,” it would imply real Nestorianism; but research had made it plain that it is used in the earlier sense of “hypostasis,” namely, “substance,” and this makes the phrase, if redundant, at least perfectly, orthodox[16].

This report strongly recommended that if the “present” authorities of the Church of the East adhered to their statement of June 13, 1911, occasional inter-communion should be established. It is a matter of regret to read in the report of the following Lambeth Conference, a decade later, that “it has not been possible, owing to political and other conditions, to obtain the authoritative statement recommeded in 1920[17]”

While the Lambeth Conference Report of 1948 expressed the hope that the relations between these two churches may be strengthened[18], the report of 1958 mentioned only the political and material aspets of the Assyrian Church[19]. It does not mean that the Assyrian Church is in disagreement with the doctrinal position explained in 1911 statement. Neither does it mean that the Anglican church had “Second thought.” The council of Foreign Relations of the Church of England at Lambeth agrees with this view[20].

A word is necessary on the position of the Council of Chalcedon in the Church of the East. Monseigneur Chabot deserves the credit for the information that Synodicon Orientale included the Council of Chalcedon and “Tome of Leo” as officially accepted by the Church of the East. Though he did not print the texts of these documents in the edition, his announcement that these documents were approved documents of the Church of the East took the scholary world by surprise[21]. Wigram who took pains to investigate this question, was able to find the manuscript of Synodicon Orientale in Mosul and happened to see the formula of Chalcedon in it[22]. The Church which recognises the formula of Chalcedon deserves the recognition of the western Churches. The Church of England took a right step in proper direction.

 

The Prospects of these Aims

“If the broken unity of the Church Catholic is ever to be knit up once more,” Wigram wrote, “it must be by full recognition of these national differences which are national heritages which are so treasued by the nations who hold them that they went into separation rather than surrender them[23].”

As far as the Assyrian Church of the East is concerned, it will never forsake their hero. The Protestant Church, which do not accept the title “Theotokos” though used in the Council of Ephesus of 431 ought therefore to say officially whether they regard the approval of the condemnation of Nestorius by Cyril and his followers as a necessary test of orthodoxy.

The Anglican scholars expressed their willingness to accord official recognition to the Church of the East without insisting u[on the condemnation of the three Greek doctors, provided they cease to repeat the anathema on Cyril of Alexandria.

It is extremely unlikely that the Church of the East will cease to mention the names of the three Greek doctors in their Litany. Wigram suggested to use an alternate bidding found in the litany to avoid the names of the Greek doctors[24] with the hope that “the change would not be felt, as the people are all the while occupied in singing an anthem[25].” Whether the change will be felt or not, the Church of the East will never agree to any “change” in this matter. A change of attitude of other churches in regard to their recognition of the Council of 431AD will pave the way for the reunion of this once far-reaching Church which is the first major schism of the Christendom.

The prospects of a “Nestorian” Christology are much brighter today than ever before. The Protestant theologians who have begun to emphasise the reality of the suffering of Christ, as an example of his perfect humanity, can play a part in it. The present writer has gone further than the previous students of Nestorianism in suggesting without hesitation that Bazaar of Heracledies answers most of the charges levelled against Nestorius.

Sympathy towards Nestorius is being shown even in orthodox circles. M.V. Anastos, a Greek orthodox theologian, has shown that the Christology of Nestorius was not very different from that of Cyril. He argues:

          “… The Christology of Nestorius, if orthodox, should be reconcilable, not withstanding angry denials on both sides, with Cyril’s. In truth, it must be admitted, the line which separates them on this, as on all other issues, is either very thin or nonexistent[26].”

The results of the Arrhus consultation of August 1964, in a way, are discouraging, if a unilateral declaration of a Christological compromise is made from the East, they may have to go its own way and the “Church of the East” may find more affinity with the West than the East from the christological point of view. If the “eastern ecumenism” is based on Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus “western ecumenism” will be based on the Tome of Leo and the Council of Chalcedon.

As the non-Chalcedonian Churches insist on the reunion with the orthodox Churches without recognising the Council of Chalcedon of 451AD, the Church of the East has a legitimate claim to insist on the reunion without recognising the Council of Ephesus of 431AD, presided over by Cyril.

Even Cyril treated the decision of the Council of 431 with such a scant respect that within two years he swept that decision absolutely on one side, and made, on his own authority, a compromise with his rivals. It is possible for the churches to follow the example of Cyril and to rethink the importance they have attached to this as the third ecumenical council – an idea, which perhaps did not occur ever to Cyril[27].

 

A Final Word

The present writer had claimed his M.Th. Thesis to be an impartial study of the Council of Ephesus. Impartiality, however, does not consist in refusing to form any opinion or in a futile concealment of the dangers of the thought of the man concerned, but in treating them scientifically and sincerely and attempting to discover objectively the thought in the historical background in which it was developed.

 

This, then, the present writer hopes to achieve in this consultation. Men have thought about all the conceivable forms of the conception of the union of the divine and human natures of Christ. How exactly has this union taken place? It is open to conjectures. To a certain extent, it is beyond human speculation.

There was a period when these terms were only “in the making.” Such a beginning, though unfortunate, was necessary for an adequate understanding “Nestorianism” was necessary to prevent any notion of deification of human nature as an entity, thereby losing sight of the historical Christ. As Bethune Baker warns us the teachings against which Nestorius protested “would have made of the Saviour of men a person not really human, and Redemption a magical, instantaneous, rather than ethical, gradual, process[28].”

The “re-discovery” of the Bazaar was a “dispensation of God, in an age in which the doctrine of the Incarnation is exposed to dangers from opponents and defenders alike which are at least as dissolvent as those against which he cried unheard[29].” Modern thought can best profit from this controversy by attempting a synthesis of the apparently opposed but really complementary views.

The christology of the Church of the East, i.e. one person, two qnome and two kyane, when it is translated as one person, two concrete natures and two abstract natures, is perfectly orthodox. As A.R. Vine has pleaded we should give Nestorius the benefit of doubt with regard to the technical terms. If we attempt to understand exactly how Godhead and manhood are united in the one person Jesus Christ, we reach the inevitable conclusion that the problem of Christology is insoluble.

