Notes on the history of the Nasrani Church of the East

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History of the Nasrani Church of the East

"He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.'" (Mark 16:15, NASB).

The Nasrani Church of the East has its roots in Israel, Persia and India, with Saint Thomas the Apostle around AD 52. This Church is Eastern in origin and is an autocephalous, self ruling hierarchy. The Church has been known by various names including "Mar Thoma Nasrani Orthodox Church" and the more popular "Saint Thomas Christian Church of the East and Abroad".

Saint Thomas is the Apostle who brought the Church to the natives in India. Ma'ase Shalikh Thoma says: "At the time when all the Apostles were at Jerusalem ... we divided the various areas of the earth, so that every one of us should go to the particular area that fell to him and to the nation where the Lord sent him. According to the lot, therefore, India fell to Judas Thomas." Christian writers and historians from the 4th century refer to the evangelistic work of Apostle Thomas in India, and we ascribe the origin of our Blessed Church to the labors of the Apostle in the First Century as well as to the family of the Virgin Marta Miriam (Mary).

The Catholicos-Patriarch of the Church of the East and Abroad is heir to the Chair of Saint +Peter (Antioch), Saint +Thomas (Selucia-Ctesphion/Babylon and Kerala) as well as Saint +James the Just (Jerusalem and Selucia-Ctesphion/Babylon) because the Holy See of Saint James, as well as the entire Church of Jerusalem, fled to Mesopotamia in 135 A.D. This is recorded by Eusebius himself (See Church History of Eusebius). Israelites were no longer allowed to enter into the Holy City of Jerusalem and thus the Patriarchate, being in exile, was transferred to Mesopotamia. From 90 A.D. until 203 A.D., the Family of the Virgin Marta Miriam (Mary) and the family of her husband Joseph governed the Church of the East as patriarchs. This united the Apostolic Succession of James the Just with the Apostolic Succession of Saint Jude Thomas (+Mar Thoma).

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this account: "Goaded by the tyranny of the Romans, by the re-erection of Jerusalem as a Roman colony and the establishment of an altar to Jupiter on the site of the Temple, the Jews broke out into a hopeless rebellion under the famous false Messias Bar-Kochba about the year 132. During his rebellion he persecuted the Jewish Christians, who naturally refused to acknowledge him (Eus., 'Chron.', for the seventeenth year of Hadrian). The Emperor Hadrian put down this rebellion, after a siege that lasted a year, in 135. As a result of this last war the whole neighbourhood of the city became a desert. On the ruins of Jerusalem a new Roman city was built, called Ælia Capitolina (Ælia was Hadrian's family nomen), and a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus was built on Mount Moria. No Jew (therefore no Jewish Christian) was allowed under pain of death inside the town. This brought about a complete change in the circumstances of the Church of Jerusalem. The old Jewish Christian community came to an end. In its place a Church of Gentile Christians, with Gentile bishops, was formed, who depended much less on the sacred memories of the city."

In 170 A.D. the Successor of Saint +James the Just, Mar +Yakov I ascended the Patriarchal Seat of the exiled Church of Jerusalem in Mesopotamia as well as the whole Church - East of Roman Dominion. Therefore our Catholicos-Patriarch is the Apostolic Successor of Mar +Ehoda Thoma (Saint Jude Thomas), Mar +BarTulmay (Saint Bartholomew), Mar +Taddai (Saint Thaddeus), Mar +Shimun Kepa (Simon Peter) and Mar +Yakov haTzadiq (Saint James the Just).

In 135 Caesarea and Antioch colonized the New Roman City of Alea Capitolina built atop the ruins of Jewish Jerusalem. They installed their own Greek bishop over this transplanted church, and his name was Markos I. His Apostolic Succession is from these two episcopal sees, not from Saint James. This is why Post Apostolic Jerusalem takes last place in the 5 Patriarchates of the Roman World, because it is a transplant. The Nasrani Church of Jerusalem, Judaea and Galilee fled into Parthian dominions of the East. Her Apostolic Lineage has been preserved and perpetuated in the Church of the East.

In 635 A.D. the Church organized a missionary and educational post in China, and in 781 A.D. in Burma (Myanmar). In the 17th Century Portuguese prelates representing the Western Church (Rome) came to India and attempted to convert the Nasranis to Roman Catholicism. +Mar Dalin I was consecrated by Catholicos Patriarch +Mar Shimun. In the 1800's the "Portuguese-Indian Rite" was formalized in China and India under +Mar Dalin I and +Mar Dalin II with authority being given by Catholicos Patriarch Shimun. The goals of the Portuguese-Indian Church was to bring together the richness of the West (the invading church of the 17th Century in India) with that of the traditions and heritage of the East (Saints Peter, James and Thomas) within a single Ecumenical Mission.

