A boy and his elders welcome visitors to a Syriac Catholic church in a village near Homs, Syria. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The Syriac Catholic Church shares the heritage of the Syrian city of Antioch, the political and socioeconomic center of the eastern Mediterranean in the ancient world. Though inhabited by a diverse collection of peoples — Greeks and Macedonians, Romans and Jews, Syrians and Nabateans — Antioch was culturally Hellenic and its lingua franca, Greek. But those who lived in Syria’s rural interior spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic nurtured in the city of Edessa.
Founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, the church of Antioch — where the followers of Jesus Christ were first called “Christian” (Acts 11:26) — emerged as the center of a faith community, Greek- and Syriac-speaking, that spread throughout the Roman East and beyond. Though Antioch’s bishops presided over this vast and diverse church as patriarchs, Edessa cultivated a distinct form of Syriac Christianity.
An ancient legend claims Christ was personally responsible for Edessa’s evangelization, instructing St. Thomas the Apostle to send a disciple to cure Abgar, Edessa’s sickly king. Bearing a cloth featuring a miraculous image of Jesus, Addai (Syriac for Thaddeus, one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, cured the king, won disciples and established the church.
Christological controversies. As the church grew, embracing converts from Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, debates raged regarding the nature of Jesus, his relationship to the Creator and how to interpret and practice his teachings.
Antiochene Christians cultivated contrasting schools of theology and philosophy, one more theoretical and Greek-speaking the other more literal and Syriac-speaking. These schools did not develop in isolation — cross-pollination was the norm — and the church in Antioch eventually fashioned a particular image and understanding of Jesus that countered a more allegorical Christology developed by Christians in Alexandria, the Roman capital of Egypt.
Now understood as complementary, these distinct Christological approaches clashed as Alexandria and Antioch competed for preeminence. These disputes — which had cultural, ethnic, linguistic and political overtones — threatened the unity of the church and the Roman Empire, which had adopted the Christian faith under the emperor Constantine I.
In the interest of unity, the emperors convoked ecumenical councils (Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451) to define orthodoxy and condemn heresy. But the heavy-handed methods employed by the emperors to implement council decrees divided the church further.
The Council of Chalcedon — which asserted that in Jesus there are two natures, “perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity … like us in all things but sin” — sought a middle way between the Antiochene and Alexandrian positions, but satisfied neither. A minority of Christians backed the council; most were Greek-speaking urbanites who supported the emperor. Christians who opposed the decrees of Chalcedon, called Monophysites (Greek for those who believe in the oneness of Jesus’ humanity and divinity), were the non-Greek-speaking majority of rural Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria.
Disintegration. For more than 50 years after the council, Syria’s pro- and anti-Chalcedon parties competed to elect patriarchs sympathetic to their cause or plotted to depose those who were not. But the success of the anti-Chalcedonian cause waned as emperors loyal to the council reinvigorated their allies, who persecuted the council’s opponents. In 518, supporters of the emperor (or Melkites, from the Syriac, malkaya, meaning “of the king”) forced into exile the anti-Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch and replaced him with one of their own. This divided the Antiochene church and rivals no longer in full communion with each other concurrently claimed the patriarchal throne.
Resurgence. In his Ecclesiastical History, John of Ephesus, a sixth-century Syriac historian, records how the monumental efforts of a simple mendicant saved the council’s Syriac opponents.Jacob Baradai, a priest well schooled in Greek and Syriac with a reputation for austerity and discipline, secluded himself in a monastery in Constantinople. An opponent of the council’s theological compromise, Jacob had been summoned to the city by a highly placed sympathizer: Theodora, the wife of the Emperor Justinian.
Ordained to the episcopacy, and with the empress’s covert support, Jacob restored sacramental life among the empire’s Syriac Christians. For more than 30 years, the prelate eluded the authorities, ordaining some 100,000 priests, 89 bishops and 2 patriarchs, thus regularizing the ecclesial life of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
For the next seven centuries, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch moved from monastery to monastery, usually in Mesopotamia and always beyond the grasp of the emperor. In 1293 the patriarchate settled in Kurkmo Dayro, where it remained until 1933. This late fifth-century monastery, located in southeastern Turkey near the town of Mardin, remains an active Syriac Orthodox community.