 

Conclusion

The Syriac manuscripts and printed books found in this Church teaching the Christology of one person, two qnome and two natures. Having examined this Christological formula this thesis upholds the theory put forward earlier by Professor J.F. Bethune Baker that Nestorius was not a “Nestorian.”

In understanding the qnoma, this writer rejects the translation given by some scholars as person and puts forward an alternative view that it should be understood as “the individuated nature” or concrete nature, if the word kyana (nature) is understood as “abstract nature.” Qnoma is also translated in this thesis as hypostasis. This is done so because several other writers have done likewise; for instance, in their useful work “A Nestorian Collection of Christological Texts,” Luise Abramowski and Alan Goodman translate the word as hypostasis. But hypostasis does not convey the true meaning of qnoma as used by Nestorian Fathers. The present writer is of the opinion that some better word could be coined in order to convey the true meaning which the members of this Church attributed to this controversial, but crucial, term qnoma.

This writer does not argue that this Christology, even if it is understood properly, agrees completely with the Christological formula of the Council of Chalcedon AD 451 though the Nestorian Christology has several points of agreement with Tome of Leo, as Nestorius himself has claimed, over against his opponent Cyril of Alexandria, the observations made by V.C. Samuel, quoted in the present writer’s D.Th. dissertation, give us a new direction to explore further the points of agreement between Cyril’s Christology and the Christology of Nestorius.

Though this Church considers Nestorius as a saint, this is not a Church founded by Nestorius. Nestorius did not know Syriac and the East Syrian Church of the Persian empire know no Greek. There was no contact between the East Syrian Churches of Persia and the “heretic” and his supporters in AD 431. Only after the death of Nestorius, when the East Syrian Church had not part in the Christological battles between Nestorius and Cyril, nor had any knowledge of this unhappy controversy during the life time of the champions, has been unjustly described as the Church founded by Nestorius.

The separation of the East Syrian Church from the rest of the Christendom and particularly from the jurisdiction of Antioch had taken place before the Christological controversy had sprung up in AD 428. A canon of the Synod of Dadisho’ in AD 424 forbade the bishops of this Church to have any ecclesiastical jurisdictional contact with the West. This fact itself leads us to the conclusion that the separation of the East Syrian Church was motivated by political, cultural, linguistic or personal considerations rather than any theological reason for there was none such existent in AD 424.

The important Pauline ideas of self-emptying, image of God, form of servant, historical Jesus etc., have been founded in Nestorius too. It was from his biblical foundation Nestorius formulated his theory of prosopic union.

The Christological formula of this Church is that of the prosopic union rejecting the formula of hypostatic union accepted by both Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian etc.). This prosopic union is a three tier Christology where the union is not at the first level of natures, nor at the second level of the hypostases but at the third level of the prosopon. To the members of this Church, the idea of perfect God and man is understood only if Christ has both natures and qnome of both God and man and the union has taken place only at the level of prosopon.

As for the Mariology, it refuses to call Mary “Theotokos” unlike the Orthodox Church. However, this writer believes that despite the refusal to use the title Theotokos to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Nestorian” Churches throughout the world, is in general agreement with the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian) Churches in giving respect and veneration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A Nestorian is an orthodox without theotokos.

This Church does not overdo the respect due to Mary as the Roman Catholics seem to do, nor does it underestimate the honour due to the Blessed Virgin Mary as some of the Protestant Churches have admittedly done. The prayers of this Church about Virgin Mary would lead to the inevitable conclusion that this Church tries to give a proper place to the Blessed Virgin Mary avoiding the excesses and at the same time trying to save the Church from the danger of ignoring the Mother of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. In this context, it must be stated further that nobody in this Church as never questioned the Virgin Birth, as some modern theologians in various Churches do today. She is ever virgin before, in and after the birth of Jesus Christ.

The special emphasis of the Nestorian Christology on the humanity of our Lord is the statement that in jesus Christ there are two distinct qnome, divine and human. This emphasis on the humanity of the Saviour of the mankind saved the Church in the fifth century from the heresy of the followers of Apollinarius who were still in the capital city of Constantinople where Nestorius worked as the head of the Church during the period AD 428-31. This emphasis on humanity is generally recognised today in the contemporary theological debate throughout the world. The East Syrian Church therefore, the present writer hopes, will have a definite contribution to make in the development of a Christian theology utilising the initiatives provided by some emerging dynamics in the religious and cultural context in the world today.

By the denial of the title Imme d’Alaha (Mother of God) the Assyrian Church never denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. They believed like all fathers of the Council of Nicea 325AD and the Council of Constantinople 381AD that the expressions used in those Councils and the Nicene creed are good enough to guarantee the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Imme D’Msheha (Mother of Messiah) is proper expression as all Christians believe that Messiah is perfect God and perfect man. Is the theology of the Assyrian Church Nestorian? The answer is both Yes and No. If Nestorius himself was never a Nestorian, why should anybody bother whether the reply is Yes or No? It is “Nestorian” to the extent that the Assyrian Church considers him a Saint and Greek doctor (Malpana Yawnaya) of the Church. The answer is “No” if the questioner thought that Nestorianism is the denial of the divinity or the total separation o the divine and human natures in Christ.

