A Syriac tradition describes Nestorius as being of Persian origin, perhaps to connect him with the later Nestorians of the Persian Empire. He became a monk and dwelt in the monastery of Euprepius, near Antioch, where he acquired fame for his eloquent preaching and was appointed bishop, through the influence of Emperor Theodosius II, on 10 April 428. (The rivalries of the ecclesiastics of the city had necessitated the selection of an outsider.) It was but a few days later that he launched a fierce attack on heresy, promising the emperor a future in heaven if he would purge the earth of heretics. Arians and Novatians were both purged from Constantinople, and the womanhood of Mary was affirmed through the Antiochan presbyter Anastasius.
His bold policies angered both Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and Bishop Coelestine of Rome, who, at a synod held in Rome in 430, declared Nestorius a heretic; however, the Antiochans supported Nestorius rather than the Alexandrine's teachings. It was at the Council of Ephesus in 449 (known as the "Robber Synod") that the Nestorian "heresy" was ended, to create an unbridgeable schism between Antiochans and the rest of the early Christians. Two years later, the Orthodox creed that contained the expression "Theotokos" (mother of God) was adopted by the Antiochans. Henceforth Antiochans were to be divided from Nestorians on doctrinal grounds. Bishops who stuck by Nestorius lost their sees. Several traveled to the east, taking their priests and deacons with them, thus reinforcing what was to become known as the "Syrian" or "Suryani" church.
In the Persian Empire, the "East Syrian church" had existed from the Apostolic age. Persian authorities fostered it for political purposes: it was a buttress against the Greco-Roman Empire to the west. The "emigrants" had nothing good to say about Cyril, but the final separation from the Orthodox church took place only after the Muslim conquest (637-640). Extensive missions were launched in Asia, India, Ceylon, Socotra, southwestern Arabia, Turkestan, and farther east in China and Mongolia. A monument at Sian dates their presence to 781. They converted the sister-in-law of Kublai Khan, wife of Hülegü, who conquered Baghdad in 1258. Syriac burial inscriptions in Mongolia bear testimony to their evangelistic zeal, which even gave rise to the story of Prester John. Wherever they went, they retained Syriac as their liturgical language. According to Gibbon (p. 50), there were more Nestorians and Jacobites than there were Latins and Greeks combined. Tamerlane and his Turco-Tartar invaders almost wiped them out, however, after they had survived all the Islamic caliphates up through the fourteenth century.
After they were driven out of Edessa by Emperor Zeno in 489, the Nestorians went to Nisibis to reestablish their school. By the time Baghdad was built in 763, to serve as the capital of the 'Abbasid Muslim caliphate, the Nestorian patriarch was a welcome figure in the city, to which he had moved from Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
Caught in the titanic struggle of the two empires, Persia and Rome, the Nestorians found it necessary to build up their own ecclesiastical organization and to maintain a distance from their brethren in the enemy camp. They were abetted in the process by the insistence of the Persian emperor, Khosrow Anushirvan, who, while battling the Byzantine Christian Heraclius, demanded that they choose between the Nestorian and the Jacobite rite if they wished to stay in their native country (Joseph 1961, 25-26). Sassanian emperors generally tolerated their Christian subjects, especially the Nestorians. In this way the Persian church became a sort of national church for the Nestorians. Their bishop, of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, came to wield unlimited power, in contrast to that of the metropolitan of Edessa. This power was further consolidated under Islam because the caliphs wanted the continued existence of native churches, in order to separate themselves from the Byzantines. Nestorian patriarchs were very much respected as important Christian dignitaries under the caliphs. Their centers of learning at Nisibis, Jundishapur, and Merv became important cultural landmarks and contributed scholars who abetted the development of an Arabo-Islamic cultural heritage. These scholars served in numerous offices of trust, and their patriarch was regarded most highly under the Islamic imperium, except during the caliphates of çUmar II (717-720) and al-Mutawakkil (847-861), who were responsible for reducing Nestorians to the level of other sects.
