A Testament to the Spiritual Power of Oriental Christianity

Author: Anthony O'Mahony

A Testament to the Spiritual Power of Oriental Christianity

Anthony O'Mahony*

Filling the gaps in our knowledge

"Christianity in Iraq: Its origins and development to the Present Day", is published in England by Gracewing (ISBN 978 085344 738 3, 320 pages, ₤ 12.99, new edition 2010); an Australian edition is available from Freedom Publishing, Bairn, Victoria. The book was written by Suha Rassam, born in 1941 in Mosul, Iraq. Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Baghdad, Dr Rassam came to England in 1990. She then worked in hospitals in London, studied Eastern Christianity at London University, and is now retired.

It is all too easy to be the bearer of bad news about Christianity in the Middle East. A profound series of crises has overtaken Middle Eastern Christianity in modern times. Displacement by war, genocide, interreligious conflict, leading to loss, emigration and exile would seem to be the main experience of Christianity in the modern Middle East. Against this background of displacement, when allowed, Christians have sought to resettle and build anew. They have been able to make a significant cultural, political and economic contribution to Middle Eastern society. Some observers have suggested that there is a "Christian barometer" which provides the world with an accurate measurement of the political atmosphere in the Middle East. Progress toward freedom in the Middle East can be gained by focusing on the status of the large Christian communities across the region. The theory goes that as the Middle East becomes more free and prosperous the higher the probability that the Christians will continue to live and even return from abroad to countries like Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. And vice versa, if Christians sense that things are getting worse, if the Middle Eastern countries they live in are losing their commitment to political, economic and religious freedom, they would tend to emigrate from the Middle East. After the fall of the Ba'athist regime in 2003 the Christians in Iraq became "the canaries in the coal mine" for the greater
Middle East. The extent to which they are tolerated in the new Iraq was being watched closely by the Maronites of Lebanon, the Copts of Egypt and other non-Muslim populations of the region. The Christians in Iraq are deeply troubled by the rise of radical Islamic tendencies in both the majority Shi'ite and the former ruling class the Sunni minority. For Iraqi Christians the continuing spectre of growing insecurity, with church bombings, kidnapping and assassinations, has created a situation in which they have left in large numbers. Maybe as many as 250,000 have left Iraq never to return, others are refugees in the region in Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Wise governance in some
states has given, albeit a limited welcome, to these "newcomers" in the hope that they will stay bringing their skills and that their presence will add to a diversity which in turn will help support a wider political culture and society. It is often forgotten that it was initially the Syriac Christians (and not Arab Islam) who handed on the classical heritage of science from the ancients through their translations into Arabic — Iraqi Christians are direct heirs of this legacy. In fact previous generations of displaced Christians, particularly Armenians and Syriacs and other Eastern Christians, arrived in Lebanon, joining the Maronites, making that country (before the Civil War 1975-1990) a leading cultural and economic space for the whole region. It should also be noted that in Iraq Eastern Christianity encountered and held in conversation the two principal schools of Islam: Sunni and Shi'a. This historic encounter is full of fecundity for the contemporary global engagement of Christianity and Islam.

The great drama of Christianity in Iraq, set against a historical background of profound political and religious change, is told in committed fashion by Suha Rassam in Christianity in Iraq. Rassam, a Chaldean Christian from Iraq, trained to be a doctor in Baghdad before moving to London for a distinguished career in medicine, in a personal way illustrates the great contribution the Middle Eastern Christians make on their journey as transmitters of knowledge and learning, just like those Syriac doctors at the Arab Muslim courts of the Middle Ages. Over eight chapters the author takes us from the origins of Christianity in Mesopotamia to its contemporary situation in post-invasion Iraq of 2010. Tradition attributes the evangelization of Mesopotamia to St Thomas and to an apostle called Addai as early as the first century A.D. Christianity spread early in Iraq from the major centre of Edessa (today Urfa in south-east Turkey) in its Syriac linguistic and cultural form.

