The oriental Churches                            

General texts:

| The oriental Churchfamily | | The apostle Thomas in India |

The individual Churches:

| The Nestorian Church |

| The westsyrian Church and the Thomas-chistians | Bishop Mar Osthathios visits Denmark |

| Sharing God and a sharing World (Review) | The new Parumala Cathedral |
|Ecumenical Patriarch visits Thomas-Christians|

The Oriental Family of Churches

Speaking about church-families, we divide the world in a Western and an Eastern part - taking together the Roman-Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation as the Western Church and the different Orthodox Churches as the Eastern Church.

Doing so we disregard the existence of a third great and venerable church-family - the Semitic or Syrian Churches. Antioch, the starting point for spreading of Christianity to the West - to Asia Minor, Greece, Rome and further to the rest of Europe. But Antioch is more than that. The town also was the starting point for the spreading of Christianity to the East - as far as to Chine and South India. In that part of the church the language was not Greek - as in Antioch - but Aramaic (or Syrian) - the mother tongue of our Lord Jesus. This church spoke Aramaic and was very sceptic about Greek culture and had it's connections with Jerusalem and the Semitic world, which very much influenced its liturgy and spiritual practice.

The cultural and political differences were complicated by the Christological conflict of the 5thcentury. The later so-called Nestorians - or East Syrians - underlined the two natures in Christ very strongly. The other part - the so-called Monophysites - or West Syrians - underlined the unity between the two natures. The mainbody of the church in the Roman-Greek empire "solved" the problems and balanced the two views - and excumunicated both the West- and the East Syrians. And a real "Iron curtain" was established for nearly 1500 years between the Roman and Orthodox churches to the west of Antioch and the Syrian churches to the East of Antioch. We forgot about them and not until recently the contacts have been renewed.

It was not a tiny church at all, which developed East of Anrioch. About the year of 1200 the East Syrian church solely had 27 archbishoprics with 230 dioceses and millions of believers scattered from the Euphrat in the West to Peking in the East and to the uttermost South of India. The spreading of the Syrian church from 500 - 1200 has been called the biggest mission enterprise in history. Who knows to day that Syrian monks were the first to bring the Gospel to China and to India and to translate the New Testament into Chinese as early as about the year of 600?

The rather peaceful life during first Persian and later Arab domination came to a sudden end, when the Mongol invasion within a few decades nearly destroyed the church not only in Asia and China but in the main areas of Persia and Mesopotamia. The only part of the Syrian church outside the Middle East that survives is the Thomas Christians of South India. Legend tells, that St. Thomas - the apostle of the Christian church East of Antioch - came to India shortly after resurrection of Christ. He left a numerous congregation in the state of Kerala, South India. To day the Christian community makes up approximately 25 per cent of the total population of Kerala. The Indian church and the diaspora all over the world of refugees from the Middle East nowadays count more members than the church in the original area of Mesopotamia.

When we speak about our common Christian heritage and tradition, it is absolutely necessary to bear in mind also the Syrian church - the more so as it is a branch of the church, which is neither Roman nor Greek, but Semitic, expressing its spiritual experience not in philosophical and legal terms - but based on the evidence of Holy Scripture in worship and prayer. Add to this that this church in the Middle East has lived with Islam from the very beginning and in India has more than survived in a Hindu society for nearly two thousand years, and it will be immediately intelligible, why these churches are an important part of our Christian heritage.

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The Apostle Thomas

A religious- and cultural encounter in India short after the resurrection of Christ.

by Morten Møbjerg.

A short time after the ascension of Christ the apostles were gathered in Jerusalem to plan how to carry out the overwhelming task, which Jesus had given them right at the end: To go from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the world to preach the message of Paschal victory over sin and death and all the powers that threaten to destroy the life of man.

According to the legend, the twelve had to use the lot to get a fair and reasonable splitting up. Everyonel were satisfied with the part of the world, which they had got - all but the doubtful Thomas. He had got India and he was not at all pleased with that.

He discriminated roughly against the country and the people, he was going to visit. He did not want to be an apostle among people, not only black in their faces but also in their minds, - and blind in their hearts. In order to go to such a country you have to be strong as an ox and not little and feeble, he says. Let us travel together, first to your countries and later to India. But the other apostles were inflexible. Nor were they above reminding Thomas, that he had been rather distrustful and doubtful, but later was totally convinced. Nobody else would be more qualified to go to India. They also reminded him about the story of Jonas, who did not want to obey the vocation of God and go to the great city of Nineve.

Saint Thomas in India.

Finally Jesus had to interfere. In a vision he made Thomas go to India with Abanes, the ambassador of the Indian king. They embarked and came to king Gudnaphar, who asked them to build him a palace. It was not a missionary, the king had sent for, but a skilled master builder. Jesus had promised Abanes, that Thomas was such a man.

But it was a master builder of another kind, of whom Jesus had thought. Thomas was given a large amount of money for the building, but he did not build an earthly palace. He spent his time preaching the Gospel, and the money he gave to the poor whereby he collected a treasure in Heaven. The king got very angry, when he found out and he wanted to execute Thomas. But God intervened and convinced the king, that Thomas had build a palace of living stones. The king repented of his error, was received in baptism and became a driving force for the young congregation.

Now - let legend be legend. It is a fact, that the apostle Thomas left a vigorous congregation in the remote Indian state of Kerala. "The Thomas-Christians" is their name even to day, and they constitute about one fourth of Keralas 30 mill. inhabitants. In India as a whole only about 2 per cent of the population is Christian. And Keralas Thomas-Christians have been there "forever" - as they themselves say. In any case they soon can celebrate the jubilee of two thousands years.

