The Quest for Orthodox–Assyrian Alliance
To be frank, any kind of Orthodox–Assyrian Church alliance seems to be a distant dream. However, it is always good to keep our hopes high and keep praying for this distant dream. The Christian world is dominated by ecumenism and persecution, and Orthodox Christian Churches (Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) struggle hard to keep their own families in order. Irrespective of all good things, the Orthodox world is dominated by schisms and separations. Unity between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox itself remains a distant dream. Both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches struggle and find it hard to resolve schism and stabilize unity within their own families. In such conditions, it would be very hard to converse on Assyrian-Orthodox unity. Nonetheless, a few thoughts are worth considering. My aim is not an in-depth analysis of Assyrian Theology or Christology. Rather, I present various arguments about the urgent need for Orthodox-Assyrian dialogue for cooperation and unity.
A Brief History of the Church of the East
The Assyrian churches are descendants of the Church of the East that has East Syriac Orthodox Christian origins, using East Syriac liturgy. St. Thomas the Apostle is the founder of this church according to several traditions. Some experts believe that after founding the Church of the East, St. Thomas left for India from Basra port in Iraq, and established the Church in Malankara/Malabar (Kerala). The ancient Christians of Malankara are called St. Thomas Christians, who had close relations with the Church of the East. The Church of East is wrongly called the Nestorian Church because it is erroneously associated with the teachings of Nestorius, which the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches have condemned.
The Church of East was ruled by the Patriarch the East (Patriarch of Babylon, also called Catholicos), ruling from the Patriarchal See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Patriarch Timothy I was one of the most famous and extraordinary Primates of the Church of the East. He was well educated, an author, an outstanding leader and a great diplomat, in spite of the fact that he had to deal with many incidents and problems during his reign, many of which were marked with controversies. One of the most famous events is the debate on the Christian and Muslim faiths between Timothy I and Caliph Mahdi in 781 AD. It was Patriarch Timothy I who made India an Ecclesiastical Province for the St. Thomas Christians in Malabar.
Unfortunately, the advent of Portuguese Roman Catholic Missionaries and the infamous actions of the ruthless imperialist Archbishop Aleixo de Menezes destroyed and divided St. Thomas Christians. Moreover, Archbishop Aleixo destroyed the ancient Malabar liturgical textbooks and many valuable documents, which totally erased the history, worship and indigenous liturgy of the ancient Orthodox St. Thomas Christians and their historical relations with the Church of the East.
The Church of the East was one of the most powerful and biggest Eastern Christian Churches in the world. It was the first Christian Church to take up a large-scale evangelizing process of foreign lands. It had a presence in several parts of the world including China, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Yemen, the Gulf region and Arabia, long before the arrival of Roman Catholic and other Western Missionaries. Long before the arrival of Roman Western and Protestant missions, the Eastern Syriac Orthodox Church (the Church of the East) evangelized several parts of the world. Several Persian crosses discovered in several parts of the world underline their global missionary zeal and wider outreach.
The Church of the East separated from the rest of the Orthodox world by Council of Ephesus in 431. Later, the Schism of 1552 divided the Church of the East into the Assyrian Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic Church, when a part of the Church of East entered into full communion with Rome. One of the major reasons was that patriarchal succession was hereditary in the Church of the East from the middle of the 15th century. Another schism in 1968 resulted in the formation of the Ancient Church of the East.
Persecution and Decline
The decline of the Church of the East began with the attack on the Assyrian population in Mesopotamia (Iraq), by Amir Timur, who was a Turkish-Mongolian conqueror. His attacks resulted in complete eradication of Christians in several parts of Mesopotamia. Assyrian Christians have undergone severe persecution in modern times in Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere. During Sefyo the Turkish Ottoman, rulers slaughtered countless Assyrian Christians alongside Armenians and Greeks. In recent times, the severe persecution from ISIS and other Islamic terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq has seriously affected Assyrian Christians. Large numbers of Assyrians were replaced; many were kidnapped tortured, raped, and murdered. Some of them escaped and others were released upon paying a ransom. The persecution, atrocities and collateral damage suffered by Assyrian Christians cannot be expressed in words. Like Armenian, Serbian and other Orthodox and Eastern Churches, they are living martyrs of Jesus Christ.
