Currently targeted by ISIS’s militias, the Christian presence in Iraq goes back to the time of the apostles

This article was published in Oasis 22. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:22:32

Currently targeted by ISIS’s militias, the Christian presence in Iraq goes back to the time of the apostles. Over the centuries, it has demonstrated an extraordinary perseverance in the faith and proclaimed the Gospel to the farthest reaches of Asia. From the fifteenth century onwards, its various branches have alternatingly established ties with Rome before reaching the current tripartition into the Chaldean Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East. A division that, if not healed, risks turning into a slow death.

The words of the prophet Isaiah, “Without beauty, without majesty, no looks to attract our eyes” (Is 53:2) might perhaps, without any exaggeration, be applied to the Church of the East today. And yet, if one only lifts the veil imposed by the news reports, how beautiful her disfigured face appears. Currently targeted in Northern Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State’s militias, this Church in the Land of the Two Rivers today maintains a Christian presence that goes back to the time of the apostles. Having grown autonomously, in relative isolation, amidst persecution right from the beginning, she experienced an unrivalled missionary élan that took her as far as distant China during the Middle Ages. She has never, in all her history, been a national Church in the exclusivist sense, having united peoples and nations from Upper Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf, from India to China. Wanting to transform her, today, from a Sacrament for the world into the instrument of a self-absorbed nationalism, as some are demanding, would mean mummifying her: indeed, the Church transcends the boundaries of ethnic groups, languages and nationalities because Christianity is a proclamation of life that takes flesh in every civilization.


 Flowering and Persecution

 Over the course of time, this Church has been characterised by three fundamental features: martyrdom under the Persian Empire; monastic life, which blossomed after that persecution; and perseverance, in the faith and in missionary activity, during the Islamic era.

Without going back as far as the preaching of St. Thomas the Apostle and his disciples, Addai and Mari, the Church of the East blossomed rapidly during the first few centuries of the Christian era, as witnessed by the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410. During the fifth century, she adopted the Antiochene Christology but political circumstances gradually isolated her from the rest of the universal Church. Indeed, she was situated in the territory of the Sassanid Empire, which viewed every contact with the Roman Empire with suspicion. However, it was only during the seventh century that Nestorius’s theological teachings made their appearance. Attribution of the definition “Nestorian” to this Church is thus an anachronism: her true name is Church of the East. By virtue of the historical vicissitudes that I will illustrate, today this Church includes the Chaldean Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East. I still nurse the unshakeable hope that these three branches may find their lost unity, because separation is a sin and means a slow death.

When, in the seventh century, the Muslim Arabs reached today’s Iraq and defeated the Sassanid troops, more than half the inhabitants were Christians of Syriac tongue and culture. Arabic spread rapidly, partly because the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) made it the official language of administration. The altered political, economic and social climate pushed the Christians to adopt the conquerors’ language, whilst Syriac retreated to the liturgy and literature.

When the Caliphate passed to the Abbasids, the power centre moved to Mesopotamia. In this new context, Christians played a special role, facilitating cultural interaction and greatly contributing to the cultural output, particularly in the field of translation. It will suffice to recall the famous man of letters, Hunayn Ibn Ishāq al-‘Ibādī, a native of Hira (near Kufa) whose mother tongue was Syriac. He translated 39 books from Greek to Arabic and 95 into Syriac.[1] In reality, the Christians were not simply transmitters: they contributed creatively by adding their own experience and knowledge to the texts they translated. Thus they constituted a cultural and civilizational bridge between the East and the West. Of these great thinkers, we can recall Bakhtishū‘ and his family, at the medical school in Gundeshapur, who served numerous Caliphs; the above-mentioned Hunayn Ibn Ishāq (d. 873); and the Catholicos,[2] Timothy the Great (780-832), a prolific writer and an excellent translator whose various dialogues with the Caliph al-Mahdi regarding issues of Christian and Islamic faith are to be remembered. Timothy transferred the Patriarchate’s seat to Baghdad and the letters he wrote about various religious and cultural subjects attest the breadth of his intellectual interests. It should be noted that this literary heritage was not the exclusive preserve of the clergy: numerous laypersons also wrote about theology and law. When, in 837, the Caliph al-Mu‘tasim built the new capital, Samarra, approximately 100km north of Baghdad, the Patriarch also moved there and when, in 899, the Caliph al-Mu‘tamid abandoned Samarra in order to return to Baghdad, the Patriarch followed him once again. These facts illustrate the level of integration achieved by the Church of the East in the new Islamic environment. Although Abbasid policies caused many Christians to convert to Islam, the Church of the East spread widely in other countries and founded dioceses in Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cyprus and the Gulf. Some missionary monks followed the Silk Route and took their Syriac language and rites along with the Gospel as far as China.

