Biography of His Holiness, The Assyrian Martyr , The Late Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII

Catholicos Patriarch of The East, Prior to His Assassination


His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII is the  Catholicos Patriarch of the Church of the East. As such, he is the Supreme Head of the Church and its Universal Pastor. The official name of the Church of the East is the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East.  It was founded by the Apostles, St. Peter, St. Thomas, St. Thaddeus, St. Bartholomew and St. Mari of the Seventy. 

His Holiness, Mar Eshai Shimun is the 119th Patriarch in this glorious line. It may also be noted that the Church of the East is called different names by various historians. Some of the popular appellations are Assyrian Church, Nestorian Church, Chaldean Syrian Church, etc.


Originally, the headquarters of the Patriarch was Babylon on the river Tigris. Afterwards, Babylon came to be called Seleucia-Ctesiphon and it was the capital of the Persian empire for a time. Later on, when Baghdad was made the capital of the Arab empire and the seat of the Khalifate, the Patriarchal seat was also moved to Baghdad, where it remained till the invasion of the Mongols. In the period of confusion and disorder that followed, the Patriarchate had to be shifted from place to place till it was set up at Mosul. Still later, it was moved to Qudchanis in northern Assyria. The unhappy events of the First World War again necessitated a transfer of the Patriarchal Seat. In 1940, the Patriarch went to the United States of America and finally established his headquarters there at San Francisco.


His Holiness was born on the 26th of February 1908 at Qudchanis in Northern Assyria.   Qudchanis is in a highly mountainous region in the borderland where modern Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet. The Rab Khaila David d'Mar Shimun is the father of His Holiness. Rab Khaila means commanding general. As he was the commander of the Assyrian armies during the First World War, he came to be popularly known among the Assyrians as the Rab Khaila. He is the brother of two former Patriarchs, Mar Benyamin and Mar Paulos.  At the time of the disturbances in 1933 in Iraq, the Patriarch's father, the Rab Khaila, mother, Lady Esther d'Beth Matran, aunt, Lady Surma and the rest of the Patriarchal family were taken to Cyprus. They had to remain there for a long time. At last, in 1949, the Rab Khaila and Lady Helen, the Patriarch's sister, came to the United States of America. Honorable Theodoros d'Mar Shimun and Honorable Captain Sargon d'Mar Shimun are brothers of the Patriarch. The members of the Patriarchal family have now settled in the United States thanks to a private bill passed by Congress permitting their entrance into this country on a non-quota basis.


From his infancy, His Holiness was brought up with care.  The necessary theological and liturgical training was given by the late Archdeacon of the Patriarch, Very Rev. Thoma Ashita and by the Metropolitan of Rustaqa, His Grace, Mar Yosip Khnanishoo.   His education was not completed when, at the age of twelve, he became Patriarch in 1920.   Four years later for further education, the Patriarch went to England and was enrolled at St. Augustine's College, Canterbury.  After completing his preparatory schooling there, he went to Westcott House, Cambridge University, where he specialized in History and Statecraft.  His formal schooling under formal teachers ended in 1927 but, in the next two decades, his education in the harder school of adversity has mellowed his wisdom and matured his personality. Experience is always a great teacher, and what a life of rich and varied experience His Holiness spent, especially during the two decades from 1927 to 1947.

Always on the move in Iraq, in Cyprus, in England, in Switzerland and in the Untied States; often in danger of life during the days of the disturbances in Iraq; meeting foreign diplomats and heads of states; making representations to the League of Nations; making appeals to the United Nations; contacting world leaders and discussing with them the Assyrian Questions; His Holiness did everything possible to save the hapless Assyrians and the beloved Church of the East from utter destruction and disintegration.  The Church of the East traces its origin directly back to the original apostles. One of its chapels founded by the Three Wise Men on their return from Bethlehem, is still in use today in the town of Rezaieh, in Northern Iran. The Patriarch attended that chapel as a boy.


