Ancient / Assyrian Church of the East Christians

Al-Hasakah, Syria, Assyrian Church of the East, northwestern suburb
Al-Hasakah, Syria, Assyrian Church of the East, northwestern suburb. Source: Bertramz (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ancient Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East have the same origins. The Ancient Church of the East grew from a schism in 1964 as a result of its intent to maintain the traditional Julian Calendar, as had been church tradition for almost 2,000 years. The Assyrian Church of the East has adopted the Gregorian Calendar which was a controversial change introduced by the Mar Eshai Shimun XXII. But the two churches have made several gestures towards reunification, such as the proposal to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, in accordance with the Gregorian Calendar.

The international Assyrian community has advocated for reunification for many years, but especially so since the 2014 and 2015 attacks of Assyrians in Iraq and Syria. The outline provided here is inclusive of key aspects which are relevant to both churches and is provided in anticipation of the reunification of the two churches.

The Ancient Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East are of an ancient Christian church established in the 1st century AD by St Thomas, St Thaddeus and St Bartholomew in the lands then referred to as Assyria, Babylonia and Persia. This region now covers northern Iraq, western Iran, northeast Syria and southeast Turkey, where the population spoke Aramaic and the language now spoken by Assyrians has a direct thread to this ancient language.

The Church is also referred to as the ‘Nestorian Church’, the ‘Persian Church’ and the ‘East Syrian Church’, but its faithful in Australia refer to it as the Ancient Church of the East or the Assyrian Church of the East. The Church experienced growth from the time of its establishment through to its peak in the fourth century. From then onwards, the Assyrian Church of the East suffered significant demise, as a result of both ethnic and religious persecution at the hands of various invaders and neighbouring religious and ethnic communities – the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, the Kurds, the Arab Muslims and more recently at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The survival of the Church and the Assyrian people as a distinct ethnic group into the 21st century has been against all odds. Following the first Gulf War, a great wave of migration of Assyrians started in the 1970s and continues to this day. Assyrians from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey migrated to Western countries and established a large Assyrian diaspora in countries across Europe and predominantly in the United States, where they number at an estimated 300,000 and where their Patriarchal See is found (in Chicago, USA).

The apostle Thaddeus of Edessa (Saint Addai), one of the founders of the Ancient / Assyrian Church of the East
The apostle Thaddeus of Edessa (St Addai), one of the founders of the Ancient / Assyrian Church of the East. Source: Duccio (Artist) [Public domain], via WikiArt

There are now more faithful of the Ancient Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East who reside outside their ancestral homeland, with those remaining in their homeland being decimated at alarming rates. In the diaspora, churches and cultural associations have been established and the Assyrian communities now living in Australia have continued to grow in number and affluence.

Religious Observances

The Assyrians celebrate the usual Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter, although dates are determined by each distinct Church according to either the Julian Calendar or the Gregorian Calendar. Rituals and traditions practised in the lead up to Easter are similar to those of all Christian Churches.

The Assyrians mark major life events, such as birth, marriage, and death, within the traditions of Christianity.

Special feast days and celebrations include: the finding of the Cross on 13 September; and the feast days of St Zay’a, a missionary and healer from Palestine who travelled to Assyria in the 4th and 5th centuries – the birth of St Zay’a is celebrated on 26 May and a three day fast commemorates his death on the first Wednesday of January.

Presence in Australia

In Melbourne the communities of the Ancient Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East have established their own parishes – St Mary Church in Coolaroo (Ancient), St George Church in Reservoir (Assyrian)  and St Odisho Assyrian Church of the East in Coolaroo (Assyrian).

You can locate these places of worship and other community organisations through our Directory.

Further Reading & Materials