The Church of the East Today
• The Assyrian Church of the East, led by Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East seated in Erbil.
•The Ancient Church of the East, led by Catholicos-Patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East seated in Bagdad.
• The Ancient Church of the East of the Old Calendarists, led by Archbishop of the Old Calendar Church seated in Germany.
• The Chaldean Syrian Catholic Church (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), led by Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans seated in Bagdad.
“The Christology of the Church of the East, as well as the Nestorius himself (sic), is not far from the Chalcedonian formula. Though the words are different the teachings is very much the same. The Christology of Chalcedon is Anthiochene in emphasis. In other words, the Chalcedonian formula was the triumph of Nestorian Christology”, comments His Beatitude Aphrem, Metropolitan of Malabar and India.
Nestorius was the Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople. Some experts believe that Nestorius tried to find a balance between the divine and human nature of Christ. In any case, he was strongly condemned by St. Cyril of Alexandria, who is a common father for the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran denominations. Many experts have stated that Nestorius is wrongly associated with Church of the East. The late lamented Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV once stated, “Nestorius has nothing to do with us; he was a Greek.” Although Nestorius is venerated as a saint by the Assyrian Church, Nestorius was not their founder neither was the Church of the East familiar with his language. Nestorius was Greek and had no connection with the Syriac or the East Syriac Churches.
“The Christology of Nestorius, if Orthodox, should be reconcilable, notwithstanding angry denials on both sides, with Cyril’s. In truth, it must be admitted, the line which separates them to this, as on all other issues, is either very thin or nonexistent”, writes M.V Anastos, a Greek Orthodox theologian.
The theological arguments and theological conceptual aspects proposed by Nestorius have been a great influence in forming the theology and doctrines of the Church of the East, but it is not a Nestorian church. The Church of the East or Assyrian Churches shares many theological concerns raised by Nestorius. Dr. Sebastian Brock states that the writers of the Church of the East spoke highly of Greek theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia, during the period of Christological controversies. The theology of Theodore had a high influence on the formation of the theology of the Church of East, and the Church of the East venerates three Greek theologians: Theodore, Nestorius and Diodore.
“The association between the Church of the East and Nestorius is of a very tenuous nature, and to continue to call that Church ‘Nestorian’ is, from a historical point of view, totally misleading and incorrect–quite apart from being highly offensive and a breach of ecumenical good manner”, asserts Dr. Sebastian Brock (Fire from Heaven, p. 14).
Fr. John S. Romanides, a famous Orthodox theologian, remains critical of Theodoret and Nestorius. He states, “Thus, when Theodoret says that He who was born of the Virgin is consubstantial with God the Father, he does not mean that He who is consubstantial with the Father was born of Mary in the flesh. The name Christ seems to be the only one Theodoret allows to be predicated of the Logos in the flesh, and by means of this he avoids saying with Nestorius that Christ is the Son of David and Son of God united in His (Christ’s) One Person. Yet he clearly follows Nestorius by distinguishing the Only-begotten Son and Christ in the Creed by insisting that the name Jesus Christ, and not the title of Only-begotten Son, is the recipient of the things human such as birth, suffering, death, burial and resurrection. His attempt to explain why only the name Christ of all things human should be predicated of the Logos in the flesh is a Nestorian failure.” (‘St. Cyril’s “One Physis”‘ in Christ in East and West, p. 25)
Fr. Dr. V C Samuel, a great Orthodox theologian, in his article ‘Christological Controversy and Vision of the Church’, states that St. Cyril of Alexandria had made it clear that his concerns were of Christology and not of Mariology. According to Cyril of Alexandria, questioning the title Theotokos with reference to Mary would imply that the Child in the womb was not really God incarnate, hence Nestorius contradicted the faith of Nicea and so he should be condemned. This argument is valid form the viewpoint of Cyril and his supporters, but not in light of the tradition maintained in the Antiochene School. This basic truth was not raised in ancient times and Nestorius was condemned and excommunicated from the Church.
