Nestorian Church

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Nestorian Church

Nestorian Church, officially the Assyrian Church of the East, Christian community of Iraq, Iran, and SW India. It represents the ancient church of Persia and is sometimes also called the East Syrian Church. It numbers about 175,000, including emigrants to the United States. It has much in common with other Eastern rites. The liturgy (said in Syriac) is probably of the Antiochene family of liturgies; the rite is called Chaldaean, Assyrian, or East Syrian. The churches are not much ornamented, but the Assyrians offer great honors to the Cross. A unique feature of their worship is their "holy leaven," an altar bread they believe is derived from dough used at the Last Supper. The theology of the church is not precise, but there are traits of ancient Nestorianism, which holds that there were two separate persons in Christ—one divine, the other human. Its members venerate Nestorius as a saint, deny the Virgin the title Mother of God while otherwise honoring her highly, and reject the ecumenical councils after the second. The ancient Persian church was the only one to espouse the cause of Nestorius; as a result it lost communion with the rest of Christendom. The head of the church, called the patriarch of the East, holds a hereditary office, from uncle to nephew. The church has relations with some Jacobites and some Anglicans; in 1994 the Assyrian and Roman Catholic churches signed a declaration recognizing the legitimacy of each other's theological positions.

Among the Assyrians and outnumbering them lives a community in communion with the pope, known as Chaldaean Catholics. They have rite and practices in common with the Assyrians, but have had a separate church organization since the 16th cent.; the patriarch of Babylon heads the church. The largest group using this rite is that of the Syro-Malabar Catholics, who ultimately derive their Christianity from Assyrian missions to India.

The great period of expansion of the Assyrian church was from the 7th to the 10th cent., with missions to China and India. A famous monument in Xi'an, China, was constructed (781) by Chinese Nestorians. The missions were destroyed and the church reduced through persecution by the Chinese, the Hindus, and the Muslims. In the 19th and early 20th cent., there were terrible massacres of Assyrians and Chaldaeans by Kurds and Turks.

See J. Joseph, The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors (1961); W. C. Emhardt and G. M. Lamsa, The Oldest Christian People (1926, repr. 1970); N. Garsoian and T. Mathews, ed., East of Byzantium (1982).

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