Translated transcript of my interview with His Grace Dr. Mar Aprem Mooken at the Metropolitan’s Palace in Thrissur. H.G Dr. Mar Aprem heads what is the Chaldean Syrian Church, which is Indian avatar of the Assyrian Church of the East.
Thirumeni was his humorous and candid self that evening of 2nd February 2018; he bubbles with facts and figures, after all he is one Syrian Christian history enthusiast himself. Thirumeni is a scholar, has many publications under his belt and occasionally plays the Sitar!
For those readers who are familiar only with the two main Syrian factions (the Catholics & the Orthodoxies) in Kerala, to learn about this small church is like a ‘Googly’ to one’s own knowledge. Read on.
So, here in this church isn’t there Qurbana(mass) on Saturday evenings?
No, as in our churches the Priests must take fast before the Qurbana. And this is quite difficult to maintain, especially me as I am a diabetic [chuckles].
I barely survived the three-day Ninevah lent we went through recently, my sugar-levels had shot up alarmingly.
So mostly we have only on Sunday mornings, when we start at around 7:30 am and end at 10 am.
Oh! So long? two and half hours?
No, the Qurbana core is just one hour. This stretch is because of the choir, sermons et al. You see some of our younger priests are eager to express their enthusiasm [smiles] and so indulges in a long musical-Qurbana sometimes. I told them limit themselves as the members may not approve of their long shows [chuckles]
Is there only one Chaldean Syrian parish here (in Thrissur)?
No, there are some five churches here.
What’s the membership size like?
Well the total count, I hear, is like twenty-five thousand (25000) across India. Sometime the stats say 20000. May be some keep leaving the church for the 'Charismatics' or the Pentecostals or for marriages to the other Sabhas [smiles] (Sabha means church-group in this context)
We constitute some 32 parishes ... no! almost 34 parishes in total including in the Arabian Gulf. In number within Thrissur I think we are next only to the Syro-Malabar Catholics (SMC). The Orthodox, Marthomites & CSIs are lower in number here. But the first church in Thrissur city is our's and is more than 200 years old. Its only after that the All Saints' Church of the CSIs came up in 1840. The Catholic church, I mean the SMC, came up only in 1887.
Which brings me to one of my main question: Is this Sabha, the Chaldean Syrian church, the 'unCatholized' (if I may use that term) version of what was existing here in India before the Portuguese?
We claim the earliest church in Malabar was ours.
It is said that Saint Thomas first went to Urumia in Persia and went back when Virgin Mary was about to die; all the disciples were called in. After the funeral, they all dispersed again. St. Thomas is said to have then come to India in AD 52 and through him there was a sort of extension or continuity of a church … of Persian origin. The Christians here then were possibly with the business people or the Jews who were already here since long. This Persian church was later nicknamed 'Nestorian' church.
Was there a difference in the beliefs amongst these mainstream churches?
Yes, and rather difficult to understand. There was a bishop named Nestorius, he was condemned in the Council of Ephesus of AD 431 by Cyril of Alexandria. The two were arch enemies. Cyril was an older bishop from AD 412. Nestorius was a monk at Antioch and became a bishop of Constantinople from AD 428. The Emperor then had already shifted his capital from Rome to Constantinople and was a patron of Nestorius. To tell a long story short, Cyril was jealous of Nestorius.
In the Council, Cyril gathered forces and used the term Theotokos (Mother of God) on Virgin Mary to irk Nestorius – it was widely known then that Nestorius had a particular Christology on this matter. Nestorius maintained that this term is not even in in the Nicean creed. Cyril retorted that Christ is God and Virgin Mary is so the Mother of God. Nestorius argued that if She is Mother then Christ becomes her child or grandchild? [giggles] Anyways this argument led to the controversy and ended with the excommunication of both! And both were put in prison. Cyril tried to escape; Nestorius agreed for exile and he died to AD 451.
In AD 451 Council of Chalcedon was held, and he think Chalcedon were a triumph of Nestorianism where the view that Christ has two concrete natures. Cyril and Antiochian Christology were contemplating a sort of mixed nature for Christ - that is not in two natures but of two natures of God - this view was accused of Monophysitism.
The Jacobites say now that they deny the term Monophysitism and that they believe in both natures of Christ. We Nestorians says we deny the ‘accusation’ about Nestorianism, because in this philosophy we are not dividing Christ into two. We Nestorians believe in the unity of God & Jesus in one person but with two Hypostasis (called Noema in Greek), which again there were different views on this: we say there was an individuated nature while the Cyril party accuses again that this again mean separated persons.