It must have been a mixed religion the first Christians met at that time. The original population is Dravidian, but in the third century before Christ there was a religious unrest in the northern part of India, where emperor Ashoka, who was an ardent Buddhist, forced Hinduism southward. The Brahmin-families, who went to the Kerala-area, sustained their Hindu-believe and made no attempt to get political power.

The Dravidians, too, were loyal to their religion. Still, they felt a great admiration for the new way of life, coming from the North, that they slowly became Hindus - without the possibility ever becoming Brahmins. During the first two centuries AD the caste system became established in Kerala and since gradually developed more radical than in any other part of India. Later came Islam, and even if the Muslim empire of the Great Mogul never reached to Kerala, to day there are as many Muslims to day as Christians. Only the remaining 50 per cent of the population are Hindus.

A living Christian tradition, which has survived through 2.000 years surrounded by Muslims and Hindus. Christians they have been throughout the years, and Christians they are by faith, rite and ethics, in all other respects they are Indians. This is a fact and a living reality, which deserves our sympathy and interest.

The Oriental Church.

Add to this, that the Thomas-Christians historically belong to the branch of the Christian faith, that went eastward from the same Antioch, from which Paulus and Peter went westwards and established the religious communities, which we to day know as the Western and the Eastern church: The Roman-Katholic Church, the various Protestant Churches, and the Orthodox Church.

The growth of Christianity in the East, its strength and importance, was just as significant as in the West. This part of the church is called the Oriental or Syrian Church. Very little is known about this church, partly because of political and dogmatic reasons and partly because great parts of that church disappeared in the centuries following the arrival of Islam. But what's left has been the real Christian outpost against Islam throughout the centuries.

To day the church is found in the Middle East, in India and as Diaspora all over the Western world. The church has preserved its faith and its special traditions throughout the centuries and is now ready to share its heritage in dialogue with the Western and the Eastern churches.

"The Oriental heritage must be preserved. Our tradition can be traced as far back as to the apostles. It is kept in "pots of earthenware", but the substance is far too valuable to be lost." In this way patriarch Ignatius Zakka recently expressed himself.

If one is to suggest the core of the heritage given us by the Oriental Church and the apostle Thomas, the trend most likely will be that this church does not put its faith in philosophical and legal terms, rather, the faith is based on the testemony of the Holy Scriptures in liturgy and prayer. A poetical understanding expressed in images more than in concepts. And which is not afraid of lettingt mystery be mystery.

A Danish Wallpainting.

So far, we have been far away in India and in the Middle East. A point of contact to the story told above is found in the Danish church history: In the Northern part of the Danish island, Zealand, near the town of Holbaek, one finds the monastery Æbelholt which - like its predecessor Eskilø - was consecrated to the apostle Thomas. A consecration which took place perhaps "as an effect of the early Saint Augustine order's particular worshipping of this special saint of mission, found here in the far away North," Ulla Haastrup writes about this rare bird in the Nordic context, in her book on Danish wallpaintings.

Today the monastery of Æbelholt has been ruined. However, in the nearby Church of Sønder J'rnløse one finds the legend of Saint Thomas told in wallpaintings - the only place in Denmark where one finds the vestiges of his life story.

The first picture shows Jesus ordering Thomas to go to India. The third person is the envoy of king Gudmaphar - Abanes. The second picture (see the illustration) shows Thomas on board the ship bound for India. Abanes is occupied by rudder and sail. The inscription reads: "Thomas is leaving with Abanes on board the ship."

(Drawing: Rev. Viggo Jensen)

It is not only in India and the Middle East one finds good reasons to use the name "The Society of St. Thomas" for our newly established society for cooperation and dialogue with the oriental churches. The name also takes up again a tiny corner of a forgotten Danish tradition.

Apart from that, when one meets Thomas pictured in Danish churches, it is the "doubting Thomas". The man, who was not satisfied with the experiences of others, but wanted to see in the hands of Christ the print of the nails, and put his finger into the print of the nails, and thrust his hand into his side, before he believed. But also the Thomas who without reservation made his confession and said unto him, "My Lord and my God". There is a decisive point in this last part of the story, since the main condition for entering into any cultural and religious encounter is to know one's own anchorage, one's own faith in its totality, in its breadth and lengths, its height and its depth.

In both connexions the apostle Thomas and his history can serve as an inspiration for us: the importance of knowing oneself and one's belief - and in the encounter and dialogue with foreign religions and cultures.

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You could also visit: Thomas Philips Niranam Church  

The Syrian churches and the Thomas-christians

The East Syrian or Nestorian Church broke away from the Eastern Orthodox mainstream after the Council of Ephesos 431 and was driven outside the Roman empire into Persia where it became a wellestablished minority church - independent of the West politically and dogmatically (Appendix I).

At the Council of Chalcedon 451 the dispute about the relationship between the human and divine natures in the person of Christ got its final solution. It gave the impetus to the next schism, in a bigger scale and more disastrous than 431. The Coptic Church in Egypt and the Syrian Orthodox Church (the West Syrian or the Jacobite Church) were seperated from the so-called "Undivided" church of the Empire. Opposed to the Nestorian Church, which was called "dyophysite", the West Syrian Church got the name "monophysite". These two "nicknames" are hardly fair. We saw in the joint declaration between the Catholic Church and the Church of the East from 1995 the recognition, that the divisions of old "were due in large part to misunderstanding". A similar declaration was issued as early as 1971 between the West Syrian Church and the Holy See, where patriarch Ignatios Jacob III and pope Paul VI stated, that there was a deep spiritual community between the churches and that no differences in opinion any longer existed about the mystery of Incarnation. This declaration was reconfirmed by the present pope and patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas in 1984.

