Syriac Christianity

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Holy Qurbono of the Syriac Orthodox Church Celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St James

Syriac Christianity (Syriac: ܡܫܝܚܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܬܐ‎ / mšiḥāiūṯā suryāiṯā) refers to Eastern Christian traditions that employs Syriac language in their liturgical rites. The Syriac language is a dialect of Middle Aramaic that emerged in Edessa, Assyria-Upper Mesopotamia, in the early 1st century AD, and is considered to be closely related to the Jewish Palestinian Aramaic spoken by Jesus.[1] Tracing back their historical heritage to the 1st century, Syriac Christianity is today represented in the Middle East by the Maronite Church, Syriac Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Ancient Church of the East, as well as by the Saint Thomas Christians of respective communions centered in Kerala, India.

Christianity began in the Middle East in Jerusalem among Aramaic-speaking Jews, it quickly spread to other Aramaic-speaking Semitic peoples, in Parthian-ruled Assyria and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Roman-ruled Syria (ancient Aramea) and Phoenicia (modern Lebanon). Syriac Christianity is divided into two major liturgical rite traditions: the East Syriac Rite, historically centered in the equivalent of ancient Assyria/Upper Mesopotamia, and the West Syriac Rite, centered in Antioch in the Levant by the Mediterranean coast.

The East Syriac Rite tradition was historically associated with the Assyrian founded Church of the East, and it is currently employed by the Middle Eastern churches that descend from it: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Chaldean Catholic Church (the members of such churches are Eastern Aramaic-speaking ethnic Assyrians). As well as by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church of India, and the Chaldean Syrian Church of India which is an archbishopric of the Assyrian Church of the East.

The West Syriac Rite tradition is used by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Maronite Catholic Church as well as by the Malankara Churches of India, which follows the Malankara Rite tradition of the Saint Thomas Christian community. Adherents sometimes identify as Syriacs or Assyrians.


Celebration at a Syriac Orthodox monastery in Mosul, Ottoman Syria, early 20th century.

Syriac Christian heritage is transmitted through various Neo Aramaic dialects (particularly the Syriac dialect of Assyria and Upper Mesopotamia) of old Aramaic. Unlike the Greek Christian culture, Assyrian Christian culture borrowed much from early Rabbinic Judaism and its own indigenous ancient Mesopotamian culture. Whereas Latin and Greek Christian cultures became protected by the Roman and Byzantine empires respectively, Syriac Christianity often found itself marginalised and sometimes actively persecuted by the Zoroastrian rulers of the Parthian Empire and succeeding Sassanid Empire. Antioch was the political capital of this culture, and was the seat of the Patriarchs of the church. However, Antioch was heavily Hellenized, and the Assyrian cities of Edessa, Nisibis and Sassanid Ctesiphon became Syriac cultural centres.

The early literature of Syriac Christianity includes the Diatessaron of Tatian; the Curetonian Gospels and the Syriac Sinaiticus; the Peshitta Bible; the Doctrine of Addai and the writings of Aphrahat; and the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian.

The first division between Syriac Christians and Western Christianity occurred in the 5th century, following the First Council of Ephesus in 431, when the Assyrian Christians of the Sassanid Persian Empire were separated from those in the west over the Nestorian Schism. This split owed just as much to the politics of the day as it did to theological orthodoxy. Ctesiphon, which was at the time also the Sassanid capital, eventually became the capital of the Church of the East.

After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, many Syriac Christians within the Roman Empire rebelled against its decisions, the Patriarchate of Antioch was then divided between a Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian communion. The Chalcedonians were often labelled 'Melkites' (Emperor's Party), while their opponents were labelled as Monophysites (those who believe in the one rather than two natures of Christ) and Jacobites (after Jacob Baradaeus). The Maronite Church found itself caught between the two (allegedly embracing Monothelitism), but claims to have always remained faithful to the Catholic Church and in communion with the bishop of Rome, the Pope.[2]

The church has persisted as a separate entity under Islamic rule, the community was one of those granted autonomy in governing itself in religious and family matters under the millet system.[3] In the 19th century many left for other parts of Christendom, creating a substantial diaspora.[4]

Over time, some groups within each of these branches have entered into communion with the Church of Rome, becoming Eastern Catholic Churches.

Names and ethnicity[edit]

A simplified diagram of the various branches of Christianity. The purple line shows the Syriac Orthodox Church (also sometimes referred to as the Jacobite Church or the West Syriac Church), the Yellow line Shows the Assyrian Church of the East (also sometimes called as Nestorian Church or the East Syriac church)
Historical divisions within Syriac Christian Churches in the Middle East.
Saint Thomas Christians – Divisions- History

The indigenous Assyrians/Syriacs (Syriac: ܣܘܪܝܝܐ, Arabic: سُريان) of Mesopotamia adopted Christianity very early, and from the 1st century A.D. onwards it began to supplant the three-millennia-old traditional Mesopotamian religion, although this religion did not fully die out until as late as the 10th century AD. The kingdom of Osroene was the first Christian kingdom in history.