In 1258, the Abbasid Caliphate collapsed under the blows of the Mongol invasion. The Christians’ situation under the new rulers was ambiguous. Indeed, some of the khans were attracted by Christianity and showed a certain liking for the Church: earlier, the Caliph al-Musta‘sim had asked the Patriarch Makkikha II to negotiate a truce with the Mongol Chieftain, Hulagu, and when the city fell to the Mongols, the Patriarch was allowed to reside in one of the Abbasid palaces. In actual fact, eastern Christianity had already spread amongst the Mongol tribes in India and China by the time the Mongols occupied Baghdad. ‘Abdisho‘ Bar Brikha al-Sūbāwī (d. 1318) drew up a list of 27 metropolitan seats and 200 dioceses under the Catholicos of the East, totalling almost 8 million believers! Nevertheless, the situation of tolerance was not to last long. Indeed, the second Khan, Ghazan, began imposing many restrictions on the Christians once he had officially embraced Islam. He destroyed some of the churches, transforming them into mosques, and looted the seat of the Patriarchate. Thus began the decline of what had been the most important missionary Church during the Middle Ages.

Under Tamerlane, the majority of Mongols adopted Islam and the persecution of Christians and the systematic destruction of their churches began. This pushed the Christians to escape towards the mountainous regions of Kurdistan. The more distant dioceses were left to themselves by the mother Church and, little by little, they vanished.

There was, however, the novelty of a resuming of contact with the Roman Church. In actual fact, when the crusaders gained control of the Holy Land, some western missionaries pushed on eastwards. The first encounter with the Church of the East took place with the arrival of the Franciscans and Dominicans in Basra, Baghdad, Mosul and Amid (now Diyarbakir). Of these missionaries, William of Rubruck (d. 1280), Ricoldo of Monte Croce (d. 1320) and John of Montecorvino (d. 1328) may be remembered. In parallel, some eastern Christians acted as diplomats between the Mongols and the West. The most famous of these was the monk Bar Sawma, who was assistant to the Catholicos Mar Yahballah III (1291-1317). The Mongolian Khan Arghun sent him on a mission to the Western kings to propose a military alliance to liberate the Holy Land and protect the Eastern Christians. Bar Sawma met the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II King Philip IV of France, King Edward I of England and Pope Nicholas IV. His efforts failed nevertheless. And yet it should be noted that while he was in Rome, Bar Sawma celebrated Mass under the Eastern rite in St. John Lateran, in the presence of the Pope, and received communion from his hands. Through Bar Sawma, the Roman curia became aware of the existence of the Church of the East: up until then it had only heard vague stories about it. After Bar Sawma’s death in 1294, the Holy See continued to correspond with the Catholicos of the East, but without any noteworthy results.

Further direct contact was made with the Roman Church in 1340, when a group of Eastern Christians joined the Catholic Church in Cyprus. They became known as Chaldeans. This union with Rome was renewed in 1440 when Timothy, bishop of Tarsus, renewed his community’s union with the Catholic Church following the Council of Ferrara-Florence under the pontificate of Eugene IV. He took the title of Archbishop of the Chaldeans residing in Cyprus. Nevertheless, this union did not live long either and after Timothy’s death in 1479, these Eastern Christians gradually merged with the local communities.


