Chaldean Christians – J. LABOURT

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From the Catholic Encyclopedia

The name of former Nestorians now reunited with the Roman Church. Ethnologically they are divided into two groups (Turco-Persian and Indian), which must be treated apart, since in their vicissitudes one group differs considerably from the other. The first group is usually known as Chaldeans, the second as Christians of St. Thomas (also called the Syro-Malabar Church).


Strictly, the name of Chaldeans is no longer correct; in Chaldea proper, apart from Baghdad, there are now very few adherents of this rite, most of the Chaldean population being found in the cities of Kerkuk, Arbil, and Mosul, in the heart of the Tigris valley, in the valley of the Zab, in the mountains of Kurdistan. It is in the former ecclesiastical province of Ator (Assyria) that are now found the most flourishing of the Catholic Chaldean communities. The native population accepts the name of Atoraya-Kaldaya (Assyro-Chaldeans) while in the neo-Syriac vernacular Christians generally are known as Syrians. The territory now occupied by these Chaldeans belonged once to the ancient Sassanid Empire of Persia, later Omayyad and then the Abbassid caliphs of Islam. Turkish and Mongol invasions, and later efforts to reconstruct the former Kingdom of Persia shattered effectually the earlier political unity of this region; since the end of the sixteenth century the territory of the Chaldeans has been under Turkish or Persian rule. In fact, however, a number of the mountain tribes are only nominally subject to either.


From the fifth century, the Persian Church quietly, almost unconsciously, adopted the Nestorian errors. Previous to that period, its relations with Rome had been insignificant owing to distance, language, racial temper, and a certain ardour of nationalism begotten by the almost perpetual wars with the Roman Empire. Up to the end of the Middle Ages, there also lay between Persia and Rome another, and insuperable, obstacle: The Byzantine Church.

It is true that at the end of seventh century a Nestorian prelate, Sahdona, accepted the Council of Chalcedon and returned to Christian orthodoxy, but this implied only a renewal of union with the Melchite (Orthodox Greek) Church of Antioch and the East, by no means a recognition of the supremacy of the Pope of Old Rome. The present Chaldeans do not therefore descend from Sahdona.

It was not until the thirteenth century that the political revolutions of Central and Farther Asia permitted closer relations between the Nestorian Christians and the Roman Church, whose missionaries then reached the valley of the Tigris by way of the new Latin principalities. Innocent IV, an earnest promoter of the Eastern missions, had sent two Dominicans to Sabhrisho’ ibn-al-Masih, the Catholicos of the Nestorians. Through his vicar Ard (perhaps Addai) the catholicos sent to Rome a profession of faith and a theological treatise by the Archbishop of Nisibis, Iso’yahb bar Malkon (1247). The result of this mission is unknown; certainly Makkika and Denha, successors of the aforesaid catholicos, pursued the matter no further. Yahbalaha III, however, elected in 1281, sent to the pope, in his own name and in that of Argun, King of the Tatars, the Chinese monk, Barsauma (1287). Nicholas IV welcomed the Nestorian envoy and sent him home with many gifts for the catholicos, requesting kind treatment for such Dominican missionaries as might traverse his province.

In 1304 the same Yahbalaha took advantage of the return to Rome of the Dominican James to address to Benedict XI a profession of faith dated from the city of Maraga. The frightful disturbances of the fourteenth century interrupted these friendly relations. Towards the middle of the fifteenth century the office of catholicos became hereditary and passed from uncle to nephew in the same family. Meanwhile the Nestorian communities, dispersed throughout the former Arabian Empire, cut off from all communication with their natural religious centre, dwindled to insignificant proportions or disappeared altogether. In 1445 Andreas, Archbishop of Colossae, was sent by Eugene IV to reconcile with Rome the Nestorian prelate Timothy, known as the Archbishop of Tarsus, but then resident in Cyprus. After obtaining from this prelate certain modifications of the Nestorian Liturgy, Andreas forbade the Latin Christians of Cyprus to treat the Chaldeans as heretics.

In 1551 the Catholicos Simeon bar Mama was succeeded by his nephew, Simeon Denha. According to a custom then about a century old, the latter was consecrated by Henanisho, the only remaining metropolitan. A numerous anti-synod met at Mosul, convoked by the Bishops of Arbil, Salamas, and Aderbaidjan. In agreement with the principal laymen they chose for bishop a monk of the monastery of Rabban-Hormizd Se’ ud bar Daniel, known as Sulaga (Ascension). Probably at the suggestion of some Latin missionary, they sent him to Rome, where he received episcopal consecration from Julius III, with the title of Patriarch of the Chaldeans. On his return to his country Sulaga consecrated two metropolitans and three bishops. In the meantime, the aforesaid Nestorian catholicos, Simeon Denha, won over the Pasha of Diarbekir; John Sulaga was imprisoned and later on (1555) was put to death. The united Chaldeans soon chose as his successor Abdisho’, the Metropolitan of Djeziret ibn-Omar (Beit-Zabdai’), who went to Rome (1562) during the pontificate of Pius IV, received there the pallium, and was invited to assist at the Council of Trent. He declined this honour but addressed to the assembly a profession of faith that was read at the twenty-second session. He returned to his people, and after a few years died among them at Seert (1567). The patriarchal office remained vacant for some time. Though very little as known of Aitalaha, the successor of Abdisho’, it is certain that he did not go to Rome for the pallium, as did his predecessors. His energetic auxiliary, however, Hormizd-Elias Amas Abid, who had been consecrated by Sulaka as Archbishop of Amid and Jerusalem, was always in friendly communication with the Latins. In the meantime a large body of Nestorians headed by Denha Simeon, the Archbishop of Gelu, Salamas, and Seert, rejected the authority of the successor of bar Mama and submitted to Aitalaha, on whose death Simeon was chosen to succeed him. The Turco-Persian wars obliged Simeon to reside in the mountains, near Salamas in Persia, whereas his predecessors had resided at Amid (Amida). This change of residence had important consequences: the successors of Simeon in the end retained jurisdiction only over the provinces subject to the Persians, and had no longer any intercourse with Rome except at long intervals. In this way many Chaldeans returned to the Nestorian heresy (if, indeed, they had ever abandoned it). Simeon died in 1593. In 1619 his successor, Simeon II, wrote that he should visit Rome, which promise, however, he was unable to execute. In 1650 Simeon III corresponded with Innocent X. In 1658 Simeon IV entered on relations with the Congregation of Propaganda, for which attitude his subjects tried to depose him. Alexander VII, however, defended him earnestly in a letter to the King of Persia and urged that he might be permitted to retain his patriarchal office. There is still extant a letter of Simeon V (1670) to Clement X, also one of Simeon VI (1770) to Clement XIV. Since the election of Simeon VII (1839) no further attempts have been made by the Chaldeans of Persia to renew relations with Rome. The establishment (1837) of a Protestant mission near Urmia probably accounts for this regrettable attitude. Nevertheless, the present Nestorian patriarch, resident at Kotchannes in the mountains of Kurdistan, is a direct successor of John Sulaga, one of those who initiated the aforesaid union with Rome.

Simeon bar Mama was succeeded in 1576 by Elias Simeon Venha who in 1586 sent a profession of faith to Sixtus V. It was, however, judged heretical. Elias II (1591-1617) took up again the question of reunion and in a letter to Rome (1610) complained that he and his people were regarded as heretics by the Franciscans of the Holy Land. In 1616 he assembled at Amid (Diarbekir) a general synod, attended by eight metropolitans and in which Padre Tommaso da Novara, superior of the Franciscan convent of Aleppo, took part. In preparation for this synod an embassy had been sent to Rome (1612) headed by the archimandrite, Addai. The union was consummated, but in appearance only. Two persons appeared to have been sincere in their conversion: Addai, consecrated at the aforesaid synod as Bishop of Amid and Jerusalem and (perhaps) the patriarch. The latter, however, died the following year. His successor, Elias (III) Simeon (1617-1660) also solicited from Rome the pallium but his profession of faith was not found orthodox. The negotiations soon ceased and were not resumed either by Elias (IV) John (1600-1700), or by Elias (V) (1700-1723). It is said that Elias (VI) Denha (1723-1778) corresponded with Rome. If so his successor, Elias (VII) Ishotyahb, observed an attitude of independence. Finally, John Hormizd — the last descendant of the patriarchal family of bar Mama — went over definitely to the Catholic Church (1830) and took with him the See of Baghdad-Mosul and many Nestorians.