____________________________

Endnotes

[1]                 Adolf Harnack calls Cyril’s Council “this petty assembly” in contrast to what he calls the “legal council under the presidency of the Imperial Commissioner.” (Harnack op. cit; p.187)
[2]                 Pére J. Mahe in the Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique vol. VII, No. 3, July 1906, quoted from Bethune Baker, op. cit; p. 198
[3]                 G.L. Prestige; Fathers and heretics, London, S.P.C.K., 1948
[4]                 Donald Baille; God was in Christ, New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1948
[5]                 Cyril C. Richardson; “A Preface to Christology,” Religion in Life, Vol. XXVII No.                                      4. p. 508
[6]                 Bethune Baker, Nestorius and His Teachings, Cambridge, University Press, 1908
[7]                 W.A. Wigram, The Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian or East Syrian Church,                                             London, S.O.C.K. 1908, p. 289
[8]                 F. Loofs, Nestorius and His Place in the History of Christian Doctrine, Cam                                                 bridge 1914 p. 126
[9]                 A.R. Vine, The Nestorian Churches, London, The Independent Press, 1937, p. 53
[10]               Ibid; p. 54
[11]               J.L. Mosheim; An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, (ed) Murdock                                                James; London; William Tegg & Co., 1876, p. 633
[12]               A.J. Mason; Life of William Edward Collins, Bishop of Gibraltar, London: 1912,                                         p. 125
[13]               W.A. Wigram, Letter addressed to Dr. Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury,                                                dated August, 1911. (From the Archives of Lambeth Palace Library, London)
[14]               Lambeth Conference of 1920
[15]               Lambeth Conferences (1867, 1930); London: S.P.C.K., 1948, p. 132
[16]               Ibid.
[17]               Lambeth Conference, 1930, London: S.P.C.K., n.d. p. 146
[18]               Lambeth Conference, 1948, London: S.P.C.K., 1948, Part II, p. 71
[19]          Lambeth Conference, 1958, London: S.P.C.K., 1958, p. 251
[20]               Letter to the present writer, dated 3rd November 1965
[21]               The Church of the East officially has not made any statement about this announcement
[22]               Wigram informs us that the word “Theotokos” is translated as “Mother of Christ” who is both God and man; and one Qnoma is altered as two Qnome. The “blessed Cyril” is changed to “accursed Cyril” and the phrase “to rebuke the folly of Nestorius” is omitted! (cf., Wigram, op. cit; p. 296)
[23]               W.A. Wigram; Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian Church, London: S.P.C.K., 1908, pp. 63-4
[24]               The bidding is not an alternate one in the litany as Wigram states.
[25]               W.A. Wigram; Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian Church, op. cit; pp. 25-26
[26]               M.V. Anatos; “Nestorius was Orthodox.” Dumbarton Oaks Paper XIV, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1962, p. 139. He concludes that Nestorius was the “dyophysite par excellence” (Ibid. p. 140)
[27]               W.A. Wigram; Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian Church; op. cit; p. 35
[28]               F.J. Bethune Baker; op. cit; p. 207
[29]               Ibid; p. 196

 

Lecture at the Chinese University in Hong Kong – Chung Chi College (of Theology) on Saturday, October 9, 2010

By H.G. Dr. Mar Awa Royel
Bishop of California and Secretary of the Holy Synod

Reverend clergy, friends and dear enthusiasts of the Jingjiao. It is a great privilege for me to stand here before you at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and address you concerning the history of the Assyrian Church of the East and its evangelization of the great Chinese people. I believe our visit these days is record-making, and for us to travel in the footsteps of our ancient spiritual forefathers, it is breath-taking. I’m sure the history of the evangelization of China by the Church of the East is well known to all of you, probably than it is to us. However, I stand here as a descendent of the great forefathers of the Jingjiao who first came to this blessed land in the early half of the seventh century of the Christian era, bearing the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Good News to the Chinese, among them the bishop Alopen, the chor-bishop Adam, etc. In advance, I thank you for the courtesy afforded for me to address you, and I would like to thank the friends and staff of the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies for their magnanimous task of arranging our visit and sojourn in Hong Kong this week.

The first evangelizers who introduced the Christian faith to the Chinese people were the apostles of the Church of the East. The Christian faith of the Assyrian Church of the East was referred to in the Chinese records as the ‘Luminous Religion’ or ‘Jingjiao’ (景教). The imperial Chinese records recount that in the year 635 AD the illustrious and virtuous ‘Alopen’ (according to P.Y. Saeki ‘Abraham’) arrived in Ch’an-An, or according to the ‘Nestorian monument’ Kumdan (later called ‘Hsi-an’) from the country of Syria, or Ta’chin. Emperor Tai-tsung (founder of the Tang Dynasty, 618-907 AD) accorded the Christian teacher from the East every respect and sent his prime minister by the name of Fang Hiuen-ling to conduct the visitor inside. The Scriptures which Alopen had translated were deposited in the imperial library, and after having examined the faith contained therein, the emperor gave orders that the ‘Luminous Religion’ of Alopen be spread in all the realm. Thus, in July of 638 AD the emperor decreed:

“Right principles have no invariable name, holy men have no invariable station; instruction is established in accordance with the locality, with the object of benefiting the people at large. The greatly virtuous Alopen, of the kingdom of Syria, has brought his sacred books and images from that distant part, and has presented them at our chief capital. Having examined the principles of this religion, we find them to be purely excellent and natural; investigating its originating source, we find it has taken its rise from the establishment of important truths; its ritual is free from perplexing expressions, its principles will survive when the framework is forgotten; it is beneficial to all creatures; it is advantageous to mankind. Let it be published throughout the empire, and let the proper authority build a Syrian church in the capital in the I-ning May, which shall be governed by twenty-one priests. When the virtue of the Chau dynasty declined, the rider on the azure ox ascended to the west; the principles of the great Tang becoming resplendent, the illustrious breezes have come to fan the East.”

The successive emperor Kausung reiterated the toleration edict of Tai-tsung, and gave Alopen the title: “Great Conservator of Doctrine for the Protector of the Empire.” The arrival of Alopen from Persia into the empire in 635 AD was probably due to the fact that Tang had conquered Turkestan in 630 and re-opened the ancient trade rout with the West. This occurred during the patriarchate of Mar Isho’yahb II Gdalaya [‘the Arab’], who ruled as catholicos-patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East from 628 to 644 AD.

