And Then There Were None: Exterminating the Church of the East

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Monday, August 4, 2014

And Then There Were None: Exterminating the Church of the East

Some have suggested that after marinating in the digestive juices of the great fish, the prophet Jonah must have looked strange as he preached God’s judgment to the people of Nineveh. “Yet forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown,” he cried as he walked from one end of the huge city to the other.

“And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” The people repented and the city was saved (see Jonah 3:1-10).

According to tradition, eight hundred years later the apostles Thomas, Thaddeus, and Bartholomew also preached to those in and around Nineveh. And as it was in Jonah’s day, the people believed the Christian message, repented, were baptized, and the Syriac-speaking “Church of the East” was born.

The Church of the East should not be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church, that is, the Greek-speaking Church centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Church of the East was further east centered in Baghdad and Nineveh, which is across the Tigris River from modern-day Mosul.

Church historian Robert Louis Wilkin points out in The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, “If one looks at a map of the Middle East today, the Church of the East was spread across southeastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan.” From there, missionaries carried the Gospel to Armenia, India, Sri Lanka, and China. Timothy I who was chief bishop of the Church of the East from the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries wrote a letter in which he mentions his plan to ordain a bishop for Tibet.

Despite the rise of Islam that assigned Christians dhimmi status (permitted to live in an Islamic country as a second-class citizen with the payment of a special tax), the Church of the East—also known as the Assyrian Church or the Chaldean Church survived, but just barely.

Romsin McQuade whose family roots are Assyrian writes in The Telegraph that Christians, while serving in the courts of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517), were simultaneously the Caliphate’s scapegoats. “Their houses were marked with pictures of Satan, hundreds of thousands of them murdered, and accused of pledging loyalty to the Romans, their coreligionists, to bring down the Caliphate.”

According to McQuade, in the late fourteenth century, the Assyrian Christians fled “from the first butcher of

Baghdad, Timur, the Mongol ruler bent on exterminating them for being Christian.” “Then,” he goes on, “after the Ottoman Army has finished massacring 50 per cent of their population, 20th century Iraq also turned its

back on its own natives, executing 3,000 of them in less than five days.”

After Saddam Hussein was removed in 2003, things went from bad to worse in part because the United States did not demand that the new Iraqi constitution include religious liberty. An article at, cited the Rev. Canon Andrew White, known as the Vicar of Baghdad who told “60 Minutes” in 2007, “Things are the most difficult they have ever been for Christians. Probably ever in history.

They’ve never known it like now.” Many Christians fled Iraq for what seemed to be safety in Syria.

By now, things have become even worse. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has made life for this ancient Christian community impossible. McQuade writes, “The Islamic State’s dossier of systematic abuses against Assyrians reportedly includes: markings of the Arabic letter ‘nun,’ for the Christian pejorative, ‘Nasrani’ on their homes; execution of women for refusing to veil; church desecrations; rape of a mother and daughter for being unable to pay jizya [dhimmi tax]; destruction of the Christian-revered tomb of the Prophet Jonah; kidnappings of children and clergy; forced conversion of disabled Christians in a Mosul hospital; and even cutting off clean water supply to Assyrian towns in the Nineveh Plains.” 

ISIS reportedly inflicts torture, summary executions, beheadings, and crucifixions on Christians in Syria and presumably in Iraq as well. 

Rep. Frank Wolf, a champion of religious freedom, told Congress, “Christianity as we know it in Iraq is being wiped out…. I believe what is happening to the Christian community in Iraq is genocide…. Where is the West?  Where is the Obama Administration?  Where is the Congress? The silence is deafening.” 

Then he added, “The West, particularly the church, needs to speak out…. As William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian and abolitionist, famously told his colleagues, ‘Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.’ ”

Now that you and I have heard, it’s time to speak.

Publication date: August 4, 2014