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Church of mission and martyrs

07 February 2007

Geoffrey Rowell is moved by survivors of forgotten diaspora and persecution

Ancient foundation: the monastery of St Thaddeus in mountainous north-western Iran is said to have been founded by a hermit in the fifth century, in the place where he found the bones of the Apostle. The small church, built of dark stone, is 14th-century, and was restored in 1490; the church of lighter stone was added by the Persian Crown Prince Abbas Mirca in the early 19th century. From the book reviewed here

Ancient foundation: the monastery of St Thaddeus in mountainous north-western Iran is said to have been founded by a hermit in the fifth century, in t...

The Church of the East: An illustrated history of Assyrian Christianity
Christoph Baumer

THE CRADLE of the Christian faith is the Middle East. From there, the gospel spread, not only to the Greek and Latin cultures of the Mediterranean world, but also beyond them to the East. The story of that remarkable missionary endeavour is largely the story of the Syrian Church, and more particularly of the East Syrian Church, known variously as the Church of the East, or the Assyrian Church, or the Nestorian Church.

It was a Church divided not only from the Byzantine and Latin Churches, but also from the Western Syrian family that followed the Miaphysite Christology of Cyril of Alexandria, along with the Armenians, the Ethiopians, and the Copts. This group today makes up the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Contemporary Copts continue to view the Church of the East with suspicion, suspecting that Nestorian Christology influenced Muham-mad. Whether or not that was the case, the Church of the East, centred for much of its history on the Patriarchate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon near Baghdad, spread through Iran and central Asia to China.

In this attractively produced and lavishly illustrated history, Christoph Baumer, an explorer of central Asia and Tibet, introduces us to a moving Christian history of which most of us are ignorant.

It is a history marked by much martyrdom and persecution, by ascetic monasticism and mystical writing, and by remarkable encounters with Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism. It was a Church that came near to converting the Mongols to Christianity; and Nestorian monuments in China and central Asia testify to its extraordinary geographical extent.

By the 19th century, the Church of the East, reduced by persecution, and victim of centuries of political and racial tension, was found in the mountain fastnesses of Hakkari in the far south-east of Turkey and Kurdistan (where Protestant missionaries thought them to be the lost tribes of Israel), and also in Kerala in India.

The story of Anglican endeav-ours to support this ancient Christian community is touched on in this book, but the full story is told in J. F. Coakley’s The Church of the East and the Church of England. Thirty years ago, the election of the present Patriarch, Mar Dinka IV, who now lives as part of an Assyrian diaspora community in Chicago, was hosted by the Church of England at Alton Abbey. I remember meeting Mar Dinka a few years earlier in Rizaiyeh (the former Urmia) in Iran, where an enthusiastic Assyrian was building a church (illustrated in this book) whose tower was inspired by that of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Christoph Baumer has written what must surely be the authorita-tive account of the history of this ancient Church; and expounds with considerable skill the Christological controversies lying behind its “Nestorian” label — though Nestorius is now recognised (even though his language was, at times, incautious) as never having been a Nestorian, and certainly never a member of the Church of the East.

Besides the wonderful pictures, many taken by the author himself on his wide-ranging travels, fine end-covers provide necessary maps, showing the ancient Silk Roads and the Nestorian foundations along them.

Using an impressive range of sources, Baumer introduces his readers to a fascinating and for-gotten piece of Christian history. If at times the accumulation of central Asian names, tribes, and rulers becomes rather overwhelming for those to whom this history is unfamiliar, this book is an impres-sive achievement, and a testimony to the heroism of generations of Christian leaders and faithful disciples in this ancient Church.

Many Assyrian Christians form part of the contemporary Christian exodus from Iraq. In their ancient heartlands their numbers are now sadly reduced, though there is ecumenical encouragement in a significant rapprochement with the Chaldean (Uniat) branch of the Church. Patriarch Mar Dinka was able to sign a common Christological Declaration with Pope John Paul II in 1994.

We pray that, both in the diaspora and, if possible, in the Middle East also, this Church of martyrs and missionaries, having survived so many persecutions and attempts at extirpation, may survive and flourish. To its life, worship, and history there could be no better guide than Dr Baumer.

The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, co-chairs the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox Dialogue.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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