The new church was established in the royal city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (south of Baghdad on the
Tigris River) under the Parthian Empire in the second century. Because of its fifteen hundred-year-old history, Eastern Christianity is closely tied to the original apostolic tradition, which reflects the originality of the message of the Gospels. Its tradition participates totally with the Holy Scriptures; the theology of the Fathers of the Church; with a liturgy and theology deeply impregnated by Judeo-Christian tradition. With great missionary and apostolic zeal, the Christians of Mesopotamia journeyed eastwards to spread the Gospel, cultivating a very strong ascetic and monastic spirit everywhere they went. They promoted culture and learning, to which the monks and monasteries made a vital contribution.

According to historical record, the eastern regions of Mesopotamia began to be evangelized from the first century onwards despite the hostility of the Persian Empire, whose state religion was Mazdeism. Christianity spread gradually, though never becoming the majority religion. Christians suffered many persecutions, the worst of which, under Shahpur II lasted from 339 to the death of the Emperor himself in 379. Until the 14th century, the Eastern Church stretched over a vast area, from the regions of the eastern bank of the Euphrates to South-East Asia, traces of the Church can also be found in Tibet where some scholars consider it influenced Buddhism. It is said to have had a total of some 250 dioceses and a thousand monasteries, distributed between Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkestan, the Gulf, India, China and Mongolia. However, by the end of the 14th century the Mongol invasion severely damaged the Eastern Church, reducing its dioceses to the original boundaries of Mesopotamia and the Turko-Iranian area. Rassam sets out this early history in great detail until the coming of the Ottomans, marked with Sunni affiliation, in the 16th century; creating an often moving frontier with the Shi'a Safavid Empire, and a conflict in which the Christians located in border areas suffered. In modern times we might see this history repeating itself with Iraqi Christians often caught between the Kurdish regions of the north and the Arab centres of middle and southern Iraq – the author hints as much in her final chapter, especially in regard to the idea of creating a separate political space, or enclave, for them on the plains of Nineveh.

Christianity in Iraq represents a direct line of continuity with history. Even if it cannot be summed up in figures, the reality of Christianity in the modern Middle East is first of all one of numbers. The exact number of Christians, unfortunately, is very difficult to discern. However, Christians are a minority in modern Iraq, representing some 3-5 per cent of the population, but a number which has halved since 2003. Iraq's Christians can be divided into three main groups – Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian and Latin Catholic; the Assyrian Church of the East, itself divided into two streams; Oriental Orthodox, mainly Syriac and Armenian; and since the late 19th and early 20th centuries small Protestant and Anglican communities; however, the Chaldean Catholics are the dominant tradition. The Church of the East/Chaldean Church are often considered the national Church of Iraq, although communities are found across the region in Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and even a small Chaldean community in Cairo.

The Middle East is one of the most complex ecclesiological spaces in world Christianity. Christian identity in the Middle East is a contested one caught between an Arab Christian identity and an "Eastern Christian" identity – Assyrian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite. The late Jean Corbon in his well-known work "The Church of the Arabs" called for the Christians of the Middle East to actualize this vocation. Rassam records through her personal history, in a very light but highly pertinent manner, the great cultural encounter, at an every day level, of Christians with Arab culture and religion. That said another encounter has been significant for the Christian Churches of Iraq, that of ecumenism which has been a significant factor between the communities. The modern era has witnessed an often heroic event to regain a sense of unity among Christians in the Middle East. Too often Christianity in the Middle East is obscured from view, especially in the West. The Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries produced a three-way split among the Christian Churches which still continues to this day, although it is only among the Churches of Syriac liturgical tradition that all three doctrinal positions are represented. The divisions were originally caused by controversy over how best to describe the relationship between the divinity and the humanity in the incarnate Christ. For the Orthodox and Catholic (and derived Reformed) traditions the matter had been settled by the carefully balanced doctrinal formulation produced by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This situation, as observed by Syriac scholars such as Sebastian Brock (Oxford University) and echoed by Rassam, was effectively fossilized by the Arab invasions of the seventh century, at the time of the birth of Islam, when the Churches of the Middle East were politically cut off from those of the (much diminished) Byzantine Empire and the West. The long centuries of Ottoman domination preserved the Churches in their division. Initially these Muslim rulers centralized all Christian authority within the Patriarchate of Constantinople (followed a few years later by an Armenian Patriarchate). It was not until the 19th century that reformist measures allowed these ancient Churches to be formally recognized. Modern crisis and contemporary ecumenism are beginning to bring down the barriers — this is certainly has been the case in Iraq. In the course of the last decades, remarkable developments have taken place in the ecumenical relations between Churches in the Middle East, both on the bilateral and multilateral levels — agreements that allow partial mutual participation in sacraments, formation of future priests, catechesis. Christian theologians have been calling for a new discernment to evaluate the theological and ecclesiological meaning of this new form of communion that is growing among Churches of the Middle East. The Christian Churches have become part and parcel of each other in some mysterious way. Three main factors can be identified as being responsible for these developments: the ecumenical movement of the 20th century and the establishment (in 1948) of the World Council of Churches, the Second Vatican Council, and the large-scale emigration from the Middle East to Europe, the Americas and Australia. Although this large-scale emigration has in general been disastrous from the point of view of the life of the indigenous Christian Churches in the Middle East, there have at least been two good consequences: emigration to western countries has provided the possibility of publication without censorship, and it has brought the existence of these non-Chalcedonian Churches more into the awareness of the Western Churches — thus providing an opportunity and incentive for theological dialogue.