 John Sulaqa, Unity’s Martyr

 During the fifteenth century, the Church of the East’s eparchies decreased, becoming limited to Northern Mesopotamia and the Hakkari mountains in what is now southern Turkey. In 1450, the Patriarch Simeon IV al-Bāsīdī (d. 1497) united spiritual and temporal authority in himself and made the patriarchate hereditary within his own family, with the high office of patriarch passing from uncle to nephew. The fact that a single family controlled the patriarchal see weakened the Church of the East on the intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and administrative levels because of the conflicts and divisions that were generated amongst the faithful, particularly when the office of Patriarch fell to a boy. In 1539, Patriarch Simeon VII (1537-1557) was forced to ordain his nephew as metropolitan when the latter was not yet 18 years old, because there was no one else in the family. Many dioceses remained vacant for the same reason. A few years later, another boy was ordained when he was barely fifteen.

There was a growing discontent amongst the faithful, particularly in the regions of Amid and Seert. All those opposed to the office of Catholicos being hereditary met in northern Mesopotamia and then in Mosul in February 1552. The notables of Mosul, numerous priests and monks and the bishops of Erbil, Salmas and Azerbaijan all took part in this extended meeting and unanimously chose John Sulaqa, abbot of the Rabban Hormizd monastery, as patriarch. Since there was no archbishop who could ordain him, the bishops sent him with a delegation to Rome, to obtain recognition from the Holy See. Accompanied by the people’s notables, Sulaqa made his way first to the Holy Land to venerate the Holy Places and then continued his journey as far as Rome. He professed his apostolic faith in the presence of Pope Julius III on 20 February 1553 and was consecrated bishop in April of the same year. When the news of Patriarch Simeon’s death spread in Rome, the Holy See appointed him Patriarch of Mosul by the Bull Divina Disponente Clementia, dated 28 April 1553. He took the name Simeon VIII Sulaqa.

Sulaqa returned to Amid in November 1553, accompanied by some Dominican friars charged with helping him spread Catholicism. He established his see in the city and reinforced his position by ordaining two metropolitans and three bishops and obtaining the recognition of the Ottoman Sublime Porte. But the rival Catholicos won the governor of ‘Amidiyya over to his cause. The latter invited Sulaqa to his house, imprisoned him and tortured him for four months until he died in January 1555. For this reason, the Chaldean Church considers Sulaqa “union’s martyr.”[3]

The five bishops consecrated by Sulaqa elected the monk ‘Abdisho‘ Marun IV ‘Abdisho‘ (1553-1570) as his successor. Having made his way to Rome and obtained the recognition of Pope Pius IV, he established his see in a monastery near Seert, where he remained until his death. For their own safety and for pastoral reasons, the patriarchs who succeeded him resided in Seert, Salmas, Khosrowa and Urmia. They remained in communion with the Holy See until the seventeenth century, but none of them went to Rome to obtain papal confirmation. At the end of the seventeenth century, this line of patriarchs moved its see to Qudshanis in the remote Hakkari mountains and gradually returned to its traditional doctrine, flavoured with Nestorian elements, as it lost its contacts with Rome. The current Assyrian Church of the East descends from this line, whilst the Chaldean patriarch derives from the line of Simeon VII. Through one of history’s paradoxes, therefore, the Nestorian tradition has continued through Sulaqa’s religious descendants whilst Catholicism has been perpetuated in those of his “Nestorian” rival.

Within the Assyrian Church of the East, the patriarchate once again became hereditary: a practice that only ended in 1976 with Dinkha IV (1976-2015). As a result of the persecutions unleashed by the Young Turks, the Assyrian patriarchate abandoned its see in Qudshanis in 1915 and, after various vicissitudes, established itself in Chicago. The Ancient Church of the East then detached itself from this Church in 1964, establishing its see in Baghdad.


