5/1/2003 THE ST. JUDE--IRAQ CONNECTION
With the world focused on events taking place in Iraq over the past few months, it is interesting to note that St. Jude had an intimate connection to this part of the world during his life.
While many people immediately think of Islam as the dominant religion in the Middle East, Christianity also has deep historical roots in the area, particularly in Iraq.
St. Thomas (the "doubting apostle") brought Christianity to Mesopotamia (the ancient name of Iraq) around 35 A.D. He was aided in his efforts by St. Jude, who arrived shortly thereafter. They based themselves in the city of Arbel (in present-day northern Iraq), where they began preaching to the local people.
These were people who considered themselves Chaldeans or Assyrians. They were descended from the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, indigenous people of Mesopotamia whose famous empires flourished hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ.
They proved to be among the most receptive early converts to Christianity, probably because they spoke the same language as Jesus and his associates (Aramaic), and because of the large Jewish community among them.
The church of St. Thomas and St. Jude began to grow, and came to be known as the Assyrian Church of the East. There is even a reference to this Church in Saint Peter's letter: "...the Church that is in Babylon..." (1 Peter 5: 13).
The new church flourished and grew in popularity. St. Jude preached in Mesopotamia, Libya, Persia, and Edessa (Turkey), while St. Thomas preached the Gospel in the Parthian and Persian Empires. Later he reached India and established the Church there as well.
When St. Thomas left Mesopotamia around 52 A.D., he left St. Jude behind to lead their community. Jude served as the religious leader (patriarch) of the Church of The East from 37-65 A.D. Around 60 A.D. St. Jude wrote his famous Gospel letter addressed to his followers in which he urged them to stay strong in their faith despite the persecutions they faced.
Jude was killed around 65 A.D., and his trusted disciples continued his missionary work into the 2nd century. Through their efforts, the Catholic Church flourished in ancient Iraq, Iran and Syria from the 1st to the 4th centuries. Indeed, the Church of the East was one of the most dynamic Christian churches in the world for several centuries. There are still monasteries standing in Northern Iraq today that date back to the 4th century.
The followers of St. Thomas, St. Jude, and their spiritual descendants developed the Assyrian Church of the East into a famous missionary body, eventually bringing the Christian Faith and Church into China, Burma, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. They also were directly responsible for helping spread Christianity to India.
The growing influence of Islam in the region made life difficult for Christian believers there. The rise of the Turkish Empire brought many persecutions of Christians in the Middle East. During World War I, more than 50,000 Christians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks in Iraq. They were further decimated by ethnic, religious, and political strife in Iraq in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, now only less than 2% of the population of Iraq is Christian. Unable to survive in their native lands, most of the descendants of St. Jude's early followers have immigrated to places more tolerant of their religious beliefs.
Today the Chaldean/Assyrian Catholic Church has over four million worldwide members, representing about 75% of the total Assyrian Christian population. They exist in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Europe, Australia, Indonesia and other areas. In the U.S., there are 10 Chaldean parishes throughout the country, including four in the Detroit area and four around Los Angeles. The Chaldeans are strongly attached to their church, not only for their spiritual guidance, but also as the nucleus of their community.
The Chaldeans are considered one of the five main branches of Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity. To this day, The Eastern Christian Churches honor St. Jude Thaddeus as one of their early founders and leaders. In fact, Jude and his associates are credited with composing many of the ancient church prayers and rites still in use by Eastern Churches today.
In a part of the world that has unfortunately known so much upheaval through the ages, it is inspiring to reflect that there was a time in which St. Jude helped bring the people of the region together in the love, faith, and spirit of God.
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