The name "Jacobite Church" originates in the monk named Jacob Baradeus, who about 543 after 100 years of imperial persecution revived and reorganized the church in its main-areas: Syria, Iraq and the south-eastern parts of Asia Minor. To day the biggest number of Westsyrian Christians is found in India. Both the Eastsyrian and the Westsyrian churches claim to have had the main influence in India. It seems probable that the Eastsyrian church had the full influence up to the arrival of the Roman-catholic Portugueses. At that time a Latinization of the Indian Christians (the Thomaschristians)began. It resulted in a very strong tension between the Indians and the Roman-catholic Church, which in 1653 resulted in a rebellion. The Thomaschristians were split, one part stayed with Rome and the other part went back to the Syrian form of Christianity, but now with Westsyrian bishops. Political conditions made a connection with the Eastsyrians impossible at that time. To day the Nestorians counts about 30.000 in India, - the Jacobites (Westsyrians) about 2 millions.

Metropolitan Mar Osthathios visited Denmark in July 1997 as a participant and speaker at the Seminar: "Limits of Democracy". His statement to the Danish newspaper: Christian Daily:

The Orthodox Church-leader Metropolitan Mar Osthathios expresses himself in no uncertain terms about both selfish capitalism and communistic compulsion.

The time has come to conversion in the churches of the West. Too many priests, bishops and Christians are ruled by selfishness and worship materialism paying no attentions to the needs of others. Revolution is necessary - but not by violence or force. For God is love and the Christian must be driven by the same power to share with others.

Like that is the message from the Indian-orthodox churchleader, metropolitan Mar Osthathios, who just has visited Denmark. And this modern monk speaks with a fervour and enthusiasm that remind us of the Old Testament prophets. The brown eyes sparkle in the dark, white bearded face while delivering the message and the words come like a tidal wave, as if the metropolitan had fallen into prophetic ecstasy.

It is however evident that bishop Osthathios is not out of his mind, when he gives his analysis of the spiritual reality behind political and economical systems. Nor when he presents his utopia based on the Holy Bible, which is the motive power of his pertinacious work for social justice.

The cause of Mar Osthathios' visit to Denmark is the conference "Limits of Democracy" arranged by the DCI, Aarhus. The participants were provided with ticking off and an affectionate word.

Personal experience

The social engagement of the metropolitan does not come out of thin air or grown from theoretical reflections. Mar Osthathios comes from a poor family and has himself tried to depend on others' help in order to survive and get along in life. This experience has determined his way in life: "I thought it my duty to give all to the community and to God" - the metropolitan says. It means for Mar Osthathios a simple life style together with monk brothers, without a wife in constant activity for destitutes and the poor.

In return Mar Osthathios again and again experiences that other more wealthy people take care of him and his work by voluntary contributions. For his own part he has had a long theological education home and in USA, while the social work he is conducting has flourished and is in constant grow.

It began with a work among orphans, later a row of foundations has been erected. Partly to support, partly to help young girls, who cannot get married and get a certain social protection without giving dowries in cash. The apple of Mar Osthathios' eye is the "Mission centre", which educate Indian Christians to be missionaries for their own countrymen. It is one of the principal matters for Mar Osthathios to break through the centuries old isolation of the Indian Church from the rest of the society. An isolation, which has protected the church against encroachment, but according to Mar Osthathios, is neither Biblical nor sustainable.

Socialistic Utopia

Along with the great social work Mar Osthathios has been teaching theological students since 1952, he has travelled around and made speeches, written 30 books in Indian and six in English. One of the books has been edited in Europe and USA.

Mar Osthathios has in his teaching and his books primarily been occupied with Holy Trinity and what Trinity has to mean for theology and Christian way of life. According to Mar Osthathios is the disposition in the community in the triune God a deep truth, which must be determing for Christian ethics.

Like love makes a deep communion in the triune God, yes, is the innermost essence of God, in the same way the Christian must be forced by love to the others. Not in the form of charity, but by sharing. In the same way as parents share with their children, if they are hungry or in lack of something. And this community is not to be limited to the church. It would only be an increased form of selfishness. It has to include the whole society:

"Everyone has to have what he or she needs. In addition all have to take part in the work, if they want to benefit."

Mar Osthathios knows that it sounds like a socialistic utopia. But he differs from other socialists by pointing at voluntariness has to be the incentive. Concerning utopia, Mar Osthathios thinks, that it is necessary as a goal for the work of the church. "Without believing that we by doing so can create heaven on earth. It is exactly what we cannot do" - Mar Osthathios clearly states.

Independent Theology

The metropolitan is rather critical towards Western influence, which to him is the same as aggressive marketing, selfish competition and struggle for profit. The same belongs to missionary work, Osthathios thinks. Not because the Indish church is a "missionary" church in the sense that it is founded by missionaries from the West. It is thought that the apostle Thomas brought the Gospel to India already in the year of 52, and the Orthodox Church has existed side by side with Hinduism since then.

But the spreading of the Christian message has proved to be difficult. That is why missionaries from the West have had comprehensive activities in the country. It has been to the benefit of the Pariahs, because Westerners run across the system of casteism, which discriminates special groups of people - even in the churches of India.

But like many African churches are "Africanising" their theology, the Indian church has to evolve an independent, Eastern theology and an all-embracing ethics about sharing the good things in life. It is the only way the church can stop the selfish, capitalistic ethics, which the West still imports to India and which changes the church into a consumer orientated community.

Mar Osthathios already has marked out points for such a independent theology: It is about a faith in the "cosmic Christ", in full God and in full man. It is about sharing the passion of Christ for the world and to follow him in his unselfish activities for the others.

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A review of "Sharing God and a sharing World" - Mar Osthathios' last book (1996) - by Morten Møbjerg:

"A voice of one that cries in the desert"

Saint Sergius and the Holy Trinity by Andrew Rublev.