I think I lost you in that Christology talk. Anyways during those times, where the rites or liturgies of different camps (Rome, Antioch, Babylon) the same?
At least two of them should have existed separately. Ours is of the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, the Antiochians and Jerusalem sides followed the Liturgy of St. James – so both liturgies are from early centuries. These should have predated the Nestorian controversy and disputes. Both churches developed in different regions over time.
The Roman empire or the Christians following the tradition of that region believe that there is the only one Christendom and that is around Rome, which is a wrong understanding. They forget there was such an Eastern Christendom, even the historians ignore this treasure. Its only now that people like Sebastian brock, a renowned scholar, have tried convince the world that there something outside of Latin & Greek Christianity and this is Eastern (Syriac) Christianity - which again is divided in two. It was political and personal rivalry that cut off the Eastern Christianity off the mainstream.
In AD 424 the Eastern church held a Synod and decreed that nobody from this church should appeal to the Western church – and that our Catholicos’ (Mar Dadisho) word is final and enough. Somehow the church survived (and developed or deteriorated) on our own till now. As India was under this Nestorian church, we too felt and ebbs and lows accordingly.
Ok BTW Where is this Persia you are talking about? Are you referring to Kurdistan?
Yes. Most of Northern Iraq, parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria. Erbil is supposedly the capital of the Kurdistan. Some say this the native of the patriarch Abraham and Jacob. The location of the ‘Ur of the Chaldeas’.
Flanked by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, this is the womb of the Babylonian Christianity. Nowadays the Nestorian church prefers to be called as Assyrian Christianity or Persian church. The name Chaldeans are used by the Catholic sister church.
You see, unfortunately in history, the Pope of Rome created a separate Catholic Patriarchate in 1553 for the sole purpose of weakening the Eastern churches and the Catholic Chaldean Church was born. There is even a Syrian Catholic church that split the members of the erstwhile Syrian Orthodox church in that region.
BTW we had invited the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch too for the 2015 consecration of our new Patriarch. We had common roots. The Chaldeans were in reconciliation and unification mode - told us to unite and the Patriarch offered to resign even to elect new one in unity; however, we smelled something fishy - we had only 15 prelates and while their side had 22, so one of them may be elected in the end! Therefore, we declined the offer and told lets proceed in our own ways.
I was the chief consecrator as I was the acting Patriarch for six months being the senior most Metropolitan of this church. In the election, I was elected but then they preferred somebody who can communicate in Arabic. So, we elected another – the then Archbishop of Baghdad, now he is Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Gewargis III
This church still exist in this region or have they shifted elsewhere?
1933 our then Patriarch, Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, was exiled to Cyrus. From there he moved to England to Chicago to finally San Francisco. That Patriarch was shot dead in 1974. Then for two years this church was without a Patriarch and some internal turmoil ensued. In
1976 Mar Dinha was elected in England. But he was afraid to come back to his native country Iran as then entering Iraq after that would have been difficult – remember the Iraq-Iran war? Mar Dinha thought the safest bet was to take US citizenship.
The Chaldeans (Catholic) ridiculed as to why should he keep the title ‘Patriarch of the East' if he stays in USA. Anyways during my time the headquarters was shifted back to Arbil.
Politically very unstable region and dangerous too. Turkey and Iran says they will block the Kurdi oil supply lines to West and East - we can only drink it [laughs]
The Americans are supportive of a Kurdistan only because we are listening to them these days. They have a base very close to Patriarchate and they can snoop at Iran.
At any time in history was there a country called Kurdistan?
No. Kurds kept demanding for one but never materialized. And it will be increasingly difficult going forward.
We had asked for an Assyrian nation to the League of Nation, when our Patriarch was called for a reconciliation with the Kurds. He was cheated and shot dead in 1918. Mar Abimalek Thimotheus from here (Thrissur) argued the case in England. At that time, they (the League of Nations) promised a Kurdistan for the Kurds & Assyrian Christians if we participated with them in the (First) World War. Initially we were with the Russians, but they left us with their weapons when the Russian Revolution pulled them back to their Fatherland.
After the war the then Patriarch sister, Lady Surma, who was earmarked for presidency received even a congratulatory-letter from USA. This never materialized due to the complicated politics that is beyond me.
Kurdistan is now semi-autonomous .... there was a referendum recently but I see difficulties with hostilities all around.
Why do you keep referring to the Assyrian people as 'we' and 'us’?!
