Assyrian church

19.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

The Assyrian Church of the East or Syriac Persian Church (official name—the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East), is also sometimes called the Nestorian Church or the Persian Church.

This is a Christian church of the East Syriac liturgical rite and a pre-Ephesian church (a church that recognizes the confession of faith only of the first two Ecumenical Councils: the First Council of Nicaea (325) and the First Council of Constantinople (381), but rejects the confessions of the Third Ecumenical Council and subsequent councils). It was founded among the Aramean-speaking peoples of Mesopotamia in the first century. 

Assyrian church



In literary sources, it is said that the Syriac Persian Church adheres to Nestorianism. The teachings of Nestorius, described in his writings, and the teaching of the Syriac Persian Church that differs from them, are not related to Nestorianism, which was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus. In the sixth century, the Nestorian theologian Babai the Great wrote a Christological formula for the Syriac Persian Church: “Two natures, two qnome (realization of nature) in one person and one will of Christ”.

Structure of the church

Even though the main followers of the Church of Persia were the Syrians of the East, it previously preached the position according to which the world was divided into two parts by the Roman-Persian border. The Syriac-Persian Church perceived the eastern territories as its own.  This was reflected in the very name “Church of the East” and in the title “Catholicos of the East” adopted in 310 by the bishop of Seleucia, Ctesiphon bao Gaggay. In 410, in order to implement decisions of the First Ecumenical Council, a new council was convened, chaired by Catholicos Mar ‘Ishaq. There, the commissioners of the Roman-Byzantine Church officially recorded and confirmed the teachings. Also, the council, with the consent of the Byzantine ambassador Maruta, proclaimed the Catholicos of the Church of the East to be “Catholicos and head of the bishops of the whole East”. Therefore, the Roman bishops had claims to the title of “Patriarch of the West”. But this division was put to an end when the Assyrian Church of the East, which occupied the eastern territories up to the Japanese border, lost its lands and remained only in Mesopotamia. At this time, the Church of Rome, on the contrary, strengthened its world position.

Church service

The Syro-Persian Church observes the traditional East Syrian liturgical rite. There are three types of service:

  1. Thaddeus and Mary
  2. Theodore of Mopsuestia
  3. Nestoria

Classical Syriac is the language of the service (in the temples of India, the Malayalam language is also used). In churches, the places for images of the saints are occupied by wall quotes from the Bible, and there are no icons and statues.   The name of God “Yahweh”, depicted in churches, liturgical books and on the cross, is revered, as “yud”, or “yud” and “chi”, or “hi+vav”. Divine power and glory are called “Shekhinah” (as in Judaism).

Grateful votive animal donations are accepted. They are performed when a person, turning to God, takes vows of making a sacrifice after receiving what he or she wants. A ram or rooster is sacrificed in the courtyard of the temple, then boiled, and at the end of the service divided between believers. The Armenian Apostolic Church also observes this custom. In some tribes, there are still various rituals of Judaism, for example, the observance of the Sabbath (not to work on Saturday or Sunday) and a ban on cooking meat in milk. Therefore the Church of the East originated in Judeo-Christianity in the era of the Apostles and the times of Dyophysitism (the concept of two natures existing in Jesus Christ—divine and human). At that time, Christianity had not yet been assimilated. 

The Assyrian Church of the East until the 19th century was called the Syrian Church of the East. Scientists believe that the name changed under the influence of the Aramaic language since the first letter “aleph” in the word “Assyria” could be unreadable. That’s how the word “Syria” appeared. Many well-known clerics received the prefix or suffix “Syrian” to their names, for example, Ephraim the Syrian.

In the Assyrian Church of the East, seven sacred rites are observed. These are the sacrament of baptism, holy communion, priesthood, confirmation, repentance without confession, holy leaven (Malka) and the sign of the cross. Baptism and Holy Communion are the most important of these.

The sacrament of holy leaven is based on the belief that the Apostle Thaddeus brought to the East a piece of bread from the Last Supper of Jesus Christ. Since then, its grains have been used in the process of preparing liturgical bread for communion.

