Assyrian Christians belong to an independent Christian church and are the remnants of the Nestorian Christians (See Separate Article). Also referred to as Chaldeans, Nestorians and Surayi, they have traditionally spoken an Aramaic dialect and were originally based in villages in the mountains that divide Turkey, Iran and Iraq, primarily along the Great Zab River and in the Sapna Valley in northern Iraq and around Lake Urmia in Iran. They now live primarily in Iraq.
Assyrian Christians can be further divided into Assyrian Nestorians and Assyrian Jacobites. The distinction is based primarily on religious differences with the Nestorians generally associated with the eastern part of their homeland and the Jacobites the western part. The Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuri, Ashureen, Ashuraya, Ashuroyo, Aturaya, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye, Suraya, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee.
There are an estimated 1 million Assyrian Christians worldwide, with an estimated 500,000 Assyrian Christians and Chaldeans (Eastern-Rite Catholics, Assyrian Catholics) in Iraq. Of these maybe around 100,000 are Assyrian Christians. There are an additional 10,000 in Syria, 40,000 in Iran, 30,000 in Turkey and 15,000 in the former Soviet Union and 200,000 in the United States, with many in the Chicago area and California. Confusion over the differences and similarities between Assyrian Christians, Assyrians, Jacobites, Nestorians and Chaldeans has made getting accurate demographic figures difficult.
Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “There are about 1 million Chaldeans. Assyrians live in Iraq, Iran, and Syria many of whom are immigrating to America. This is causing further depletion of their already small numbers in their homeland, and further loss due to rapid assimilation of American born Assyrians into American culture. The current Catholicos is pursuing union with the Roman Catholic Church. The Saint Thomas Christians of India are now Syrian Orthodox and make up one fifth of the population of the state of Kerala, India. Without dedication and hard work towards the preservation of their language and way of life, the history of the once great Assyrian Church of the East may soon draw to a close. The Assyrians are now facing the danger of disappearing from history as their church vanished from the lands of the Mongols long ago. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 <=>]
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Christian Denominations: Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ; Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory! directory.nihov.org
History of Assyrian Christians
Assyrian Christians trace their origins back to ancient Assyrians and linguistic evidence seems to support this claim (Aramaic was the language of the ancient Assyrian empire). Their homeland in the Tigris highland between Babylonia and Armenia has traditionally been a threshold area between Rome and Persia, Byzantium and Persia, Arabs and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, and Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Persians. (See Nestorians)
The Church of the East (Nestorians) and the Church of Antioch (Jacobites) split and these churches together split from the rest of Christianity. Assyrian Christians have had frequent run ins with the Kurds. They were massacred by Turks and Kurds in 1918 when large numbers of Armenians were also slaughtered and killed. In 1933, they were massacred by Iraqis and Kurds.
In the chaos that followed World War I, the Assyrian Christian patriarch and his followers were assassinated and thousands died trying to escape persecution. When the dust settled the Nestorians, like the Kurds and Armenians, found themselves without a homeland. Encouraged by the British, a group of Assyians sought to secede from newly independent Iraq and establish their own nation-state in the north. This ill-conceived idea led to a tragedy when the Assyrians attempted to flee to French-held Syria in 1933. Thousands of them were slaughtered by the Iraqis army.
Massacres, battles with Kurds, forced migrations, Arabization and migration out of their traditional homeland has lead to decline and regeneration of the Assyrian Christian community in the Middle East. At the end of World War II, the Nestorians of Urmia were isolated and many of them moved in with relatives and friends in the major cities of Iran.
Syriac is both the name of a liturgical language and a designation of the religious groups that use Syriac liturgical language, namely the Nestorians, Assyrian Christian, Jacobites, Maronites, and Chaldeans. Sunday Mass for the Chaldeans is still sung in Syriac.
Syriac is a branch of the Aramaic family of languages and is a Semitic language. It was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire in the early Christian era. Syriac is also referred to as new-Aramaic or Chaldean. It is regarded as 75 percent representation of ancient Aramaic.