It was not a pious coincidence, which about 1350 made the Holy Sergius choice the name "The Holy Trinity" to his new monastery at Radonesh - or Zagorsk as the town has been called the last 75 years - situated about 100 km. north of Moscow.

The name was even well-considered and had it's deep symbolical meaning as a concise picture of the life, which the monks were going to live inside the walls of the monastery. The monastic life should be as a shadow of the inner life of Trinity itself,- an icon of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and their hidden mutual life in the eternal submission and coherence of love.

The hidden life of triune God is nowhere better portrayed than in the icon of the Holy Trinity by Rublev, - behind - and in - the forms of the three angels you experience the sublime peace and at the same time perceive the nearly physical dynamism and motion. You sense that God not only is a unity, but a community. Rublev painted this icon for the monastery of the Holy Trinity founded by Saint Sergius, where it found it's place in the central church of the monastery - the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The gift of the greatest artist of the Russian Middle Ages to the greatest saint of the Russian church.

At the same time as he stressed the contemplative and mystical side of monastic spirituality Sergius got the character that he best of all had found the balance between the social and mystical side of monastic life. "To be in the world, without being of the world." On one side a categorical denial of loving the world and of accepting it on it's own secular conditions and on the other side to meet the world through God's sanctifying light, to receive the world through God and see it in the light of God.

So it is consistent - and obvious - that the Russian theologian Fedorov can say: "Our social program is the dogma of Trinity." It is a frontal attack on the "Christo-centric-Unitarism," which Protestants often commit. Often we have an inclination to think about the dogma of the Trinity as highflown thinking - reserved for theologians and scholars. The appearance of Islam has shaken this prejudice and more and more are asking for the substance and meaning of the Trinity, but there is a long way to realize that the dogma has a living practical meaning to every Christian in his or her daily life.

Trinity as a sharing community.

The argumentation of Fedorov and the Orthodox Church is quite plain and straightforward and very faithful to scripture. It takes it's starting point in the fact, that man is shaped in the image of God, and when God is the Triune God, man can only know who he is and what God wants with him and his life in the light of Trinity. Or as Mar Osthathios expresses the same truth: When God is a divine community, then his image, his body on earth has to live in a community without classes, castes and other privileges.

The quotation has been taken from the new book of Metropolitan Mar Osthathios: "Sharing God and a Sharing World," which was issued in Delhi and Tiruvalla towards Christmas 1995. The intention of the book is once again to point at the before mentioned conception of the Triune God - and to bring out the theological, social and political consequences of that faith. The first chapters of the book go through the scriptural basis of faith in Holy Trinity and the following development and formulation in the theology of the Fathers. The rest of the book is dedicated the social and political consequences for the present time.

In a previous book "Theology of a Classless Society" (Lutterworth Press, 1979) Mar Osthathios used the metaphor of the nuclear family to express in a modern language the substance of Holy Trinity: "To me the nuclear family is a tremendous singularity holding father, mother and child in perfect solidarity in spite of the distinctions." The intention is quite right, but to a western reader - thinking of the growing ambiguity in the development of the nuclear family - the image is problematic. It can cause wrong associations - in the same way as the image of God as a Father is no longer unambiguous. Mar Osthathios admits: No analogy from the created order is adequate, when we speak about Incarnation or the Holy Trinity,.. but "I maintain that God as Love has to be eternally sharing, i.e., personal and social. The plurality of Trinity is necessary for the functioning of Love in all eternity and the Unity is the result of perfect Love in the Godhead eternally and infinitely". In the light of this fact, Gods essence - with rejection of the classical complicated and confusing concepts - is defined as love. "Agape is the very essence of God.".

The Church as an image of the Holy Trinity.

The term "the classless society" belongs in a particular communist context and resulted in accusations against Bishop Osthathios og being a communist, instead of trying to understand his real concern. He chose the term very well-considered in order to underline that the expression is a genuinely Christian term - even very suitable to fight the communist ideology. A communist has Mar Osthathios never been. He has always known that by power no body can fight power and make the world new. God is not within power, He is within truth and justice.The difference can be seen from the following quotation: "The means of arriving at the classless society is class war in Marxian thinking, but it is the reign of righteousness in the prophetic Jewish-Christian tradition."Mar Osthathios even turns towards the use of violence from the side of the oppressed to achieve their goal and in a genuine Indian way he points at the passive resistance - from the side of the churches - as well.

"Sermons and rhetoric on identification with the poor do not satisfy the hunger of the oppressed for justice and dignity." Ir is not sufficient to preach Christ, for the future we have to "live Christ". That is why Mar Osthathios proposes a programme to combat exploitation (PCE ) - like the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) - as an aid to organize passive resistance against exploiters. It has to be tried as exploitation of the resources of the world for the luxurious lifestyle of a small minority has become unbearable for the exploited nature and the mass of humanity." An "Agape-army," which has construction and not destruction, not bombs but new flats for the inhabitants of slum areas on the programme. Christ was not without love, when he cleansed the temple with a whip in his hand. The whip of the "Agape-army" shall be the sign of the cross. The sign of compassion and solidarity.

"To the Lord belong the earth and all it contains, the world and all who live there." God has entrusted the earth to us with the purpose of using it for our common good. It is impossible if we appropriate the earth and use it to secure ourselves. The riches of our heavenly father and all his gifts are to all his children. The voluntary communion, the voluntary sharing, is the model hidden in Holy Trinity itself. When God is a divine community, then His body on earth has to live in a voluntarily sharing communion without classes and without privileges. Mar Osthathios calls it "the Liturgy after the Liturgy." To practise a sharing, holy and ethical life in business and in the many doings of everyday life. The Trinitarian model has no meaning without the joy of sharing faith, joy and all resources with all your fellow human beings. "The farewell blessing of the celebrant "Go forth in peace" means "go forth and be a missionary of Christ in your life and witness where ever you are placed by God till you return to the Liturgy."


