What Pope Francis Ignored about the Armenian and the Assyrian Church


Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Luke 6:41)

Holy Trinity, fresco by Luca Rossetti da Orta, 1738–9 (St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea).

Holy Trinity, fresco by Luca Rossetti da Orta, 1738–9 (St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea).  An apple cannot be a rock and a monkey at the same time …

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Pope Francis risked Turkish anger on Sunday, April 12, 2015, by using the word “genocide” to refer to the mass killings of Armenians a century ago under the Ottoman Empire.

On the surface the Pope’s words may seem innocuous and benign, but on deeper reflection one realizes that these words could have dramatic implications for the millions of peaceful and patriotic Turks living in the Western Europe.

“In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies,” the Pope said at a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres, during WWI.

Pope Francis embraces Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II of Armenian Church, during a mass on the 100th anniversary of WWI, in St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Francis on Sunday

Pope Francis embraces Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II of Armenian Church, during a mass on the 100th anniversary of WWI, in St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis on Sunday

“The first, which is widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,’ struck your own Armenian people,” he said, referencing a 2001 declaration by Pope John Paul II and the head of the Armenian church.

His use of the term genocide — upset Turkey, as it can have grave implications for the Turkish relationship with the West at this crucial moment in history.

Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican for “consultations” just hours after Francis’ comments, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Earlier, Turkey summoned the ambassador from the Vatican for a meeting, Turkish state broadcaster TRT reported.

If I were leading the Turkish strategy, I would suggest arranging an international conference on the nature of Jesus, as understood by different sects of different Abrahamic faiths and invite not only Armenian and Roman Catholic scholars, but, also the followers of Assyrian Church of the East, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian Christian scholars.  After all Constantinople, Ephesus and Nicaea were the Turkish towns that held the early Ecumenical Councils that gave rise to Triune understanding of God, as preached by the Roman Catholic Church.  The conference should invite journalists from all over Europe so that it is covered well in UK, France, Germany and other countries with sizable Muslim and Turkish populations.

This may be the perfect peaceful pay back to the Pope for digging out a hundred year old grave and throwing a monkey wrench in the Christian-Muslim relationship.

The Armenian Apostolic Church[a] belongs to Eastern Christianity and is the world’s oldest national church.[2][3][4][5] It is part of Oriental Orthodoxy and is one of the most ancient Christian communities.[6] Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the early fourth century (traditionally in 301) in establishing this church.[7]

The Eastern Christians do not share the same religious cultures, as the Western Christians, both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. Christianity divided itself in the East during its early centuries both within and outside of the Roman Empire in disputes about Christology and fundamental theology, as well as national divisions (Roman, Persian, etc.).  Today there are four main branches or families of Eastern Christianity, each of which has distinct theology and dogma.

Studying and contrasting the understanding of the Eastern and Western Christians especially about the person of Jesus Christ can be very fruitful.

Both the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East are part of the Eastern Christianity.

sects of christianity

For the purposes of this article, contrasting the doctrines of Assyrian Church of the East and Roman Catholic Church may be the perfect prescription to  start talking about the two natures and two persons of Jesus and disarm the main trick or fallacy of the Trinitarian Christian apologists, for whom sometimes Jesus is human and sometimes divine and it becomes difficult to hold them to any reasonable interpretation of the Gospels, as we discuss Jesus unfold in different verses of the Gospels.  Sometimes Jesus is divine and sometimes without any warning he is human and vulnerable and faltering.

At the time of the last supper he is declaring his mission to die for the sins of humanity and a few hours later he is not divine at all and not even a strong willed human and praying to God the Father for this bitter cup to be taken away from him.

Theologically, the  Assyrian Church is associated with the doctrine of Nestorianism, leading to the church, also being known as a “Nestorian Church”, though church leadership has at times rejected the Nestorian label, and it was already extant in Assyria some four centuries prior to Nestorius.

In the Nestorian view, the human and divine persons of Christ are separate

In the Nestorian view, the human and divine persons of Christ are separate for all the other Christians, both natures are some how mysteriously merged into one person

So, for the Assyrian Christians not only the two natures of Jesus are separate, the human person is separate from divine person, as if Jesus was two persons.

For the Assyrians apparently God is not Triune, but a Tetrad, as it has four persons:

God the Father

The Holy Ghost

Jesus the man

Jesus the God

We can ask them to assign every verse of the four canonical Gospels to one or the other person and how do they know it.  And, of course, we can ask every Roman Catholic Christian as to how the two natures coexisted in one person and how could human coexist with divine, mortal with immortal, finite with infinite and local with omnipresent?

