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The reunification of the two branches
of the Church of the East

. . . initated at the 1996 Baghdad Reunion

Some pages concerning the story of Baghdad College and Al Hikma

Mass at the 1996 reunion

An Ecumenical Alumni Reunion of Two Baghdad Jesuit Schools
with momentous consequences:
i.e. The forthcoming reunification of both branches of the Church of the East

SOME HISTORY: Past efforts at reunification

Jesuits had always worked from the premise that the Oriental Christians themselves are the most effective apostles of the faith when they present a vigorous Christianity to the peoples of Asia. This certainly was accomplished by the missionaries of the Church of the East of Mesopotamia in the sixth through the ninth centuries when they preached the faith in a campaign that extended to China and included all countries in between. It has been found true today principally through the efforts of our Jesuit alumni.

In his History of the Jesuits, William Bangert, S.J. relates the Jesuit efforts to bring about the restoration of full communion of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. In 1580 Pope Gregory chose two Jesuits, Tommaso Raggio and Gianbattista Eliano for one of the early missions to the Eastern Christians and later he depended on other Jesuits to continue these delicate ecumenical discussions. In particular he was interested in The Church of the East.

The four Jesuit founders of the Baghdad Mission

Two Baghdad Jesuit School Alumni reunions

The Jesuits were not successful, but it seems that their alumni have succeeded in helping to carry these efforts of Christian unity to fruition. These are the alumni of the two Jesuit schools in Baghdad that were closed 27 years ago. The Jesuits were expelled from Iraq in 1969 and their two schools were taken over by the Baath Party that had taken control of the Iraqi Government. For the past two decades the Association of Baghdad College and Al-Hikma Alumni have been celebrating biennial reunions to honor their former teachers, raise funds for the Jesuits and exchange ideas among themselves regarding implementation of the system of values they absorbed from the Fadheria (Jesuit Fathers). These gatherings keep getting larger and at this past reunion in Toronto, Canada, the tenth 4-day meeting, over 1,400 Iraqis participated. It was said to be the largest gathering of Iraqis outside of Iraq in any place at any time.

Surprising things happen at each reunion and this most recent one in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (25-28 July, 1996) was no exception. An extraordinary four-hour seminar on the reunification of the Catholic Chaldeans and the Assyrian Church of the East was conducted by more than 200 alumni. Their interest in this courageous undertaking was undoubted and was evident from the presentations as well as the question and answer period. The seminar was initiated by the organizers of the reunion and conducted by key leaders from each of these two branches of Eastern Christians, thus bringing together members of the Chaldean and Assyrian communities.

The seminar started with historical presentations made by Rt. Rev. Sarhad Jammo, Vicar General of the Chaldean Diocese in the U.S. and the Assyrian Bishop Mar Bawai Soro, General Secretary of CIRED (Commission on Inter church Relations and Educational Development). Both men were closely connected to the Jesuits. Bishop Mar Bawai Soro is a Baghdad College alumnus. Rev. Sarhad Jammo who teaches during his annual vacation with the Jesuits in Rome at the Pontifical Oriental Institute is from the Hermiz-Jammo family who sent his four brothers to Baghdad College; in fact one of them taught physics there.

Iraq's Christian Heritage

Iraq's Christian community dates back to Apostolic times of Jude Thaddeus, Bartholomew and Simon who first planted the Christian faith in Northern Iraq. In the fifth century Christians of The Church of the East had positions of honor and responsibility in palaces of the rulers of Mesopotamia. Their influence and ability to spread Christianity lasted for centuries. The dominant Christian rite today in Iraq is that of the Chaldean Catholics.

In the sixth through the ninth centuries these vibrant Eastern Christians preached the faith in a campaign that extended to China. At one timeThe Church of the East had grown to 13 million within a much smaller regional population than there is today, even though it was surrounded on every side by four strong, hostile and aggressive religions: Confucianism, Hinduism, Zorastianism and Islam. Gradually clergy and monasteries of The Church of the East were obliterated by conquest so that today all segments of the original Church of the East number only about one million. Christians constitute a small minority of less than 5% of Iraqis, and disputes among this small minority have prevented them from being a more effective Christian witness. After Vatican II, however, there has been a marked growth of an ecumenical spirit.