In the seventh century, Syriac Orthodox Christians generally welcomed the invading Muslim Arabs tribes, who accepted them as “People of the Book.” No longer hounded, Syriac Orthodox scholars flourished. Poets composed hymns that simplified complex ideas. Scholars translated ancient Greek texts and wrote biblical commentaries. Monks explored grammar, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric and science. Theologians and poets continued the tradition of creating liturgies, borrowing elements from the Byzantine, Church of the East and Maronite traditions.
Arab Muslim leaders employed Syriac scholars, who were largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.
At its height in the mid-14th century, the Syriac Orthodox Church, which stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to modern Afghanistan, included 20 metropolitan sees and more than a 100 eparchies. In the 17th century, the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate received into the church tens of thousands of Thomas Christians in southwestern India.
Today, some 4.2 million people, including 3.7 million in India, adhere to the rites and traditions of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Catholic missionary activities. The ascent of Europe and the Roman church, combined with the advance of Islam and the decline of the Christian East, hardened what had been a gradual separation between the churches of the West and East. Yet, the advance of Catholic Crusaders into the heart of the Muslim Middle East inaugurated warm relations between Catholic and Syriac Orthodox bishops, some of whom expressed an interest in the restoration of full communion with Rome.
Efforts to restore the full unity of the church took place in Roman-sponsored councils in Lyon in 1274 and Florence in 1439. A decree of union between the Catholic and Syriac Orthodox churches took place in Florence on 30 November 1444, but as with all efforts for union at the time, it failed. The papacy had offered economic and political support in exchange for acceptance of papal authority — support welcomed by beleaguered civil and ecclesial leaders. But the rank and file, often led by the monasteries, largely rejected union as well as offers of support.
In the 17th century, Capuchins and Jesuits worked among the Syriac Orthodox faithful, receiving a significant number into the Catholic fold.
In 1662, Syriac Catholics succeeded in electing the Catholic Andrew Akhidjan as patriarch of Antioch, dividing the community. When he died in 1677, Syriac Catholics and Orthodox elected their own patriarchs, but after the death of the Catholic claimant in 1702, the Syriac Catholic party failed to elect a successor.
The Ottoman Turks (who had governed most of the eastern Mediterranean since the 15th century) in 1829 recognized Syriac Catholics as a distinct community.
Constitution of a hierarchy. In 1782, the Syriac Orthodox synod elected Metropolitan Michael Jarweh of Aleppo as patriarch. Soon after his enthronement he declared himself a Catholic and took refuge in the mountains of Lebanon. There, in Sharfeh, he built a monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary that remains an important Syriac Catholic center.
With a renewed Catholic presence and bolstered by the presence of French and Italian religious, the Syriac Catholic Church grew at the expense of the Syriac Orthodox Church, which declined. But this Catholic advance came to a sudden end. Europe’s colonial quests and the long and painful decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire — which quickly unraveled in the late 19th century — coincided with the rise of nationalism among the empire’s peoples. Sensing a threat, the Ottomans murdered more than 25,000 Syriac Christians, Catholics and Orthodox, between 1895 and 1896. Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans, all suspected of harboring similar separatist sentiments, also perished.
During World War I, the sultan’s Christian subjects found themselves caught between two opposing cultures — their Sunni Muslim superiors and the Allied “Christian” powers of Great Britain, France and Russia.
Encouraged by the Allies, who offered vague promises of independence, Ottoman Christians turned on the sultan. Consequences were grave. Hundreds of thousands were killed, including some 50,000 Syriac Catholics and six of the church’s bishops. Survivors, including the Syriac Catholic patriarch, sought refuge in the empire’s cities, especially Beirut, which remains the seat of the Syriac Catholic patriarchate.
Modern church. Today, the Syriac Catholic Church includes about 130,000 members scattered in cities and towns throughout Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, the United States and Venezuela.
As with most Christian communities of the Middle East, Syriac Catholics have suffered heavily as the region’s stability has deteriorated. Thousands have fled the violence in Baghdad and Mosul, where they once enjoyed relative prosperity, for their remote ancestral villages near ancient Nineveh. Many Syriac Catholic families in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria have emigrated to the West to escape economic stagnation.
The Syriac Catholic Church, though influenced by the Latin (Roman) tradition, has nevertheless contributed to the modern revival of Syriac scholarship, benefiting the entire family of Antiochene and Syriac churches, Assyrian, Catholic and Orthodox.
Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s Assistant Secretary for Communications.