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India’s SEERI Center for Syriac Studies

The St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute strives to deepen the relationship between India’s Syriac churches.

The liturgy and traditions of the Eastern churches of India derive from the ancient churches of Syria. Ironically only in south India is there an institute dedicated exclusively to the preservation of these traditions.

The St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute (SEERI), established by the Syro-Malankara Diocese of Tiruvalla in September 1985 near Kottayam, Kerala, is the only institution in the world for advanced learning and research in Syriac heritage and literature. Maintained in part through a generous five-year grant from CNEWA, SEERI’s activities and functions are governed by a board of distinguished leaders representing the seven Syriac churches in India – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.

SEERI seeks to foster and deepen the mutual understanding of these churches through close collaboration in the search and study of their common heritage. The institute possesses a spacious library and reading room. The library houses a fine collection of books and publications not formerly available in India. Presently the microfilm collection has over 10,000 pages of mostly unpublished Syriac texts and manuscripts. Equipment for microfilm and microfiche has been installed to grant access to these documents. There is also an ever-expanding section of modern books on various theological subjects.

Eminent scholars are available for guiding research in the field of Syriac language and literature, patristic thought, liturgy and church history. The institute also encourages Indian scholars to collaborate with institutes and academics abroad in the pursuit of their Syriac studies.

Besides the periodicals The Harp (in English, three issues a year) and Nuhro (in Malayalam), SEERI publishes a series entitled Moran Etho. Monographs include periodic publications in English and the SEERI Correspondence Course (S.C.C.), an English language course on Syriac Christian heritage.

SEERI has been recognized by Mahatma Gandhi University (a state-run university), and its Centre for Research Studies now awards a doctoral degree in Syriac studies.

The institute conducts a World Syriac Conference, which has been held in September every few years since 1987. Thus far conferences have been held in 1987, 1990 and 1994. Scholars in Syriac language and literature and renowned authorities on Syriac Christian issues, from India and abroad, participated. These academic gatherings have certainly charged the participants to delve deeply into the Syriac tradition, which in the course of history has proven to be a treasure trove. We hope conferences of this type will enable the members of the Syriac churches of India to know and appreciate their own precious patrimony and to draw abundantly from it for the spiritual and liturgical renewal of their churches. At the third World Syriac Conference, held last September, a number of papers were delivered and discussed by the scholars:

• The Christian church reaches back not just to the ancient Greco-Roman world, but to the Syriac Orient, to the Christian tradition of the Aramaic-speaking minorities of the Byzantine and Persian empires and beyond. It was stressed that all of the churches may profit by studying the Syriac tradition. By coming closer to the original flavor of the Semitic expression of revelation, research may spark liturgical and spiritual renewal in some Western churches.

• Some of the participants stressed that the universal church should become more conscious of the isolated churches in Iran, Turkey and other Near Eastern nations. The global church could be a source of help to these isolated and decimated communities.

• Syriac Christian heritage exists in India and a fresh attempt is being made at SEERI to translate some of the poetic works of Ephrem and Jacob of Sarug into Malayalam, the vernacular of Kerala.

Scholars and various church leaders were actively engaged in the discussions; it was an inviting opportunity for academics to interact with the living Christian communities of the Syriac tradition. Sixty-three learned papers were presented, 33 of them delivered by scholars from, among others, Oxford University, Marburg University, the Institute Catholique (Paris), the University of London, the University of Pretoria, Cambridge University and Catholic University of America.

Participants from abroad were welcomed and entertained at important institutions belonging to the different churches.

Each day the conference had a local host – a local diocese, an eminent person or a business house. The presence and active participation of civic and municipal leaders hear testimony to the recognition and prestige earned by SEERI.

Bishops, priests, religious and prominent lay representatives of the various Syriac churches in Kerala showed their appreciation for the conference by their enthusiastic participation. Most of the sessions of the conference were chaired by a bishop or by another dignitary of one of the churches. Liturgical celebrations and prayer services were organized by the different Syriac Christian denominations and were conducted in a truly ecumenical spirit. A prayer service in Syriac was directed by the Rev. M.P. George, the Director of the School of Liturgical Music, Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam.

The unique benefit of holding the World Conference in Kerala is the opportunity it offers for delegates from all over the globe to come into contact with a living and vibrant Christian community that has retained and nourishes its Syriac heritage. Yes, this community is divided sadly into seven churches; however, there is a growing spirit of accommodation and friendship as well as an eagerness to know each other better and to collaborate in every possible way.

It is our hope that the number of persons interested in doing research in the Syriac patrimony will increase in time, especially now that the opportunities provided by SEERI have become better known and appreciated.

Father Panicker is Dean of Studies at SEERI.

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