Church of the East and the National Theme
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako
We hear from time to time someone announces that all Iraqi Christians are Assyrians, or Chaldeans, or Syriacs, or Arameans. This kind of assumption is not logic and not accurate at all!
There should be a distinction between the Church and nationalism. The Church has an evangelical, humanitarian and a comprehensive spiritual mission that is open to all people, languages and countries. While nationalism, has its rules and agendas. So, they are two completely different fields.
The Church, is a divine institution, headed by Jesus Christ, and its community is a group of people who believes in Him, shares the same dogma (doctrine), rituals, canons, heritage, and “to some extent” the language as well, since there are Churches that use more than one language.
Nationalism, is a feeling of belonging to a specific nation that has its own land, language, history and heritage. In addition to having a political, social and economic agenda that serves its interests.
The Church of the East is a historical apostolic Church that expanded unprecedently around the world, spreading from Mesopotamia, the Gulf, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and China. Abdisho of Nisibis (+1318) wrote that, at his time, this Church had 220 diocese and archdiocese, with a community of about eighty million. No other Church has expanded, this way, in the first millennium.
The Church of the East has been called by multiple names, probably due to its location such as: the “Church of Persia” since it was within the territories of the Persian Empire; the “Church outside the walls” because it was located outside the walls of the Roman Empire and surprisingly, was named as the “Nestorian Church” even though its dogma was not Nestorian!
In conclusion, the community of the Church of the East, included Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, and Arab tribes from Al-Hirah and the Gulf, Indians and Chinese as well as Afghans (the city of Herat was for certain time Archdiocese). It is worth mentioning also that Patriarch Yehbalaha III (+1317) was a Mongolian and not an Assyrian. Hence, the Church of the East was not confined to Assyrian or Chaldean nationality.
In the Abbasid Caliphate era, the Patriarch of the Church of the East had a symbolic mandate over “all Christians including Assyrians and Chaldeans” according to the Caliph’s decree (Al-Majdal Mari, pp. 92 and 125) despite the existed diversity, where there were Syriacs Orthodox and Byzantine Melkites in Iraq, who had their own Churches, and Syriacs had the house of Major Archbishop in Tikrit.
In 1441 the Church of the East was divided into two Churches: The 1st “Eastern” group was in Cyprus, joined the Catholic Church named as Chaldeans, and the 2nd group led by their Patriarch John Sulaqa, joined the Catholic Church in 1552 and named Chaldeans also.
The name “Assyrian Church of the East” that has been used recently is not found in all historical references! Another division was established in 1968, by a group named as “Old Eastern Church”. They all used the oriental Syriac dialogue in their liturgy
Knowing that these groups were all under the “umbrella” of the Church of the East, without paying any attention to the national issues at all!
Today, Among the community of our Chaldean Church (following Catholic doctrine), there are Chaldeans and Assyrians, even some of our parishes abroad has dual name “Assyrian and Chaldean”. In such Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian or Chaldean people are proud of their nationality, since the Assyrian nation did not extinct with the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC. The same thing applies to the descendants of the Chaldean Babylonian empire (fell in 539 BC).
The use of the Syriac language in rituals does not mean national affiliation, as is the case of praying in Latin language by Italians, French, Germans, etc., which does not mean that their nationality is Latin.
Christian families (Churches) include: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. There is no Chaldean, Syriac, or Armenian doctrine. However, some of these Churches have groups that follow either Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant doctrines!
Currently, there is a very important movement, in a frame of “ecumenical meetings” among different Churches aiming for unity. Churches unity is easier to achieve, since it is at the core of the Church formation to “be one” (John 17:21), compared to the unity of different nationalities.
The phenomenon of combining “Church name with nationality” is relatively recent. Somehow, there should be nothing wrong with it, if it is accompanied by clarity and understanding, away from “blind” fanaticism that prevents the required solidarity and cooperation, especially at these regional and global difficult circumstances as well as the waves of immigration that is threatening the existence of these Churches in Iraq and the Middle East.
Therefore, each “nationality” must respect the privacy of the other party and work hard on understanding, and cooperating with each other for a better future for themselves and their citizens. This is a responsibility in terms of conscience and sentiment.