In the year 1920 began the term of office of the present Patriarch.  For the past 600 years, by virtue of a law passed by the Church, the Patriarchate has been hereditary in Mar Shimun's family. This is the only hereditary Patriarchate in Christendom. As the Patriarch remains celibate, the succession goes from uncle to nephew.  On the death of the Patriarch, the Bishops, along with the Chief Metropolitan, meet in council and elect the successor to the Patriarchal See.  The years preceding the consecration of Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII were full of tragedy for the Assyrian people. Patriarch Mar Benyamin of hallowed memory was treacherously slaughtered along with several Assyrian national leaders in the fateful year of 1918 by the Kurdish Chieftain Simko Agha. This conference the Patriarch attended much against his better judgment, at the urging of Captain Gracey of the British political Mission in the Caucasus, accompanied by Mr. Robert MacDowell, son of Dr. MacDowell, a Presbyterian American Missionary who had spend many, many years among the Assyrians of Iran as a member of the Presbyterian mission, and who had told the Patriarch that unless he was to meet in conference with Simko, the Assyrian nation would not be considered an ally at the conclusion of the conflict then clearly predicting an allied victory. This advice, whatever its intention, proved fatal not only for the Patriarch, but for the Assyrian nation as a whole. Mar Paulos, the brother of Mar Benyamin, was raised to the Patriarchate then. He, too, died of illness on the terrible flight following the murder of Assyrians in Northern Assyria. At that time, in the Patriarchal family, there were only two eligible candidates for the post -- Theodoros and Eshai, then a lad of only 12.  The choice fell upon Eshai. So, Eshai was raised through all the minor grades of the hierarchy and, on June 20, 1920, at the Church of Marth Mariam, in the Baquba camps near Baghdad, he was consecrated as the Catholicos Patriarch of the Church of the East, the 119th Patriarch in unbroken Apostolic succession beginning with Mar Shimun Keepa (St. Peter) who first established the Church at Babylon.


The present Patriarch has been in this exalted office for 50 years; thus, with the exception of two former Patriarchs,  Papa Bar Gaggi, who sat upon the Patriarchal See from the year 247-326 and Elia Shimun XII (also from the present line of Patriarchal house) who sat from the year 1600 - 1653, His Holiness, the present Patriarch, is the third in this long line of apostolic succession of nearly two thousand years history to have ruled the longest on this Holy See.

The first stage from 1920 to 1927 witnesses the minority of the Patriarch and his education abroad. Though the Patriarch was
consecrated at the early age of 12, the young Patriarch received all the honors due to his rank. Each diocese led by its Bishop paid him homage.  The boy Patriarch was given intensive theological training and general education befitting his rank. These days were days of stress and strain for the Assyrians who had been drawn into the World conflict by the Western allied powers, namely, Great Britain, Russia, the United States and France in a decision reached by the representatives of those powers during a conference held in Tiflis, Russia in 1914. The victory, having been achieved by the allies, and in which the small Assyrian first Christian nation had played such a prominent part in the Middle East theatre of war, as witnessed by the allied in general and the British in particular (whom the Assyrians served with distinction in the years succeeding the First World War and during the Second World War) now conveniently forgot all their promises and sacrificed the Assyrians on the Altar of Oil.-- these were the years on intrigues and murders --of rebellions and flights.

The affairs of the Assyrian people and their mother Church were managed by Mar Yosip Khnanishoo, as metropolitan of Rustaqa, consecrator of the Patriarch, according to the Canon Law, and for a period, assisted by the late Mar Timotheos, metropolitan of India. In secular affairs, these two metropolitans were assisted by Lady Surma d'Mar Shimun, and her brother, Rab Khaila (General) David d'Mar Shimun, father of the Patriarch. The second stage began with the return of the Patriarch to his headquarters in Iraq in 1927, and it lasted for two decades.  They were hectic days of feverish activity for obtaining a national home for the Assyrians. After the First World War, the Turkish empire broke up.   Syria (afterwards divided into Syria and Lebanon), Palestine (afterwards Israel and part of Jordan), Iraq (old Mesopotamia) and Arabia were lost by the Turkish Sultan. In Turkey itself there was a revolution under the leadership of Kamal Pasha who abolished the Sultanate and Khalifate in Turkey. The Western Powers were obliged to recognize the Republic of Turkey and make peace with Kamal Pasha. Syria became a mandatory territory under the French; Palestine and Iraq, under the British; Arabia split into a number of independent or semi-independent kingdoms and sheikdoms under the British sphere of influence. In the settlement that followed the First World War, the Assyrians were nowhere in the picture. They found themselves at the mercy of the newly formed Governments of the Middle East. There were persecutions and rebellions and suppressions and flights. The Patriarch and his family were deported from Iraq to Cyprus in 1933 under the control of the British Foreign Office. The Patriarch was not allowed to meet with the Assyrian leaders and bishops. So, it was a period of hard days for the Assyrians and the Church of the East. However, the Patriarch was permitted to visit England and to go to Geneva to place the Assyrian case before the League of Nations. Those attempts were not successful since the League of Nations, as is well known, was only an instrument to safeguard the interests of the big powers and the British Governments which was determined to keep the Assyrians in Iraq for its own interests and had the ability to nullify any plan aimed at the betterment of the situation of Assyrians in Iraq or their immigration to some outside country.   In 1940, His Holiness came to the United States of America to supervise the affairs of the Church of the East in this country. He was then able to present the Assyrian Question before the World Security Conference held in San Francisco in 1945 and before the United Nations Organization in 1947.