Veneration of Icons
Many believe that Assyrian Churches do not use icons. Many believe that the Assyrian Church rejects icons. This is untrue. The Assyrian Churches do in fact have a history of using icons, although we may not see a prominent place of icons in the liturgical practice of many Assyrian churches. The theology and traditions of the Church of the East stress the need for the presence of icons during liturgical worship. Unfortunately, the use of icons diminished, and according to church experts, there can be varied reasons for the same (more on Assyrian iconography here).
Theotokos and Christotokos
“A Nestorian is Orthodox without Theotokos”, writes His Beatitude Metropolitan Mar Aphrem of India.
The Church of the East uses the Greek term Christotokos for St. Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Orthodox Churches have the most beautiful and apt definition for the Mother of God: Theotokos. Orthodoxy rejects the additions to doctrine and faith in Roman Catholic Mariology. Roman Catholic theological attributions like the Immaculate Conception are unacceptable. Some Roman Catholic theologians have even emphasized the role of Mother Mary in Salvation, along with Jesus Christ, which is extremely dangerous and a fanatic corruption of Latin theology. The Nestorian view of the Theotokos challenges Latin theological errors to a great extent, which is extremely good in several respects.
I have presented arguments and quotes above, on Assyrian Theology, and I do not aim at an in-depth analysis of Christological or Theological aspects of the Church of the East. These are things that require deep study and constructive discussions between Orthodox and Assyrian theologians to arrive at a proper conclusion without compromising the original orthodox faith established by Jesus Christ, his apostles and ancient Church Fathers.
The Vatican Succeeds in Convincing the Assyrian Church
The interesting part is that with such extreme erroneous Latin interpretations of the Mother of God, St. Mary, the Vatican succeeded in convincing the Assyrian Church of the East in this regard, and they agreed and recognized that both Churches have the right and legitimacy to use their own expressions of the same faith.
The Orthodox-Assyrian Challenge
The challenge for Orthodox theologians is to connect and relate the Assyrian term Christotokos and the Orthodox term Theotokos, in order to arrive at common agreements and conclusions which will enable the Assyrians and the Orthodox to use their own desired terminologies without altering the original orthodox faith. The diplomatic openness of the Vatican resulted in the ‘Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East’, whereas the conservative attitude of Orthodox Churches has not yet resulted in any major theological dialogues or agreements with the Assyrian Churches. This conservative attitude is not just limited towards Assyrians; rather it has created many difficulties between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox families as well.
Ecumenical councils are very important. They are measuring tools, for affirming the true faith. Unfortunately, many of our theologians and faithful are blinded by the decision of Ecumenical councils, especially the Council of Chalcedon. Fanatic Chalcedonians want every other non-Chalcedonian church to be subjugated to the decisions of this council. This is an unrealistic and unreasonable approach. There should be no blind subjugation to anyone or anything, except to Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. Worship our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, not to anyone else or anything else. I have conversed with several people who place the Council of Chalcedon above Christ, which is dangerous. There were several reasons for not recognizing the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) by the Church of the East. According to Dr. Sebastian Brock, the Church of the East never accepted the Council of Ephesus because of its irregular procedures and not to its doctrinal decisions.
From the very creation of the Chaldean Catholic Rite, the Vatican has aimed at theological and sacramental subjugation of the Assyrian Churches, especially the Assyrian Church of the East. Sadly the Chaldean Catholic Church, which comes from the Ancient Church of the East, remains one of the heavily Latinized Eastern Catholic communities according to several theological experts. The aggressive nature of the Vatican was evident long back. In India, it was in the form of the cruelties by Archbishop Aleixo de Menezes. He literally burned the ancient Malankara-Malabar Rite liturgical texts and erased all historical documents of the historic relations between the Church of the East and the Orthodox St. Thomas Christians of Malabar.