People that spoke Aramaic in the Christian era were called Aramaeans. After they were Christianized they began calling themselves Syrians which explain why so many churches from the Middle East are called Syrian churches. Aramaic was spoken by people from many different ethnic groups and people from all walks of life in a way that is similar to Arabic, the language that displaced it.
Bardesanes of Edessa is credited with founding Syriac literature in the A.D. 3rd century. It was initially conceived as a kind of universal language that could be spoken by anyone from anywhere and any station of life as an expression of the tolerance and welcoming nature of Christianity. Vernacular Syriac varied greatly from village to village. The form from Edessa was adopted as the language of liturgy even though many people, even Syriac speakers could not understand it. Despite its long association with Christianity, a Bible in the Syriac language was not created until the 19th century, when it produced as part of the work of Protestant missionaries in the Middle East.
Syriac is still spoken among the Nestorians and Chaldeans of the Mosul area in Iraq and the Jacobites of Jabal Tur. The rest of the Syrian Christians, including Maronites, use Arabic as their spoken language. They all use Syriac as their liturgical language. Maronites use a Syriac writing known as Karshuni to record their Arabic prayers.
Assyrian Christian Religion and Life
In practice, the Assyrian Church has much in common with the Eastern Rite and Eastern Orthodox Churches. According to Nineveh.com: “The Assyrians, although representing but one single nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic. These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the Christian Era. No one can coherently understand the Assyrians as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control, religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a criterion of nationality. [Source: Nineveh.com]
Assyrian Christians have traditionally been irrigation farmers who lived in communities organized along patrilineal lines. Sometimes the communities were involved in tribal conflicts but for the most part Assyrian Christians have remained unified to present a united front against their Muslim neighbors. Intermarriage with Muslims has traditionally been very rare.
Nestorian Assyrian Christian women have traditionally been regarded as equals or near equals to men. They certainty have enjoyed more freedom and power than women in other groups in the Middle East. Women are treated as companions of men rather than separate beings that must be honored and protected. Assyrian Christian men and women generally participate in social gatherings together. In Iraq, Assyrian Christian women have traditionally been more educated than Muslim men.
Modern Assyrians live in northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria. Their traditional capital is Nineveh, the capital of the xqo Assyrian Empire. They speak Syriac (Aramaic). They are mostly Christian. According to Nineveh.com, their population is: 4,036,250. [Source: Nineveh.com]
According to Nineveh.com, a website for and by Assyrian Christians: “The Assyrians of today are the descendants of the ancient Assyrian people, one of the earliest civilizations emerging in the Middle East...Assyrians are not Arabian or Arabs, we are not Kurdish, our religion is not Islam. The Assyrians are Christian, with our own unique language, culture and heritage. Although the Assyrian empire ended in 612 B.C., history is replete with recorded details of the continuous presence of the Assyrian people till the present time.” [Source: Nineveh.com]
“Assyria, the land of the indigenous Assyrians, was partitioned after World War I by the Allies, and is currently under occupation by Kurds, Turks, Arabs and Persians. The Assyrians are a stateless people and continue to be religiously and ethnically persecuted in the Middle East due to Islamic fundamentalism, Arabization and Kurdification policies, leading to land expropriations and forced emigration to the West.”
Chaldeans (also known as Syrian Christians, Eastern Uniates and Assyrian Catholics) are essentially Nestorians that converted to Catholicism while keeping alive Nestorian ecclesiastical customs and the Syriac liturgical language. Their religion is regarded as a branch of the Nestorian church and are members of the Uniate group. Regarded as descendants of Persian Nestorians, they live predominantly in Iran and Iraq, with small groups in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, San Diego and Detroit.
Chaldeans are one of the largest Christian groups in Iraq. At one time there were an estimated 1.5 million Chaldeans in Iraq. Now there are about 500,000. In Iraq they have a reputation for being relatively well educated and prosperous. Some speak a variant of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and use the liturgy of Addai and Mari, which was first used by the Nestorians, and is one of 18 canonical rites recognized by the Vatican. Chaldean priest are allowed to marry. Chaldeans have traditionally been prominent in the hotel and restaurant business.
