My first contact with the Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorians) began in 1991 in southeast Turkey at the monastery of Mor Gabriel. An American Bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, Bishop Bawai Soro, showed up at the monastery. Abbot of the monastery, Mor Timotheos Aktas immediately welcomed him to conduct the Holy Eucharist on the altar. Tears streamed down the far of the Bishop as he sang the Holy words of institution.
Later when talking to him over a lenten meal he told me that he was moved by the act of love shown by the people of the monastery who were Syrian Orthodox. He never believed that he would be so welcome by a rival denomination. Christian religious sects in the Middle East take their rivalries seriously. He had entered an enemy camp and was welcomed with open arms.
The monastery was under seige. The first Gulf War had just ended and we were busy assisted thousands of refugees flowing to the Turko/Iraqi border. Minority religious groups were under threat and Bishop Bawai Soro had come on a diplomatic mission to setup a safe haven for his people on the Iraqi side of the border. He was proposing to buy thousands of acres of land and moved Assyrians to this protected area.
I took him across the border into Iraq to visit refugee camps where thousands of Assyrian Christians were help in limbo waiting to escape from their homeland. We worshipped with these refugees and listened to their stories. One man in the refugee camp was an American citiizen. Although born in Iraq he had migrated to the United States with his family as a child He recently had a heart operation in Chicago and had only returned to Iraq to visit distant relatives when the war broke out. He was trapped and ended up in the camp. His last name was Warda which in Arabic means Rose. I shall never forget Mr. Rose and his tragic story.
The story of Christians in this region is the story of refugees. 1400 years earlies wars broke out in the same region when Islamic tribes from the south rose up and devastated the land and tried to force Christians to covert at the threat of a sword. The Christians left the region. In that case they migrated east toward central Asia and China.
Bishop Alopen showed up in Xian to serve his many refugees in the capital of China. I could not help but think about this story as Bishop Soro moved among his people offering comfort and compassion in a refugee camp near Zaho, Iraq.
The journey to Xian by Middle Eastern Syriac speakingChristians began 200 years earlier in the Christological controversies in the West. I began to learn the detail of these controversies in a paper given to me by Bishop Soro few years later when I met Bishop Soro again in Seattle, Washington. He was working on his doctorate in Rome and had returned briefly to Seattle to meet with Father Bernie. Together they were putting together a landmark paper on the relationship between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Roman Catholoc Church.
This paper became the core document for the signing of the Common Christological declaration with the Roman Catholic Church in November 1994.
Metropolitan Bawai Soro wrote:
“Theodore’s relationship to the Church of the East is due, originally, to the use of his biblical commentaries as standards of exegesis at the School of Nisibis. These works and others were translated into Syriac and continued to be normative at the School of Nisibis established in the late fifth century. The theologians and scholars of the Persian Church were prepared for their work by being thoroughly introduced to the methods and analyses of Theodore. When the edict of Justinian condemning Theodore was issued in 543, it was met by the Persian bishops with utter disdain. In a synod in 544, presided over by the Catholicos, Mar Aba I, the bishops affirmed their loyalty to, and appreciation of, “the Interpreter of the Scriptures”, and made his work the official standard of orthodox teaching. This affirmation was later strengthened by the issuing of anathemas against any who reviled the man or his works.”
The parting of ways between these two historic churches forced the Assyrian Church of the East to begin its move to the East and eventually China. The Islamic conquest of the Middle East was a final humiliation and blow to the Christian minority.
There is no doubt that the first Christians to show up in China were refugees of the Assyrian Church of they East. They used terms and concepts attributed to Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople.
Under the topic ‘Nestorius the Theologian: Context & Thought’, Metropolitan Bawai Soro wrote the following concerning Nestorius:
“In his book ‘The Bazar of Heracleides of Damascus’, Nestorius makes a number of theological statements which largely define his thought and testify to his faith in the risen Lord. While standing his theological ground, Nestorius makes six denials and two affirmations.” The first of his two affirmations reads as follows, “That the principle of this union is to be found in the combined prosopa of divinity and of humanity, namely in the revealed prosopon of Christ incarnate, namely, the Person of the Union.”
In the same paper he wrote the following:
“When Nestorius talks about the giving and taking of the prosopa of the two natures, the dynamic is so mutual and perfectly reciprocal the result of this reciprocity is the absolute unity, making one the two prosopa of divinity and humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ.”
Nestorius was the student of Theodore of Mopsuestia.
Inf his paper Soro quoted from the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia the following:
“Here [in the case of Christ] if each of them [i.e., each nature]* was Son and Lord by nature it would be possible for us to say two Sons and two Lords, according to the number of the persons, but one being Son and Lord by nature and the other being neither Son nor Lord by nature, we believe that the latter received these (attributes).
Bishop Soro became a refugee in a sense. After he craftedthis historic agreement between his church and the Roman Catholic church tension arose between his Partiarch and himself. The Patriarch excommunicated Bishop Soro, took away his title, position, and properties and falsely accused him of financial mismanagement. It caused a split in the American church and eventually Soro was received with several priests and deacons as a bishop in the Roman Catholic church.