The Mongol conquests revived hope: more than one emperor espoused Christianity, as did some Turco-Tartar tribes of Central Asia (Joseph 1961, 28). On his march westward, Hülegü spared Christians because his wife was "a believing and true Christian queen" (Mingana 1927). The metropolitan of Cathay in 1280 was a Mongol Nestorian. Another church father of Tartar origin was Rabban Bar Sawma (d. 1317). He was sent by the Mongol emperor, Arghun, to the West in 1287 to gain the support of the Christian monarchs of Europe to conquer Muslim Palestine and Syria.
Hierarchical struggle for the top positions led to controversy, especially after the elected patriarch in 1450 enacted a law that restricted his office to members of his own family. Because the patriarch had to be a celibate, it meant that a nephew or an uncle would succeed him. Hereditary succession was against the canons of the Nestorian church. The process was challenged in 1551, following the advent of Catholic missionaries from the Latin West. With the aid of Franciscan missionaries of Mosul, a monk, Hanna Suläqa, from the monastery of Rabban-Hormizd, was elected and sent to Rome via Jerusalem, where he was received as a Catholic and ordained as the first Uniate patriarch. His successor in 1692, however, renounced Catholicism, but the line from Suläqa has persisted until today, bearing the title "Mär Shairîùn" (Saint Simeon). Other successors, who bore the title "Mär Iliya" (Saint Elias), attempted reconciliation with Rome, in order to put an end to the rival branch of Suläqa.
Hakkâri Nestorians sought to separate themselves from the Armenian patriarch's tutelage in the late nineteenth century by petitioning for direct Ottoman supervision, but without success. Their legal status remained vague at the turn of the twentieth century. Hakkâri Nestorians were nominally under the jurisdiction of the Hakkâri tribe and were protected by their mountain fastness, which accounted for their independence.
The advent of Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century impacted rather negatively on Nestorian communities. The "evangelical awakening" of the eighteenth century in Great Britain had quickened religious life in Protestant circles, and the Church Mission Society was established in London in 1799, to be followed in 1804 by the British and Foreign Bible Society. In the United States, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was organized in 1810; the Catholic "foreign Gospel conquest" preceded them by a few centuries. With the rise of economic imperialism in Europe, the road was paved for the missionaries, who had both financial resources and personnel, to make a global assault on "barbarian heathen nations."
The American Board dispatched two missionaries, who established a
station in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) in 1828, followed by stations in
Beirut and Istanbul in 1831. By the end of the nineteenth century, there
was "scarcely a village, except in the mountains of Kurdistan and
some parts of Mesopotamia and Syria bordering on Arabia" that did
not have occasion to "hear the Gospel" (Dwight et al.
1904, 755). H. O. Dwight and Eli Smith were sent to investigate the more
than 100,000 Nestorians who were subject to the hereditary patriarch in
the land of the Kurds (
75). Reaching Urmia in 1831, Smith was jubilant over the prospects of "rekindling their [the Nestorians'] ancient missionary spirit" so that they might exert a commanding influence on "the spiritual regeneration of Asia" (Smith 1833, 2:234; Perkins 1843, 28-31).
Needless to say, the presence of such missionaries had a negative impact on the villages. The missionaries excited the hatred of the Muslims, with harmful repercussions for the Nestorians who were living under the nominal jurisdiction of the emir of Hakkâri (who served as administrator under the Ottoman vali, or governor, of Erzurum). The vali of Mosul was against the presence of "Franks" (foreigners) in Nestorian country, and the American missionary Asahel Grant had to call on the British vice-consul to restrain the vali. George Percy Badger, as representative of the British missionaries, then commenced his feud with Grant, who represented the (Protestant) Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Badger tried to convince the patriarch that his true enemies were the Catholic missionaries. Consequently, Grant was held indirectly responsible for the massacre of Nestorians in 1843, owing to his "inspiring fallacious hopes and exciting dangerous prejudices" (Joseph 1961, 65). The Kurds and the Ottomans saw Grant's mission as political. Both the Anglican and the American missions were injudiciously conceived. Badger excited the patriarch's fears when he alleged that the American missionaries would destroy his temporal as well as his spiritual authority by cultivating the Hakkâri chief, Nural1ah. Grant's death from typhus led the Board to shift its work from the Nestorians of Kurdistan to the Nestorians of Urmia, in Persia, "which country was more peaceful." Their work was tolerated when they first arrived in Azerbaijan, where they started, with the help of Orientalists, to reduce the vernacular Syriac, a language of direct communion with God for the public, to a literary written language. Given that the literacy rate of the Nestorians was low, literary Syriac had become the preserve of only the clergy and the missionaries.