Yes, just for the Assyrian solidarity [laughs]. No, we here are not Assyrians by ethnicity, we are pure Indians.
I was curious to know if you know anybody with actual Assyrian roots. I have read that many bishops came in to Malabar with their entourage and settled here. Somebody may have married into the Nasrani crowd?
No, don’t know anyone of such Assyrian lineage. We have had mostly foreign bishops, except one Mar Anthony Abdisho Thondanat who was from Elamthottam near Palai.
Ah! There was a secretary, from Mosul, to Mar Timotheus who taught him Malayalam and taught Syriac to the students then. He stayed here and used to make good wines [smiles] is what I heard.
One Cor-Episcoca Michael Augustine who died in 1912 was also a foreigner.
However, none of them had families.
Mar Anthony Abdisho Thondanat – the lone Indian Chaldean bishop who disappeared to obscurity. Interesting. Is there still any family of that name?
Yes. Their neighbors scared the hell out of them. The local Catholic prelates of that time broke his spirit, also kept the family in place by reminding them that this was a cursed bishop as he worked against the true (Catholic) church.
Since I was a student of church history, I dug out and searched this family out and even performed a remembrance mass that their church at Elamthottam, of course with permission from the relevant catholic authorities. This created furore back in the congregation as they thought I was trying to revive something 'heretical' that Kurikose Chavara achen (Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara, C.M.I.) had buried long time ago.
We initially thought of building a church in his name there but received heavy resistance from that place as you know Palai is a Catholic stronghold [smiles] I decided to not waste our energy there. Let bygones be bygones.
BTW, your priests can get married?
Yes, unlike the Jacobites/Orthodoxies who need to marry before priesthood, our priests can do even afterwards. So obviously, we keep receiving a few priests from elsewhere because this flexibility. One from Orthodox, one from the Jacobite camp and even 2 SMCs joined our church because they wanted to get married after they became priests.
However, we also lose members and even priest - at least one these priests who jumped ship have become a Pentecost now [chuckles]
How is this church’s relation with the Indian Orthodox Church and their rivals the Jacobite church?
Good relation with all of them.
I was a baptized Orthodox but now religiously non-aligned. I have heard from Sunday school that the earliest Nasranis was Orthodox. The Syro Malabar Catholics say that they were the earliest and us Orthodoxies split from them. What do you have to say on these versions of history?
Everyone loves their own associations and proud of their own versions [chuckles]
But now the Indian Orthodox Church now agrees that our church was the earliest in this part of the world.
My doctorate-thesis was on this subject and I concluded as this Thrissur church (that is our Nestorian or Assyrian church) is the faithful remnant of Pre-Portuguese Syrian Christianity in India. The SMC(s) in my panel, which included Xavier Koodapuzha, wanted me to rewrite this as "I am inclined to think that this church maybe the faithful remnant ..." I declined and asked for evidences against my conclusion. Theophilus Thirumeni and other two Marthomites, in the same panel, supported my view.
Look by at the historical events – even the First Marthoma, Parambil Thomas Kathanar, was even consecrated by one of us in May 22, 1653. It was only a decade later that Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel came in and then the communion with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch was established. There were no Orthodox before that.
The Jacobites though still wants to impress there may have been some frequent visitations of their bishops in the past and that Antiochian-Orthodoxy was prevalent in Malabar. My argument, if so, then it should had been highlighted in the Synod of Diamper! But this Synod talks only of the “the Nestorian heresy”.
I have published, through SEERI, my other doctorate-thesis: "History of Syrian History in the 20th century"
Is there a name for the two Syriacs that is used here in Keralite churches?
I don’t remember the exact name.
I think it is Serta but the Jacobites/Orthodox calls it Serto.
The SMC and Nestorians use the Eastern Syriac script or Chaldeac. The capital letters of the same is I believe called Estrangela.
“Shuha laha Lavra val Ruha d'kudisha” in our Qurbana becomes “Shubaho LAbo LaBro val Ruho Kadeesho” in your Qurbano
The simple rule for translation is that all 'Ah' sounds in Eastern Syriac are made 'Oh' sounds in Western Syriac [smiles]
Mar Aprem become Mor Aprem.
Allaha becomes Alloho
Can you write my name in Chaldeac?
I don’t write it much these days but let me try (Thirumeni writes my name from left of the page to right)
It looks like some predecessor of Arabic. (I write down my name against it in Arabic and show. Thirumeni examines the script with a lens)
Yes. I don’t remember much Arabic now though; I had learnt it once upon a time.