Communism has broken down and has given capitalism the background of speaking about a "New "World Order," which ostensibly should be able to solve all the problems of the world. Seen from the Third World it looks more and more as the purposeful attempt of America to arrange a market economical dominated world without the competition of the Soviet Communism to the benefit of the developed countries. Capitalism has brainwashed us to justify the selfish love of gain, the accumulation of wealth and the concentration of power in our own hands, even if our brethren are forced into the deepest poverty. If capitalism does not change to a classless society, it will also fail like Communism. We need to be converted. Each side needs a change of heart, which again makes us think about the community of the Holy Trinity, which without sacrificing the person preserve the social dimension in a voluntary community and partnership.

Our time is situated in a deciding age, a watershed. Mar Osthathios uses the word Kairos, which he has borrowed from Paul Tillich, in the sense: The moment, when eternity breaks into temporal, transforms it and creates a turning point in human existence. And we shall only get a "sharing world", when and if the crucified Christ takes the mastery in our lives and makes us new beings - a new creation.

The name of Jürgen Moltmann is mentioned several times with great approval. That is why we close this paper with a quotation from Moltmanns "The Church of Hope": " Seeing the real possibilities of the world hope must be militant and be on the side of life against death, peace against war and the side of the poor and oppressed against their oppressors," and we shall realize "that Not only is God our hope, but we are his hope - as well."

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A short outline of the history of

The Holy Apostolic-Catholic Church of the East.

Romans and Persians.

"They live in our country, but they share the conviction of our enemies" - said King Shapur of Persia (310 - 379). He was right in a way as the people of whom he was speaking was Christian. The same faith as the sworn enemy of the Persians, the Romans and the Greeks at the beginning of the 4th century had made the official religion of their empire.

Antioch and Edessa.

Politically Antioch (Greek/Roman) was far away from Edessa (Persian) - much more than the 200 km that geographically separated the two cities. Language and culture were different, too. The population of Antioch spoke Greek, at Edessa and eastward Aramaic, which was the official language in Persian areas as well - until the Arab conquest. The Aramaic speaking people was very sceptic about Greek culture and had it's connections with Jerusalem and the Semitic world.

The Persian Church.

The political circumstances forced the Persian Christians of the East to build up their own ecclesiastical organization with a Catholicos as its head. He lived at the old Persian capital Seleucia-Ktesiphon - near Babylon of the antiquity. As early as 424 the independence was declared at a Persian Church Council: "Easterns shall not complain of their patrarch to the Western patriarchs. Every case that cannot be settled by him (the Catholicos) shall await the tribunal of Christ."


Nestorios was a Syriac by birth. He became patriarch of Constantinople and advocated a conception of the relationship between Godhead and man in Christ, which caused strong opposition. He underlined the two natures so strongly, that the person Jesus was in danger to be broken. His opponents underlined the unity between the two natures, that the human nature was at the point to be absorbed. Nestorios consequently only wanted to speak about the Holy Virgin as "Mother of Christ" and not as the "Mother of God." At the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesos 431 Nestorios was condemned and exiled and his followers were persecuted and driven out from the Greek/Roman Empire.

The Persian Church becomes Nestorian.

Many Nestorians fled to the Persian area, where the soil since the declaration of independence (424) was manured for all opponents to the Greek/Roman policy. The great number of refugees from the West was a blood-transfusion to the Persian Church - and a synod at Seleucia-Ktesiphon (as late as 486) declared the Nestorian attitude to be the official faith of the Persian Church. By that - independence of the West was established - not only church-politically but dogmatic as well.

New Testament in Chinese.

A well-consolidated minority church that lived rather peacefully during Persian and Arab domination. And not a tiny church at all. About the year of 1200 it had 27 archbishoprics with 230 dioceses and millions of believers scattered from the Euphrat in the West to Peking in the East and to the uttermost South of India. The spreading of the Syrian church from 500 - 1200 has been called the biggest mission-enterprise in history. Who knows to day that Syrian monks were the f8irst to bring the Gospel to China and to India and to translate the New Testament into Chinese as early as about the year of 600?

The Mongols and Tamerlane.

That flowering season was brutally interrupted by the Mongol invasion - especially Tamerlane (1336 - 1405) who within a few decades nearly destroyed the Assyrian Church - not only the areas in Asia and China but in the main areas of Persia and Mesopotamia. The churches were molested and the congregations massacred. The few refugees that escaped found a place of sanctuary in the mountains between lake Urmia and lake Van. The peace lasted up to the 19thcentury, when the Curds slaughtered more than a fifth of all Nestorian Christians in the area. Now disaster followed disaster. The First World War claimed an enormous number of victims among the Christians of the Church of the East and the exodus began which continues to the very day and threatens to eliminate the Syrian Christianity in it's original area and make it a diaspora with centers in Europe, USA and Australia.

The Thomas-Christians i South India.

Only the church in India has had a relatively peaceful development, even if it's history in it's own way has been rather stormy. Founded by St. Thomas, who suffered martyrdom about the year of 68, the Indian Church in her first 1500 years was connected with the Persian Church. From her she got the Holy Liturgy the Liturgy of St. Addai and Mari or the Liturgy of the Apostles, which goes back to the first tradition of Jerusalem and is considered one of the oldest liturgies in the world. The bishops of the church were consecrated at Seleucia-Ktesiphon until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. At that time a forced Latinization began, which caused the split in 5/6 different "denominations" - reflecting all the divisions of Europe. But it is essential to underline that just below the surface goes a strong stream of unity in spite of the outward divisions. They are original Indian Christians with a common history for nearly two millenniums, which ties together much more than the ripples on the surface separate.