Roman Tactics and Uniate Movements
It was always the tactics of the Papacy to send Franciscan or other Missionaries to work among Eastern Christians to bring them into communion with the Catholic Church and under Papal rule. This is no different from the Evangelical, Mormon, and Pentecostal Missionaries working in several Eastern Christian hubs where they convert Orthodox and other Eastern Christians, mainly through monetary and social assistance. Rome encourages the consecration of Orthodox or other Eastern Bishops who approach them aiming at the formation Eastern Catholic communities. Most of the Eastern Catholic communities joined Rome due to several imperial and political reasons. However, it should be noted that during the Schism of 1552, Pope Julius III consecrated the first Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa because of some misinformation. Patriarch Shemon VII Ishoyahb of the Church of the East was still alive. Pope Julius was wrongly informed that Patriarch Shemon had passed away. Patriarch Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa approached Rome after an unsuccessful attempt to join the Syriac Orthodox Church as well.
“Not one of the Uniate Eastern Churches is ancient. They are all insignificant and comparatively recent schisms, which have been brought under Roman influence either during the crusades, or much later, chiefly from political motives, to secure French protectorate. The oldest and most respectable of them is the Maronite sect, which joined Rome in 1182, seceded about two centuries later and rejoined her in 1445. The Roman Prelates, who call themselves Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem and so forth, have no connection with the real secession and the real Churches there. They are simply “dummies” set up to produce a false impression of Catholicity, and to make the Roman Church seem to be Eastern as well as Western. Just as, at George II’s coronation, two men were dressed up to walk in the procession as Duke of Aquitaine and Normandy, to make believe that George was King of France, with Grand Feudatories in attendance on him.” The Culdee.
Rome, especially after the Second Vatican Council, stated that Uniates or Eastern Catholicism would not be a tool to accept or convert Orthodox or Eastern Christians. However, they have not adhered to their statement until date. All of these remain on papers alone. Rome has very clever ways to construct ecumenism; always to their advantage. This is the bare minimum understanding that all Assyrian and Orthodox Christians should always keep in their hearts. If we do not remain alert, the Vatican will swallow the whole of Assyrian Church of the East.
Case of Bishop Mar Bawai Soro
The primacy of Rome does not mean that one should remain under the Pope. The primacy of Rome is nothing but an honor for the Pope of Rome. Bishop Bawai is an Assyrian Prelate who left the Assyrian Church of the East in 2008 along with 1,000 families and joined the Chaldean Catholic Church under Rome. This is another sad case of Assyrian-Roman ecumenism. Bishop Bawai believes in the primacy of the Pope and urges Assyrian Churches to join the Church of Rome. In 2008, the Bishop said, “Twenty years ago, many of the Assyrian church’s faithful realized that other than Papal Primacy, there were no theological issues that existed between themselves and the Catholic Church.”
He stated that “the more I studied Catholic theology, the more I became certain that both Churches were basically of the same apostolic faith and practice.” If that is the case, he should have united his faithful with Oriental Orthodox Churches or have become part of the Oriental Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox communion because Orthodox Churches have many more things in common with Assyrians than Roman Catholics. A common understanding of Christology alone will not work out unity. In fact, Bishop Bawai set forth an unworthy example of union with Rome.
In response, the Assyrian Church of the East suspended Bishop Bawai and suspended dialogue with Rome. However, the dialogue and ecumenical interactions resumed and it remains very strong, despite the fact that Rome did not adhere to their words and that they would not use Uniates as a tool to unify Eastern Christian communities under the Holy See.
I personally believe that there are few reasons that attract Prelates of the Assyrian Church of the East to dialogue and ecumenism with the Vatican. International support from the Pope and the Vatican is important for the Assyrian Church of the East in the present situation of persecution displacement. The Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church accommodate the Assyrian Church, their theology and willingness for dialogue are much greater in comparisons to Orthodox Churches. Many of the conservative and fanatic Orthodox Prelates are reluctant to converse with Assyrians accusing them of Nestorianism. The Vatican invests huge amounts of money in ecumenical activities and provides an international platform for ecumenical interactions and cooperation. Regardless of the Vatican support for Assyrians, it is clear that the agenda of Rome is nothing but a diplomatic subjugation of the Assyrian Churches. This was clear from the appeal made by Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Sako I.
