ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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An Antiochene Legacy: Greek Orthodoxy in Syria

In spite of emigration, Syria’s Greek Orthodox Church remains a vital Christian force.

The Church of Antioch, since its founding by St. Peter, has influenced communities far beyond the borders of this once important Roman city. Christians throughout modern Armenia, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey – even some in the New World – trace their spiritual roots to a center that is now little more than an archeological site in southern Turkey.

Yet the Antiochene roots of many Christian communities remain alive. In Baab Sharqi, the Christian quarter of Syrias sprawling capital city of Damascus, its dynamic Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Ignatius IV, holds the ancient title of Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.

“Today the majority of our community has emigrated to North and Latin America, Europe and Australia. As a result, there is no longer a clear picture of the Greek Orthodox Church in the East,” says the Patriarch.

Syrias Greek Orthodox community, however, which is estimated to include more than a half million members, is the dominant Christian force in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

“Diversity is always present where there are human beings,” reflects the Patriarch. “Diversity, however, is not synonymous with dissension. The notion of unity in the Church, as in a home, is that of loving and cherishing one another.

“Consequently, we have moved from the stage of antagonism and proselytism to one of collaboration and mutual respect,” he concludes.

The Patriarch’s role in the ecumenical movement has been considerable. Since his election in 1979, Patriarch Ignatius IV has fostered close relationships with the Syrian Orthodox and Greek Melkite Catholic churches, two churches that also stem from the Antiochene Christian tradition.

In 1991, the Patriarch cosigned a document with his Syrian Orthodox colleague, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, which called for “complete and mutual respect between the two churches” and even provided for Eucharistic concelebration. Five years later, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch welcomed a Greek Melkite Catholic initiative calling for the restoration of ecclesial communion between the two churches:

“Today, we no longer hide from reality,” asserts Patriarch Ignatius IV. “We have duties toward each other…we have to meet a challenge,” he adds, “the challenge of dialogue and cooperation.”

The picturesque village of Maaloula, perched in the Qalamun mountains some 30 miles north of Damascus, appears rather isolated from the challenges cited bythe Patriarch. Yet the villagers of Maaloula struggle daily to retain their Christian faith and culture. They also strive to preserve their ancient Aramaic tongue, the language of Christ, while meeting “the challenges of dialogue and cooperation.”

The village’s isolated location is symbolic of its history. Two-thirds of Maaloula’s 7,500 residents are Christian; most are members of the Greek Orthodox Church. For centuries her people have wrestled with schism and internal differences, as well as standing alone as a minority in a Muslim culture. Such circumstances have created a people who tenaciously cling to their culture and faith.

Employment opportunities, in addition to the power of television with its depictions of city life, have lured large numbers of the villages youth to Syrias cities. There, the pressures to conform to an Arabic-speaking, Islamic environment are great.

Sensing these pressures to assimilate, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch in the 1940s instituted a program of Christian education and renewal; the youth are the patriarchates primary audience. “The Greek Orthodox Church is no longer a church for only adults,” declares the Patriarch. “Our youth see in the church the road to liberty; every year more than 60 young men enter our seminary.”

In addition, religious houses for women are filled with novices and aspirants. And youth programs are essential elements of parish life.

The long-standing tradition of Syrian monastic life continues at the monastery of St. Tekla in Maaloula. A destination for both Christian and Muslim pilgrims, the monastery is named for an early Christian saint – Brikhta, or “the blessed” in Aramaic – who embraced Christianity after hearing of the words and deeds of St. Paul the Apostle. She died a martyrs death near the present village.

Rania is one young laywoman at the monastery who has chosen an ascetic way of life. Dressed in a simple blue robe, she assists in the kitchen, cleans the stairways and helps with the religious communitys ironing.

“I have made a vow,” the young woman offers. “In order to thank God, I came to the Monastery of St. Tekla in order to help the sisters in their daily chores and duties.”

Hosting pilgrims, hundreds of whom visit the shrine of St. Tekla daily, is an important work of the community. Lodging is also available to those pilgrims who wish to sleep at the monastery on their way to the holy city of Jerusalem.

“About 300 people can sleep here every night,” reports the Mother Superior, Sister Belagia Sayaf. “We do not ask for money, but gifts are always welcomed.

“We retire to our rooms at 9:30 p.m. If a pilgrim happens to arrive at midnight, however, or even in the early hours of the morning, one of us will get up to welcome him.”

At the Monastery of St. Tekla, 15 nuns and three novices also care for 30 orphaned girls ranging in age from two to 17 years of age.

“Some of our children, all of whom were born in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria, have joined our religious community; others have gone to university and have started careers and families,” adds Sister Belagia.

About 20 miles north of Damascus, perched on a hill high above a village, lies a monastery dedicated to Our Lady, or Seyed Naya, which in Arabic means the place of the hunted gazelle. According to tradition, the monastery was founded by the sixth-century Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I.

When passing through the Syrian desert with his thirsty troops, the Emperor spotted a gazelle, which he pursued. The hunted animal led the imperial party to a spring, where the gazelle was miraculously transformed into an image of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin commanded Justinian to build a church on that spot.

Today, enshrined within these monastic quarters, is an icon of the Virgin Mary reportedly created by St. Luke.

According to another local legend, a hermit carried this icon from Jerusalem and, when attacked by wild animals and bandits on the road, prayed for his safety while gripping the icon in his arms. The hermit invoked the name of the Virgin Mary and was saved from the perils of his journey.

Thousands of Christian and Muslim pilgrims visit the monastery weekly; all seek the intercession of Our Lady.

“We receive more than a thousand pilgrims every day,” says Sister Christina, one of the 39 sisters and eight novices who live in the monastery. “We also offer lodging for those who wish to sleep in the calm of our monastery.”

In spite of centuries of cultural and theological conflicts and differences among Christians and Muslims, all believers are welcome at Syrias religious shrines.

“Here in Syria,” Patriarch Ignatius IV says thoughtfully, “Christians and Muslims live in perfect harmony.… And when we need to, we unite.

“We feel that we live in a region,” the Patriarch concludes, “that has always been a cross point, where civilizations meet.”

Armineh Johannes, a Paris-based photojournalist, frequently contributes to this publication.

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