From 1948 begins the third stage of the present Patriarch's term of office. In this year, His Holiness made epoch making announcements of a new policy for the Assyrian people and the Church of the East.  He directly contacted the embassies of the Middle East countries in Washington and at the United Nations Headquarters and broke down the wall of suspicion and misunderstanding. He advised the Assyrians and members of the Church of the East all over the world to remain as loyal and faithful citizen of the states in which they lived. The result was electric. There was friendly response from Syria, Lebanon, and Iran and cordial relations were established with these governments. Ever since his arrival in the United States, His Holiness has been active in establishing parishes, building churches, editing and translating literature from Aramaic into English for the use of the Church in this and other countries. During this period, the Patriarch has consecrated several bishops, ordained many priests and deacons and, three years ago, established the first non-Assyrian American English speaking parish in Seattle, Washington.   Perhaps the most important of His Holiness' activities has been the Apostolic pastoral visits which he has paid to the Churches in India and the Middle East and which have resulted in the strengthening of the spirit of the clergy and the faithful. The erection of many edifices, building of schools and, finally, the establishment of a Seminary in Tehran, Iran, and the actual construction of a handsome building for that purpose. In 1954, for reasons of health, the See was removed from
Chicago, Illinois to San Francisco, California. The Cathedral Church of the Patriarchal See is the Church of Mar Narsai in San Francisco, California.


His Holiness is a profound scholar, a good writer and a fine speaker.   As early as 1926, the Patriarch attended the Nicene Council Commemoration held at Westminster Abbey, London. The Church and State Conference held in Oxford and the Faith and Order Conference held in Edinburgh were both attended by His Holiness in 1937. The distinguished Athenaeum Club of London has honored His Holiness by conferring on him its honorary membership. He is also a member of the American Historical Society and other organizations; and represents the Church of the East on the World Council of Churches. Many appeals and publications concerning the Assyrian Question, written by the Patriarch and presented to the British Government and various international bodies, mark him out as a writer of reputation. Many Syriac books have been translated into English by the Patriarch. Portions of the Aramaic Liturgy; the Book of Hymns and Praises; Synodical Rules of the Church of the East; the Book of Marganitha, a standard theological work of the Church of the East; several outstanding sermons on the history of doctrinal of the Church of the East; the publication of the homilies of Mar Narsai, the great saint and scholar of the fifth century, in two volumes, numbering more than 1400 pages; along with seventy pages of introduction and critical apparatus in English by His Holiness are some of them.

His Holiness is well versed in Ecclesiastical History and an authority on History of Christianity in the Middle East and Far East. His scholarly discourses on Church History at international Ecclesiastical conferences at various Universities have attracted world wide attention. Thus, this banquet which is being given on this most historic occasion in this great city of Chicago, though sponsored by all the parishes in this Country, in reality represents the Church of the East throughout the world. It is therefore a reminder to us not only of the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Holiness' consecration in this unbroken line of Apostolic succession, but also of all the aspects of the glorious history of the unparalleled missionary enterprise; of the martyrs and confessors; of saints and scholars; indeed of the first Christian nation, to whom every Assyrian, irrespective of his present Church or denominational adherence, owes his history and only through which he is known to the civilized world.


It is with a sense of profound humility that we stand today before this glorious history in which His Holiness, the present Patriarch, Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, has played such an important part and we pray that the Triune God, who was revealed to us in His fullness by the dispensation of His only Son, Our Lord Savior Maran Eshoo Mshikha, the Lord and Master of the Church, be with and guide this, His Apostle, to administer and lead His Holy Church for many years to come, unto the glory of His Holy Name, Amen.


Printed in Chicago, Illinois
By the Committee of the 50th Anniversary of the Patriarchate of Mar
Eshai Shimun XXIII (23)
June 27, 1970