In 1964 the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, decided that his church would abandon the Julian calendar for adopting the Gregorian one. A decision explained by the same patriarch in an interview with Baghdad Observer on April 30, 1970, on the occasion of his first visit to Iraq after the exile he had been forced to in 1933 and that had led him to establish the patriarchal seat in the United States in 1940.
Stating that "no one knows the exact date of the birth of Christ" Mar Shimun explained that the decision was a response to the calls of many priests, bishops and faithful who had asked to abandon the Julian calendar for Christmas and Easter in consideration of the difficulty represented by different dates of the holy celebrations in those countries where the Gregorian calendar was in use.
In 1968 a schism within the Eastern Church split it into two branches. The church led by Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII that in 1976 was renamed by his successor Mar Dinkha IV as the "Assyrian Church of the East" and the church led by Mar Thoma Darmo, Metropolitan of the Church of the East in Trichur (India) who, in disagreement with the Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, moved to Baghdad where appointed three bishops, who in turn elected him as the Patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East. Role that Mar Thoma Darmo could exercise only for a short time as he died on the following year. He was succeeded by the current Patriarch Mar Addai II.
The reasons of the schism were many and the weight of each of them was differently assessed and quoted by different parts. Mainly - and without deepen the political or tribal reasons - the criticism the schismatic movement focused on were three. For 35 years, since when Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII was first exiled to Cyprus and then to the United States,the Church of the East in Iraq was left without its greatest political and spiritual leader. Part of the faithful and clergy asked for a patriarch living in Baghdad and having his seat there.
Since fifteenth century in the Church of the East was in force the practice (not institutionalized or established by the ecclesiastical canons) of Natar Kursi (designated successor) according to which the patriarchal office passed directly to his grandson. Practice that was abolished by the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dhinka IV, at the time of his appointment in 1976, then after the birth of the schismatic movement that in 1968 objected to it.
The latest objection concerned the adoption of the Gregorian calendar occurred in 1964.
41 years have elapsed since 1968 but this apparent remote story showed its up-to-dateness in recent days.
On April 12, in fact, Mar Addai II anticipated to the faithful that the next Synod of the Ancient Church of the East to be held in late April in Baghdad will discuss as the fifth point of its agenda the possible adoption of the Gregorian calendar for Christmas (but not for Easter) and invited them to express their views on the matter.
To this announcement was added that made by the Metropolitan of Australia and New Zealand, Msgr. Yako Daniel, who explained how in the synod that will begin on April 27 one of the issues under discussion will even be the possible reunion of the two churches split in 1968.
How will this reunion be put in practice is difficult to say. So far it is only an idea.
An idea that in recent years made some approaching steps, as when during the Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East in 1999 the patriarch and the bishops decided to recognize the hierarchy of the Church of the East and to establish a joint committee with the goal to "achieve full communion between the two parties."
But made some steps of division too if the rumours reported by several Assyrian sites and discussion forums are true. According to these rumours in early March the bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East in California, Mar Awa Royel, ordered the priests, deacons and sub-deacons of his diocese to stop any relationship, priestly but also social, with members of the Ancient Church of the East. Order which is reported by several sources would date back to the synod of the Assyrian Church held on last October 2008.
It is still early to say what the real intentions of the two churches are. Of course a union is expected by many faithful. But how could two patriarchs cohabit in a hypothetical new united church? We must not forget how the talks and the steps of approaching between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean one stranded at the moment of the recognition of papal authority accepted centuries ago by the Chaldean church but rejected by the Assyrian one.
In the case of the two churches of the East the problem of an authority superior to both doesn’t exist, but which of the two would recognize the superiority of the other giving up everything that distinguishes itself from it?
The proposal made by Mar Addai, therefore, appears linked more to practical considerations than to a desire for union. A minority in the Christian minority in Iraq the faithful may benefit by celebrating together with the Catholics, at least in those areas where the latter represent the majority.
A desire that could be shared by the faithful living in the Catholic majority countries.
By now we can only wait and take note however that the Ancient Church of the East seems to want to give a turn to its course not only with this proposal but also by the appointment, three days bifore the beginning of the synod, of two new bishops: Mar Zaia Khoshaba and Mar Aphram Dawid, ordained in the church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad in the presence not only of Mar Addai but also of a large audience of religious and political personalities among whom for the Chaldean church Msgr. Shleimun Warduni and Msgr. Andraous Abouna, for the Assyrian Church of the East Msgr. Gewargis Sliwa, for the Syriac Catholic church Msgr. Matti S. Matoka, Fawzi Hariri, Minister of industry, Pascale Isho Warda former minister of displacement and migration, and Abdallah Al Naufali head of the government department for non-Muslims.