My Crisis column this week, “The Church That Converted Khans,” gives a capsule history of the Assyrian Church of the East and its sister Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, both of which are now facing ferocious persecution in Iraq:
…Christians who remain in Iraq live increasingly in an atmosphere of terror. Christian women have been threatened with kidnapping or death if they do not wear a headscarf. Muslim gangs have even terrorized Christian neighborhoods in Baghdad, knocking on doors and demanding payment of the jizya, the religion-based tax assessed by Islamic law against Christians,
Jews, and some other groups of non-Muslims who live in Muslim lands. Iraqi Christians today are streaming into Syria, or, if they can, out of the Middle East altogether. An Iraqi businessman now living in Syria lamented that “now at least 75% of my Christian friends have fled. There is no future for us in Iraq.”
That is bitterly ironic, since at one time one of the only places that held any future at all for what are now known as Assyrian Christians and Chaldean Catholics was Iraq. Late in the fourteenth century, the fabled and notorious Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, a self-styled ghazi (warrior of Islam) who saw himself as the son and heir of Genghis Khan (who had an Assyrian Christian teacher), unleashed a persecution of the Assyrian Church so ferocious that northern Iraq was one of the few places where it survived….
So Eastern was the Church of the East that it considered all Christians of the Roman Empire, even those otherwise universally classified as “Eastern,” such as the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, as “Western.” And indeed, its orientation was decidedly Eastern, as is seen most spectacularly in its remarkable expansion into China. The Persian Nestorian missionary priest Alopen arrived in China in 635 and so impressed the Tang Emperor Taizong that just three years later, Taizong issued a decree protecting the Church of the East in China. After that the Church grew rapidly in China, but was banned again and persecuted in the ninth and tenth centuries, such that by 986 a monk of the Church of the East reported back to the Patriarch Abdisho: “Christianity is extinct in China.”
Yet even after this, the Church of the East returned there, and doesn’t seem to have disappeared altogether from the Middle Kingdom until the fifteenth century. It maintained a considerable presence in Central Asia, even among the Mongols, such that in 1287 the Mongol ruler Arghun Khan sent a Nestorian Christian official in his court, Rabban Sauma, as an emissary to Europe to try to conclude an alliance between the Mongols and European Christians to fight their common enemy, the Islamic jihadists. Rabban Sauma met with, among others, the Byzantine Emperor, the Pope, and the King of England, but ultimately no alliances were concluded. Rabban Sauma’s meeting with a group of cardinals in Rome (the pope had recently died) is revealing of the theological knowledge and controversies of Rome in those days: faced with the specter of a Mongol Christian, the cardinals quizzed him about his faith. They had never heard of Nestorius or of the by-then ancient controversy over his Christology, but they did get irritated when Rabban Sauma recited the Creed and left out the Filioque. Rabban Sauma, however, would have none of the controversy. “I didn’t come here to argue with you,” he explained. “I came to venerate the Lord Pope (Mar Papa).”
The fact that nothing came of Rabban Sauma’s fascinating journey is one of the great missed opportunities of history, for in the next century Tamerlane destroyed most of the dioceses of the Church of the East between Iraq and China, and the Church of the East would never again recapture its former numbers, power, or presence in the expanses of central Asia. A remnant remained in India, a portion of which later became the Syro-Malabar Church in communion with Rome. The Patriarch of the East relocated to Alqosh, near Mosul, where he oversaw his own remnant “” among whom fresh controversy arose when the Patriarch Shimon IV Basidi, whose lengthy reign lasted over fifty years (1437-1493), declared the patriarchate the hereditary property of his family alone. Henceforth only the nephews or other blood relatives of the Patriarch, who was himself celibate in accord with universal Eastern discipline for bishops, could become Patriarch of the East.
Assyrians defended the hereditary succession as a way to protect the Church from interference from Muslim officials, who would often appoint prelates they could control. The hereditary succession, Assyrians maintained, kept the patriarchate from falling into the hands of forces that did not have the best interests of the Church at heart. Nonetheless, discontent over this practice brewed for the next half-century, until finally in 1552 a group of bishops who were presumably all unrelated to Shimon IV Basidi chose a new Patriarch, Yohannan Sulaqa, in preference to the hereditary standard-bearer, Shimon VII Ishoyahb. Sulaqa then made his way to Rome, where he appealed to Pope Julius III for help and made a profession of the Catholic Faith. Julius named him Patriarch of Mosul and Athur, a title he quickly changed to Patriarch of the Chaldeans. Sulaqa returned to Mosul and reigned there as Shimon VIII until 1555, when the local Muslim ruler had him jailed, tortured, and ultimately executed, apparently at the instigation of Shimon VII or his followers….
On December 2, 2011, I received this chilling email from an Assyrian Christian in Iraqi Kurdistan: “Today after Friday prayers, Muslim Kurds in Zakho (near Dohuk) attacked and besieged liquor shops, salons, hotels, massages that are owned by Christians. The security didn’t do anything and the rampage has continued till now!”
Several hours later he wrote again: “The attacks haven’t stopped, and I just got the word that they are attacking a Catholic Diocesan office. The security is standing still and watching as I am writing this to you. Christian homes are being fired upon as well.”
As captured on video, the Muslim mob shouted “Allahu akbar,” “jihad” and anti-Christian slogans as it rampaged. One Christian liquor storeowner reported that the mob did half a million U.S. dollars” worth of damage to his businesses””and stole $300,000 from his safe. Another Christian sent me pictures of a small club, destroyed in a fire the mob set, and explained: “This was a small social club for us Christians that we spend our nights. As you see, we live very poorly and humbly. They had no reason to attack us. All we want is to enjoy a beer after a hard day of work. Is that too much to ask? Are Muslim minorities in the West treated like this?”
This attack came about because a local imam, Mullah Mala Ismail Osman Sindi, had preached a Friday sermon that day railing against moral corruption, after which a man in the congregation, roused to a pitch of moral indignation, stood up and started calling out the names of local businesses that Christians owned. An archdeacon of the Assyrian Church of the East, Emanuel Youkhana, noted: “The interesting thing with this incident is the place where it happened. [The Kurdish Regional Government] is, for the most part, safe and secure, and all inhabitants enjoy prosperity and security, until now at least. The future is, by all means, bleak for Christians and other minorities living there.”
Indeed, and it has been for quite some time. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, escalating Muslim persecution has caused over half of the prewar population of around a million Christians to flee the country. Jihadis have particularly targeted clergy: on April 5, 2008, Youssef Adel, a Syriac Orthodox priest in Baghdad, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he was opening the gate of his house. Just weeks before that, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of the Chaldean Catholic Church was kidnapped and murdered in the Iraqi city of Mosul.