 Three Rival Families

Sulaqa’s rival, Simeon VII, was succeeded by Elias VI (1559-1591), who transferred the patriarchal see to the monastery of Rabban Hormizd, near Mosul, and then by Elias VII (1591-1617) who, possibly influenced by the numerous pilgrims who passed to Catholicism in Jerusalem, sent emissaries to Rome in 1606-1607 and in 1611 to discuss the possibility of union. Under the influence of the Franciscan Tommaso Obicini da Novara, Elias VII convened a Synod in 1616, at which he re-professed his Catholic faith, particularly as far as Christology was concerned, but without reaching union. Simeon XX (of the Sulaqa line) also sent his profession of faith to Rome at the same time. The Franciscan friars therefore sought to get the two parties to communicate with each other, for the purposes of restoring communion, but without results.

The formal ties between Rome and the Patriarchate of Mosul were broken off during the reign of Elias VIII (1617-60), concurrently with what was happening with regard to Sulaqa’s line. As a consequence, neither of the Patriarchates (in Qudshanis and in Mosul) were any longer in communion with Rome during the second half of the seventeenth century. For this reason, the Capuchin missionary Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Aignan, who had begun to work in Amid, convinced the local metropolitan, Joseph, to convert to Catholicism in 1672. Joseph obtained recognition from the civil authorities as an independent archbishop with jurisdiction over Amid and Mardin in 1677. Rome confirmed him as Joseph I, “Patriarch of the Chaldean nation, nation without a Patriarch” in 1681 and thus a third patriarchal line was established in Amid, all the members of which took the name of Joseph.

The patriarchal line at Amid had considerable success in spreading the Catholic faith in Amid, Seert, Mardin, Upper Mesopotamia and the Nineveh plain. This line of patriarchs lasted up to Augustine Hindi, who became bishop of Amid and patriarchal administrator in 1804. He was invested with the pallium in 1818 but was never officially appointed Patriarch. When he died in 1828, the patriarchate of Amid ceased to exist; after 146 years of communion with Rome. From then on, the Chaldeans had only one patriarchate, in Mosul, which was led by John Hormizd.


 John Hormizd and Chaldean Reunification

Indeed, at the end of the eighteenth century, the majority of believers belonging to the Church of the East in the region of Mosul and the plain of Nineveh had embraced Catholicism under the influence of the patriarchate at Amid and with the help of the Capuchin friars and the Dominicans. Becoming aware of the Catholic movement’s growing force, the Catholicos of Mosul, Elias XII Dinkha (1722-1778), had written various letters to Rome expressing his desire for union: a union that nevertheless could not be achieved. He was succeeded by his nephew, Elias XIII Ishoyahb (1778-1804), who was greatly opposed by his cousin John Hormizd. The death of Elias XIII paved the way for John’s election. He had considered himself a Catholic since 1778 but was only confirmed as metropolitan of Mosul and patriarchal administrator, without the title of Patriarch. This was because of opposition from the Roman missionaries as well as a part of his own Church, who preferred Augustine Hindi of Amid to him. When Augustine Hindi died, John Hormizd was finally confirmed by Pius VIII as the sole Patriarch of the Chaldeans on 5 July 1830, with his see in Mosul. Thus the patriarchates of Amid and Mosul were finally united and the ancient patriarchal line of the Church of the East has remained in communion with Rome ever since.

In order to prevent John Hormizd making the office of patriarch hereditary again, Rome appointed Nicholas Zayia, the metropolitan of Salmas (1838-1848), as his coadjutor with the right of succession. In 1844, Nicholas obtained the imperial Ottoman firman that recognised him as Patriarch of the Chaldeans and head of an independent millet [religious community]. Nicholas was succeeded by Joseph VI Audo, the nineteenth century’s most noteworthy and energetic Chaldean patriarch and a strenuous defender of the eastern patriarchs’ rights at the First Vatican Council (1870). Audo laid the foundations for the Chaldean Church’s considerable growth during the decades preceding the First World War. Convinced that the Chaldean Church needed priests and bishops who were highly cultured and deeply spiritual, he founded a printing-house and opened the “Simon Cephas” Chaldean patriarchal seminary in Mosul in 1866, whilst he also supported the construction of the monastery of Our Lady of the Seeds near al-Qosh (1859). In 1878, the Dominicans opened St. John’s seminary in Mosul, in their turn. This was to form Chaldean and Syriac priests for the purposes of fostering unity and collaboration between the two churches.