The celebrated holidays include: August 28, the day of remembrance of the Virgin Mary (Mat-Maryam); the day of St. George (Mar-Givargiz) on the first Monday of November according to the Julian calendar; Mar-Zayya on June 14, September 26 and January 12 and Mar-Shallita on October 1 and 2.

Modern Assyrian Church of the East

During the reign of Tamerlane, the patriarchs resided in the village of Alkosh (north of modern Iraq), from the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century, and also in the village of Konak, Turkey.

At the end of the First World War, after the defeat of the rebellion against the Ottomans and the further genocide of the Assyrians, the adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East hid in different parts of the world. A significant number emigrated to Iraq, which was then under the control of Great Britain. When British rule in Iraq ended in 1933, the Assyrian clash with the local armed forces ended in a new massacre and the destruction of the community. The Iraqi government stripped Assyrian Patriarch Mar Shimun XXIII of his citizenship and expelled him. He settled in San Francisco (USA).

In 1964, some clergy opposed the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the custom of inheriting the patriarchal title and finding the residence of the patriarch abroad. Assyrian Indian Metropolitan Mar Thoma Darmo was the leader among the opposition. In 1968, he elevated three bishops higher ranks in Baghdad. Soon at the council, he was elected patriarch. The new movement became called the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East. Mar Thoma Darmo was succeeded by Mar Addai II.

In 1973, Mar Shimun renounced the dignity of the patriarch when he married. For a long time, the movement remained without a new successor. In 1976, the bishop of Tehran was elected patriarch. He changed his name to Mar Dinkha IV and moved to America.  There he abolished the custom of inheritance of the patriarchate. Consequently, the main disagreement that led to the church schism was eliminated. But the conflict was not completely exhausted, although the negotiations between the bishops were successful. Today, eleven bishops obey Mar Dinkha IV and five bishops—Mar Addai II. 

In November 1994, the Common Christological Declaration was signed in the Vatican between Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II. It united the Assyrian Church of the East and Catholicism “in the common confession of the Son of God”. An annual commission on theological affairs was established. Subsequently, the relationship between the Church of the East and one of its separated branches, the Chaldean Catholic Church, became better. In November 1996, the patriarchs of both churches signed a Common Patriarchal Statement in Southfield, Michigan.


Catholicos-Patriarch Gewargis III is the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East and his residence is located in Morton Grove, Illinois, USA.

The number of its followers in different sources varies from two hundred to four hundred thousand. They live in Iraq, Syria, America, Armenia and other countries. Followers living in Russia are subordinate to the Bishop of Iraqi Kurdistan and the CIS. In Moscow, in 1998, the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary was built.


Ancient Assyrian Church of the East

This is an offshoot of the Assyrian Church of the East, which appeared in 1964. The Church observes the Eastern Syriac rite. Patriarch Mar Addai II is the head of the church. The residence is located in Baghdad, Iraq.

According to some data, the number of followers is about one hundred thousand people, but another estimate is as low as fifty-five thousand. According to estimates of the 1990s, there are about twenty-three thousand adherents in Iraq and there are a number of church parishes there. In addition to Iraq, groups exist in New Zealand, Germany, Australia and the United States.


In 1964, some clerics expressed their dissatisfaction with the Gregorian calendar, the inheritance of the patriarchal title and the fact that the residence of the patriarch was located in a foreign land. The Indian Metropolitan Mar Thoma Darmo was the leader of the opposition and he was soon elected patriarch. He was succeeded by Mar Addai II. The new church called itself the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East.

On May 22, 2014, a meeting was held in Chicago between representatives of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East. During the meeting, both sides expressed the intention to unite after half a century of schism into the United Church of the East.


The Church is headed by a patriarch, a catholico. Today it is Mar Addai II. The ordination takes place in the following stages: deacon, priest (presbyter) and bishop. The church is divided into dioceses, each headed by a bishop. Dioceses, in turn, are divided into parish communities headed by priests.


In June 2010, the church officially announced that it would now celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar on December 25. Therefore the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East will adhere to the same calendar. This discrepancy was the basis for their separation. The date of Easter will remain according to the Julian calendar.  

This act is considered a step towards reconciliation. A joint meeting of the Holy Synod will be held soon. Perhaps, upon its completion, these two movements will finally resolve all their differences and create a single cohesive church.