Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Orthodox Church in Mesopotamia

By A.K.

Mesopotamia, the mythical East, the land of Eden, Babylon, the Persians and the Arabs, is in a constant turmoil of war.

The Church there was founded through the preaching of the Apostles Thomas, Thaddeus and others of the Seventy.

We will make a brief mention and tribute to this Church so that we will remember it and be moved to pray for it to the Lord and for our brethren there.

The Spread of the Preaching

After Pentecost the Apostles split up and went throughout the then known world, beginning first in the Jewish Synagogues, where they preached the Gospel of Christ and carried with them the message of the coming of the Messiah, of Whom the Scriptures spoke.

In Mesopotamia and the East (where Iraq and Persia are today) there were Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. The Apostles Thomas and Thaddeus and others of the Seventy preached in the synagogues there.

Participating at the First Ecumenical Synod (325) was a Bishop from Persia, and we have testimony that a Synod of Bishops took place in Seleucia-Ctesiphon (the capital of Persia), whose Bishop belonged to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

In first century Mesopotamia there were Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Arabs. Among these many became Christians.

A Period of Martyrs

During the Persian-Roman Wars of the fourth century until the capture of Jerusalem by the Persians in the seventh century, there were several massacres (such as under Shapur II, king of the Persians) and from these there emerged many martyrs of the Church, such as Saint James the Persian, Saint Anastasios the Persian, and many others.


Unfortunately, after the Third Ecumenical Synod (431), the condemned Nestorians, most of whom lived in Persia, took advantage of the hatred of the Persians against the Greeks and the Romans, and they developed their own Confession, proselytizing or evicting the Orthodox Christians already living there. The Nestorians lost their power after the conquest of Mesopotamia and Persia by the Arabs, especially during the period of the presence of the Ottoman Turks. Today there are still remnants of this heresy, many of whom largely fled to the West, as with other Christian communities. Those who speak with an Assyrian dialect are mostly Nestorians while those who speak Syriac were initially Orthodox (such as St. Ephraim of Syria and St. Isaac of Syria), but today Monophysites and their Church are the self-proclaimed Orthodox Syrian Church, which they named themselves following the presence of Western missionaries. Most of the Orthodox today are Arabs and are from the Greek (or Rum/Roman) Orthodox Church.

Patriarchate of Antioch

This whole area of the East belongs within the spiritual territory of the Patriarchate of Antioch, the great Hellenistic capital of Syria under the Seleucids (312-364), now located in Turkey. The seat of the Patriarchate was moved to Damascus in the fourteenth century. The Patriarch of Antioch ordained the Bishops. However, because the area was vast and not always within the same political territory, the Patriarch of Antioch gave the privilege to three Metropolitans of his to celebrate the ordinations of Bishops. These three Metropolitans were called "Katholikoi" and they were in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Georgia (Iberia) and Khorasan (northeast of Tehran).

The History of the Metropolis of Baghdad

The history of the Metropolis of Baghdad is divided into three periods.

In the first stage we have the preaching of Christianity and the subsequent prevalence of Nestorians and Monophysites in the region, as seen above.

During the second stage of Baghdad, which was built in 762 by the Arab Abbasids and became the capital of the Arab State, it became the seat of the Metropolitan of the Patriarchate of Antioch, who bore the title "Katholikos". When later Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols, the Orthodox element disappeared. Some Nestorians who were in northwest Persia in the nineteenth century came into contact with Orthodox Russia, they became Orthodox under the Church of Russia, and after World War I the Orthodox migrated from Persia to Baghdad. These were added to the Greek Orthodox of Asia Minor.

The third stage began in 1953, when the first Metropolitan of Baghdad was elected. After World War II many Orthodox of Asia Minor (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) moved to Iraq and the States of the Arabian-Persian Gulf. The Metropolis of Kuwait was created in 1969 and together with the Metropolis of Baghdad it became the Metropolis of Baghdad and Kuwait. The first Metropolitan with this new title was Metropolitan Constantine, who was born in Damascus from Greek parents and came from Cesme in Asia Minor.

In the States of Iraq and Persia (Iran) Christianity never ceased, despite the change of regimes, and Christians have all the rights of their citizens. Christianity disappeared in the Arabian Peninsula in the tenth century, which is why the States of this Peninsula do not allow Christians to practice their religious faith and they cannot have Priests, they are denied citizenship and their residence permit is simply renewed.

The Metropolis of Baghdad Today

Currently the Metropolis of Baghdad and Kuwait includes parishes in Baghdad, Kuwait, Persia (where there is a church but not a parish priest, but a priest from Greece visits the church 2 or 3 times a year to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Great Feasts), Bahrain, the Sultanate of Oman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Churches - Worship

In Baghdad there are two sacred churches: the Cathedral Church of Saint George, which is the property of the Sacred Metropolis, and the Sacred Church of Saint Andrew. In Tehran there is the Sacred Church of the Annunciation. In the Arabian Peninsula (the States of the Arabian-Persian Gulf) the State gives land for the construction of churches, but keeps ownership of the land. Thus, the Orthodox either rent land or they operate in the churches of the heterodox, who existed in the area when it was under foreign occupation. Thier worship contains all the elements of the Orthodox Church translated into Arabic. Because there happen to be members in the parish from other nations (Greeks, Russians, Romanians, etc.) the Priests sometimes use the language of these ethnic groups.


The Priests are all Arabs, some of whom know the Greek language as graduates of the School of Theology in Balamand or they were educated in Greece. They are paid by the parishes they serve and are provided with a car, home, telephone, medical care, etc. This is why in the Metropolis of Baghdad there is no so-called financial "tips" given to them. The Priests, Bishops and Patriarchs until the nineteenth century were all Greeks or Greek-educated. Today, except for Metropolitan Constantine of Baghdad and Kuwait, they are Arabs.

The Arabic Neighbors of Orthodox Christians

Priests move around freely, in the sense that they are respected by the people, except by certain extreme elements among them. The Arabs respect the Orthodox and consider them locals, genuine Christians because of the historicity of the Orthodox Church. Those Arabs who know or who have delved into the history confess this truth, that the Orthodox are the genuine Christians. Unfortunately there is a lot of propaganda and slander from the Catholics and Protestants.


Since the beginning of the last century, especially from the 1980's onwards, the harsh conditions have forced many Christians to leave the region, particularly from Iraq and Persia. Thus, after World War II, there were 15,000 Orthodox in Baghdad, while today (2005) there are only 200 families.


Through these difficult circumstances the Orthodox in Mesopotamia, Arabia and Persia struggle along with their Bishops and Priests, with their liturgical life, with their parish work, and they remain faithful and keep the flame of Orthodox Christianity lit in this wounded corner of the globe.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η Ορθόδοξη Εκκλησία στην Μεσοποταμία", July 2005. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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