Mar Aprem.

Mar Aprem is the head of the original, Nestorian wing of the church - residing at Trichur, Kerala, South India. He is an exciting and colourful character, who has contributed much to bring new life and flowering to the old church. He is educated in England and USA and his doctoral work deals with the Christological questions that separated Nestorianism in 434. The foundation for the doctoral work took place at United Theological College at Bangalore under supervision of the Danish professor Kaj Baagø. Mar Aprem is a very busy writer. His book no. 34 has just appeared. All his books are not equally valid - but they have one thing in common: They try to give mouth and voice to one of the oldest churches in the world. This indicates that this church even to day is a branch of the true vine. A branch, which is not withered - but still able to shoot new fresh shoots.

Church of the East and Rome.

Time had to go until Christmas 1994 before they - with the words of Canon Douglas realized "that Christian disunion not always is the evil fruit of theological perversity ... but the battle-flags for national and social quarrels." After long negotiations a "Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East" was signed at the Vatican by His Holiness pope John Paul and His Holiness patriarch Mar Dhinka - establishing, that the Lord's Spirit permits us to understand better today that the divisions brought about .. were due in large part to misunderstanding. Whatever our Christological divergences have been, we experience ourselves united today in the confession of the same faith in the Son of God who became man so that we might become children of God by his grace."

The new Cathedral of Parumala.

The Malankara-Orthodox Church has just finished the construction of the of the biggest Orthodox-Syrian Church in India.

The Cathedral is situated in Parumala, 40 kilometres south of Kottayam at the shrine of  Geevarghese mar Gregorios, an Orthodox monk who died in 1902 and was declared a saint by the Malankara Orthodox Church in 1947.

The old church building could accomodate barely 300 people, - the new church more than 2000 people, while thousands more can see the services from outside as three sides of the church are built in open style.

More than 50000 gathered in Parumala to witness the consecration of the church on 28 October 2000.

The arcitect A. M. Mathew - retired chief engineer with the Public Works department of Kerala State before he took up the church work on an honorary basis - delivered in 1996 a lecture at the Malankara Catholic Centre in Thiruvalla telling about his thoughts about Church and Church Architecture. Below the main points from Mr. Mathew's manuscript:

Church Architecture - Liturgical and Theological Perspective.

(Resume of the lecture at the Seminar of Syro Malankara Catholic Priests held at Thiruvalla from 26 to 29th February 1996.)

Architecture is an art of perception, making use of elements like sequence in space, scale, proportion, light, color, materials etc., arranged so as to evince interest. Architectís responsibility is to create meaningful form. Space is that the Architect envelopes, creating a wholly human and finite environments of nature, with an infinite environment of nature.

The Church:

The word 'Church' implies an assembly, especially of God's people. In English language the word is used both f'or the collective body of Christians, as well as the building meant for liturgical assemblies. The term 'Palli' in Malayalam was earlier used in connotation with god and king. In Pali language the word 'Palli' in used f'or non Hindu places of worship, especially Budha Vihars. In course of time the term 'Palli' began to be used for Christian and Muslim worship.

 The Christian church or liturgical space is where God and His people, men and women of' all ages, who are bound up in the community meet and find each other. It is a place of communion and place of promise and has its foundation in the proclamation of the Gospel message and the celebration of' the sacrements of the new covenant. The community make itself recognizable in its faith, its love and its hope in the liurgical shape of space. As such, first of all it is the Church or Christian community that take part in the shaping; then all those with a responsibility within and outside are called or invited to join this shaping. The act of' perception, which in the most original sense of the word, happens in the community and in the environment. Shape and perception thereby become an eminently human and at the same time, theological act. The shape of the liturgical space belongs to the mediation of Christian community, like the testimony of faith and charity of love.

Significance of symbols:

The family of God prays and celebrates in its own house and it is Christ alone Who is the beam of holiness for this family. He not only communicates this holiness sacrementally, to the members, but He can as well in a connotation more personal and abstract extend it to images, objects of worship and to the building itself. 'Like living stones let yourself be built into a spiritual house' is the call of Apostle St. Peter ( I Pet: 2-5) to the new Christians. According to St. Augustine, visible things represent invisible ones. The Church is the community of brothers and sisters with their specific liturgical worship. As such the shape and symbolism of the liturgical space may vary from community to community.

Symbolism of West:

The 'nave' from the latin word 'navis' meaning ship or boat represents in a symbolical way, the ship or boat of the faithful being safely led through the stormy world by Jesus. According to Apostolic Constitutions compiled in fourth century, the house is to be lenghthy and in an eastward direction; it is to resemble a ship. The throne of the bishop is to be placed in the center of it; the presbyterium is to be seated at both sides. The deacons assist them, alert and in wide clothes, for they are like sailors and crew masters. They take care that the lay persons are seated at the other end, with great discipline and in calm, the women being separated and also seated and keeping silence.

Symbolism of East:

There are many symbols for the church, the most important being (1) Ladder to heaven and (2) The body of Christ, the first concept being taken from the Old-Testament and the second from New Testament.

Ladder to Heaven:

Jacob on his way from Bersheba to Haran had a dream:(Gen: 28-10 to 22) 'A ladder set upon earth, its top reaching heaven;-he said wonderful is this place, this is none other than the house of God and is the gate to heaven'. Visualizing the church as the symbol of Jacob's ladder, it must be rising in steps not only for the floor, but the whole building itself.

 The Body of Christ:

Jesus said 'Tear down this temple and I will build it in three days again'. (John 2-19). But the temple Jesus was speaking about was His own Body (John 2-2l). So the church is the symbol of the body of Christ. At the position of the head, the thronose holding the cross and the blood and body of Christ is placed. The lectern (Bible stand) is at the position of the mouth, the baptistry at the site of the divine wound and people stand at the position of the trunk of the body and the porch, Mondolom or Natakasala is at the position of the legs.

