The Church of the East was the earliest Christian Church to reach the Far East, and even if the stories that it reached Japan are mythical, it is testimony to its reach. At its height in the twelfth century it was the biggest church in the world, dwarfing the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In 1287, Rabban Bar Sauma, the ‘reverse Marco Polo’, came to the court of Edward I of England, seeking relations between the Mongol rulers of Iran and the English court. Bar Sauma himself had been born in China – yet more evidence of the international nature of the Nestorian Church. So what happened?
Simply put, Tamerlane(1336-1405) happened. A fanatical Muslim, Tamerlane conquered the whole of the area in which the Nestorian Church existed and subjected it to the cruellest and most merciless persecution. Only in the mountains of Kurdistan and Southern Turkey did Christians survive. Between him, plague and persecution in China, by the fifteenth century, with the exception of those in India, the only Nestorians left were confined to a triangle of territory between Mosul and Lakes Van and Urmia.
In 1552 a section of the Nestorian Church joined the Catholic Church and became known as the Chaldeans. In the nineteenth century, with the Ottoman Empire in decline and with Christian influence strong at Constantinople, both churches grew, but both were decimated by the atrocities committed by the Turks during the Great War. Afterwards, those who remained outside the Chaldean Church called themselves Assyrians. Their numbers in their homeland, already dwindling, have done so further in the twenty first century in the aftermath of the first and second Gulf Wars – although there is a diaspora in the USA which is growing. There are about 4000000 Assyrian Christians left.
The modern ecumenical movement had provided an opportunity for dialogue with Churches from whom it has long been sundered, and in 1994 the Church of the East and the Catholic Church made a common Christological declaration in which both John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV agreed:
Whatever our Christological divergences have been, we experience ourselves united today in the confession of the same faith in the Son of God who became man so that we might become children of God by his grace. We wish from now on to witness together to this faith in the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, proclaiming it in appropriate ways to our contemporaries, so that the world may believe in the Gospel of salvation.
In the best sort of ecumenism they declared:
Living by this faith and these sacraments, it follows as a consequence that the particular Catholic churches and the particular Assyrian churches can recognize each other as sister Churches. To be full and entire, communion presupposes the unanimity concerning the content of the faith, the sacraments and the constitution of the Church. Since this unanimity for which we aim has not yet been attained, we cannot unfortunately celebrate together the Eucharist which is the sign of the ecclesial communion already fully restored
The differences are honestly acknowledged and not fudged, but so is the determination to go on talking. It is to be hoped that in God’s good time this ancient and fascinating Church will be able to shares its gifts with us all.