As I mentioned before, I lost out on the Patriarchate position only because of this. When they asked me of my Arabic proficiency I told them you should have told me about this prerequisite before I decided to do my Phd in Syriac [laughs]
But I guess there was some rule that only of Assyrian ethnicity can be the Patriarch, so it was not destined for me. Anyways I argued against this rule and got it amended later; forget me at least in future there may be equal chance for all [smiles]
Wasn’t this church formalized after the ‘Mellus and Roccus’ issue?
Not exactly. Of the non-orthodox faction, of the 18th century, some 52 mercantile families were invited Shaktan Thampuram (Rama Varma IX, Ruler of then Kingdom of Cochin). At the same time a Syro-Catholic lobby at Angamali was striving for an indigenous bishop. For this purpose, one Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar, he who wrote the Varthamanapusthakam, went to Portugal along with one Joseph Kariattil and the latter became the Archbishop. This archbishop died under mysterious circumstances in Goa. Hearing of this there was a revolt at Angamali at that time.
In AD 1815 was when this church here was built, some of my ancestors were conducting their business from this region. We got one Kathanar(Priest) from Palai to consecrate this church as per Chaldean Syrian rites. What I am coming to is that this rite was prevalent at that time, just that the factions were not yet clearly segregated.
So while there were no native bishops to guide the non-Orthodox Syrian laity and this same group were a non-receptive to a Latin or foreigner. At this time one Mar Thomas Rochos was brought here by the priests Kodakachira and Abdisho Thondanattu. Within 10 months, Chavara Achen (Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara) hounded him out of the country. Chavara Achen accused that this bishop has no authority here, and so Rochos was put him in a boat and sent away. However, Thondanattu also accompanied him in that boat. This priest went to Babylon asked the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch for him to be consecrated for the benefit of the Indians. The Latin influence was strong enough to deter Chaldeans in doing this, so then Thondanattill searched out for the Nestorian Patriarch in the mounts of Kurdistan on a mule-chariot. It is said that the Chaldeans performed the maharon (excommunication) while Thondanattill was enroute on this journey and cursed up all along the way.
He came back consecrated a bishop, the first Indian Chaldean/Assyrian bishop, but didn’t find much support back home. Was ostracized and isolated by community members, Chavara achen asked him to relent and turn back to Catholicism. He agreed and spent some of his days as a dejected vicar at the Vilakkumadom church.
All this while, we here were still waiting here for the arrival of our shepherd [chuckles] And a new bishop arrives at this time in 1874, Mar Yohannan Elias Mellus, and enquires why all this confusion there was a bishop of your kind we had consecrated back in Erbil. Then we searched Thondanattil out and brought him to this church. Those were during his last days.
The Syro-Malabar church was formed, finally only in 1887, after a lot of lobbying for the indigenous Syrian bishop. Initially they were head by Jesuit bishops Mar Adolph Medlycott and Charles Lavigne. Now this newly formed SMC sabha wanted our this church-premises and its members. But he held onto our faiths and then ensued a legal battle that we won finally in 1925. After that whoever was allied to the SMC left us, the SMCs built the largest church in Asia just adjacent to our compound…. as possibly a show of strength [smiles] Now the SMC diocese is I believe like 400,000 member strong.
What in your opinion was the decline of the Nestorian church’s influence over the Nasranis over the last centuries?
Political and geographical reasons: Kurdistan region was kind of always land-locked, the Portuguese rule over the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf made matters worse for bishops to travel.
Otherwise the Nestorian church was the church across Asia - there are historical evidences from Japan to China to Qatar to Socotra. Even one of Prophet Muhammad's wives is said to be a Nestorian Christian - one of the reasons why there were few skirmishes between these two communities back then. Later even this soured.
During the time of the Caliph al-Mahdi (8th century), there was a dialogue with our Patriarch Timothy I. The two had their palaces in adjacent compounds and this was prosperous era for Babylon – arts & literature flourished. I say that the incursion of the Catholics changed the equation: you must have heard about the Crusades and how that has soured the Christian-Muslim relationship. By like 16th and 17th century Rome managed to contest with a catholic sister church against every other Christian faction in the Middle East. This weakened all of the Eastern Syriac Christianity.
One bishop Mar Joseph Sulaqa who came in 1556, was taken to Rome for inquisition in spite of his predecessor being from the Catholic spin off our church - the Chaldean catholic church. He also died mysteriously there.
I hear there were a few Chaldean/Assyrian bishops who are interred in churches here?