Unrealistic Call by Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Sako to create a wider Chaldean Uniate Rite under the Vatican
The Vatican as usual employed their tactical offerings to the Assyrian Church the moment they realized that there would be a great opportunity for Unity between the Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East to create one single Church of the East. They have been trying to propose the same since the time of His Holiness Mar Dinka IV.
In 2016, at the height of Christian persecution in Iraq and Syria, Patriarch Raphael Louis I Sako of the Chaldean Uniate Eastern Catholic Rite made a diplomatic proposal to the Assyrian church of the East and Ancient Church of the East, i.e., to create a union of canonically independent Assyrian Churches united with Rome. Therefore, it seems that the Assyrian Church will come under Rome, under the so-called Supreme Pontiff of the Vatican. However, they will convince their faithful that the church will remain canonically independent and not under Rome, but rather, a kind of union will be established with Rome. So on the whole, the union will lead to communion and it will erase the unique history, traditions and faith of the Assyrian Churches of the East. In the future, they will be also ‘Latinized’ in all other aspects of their beliefs and traditions. The sad situation in Iraq was pointed out as one reason for union with Rome. If that is the case, then there are other Christian denominations, which are still in Iraq and should be invited to seek union with Rome. A union with Rome will not improve the situation of Christians in Iraq and it never has done. If so, a union between the Assyrian Churches and Orthodox Christian Churches should be established first. The Eastern Catholic Patriarchal Rites claim that they are in ‘a kind of Autocephalous Union’ with Rome, but in reality, they are under the imperial subjugation of the Roman Pope, the Supreme Pontiff for the whole of Roman Catholic Church. The imperial agenda of the Vatican to vanquish Eastern Christianity will never fade away. It is clear from the appeal of the Uniate Patriarch Sako, that even during difficult times of Christian persecution, Rome uses fragility of such circumstances to create a fake union. “Vatican ecumenism” is ever bringing Churches under Papal rule, nothing else.
The Response from the Assyrian Church of the East to Patriarch Sako
Assyrian Bishop Mar Awa Royel of California gave a brilliant reply to the union with Rome offered by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch. Mar Awa Royel commented that true union must be based on the apostolic, orthodox, catholic and true faith that was deposited by Christ’s own Disciples in the East, which has been preserved by the Church of the East. He put forward the fact that any acceptable union with the Church of East cannot be under the ordinary jurisdiction of any Western Bishop, but only as free acceptance of a great inheritance practiced according to the ecumenical and apostolic model of the first Christian millennium. If any Church is under the jurisdiction of a Western Bishop, that church cannot be called the legitimate heir of the name “Church of the East.” The Bishop also invited the Chaldean Catholic brothers to take steps for a true unity by returning to their own theology, traditions through the patristic and liturgical patrimony of the Church of the East. If there can be a call for union, then there must be an unquestionable common grounding in ecclesiological and patristic tradition, namely the tradition of the Church of the East.
Full unity of Assyrian Church and Ancient Church of the East
The major reasons for the schism between these two churches were some of the controversial reforms introduced by Mar Eshai Shimun XXII. The most important among them was the replacement of the traditional Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar. In 2010 as part of the reunification gestures the Ancient Church of the East celebrated Christmas on December 25 in line with the Gregorian calendar, and this resulted in a split in January 2011. A part of the Ancient Church of the East, who accepts the Old (Julian) Calendar under the leadership of Archbishop Timothaus Mar Shallita separated from the main church. Archbishop Timothaus and three bishops lead Church of the East Old Calenderist branch. Several parishes in Europe, USA, Canada, and Australia are under Old Calendar leadership (Calendar schism is common in Eastern Orthodox families as well).