Many Christian regions traditionally inhabited by Chaldeans and Syriacs were devastated during the First World War. The patriarchate of Qudshanis was wiped out and the Assyrians all had to abandon the Hakkari region. Thousands of Chaldeans in Seert, Diyarbakir, in Upper Mesopotamia, near Lake Van, and in Mardin were massacred by formations in the pay of the Ottomans and some bishops were killed. Nevertheless, the region of Mosul and other Chaldean regions were not hit, thanks to the efforts of the patriarch Joseph Emanuel II (1900-1947), who led the Chaldean Church during the sensitive passage from the Ottoman Empire to the British mandate and then to the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

During his long patriarchate, many of the faithful belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East (almost wiped out by the genocide) joined the Catholic Church, thanks to the pastoral efforts of priests and monks, whilst Anglican and Russian-Orthodox missionaries carried out an analogous action. In 1947, Joseph VII Ghanima (1947-1958) transferred the patriarchate to Baghdad, in order to be closer both to the government’s offices and to the faithful who had begun to move to the capital because of the greater work opportunities and the possibility of studying at a higher secondary and university level. His successor, Paul Cheikho (1958-1989), Archbishop of Aleppo, had to guide the Chaldean Church through three revolutions (1958, 1963 and 1968), reckoning with three regimes, the Kurdish uprising and the long Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). During the conflicts between the Kurds and the Iraqi army (which lasted until 1975), many Christian villages were burned and many churches destroyed.

The war with Iran marked the beginning of the exodus abroad. The Church failed to heal the sense of eradication suffered by the refugees coming from the northern regions and did not succeed in stemming the demographic haemorrhage. Patriarch Cheikho built numerous churches in Baghdad to host the Christian refugees but there was no pastoral work methodically dedicated to welcoming them and giving them the skills they needed in order to become integrated in the new social environment, something made all the more necessary by the fact that many of them came from rural regions. When Cheikho died in 1989, the Chaldean synod elected the bishop of Beirut, Raphael Bidawid (1989-2003), as patriarch, at the end of the exhausting Iran-Iraq war. The regime had not learned its lesson, however, and provoked the second Gulf war, which was followed by twelve years of embargoes. This period was characterized by a growing Christian exodus that led to the forming of dioceses in the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

One of the most important results of this period was the Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, signed by Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV on 11 November 1994. This initiative encouraged the respective hierarchies of the two twin Chaldean and Assyrian Churches to form a joint commission for the purposes of pursuing dialogue. In 1996, the two Patriarchs signed a common declaration and in 2001 the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published Guidelines for admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East in 2001. The Chaldean Synod elected Emanuel III Delly in December 2004. He resigned in 2012.

At the beginning of his successor’s patriarchate, the majority of the Chaldeans living in Iraq resided in the big cities or in villages in the plain of Nineveh. They were engaged in education, the medical professions, business and agriculture above all. Although they were a minority from the numerical point of view, they boasted an important presence in society and were appreciated for their culture and openness. Nevertheless, they had already been targeted in a series of attacks from the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime onwards, which fact had forced many of them to emigrate. Between June and August 2014, more than 120,000 Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh plain were forced by the advance of ISIS to flee the land that, as we have seen, had for centuries been the centre of the Chaldean presence. This forced exodus is a catastrophe that threatens Christianity’s historical existence in the region.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] Georges Anawati, Al-masīhiyya wa-l-hadāra al-‘arabiyya (Baghdad, 1984), p. 103.

[2] “Catholicos” is a term used primarily in the Eastern Churches to indicate a bishop with primatial authority (Ed.).

[3] Mons. Raphael Rabban, Shahīd al-ittihād aw Shim‘ūn Yūhannā Sūlāqā al-Kaldānī (al-Mawsil 1955).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Louis Raphaël Sako, “The Church of the East: Two Thousand Years of Martyrdom and Mission”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 35-43.

Online version:
Louis Raphaël Sako, “The Church of the East: Two Thousand Years of Martyrdom and Mission”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: