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CHAPTER 2. PERSIAN CATHOLICATE



From the 4th century through the 16th, the Malankara Church remained in close relationship with the Persian Church. For a few centuries at least, the spiritual oversight of the Persian Catholicos had spread to Malankara. Moreover, a number of semblances could be seen between the Persian Catholicate and the Catholicate in Malankara, and even the Primate of Malankara Church prior to the establishment of the Catholicate. Therefore it is useful and essential for a student of Church history to study the origin and development of the Persian Catholicate.

  • Bar Hebraeus account

    • Bar Hebraeus (d.1286), who was the Maphrian of Tigris in the 13th century gives an account of the origin of the Persian Catholicate in his "Ecclesiastical History".

      Bar Hebraeus has his place in the frontline of the outstanding theologians of the Eastern Church. His scholarship spread to different areas and his prolific writings include domains such as the Bible, Theology, Church History, World History, Astronomy and Literature. He is also credited with deep proficiency in Greek, Latin, Syriac and Arabic languages. He was elevated as Maphrian in 1264. He has compiled the history of the Persian Catholicate, Maphrianate and the Antiochian patriarchate. The history of the Catholicate of the East constitutes Part II of his Ecclesiastical History. As per this account., St. Thomas, the Apostle, is the first Metropolitan of the East. According to Bar Hebraeus, the immediate successors of St. Thomas were Adai, Agai, Mari, Ambrosius, Abraham and Jacob.

      Bar Hebraeus states that Jacob was ordained at Jerusalem. He also gives the following account; towards the fag end of life, Jacob sent two of his disciples - Ahodabooi and Kom Yesu - to Antioch, with a request that one of them may be selected and ordained as bishop by the Patriarch of Antioch.

      However, Kom-Yesu was murdered by the Romans, as the Roman authorities suspected that the two Persians were spies. Ahodabooi escaped to Jerusalem and he was ordained as bishop by the Metropolitans of Jerusalem on an instruction from the Patriarch of Antioch, and sent him back to Persia. Moreover, the council of the bishops of Jerusalem decided that from then on the bishop of Persia can elect and instal a Catholicos as the head of the Persian Church. Bar Hebraeus adds that this decision of the Jerusalem council of Bishops was not to the liking of the Patriarch of Antioch. This incident took place in 231 A.D.

      Ahodabooi returned to Persia and ruled over the Persian Church. After his demise, the bishops of the Eastern Church elected Shahaluppa and installed him as the Catholicos. Bar Hebraeus notes that Shahaluppa was the first Catholicos Installed by the Persian bishops themselves. He also states that the origin of the Catholicate of the East is the installation of Ahodabooi in 231 In Jerusalem. Many books of Church history has been compiled in Malankara on the basis of this account of Bar Hebraeus. All these accounts state that the establishment of the Catholicate of the East was in 231 A.D.

      However, it must be noted that modern historians are of the view that there are no historical documents to substantiate the account given by Bar Hebraeus.

  • Origin and Development

    • The Gospel reached Persia during the first century itself. St. Thomas the Apostle, Adai and Mari are reckoned as the Apostles of Persia. The Gospel spread throughout Persia by the second Century; and Churches were established in almost all important centres in the third century. At about 290 A.D. Papa, who was a scholarly church leader became the bishop of Cylesia which was the capital of Persia. There is a view that Papa tried to become the sole leader of the Persian Church, and that their move may be historically seen as having laid the foundation for the Catholicate. It may be noted that the political situation of the day was such as to be helpful to this move by Papa. The Persian rulers of the day were Kings belonging to the Royal House of Sassanians. The Sassanians recognized Christianity as the second religion of the Empire, the first place being given to the ancient pagan religion of Persia. Under these circumstances, the government needed to have contact with a representative of the Christian Church, and naturally enough, Papa claimed that position for himself.

      In this endeavor of his, Papa was also encouraged by the developments in the neighbouring centres of Christianity. Bishops of Persia, Alexandria and other major cities were trying to establish their authority over the nearby Churches. Very much in the same vein, Papa tried to become the head of the Persian Church. Some bishops of Perisa, and Papa's own Archdeacon Simon Bar Saba were against this move. At their initiative, a general Council of the Persian Church met in 315 A.D, and the council held that Papa was in the wrong, and degraded his position in the Persian Church hierarchy. The Council appointed Simon as the bishop of Persia in the place of papa. However Papa did not give up without giving a fight. He took on his opponents with the help of Mar Ephrem of Edessa and Mar Jacob Nissibin. Talks were held with the new bishop Simon, with the promise of making him Papa's successor. Before long, the two patched up and Papa became the sole ruler of the Persian Church. Though Papa did not assume the title 'Catholicos' at that timne, he may as well be considered as the first Catholicos of the Persian Church.

      Simon became the Catholicos of Cylesia after the death of Papa in 328 A.D. By around 337 A.D, Emperor Saphor of Persia started persecuting the Christian Community, and this persecution continued for more than 40 years. During this period three Catholicoses, many bishops, and thousands of faithful were massacred. At this time wars took place between the Persian and Roman Empires, in which the Persian soldiers Attacked and plundered the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire like Syria and Antioch, and many people were captured as slaves or prisoners of war. A greater portion of these prisoners were Antiochan Christians. These Antiochan Christians did not like to identify themselves with the Persian Church, instead they kept their identity in Persia, of course under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch.

      Emperor Saphor died in 379 A.D, and his son Varaphran became the Emperor. He too continued to persecute Christians. Following his death in 399 A.D, Isdagard I assumed power in Persia. This peace loving Emperor stopped the persecution of Christians and extended his hand of friendship towards the Roman Empire. Roman emperors like Arcadian and Theodosius had a very good working relationship with Isdagard I. Besides, an incident which took place at that time helped to cement their relationship. Isdagard was afflicted by an ailment of severe headache. Morutho, the bishop of the city of Miafarkath, on the eastern border of the Roman Empire, was a renowned physician. As per the desire of Emperor Theodosius, Morutho travelled to Persia and cured the illness of Isdagard. Thus Morutho won the goodwill of the Emperor. He came to know that certain administrative arrangements were needed in the Persian Church and with the permission and support of the Emperor he took the initiative and called a synod of the Church in 410 A.D. Forty bishops participated in this Council which was presided over by Catholicos Isaac. It was at this Council that the Persian Church officially adopted the Nicene Creed. The Council also adopted certain significant resolutions relating to the administration of the Church and passed 21 decrees in that regard. The Emperor of Persia was given the authority to nominate the Catholicos of Persia. Thus the Council of 410 A.D. unequivocally declared the autocephalous and independent status of the Persian Church.

      However, it must be noted that the bishops of the Roman. Empire were not happy about the independent growth of the Persian Church. They insisted that the Persian Church should accept the canons and traditions available in churches in the Roman Empire. An attempt was also made to compel Persian Christians accept all the Council resolutions adopted by Churches in the Roman Empire. With this intention, Akkakius, bishop of Omid which belonged to the eastern province of the Roman Empire visited Persia. At his behest, a council was convened in Persia, in which only ten bishops of Persia participated.

      As per the desire of Akkakius, the Council decided to adopt many rituals, decrees and regulations of the western churches (ie, the churches in the Roman Empire including Antioch). But the majority of the hierarchs and laity of the Persian Church were against it. So subsequently another Council met at Markabda in 424 A.D, which was attended by 36 bishops. Akkakius, who was in Persia at that time, was neither invited, nor did he attend this Council. This Council unequivocally declared the total independence and autocephalous status of the Persian Church. The decisions of this Council only confirmed the supreme authority of the Persian Catholicos. It was also decided that any controversy which may arise in the Persian Church, may be resolved under the supervision of the Catholicos. In another significant resolution, the Council declared that if there be a complaint against the Catholicos, no one on earth shall try it, but it shall only be resolved in the Court of Christ. The same Council also gave the appellation "Patriarch" to the Catholicos.

  • Persian Church accepts the theology of Antioch

    • In the Roman Empire during the 5th Century, there were two distinct theological schools - the Antiochan and the Alexandrian. The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D), the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the other major Councils of their period and the theological debates associated with these were marked by the ideological clash of these two schools. Both the parties cursed and excommunicated each other, and this led to a division in the Church.

      It is interesting to note that the theological position of the Church of Antioch follows not the Antiochian schools, but the Alexandrian tradition. Nestorios was a product of the Antiochian school of theology. He was installed as the Patriarch of Constantinople in 428 A.D. At that time a controversy arose in Constantinople as to whether Holy Virgin Mary could be called "Mother of God" (Theotokos). The real cause of the debate was the diverging theological standpoints of Antiochan and Alexandrian traditions. In this debate, Nestorios held that it is not necessary to call virgin Mary as "Mother of God". But Cyril the Patriarch of Alexandria insisted that it is indispensable to call the Virgin as "Theotokos". Moreover, he also insisted that Nestorios should accept this position. In this move Cyril was supported by Celestian, the bishop of Rome.

      Actually, Nestorios was not introducing a novel theological or Christological teaching. He only wanted to remain loyal and committed to the Antiochan Theological tradition in which he was trained. However Cyril and the stalwarts of the Alexandrian school were not prepared to appreciate the position of Nestorios. Of course, there were non-theological and circumstantial reasons behind this division.

      As the issue was almost slipping out off hand, Emperor Theodosius called the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. The Council condemned Nestorios as a heretic, excommunicated him from the Church and dethroned him as patriarch of Constantinople. This resulted in a great schism in the Church. Many who belonged to the Antiochan school were sympathetic towards Nestorios and declared that his excommunication was wrong. But these sympathisers of Nestorios were persecuted by the Emperor. To escape persecution, those who approved of the Antiochan school fled to the Persian Empire. They were welcomed and were granted asylum in Persia; since Persia was the sworn enemy of the Roman Empire. In course of time, the Alexandrian theological position spread to the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. The Antiochans belonging to the Antiochan school who were now in Persia, greatly influenced the Persian Church. Persians became more interested in the Antiochan theological position than the Alexandrian.