The ‘Nestorian Monument of China,’ as it is popularly called (or Jingjiaobei in Chinese, for ‘Nestorian tablet’) was composed by the Priest Adam (= Jing-Jing) and erected on the seventh day of the First Month in the year 781 AD by the presbyter and chor-bishop Yazdebozid of Kumdan (referred to as the capital city, and the name given by the Arabs) to commemorate the centenary of the evangelization of the fathers of the Church of the East who arrived in China in the mid 630’s of the Christian era. This presbyter is referred to as “Adam the presbyter and chor-bishop and papish (a hapaxlegomenon in the Syriac tongue!) of Sinistan.” It is recorded to have been erected during the patriarchate of Mar Khnanisho II (774-778/779 AD), who is credited with transferring the patriarchal seat of the Church of the East from Seleucia-Ctesiphon to Baghdad, which was founded as the seat of the Abbasid caliphate dynast (being transferred from Damascus) in 762 AD by the Caliph Abbas ibn Abul-Muttalib. The names of some 70 Assyrian missionaries are inscribed in the Syriac tongue, along with an almost 2,000 word description of their luminous teaching and theology. The stele further records the arrival of another group of 17 missionaries in the year 744 AD from Ta Ch’in (that is, ‘Syria’ or ‘Mesopotamia’).

Originating from this period, nine Chinese manuscripts and two Syriac manuscripts were found in a cave (which was sealed around the year 1036 and discovered in about 1908 and edited by the French scholar Paul Pelliot) in Dun-huang, one dating to the year 641 AD and the other 717 AD. These documents (in both Chinese and Syriac) were translated and edited by the late sinologue Prof. P.Y. Saeki in his famous The Nestorian Relics and Documents in China (Tokyo 1951), and re-examined by Max Deeg in his article “Towards a new translation of the Chinese Nestorian Documents from the Tang Dynasty” – Salzburg, 2003). These documents, essentially a collection of discourses or what some have called sutras, contain theological explanations of the Christian faith as explicated by the early band of evangelizers headed by the famed Alopen. The first, dated to 641 AD, is titled ‘The Lord of the Universe’s Discourse on Alms-Giving.’ A group of three manuscripts, dated to 635-638 AD are ‘The Jesus Messiah Discourses (Sutras),’ among others. These Chinese documents were had by two Japanese scholars in the years 1916 and 1922 respectively, and were housed in Kyoto, Japan. Later, in an imperial proclamation of 745 AD, the faith of the Nestorian Jingjiao was referred to as “the Persian religion (styled Bosijiao) of the Scriptures, starting from Ta-Ch’in with men coming to preach and practice, has long existed in the Middle Kingdom” (= China). A very important source subsequent to the erection of the Nestorian monument is the Book of Governors, of Thomas the bishop of Marga, writing around the year 840 AD. Thomas mentions a certain monk by the name of David from the monastery of Beth ‘Awe was made metropolitan of the Beth Sinaye (i.e. Chinese) in the late eighth century.

The famous tablet was buried in about the year 845 AD, when the emperor Wu-Tsung ordered an edict outlawing any foreign religion or teaching in the land. During that period of suppression, it is recorded than almost 2,000 Nestorian and Zoroastrian (‘Ta Ch’in and Mu-hu Hsien) existed at the time; the edict further enforced the destruction of all monasteries (especially Buddhist ones) and the return of the monastics to secular life.

At that moment, the Church of the East, as all of the other eastern religions in China, had entered a decadent period. The work of evangelization had been renewed (according to some Arabic sources) around the year 980 when monks began to be sent to China by the patriarch at Baghdad once again. It is further recorded that the catholicos-patriarch Makikha I bar Shlemon (1092-1109) appointed a certain George as bishop of Cathay in 1093 AD. The famous tablet was not to see the light of day until 1625 AD, when it was re-discovered by a Jesuit priest in ‘Kuan-chung’, some 30 miles from Hsian-fu.

The missions of the Church of the East into Central Asia are equally well-known. The Syriac Chronica Minora (ca. 680 AD) describes how in 644 AD numerous Turk tribes (beyond the river Oxus) came to the Christian faith through the missionary activities of Mar Elia, the metropolitan of Merw; in fact, there might have already been Christians among the Turks who were taken prisoner by the Byzantine emperor Maurice in 581 AD. We find an early attestation to a certain “bishop of the Turks (Turkestan – the area east of the Oxus River) in the Life of Mar Aba, a document dated to 549 AD. Already by 781, the Catholicos-Patriarch Timothy I (781-823) in his Letter to the Monks of Mar (St.) Maron indicates that a king of the Turks (Khagan) had converted to the Christian faith (Church of the East) from idolatry, and the king had requested that the patriarch send them a metropolitan to over the faithful there. In one of his letters To Sergius, the patriarch mentions that he has already consecrated the metropolitan in question per the request of the king, and that he ordaining one for Tibet as well (“in these days the Holy spirit had consecrated a metropolitan for the Turks, and we are preparing to ordain one for the Tibetans”). During Timothy’s time, it is related that through the agency of Mar Abdisho the metropolitan of Merw, some 200,000 Tartars along with their prince were converted to the Christian faith of the Church of the East from paganism. By the end of the first millennium, the five major powers of the Turko-Tartars had already been Christianized through the agency of Nestorian clergy: the Kerait, Naiman, Ouïgour, Öngüt and the Merkites; the Turko-Mongol tribe Uriyan-gakit was also Christianized by then.

The theology of the Nestorian stele is quite intriguing, as it proposes theological terminology that is distinct to the Chinese Christians of the Church of the East. The Three-in-One God’ (san i ching feng) is referred to as Aluohe (modern Mandarin pronunciation); the Lord Jesus Christ is referred to as Mishihe; the adversary of man, who deceived him, is referred to as Sadan (Satan), and the eastern region or Syria is referred to as Da Qin. Other aspects of the faith referred to on the stone tablet is that Mishihe returned to heaven and left 27 scriptures behind him (that is, the books of the New Testament), and that his ministers bear the Sign of the Cross and teach love and charity in the world, they have long beards and shave their foreheads (the monastic tonsure), hold both poor and rich equally, worship towards the East, pray seven times a day, and on Sunday hold a special service to purify themselves spiritually. The Nestorian stele states:

“The twenty-seven standard works of his sutras were preserved. The great means of Conversion were widely extended, and the sealed Gate of the blessed life was unlocked. His Law is to bathe with water and with the Spirit, and thus to cleanse from all vain delusions and to purify men until they regain the whiteness of their nature. His ministers carry the Cross with them as a sign. They travel about wherever the sun shines, and try to re-unite those that are beyond the pale (i.e. those that are lost). Striking the wood, they proclaim the Glad Tidings of love and charity. They turn ceremoniously to the East, and hasten in the path of life and glory. They preserve the beard to show that they have outward works to do, while they shave the crown to remind themselves that they have no private selfish desires. They keep neither male nor female slaves. Putting all men on an equality, they make no distinction between the noble and the mean. They neither accumulate property nor wealth; but giving all they possess they set a good example to others. They observe fasting in order that they may subdue ‘the knowledge’. They keep the vigil of silence and watchfulness so that they may observe ‘The Precepts.’ Seven times a day they meet for worship and praise, and earnestly they offer prayers for the living as well as for the dead. Once in seven days, they have ‘a sacrifice without the animal’. Thus cleansing their hearts, they regain their purity. This ever True and Unchanging Way is mysterious, and is almost impossible to name. But its meritorious operations are so brilliantly manifested that we make an effort and call it by the name of the ‘Luminous Religion.’” (translation of Prof. P.Y. Saeki).

In Prof. Saeki’s translation of the description of some of the most important tenants of the Jingjiao, we notice the following that are still preserved and observed by the Assyrian Church of the East: 27 books of the New Testament; conversion; baptism; the Cross; finding the spiritually lost; the semantron (wooden prayer board) or naqosha; proclamation of the Gospel; praying towards the East; keeping the beard; the monastic tonsure; not keeping slaves; fasting; vigils; prayer seven times a day; prayers for the living and the dead; and the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Assyrian Church of the East in Trichur, India

By H.B. Dr. Mar Aprem Mooken
Metropolitan of the Assyrian Church of the East
Archdiocese of India

The history of Christianity in India from the time of St.Thomas, the doubting disciple of Jesus Christ in 52 A.D.to the arrival of Vasco de Gama, from Portugal who came to South India in 1498 A.D. is the same. There was only one Christian Church receiving bishops from the Persian Church. It is known by nickname Nestorian Church.

The Chaldean Syrian Church in Trichur, also known as Church of the East or the Nestorian Church is the faithful remnant of the pre-Portuguese Syrian Christianity in India. This small community based in Trichur uses the same faith which was practiced when the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498 AD. It has much in common with the Syro Malabar community, using the liturgy of Mar Addai and Mar Mari.

After the attack of Tippu Sultan in the second half of the 18th century, the famous Shakthan Thampuran of the erstwhile Cochin state decided to improve the commerce of his state by developing Trichur town. In 1796 he brought 52 Christian families from the neighbourhood of Trichur to improve the trade in Trichur. .

In 1814 A.D. the Mart Mariam Big church was built in Trichur for the worship of the Chaldean Syrians from Ollur, Aranatukara, Kottekad, Arimbur etc. brought by Shakthan Thampuran, ruler of Cochin state for the progress of commerce in Cochin State.

In 1815 Palayil Abraham Kathanar dedicated this church by the command of Sri Kerala Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin. The famous Rama Varma known as Shakthan Thampuran who brought the Christians to Trichur.died in 1805 AD.  His successor Rama Varma died in 1808 AD. Sri Kerala Varma Maharajah was his successor. It was this Maharajah who gave the theetooram (royal order) to Palayal Abraham Kathanar.

The first bishop to come to Mart Mariam Church in Trichur after its construction in 1814 A.D was Mar Thoma Roccos Metropolitan sent by Patriarch Mar Joseph Audo in 1861 A.D. Mar Thoma Roccos was sent to India by the request of the Syrian Christians in Kerala through Fr. Antony Thondanatta. Fr.Antony went to Mosul along with Fr. Antony Kudakachira who died during that journey.. Mar Rokos who arrived in Trichur in 1861 was received by many parishes like Trichur, Ollur, Aranatukara etc. But he was sent away in 1862 by the Catholics under the leadership of the Blessed Chavara Kuriakose Elias, founder of the CMI congregation.

In 1862 AD Fr. Antony Thondanatta went to Mosul in the same boat in which Mar Thoma Rokos was returning from Malabar to Mosul. Fr. Thondanatta did not get any positive response from the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Mosul Mar Joseph Audo. So he proceeded to Kochanes in Kurdistan. The Nestorian Patriarch Mar Ruwel Shimun (1862-1903 AD) consecrated him Metropolitan of India. Although he returned to his native Travancore state in 1863 he could not function as Metropolitan, as his followers had become Roman Catholics. He was forced to remain a priest in Catholic Church in Vilakumadom near Palai after shaving off his beard. After 1874 he moved to Trichur as Vicar General to Mar Elia Mellus Metropolitan. When Elia Mellus returned to Mesopotamia in 1882 Thondanatta moved to Elamthottam near Palai. After his defeat in the church litigations in Elamthottam he returned to Trichur in 1897 or 98 and died on 16 November 1900. He is buried inside the altar of  the Mart Mariam Cathedral, Trichur. His remains were transferred in 1954 to the chapel in the southern side of the Church near the tomb of his successor Mar Abimalek Timotheus Metropolitan.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Mar Abimalek Timotheus born in Mar Bhisho village near in the border of Turkey and Iran on 28 August 1878 was made deacon in 1903 and priest and Archdeacon on 1904. He was consecrated Metropolitan on 13 December 1907. He arrived in Trichur on 27 February 1908. He died on 30 April 1945.

Mar Abimalek Timotheus was very famous. Jawaharlal Nehru during his first visit to Trichur on May 29, 1931 came to meet Mar Timotheus along with his wife Kamala and daughter Indira who later became the Prime Minister of India like her father. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote about this visit in his book An Autobiography. He was the friend of the Maharajah of Cochin as well as the British Resident to Travancore & Cochin states. Even now his tomb is visited by Christians and Hindus.