Even before talking unity with any other church, the two families of Assyrian Churches should unify as one single Assyrian Church. This has to be a priory for both families. For that, the calendar split within the ancient Church of the East must be resolved. Assyrians should not adopt a new calendar if such decisions result in disunity and schisms, or there should be an agreement within the Assyrian community to use both calendars like the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox communion where some churches follow Julian and the rest follow Gregorian. Dialogues for reunification intensified after the demise of Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinka IV. Unfortunately, it did not result in full unity. Unity of both churches is possible. If Assyrian Churches move away from inter-Assyrian unity and focus more on unity with Rome, the Roman Papacy will decide the fate of this ancient East Syriac Church.
The Orthodox and Assyrian Dialogue and Interactions
Syriac Orthodox Assyrian Churches
The Syriac Church and the Assyrian Churches have in-depth historical relations. They suffered alongside Armenians and Greeks during Seyfo. In 1997 as a result of the efforts between Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinka IV and Patriarch Igatius Zakka Iwas, two churches ceased anathematizing each other. The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II has taken special interests in accommodating the Assyrian Churches. Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II met Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Geevarghese III of the Assyrian Church of the East. The Patriarch has shown special concerns for the situation of Assyrian Christian in Syria and Iraq.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
Several exchanges and contacts were made between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Assyrian Church of the East in Constantinople and in the USA. The Ecumenical Patriarchate supported the admission of Assyrian Church of the East into World Christian Council (WCC).
The Coptic Orthodox and Assyrian Churches
Theological dialogues between these two churches remain difficult, despite occasional developments. The Coptic Orthodox Church remains very critical of Nestorius and his veneration in the Church of the East.
Metropolitan Bishoy of the Coptic Church in a paper presented at the Orientale Lumen conference in 2000 states, “For the Coptic Orthodox Church Saint Cyril of Alexandria is and will remain a hero of faith and true defender of orthodoxy and we cannot accept to sign an agreement with a church who venerates Nestorius as ‘a staunch defender of Antiochene orthodoxy and a martyr to the pride and arrogance of Cyril of Alexandria.’ That is a great hindrance in our dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East, which is reflected in our relations with the Church of Rome with a threat towards the Christological agreement signed between Rome and Alexandria in February 1998. For that reason, we shall exert our efforts to clear away any difficulties, which may affect the theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church.”
In April 2016, His Beatitude Mar Meelis Zaia, Metropolitan of Australia, New Zealand, and Lebanon along with Coptic Prelates participated in the event exploring the Theology and Christology of the Assyrian Church of the East and Coptic Orthodox Church in the USA. Mutual visits and brotherly exchanges are made possible. However, a major breakthrough in formal relations may take a longer period of time.
Armenians and Assyrians
Armenians and Assyrians have historic relations. They lived together in Turkey and suffered together at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Both Christian communities have borrowed a lot from one another in their lives and liturgical worship, by mutual interactions and exchanges they have had together for several centuries in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and allied areas. Armenian documents have been key sources for preserving and circulating historic information on Assyrians especially during and after the genocide committed by Ottoman Turks (More here).
The Indian Malankara Orthodox, Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church and Assyrian Churches
The Malankara Orthodox Church and Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Churches maintain good relations with the Chaldean Syrian Church in India. Please note that the Assyrian Church of the East is known by the name Chaldean Syrian Church in India. Apart from the current relations, there were negotiations for unity between the Malankara Church and the Chaldean Syrian Church during 1880-1889. The Bishops of Malankara regularly visited the headquarters of the Church of the East in Thrichur during the reign of Mar Abdisho Thondanata and Chor-bishop Michael Augustine. The negations were aimed at receiving the Chaldean Syrian Church as one of the autonomous rites of the Malankara Church. Further details remain unknown.
The Russia Orthodox and Assyrian Churches
Russian and Assyrian Churches have had several exchanges during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Commission for Bilateral Dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East was established in 2014, during a meeting between Patriarch Kiril and Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV. As of 2018, the commission successfully finished two sittings and the members are looking forward to the possibility of developing Assyrian-Pan-Orthodox dialogue.