Yes, I have been to some of these. Mar Gabriel, a Nestorian bishop, had stayed at St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church (Cheriya-Pally) at Kottayam till he passed away 1731. I think I located the grave the last time I was visited the pally (church).
I was invited, by Cardinal, to the Angamali SMC church for the tomb-renovation of the last Nestorian bishop to the Saint Thomas Christians: Mar Abraham. He was supposedly Catholicized but we believe he didn’t really change his orientations. The Synod of Diamper in June 1599 was called after his demise and we were forced to be subjected under Archbishop Menezes, Goa archbishop who has no authority here.
The skeletal-remains found in the St Thomas Orthodox Church Karthikapally is also probably of an Assyrian bishop. There was some writing near the remains, couldn’t read it as it was quite old and unclear but the script looks like Estrangela to me.
In year 1503 or is it 1504, a few bishops landed here and disappeared - Mar Yabh Alaha, Mar Thomas. Mar Jacob and Mar Dinha. Some say they all are interred in different churches here. Don’t know the truth of these though.
Did we, the Nasranis, follow the Latin rites at any time during the Portuguese?
Of course, for a long time since the Synod of Diamper. They (Portuguese) burnt a lot of our manuscripts during this Synod and were subjugated under them for at least 53 years!
Finally, one Mar Ahattalah (again with some obscure and yet unidentified allegiance) came here to support us. He met some of our priests stationed at Goa and told them to wait for him in Cochin. When the ship carrying Mar Ahattalah arrived at Cochin, the Parankees (Portuguese) suspiciously declared that he had fell into the sea and drowned. This incident as you know led to the Coonan Cross revolt on 3rd January 1653.
In short, from Synod of Diamper in 1599 till Coonan Cross Oath in 1653 all Saint Thomas Christian (or Nasranis) were forced to follow the Latin rite. During this time the married priests were forcibly divorced and their children were put into orphanages.
Is there any east-west axis difference for our churches here? Or so I have read.
Not really, the Syrian churches were just strictly with Madbaha(Altar room) towards the East. As our Lord comes from the East.
Others just consider convenience and the road access. Now mostly it’s about convenience and the land orientations. This is not so strictly enforced.
Where is most of the written resources kept for your church?
Iraq, The Baghdad Patriarch has collected over 300 manuscripts.
In Mannanam, Kottayam the Catholics may have the second best collections and lastly with us here in this Palace.
But very little preserved-correspondence between India and Eastern church headquarters survives.
I had digitized some of the Syrian works here into DVDs and had presented to the Pope as well as the Chaldean-Assyrian Patriarchates.
Mar Roccus and Mar Mellus, who we talked about earlier, both had brought some books and left them here.
Isn’t Mar Sabor-Mar Afroth not mentioned in any of these records?
No, nobody was so far able to trace their origins in any of their records. Neither in ours nor in the Antiochian side.
One researcher from Budapest University was here till last week. He says we may have been reading the copper plates wrong all along. He says maybe there is such Tharisapally (as this word may not even be what we think it is, may not be even Syriac or Pahlavi!) so the interpretation that 'Thrisa' meaning 'Orthodox' or 'Right way' maybe wrong. This researcher says a panel of historian with various linguistic specialties should sit together to make any sense of the plates.
The Knanayas – any connections?
If the legends are correct then they too may be from one of the Eastern church – probably Nestorian. But again, no proofs or connecting records on this too.
Is Mar Aprem of the Eastern church same as Ephrem the Syrian?
In AD 366 it was the undivided church and so this ‘Harp of the Spirit’ is venerated by all current factions. Mar Aprem was fortunate. There was another great contributor Mar Narsai of AD 503. By this time the Nestorian church was isolated and so poor fellow didn’t get the recognition he deserved.
How was Shaktan Thampuran to the Nasranis? Did he have a love-hate relation with the Christians?
When Tipu Sultan attacked the Kingdom of Cochin, his army created havoc all around - burned the Arthattu and Ollur churches, forced conversions at Kunnumkulam. Shaktan Thampuram was brave enough to confront this.
After the conflicts, Shaktan Thapuram decided to repair Thrissur and he needed the Christians for commerce. So he invited the teak-traders, the Tharakans et al. We the Mookens were said to be salt merchants. Our mother's side family, Parapully, were coffee traders – they used to purchase the beans from the British in Ooty. All of these Christian families were made to stay at Thekkeangadi just near this church.
Shaktan Thampuram was also very cruel in punishments whatever the community and so we hear some good and bad stories about him.
Has Thirumeni identified successors?