The Church of Iraq remains of great significance for global Christianity due to its ancient theological and ecclesiological positions which remain important markers in the development of Christian doctrine and self-understanding. It is from within this milieu that a great ecumenical stride was taken on 11 November 1994 when the Patriarch of the Church of the East published with John Paul II a Joint Declaration on the doctrine of Christ. The Church of the East is the Sister Church of the Chaldean Catholics, the dominant inheritors of Iraq's Christian tradition. This was followed by agreement which allows for mutual admission to the Eucharist between the two Churches. In October 2001, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published two texts: 1. Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldaean Church and the Assyrian Church in the East; and 2. Admission to the Eucharist in Situations of Pastoral Necessity, the second being intended to clarify the meaning and application of the first. The mutual admission to the Eucharist is based on the official recognition, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on behalf of the Catholic Church, of the validity of an anaphora of Addai and Mari, traditionally used by the Church of the East, although it does not contain an explicit institutional narrative. This recognition is expected to have far-reaching pastoral and theological implications. The statement from the Vatican added that publishing guidelines for Eucharistic sharing between the members of the Church of the East and Chaldean Catholics was particularly important because so many faithful from both Churches had emigrated from Iraq and the surrounding area. Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, met in Rome in June 2007 to affirm this relationship and the Synod for the Middle East held in October 2010 have confirmed the significance of ecumenism for all Middle Eastern Christian Churches.

In the final chapter, Rassam brings up to date the situation in Iraq since 2003. The narrative is a sad and sorry tale, however one is reminded of the resilience of these Middle Eastern Christians in their homelands and in the lands of exileand diaspora. With the dispersal of Iraqi Christians across the world, to Europe, North America and Australia, due to a shattering political experience, often associated with conflict and war: the Iran-Iraq War, the Kurdish-Baghdad conflict over four decades and the two Gulf Wars, a great challenge of Church unity and the transmission of ecclesial and liturgical culture has been significant, not only for the Churches themselves but also for the Christian communities of the West. Rassam's book Christianity in Iraq should be seen as a guide to all Christians wanting to understand from where their co-religionists come. Modern times have brought about a profound change in the configuration of Christian Presence in the Middle East — due to genocide, conflict and immigration. The Christian communities have obviously lost many of their most educated and young members. The Churches not only lose part of their future but also the potential leadership that should be charting the communities' fortunes. In some communities this has seen more men leave then women and this has changed the gender balance. Christian women marry Muslim men and this fractures the Christian population and diminishes it, with implications for property rights and the education of children. All are aware that Churches have lost many millions of their people to emigration and that their diaspora communities have grown correspondingly, but the question of presence is a dynamic one. The recent attack and massacre of Christians at the Syrian Catholic Church cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance (Sayidat al-Najat) in Baghdad in late October 2010, will pressure and encourage more Christians to leave Iraq. Despite war, interreligious conflict, emigration, the presence of Christianity in Iraq, to which Rassam's book is a testament, is a witness to the creative and spiritual power of Oriental Christianity in the Middle East and an important source for the religious and political renewal of the region.

*Reader in the History of Christianity, Heythrop College, University of London

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 January 2011, page 14

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