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The Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Antioch

The eastern Mediterranean is littered with sleepy provincial towns and archaeological ruins that obscure a glorious past. One such town is Antioch, the center of the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which is now home to some 150,000 people. In antiquity, however, Antioch was the commercial, cultural and political center of the East, the capital of the Roman province of Syria and, at its height in the first century A.D., home to more than 500,000 people.

Inhabited by Greeks and Jews, Macedonians and Syrians, Phoenicians and Nabataeans, Roman Antioch was culturally and linguistically Greek, the predominant culture of the Greco–Roman era. Those who lived in Syria’s rural interior, however, spoke Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus.

A sophisticated city, Roman Antioch proved to be fertile ground for new ideas, philosophies and faiths, such as the mystery cults of Isis and Mithras and the teachings of Jesus. Eventually, many of these new ideas faded, but Christianity took root there and flourished.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, believers fleeing the persecution of the Jewish authorities brought the Gospel to Antioch. These disciples worked among Jews and Gentiles and built up a community of believers. The mother church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas and Paul to nurture it further and, around A.D. 44, Peter settled there, directing the life of the church for seven years before leaving for Rome. In time, this community achieved an identity. Again, according to Acts, “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”

Antioch’s nascent Christian community was largely composed of Gentiles, and the success of their evangelization soon triggered the first great controversy of the church. The Jewish Christians of Jerusalem — led by the apostle James — held the position that anyone who sought baptism had to follow the Jewish laws rigorously adhered to since the time of Moses, especially circumcision. But, the baptized of Antioch — led by Paul and Barnabas — disagreed.

Scripture states that Peter counseled James. The prince of the apostles then offered a compromise to the Council of Jerusalem (circa year 50) that instructed that followers of Jesus, Jewish or not, need not follow all aspects of Mosaic Law:

“We ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals and blood.”

That settled, the church of Antioch boomed. For the next 500 years, it fostered anchorites (Maron, Simeon Stylites), bishop martyrs (Babylas, Ignatius), poets (Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist), scholars (Flavian, Theodoret of Cyr, Theophilus) and theologians (John Chrysostom, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia). And while all were passionate about their faith, few agreed with one another.

The bishops of Antioch also assumed leadership among the bishops of the East, who increasingly referred to the Antiochene prelates as “patriarchs,” a title of honor reserved in the Old Testament for Abraham, the 12 sons of Jacob and King David. The patriarchal stature of Antioch’s bishops was confirmed in the ecumenical (from the Greek meaning “of the inhabited world”) councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, and was addressed at the councils in Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451. Antioch’s patriarchs governed a mighty church that stretched beyond the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire into India.

Christological controversies. The development of the Antiochene church coincided with the confluence of cultures in the eastern Mediterranean world of late antiquity. As Christianity grew and embraced converts from the Greek, Jewish, Persian, Roman and Syriac cultures, debate raged as to how to articulate and practice the teachings of Jesus. Even more divisively, Christians explored a number of concepts regarding the nature of Jesus and his relationship to the Father (Christology).

Antiochene Christians cultivated contrasting schools of theology and philosophy — one more cosmopolitan, progressive and Greek–speaking and the other more provincial, conservative and Syriac–speaking. Yet, these schools did not develop in isolation; cross–pollination was the norm. Manifestations of these approaches remain in the various liturgies — Catholic and Orthodox — rooted in Antioch, including the Armenian, Byzantine and Syriac.

Ultimately, Antioch fashioned a particular image and understanding of Jesus (usually described as literal) that stressed his humanity. This countered the Christology developed by Christians in the Egyptian city of Alexandria — the second city of the Roman Empire — whose Neo–Platonic theologians utilized allegory to explain Jesus’ divinity and humanity.

Now seen as complementary, these different Christological approaches clashed as Alexandria and Antioch competed for preeminence in the church and the state. Much was at stake: The Roman emperor, Constantine I (272–337), had bestowed imperial favor on Christianity, uniting church and state in a commonwealth centered in a new capital later known as Constantinople. The empire took on a Christian character even as it maintained its Roman identity. But, the Christological debates of the early church — which had cultural, ethnic, linguistic and political overtones — threatened to disrupt this unity.