The Altar or Thronose is not only the symbol of the supreme sacrifice on the cross, but also that of resurrection. That is the significance of the empty cross on it. Christ is the offering as well as the priest. It is also the table of life where the body and blood of Christ are served. Thronose is the Greek word for Throne where the Heavenly King sits It is also the symbol of the empty tomb, the eternal proof of resurrection. So it is only proper and right that the Madhuba which houses the Altar or Thronose must be the most outstanding part of the church.

It is the Eastern Christian tradition to worship God, who is the light of the world, facing East where the Sun rises and spreads its light. Our belief is also that the second coming of Christ is from the East. As such the sanctuary or the Nadubha must be on the eastern end of the c:hurch so that the worshipers face East and the main entrance on the West.

Evolution of Church Architecture:

When the Church lived in a socially limited environment, like in the beginning of its history, or in the country sides like Kerala or woods in Africa, the church architecture was a simple installation of honest craft.

During the early centuries of persecution, Christians worshiped in catacombs and private houses. Later on some modifications were made for certain houses and set apart for assembling and breaking bread. They are known as House Churches. The details of such a house church which existed on the banks of Fuphretes is now available to us as a result of the excavations done by Archaeologists during 1930-34. Christianity was introduced to the community at Dura Europa in l63 A.D. The house Church at Dura built in 232 A.D. and modified in 240 A.D. for the special needs of the Church, had eight rooms, a court yard, portico, vestibule, assembly hall, baptistery and three additional undesignated rooms. The baptistry is the largest room, identified by the presence of a basin sunk into the floor and wall paintings. Baptism for the early Christians was the pivotal process in a personís life.

When emperor Constantine (306 to 337 A.D.) Allowed Christians to worship freely, they adopted Roman Basilica - the court far disposing justice - as the model for Church construction. Basilica churches were long rectangular low structures with timber roofs supported by long rows of columns. The columns divided the long building into a central aisle (later known as the nave) and two main side aisles. The Eastern end was rounded into apse, often domed. This is still the basic form of a Western church, a cruciform shape being adopted in certain cases. The roof and decoration developed according to the developments in engineering as well as the different periods of architectural styles like Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance. Modern, etc

In the West, Byzantine architecture developed from Rome and oriental precedents became popular. The style was characterized by the use of squared floor plan, domes and rich decorative mosaics. The dome of the building was considered as the image of the glory of heaven.

Kerala Churches:

The earliest churches in Kerala might have been in the model of Hindu temples constructed with laterite and wood. Compared with granite, laterite and wood are not durable. This together with the growing needs of the community, demanded the reconstruction of the church building once in two hundred to three hundred years. With each reconstruction the current techniques and materials were used - although some of the old parts were incorporated in the new structure. The church in India was under the spell of Porthugeese influence during the latter half of 16th century and first half of 17th century. This influence was most in church architecture. Though the Syrian Christians, in 1653, at the foot of the Koonan Cross in Cochin made a vow and severed all connections with the Porthugeese, with regard to church construction, they continued to follow Porthugeese and Western techniques and models. With the result, now there is not any church in pure Kerala style.

We can only imagine that the church building in Kerala, before the advent of Porthugeese, might have been like Trichur Vadkunathan Temple or so. In a Hindu temple the importance is for 'darsan', seeing God individually and communicating with him. But for Christians and Muslims, it is the congregational worship. So the plan of the Hindu temple might have been slightly modified. Over the Madhuba there might have been a high square roof in wood and a lower roof for the people. There might have been slanting roofs on the front and sides. Invariably there vas a high laterite wall, all around with a conspicuous Western gate or Padipura. There was no such thing as facade which at present is the crowning aspect of a Kerala church. Large ornamental facade was a feature adopted by the Porthugeese to hide the uncomely roof and other parts of the church.

Modern Churches:

Modern churches are artistic affirmations of four important assertions. (1) The heart of religious worship consists in meditation on question of values, purpose and destiny in an environment, that gives insistent urgency, to those questions, (2) Worship is best conducted corporately in a service that the building helps to shape. (3) The environments must be organized artistically taking into account the culture and history of the community. (4) Meaningfulness in artistic design will be achieved when contemporary. engineering and humanities are synchronize in one united act of creation.

Future of Church Building:

Out of the 33 Anglican Churches in the inner London City area only 7 are being used. 18 have been disposed off by dismantling or converting for other purposes. Same is the situation through out Europe and North America. Though multiple use of liturgical space vas attempted for some of the modern parish centers in Europe in the Nineteen Sixties it didnít catch up, But there is a boom in constructing places of worship throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Bahia Temple in Delhi, the large Mosques in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, the massive Church recently consecrated by the Pope in a tiny state in Africa etc. exemplies this fact.

In Kerala, we can see a number of churches, mosques and temples coming up. Years ago, the church building was the pride and prestige of the community and parish. But later on this was shifted to institutions like colleges and schools. Values gradually changed and the emphases was on social work and institutions like orphanages, old age homes etc. But now the main concern is on justice, liberation, spiritual uplift, environment, etc. So I think that even though the spirit of worship will be increasing, the church building will not be considered as symbols of prestige and glory in future.

 A. M. Mathew.

Ecumenical Patriarch visits Kerala

The visit to India from 17 to 19 November 2001  by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople was the first visit by an Ecumenical Patriarch to the Orthodox Christians in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

There are two million Orthodox Christians in the region representing India's oldest Christian community. They trace their history back to the Apostle Thomas - one of Jesus' disciples - who is said to have arrived in Kerala in AD 52 and established Christianity in India.

