CHURCHES IN IRAQ AND IRAN
by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca), Kingston, Ontario, January 2006
Christians in Europe are taught church history as if Christianity was mainly propagated around the Mediterranean by members of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations. We need to be reminded that in the first five centuries there was a far more important and impressive group of churches in Iraq and Iran. John Stewart is to be honored for collecting this otherwise inaccessible information.
On the Day of Pentecost there were Jewish visitors from what is now known as Iraq : "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia" (Acts 2:9). It seems that these were among the three thousand baptized that day (Acts 2:41) and they took back to Iraq their devotion to "the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 3:42).
Their first great missionary center was in Odessa (modern Urfa in the bend of the Euphrates, now just over the border into Turkey). "The Assyrian Christians believe that Christianity was brought to Edessa (p. 2) by Addai or the apostle Thaddeus" (see Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3). By the end of the first century the first bishop of Arbel was ordained, and by the time of Bishop Abd-Mshikka (190-225 AD) "the church is reported as extending from the Mountains of Kurdistan to the Persian Gulf. In that area there were said to be no less than twenty-five bishops" (p.4). That suggests that every city of Iraq mentioned in the news in our day probably had a bishop at that time. And we know that by 150 AD they had at least "the four gospels in Aramaic" (p.5). By about 300 AD the whole Bible was translated into Syriac (eastern Aramaic).
"In the twin city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (on both sides of the Tigris north-west of modern Baghdad, now in ruins) in about 280 AD Papa was appointed Catholicos for the whole area. At the Synod of Seleucia (359 AD) the Nicene Creed was accepted as a symbol of oneness with the Church in Europe. At another Council held in Seleucia (424 AD) the importance of that center was recognized and the presiding bishop was given the title of Patriarch (p. 11) of all the eastern churches stretching from Iraq to India and China.
When the Roman Empire became officially Christian after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (312 AD) the Persian king Sapor II was at war with Rome. Urged by the Mazdean sun worshipers (Magi) he and his officials began a terrible persecution of the churches in Persia and present-day Iraq. This began with a massacre in Susa (see in the Old Testament Daniel 8:2; Esther 1:2). In 339 AD when the Catholicos of Seleucia was offered freedom for his people, if he would worship the sun just once, he and "five hundred bishops and a hundred minor clergy" were executed by the sword (p.20). This began 40 years of ruthless persecution for Christians all over Iraq. Another persecution began in 448 AD (p.33). At that time on a mound outside Karka (present-day Kirkuk) "ten bishops and 153,000 others are said to have been martyred, the slaughter lasting several days" (p.34).
Why do we hear so little about this heroic group of churches? One reason is that they were branded as followers of Nestorius (died about 451 AD), and Nestorian Christianity was rejected as heretical. Twelve years after the death of Muhammad (570-632 AD), Iraq was taken over by Arab armies (633-639 AD). At first, conversions were voluntary, and some Christians were promoted to high positions. But churches soon lost their influence, and under the Mongol Emperor Timur (Tamerlane, c.1336-1405) "the records of countless Christian monasteries throughout the whole continent were ruthlessly destroyed" (p. xxx).
At the beginning of the current war and terrorism in Iraq, there was a small remnant of about 1.3 million Assyro-Chaldean Christians. Their numbers are being rapidly depleted by emigration. Perhaps this little reminder of their history will encourage some of them to use the book by James Stewart as a starting point for a fuller account of the origins of the churches in Iraq.