Borneian Church

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Church of the East
Communion of the Church of the East
Member Churches
Assyrian Church
Borneian Church
Religion of Light
Chaldean Syrian Church
Church of the East in Arakan, Burma and Tenasserim
Assyrian Monasticism
Assyrian Hospitals
School of Samarqand
Monastery of Mar Toma

The Borneian Church is the Christian Church of Bornei-Filipinas and the Malucos, which follows the early Christian tradition of the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East. Their culture is Malay-Castilian, their faith is Assyrian Christianity, and their language is predominantly Chavacano. Much of the Assyrian tradition has been forgotten, especially after the Castilian reduction of the Filipinas and the Malucos in the 17th century and the conflict between Castile and Bornei which lasted more than three centuries.


The Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East (known in the west as the "Nestorian Church") originated in Persia and was the first Christian tradition to reach China. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Chinese Assyrian Christian missionaries spread throughout Southeast Asia, particularly to Sulug and Xrivizaja. A Chinese Assyrian Christian colony was established around the Quinabatañgan River of northern Bornei Island, where they build their first church.

The Sulug Tarsalila (Sulug geneological history) mentions one missionary, Tuhan Pilip, who marries the daughter of Rajja Siripada of Butuán in the 13th century. He converts the Sulugs to Assyrian Christianity, and is today regarded by the Borneian Church as a diua (saint). Diua Tuhan Pilip is the patron saint and "apostle" to the Filipinas, the Malucos, and Bornei. The Filipinas is named after him.

After the fall of the Xrivizajan capital of Palembang in 1377 to Mazapahit forces, many Assyrian Christian Rajjas fled to the islands of Bornei, the Filipinas, and the Malucos to establish their own Christian statelets. Among them were: Rajja Guru Baquir, who fled to Bornei; Rajja Baguinda of Minañgcabao, who fled to Sulug; Rajja Cabuñgsúan of Palembang, who fled to Maguindanao. Their choice of these territories must have been dictated by information that these territories had rich ports with many Assyrian Christian converts but without genuine Christian rulers.

In 1386, the religious leaders of the newly established Christian statelets of the islands of Bornei, the Filipinas, and the Malucos (Bornei, Maguindanao, Sulug, and Ternate) convened a synod in Quinabatañgan. Due to their relative isolation from Persia, the Assyrian Church was not always able to provide these statelets with "Assyrian" bishops. Furthermore, they had maintained certain local traditions like the use of the Baybayín Script. The religious leaders sent a delegation to the See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon to ask for autocephaly for their own Borneian Church, which was granted. The Borneian Church was thus still in full communion with the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East. Among themselves they elect the first Majaguru of the Borneian Church. The Majaguru, who resides in Quinabatañgan, is the Borneian equivalent of a patriarch.

Contact with Western Christianity

In 1521, when the Castilian navigator Ferdinando de Magellanes landed in the Philippines, there were an estimated three million Christians and 2000 churches under the jurisdiction of the Majaguru. The arrival of Ferdinando de Magellanes, however, heralded a new struggle for the Borneian Church because the Castilians considered everything outside Catholicism as heretical, including the native Christians they found in the Filipinas and the Malucos.

In 1579, the Isidorian Catholic Diocese of Manila was established, which claimed jurisdiction over all the Christians in the Filipinas and the Malucos. The Borneian Christian leadership within the Filipinas and the Malucos had to acquiesce to becoming Isidorian Catholics. This was very unpopular among the Filipino and Malucan Christians. After Manila was elevated to an archdiocese, a compromise was reached in 1595 when a synod was convened in Manila gathering all the Christian leaders within the Filipinas and the Malucos, and where it was decided to establish the Borneian Catholic Rite. However, the Borneian liturgy and the Mesopotamian connection of the native clergy laid them open to suspicion to the "heresy" of Nestorianism. For the next three hundred years, only locally born Castilians were allowed to become high ranking clerics within the Borneian Catholic Church.

By the time of the Filipino Revolution, there were still quite a few in the Filipinas who still practiced Borneian Christianity despite three hundred years of Borneian Catholic suppression. Although many Castilian friars protested abuses by the Castilian government and military, they themselves had committed many abuses. Vast lands were claimed as friar estates from landless farmers. There were also sexual abuses. Anac de Padre Damaso (Child of Father Damaso) has become a cliché or stereotype to refer to an illegitimate child, especially that of a priest. Many Filipinos were enraged when friars blocked the ascent of highly trained native clergy in the Borneian Catholic hierarchy. These native clergymen instead entered the Cofradía de San José -- an underground organization of native clericals practicing and spreading Borneian Christianity. The martyrdom of Padre José Burgos, Padre Zamora, and Padre Gomez is said to indirectly have ignited the Philippine Revolution and had a profound effect on Doctor José Rizal.

After the Filipinas and the Malucos were reunited once again with Bornei in 1902, the majority of the bishops of the Borneian Catholic Church in the Philippines broke communion with the Catholic Church and entered into full communion with the Church of the East, and under the guidance and vision of Gregorio Aglipay Crúz y Labayan, the Filipino-Malucan and Borneian counterparts united to form the Iglesia Borneiano Independiente (a.k.a. Aglipayan Church). However, there is still a large Borneian Catholic majority who refuse their church to be integrated to the Iglesia Borneiano Independiente, and today, about 40% are still Filipino Catholics under communion with Rome, through the Archbishop of Manila. They utilize mainly Isidoran rites though still mixed with Borneian, and call themselves the Catholic Church in Filipinas or simply Catholics in distinction. 42% are Borneian Church members. The Borneian Churches tend to be dominant in the southern Filipinas islands and Bornei proper, while Catholics are predominant in Luzong Islands and Vizaya. Remaining 8% are divided between Eastern Orthodox, Latin Rite Catholics, Protestants, Muslims who tried but failed in their quest for converts in Bornei, and others.

The Borneian Liturgy

Like the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East, the Borneian Church has much in common with other Eastern rites. The liturgy is probably of the Antiochene family of liturgies; the rite itself is called Borneian. The churches are not very ornate, but Assyrian Christians offer great honors to the Cross. A unique feature of Assyrian Christian worship is their "Holy Leaven", an altar bread they believe is derived from dough used at the Last Supper. The theology of the church is not precise, but there are traits of ancient Nestorianism, which holds that there were two separate persons in Christ -- one divine, the other human. Its members venerate Nestorius as a saint, deny the Virgin Mary the title of "Mother of God" while otherwise honouring her highly, and reject the ecumenical councils after the second. This ancient Persian church was the only one to espouse the cause of Nestorius; as a result it lost communion with the rest of Christendom.

Owing to Malayan and Isidorian Catholic influence, there are features of the liturgy that set the Borneian Church apart from the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East. Rather than being said and written in Syriac, the liturgy in the Borneian Church is said in Chavacano, Tagalog, Vizaya, Ilocano, or Borneiano Malay and written in the Baybayín Script. A saint in the Borneian Church is called a diua (rather than a mar), and the head of the Church is called the Majaguru. The Borneian Church also follows the Isidorian Catholic liturgical calender (rather than the Assyrian), celebrating religious holidays on the same days as Isidorian Catholics.