The Chaldean Church is an Eastern Rite church affiliated with the Roman Catholic church but allowed to retain its customs and rites, even though they differ from the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. In 2007, the Vatican appointed Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly the first prelate in Iraq in modern times to be named a cardinal by the Roman Catholic Church. The cardinal was born in Mosul, Iraq into a Christian family that had produced a number priests. He spent 14 years in Europe and earned a masters and doctorate in theology and a doctorate in canon law. His studies included the Koran and his theses dealt with Islamic philosophers and comparisons between these philosophers and their Christian contemporaries.
Chaldeans came into existence as part of effort by some Nestorians to reconcile with Rome during the Crusades. In 1552, Saluga, a Nestorian priest and patriarch from Mosul, declared his allegiance to Rome during a conflict in the Nestorian church over who should be patriarch. Chaldean history after that is defined by disputes and reconciliations with the Nestorian church and the strengthening of ties with Rome. Four bishops and an estimated 70,00 Chaldeans were killed in a massacre in 1918.
The term Chaldean was first used to describe the inhabitants of Babylonia in the 1st millennium B.C. The Greeks and Romans used the term to describe scholars who believed that astrology could be used to ascertain the will of God, a notion condemned by the church hierarchy. The term Syrian Christian is used not describe Christians in Syria but rather to describe Syriac-speaking Christians.
Jacobites are followers of a branch of Christianity known as the Jacobite Church. There are about a half million Jacobites. They live mostly in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, with a few living in settlements in Lebanon and Syria. About 200,000 live in Turkey, another 200,000 live in Iraq and Syria. There are also some in Damascus, Mosul. Diyabakir and Harput.
Jacobites are also known as West Syrians and Monophysites. The Jacobite Church is also known as the West Christian Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and all the East. Jacobites regard Maronite Christians in Lebanon as their spiritual cousins. Most Jacobites remained loyal to the Church of Antioch. Those that converted to Catholicism are called Syrian Catholics.
Jacobites use the Syriac language in their liturgies like Maronites, Uniate Syrians and Malabar Jacobites. Leavened bread is used in mass, with some of the materials used to make it passed down from one generation to the next. Eucharist is reservered for the sick; children are baptized with a special consecration oil and immersed in water three times; confession is mandatory before communion; and Lent, Christmas and the Pentecost are recognized with fasts. See Assyrian Christians.
Early Jacobite History
Jacobites are named after Jacous Baradeus, a monk who lived at a monastery on Edesa (present-day Urfa in southeastern Turkey). He journeyed to Constantinople in 540 to make a case for Monophysitim and for his trouble was declared a heretic and sent prison along with other clerics that advocated similar ideas. After his release he was consecrated a bishop in his sect and sent to Syria to organize it. Some have said the sect is named after the Christian patriarch Jacob and its followers were originally Jewish converts to Christianity. The name Jacobite was coined by Greek Christians and accepted by the Jacobites.
The Jacobites have their roots in the 4th and 5th centuries with groups that challenged the prevailing views that God was the father and Jesus, the son was subordinate (a notion overturned in the Second Council at Constantinople in 381). The Jacobites were one of the eastern churches that espoused Monophysitim (the belief within the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature rather than two natures, divine and human).
Many early Jacobites were Arabs that converted to Christianity. The sect became strong in the Taghlb region of lower Iraq and the Banu Ghassan area of lower Syria and Antioch—one of the first places where Christians declared their faith. Antioch became the See of their sect but they were later driven from Antioch during a Christian power struggle. Jacobite missionaries were active from a very early time. They are credited with bringing Christianity to the Malabar coast of India.