To the open minded among them we can also suggest reading of two of my other articles: Understanding the Nature of Jesus is Always a Heresy and Is Jesus Man, Is he God, or Both?

If the Christian apologists genuinely go through the above exercise, the sensible among them will realize that they are better off with the Jewish or the Muslim understanding of Jesus, being human, and their love for Jesus, may peace be on him, will dictate to them to be closer to the Muslim position of believing him to be a prophet and beloved of God.

A conference examining the nature of Jesus with 50% of Europe, now agnostic or atheist, may be what Pope Francis needs to be able to respect the Muslims and stop bringing up issues from a century ago, against them and as such disturb peaceful co-existence.

Armenian issue cannot be examined in isolation without the dynamics and the complete details of WWI.  Additionally, the Ottoman Empire is long gone.  Like, todays Jews are not responsible even if Jewish leaders from 2000 years ago had any role in the killing of Jesus Christ, present day Germans are not responsible for the atrocities of Nazi Germany some 70 years ago, present day Turkey or Turks are not responsible for any atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

But, if Pope Francis continues to insist on a political debate rather than a theological one, we could certainly talk about the Crusades, the Inquisitions and WWII.  But, personally I prefer to talk about theology, because that is what ultimately separates the Muslims and the Christians and ultimately the root cause of many a conflict for the last 1400 years.  If we have shared understanding of the Divine, many of our suspicions of “the other,” will disappear in thin air.

Additional reading

How Islam Taught Medieval Christian Europe Religious and Political Tolerance

Shariah and Constitution: A Personal Journey

Tear down the Spanish Wall of Islamophobia!

3 replies

  1. Assyrian Church of the East
    The massacres of Assyrian Christians by Tamerlane (1336–1405) destroyed many bishoprics, including the ancient Assyrian city of Ashur. The Church of the East, which had previously extended as far as China, was largely reduced to an Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrian remnant living in its original heartland in Upper Mesopotamia (what had been Assyria), the triangular area[14] between Amid, Salmas and Mosul. The See was moved to the Assyrian town of Alqosh, in the Mosul region, and Mar Shimun IV Basidi (1437–1493) appointed Patriarch, establishing a new, hereditary, line of succession.[15]

    Growing dissent in the church’s hierarchy over hereditary succession came to a head in 1552, when a group of bishops from the Northern regions of Amid and Salmas elected Mar Yohannan Sulaqa as a rival Patriarch. Seeking consecration as Patriarch by a Bishop of Metropolitan rank, Sulaqa traveled to Rome in 1553, and entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. On being appointed Patriarch, Sulaqa took the name Mar Shimun VIII and was granted the title of “Patriarch of Mosul and Athur (Assyria)”. Later this title became “Patriarch of the Chaldeans”, despite none of its adherents being from the long disappeared Chaldean tribe, or from what had long ago been Chaldea in the far south east of Mesopotamia.[16]

    Mar Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa returned to the Near East the same year, establishing his seat in Amid. Before being put to death by partisans of the Patriarch of Alqosh, he ordained five metropolitan bishops, thus establishing a new ecclesiastical hierarchy, a line of patriarchal descent known as the Shimun line.

    Relations with Rome weakened under Shimun VIII’s successors, all of whom took the name Shimun. The last of this line of Patriarchs to be formally recognized by the Pope died in the early 17th century. Hereditary accession to the office of Patriarch was reintroduced, and by 1660 the Assyrian Church of the East had become divided into two Patriarchates; the Eliya line, based in Alqosh (comprising that portion of the faithful which had never entered into Communion with Rome), and the Shimun line.

    In 1672[15] the Patriarch of the Shimun line, Mar Shimun XIII Denha, moved his seat to the Assyrian village of Qochanis in the mountains of Hakkari. In 1692, the Patriarch formally broke communion with Rome and allegedly resumed relations with the line at Alqosh, though retaining the independent structure and jurisdiction of his line of succession.


  2. My take, as they say “two wrong don’t make it right” Turkish President should have owned up to the historical fact by saying that was over a century ago, this is todays Turkey, a pluralistic and progressive nation where all faiths can live in harmony and in safety. Turkey is committed to be a champion of peace and harmony.

  3. The reason this keeps being brought up is that the Turks insist that it never happened. The Germans took responsibility for what they did to the Jews. Turks must do the same thing.

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