The Kerala state government, which is led by the Communist Party, declared Patriarch Bartholomew a "state guest," and provided half a dozen government vehicles and a team of police officers to accompany the Patriarch and his group. "You are the descendants of those who were taught the faith in Christ directly from the holy Apostle Thomas and who have kept it over two thousand years," Patriarch Bartholomew told the leaders of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the main Orthodox church in Kerala, who had gathered at Kochi airport to meet him. "Unfortunately, great distances, difficulty in communicating, as well as other historic circumstances, distanced us from each other and brought on separation of the spiritual communion we once shared," he continued.

Later in his visit, as he inaugurated a new project at the Medical Mission hospital at Kolencherry, Patriarch Bartholomew said: "We express our hope and prayer that our present visit to your ancient apostolic church will constitute the beginning of even further development of friendly relations between our two churches, a deeper study of the traditions of each, coming nearer on all subjects, and a harbinger of attainable final unity."

At a dinner on 18 November in Kottayam - the center of Orthodox Christianity in Kerala - hosted by Baselios Marthoma Mathews II, who as the metropolitan of the Malankara church holds the title of Catholicos of the East, Patriarch Bartholomew elaborated further his message of Christian unity. "Unfortunately, for many reasons the 'Holy Apostolic Church of Christ' has been divided into many groups," said the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The Patriarch's concern for Christian unity was further reinforced when he presided over a public meeting attended by more than 10,000 people at Parumala church, the shrine of Geevarghese mar Gregorios, a monk who died in 1902 and was proclaimed a saint in 1947 by the Malankara church.

"Division among Christians is a contradiction. The therapy for this [division] has not yet been found. It has been hundreds of years since we have been divided," the Patriarch told the gathering at Parumala, 40 kilometers south of Kottayam.

"As much as today's meeting brings joy, it also gives grief from the fact that our unity is not complete," said the Ecumenical Patriarch in an apparent reference to the continuing separation between Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches. At the same time, Patriarch Bartholomew pointed out that with his visit to Kerala, he had visited all the major Orthodox churches of the Oriental tradition.

Later the Patriarch and his six-member entourage including Archbishop Damaskinos of Switzerland, visited St Mary's Orthodox Syrian church at Niranam - 3 kms from Parumala - said to be one of the seven churches founded by the Apostle Thomas. "Saint Thomas and Saint Andrew meet here," declared Geevarghese mar Osthathios, Metropolitan of Niranam, on welcoming the Ecumenical Patriarch to the historic church, a reference to the fact that Patriarch Bartholomew is acknowledged as the 270th successor to the Apostle Andrew, the brother of the Apostle Peter.

Patriarch Bartholomew was also accorded a solemn reception at the Orthodox theological seminary in Kottayam - the biggest Orthodox seminary in Asia - where the seminary's 200 students and staff lined up to greet the Patriarch with burning candles in their hands. As the Patriarch was led into the seminary along the pathway that had been decorated with coconut palm leaves and muthukudas - colorful umbrellas used at festive occasions - the noise of firecracker bursts filled the air. In memory of his visit to the seminary and to keep alive the bonds, the Patriarch announced the setting-up of two scholarships for its students to study Greek and church iconography in major Orthodox theological centers abroad.

Speaking to ENI at the end of the visit, Catholicos Mathews II described the visit as "a memorable and big event in the history of our church. It will help develop better relations between us." Catholicos Mathews added that he had accepted an invitation from Patriarch Bartholomew to return the visit in order to "keep the bonds alive."

Anto Akkara for ENI, Nov. 22.

During his visit Patriarch Bartholomew described the activities of "proselytizing Christians" as "unacceptable." The issue of "proselytism" - the seeking of converts - is one of the most sensitive questions in relations between Orthodox and other churches, particularly in Russia and other parts of eastern Europe where the arrival of foreign missionaries, Protestant and Roman Catholic, has provoked hostility from the Orthodox, who regard this as trespassing on the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox churches.

Patriarch Bartholomew made his comments in a speech at a dinner on 18 November given by Catholicos Baselios Marthoma Mathews II, head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church - India's main Orthodox church - which hosted the Patriarch's visit.

In his address, Patriarch Bartholomew said that evangelical groups from the United States were engaged in "proselytizing Orthodox congregations in Ukraine, Russia and other [European] countries." Patriarch Bartholomew did not refer specifically to the situation in India. However, when asked by ENI whether the church in Kerala faced similar problems, Catholicos Mathews said that the activities of some "Pentecostal" groups were a "real problem"

"They are not at all falling in line with other [Christians'] rights. They are a special group with [their] own independence," he said. "And they seem to feel that all other [Christians] are in the wrong way and they are the only right group."

K. M. George, a prominent Indian Orthodox theologian, who was also present at the meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, told ENI that Orthodox Christians in Kerala were being "poached" not only by Pentecostals but also by mainline churches. "But of late, there have been better relations with mainline churches, especially with the Catholic Church," George added. The Catholicos met the Pope in 1986 during his visit to Kottayam, George said, and complained about Orthodox church members being targeted by the Catholic Church.

In response to the complaints from the Orthodox Church, George said, the Vatican initiated a joint international commission between the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Catholic Church that has been meeting annually in Kottayam since 1989 to discuss mutual concerns and to improve their relations. The meetings of the joint commission have already led to common statements on Christology, church history, ecclesiology and the sacraments.

At their last meeting in September, the joint commission issued a draft statement on "inter church marriages" between Catholics and Orthodox Christians - a thorny issue in Kerala. Both churches are being asked to study the draft statement with a view to its approval at the joint commission meeting next year.

Source: "Ex Oriente Lux" (The Oriental Orthodox News Service)

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Last Updated April, 2002 by Morten Møbjerg

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