The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its origins back to the early Christian community at Antioch in the ancient Roman province of Syria. According to the Acts of the Apostles (11:26), it was here that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The Antiochian Church became one of the great centers of Christianity in the early centuries. But the Council of Chalcedon in 451 provoked a split in the community. The council’s teachings were enforced by the Byzantine imperial authorities in the cities, but they were largely rejected in the countryside.
In the 6th century, the Bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradai, ordained many bishops and priests to carry on the faith of those who rejected Chalcedon in the face of imperial opposition. Consequently, this church became known as “Jacobite,” with its own liturgy (called “West Syrian” or “Antiochian”) and other traditions using the Syriac language spoken by the common people. Some communities were also established outside the Byzantine Empire in Persia.
The conquest of the area by the Persians and later the Arabs ended Byzantine persecution and created conditions favoring further development of the Syrian Church. There was a great revival of Syrian Orthodox scholarship in the Middle Ages, when the community possessed flourishing schools of theology, philosophy, history, and science. At its height, the church included twenty metropolitan sees and 103 dioceses extending as far to the east as Afghanistan. There is also evidence of communities of Syrian Orthodox faithful without bishops as distant as Turkestan and Sinkiang during this period.
But the Mongol invasions under Tamerlane in the late 14th century, during which most Syrian churches and monasteries were destroyed, marked the beginning of a long decline. Terrible losses were suffered again during and after World War I because of persecutions and massacres in eastern Turkey. This led to a widespread dispersion of the community.
Even now the Syrian Orthodox population is shifting. In the 1950s and 1960s many emigrated from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Within Iraq, they have been moving from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad. The most serious erosion of the community has taken place in southeast Turkey, where only a few Syrian Orthodox remain. Many Syrian Orthodox also immigrated to Western Europe and the Americas for economic and political reasons.
The Syrians have a strong monastic tradition, and a few monasteries remain in the Mardin province of Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. There are now three monasteries in the diaspora, located in the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland.
The Syrian Patriarchs resided in Antioch until 1034. Since that time they have resided in Mar Barsauma monastery (1034-1293), Der ez-Za’faran monastery (1293-1924), Homs, Syria (1924-1959), and finally Damascus (since 1959).
Some theological education is still provided by the monasteries, but St. Ephrem Syrian Orthodox Seminary is the major theological institute of the Patriarchate. It was founded in Zahle, Lebanon, but moved to Mosul, Iraq, in 1939. It moved back to Zahle in the 1960s, and relocated to Atchaneh, near Beirut, in 1968. The outbreak of civil war in Lebanon forced the removal of the students to Damascus, Syria. New facilities for the seminary at Maarrat Sednaya, near Damascus, were consecrated by the Syrian Patriarch on September 14, 1996. The complex also includes a new patriarchal residence and cathedral, a conference center and central offices of the Syrian Orthodox Church. A new patriarchal residence and conference center in Atchaneh, Lebanon, was inaugurated in June 2018.
In April 2000 the Holy Synod changed the church’s official name from “Syrian” to the “Syriac” Orthodox Church of Antioch in order to avoid confusion with Syrian nationality. This decision applied only to the English language, and was to be adopted gradually over the course of time. In practice, however, the use of the term “Syriac” is mostly limited to North America.
Since the mid-17th century, the Syrian Patriarchate has included an autonomous church in India, now called the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. The head of that church is Catholicos Mor Baselios Thomas I (born 1929, elected 2002). There are ten dioceses in India with a total of 19 bishops. The church maintains the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Theological Seminary in Vettickal, a town near Ernakulam, in Kerala. It also houses the church’s printing press and ecumenical offices, and serves as one of the church’s most important institutions. The Syrian and Malankara Jacobite churches have overlapping jurisdictions in much of the world.
A Syrian Orthodox Patriarchal Vicariate was established for the United States and Canada in 1949 with Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel at its head. It was raised to the status of Archdiocese in 1957. After Archbishop Samuel’s death in April 1995, the Syrian Holy Synod divided the Archdiocese into three jurisdictions. The Archdiocese for the Eastern United States (55 West Midland Ave, Paramus, NJ 07652), is headed by Archbishop Dionysius John Kawak (born 1966). It has 24 parishes served by 17 priests. The Archdiocese for the Western United States (417 East Fairmount Road, Burbank, California 91502), which has 15 parishes, is under the pastoral care of Mor Clemis Eugene Kaplan (born 1955). The Archdiocese of Canada (4375 Henri Bourassa Ouest, St. Laurent, Que. H4L 1A5), which has seven parishes, is headed by Mor Athanasius Elia Bahi (born 1973). In 1993 the Syrian Holy Synod separated the parishes of Indian faithful in North America from the Syrian Archdiocese and established the Malankara Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church in North America (270 Whippany Road, Whippany, New Jersey 07981). It is under the pastoral guidance of Archbishop Mor Titus Yeldho Pathickal (born 1970) and includes 49 parishes in the United States and fifteen in Canada, served by about 60 priests.
Metropolitan Athanasius Touma Dakkama (born 1965) is the Patriarchal Vicar for the Syrian Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom (7-11 Armstrong Road, London, W37JL). Metropolitan Mathews Mor Antheemos (born 1974) oversees 24 Malankara Syrian Orthodox parishes in the United Kingdom and four in Ireland (13 Dunley Drive, New Addington, Croydon CR0 0RG).
Metropolitan Malatius Malki Malki (born 1971) is the Patriarchal Vicar for the Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand (82 Joseph St., Lidcombe NSW 2141). There are seven parishes in Australia and one in New Zealand. He also oversees the six Malankara Syrian Orthodox parishes in Australia that do not have their own bishop.
Location: Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, India, diaspora
Head: Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II Karim (born 1965, elected 2014)
Title: Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Residence: Damascus, Syria
Membership: 500,000, plus 1,200,000 in India