Assyrian Georgian Orthodox Community
The conservative Georgian Church has historic connections with Assyrian Christianity. The thirteen Assyrian Church Fathers along with St Nino played a crucial role in the ‘Christianization’ of Georgia. Georgia owes a lot to the Assyrian Church Fathers for the development of its Christian Orthodox Monasticism. Many of the ethnic Assyrian Christians who migrated to Georgia are now part of the Georgian Eastern Orthodox Church. Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia appointed a priest with Assyrian language skills for their spiritual and pastoral care. They use Assyrian Aramaic language for their liturgical worship. Such integration is beautiful. Several Orthodox churches and theologians are not so open to Assyrian theology, mainly because of the presumption that it is shadowed with Nestorian influence (which is a wrong attribution). Therefore, if the Assyrian community got integrated to the Georgian Orthodox Church (preserving their ethnicity, language and liturgical practices), the Georgian Orthodox, and other Eastern Orthodox churches can easily welcome a permanent dialogue with the Assyrian Churches.
The above diagram shows the intensity of interactions between Churches. Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Assyrians interact with Rome regularly, and the dialogues are well organized. When it comes to inter-Orthodox or Orthodox-Assyrian or inter-Assyrian cooperation, the scenario is quite different. Sadly, all Churches place themselves in irregular closed boxes.
Bringing Assyrians Close with Orthodox Churches
I think we need to reassess the relationship and dialogue with the Assyrian Churches of the East (Assyrian and Ancient Church of the East) too. It seems that the historical connections of the Assyrian family with the Orthodox Churches are ignored at times. The regularity in the theological dialogue and agreement between the Vatican and the Assyrian Churches is one of the examples of this scenario. However, I do appreciate past, present and ongoing exchanges and relations between Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian family of Churches.
The Orthodox have a moral responsibility to invite Assyrians to dialogue with us and help them prevent being ‘Latinized’ by the Vatican. One of my Orthodox friends had a conversation with an Assyrian Priest on Facebook where he asked about the ecumenical relations and the Priest was happy to answer their activities with the Roman Catholic Church. Then my friend switched the topic of relation and dialogue between Assyrian Church and Orthodox Churches. He said to the Priest that it is always better trying and resolving the differences between 2, 3 and 7 ecumenical synods rather and struggling to patch up with 21 synods of Vatican. The Assyrian priest fell silent and never replied back. They are with no doubt that the Assyrian Church of the East tends to remain close to the Vatican, rather than the Orthodox families, which is indeed a great concern. The Vatican knows how to strike well with funding for the dialogues and provides assistance for theological education, thus creating a kind of dependency.
Serious rethinking on the relations between the Assyrian Churches and the Orthodox Christian families is a need of our time. A bilateral dialogue commission has been developed with the Assyrian Church of the East, thanks to the Russian Orthodox Church, but we should not stop the cooperation there. We need to develop an ‘Assyrian-Orthodox International Federation for Cooperation’. Many Orthodox Christians are skeptical towards the Assyrian Church with regard to their theology and Christology. This stigma should be eliminated where the clergy and faithful need to be more open to the Assyrians.
If the Roman Catholic Church can make a common Christological agreement with the Assyrian Church of the East, why don’t the Orthodox try to understand them? Orthodox practice ecumenism with the Roman Catholic Church and they make agreements with the Assyrian church, which is closer to the Orthodox Churches in many aspects than to the Vatican. I do not really understand the major factors that prevent us from having a theological dialogue with the Assyrian Churches. The Orthodox need to set aside our ignorance, analyze our theology well, and be flexible enough to accommodate Assyrians, with respect to the theology of Orthodoxy. Orthodox Churches can take many practical steps in bringing the Assyrian Churches closer. Orthodox delegations can have increased visits with Assyrian Church delegations, involve Assyrians more in ecumenical programs and offer theological education to Assyrian Seminarians.