In 1921, because of persecution and political issues, the Dalins believed it wise to transfer the Patriarchate to Portugal and this became a reality between 1931 and 1932. It was during this time that the Church began using the name "Iberian Orthodox Church". +Mar Dalin III communicated often with +Mar Eshai Shimun XIII of the United States. The Thomasine Historical Society possesses numerous letters and other communications from various Patriarchs and clergy of other jurisdictions.

With the passing of +Mar Dalin III in 1991, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem was transferred to North America, which is now under the direction of H.H. Catholicos Patriarch +Mar Michai.

Our Jurisdiction has churches in Syria and Israel. The Israeli Church consists of Nasrani Jews and Arabs, and their Chief City is Jerusalem. Therefore H.H. Mar +Michai is the Nasrani Patriarch of Jerusalem (in exile). He has consecrated their clergy and Bishops. All share in and perpetuate the Apostolic Line of (+Mar Yakov) Saint +James the Just in Jerusalem, Judaea, Galilee and Syria once again.

Of course those Patriarchates of Jerusalem who disavow the Nasranis are successors of Markos I, the first bishop of Alea Capitolina, or later appointments of Rome or Canterbury. Our Catholicos Patriarch does not claim title over all Christians of Jerusalem, just over all Orthodox Mar Thoma Nasranis. Nasrani Churches in Syria and Israel use Aramaic, Hebrew or Arabic in their Liturgies. They follow ancient Nasrani (Christian) customs, and do not act intolerantly of those who submit to other Patriarchates. Jewish Nasranis of the Nasrani Church of the East and Abroad continue in the Jewish customs and traditions in accordance with Nasrani Liberty ... this irritates some jurisdictions claiming to be "canonical" ... but their anti-Jewish bigotries have been dismissed since 431 A.D.

Because Orthodox Nasranis (Saint Thomas Christians) now span the globe and the membership consists of persons with Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical and Ecumenical backgrounds, our Rite is no longer referred to as "Portuguese Indian", becuase the Church now consists of various Rites. The Jurisdiction of this particular Church is referred to as "Nasrani Thomasine." The term "Nasrani" (also spelled "Nazrani", "Nasranee") means "Nazarene" or "Christian" and is a term that has been used for centuries. The See of Saint Thomas is known as the Ecclesia Universal, and the Nasrani Patriarchate of Jerusalem - Nasrani Church of the East and Abroad. The Canons of the Church is the Didiche which is revered next to the Scriptures due to their authenticity, purity and test of time.

Theological Position

This Patriarchate accepts the decisions of the first two Ecumenical Councils namely, the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. As for the third ecumenical council that was held in 431 A.D. at Ephesus the St. Thomas Christian Church of the East and Abroad opposes it because it was stage-managed by Cyril of Alexandria, archrival of Nestorius of Constantinople (St. Nestorius). Even now Patriarch Schenuda of the Coptic Orthodox Church, successor of Cyril, opposes any ecumenical contact with any branch of the Holy Church of the East.

As far as other theological issues are concerned, there are no serious differences with other Eastern or Ancient Churches.

The leadership of the Church as a whole is made up of a Holy Synod consisting of the Catholicos-Patriarch, Sar Patriarch (Deputy Catholicos) and Secretary General, as well as the Bishops' Council. There also exists a Patriarchal Committee consisting of Patriarchs appointed by the Catholicos-Patriarch for the care of the Church's canonical territory throughout the world. No single individual ever has full control over any aspect of the Church and its policies. There are various eparchies and national sees within the Church in order to accommodate the needs of various forms of the Faith and each of these eparchies or national sees have their own Archbishop or Patriarch.

A Synod held in 424 A.D. declared the following: "By the word of God we define: The Easterners cannot complain against the Patriarch to western Patriarchs; that every case that cannot be settled in his presence must await the judgment of Messiah...(and) on no grounds whatever one can think or say that the Catholicos of the East can be judged by those who are below him, or by a Patriarch equal to him he himself must be the judge of all those beneath him, and he can be judged only by Messiah who has chosen him, elevated him and placed him at the head of His church."

Related Link: Nasrani Church of the East

-- 18:06, 28 Jan 2005 (PST)

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