The Chaldean Church comprises those Catholics whose rites and bishops descend from the Assyrian Church of the East, an autonomous Eastern church founded in the era of the apostles, when Christian faith took root in the lands of Syria and Mesopotamia among peoples who spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. At Pentecost, according to Acts 2:8-11, some of those present — Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia — were from the lands where the Chaldean faith took root. The Apostle Thomas is said to have been among the first to evangelize there. The Church was in territory that fell outside the physical boundaries of the Roman Empire, and under the rule of the Persian Empire, the Church of the East developed many of its own theological and liturgical traditions.
Successive bishops and their followers from the Church in the East entered into communion with Rome in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, forming the Chaldean Catholic Church as an heir to that ancient Christian community, now linked to Rome. Other bishops and believers have joined as recently as 2008. In 1830, Rome established the Patriarchate of Babylon of the Chaldeans, which strengthened and unified the Church. The Chaldean Catholic Church continues to emphasize its own customs and liturgy, though these have also been changed and adapted over time, and were Arabized in the 20th century.1
The Church is centered in Iraq, from the northern part of the country to Baghdad. As of 2007, Chaldeans were said to constitute 80% of the Christian population in Iraq.2 Official counts of Chaldean Catholics fluctuate significantly from year to year, for reasons that cannot be wholly accounted for by migration. For 2013, the Holy See’s Annuario Pontificio counts nearly 244,000 Chaldean Catholics in Iraq; 3,400 in Iran; 7,000 in Jordan; 20,000 in Lebanon; 2,000 in Egypt; 30,000 in Syria; almost 5,000 in Turkey; almost 170,000 in the United States; 37,000 in Australia; and 18,500 in Canada, for a total of 536,525.3
Given the tremendous social and political changes in Iraq in the last decade (at the time of this writing, significant parts of Chaldean Iraq were being overrun or are threatened by extremist Islamists, and Baghdad is under threat), one has to wonder what will endure or change about contemporary Iraqi and Chaldean culture in the wake of these events.
O’Mahony, Anthony. “The Chaldean Catholic Church: The Politics of Church-State Relations in Modern Iraq.” Heythrop Journal 45 no. 4 (October 2004): 435-450.
Rassam, Suha. Christianity in Iraq. Leominster, England: Gracewing, 2010.
Rassam, Suha. “Iraqi Christians: The Present Situation.” In The Catholic Church in the Contemporary Middle East, edited by Anthony O’Mahony and John Flannery, 185-207. London: Melisande, 2010.
- 1. Herman Teule, "The Christian Minorities in Iraq: The Question of Religious and Ethnic Identity," in In-Between Spaces: Christian and Muslim Minorities in Transition in Europe and the Middle East, edted by Christiane Timmerman et. al. (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009), 49.
- 2. Teule, "The Christian Minorities in Iraq," 48.
- 3. The Annuario Pontificio’s statistics on the dioceses of the Eastern Churches have been compiled by Ronald G. Roberson, CSP for various years from 1990-2013 and are available at http://www.cnewa.org/source-images/Roberson-eastcath-statistics/eastcatholic-stat13.pdf.