At the parish and diocesan levels, in the Diaspora, at the national and international levels, cooperation with Assyrians can be practised. Orthodox Medias can publish Assyrian news and events. Once the Church of the East was one of the largest and most flourishing Christian communities in the world, and presently they are one of the smallest and most persecuted Christian communities. Practical cooperation will strengthen higher theological dialogues, which will result in fruitful and constructive agreements between Assyrian Churches and Orthodox family.
At the Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE, as a Pan-Orthodox organization, we were advised several times to remove the clause for dialogue between Oriental Orthodox Churches and Assyrian Churches in our petitions filed to Oriental Orthodox Churches, because such a close tie may hurt Oriental Orthodox prelates who have a very conservative understanding on the Church of the East.
The Assyrian Churches have done no damage to Orthodox Churches. That is not the case with the Vatican. The theological, doctrinal, socio-political damages caused by the Roman Catholic Church remain huge and Orthodox Churches suffered the most of such damages in the form of theological corruption, genocide, Uniates and imperialism. I am not against ecumenical dialogues with Roman Catholic Church, but what I fear is the ignorance of Orthodox Christian families to heal wounds among themselves as well with the Assyrian family. Hence, Orthodox Churches and Assyrian Church end up having ecumenical dialogues with Rome. However, it remains a one-sided dialogue because interactions between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches and Orthodox interactions with Assyrian Churches remain quite pale and in low volume. When it comes to ecumenism, Rome is always the winner.
Assyrian Faithful Responds
I have conversed with several Assyrian faithful on the progress of the dialogue between their Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The majority of the people that I talked to, fear that the Assyrian Church of the East will end up as another Eastern Catholic Rite under the Roman Papacy. All of them prefer Assyrian Church unity with the Orthodox Churches. Some of them even told me that they would leave Christianity if the Assyrian Church of the East ever establishes a union with Rome. At the same, time many others, support ecumenical progress made between the Assyrian Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
“Nothing is black or white, everything is grey.” This is the situation with inter-orthodox dialogue as well as the Orthodox-Assyrian dialogue. The future will remain bleak unless there will be a major shift in attitude. There is no substitution for dialogue. Orthodox Churches may have many disagreements with several churches and their theological outlook. However, the Orthodox Churches have to find common grounds with those Eastern Churches that are closely linked with their history, theology and traditions. The Assyrian Churches are the most important ones. Even though almost all Uniates or Eastern Catholic Rites have Orthodox history, origin, and background, they are already part of the papacy, and are heavily Latinized with extreme falsification of Latin theology, which makes it very difficult for the Orthodox to seek unity with them. Unfortunately, both the Assyrian and Orthodox Churches are beating around the bush when it comes to unity and dialogue. Dialogues are either on Pro Oriente, Vatican, WCC or some other ecumenical platform. The Roman Catholic Church acts as a diplomatic negotiator and peace broker for the Orthodox and Assyrian churches. Hence both the Orthodox and Assyrians find it easy to deal with Rome rather than dealing themselves.
Functional and Social Unity
The Orthodox and Assyrians can focus on functional unity (social cooperation, ecumenical relations, mutual conferences, mutual political and religious support, defending Christian values and rights of worship, charity, exchange of art, iconography, and regular visits) more than doctrinal or theological unity. Sadly, some of the Orthodox Churches and Orthodox theologians are not even ready for any kind functional unity and they feel that any sort of ecumenical relations with Assyrian Church will harm Orthodox theological and doctrinal positions. Theological, doctrinal unity will be a huge challenge for both Churches. Such a unity may or may not happen in the long run. A close social and functional unity, however, is very important and will eventually save Assyrian Churches from the iron clutches of the Vatican’s diplomatic imperial ecumenism.
Only constructive dialogues with mutual respect love and prayers without tampering with the original Orthodox faith will open us up to wider understanding and cooperation. Joint commissions for dialogue between the Assyrian Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as between Assyrian Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches are required. Christ was dialogical and hence he was widely accepted by the masses. He was always open to dialogue with his enemies. Let’s follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ and not of the Roman Popes. An Orthodox-Assyrian unity in Christ is inevitable.