A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 3, 2014

Iraqi Christianity: Christmas Hymns from the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldeans

As we prepare to mark Christmas in the Eastern Christian tradition next week, I particularly want to remind readers of the beleaguered Christians od Iraq. There is little good to say about the years of Saddam Hussein, but his secularism did protect the Christian minority, and one of his top aides, Tariq Aziz,as a Chaldean Christian (though perhaps not a very devout one). Iraq's Christians are little known in the West outside their diaspora communities, but few Christian minorities in the Middle East have suffered so severely since 2003. There are Greek Orthodox, Syria Orthodox, and other Christian communiities in Iraq, but the most distinctive, and perhaps the least known in the West, are those of the Assyrian Church of the East and its "Uniate" Eastern Catholic analogue, the Chaldean Catholic Church. These have one of the most ancient Christian lineages and, according to most liturgical historians of whatever denomination, then oldest Christian liturgy still in use, with the Anaphora of Addai and Mari dating from the 3rd Century AD.

Both churches trace their heritage from the early Christianity of Edessa, traditionally converted by two of the 72 disciples  (the same Addai and Mari) sent out by the 12 Apostles. As early as 190 AD Christianity was known in the Upper Mesopotamian city of Edessa. , today Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey.The church historian Eusebius claims King Abgar V of Edessa was the first ruler to convert to Christianity, though some accounts suggest a later King Abgar, but Edessa converted to Christianity early in the post-Apostolic period. It eventually developed some of the richest libraries in the Christian world.

But doctrinal disputes and geopolitics conspired to isolate the ancient Church of the East from the Christian centers of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople. A seemingly semantic dispute led the Council of Ephesus in 437 to condemn Nestorius of Constantinople as a heretic over his questioning the term Theotokos (Mother of God). Over time the Church of the East was identified as "Nestorian" and condemned by other Christians, and moved its centers outside the Roman and Byzantine realms into Persia, where the Sassanians had little concern with Christian doctrinal disputes. From there, "Nestorian" (never their own preferred name) sent missionaries far afield, and created communities in India (where they still exist), Central Asia before Islam, and even in China. The Persian capital then was at Ctesiphon in Iraq.

In more recent centuries, some communities of the Church of the East united with Rome, becoming an Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church, recognizing the Pope but otherwise retaining their liturgy and traditions. These are the Chaldean Catholics, who today outnumber their "Assyrian" Church of the East. The Assyrians suffered severely under the Ottomans in World War I and again in Iraq in 1933. Despite the use of both communities of the terms "Assyrian" and "Chaldean" for their languages as well, both are forms of Eastern Aramaic and are used liturgically; many of the faithful still speak them as a first language as well, usually alongside Arabic.

Today the Assyrians and Chaldeans share inter-communion with some conditions despte lingering doctrinal differences, and both have large diasporas, and the Assyrian Patriarch (Catholicos) lives in Chicago.

A Chaldean Christmas hymn in Aramaic, Hwelih Isho' (Jesus is Born):

And a hymn from the Qorbana (Eucharist) of the Church of the East:


John T. said...

Thanks for this. Very fascinating. Some discussion of doctrinal differences would be a welcome addition to the story.

In the matter of Mikhail Yuhanna -for whom both the Vatican and EU have asked clemency--the judgement of God should be sufficient.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

John T.: I agree, but Christmas seemed a time to be as ecumenical as possible.Especially since the Assyrians and Chaldeans have mostly abandoned the argument. A history for another time, perhaps, not for Christmas.