After 7 years and 2 months after the death of Mar Timotheus, Mar Thoma Darmo Metropolitan arrived on 20 June 1952. Mansur Elisha Darmo was born on 21 September 1904 in Eil near in Southern Turkey. He was ordained a deacon by Mar Abimalek Timotheus Metropolitan of India when he visited the Baquba (near Baghdad) refugee camp of Assyrians in 1921. He served a deacon in Khabour, Syria till 1951 when he was chosen by Mar Yosip Khananisho Metropolitan in Iraq and Mar Eshai Shimun Patriarch to be Metropolitan of India.

Mar Thoma Darmo Metropolitan worked in India from June 20, 1952 to September 7, 1968. During this period many churches, parsonages, shop rooms, Seminary, Mar Timotheus Memorial Orphanage etc. were built. He ordained many clergy and sent some for theological education in other Seminaries. Printing of Hudra in 3 volumes is his major achievement.

There was a split between him and his consecrator Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun who suspended the Metropolitan on 10 January 1964. The issue was the hereditary succession of the bishops and Patriarchs. The patriarchate was in the Mar Shimun family since the middle of the 15th century, about hundred years before the major split under monk John Sulaqa in 1553.

In March 1964 Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun issued a universal order adopting Gregorian calendar beginning with Advent 1964. Thus the followers of Mar Shimun had two Christmases in 1964. The calendar issue continues to be an issue in the Assyrian Church outside India.

Mar Thoma Darmo Metropolitan consecrated two Indian priests in Baghdad in September 1968. Mar Poulose Episcopa and Mar Aprem Metropolitan. Mar Poulose was on his way to study in USA.

In October 1968 Mar Aprem Metropolitan after a stay of 6 weeks in Baghdad returned to India. He began to give leadership to the group called Metran Group. Fr. Antony Chakola gave leadership to the opposite group known as Bawai Group. The civil suits continued.

Mar Timotheus Metropolitan, a native of Trichur (former name C.C. Thimothy) was consecrated Metropolitan in October 1972 by Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun in Baghdad, Iraq. He took charge in India on 23 January 1973. He died on 6 August 2001

Poulose Mar Poulose Episcopa arrived in India on 1 January 1976 after his Th.D. studies in USA. He died on 24 March 1998. He was well known for his activities in favour of the poor. He was Chairman of WSCF ( WORLD STUDENT CHRISTIAN FEDERATION) in Geneva.

After long litigations and negotiations both groups were united in November 1995 under the headship of His Holiness Catholicos Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV who is temporarily residing in Chicago.

The Church of the East known as the Chaldean Syrian Church based in Trichur has only 30 thousand members out of the estimated 7 and a half million Syrian Christians (or Christians of St. Thomas) of India. The world population of this Church under Catholicos Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV is around 4 lakhs.

In India this Church has 30 parishes and 75 clergy (54 priests, 21 deacons). There are 3 nuns and 3 deaconesses. In 2005 Mar Aprem Metropolitan inaugurated a Gulf parish in UAE and Qatar. It is now worshipping every Friday morning in St. Philip’s Chapel in the St. Martin Anglican Church in Sharjah. There are two young priests from Trichur doing part time priestly duties. In addition to the members of our Church from Trichur, we have members of the Assyrian Church from Iraq, Iran, Syrian, Lebanon working in UAE attend these services.

Mar Timotheus memorial Orphanage started in 1962 in Kalathode, Trichur is taking care of about 70 boys and girls from Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities. The Mar Timotheus Charitable Society (Hospital & Santhosham Home for the Aged) is doing humble work in that field.

This Church has a Seminary in Mulangunnathukavu (10 kilometers from Trichur) started in 1956. This Church is a member of Kerala Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, CASA (Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action, Delhi, Christian Medical College, Vellore.

After The Unity of two Calendar Groups under Catholicos Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV in November 1995 this Church is making good progress in many fields.

An Introduction to the Church of the East

By H.H. Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII
Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East (1920 – 1975)

The history of the Church of the East, which over many centuries comprised the major portion of Christianity, remained until recently almost unknown to the West, except for occasional accounts, such as that of Marco Polo, who traversed Asia in search of adventure and wealth. This was primarily due to the complete isolation which existed between the two branches of Christianity, Eastern and Western, both of which originated in the same source, namely, the Aramaic, a language of the Semitic group.

Inevitable historic and geographical reasons were partly to blame for this isolation. But the most in important factor in the total ignorance of Western Christianity as to the history and accomplishments of this Church of Asia, was the cruel and selfish policy adopted toward it by the Roman-Byzantine emperors and their successors, whose imperialist religion the Church of the East refused to follow, and who therefore branded it with the misnomer “Nestorian.‘’ This, together with the eclipse prevailing over Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages, completed the picture of separation.

It is only during the last century or so, especially in this generation through the writings of various Protestant missionaries, travellers and secular historians, that the West has finally become aware of the existence of the Church of Asia. Arnold J. Toynbee, in his outstanding work, “The History of Civilization,” has shed further light on the amazing achievements of the Church of the East, not only because of its missionary enterprise and great contributions in the scientific field, but especially as the bearer of the torch of the Syriac civilization, and champion against the Hellenistic onslaught. That torch, which the oppressed and persecuted Church of the East was unable to bear any longer, with the rise of Mohammed was taken over by Islam and carried on to a victorious end with the final expulsion of Hellenistic influence from the Middle East. Thus, in this special field, where the Church of the East had failed, because   of its lack of political support, Islam had succeeded. Nevertheless, it is one of the mysteries of the Divine Providence that the descendants of the heathen Assyrians, from whom the Greeks Largely borrowed their civilization and culture, would now as Christians stand in the gap against Hellenistic cultural encroachment.

Starting Point

The beginning of the Church of the East is coincident with the earthly   ministry of our Lord. King Abgar, sovereign of the little state of Oshroene, with its capital known as Orhai or Edessa, in the northwest of   Mesopotamia, believed in Christ and His mission. The Assyrian people, therefore, speaking the Aramaic language (the language spoken by Jesus and His apostles, and in which the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament were written), can rightly claim the honour of being immediately next to the small band of Galileans as followers of our Lord, in their conversion to the “Haymanutha Mshikhayta,” the faith of the Anointed One.

This common bond, and the exchange of ideas, traditions and customs between the ancient Assyrians and the Hebrews, enabled the Assyrians to accept and appreciate the Christian Faith in a manner that was not possible by non-Aramaic speaking peoples. Because of this, the unequalled zeal and missionary expansion this Church of Asia, which to this day has preserved in its purity the Apostolic Faith and traditions of the early Church, can be readily under stood.

The Church of the East, as this branch of Aramaic speaking Christianity came to be known, was officially founded by the Apostles, Mar Patros (St. Peter), Mar Toma (St. Thomas), Mar Addai (St. Thaddeus) and Mar Mari of the seventy disciples. St. Thaddeus was sent by St. Thomas to the City of Edessa immediately after the resurrection, thereby fulfilling the promise made to King Abgar by our Lord himself.

The City of Arbil (Erbella) in Assyria also shares the glory with Edessa as the starting point of Eastern Christianity. Among its early Patriarchs, three of them were related to Mart Maryam (The Lady Mary) the Holy Virgin, and Mar Yosip  (St. Joseph), her righteous spouse. It was the Church within the Persian Empire and therefore remained unaffected by the many theological disputes, schisms and heresies that in later centuries arose within the imperial Christianity of the Roman Empire, and which, for the most part, were dictated by personal ambitions and animosities among the various prelates and unceasing struggle for power between the Latin and Greek Churches.

However, the endless persecutions this ancient Church suffered, first from the heathens, and later under various Islamic rulers, reduced it greatly in numbers and finally scattered its children into many lands. It must, however, be said in fairness to both the Persians and Islamic rule that at various periods the Church enjoyed a great measure of tolerance, both under the rule of the Sapors and Arab Khalifs; perhaps more so than any of those other religions could have enjoyed in a reversed role under the Byzantine Emperors or the Western Christian rule of the Middle Ages. The following charter, given to the Church of the East in Arabia by   Mohammed himself, is an example of the fact. The heads of the Christians of Najran, in Arabia, led by their ruler, Saeed, along with their Bishop, Eshoyab (“Given by Jesus”), paid an official visit to Mohammed (whom they refer to as “the prophet of Tayaye, a leading Arab tribe) and on the occasion Mohammed gave the Church in Arabia the following charter of Protection:

“He commanded the Tayaye (Arab) that they must protect the Mshikhaye (Christians) from all harm, and must not oblige them to go out with them to fight, nor must they try to change their customs and their laws. He moreover, exhorted his followers to help the Christians repair their churches whenever such a need may arise; and if any of his followers has a Christian wife, he should not oblige her to leave her faith and that he should not prevent her from fasting and prayer and all other obligations   of her faith, these and many other similar rules or protection…” Assemani Z. 13.05 XCIV

Similar charters of protection were given from time to time by the Khalifs  to the Church of  the East.

The persecutions which did occur were in fact for the most part caused by the political ambitions of Constantine and his successors, and the later by the various Crusaders, who in the name of the Cross of Christ, carved out their ambitious territorial expansions and plundered the Middle East. At   the same time a covetous eye was constantly directed at the great Christian Church of the East, and no means was spared by these Roman Emperors and their successors to agitate the heathen and the Islamic rulers against its followers.

The Faith of the Church

The purity of the Apostolic Faith of this most ancient Church can be seen throughout the prayers and praises of its worship, which express   the theological   point of view of the Church.  Little is known of the fact that all the fathers of the Latin Church of the first and second centuries, such as Tatian Yostino (Justin Martyr), Organon (Origen). Melito, lrenaeus, and others who followed St. Paul the apostle to Rome, were all Assyrians or Syrians, Aramaic speaking people, missionaries of the Catholic Church of the East.

The Faith of the Church of the East in relation to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is that of the Council of Nicea, at which it was represented. As   regards the Christological doctrine, it holds firmly to the teachings of the Bible. It professes in Christ, two natures and two Qnumai, namely, human   and divine ( “Qnumai” is an Aramaic word which is very difficult to define in other languages. The nearest equivalent is the Greek Hypostasis,  “in Latin “substance“ and in English “substance.“). It believes firmly in the Godhead and the humanity of Christ. The Church of the East repudiates the non-­scriptural title “Mother of God,” given to the Virgin Mary, in that the term “God” implies God the Spirit, and spirit cannot be subject to birth or suffering. It calls the Virgin Mary “Mother of Jesus,’’ ‘’Mother of Christ,” ‘’Mother of our Lord.’’  “Mother of our Redeemer;’’ namely, mother of His humanity, but not of His Godhead. In the words of Mar Babai the Great, in the Tishbukhta ‘’Brikh Khannana,‘’ “In His Godhead, begotten of the Father without beginning before all time; In His manhood born of Mary, in the fullness of time, in a united body.”

It holds strictly to the teaching of the Bible, and will recognize no doctrine that is contrary to these Scriptures.  In the words of St. Paul: ‘’But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be “Khrim” (Anathema).”

Looking to the Future

Individual Assyrians started coming to the United States of America some time during the middle of the Eighteenth century, but it was only after the First World War that they began coming in as immigrants. The tragedies and untold sufferings that forced them out of their homes of origin in the Middle East, in Kurdistan and Iran, have already passed into history, and is therefore neither necessary or appropriate to deal with these events and the causes lying behind them here.

Today, many thousand Assyrians live as happy and contented citizens of the United States of America. A considerable number of these Assyrians   on their arrival in this country identified themselves with their respective co-­religionists, and they are already on the way to being absorbed into these larger bodies. These Assyrians were the fruits of missions, which, during the past four centuries, proselytized in India and the Middle East.  The Roman Catholic, the Russian Orthodox and the Presbyterians were the most prominent of these missions, the latter two working chiefly among the Assyrians of Iran.

