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The Assyrian Church of the East

In 1964 a dispute arose within the church, triggered by Mar Simon’s decision to adopt the Gregorian calendar. But the real issue was the person of Mar Simon and the centuries-old practice by which he was elected. By 1450, the office of Patriarch and some other episcopal sees had become hereditary within one family, usually being passed down from uncle to nephew. This often produced unqualified leaders of the church who at times were elected at a very young age: Mar Simon himself had been elected at age 12. The dissidents also held that a Patriarch was needed who could live with his community in Iraq.

Those opposed to Mar Simon were supported by Mar Thomas Darmo, the Assyrian Metropolitan of India. In 1968 he traveled from India to Baghdad and ordained three new bishops. They then met in synod and elected him Patriarch over against Mar Simon. Mar Thomas Darmo died in the following year, and was succeeded in 1970 by Mar Addai of Baghdad. His faction became known as “The Ancient Church of the East.”

But in 1973 Mar Simon resigned as Patriarch and married. As no successor could be agreed upon, the Assyrian bishops in communion with him attempted to persuade him to resume his office despite his marriage. But in the midst of these negotiations, on November 6, 1975, Mar Simon was assassinated in San Jose, California. The bishop of Tehran, Iran, was elected Patriarch in 1976 and adopted the name Mar Dinkha IV. He took up residence in the United States.

Mar Dinkha made it clear that with his election, the patriarchal dynasty had ended. This removed the major reason for the schism between the two groups. Although the rift has not yet been healed, recent meetings between bishops of the two sides appear to have made substantial progress towards resolving the dispute. Currently Mar Dinkha’s side has twelve bishops and Mar Addai’s side has seven bishops.

Meeting in Australia in July 1994, the Assyrian Holy Synod reached a number of important decisions concerning the life of this church. The bishops established a Commission on Interchurch Relations and Education Development under the guidance of Bishop Bawai Soro to prepare for theological dialogues with other churches and develop programming in religious education. The Synod also officially sanctioned the residence of the Patriarch in Morton Grove, Illinois, USA.

A milestone in relations with the Roman Catholic Church was reached on November 11, 1994, when Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II signed a Common Christological Declaration in the Vatican. The statement affirms that Catholics and Assyrians are “united today in the confession of the same faith in the Son of God…” and envisages broad pastoral cooperation between the two churches, especially in the areas of catechesis and the formation of future priests. The Pope and Patriarch also established a mixed committee for theological dialogue and charged it with overcoming the obstacles that still prevent full communion. It began meeting annually in 1995.

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