In 1672, Joseph, the Nestorian Archbishop of Diarbekir, following the advice of the Capuchin missionaries, withdrew from communion with the Patriarch Elias IV. The latter tried to have him assassinated and roused against him the vigorous enmity of the Turkish authorities. Joseph fled to Rome (1675), but after an understanding with the Propaganda, and with the sanction of Clement X, returned to his own country where he was active in organizing the union of his people with Rome. Innocent XI granted him the pallium (1681) and the title of patriarch. He resigned in 1693 and died at Rome. The learned Joseph (II) Ma’aruf (1693-1713), received from Clement XI (1701) the title of Patriarch of Babylon. His successor, Joseph (III) Moses Timothy (1714-1756), had a very troubled career. In 1731 he went to Constantinople to protest against the incessant annoyances of the Nestorians. Thence he proceeded to Rome, where he promptly received an intimation to return to his diocese. He was unable, however, to reach it and appeared again in Rome (1735), where for six years he was kept in seclusion. At the end of this period he was restored, at the prayers of his flock, and returned to Amid (1741), where he died in 1756. Joseph (IV) Timothy (1759-1779) followed him in the patriarchal office. Joseph (V) Augustine Hindi succeeded (1779-1826) with the title of Archbishop and Administrator of the Chaldean Patriarchate of the Province of Diarbekir, for the Diocese of Mosul he had as auxiliary the priest George of Alkosch. Owing to the scarcity of documents the history of this period is little known. From letters edited by Giamil (Genuinae relationes, 391-399) it would appear that properly speaking Joseph IV had no successor, perhaps because of the aforementioned conversion to Catholicism of John Hormizd, the last descendant of bar Mama. John Hormizd had been excommunicated in 1818, but was reconciled with Rome in 1830 and proclaimed Patriarch of Babylon by Pius VIII; he owed this happy settlement to the kind efforts of Pierre Coupperie, the Latin Bishop of Babylon. In 1838 Nicholas Isaias Jacob, Bishop of Aderbaidjan, and a former pupil of the College of Propaganda at Rome, was appointed his coadjutor with right of succession. The same year John Hormizd died, and in 1847 Isaias Jacob resigned. His successor, Joseph (VI) Audo (1848-1878), entered on a serious conflict with Pius IX. Though the Bull “Reversurus” had provoked (1867) a schism in Armenia, it was imposed upon the Chaldeans in 1869. Joseph Audo maintained his prerogative in the matter of episcopal ordinations and was threatened with excommunication by the papal Encyclical of September, 1876. Audo died in 1878, but had previously been reconciled with Pius IX. Leo XIII appointed as his successor Elias (XII) Abolionan (1878-1894), who was followed by the learned George ‘Abdisho’ (V) Khayyath (1894-1899) and Joseph Emmanuel (II) Thomas.


The latest and most complete Statistics of the Catholic Chaldeans were furnished in 1896 by Mgr. George ‘Abdisho’ Khayyath to the Abbe Chabot (Revue de l’Orient Chrétien, I, no. 4). The patriarch considers Baghdad as the principal city of his see. His title of Patriarch of Babylon results from the erroneous identification (in the seventeenth century) of modern Baghdad with ancient Babylon. As a matter of fact the Chaldean patriarch resides habitually at Mosul and reserves for himself the direct administration of this diocese and that of Baghdad. There are five archbishops (resident respectively at Bassora, Diarbekir, Kerkuk, Salamas, and Urmia) and seven bishops. Eight patriarchal vicars govern the small Chaldean communities dispersed throughout Turkey and Persia. The Chaldean clergy, especially the monks of Rabban-Hormizd, have established some missionary stations in the mountain districts inhabited by Nestorians. Three dioceses are in Persia, the others in Turkey. There are in all 233 parishes and 177 churches or chapels. The Catholic Chaldean Clergy number 248 priests; they are assisted by the religious of the Congregation of St. Hormizd (Rabban-Hormizd) who number about one hundred. There are about fifty-two Chaldean schools (not counting those conducted by Latin nuns and missionaries). At Mosul there is a patriarchal seminary, distinct from the Syro-Chaldean seminary directed by the Dominicans. The total number of the Chaldeans according to the above-mentioned authority is nearly 78,000, 24,000 of whom are in the Diocese of Mosul. This number is perhaps a little exaggerated. The figure of about 66,000 given by Dr. Oussani (see ASIA) as against 140,000 Nestorians is more correct. The liturgical language of the Chaldean Church is Syriac. Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Kurd are variously spoken by the people; in some districts the vernacular is neo-Syriac. The liturgical books are those of the ancient Nestorian Church, corrected in the sense of Catholic orthodoxy. Unfortunately, without doctrinal necessity, they have in some places been made to conform with Latin usage.