The Church of the East on the other hand had no counter part in this country. Assyrians therefore, who were its members, had to depend completely upon such means as they themselves could provide, in order to maintain their Church in a country, and amid circumstances, totally alien to them. The insufficient number of priests and deacons available maintained the services of the Church of the East to the best of their   ability.  Services were conducted in private homes, basements, or churches hired for special occasions. In some instances the Protestant Episcopal Church occasionally allowed them the use of its edifices, a gracious act which has been much appreciated. The situation in the United States was rendered more difficult because the Mother Church in the Middle East had been uprooted from its centuries old home and made destitute as a result of World War I, so that it was not possible to meet even the meagre needs of this new struggling branch of the Holy Church.

Except for a short visit of one of the Bishops of the Church, and a second by the Metropolitan of India, who was delegated by the Patriarch to visit the Church of the East in the United States, the Church existed without any episcopal supervision, and the seriousness of this fact, for a Church whose foundation is based upon Apostolic succession and close episcopal supervision, cannot be overestimated.

This was the situation on the Patriarch’s arrival in this country in the year 1940. Since then, several priests and deacons have been ordained, new churches built, properties purchased for the use of the various parishes, and a competent administration established. Within the last few years a totally non-Assyrian, English speaking parish has been founded in Seattle, Washington, the first such in the history of the Church of the East. Even more recently a small number of these new members of the Church   have founded a monastic order, and are in the process of establishing a monastery for the Church of the East in this country.

Distancing the Christians away from the term “House of War” is a Humanitarian Mission

By H.B. Mar Meelis Zaia, A.M.
Metropolitan of the Assyrian Church of the East
Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand

A lot of ink has been spilled over our good land in the past, and still does today over the issue of addressing the presence of the Oriental Christians in their home land. As such, a less gloomy dream of tomorrow for Christians has become an even more difficult matter.

As a result of the relentless indulgence savoured by the terrorist’s in the bombing and mass murder of innocent spiritual devotees at the Church of Our Lady of Salvation, our people worldwide declared their condemnation of the abhorrent ritual and its corollary of accusing and killing Christians as “infidels”. They further deprecated the practice of hoarding this acrimony in private circles that shattered the society’s fraternal values and Iraqis’ national unity.

The ritual of slaughtering Christians as reprobation for being “infidels” is a clear and flagrant truth in the modus operandi of the terrorists persecuting our people. We have witnessed how the terrorists endorse the killing of Christians as “sacred duty” and a legitimate religious expression, delighting in the hideous mass murders at the Church of Our Lady of Salvation.

Discussions on eradicating terrorism through the application of security band-aids and a show of force, coiled temporarily around the churches and in Christian areas, seems incomplete unless fraternity ignorance is exposed and the “infidel-killing” ideologies disposed of. Security forces can reduce the level of terrorism around the churches and community centers, but the task of eradicating the incubators of terrorism can not be isolated and accomplished through military and security solutions alone

As individuals, confronting society’s inferior level of harmony and shattered national unity is every Iraqi citizen’s responsibility. Official force alone is not enough to face the arsenal of the “infidel-killing” ideology. The captivation of the “infidel” mania does not spawn overnight but is preceded early by various stages of nurturing intellectual fallacies and prejudices. Without instilling corrective values against them such as tolerance, brotherhood and coexistence in a multi- cultured society, we cannot reap the fruits of peace even if the banner of security protection is raised and imposed.

Community educational processes must exist for those more impressionable individuals deprived of coexistence awareness. When we nurture and build a peaceful individual and community frame of reference, society as a whole, will be prepared to take the required initiatives to confront, challenge and defy the deadly desecrating ideas that have devoured even the innocence of children. Given that the disguise of terrorism is religious, without the involvement of religious institutions, eradication efforts will be deemed unsuccessful. Religious leaders can play a crucial role in thwarting the proposals of instigators of hostility by pre-emptive purification of religious misconceptions and by bringing about the values of dialogue and religious tolerance. The religious treatment to this “trend” would be to strip the religious facade from the terrorists, who build their glory on sectarian hatred, and prevent diluting the religious values by these mercenaries of “infidel-killing” ideology.

The combat style of the killing violence is the offspring of verbal violence which was unleashed in private circles in a holy framework. This urged listeners for militancy, extremism and religiously justified the blood shedding of all that fell under the label “other”, whether Christian or Muslim.

Distancing and shielding of Christians or other persons from the term “House of War” is, first and foremost, the mission of the religious and humanitarian groups to save them from the fire of “infidel-killing” perpetrators, who find religious fulfilments in the killing of the different “other” the only way to divine satisfaction. The killings in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation were based on hatred and religious classification of Christians as “infidels” more than the defence principle of “detention of Muslim women in Coptic monasteries,” as claimed. The concealing motive of the perpetrators has been exposed in this murderous act that in their rational, the slaughter was a short cut for drawing closer to God.

What we want from each individual Muslim, everywhere, is to realize that the attack on Christians is an attack on himself, as it is a reflection on Islam. We did not forget, nor will we deny the consolations extended by the Muslims that were with us in the events of Our Lady of Salvation. But our security and peace does not depend and should not be limited to a serving of solace only. What transpired in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation was not an extreme act of terrorism. It was the ritual of ‘infidel-killing’ for those on the inside, and a blatant threat of deportation for those on the outside.

This matter is far greater than consolation of broken hearts and the issuance of denouncement letters and condemnations.

Addressing the above concerns requires the abolition of hatred and the dismantling of the talisman of extremisms to revive the ever lasting peace from its permanent setbacks. Iraq needs to stand accountable against those who glorify hatred and inspire extreme views in order to uncover deceiving practices. To guarantee the nation’s triumph, the government must storm into the sources and incubators of terrorism and flood the streams of ignorance of the “other” through educational and intellectual enlightenment and not by military force alone.

Hidden among the shelves of the libraries, worldwide, is the story of our ancestors’ faith, the greatness of our Christian history and, our greatest pride, the apostolic heritage of the Church of the East, also known as the Church of Kokheh. As a reflection of its spiritual and intellectual richness and enlightenment to its readers, the Assyrian Church of the East in Sydney issues its magazine; The Church of Beth Kokheh echoing the faithful message of the Church of the East.

From Kokheh, we went to all mankind.