Later Jacobite History
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the second person of the Trinity, the son, was defined by Orthodox Christians as having two natures, divine and human. The Armenians, Egyptian Christians (Copts), Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Jacobites) disagreed and believed that Christ has a single nature, consisting of two natures, with his humanity absorbed into his deity, a concept known as Monophysitism. By this time Christian scholars from Alexandria were in the minority and the conservative Greco-Roman Orthodox views prevailed. Gaining strength was a mechanism that would remain a central theme in Christianity: the use of that accusations of heresy to dismiss members or sects with unpopular views.
The split between the Jacobites and the Orthodox Church had theological, and ethnic elements. The Antioch Church was greatly influenced by the Jewish faith as peached by Jesus. The split is sometimes viewed as a conflict between Greek thought and Middle Eastern thought. Early on the Jacobites used Syriac as their ecclesiastical language but later switched to Arabic.
Jacobites and Nestorians were favored by Muslim leaders over Orthodox Christianity after the Muslim conquests. Jacobites reached their height during the Muslim Syrian-based Umayyad dynasty (661-750). Relations between Jacobites and Muslims were strained by Jacobite support of the Crusaders. Many Jacobites were killed during Tamerlane’s reign of terror in the 14th century and after that the largest concentrations of them shifted from the region between Mardon and Mosul to an area east of Aleppo and west and north of Mosul.
Jacobites and Syrian Christians
Jacobites became especially powerful in Aleppo, a wealthy trading city. In the Ottoman period many of them expressed their loyalty to Rome. These Christians became known as Uniates and Syrian Christians. The Jacobites were respectful to Islam in the Muslim areas where they lived and generally had good relations with Muslims during the Ottoman period when Jacobites established many monasteries and were strong in places like Madon, Urfa and Diyabakir in Turkey and Mosul in Iraq.
The Uniate branch of the Jacobite church came into existence in the 16th century A major split between Rome-supportive Jacobites and non-Rome-supportive Jacobites occurred in the 18th century. Maronite Christian helped create a Catholic patriarch for the Jacobites which caused further divisions between the two Jacobite branches. The Latinization of the Jacobite church was a divisive issue for some time after that.
The Syrian Catholics use the liturgy of St. James, write in Kashuni (Arabic in Syriac script) and conduct prayers in both Syriac and Kashuni.
In 1890, atrocities committed against Jacobites forced many of them to migrate to Lebanon. After World War I, the Syrian Catholic patriarch established his residence in Beirut. In 1925 a Jacobite became a Catholic cardinal. In the mealtime other Jacobites had formed an allegiance with the Episcopalian church. Today, Jacobites are very active in business, especially jewelry.
The Uniate Church is also known as the Eastern Rite Church.. The term “Uniate” refers to a number of Middle Eastern churches—namely the Maronites, Syrian Catholics and Chaldeans— and European churches—namely the Ukrainian Catholic Church and Greek Catholic Church—that chose to abandon some Eastern Orthodox rites while maintaining others, recognize the authority of the pope and adopts Latin rites, and follow doctrines and rites similar to those of Orthodox Christians.
The Uniate Church has baptism, confession and communion services are conducted with in the Byzantine liturgy. Some cross themselves the Catholic way (left to right). Others cross themselves the Orthodox way (right or left).
The Uniate Church is headed by a patriarch. Archbishop Gregorius Laham II is the patriarch of the Eastern Catholic Church. The Uniate Church has battled the Vatican over the use of the title patriarch, which the leader of the Uniate church wants to put him on equal footing with the Orthodox patriarchs.
History of Uniate Christians
Beginning in the 16th century large numbers of Catholic missionaries began entering Orthodox areas and won many converts who wanted to keep their old Orthodox customs. This caused great uneasiness among Christians, particularly in Aleppo, where conflicts between Catholics and non-Catholics in the 18th century led to the creation of two Orthodox sects: one loyal to the Orthodox Patriarch and another, the Uniates or Greek Catholics, loyal to the Pope.
The religion was founded in 1596 when rebellious Orthodox leaders swore allegiance to the Vatican and were used by Catholic Polish rulers as a way to bring their Orthodox subjects into the fold without converting them to Catholicism. .
The Uniate members live in areas where they are small minorities, They are often persecuted.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018