Baghdad -- A high level meeting between delegations from the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East is set for 9 May in Chicago, United States, the Baghdadhope blog reports.
This first step on the long and difficult path could be a decisive moment for reconciliation and reunification after decades of divisions and opposition that followed the schism in 1968.
The leaders of the two Churches, Patriarch Mar Awa II and Metropolitan (and Vicar Patriarch) Mar Yako Daniel, issued a joint statement to this effect.
Still, "For the journey towards unity we must first prepare our hearts, with great humility," said a leading Assyrian speaking to AsiaNews on condition of anonymity. Once this is done, practical, doctrinal and pastoral issues must be addressed.
"Many issues have to be dealt with," the source noted, "from the name of the Church and the date of Easter -- which some want to be based on the Julian calendar, like Coptic Orthodox and Armenians, rather than the Catholic calendar -- to the integration of priests and bishops and the patriarchal election." Above all, "The complex path cannot be based on sentimentality, and has political overtones."
Both Churches claim direct continuity with the historical Church of the East. In 1933 the then Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII was forced into exile from Iraq to Cyprus, then to the United States.
In 1964, the growing flow of migrants from the Middle East to the West led the patriarch to adopt the Gregorian calendar in use in the countries of the Diaspora in lieu of the Julian calendar used at home. Four years later, the schism was consummated.
Several factors explain the break. In addition to the calendar issue, many Church members who remained in their homeland want the patriarchal see in Baghdad. Others opposed Natar Kursi, the practice whereby the patriarchal title passes from uncle to nephew, which was the case of Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII.
Mar Thoma Darmo, the then Metropolitan of Trichur (India) of the Eastern Church, moved to the Iraqi capital and appointed three bishops, who in turn elected him patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East, a position he held for only one year before his death in 1969.
Since then, relations between the two Churches have experienced ups and downs, but with the new millennium, things begin to slowly improve. Yet, overcoming divisions and restoring ancient unity takes time.
Another issue that must be dealt with is the succession to Patriarch Mar Addai II, who passed away on 11 February, which will be the key topic on the agenda of the synod of the Ancient Church of the East, set for 30 may in Chicago.
It is reasonable to expect no major changes until a new patriarch is chosen. However, a decision will have to be made as who will lead a reunified Church. A similar choice will have to be made about the patriarchal see. Currently, the Ancient Church of the East is headquartered in Baghdad while the Assyrian Church of the East is centred in Ankawa, Erbil, where the future cathedral is under construction.
For the Baghdadhope blog, finding answers to these questions will not be easy. After all, "nothing is easy for Iraqi Christians." However, "even though they are few in numbers and divided among different Churches, their union, formal but also practical, is the only way to face the danger of their slow but inexorable disappearance that has hung over them for decades."