By 1855, the missionaries had lured 158 Nestorians to embrace Protestantism, and in 1862 a native presbytery was organized within the Nestorian church. No separation had taken place, but the intolerance and uncompromising attitude of the missionaries did lead to a rift. Perkins dubbed the fasts of the Nestorians "little more than a senseless routine of forms" and called the sound of their prayers "a chattering noise," which he claimed was a contrivance of Satan ( Missionary Herald 1837; Perkins 1843, 253). The "Reformed Nestorian Church" was born at last, an evangelical church that only served to galvanize the resistance of Rome's Sacra Congregatione della Propaganda Fide (Sacred Society for the Propagation of the Faith). Although poorer than the Americans, the Lazarists fought back to protect their flock, after receiving French missionary reinforcements in 1838 with the backing of France's minister in Tehran (Louvet n.d.). The Persian government issued a decree against conversions, on penalty of criminal prosecution for those who did convert. The Americans concluded that "Catholic malevolence is unparalleled in corrupt Persia" (American Board of Commisioners 1868, 60).
England next stepped in, to "render assistance"; Rev. Edward L. Cutts was sent out by the Church of England to help "improve and extend the education of the Nestorian people" (Cutts 1877, 178). The archbishop of Canterbury endorsed the mission to the "Assyrian Christians" (as they were to be known in England), but with the caveat that the end was to reform, not to proselytize, the church. The mission was to defend, rather than to change, the Assyrians' religion, as the Americans were attempting to do (Joseph 1961, 82). Like the Catholics, they, too, emphasized the use of classical Syriac in their school, and students were taught to take pride in their culture. American Presbyterians, after having given the Bible to the people, now faced stiff competition from the English "ritualists." Ensuing feuds excited the anxieties of the authorities, who feared a repeat of the English takeover of India, where missionaries had preceded the army (Thompson 1858, 384).
Russia was already pressuring from the north, and when England declared war on Persia in 1856, Muslim landlords incited their tenants against the Christians, who were perceived as allies of the English. American missionaries begged for Christian Russia's protection of the Nestorians as the only alternative to the Muslims' hostility (Joseph 1961, 87). Once again, the Eastern Christians found themselves caught in the rivalries of the great European powers and the targets of local resentment.
In 1869 the Church Missionary Society of Great Britain commenced work in Esfahan and in the following year renamed the undertaking among Nestorians the "Mission to Persia." The Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission now took over the stations already founded in Tehran, Tabriz, Hamadan, and Rasht. Meanwhile, the Nestorian Evangelical church established itself as a separate organization. By 1880, the Protestant community had a civil head representing the community before the government. Then, in 1877, the Anglicans, who had been absent for thirty-five years owing to the ill-fated mission of Badger, were back at work among the Nestorians. This time, they were better received by Persian officials. Even American missionaries fared better after acquiring a fuller knowledge and appreciation of Nestorian culture (Shedd 1895, 746).
Support for the Nestorians was boosted with the archaeological discoveries of Nineveh and Assyria and with the growing belief that the Nestorians were descendants of the warrior race that had lived there. British interest in them was aroused at the highest level of government, and the Ottoman government was urged to safeguard the Nestorians' interests and heritage in the face of increased Kurdish aggressiveness (18661868). When British efforts failed them, the Nestorians did not hesitate to turn to the Russians for protection after the latter had expanded southward into the Caucasus (Joseph 1961, 99). To gain this support, the bishop of Urmia promised to renounce "error" and return to Christian orthodoxy. The Saint Petersburg church authorities dispatched priests and monks to Azerbaijan in 1897 to aid in the process. When Japan defeated Russia in 1905, however, one Nestorian congregation joined the United Lutheran church, demonstrating the political nature of the Nestorians' move. Meanwhile, the Anglicans moved their headquarters to Van. The German Orient Mission established an orphanage in Urmia, and various denominations of Baptists followed.