In 431 A.D. the Council of Ephesus declared Nestorianism to be a heresy. The Nestorian priests, who were persecuted in the Byzantine Empire, sought refuge in Mesopotamia where the Church of the East was dominant, then part of the Sassanid Empire. There was a synthesis between the Assyrian Church and Nestorian doctrine, from there they spread Christianity to Persia, India, China, and Mongolia. This was the beginning of the Nestorian Church, the eastern branch of Syriac Christianity, the western branch, the Jacobite Church, appeared after the Council of Chalcedon condemned Monophysitism in 451 A.D.[5]

Members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, Assyrian Evangelical Church, Assyrian Pentecostal Church church as well as those of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church from northern Iraq, north western Iran, north eastern Syria and south eastern Turkey that corresponds to the indigenous Assyrian homeland areas, which are "part of today's northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria"[6] are ethnic Assyrians, descendants of the ancient Assyrians (see Assyrian continuity). This ethnic group still speak Akkadian infused Eastern Aramaic dialects and are indigenous to northern Iraq, south eastern Turkey, north eastern Syria and north western Iran, and still retain Akkadian-Assyrian family, tribal and personal names.

Many now largely Arabic speaking Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholics from the bulk of Syria (excluding the Assyrian northeast) and south central Turkey prefer a Syriac-Aramean national identity while others adhere to a purely religious Syriac identity.

A small number of mainly United States-based Chaldean Catholics have also recently adopted a Chaldean or Chaldo-Assyrian national identity, despite there being absolutely no historical, archaeological, written, linguistic or geographical evidence whatsoever to support any link to the long extinct Chaldeans of the far southeast of Mesopotamia. These people are in fact ethnic Assyrians originating from the Assyrian homeland in northern Iraq.

The older Assyrian designation has almost completely replaced the word Nestorian (which is seen by Assyrians as pejorative and meaningless as an ethnic term). However, the word Nestorian continues to be used in some Western academic literature.

The use of the word Syriac (which originally referred to a distinctive dialect of Middle Aramaic which arose in Assyria) instead of Syrian became common after the establishment of the Arab majority modern nation of Syria after World War I, Assyrians and Syriac-Arameans not being Arabs and wishing to distinguish themselves from them. The word 'Syrian' has become ambiguous in English since it can refer now to a citizen of Syria regardless of ethnicity, and is also now largely accepted to have originally meant Assyrian; in Arabic, however, the word for a 'citizen of Syria' has a different form (سوري sūrī) from the traditional word for an ethnic Assyrian/Syrian (سُرياني suryānī).

The Maronites in Lebanon are divided between those who claim Lebanese-Phoenician national identity (see Phoenicianism) and those who claim Arab national identity (see Arab nationalism).

In 2000, the Holy Synod of the Syriac Orthodox Church decided that in English language this church should be known as "Syriac" after its official liturgical Syriac language (i.e. Syriac Orthodox Church).[7]

Churches of the Syriac tradition[edit]

The distribution of Metropolitan Sees in the Middle East and the rest of Asia

Syriac Christians were involved in the mission to India, and many of the ancient churches of India are in communion with their Syriac cousins, these Indian Christians are known as Saint Thomas Christians.

In modern times, various Evangelical denominations began to send representatives among the Syriac peoples, as a result, several Evangelical groups, particularly the "Assyrian Pentecostal Church" (most in America, Iran, and Iraq) have been established and the Aramean Free Church (most in Germany, Sweden, Amerika and Syria). However, despite these Assyrian protestants having been converted from the Assyrian Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic Church, due to their recent historical origin, such groups and others are not normally classified among those Eastern Churches to which the term "Syriac Christianity" is traditionally applied.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Allen C. Myers, ed (1987). "Aramaic". The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans. p. 72. ISBN 0-8028-2402-1. "It is generally agreed that Aramaic was the common language of Palestine in the first century A.D. Jesus and his disciples spoke the Galilean dialect, which was distinguished from that of Jerusalem (Matt. 26:73)."
  2. ^ Moosa, Matti. The Maronites in history. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986
  3. ^ Ye'Or, Bat. The decline of eastern Christianity under Islam: from jihad to dhimmitude. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, US, 1996
  4. ^ Chaillot, Christine. "The Syrian Orthodox Church Of Antioch And All The East. Geneva: Inter-Orthodox Dialogue 1998
  5. ^ T.V. Philip, East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia
  6. ^ Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century By Sargon Donabed
  7. ^ The SOC News (2000): Holy Synod approves the name "Syriac Orthodox Church" in English


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