The Destruction of the Ancient
Church of Assyria in Mosul
There are no Christians left in Mosul. For the first time since the days of the Apostles, the city of Mosul in what is today Iraq is devoid of its ancient Christian population. Built on the foundation laid by the preaching of the Apostles Thomas, (Jude) Thaddeus, and Bartholomew, and—by tradition—visited by the Apostle Simon Peter, it is one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, a direct daughter of the original Church at Jerusalem and certainly as old as the Churches of Rome, Alexandria, Philippi, Corinth, India; centuries older than the Churches of England, Ireland, Germany, or Poland. Mosul, by the way, contains the site of ancient Babylon (which is referred to in 1 Peter 5:13), though there are other interpretations of what the author of 1 Peter meant by “Babylon” which was also a primitive Christian code word for Rome.
Ancient Mesopotamia was never part of the Roman Empire and by the fifth century political strife between Constantinople and the Sassanid Empire of Persia, led the Church in the Sassanid world to early establish its independence from any Romano/Byzantine authority. The Churches had been in communion up until this point and thus the Church of the East had always accepted the Creed of the Council of Nicea which we Catholics (as well as Lutherans and Anglicans) use each Sunday and the Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics use in every Divine Liturgy. The bonds had been broken however by the time of the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the Church of the East has never accepted the Caledonian formula that Jesus Christ is One Person with two Natures: a Human Nature likes ours in every respect and a Divine Nature which is in essence identical to the Divine Nature of the Father. These two natures are inseparably united but not in any way mingled, each retaining the purity of its particular Nature intact. The Chalcedonian Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans) use the Title for the Virgin Mary of Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) loosely meaning “Mother of God” as the theological symbol of this doctrine in as that Mary carried in her womb and gave birth to One Person Who is both God and man. Mary is clearly the mother of the man, Jesus. In Jesus his Divine Nature is inseparable, though totally distinguishable, from his Human Nature, thus permitting us to say that she who gave birth to the man Jesus also gave birth the Second Person of the Trinity for in him his humanity, while distinct from his Divine Nature, cannot be separated from his Divinity. For Catholics, this is the Gold Standard of Christian Orthodoxy. For the Ancient Churches of the East there is a reluctance to accept this precise formula because they see in it that somehow the Human Nature is subordinated to the Divine Nature though Ephesus and Chalcedon went to great lengths to make sure that this idea that the one nature absorbs the other is not the case. The Ecumenical dialogues over the years since Vatican II have helped each side better understand the position of the other and realize that the difference is one of emphasis (the West emphasizing the Divinity of Christ; the East giving more emphasis to his humanity) than of essential difference of faith.
From Mosul, Baghdad, Tabriz, Maragheh, and other centers this “Assyrian Christianity” (also sometimes referred to as East Syrian Christianity) spread southwards into India and eastwards far into modern China. This led to the ancient legends of Prester John (John the Priest) and the fabulous wealth of his mystical kingdom. In the fourteenth century, however, Tamerlane’s Turko/Mongol armies however brutally destroyed the Christian communities of central Asia eventually reducing Assyrian Christianity to the Mesopotamian communities from which it had originally spread. (The southern communities in India remained and still remain today. We should take a look at them someday.) The Patriarchate located itself at Alqosh near Mosul. At the end of the fifteenth century Patriarch Shimun IV Basidi decreed henceforth Patriarchs must be chosen from his family and this led to a rebellion among many of the bishops. In 1552 a group of bishops, dissatisfied with the hereditary patriarchate, elected a rival patriarch in Mar Yohannan Sulaqa. The patriarch-designate needed to be consecrated bishop by a prelate of his own stature or higher and consequently journeyed to Rome where he reestablished communion between his faction of the Assyrian Church and the Catholic Church and was granted the title of “Patriarch of the Chaldeans” by Julius III. The Church itself was called the Church of Athura and Mosul. The communion between Rome and the Chaldeans collapsed in the early seventeenth century but was restored in 1672 by Mar Joseph I. Meanwhile, various of the Alqosh Patriarchs made overtures about entering the Roman Communion, but other than some doctrinal concords, nothing came of it until 1804. The two patriarchal lines were merged by Pius VIII in 1830. There is still, however, a patriarchal line not in communion with Rome and headed by Mar Dinkha IV who, because of the instability in Iraq, lives in exile in Chicago from where he administers the Church. The Patriarchate in union with Rome under Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako is located currently in Baghdad.
These Christians have suffered terribly ever since the United States invaded Iraq in the Second Gulf War. As evil as Sadaam Hussein was, he gave protection to religious minorities. The failure to establish a stable government has increasingly left Christians, Jews, Mandaeans and other religious minorities at the mercy of Islamic extremists. The internecine violence between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority has been as vicious as any persecution of non-Islamic sects.
The creation of the Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Iraqi State of Iraq and the Levant, has raised the terror level for Christians to full alert. Two weeks ago this self-proclaimed Caliphate ordered all Christians in Mosul to convert to Islam or be put to death. There have been Christians in Mosul since the days of the Apostles! Mosul has long been the center of Iraqi Christianity. A decade ago there were 60,000 Christians in Mosul. Today there are none! Ancient Christian Churches have been turned into mosques or burned to ruins. The fleeing Christian population has been assaulted, beaten, robbed of whatever valuable they were trying to bring out to safety with them.
I remember having dinner with friends about two weeks before President Bush declared war on the Hussein regime in March 2003. There were other guests including a couple who are Christian Arabs. The husband is Egyptian; the wife Lebanese. Both are Catholics. Rabid Republicans in every other respect, they lambasted the upcoming war. “It will destabilize the region. The human suffering will be immense. And no one will suffer more than the Christian population of the Mid-East.” This was at a time when all we heard from the Bush Administration was how evil the Hussein regime was and how we were going to “liberate” the people of Iraq. How tragically true my companions’ words have come to be. Pope John Paul sent his emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, a personal friend of the Bush family, to beg the administration not to go to war. He at least was admitted to the Oval Office. The bishops of President Bush’s own Church, the United Methodist, were refused appointment. So in the end Halliburton and Vice President Cheney made their money but at the cost of immense human suffering. There are two Chaldean Catholic Dioceses in the United States—one located in Detroit, the other in San Diego. Between them there are about 200,000 Catholics. The Assyrian Church of the East, which is not in communion with the Pope, has three dioceses in the United States but notably fewer adherents. It is common practice for Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians to share the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Church also has an ancient Eucharistic Prayer—far older than the Roman Canon—which has the distinguishing factor of there being no “Words of Institution,” that is the repetition of Jesus’s words at the Last Supper. We will have to do a posting on that sometime. In the meantime pray for the Christians of Iraq.