The Ottomans were growing suspicious of all these Western missions and began to refer to the Armenians as the "Americans," which only aroused opposition to the American missionaries. The American missionary Benjamin Labaree was killed by a Kurd near Urmia in 1904. World War I brought the retreat of the Russians, and American missionaries found themselves caring for refugees of all denominations, Muslim and Christian alike. The Nestorians held out in their mountain fastness, and, by 1917, Allied forces dispatched a unit to Tbilisi, which aroused Muslim opposition. The Hakkâri Christians held them off until outside help could arrive, but the patriarch and forty-five of his followers were assassinated, and the region lapsed into a state of anarchy. With Lionel Charles Dunsterville in 1918 leading an expeditionary force north to occupy Persia, thousands of Kurds, Nestorians, and Persians fled south to British lines, driven by starvation. Many perished en route, but many more were saved (Joseph 1961, 142-144).
When the dust had settled on World War I and the ensuing peace process, the Nestorians, like the Kurds and Armenians, found themselves without the benefit of self-determination or a state of their own. The Nestorian patriarch sought permanent British protection for his communicants. The "Assyrians" of America pressed not only for security but also for an independent state for Nestorians, Jacobites, Chaldeans, and even for "Islamic Assyrians" under the protection of the European mandatory regimes, independent of the Kurds.
Four "Assyrian Evangelical churches" resulted from the reopening by the Presbyterian Board of their missions and schools around Urmia after 1923. The British, under Winston Churchill as colonial secretary, recruited able-bodied Nestorian Christians for service in a newly formed Iraqi army consisting of Arabs, Turkomans, and Kurds. Nestorians had been included in the gendarmerie in order to protect their own refugees and defend the Mosul frontier With the establishment of Kemal Atatürk's Turkey in the 1920s, the Nestorians were resettled in the Mosul area, ostensibly so that they could be under the protective umbrella of the British. When the British announced the end of their mandate over Iraq in 1930, however, the Assyrians voiced concerns about the safeguarding of their rights, and, after the Kurdish uprising that year, the British insisted on using Assyrian levies against them to give proof of their loyalty to the government—"with the same faithfulness they have served His Britannic Majesty" (Joseph 1961, citing Iraq Report 1930, 24-28, 31).
The Mosul Commission met in 1925 to find some means to ensure the security of minorities in Iraq and some autonomy for the "Assyrians" (Nestorians), but to no avail. The patriarch and his followers had voted for Iraq's establishment when a plebescite was held in Mosul at the end of the war, but they gained no autonomy for themselves. They had cast their lot with the British, and the British could not deliver on their promise to the Nestorians. The Mar Sham'ün was warmly received by King Faisal of Iraq and his prime minister, Nuri al-Sa'id, but the message he received from them was that religion and state were to be henceforth separated. Nestorians were to mind their churches—and the king, the state. The millet system, with its stress on autonomy for ethnoreligious entities during the Ottoman era, had now given way to the national state. Appeal to the Council of the League of Nations yielded a negative reply on the issue of autonomy.
The faction of Nestorians that supported the patriarch sought refuge in Syria after coming to blows with their opponents, but when some 700 decided to recross the border into Iraq, troops barred them entry; some 20 Assyrians were killed. General Bakr Sidqi followed up with the massacre of some 300 men and boys at their village of Simail, two days after they had surrendered their arms. The British did not stand by their protégés; their policy now was to buttress the Arab government in place at Baghdad, not to support minority issues. Eventually Hakkâri Nestorians were settled in the Mosul and Erbil districts of upper Iraq.
At the end of World War II, the Nestorians of Urmia were dislocated; most of them resettled among relatives and friends in the major cities of Iran. All but four of the fifty Protestant missions that had aroused the hopes of the Nestorians were asked to leave the country. With their departure, the native Christians (Nestorians, Chaldeans, and Jacobites) were placed in relatively favorable positions in both Iraq and Iran (Joseph 1961, 225).