ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Egypt’s Syrian Catholics

Cairo’s Holy Rosary Church is the pride and joy of Egypt’s Syrian Catholic community.

If you expect to spot Holy Rosary Syrian Catholic Church from a Cairo street, you will be disappointed.

While the area’s Armenian and Coptic churches boldly present themselves to pedestrians, Holy Rosary is tucked away shyly, almost secretly, from public view. Small signs disclose that the site is also the seat of a Syrian Catholic bishop; a hint that a church may be there.

A steel gate with a large sign in Arabic and French announcing St. Michael’s Syrian Catholic School (which is associated with the church) frames an entrance. Another access, which I found only with luck, is through the dimly lit lobby of an adjacent building.

But once you find your way into the church’s small shaded courtyard, you will encounter a peaceful environment: the banging and buzzing of the surrounding automobile repair shops and the congestion of Cairo’s streets have been left behind.

“There is no reason for the church to be hidden,” said Bishop Moussa Daoud, who was the leader of the Syrian Catholic community in Egypt and Sudan until his appointment to a post in Syria last November. “It just happened.”

The quiet of the compound does not mean there are no activities here. On the contrary, on any given day boys from the school may be found playing soccer. In the early evening, individuals slip inside the church, find a private place in the pews and kneel in silent prayer. At the baptismal font, Bishop Daoud baptizes an infant, who loudly objects to being stripped of his clothes and immersed in the cold water. At night, families gather at the church’s social club while others seek medical attention from the doctors and dentists at the clinic.

But while there are activities at the church, just a few years ago there were many more people to participate in them. According to the Bishop, only 500 families now attend Egypt’s three Syrian Catholic churches: “Years ago, there were more.”

Most Syrians are descendants of immigrants who journeyed to Egypt in the 17th century, Bishop Daoud remarked.

At that time Egypt was like America is today. Its advanced society attracted Syrian artisans and skilled laborers who came seeking better economic opportunities.

Although the first Syrian Catholic churches were established in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, they have since been vacated. Like the immigrants who settled in America’s cities, each generation of Syrians moved to a new locale.

Holy Rosary, the oldest of Egypt’s three Syrian Catholic churches, was built in 1904, enlarged from 1940 to 1950, reconstructed beginning in 1975 and finished in 1983. CNEWA helped finance the renovation of the church as well as the construction of the community’s clinic. St. Catherine’s in Cairo was built in 1957 and Sacred Heart of Jesus, a chapel in Alexandria, was built in 1913.

While Egypt’s Syrian Catholic community is relatively recent in origin, the roots of the 100,000-strong Syrian Catholic Church may be traced to the ancient city of Antioch: “…and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:26)

Until the Early Christian Christological controversies reached a climax at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Antioch was one of the five patriarchal sees of undivided Christendom. Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem were the other four.

After the council, the majority of the Antiochene Church refused to profess the definition of Christ’s nature as proclaimed by the council fathers: Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. By adopting a form of the monophysite definition (Jesus’ divinity assimilated his humanity or vice versa), Antioch severed its ties with Rome and Constantinople. Today these controversies have been defined as cultural, political and semantic in nature.

Had it not been for the Empress Theodora, the famous sixth-century consort of Emperor Justinian, these nonconformists would have died out. Theodora, a provincial girl, favored the dissidents (who rejected anything Byzantine) and allowed the consecration of Jacob Baradai, a monophysite monk, as bishop. Jacob spent his remaining years in the wilderness of Syria organizing communities, ordaining priests and bishops and eventually creating a patriarchate.

The Jacobites, as these Syrian Orthodox Christians were called, established monasteries throughout the Near East – flourishing centers of culture and scholarship.

The Syrian Orthodox developed warm relations with the crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is evidence that several bishops seemed favorably disposed toward the restoration of full communion between the Roman and Syrian Orthodox churches. But nothing developed.

In the 17th century Capuchin and Jesuit missionaries, filled with Catholic Reformation zeal, proselytized among the Syrian Orthodox faithful and, according to some historians, won many converts.

By the late 17th century, the Catholic party succeeded in electing a Catholic as Patriarch of Antioch. The Syrian Orthodox retaliated and sought the protection of the Muslim Ottoman sultan who, fearing Western influence, supported the Orthodox. The Catholics were driven underground and many emigrated.

In 1782, the Holy Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church elected Mar Michael Jarweh, Metropolitan of Aleppo, as Patriarch. After he was enthroned, however, he declared himself a Catholic and sought refuge in the mountains of Lebanon where he founded the monastery of Our Lady, which still exists.

The present head of the Syrian Catholic Church, Patriarch Ignatius Anthony II Hayek, is a direct successor of Mar Jarweh.

After World War I, the residence of the patriarchs was moved from Mardin in southern Turkey to Beirut: during the war the Turks slaughtered countless numbers of Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syrian Christians, eliminating entire communities.

“We are proud that the language we use in the liturgy, Syriac, is the same language spoken by Jesus Christ,” Bishop Daoud said proudly. Also known as Aramaic, this Semitic language may be heard in those few mountain villages in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria spared by the Turks.

The frescoes in Holy Rosary are also a source of pride for Cairo’s Syrian Catholic community. Painted by Abdu Bedawi, a Lebanese monk, the images depict the lives of Jesus and Mary and feature portraits of several important Early Christian saints. The paintings are rendered in traditional Syriac style – flat planes of color emphasized by line and pattern. The origins of Byzantine iconography, in fact, can be traced to Early Christian developments in Syriac painting.

A stunning enthroned Mother and Child dominates the church. Enveloped, but not consumed, by tongues of fire the Virgin gazes at worshippers while her son raises his hand in blessing.

According to Msgr. Joseph Hannouche, a priest of the parish, Our Lady of the Burning Bush is an ancient iconographic scheme in the Eastern Christian tradition. The burning bush represents the sacred body of the Mother of God and the leaves of green, her virginity. The tongues of fire symbolize the divine love of God and his incarnate word. “…pictures of the Holy Virgin and other saints help one to meditate and pray,” Msgr. Hannouche said.

Although the art, language and traditions of the Syrian Catholic Church are steeped in antiquity, these ties to the past do not help them avoid modern problems.

After revolution toppled the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, the country’s private industries and businesses were nationalized.

“Like everyone else in Egypt,” Bishop Daoud said, “the Syrians lost all they had.” Many sought a better life elsewhere and, in the early 60s, they emigrated.

In the past 10 years the community’s population has stabilized; “the number of children born into families is equivalent to the number emigrating,” he said.

“The most important issue for the Syrian Catholic community is that their church remain in Egypt – that it flourish here as a testimony to the past,” said the Bishop, who has since returned to his native Syria after working in Egypt for 17 years. “We are a testimony to the diverse history and tradition of the Catholic Church, which makes the church richer spiritually.”

Dale McGeehon is a freelance writer based in Cairo.

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