The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Patriarchate of Alexandria

Until the period following the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), the Christians in Egypt were united in a single Patriarchate of Alexandria. The controversy surrounding Chalcedon’s christological teaching, however, led to a split between the majority that rejected the Council [see the Coptic Orthodox Church], and the largely Greek minority that accepted it. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria is descended from the latter group. By the 7th century, it has been estimated that there were 17 or 18 million Copts in Egypt, and approximately 200,000 (mostly imperial officials, soldiers, merchants and other Greeks) who accepted Chalcedon. At this time both groups used the ancient Alexandrian liturgy. But in the Greek Patriarchate it was gradually replaced by the Byzantine liturgy; the Alexandrian rite died out entirely by the 12th century.

With the Arab conquest and the withdrawal of the Byzantine armies in 642, the Greeks in Egypt suffered sporadic persecution because of their links with the Byzantine Empire. This situation became worse with the Turkish conquest of Egypt in 1517. The Greek Patriarchs of Alexandria began to live off and on in Constantinople, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate often appointed them to office. Only in 1846, with the election of Patriarch Hierotheos I, did the Patriarchs begin to reside consistently in Alexandria again. The involvement of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the administration of the Church of Alexandria ended with the death of Hierotheos I in 1858.

Patriarch Melitios II (1926-1935) compiled bylaws for the Patriarchate and submitted them to the Egyptian government. Under these bylaws the Patriarchate remained independent and enjoyed government protection. Melitios was the first Patriarch to be recognized by royal decree, as Egypt was by then no longer part of the Ottoman Empire. Melitios also founded St. Athanasios seminary, systematized the ecclesiastical courts, and established the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate throughout Africa, introducing “All Africa” in place of “All Egypt” in his title.

In the early years of the 20th century, a significant immigration of Greeks and Orthodox Arabs into Egypt and other parts of Africa increased the membership of the Patriarchate. In 1907 the number of Greeks in Egypt was estimated to be 192,000, but by 1997 the number had dropped to some 1,650. Today the Patriarchate has jurisdiction over all the Orthodox faithful in Africa.

In the 1930s a spontaneous movement of indigenous Africans towards the Orthodox Church began in Uganda under the leadership of a former Anglican, Reuben Spartas. He was received into full communion with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1946, and the Orthodox communities in East Africa that had been founded under his leadership were organized into the Archdiocese of Irinoupolis with headquarters in Nairobi in 1958. This group is now served by a growing native African clergy. In November 1994 the Patriarchate’s Holy Synod created a separate diocese for Uganda and elected the auxiliary bishop of Irinoupolis for Uganda, Theodore Nagiama, as its first Metropolitan. He was the first black bishop to be elected head of a diocese anywhere in the Orthodox Church.

Pope Parthenios III, who was in office from 1987 to 1996, was a strong exponent of the ecumenical movement and was one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches at the time of his death. Pope Petros VII, who succeeded him at the age of 47, reaffirmed his church’s participation in the WCC and the African Council of Churches at his enthronement. Petros also pledged to reorganize the administrative structure of the Patriarchate, to pay special attention to the mission in black Africa, to reopen the Patriarchal Institute of Eastern Studies in Alexandria, and to revive the patriarchal review, Analecta.

Patriarch Petros VII died tragically at age 55 in a helicopter crash off the coast of Mount Athos, Greece, on September 11, 2004. On October 9, the Holy Synod unanimously elected Metropolitan Theodoros of Zimbabwe to succeed him. The new patriarch, who was born in Crete, had served as Metropolitan of Cameroon from 1997 until his transfer to Zimbabwe in 2002.

The Patriarchate’s 19th century bylaws established a synodal system of administration in contrast to the earlier governance by the Patriarch alone, and provided that the Patriarch should be elected with the participation of both clergy and laity. The Holy Synod, which is made up of at least seven metropolitans, must meet at least once a year, but ordinarily gathers every six months. The patriarchs of Alexandria have used the designation “Pope” in their title since the third century.

Through the efforts of Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus, a seminary was opened in Nairobi in 1981. Originally named after Makarios, it was renamed the Orthodox Patriarchal School in 1998. It trains priests and catechists for all of Africa. There are two Greek religious communities and two for ethnic Arabs.

In February 2017, in the city of Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pope Theodoros II installed six women as deaconesses. He saw this as a restoration of the office that existed in the Orthodox Church in earlier centuries. However, the deaconesses were “consecrated” not “ordained,” and the Patriarch did not use the full Byzantine rite for the ordination of a male deacon. This action provoked intense discussion about the office of deaconess and more broadly about the role of women in the Orthodox Church.

Location: Egypt, the rest of Africa
Head: Patriarch Theodoros II (born 1954, elected 2004)
Title: Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa
Residence: Alexandria, Egypt
Membership: 500,000

Last Modified: 19 January 2021

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