The Modern Chaldeans of the Middle East

Mār Yōḥannān Sulaqa (d’Bēth Bello), Patriarchae Assyriorum (lit. Patriarch of the Assyrians)

The usage and origin of the name Chaldean has been the subject of much acrimonious debate.

During the catholicate of Mār Shemʿōn IV Basidi (1437-97), the Church of the East or so-called “Nestorian” Church sustained its presence across the East and the Mediterranean. This extraordinary geographical expansion was a testament to the resilience of the faith of its members despite having endured some of the greatest adversities and was indicative of their capability to comfortably develop in a variety of cultural contexts. The community remained quite influential particularly in Famagusta, Cyprus and enjoyed extended interactions with Latin and other Eastern Christian traditions present in the island. Due to the strenuous efforts exhausted by various Papal missions, the Church of the East’s Metropolitan of Tarsus (mod. Mersin, Tur.), Timothy, recognised the authority of the Roman Pontiff at the Council of Florence on 7 July 1445. It was in this context that the historic name Chaldaeorum (lit. Chaldean) was first used to describe a bishop in union with the Roman Catholic Church.

The choice of the illustrious name to describe the Catholic faction of the Church of the East was approved by Pope Eugene IV (1431-47) and was derived from an awareness of the community’s use of the Syriac language— referred to as Lingua Chaldaica (lit. Chaldean language)— a name from which the days of Jerome (ca. 347-420 CE) was commonly used by European authors. It is noteworthy, however, the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) in Cyprus too had envoys at the Council of Florence and simultaneously identified its community with the nomenclature. The usage of the term by both Christian factions evidentially demonstrates that it was erroneously employed within a linguistic sense and held no ethnic implications whatsoever. It was a trend of the time that people who professed to be Chaldeans were welcomed into the circle of the Florentine academy. Hence modern scholars are now agreed in holding that the name was employed due to the European ignorance of the linguistic and geographical reality of the East and an evident misinterpretation of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra. According to medieval East-Syriac literary works, the native population had employed familiar terms such as: Sūrith (lit. Syriac), its community styled as Sūryāyē (lit. speakers of Syriac), Msh’ḥāyē (lit. Christians), Nestōrnāyē (lit. Nestorians) and Āthōrāyē (lit. Assyrians). In fact, the terms Kaldāyē (lit. Chaldeans) and Kaldāyūthā (lit. Chaldeanism) were historically associated with themes of “soothsaying”, “divination” and “astrolatry”— practices that were considered a heretical threat to the authority of the church. By the mid fifteenth-century, the name acquired a new connotation and was employed within a denominational sense. Union with the Holy See was not maintained, as conflict arose over the extent of Latinisation which was acceptable to the new converts when alterations in their East-Syriac liturgical practices were requested. As a result, it would seem unlikely that a Chaldean ecclesial identity had time to develop distinctly from the Church of the East. The group existed in isolation and had merged into other Latin and or Eastern Christian traditions.

By the mid the sixteenth-century, the concept of hereditary succession that was introduced by Mār Shemʿōn IV Basidi was seriously challenged and the dispute erupted into a schism. When Mār Shemʿōn VIII Dinḥa (1551-91) succeeded his uncle, influential families, encouraged by recently-arrived Roman Catholic missionaries, elected Mār Yōḥannān Sulaqa (d’Bēth Bello), a monk from the monastery of Rabban Hormizd at Alqōsh, as a more suitable candidate. With the aid of the Franciscan missionaries, Mār Sulaqa was sent to Jerusalem and then to Rome where he presented his profession of faith before Pope Julius III declaring himself Patriarchae Assyriorum (lit. Patriarch of the Assyrians). Upon his return to the East, Mār Sulaqa established his patriarchate in Āmid (mod. Diyarbakir, Tur.), far removed from the Mosul region, a stronghold of the Church of the East. The partisans of Mār Shemʿōn VIII Dinḥa petitioned the Ottoman Paşa (lit. Governor) Hussein Beik to summon Mār Sulaqa for an investigation. The unsuspecting prelate was arrested, tortured, and finally strangled. His body was tied in a sack and thrown into a river in January 1555.

Following his martyrdom, Metropolitan Mār Abdīshō IV Maron of Gāzartā (mod. Cizre, Tur.), just as his predecessor had done, journeyed to Rome for confirmation by Pope Pius IV where he sealed the union as Patriarchae Assyriorum Orientalium (lit. Patriarch of the Eastern Assyrians) presiding over the Orientalis Ecclesiae Assyriorum (lit. Eastern Church of the Assyrians). The successors of the Mār Sulaqa line, which was established in 1552, came to adopt the venerated name “Shemʿōn” to assert their legitimacy. The original line of patriarchs, successors of Mār Shemʿōn VIII Dinḥa, continued as primates of the Church of the East. Some of which, who identified themselves as Mār Elīyā, attempted to reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church in a bid to end the rival branch created by Mār Sulaqa. In 1607, Mār Elīyā VI embraced Catholicism and was received into union with Rome, thus creating two formerly Church of the East patriarchs, now both Catholic.

The Mār Sulaqa line of patriarchs dissolved when the primate then in office, Mār Shemʿōn XIII Dinḥa (1662-1700) renounced Catholicism and returned to the Church of the East. Successors of Mār Elīyā VII, soon after followed suit, thus creating two Church of the East primates, a Mār Shemʿōn from the Mār Sulaqa line and the other, a Mār Elīyā from the venerated "Abūnā" family. Having followed the advice of the Capuchin missionaries, Mār Yousip I (Joseph I), Archbishop of Āmid withdrew his obedience with the Mār Elīyā line and was granted the title of patriarch— without specifying of where or of whom— by Pope Innocent XI. His successor, Mār Yousip II (Joseph II), received the historic title Patriarchae Babylonensis (lit. Patriarch of Babylon) to distinguish his office from that of the opposing primate of the Church of the East and the “Josephite” line continued until 1830. This dignified title was used by earlier patriarchs adhering to the Church of the East when they flourished at Seleucia-Ctesiphon (mod. Baghdad, Irq.) prior to the advent of Islam. Some scholars have suggested that the use "of Babylon" in the title of the primate is due to the erroneous seventeenth-century identification of modern Baghdad with ancient Babylon. Be that as it may, it was due to the linguistic identity propagated by medieval European authors, and not because of their ethnic origin, that the title had afterwards received the combination "of the Chaldeans". The hereditary Mār Elīyā line of patriarchs would come to an end as Mār Elīyā XIII died without having a nephew to succeed him. His brother, Mār Yōḥannān Hormizd, had embraced Catholicism and by 1838 was consecrated as Patriarchae Babylonensis Chaldaeorum (lit. Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans) to re-establish the union that was forged in Cyprus a century earlier.

The desire to join the Roman Catholic Church was partly politically motivated due to the protections that the French government had extended to all the Catholics within the Ottoman Empire. The Chaldean Catholic Church as we know it today was finally established, independent of the Church of the East; its members, as Catholics, were formally recognised by the Ottoman government as “Chaldeans,” a millet (lit. religious community, nation) distinct and separate from the Church of the East. Despite these formal distinctions, the native population came to accept the appellation of Āthōrāyē-Kaldāyē (lit. Assyrian-Chaldean) to assert their ethnic origin and denominational affiliation.

Learn More:
  1. (English) Click here to learn about the history and identity of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
  2. (Arabic) .انقر هنا للتعرف على تاريخ وهوية الكنيسة الكلدانية الكاثوليكية
  3. (English/ Arabic) Historical Documents الوثائق التاريخية


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