Religiously and morally the Chaldeans are on a level with the other Catholic communities of the Oriental Rite. They are becoming daily better instructed, owing in part to the zeal and devotion of Latin missionaries and religious (Dominicans at Mosul, Carmelites at Baghdad, Lazarists in Persia). Their clergy counts among its members such learned men, as Mgr. Giamil, Mgr. Addai Scher, and Mgr. Manna, authors of numerous publications interesting to Orientalists. This literary revival is mostly due to the Lazarist, Pere Bedjan, a Persian Chaldean. He devoted much industry and learning to popularizing among his people, both Catholics and Nestorians, their ancient chronicles, the lives of Chaldean saints and martyrs, even works of the ancient Nestorian doctors.


The west coast of India exhibits since the sixth century a number of flourishing Christian communities subject to the Nestorian Catholicos of Persia. In the sixteenth century Portuguese invaders of India found on the aforesaid coast over 200,000 of these ancient Persian or Syriac Christians, who called themselves Christians of St. Thomas. They acknowledged their dependence on the Nestorian Church for a long time, however, on account of the dangers of travel and continual wars, their intercourse with it was only intermittent. Most of the time, therefore, they were without bishops. The clergy of Goa tried to annex them by a process of latinization, and the Jesuits, successors of St. Francis Xavier, followed a similar policy, but with much moderation and practical sense.

After the above described renewal of relations between Rome and the Chaldean Catholics, their procurator, Bishop Hormizd Elias, was sent to India (1562) by the pope and the Patriarch ‘Abdisho’, with two Dominican missionaries, one of whom was a bishop. ‘Abdisho’ ordained as Bishop of Malabar a certain Joseph whom the Portuguese detained at Goa so that he was able to reach his mission only after two years. In the meantime, because of urgency, a successor had been named, Bishop Abraham of Angamale. This was the cause of misunderstandings and disputes to which Pius IV put an end (1565) by dividing the Malabar territory. This step did not greatly relieve the anxieties of the United Chaldeans of Malabar. Bishop Abraham complained to the pope “that the Fathers of the Society [of Jesus] and the Latin Portuguese tried to withdraw him from obedience to the Chaldean patriarch and to persuade him to demand the pallium directly from the pope. In this way they sought to compel him to “conform to the Latin Rite and to turn over gradually to the Holy See the administration of this province”. The King of Cochin himself asked from the pope (1576) for Bishop Abraham a safe-conduct to attend at Goa the Provincial Council of the Indies, without fear of imprisonment. In 1599, Alexis Menezes, Archbishop of Goa, convoked at Diamper a celebrated synod, in which it was decided to unify the hierarchy and to correct the rituals, missals, and other liturgical books of the Malabar Christians in the sense of the Roman Liturgy. Portuguese authority enforced these decisions on the Malabar Coast, but the policy eventually failed. Many Catholics left the Latin Church and joined the Nestorians. A little later (1603) the Jacobite (Monophysite) patriarch sent a bishop to India, whereupon more than a hundred thousand Malabar Christians accepted him with a view to the preservation of their liturgical (Syriac) tongue, heedless of his Monophysitism, which was, no doubt quite unintelligible to them. Owing to the Carmelite missionaries, who succeeded the Jesuits, nearly 250,000 persevered in Catholic unity, and have remained to the present, loyal to the Holy See and submissive to the Latin hierarchy though they have never ceased their petition to be restored to the obedience of the Chaldean patriarch. This re-affiliation has not been accorded them, even after the Encyclical of Leo XIII “Orientalium Dignitas”. The pope, however, has withdrawn them from the jurisdiction of the Latin bishops and has given them three vicars Apostolic of their nation and rite. These native bishops administer the Dioceses of Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanachery, and are directly subject to Propaganda (1897). This is only a provisional solution. The Catholic Chaldeans of Malabar look always towards the (Catholic) Chaldean patriarchs, who never tire of urging the extension of their jurisdiction over the distant Malabar churches, historically united with the Church of Persia and its legitimate representatives.


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