The Nestorian Church is a community of Christians found primarily in Iran, Iraq, and Malabar, India, also known as the Assyrian Church or the East Syrian Church. Descended from an ancient Persian church that once held sway over a wide swath of Asia from Turkey to China, the modern-day Nestorian church has about 175,000 members.

Practices and Beliefs

The Nestorian Church has much in common with other Eastern churches. The liturgy, proclaimed in Syriac, is related to the Antiochene family of liturgies. Nestorians worship in relatively plain and ornamented churches, but lavish great attentions on the Cross. A unique feature of Nestorian worship is the "holy leaven," a sacred bread they hold to be derived from dough used at the Last Supper. The head of the Church is known as the Patriarch of the East and holds hereditary office, passed from uncle to nephew.

The theology of the Nestorian Church is descended from the teachings of Nestorius, the 5th century patriarch of Constantinople who held that Christ was not one but two separate persons united in one body - one a God and the other a man. Nestorius was expelled from the Church by the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) for denying the title "Mother of God" to the Virgin Mary on the grounds that while the Father begot Jesus as God, Mary bore him as a man. The ancient Persian church was the only one to espouse the cause of Nestorius, and thus became "Nestorian." While the Nestorian Church has since diverged from a strict Nestorian doctrine, its members still venerate Nestorius as a saint and deny the Virgin the title Mother of God, while otherwise honoring her highly, and reject all ecumenical councils after the second.

Early Persecution

The early history of the Nestorian Church was one of trial and persecution. Intermittent persecutions of Nestorian Christianity in Persia led the Persian Church to formally proclaim its independence of Christian churches elsewherein in 424. As Nestorians elsewhere came under increasing attack, supporters of the doctrine gathered at the theological school of Edessa. When the school was was closed by imperial order in 489, the vigorous Nestorians fled to Persia, which had become the last refuge where Nestorianism was safe to practice.

After the exodus of 489, the Nestorian Church established a new intellectual center at Nisibis to carry on the venerable traditions of Edessa. By the end of the 5th century there were seven Nestorian jurisdictions in Persia and several bishoprics in Arabia and India. The Church then endured a period of theological schism (521-539) and a renewed round of persecution (540545), surviving in part thanks to the able leadership of Patriarch Mar Aba I (reigned 540552), a convert from Zoroastrianism, and also through a rejuvenation of Nestorian monasticism by Abraham of Kashkar (501586) who founded a monastery on Mount Izala, near Nisibis.

Prosperity and Expansion

Following the Arab conquest of Persia (637), the Caliphate recognized the Church of the East as a millet, or legitimate separate religious community, and granted it legal protection. Nestorian scholars sometimes gained influence with Arab rulers who valued their learning, and for over three centuries the church prospered under the Caliphate.

This prosperity led to a period of Nestorian expansion from the 7th to the 10th centuries, as Nestorian missionaries spread far and wide across the Asian continent. By the end of the 10th century there were official Nestorian jurisdictions throughout the Caliphate, and significant Nestorian beacheads had been established in Egypt, India, China, and Central Asia, where whole Tatar tribes were entirely converted. At its zenith, Nestorian expansion reached almost to Lake Baikal in far eastern Siberia. Western travelers to Mongol China found Nestorian Christians well-established, and Chinese Nestorians had constructed a great monument in Xi'an in 781.

Later History

The Nestorian Church was almost entirely eliminated in the 14th century, however, by the persecutions of the great Turkic warlord Timur (Tamerlane). Further persecutions by Chinese, Hindus, and Arabs also reduced Nestorian influence. By the 16th century, a mere handful of Nestorian communities lingered on in Kurdistan and India. In 1551, a number of Nestorians reunited with the Church of Rome and became known as "Chaldeans." In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were renewed massacres of Nestorians and Chaldeans by Kurds and Turks. In 1994 the Nestorian and Roman Catholic churches signed a declaration recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s theological positions.

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