Nestorianism and the Assyrian Church of the East

Nestorianism is a theological development reacting to Arianism and stating that in Jesus Christ there existed divinity and humanity as two distinct natures and were not unified into a single personality. Some modern theologians and historians argue that Nestorius was not a "Nestorian", in that he did not hold that Christ was simply a man. And although he distinguished between the two natures in Christ, Nestorius affirmed their union in one person. There were sound and orthodox elements in his writings and today there is serious doubt that he was ever a "heretic". Since 424 a.d. the leaders of the Mesopotamian Church of the East declared the independence of their hierarchy in relation to the "Western Fathers" of the Roman Empire. Although they were later accused of Nestorianism by Rome, they flourished in spite of terrible persecution from the Turks and Mongols.

The Chaldean Catholic Church

In 1445 a reunion of the Nestorian Diocese of Cyprus and Rome took place. In 1553 a few Church of the East bishops desired to impose a radical remedy to the problematic hereditary succession of the patriarchate. They elected Sulaqa, the superior of a convent near Alkosh (25 miles from Mosul). The bishops brought him to Rome where Pope Julius III proclaimed him the patriarch of Mosul on 20 February, 1553. This is considered the birthday of the Chaldean Catholic Church. When Sulaqa returned to Mosul, however, he was imprisoned by the Pasha of Ammadia, tortured for four months, put into a sack and thrown into a lake to drown. His successors and their counterparts within both parts of The Church of the East have endured four centuries of hostility mollified occasionally with peaceful intermissions. Many of these Mesopotamian Christians returned to ecclesiastic isolation to escape a rigid policy of Latinization by Rome.

Hope and anticipation in the future

At the July Jesuit alumni conference Bishop Bawai spoke of the "fraternal relations that today bind the Assyrian Church of the East with the Roman and the Chaldean Catholic churches. He referred to the friendly exchange between Pope John II with His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church and also noted that he values initiatives of this kind and truly appreciates this timely gesture of the Baghdad College Alumni Association. For several years, beginning in 1989, Mar Bawai and Rt. Rev. Sarhad have been mutually taking the initiative and focusing their efforts on full ecclesial reunification of the two branches of the original Church of the East.

The joint presentation in Toronto provided not only a background to understand the context of the discussions but also sought to anticipate problems and potential developments. There was an aura of great expectation for the future of the Chaldean and the Assyrian Christians not only in Iraq, but in the U.S. and around the world. The occasion of the dedication of a Chaldean Church in Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, became the opportunity to formalize these efforts at reunification by bringing together the patriarchs of the two branches of The Church of the East in a spectacular display of unity on Friday, 29 November 1996. These two patriarchs, His Holiness Mar Raphael, I, Bidawid, Catholicos Patriarch, His Holiness Mar Dinkha, IV, Catholicos Patriarch, along with respective delegations, issued a joint Patriarchal statement concerning proposals for the re-establishment of full ecclesial unity between the Chaldean and Assyrian branches of the Church of the East.

In November at the Chaldean Chancery in Southfield, MI (USA), the two patriarchs of The Church of the East held their first official meeting ever in 444 years to discuss prospects of unity between their two churches. Present were Mar Dinkha, IV, Mar Bawai Soro, Mar Raphael, I, Bidawid, Mar Ibrahim Ibrahim, H.E. Mar Yohanan Zora and, Rt. Rev. Sarhad Jammo who was appointed by both patriarchs to function as the common secretary for the meeting. At the end of this meeting, the two patriarchs summed up their findings in a statement including the following convictions.

1. With gratitude to God for bringing them together, they pray that God help them achieve a complete rapprochement between their two churches and to maintain their glorious Assyrian-Chaldean heritage.

2. They intend to formulate proposals that shall be subsequently submitted for the approval by their two respective Holy Synods which will lead their churches to unity, proposing the following initial steps.

a. The emphasis on the common ecclesial and cultural dimensions that bind their two churches and people together, mainly, their mutual faith in our Lord, their common patristic, liturgical and theological tradition, as well as their belonging to the same ancestry and culture and suffering that unite the Assyrian-Chaldean people.

b. The formation of a Joint Commission for Unity to formulate and implement an educational plan through which both the Chaldean and Assyrian Churches of the East will be able to achieve the following objectives:

i The development of a Catechism of The Church of the East.
ii The common training of future priests, deacons and catechists for both of the churches
iii An emphasis on the Aramaic mother tongue for liturgy usage and in cultural endeavors by both of the churches.
iv The development of pastoral programs with cultural collaboration between parishes of the two churches throughout the world.

The mission of the Baghdad Jesuits is still continuing, if not by the Fadheria, by their Iraqi alumni.

Published in the 1998 Jesuit Yearbook
Written by Joseph MacDonnell, S.J.
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