      Uraha (Edessa) was a major city on the border of the two empires. At certain times in history, Uraha was in the Persian Empire and at other time it was a city in the Roman Empire. It was a famous centre of theological learning. From the very beginning, the major theologians of Edessa were firmly based in the Antiochan school. These theologians nurtured the school at Edessa and from 436 A.D. onwards. Edessa became a well-known centre of Antiochan theology. At that time, the Persian Church had no theological school of its own. The clergy of the Persian Church got their training at the Uraha School. Thus from 436 A.D. onwards the clergy of Persia were slowly getting based in the Antiochan theology.

      Subsequently Nestorian religious leaders Like Bar Sauma and Narsai who came to Persia took the initiative to establish a big theological school at Nisibin in Persia. This became instrumental in disseminating Antiochan theology in Persia and it spread vastly in the Persian Church during the first half of the 5th century. With the result, the Church venerated Nestorios who was a leading figure in that generation. In 486 A.D. when Akakios was the Catholicos, the Bishops' Council of the Persian Church officially accepted the Antiochan theology as well as Nestorios and other Church leaders. From then on, the Persian, Church came to be known as 'Nestorian'.

      It was a period of tremendous development for the Persian Church following its acceptance of the Antiochan School of theology. During the Middle Ages, there existed under the Persian Catholicos a Large Church, which of course included the Churches in India and China. However, the weakening of the Persian Church began, following the acceptance of Islam by the Arab countries. Besides there was a schism in the Persian Church by the middle of the 16th century, due to the intrusion of the Roman Church. However the majority of the people stood firmly behind the Catholicos. Some more divisions took place in the Persian Church in the 20th century so much so that at present there are two Catholicoses (Patriarchs) in the Persian Church, who claim the succession of the ancient Catholicate.

  • The Maphrian

    • It has been pointed out already that during the wars between the Persian and the Roman empires, many prisoners of war and slaves were brought to Persia from Antioch. These people were in communion with, and under the Patriarch of Antioch. It was during the reign of Saphor II (309 - 379), Kosrau I (531 - 579) and Kosrau II (590 - 627) that the majority of these people reached Persia. They settled in Persia as a separate group of people. Emperor Kosrau I had even built for these settlers a city with the name, 'Antioch'. Subsequently, a small minority of people in the Persian Church, who did not conform to the traditions of the Persian Church also joined these settlers.

      These people stayed in Persia and were under the direct control of the Antiochan Patriarch. By then, two divisions came up in the Antiochan Church - those who accepted the council of Chalcedon, and those who did not. However those who rejected the Chalcedonian Council, who formed the majority, were persecuted by the Roman emperors and also by those who had accepted the Council. All this time a great man arose gave heroic leadership to those people who had rejected the Council of Chalcedon - that was Jacob Hebraeus. He travelled far and wide and ordained many to the ministry and confirmed the people in the true faith (ie. in the tradition of the Alexandrian theology). By about 559 A.D., Jacob Hebraeus arrived in Persia. He ordained Aahudamme as Metropolitan for the members of the Antiochan Church, in 559 A.D. Aahudamme was given the title "The great Metropolitan of the East" (It is notable that Aahudamme was not ordained as Catholicos but was only given a new title)

      Among a large number of Arabs who were nomads, Aahudamme did evangelistic work and appointed priests and monks for them. It was he who founded the Inkena Monastry and the monastery called "Gadani" near Tigris. He baptised a member of the Royal family, and when the emperor learned about this, he ordered the execution of Aahudamme. After the time of Aahudamme, Kom-yesu (578-609) and Samuel (614- 624) became bishops. None of these had seats (Dioceses) of their own. Later in 629, Athanasius Gamolo, the then Patriarch of Antioch, sent one Deacon John to Persia. John spoke to the emperor and the Antiochan people in Persia regarding the installation of 'the Great Metropolitan of the East'. The five bishops available in Persia, with the permission of the Patriarch ordained 'Morootho' as the Great Metropolitan. Since then, the Great Metropolitan came to be known as "Maphrian". The Maphrian organized an arch-diocese with Tigris as its headquarters. During this period, two Councils were held in this see (Diocese) which made some significant decisions regarditig the authority and privileges of the Maphrian. The Patriarch of Antioch, Athanasius Gamolo, issued an order recognizing the election and installation of "Morootho" and appointing him as the chief shepherd of the Antiochan people in Persia. Morootho ruled for 20 years and it was a period of steady development for the Church. Morootho divided the Church into 10 dioceses for the sake of administrative convenience. After the death of 'Morootho', the Maphrians were ordained from time to time by the Persian bishops; and all these Maphrians had obtained the permission and acceptance of the Patriarch. However, there were also occasions when there was power struggle and differences of opinion between the Patriarch and the Maphrian.

  • Council of Capharthutha

    • When the differences between the Patriarch and the Maphrian snowballed, a council of the bishops under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch and the Maphrian assembled in Capharthutha in February 869. This assembly codified 8 canons dealing with the Patriarch and the Maphrian of Tigris. The canons are given below:

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