Back to Index

The Eastern Church: The Nestorians

The posting about the early Christian church in China elicited this scholarly response from Jon Huyck: "The Church of the East survives to this day and was almost certainly the greatest missionary church in history (as the Nestorian monument shows). After the Mongol invasions, their fate looked good, and indeed their patriarch was given the residence of the caliph in Baghdad. Many Mongol queens were Nestorians (as Marco Polo was shocked to discover). Sadly, the church was virtually wiped out by Tamarlane. Today, it is a small, ethnic church of roughly 100,000 people. Its members are concentrated in northern Iraq and are also scattered all over the globe - Australia, Lebanon, California, and especially Chicago, which may contain as many as 50,000. The patriarch - Mar Dinkha IV - has taken up residence in Chicago, which must be a more agreeable environment than Bagdad (whence he came). I have met him, and he is extremely friendly and fluent in English. He has come to theological agreements with the Pope, in theory mending a theological misunderstanding dating back to the fourth century. These Assyrians (as they call themselves, after they were "rediscovered" by the British in the 19th century who didn't know what else to call them) do not like being called "Nestorians." A group split from the patriarch in the 19th century and became Uniates (Eastern-rite Catholics) who call themselves Chaldeans. Their patriarch, I believe, is in Detroit. The few non-ethnic-Assyrians who belong to the ancient Church of the East are Indians in the southern state of Kerala. In fact, all the "St. Thomas Christians" of South India were probably members of this church originally, but over the centuries they lost touch with the patriarch in Persia, and, when they attempted to re-locate him, they ended up at the residence of the Syrian Orthodox patriarch in Antioch and didn't know the difference, though they are at the other end of the Christological spectrum! (To this day, most Syrian Orthodox Christians are Indians and not Arabs!)

As final note, the Church of the East was bombarded by Western Christians after their discovery in the 19th century who wanted to turn them into Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, etc. They have been called "Protestants of the East" for their dislike of icons (unique among Eastern Christians). At the end of the 19th century, the patriarch of the Church of the East called the Anglicans "our only friends in the world," as they were the only Christians who did not try to convert them to their denomination.

Ronald Hilton - 3/1/02