In the interests of peace and harmony, Constantine and his successors convoked the ecumenical councils. By bringing together bishops and theologians from throughout the empire and beyond, the emperors recognized the catholicity of the church and sought consensus in its governance. In the year 451, 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” — proved contentious, though its Christological definition sought a middle way between the Antiochene and Alexandrian understandings of Jesus.

A minority of Christians in the provinces of the empire rallied around the council. Most were Greek–speaking urbanites who supported the emperor and were called “Melkites,” a term derived from the Syriac word malkaya, meaning “of the king.” Christians who opposed the decrees, derisively called “Monophysites” (Greek for those who believe in the oneness of Jesus’ humanity and divinity), were the non–Greek–speaking majority of rural Egypt and Syria.

Decline and disintegration. Though the forces of the empire controlled the city, the emperors themselves vacillated in their support of the council, contributing to the ecclesial confusion. For almost a century after Chalcedon, Antioch’s Greek–speaking Melkites and Syriac–speaking Monophysites vied with one another to elect patriarchs sympathetic to their cause or depose those who were not.

Over time, the success of the Monophysite cause in Syria waned as emperors loyal to Chalcedon asserted their power, reinvigorating the Melkites, who persecuted their opponents. In 518, the Melkites forced into exile the empire’s most prominent anti–Chalcedonian, Patriarch Severus of Antioch, replacing him with a Jewish convert named Paul. Severus’ removal and Paul’s election irrevocably divided the Antiochene patriarchate. Rivals, no longer in communion with each other, concurrently claimed the patriarchal throne and formed the nucleus of two churches, Melkite and Syriac.

Antioch’s role as a cultural, economic and political center of the eastern Roman Empire (commonly referred to as Byzantine) had begun to decline long before its conquest by Muslim Arabs in 638. Earthquakes in the fifth and sixth centuries devastated the city, killing many and driving others away. However, after the Arabs took the city, its surviving Syriac Orthodox community prospered. Meanwhile, the Melkites, closely identified with Byzantium, lost all influence and their patriarchs preferred a life in exile in Constantinople.

After more than three centuries of stability under the Arabs, war, occupation and natural disaster nearly finished the city of Antioch. The Byzantines retook it in 969, but lost it to the Seljuk Turks in 1084. Some 14 years later, Crusaders from the Latin West slew much of the population — Christian, Jewish and Muslim. The knights also set up a Latin principality with a Latin Catholic patriarch, returning the Melkite incumbent to Constantinople. In 1268, the Latin principality fell to the Sunni Muslim Mamluks, a force of professional soldiers. And in 1517 the Ottoman Turks captured Antioch, but its walls sheltered fewer than 300 inhabited houses.

By the 18th century, Antioch had declined to a small town of 5,000 people, almost all of whom were Muslim Turks. Christian merchants had long since left. In 1034, the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, Dionysios IV, settled in a monastery in southeastern Asia Minor. In the late 14th century, the Melkite patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius II, settled in Damascus. Both patriarchates, though no longer centered in Antioch, remained of Antioch. Today, both retain the name of the ancient city as the name of their respective sees; yet, they live in the same quarter in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Further schisms. In 1054, the heads of the churches of Constantinople and Rome excommunicated each other — the definitive rupture separating what we now call the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Melkite patriarch of Antioch, Peter III, chose no side in the dispute and tried to broker reconciliation between the two.

After the Latin Catholic Crusaders exiled Peter III’s successors to Constantinople, however, the Melkites adopted the Byzantine liturgical traditions of the church there, relinquishing their indigenous Antiochene liturgical traditions (which remain in use by the Syriac family of churches, Catholic and Orthodox). Yet, throughout the years that followed, the Melkite patriarchate of Antioch (particularly its Arabic or Syriac–speaking patriarchs) remained open to the church of Rome even if full communion no longer existed between the two churches.

This openness encouraged many Catholic religious communities, particularly the Jesuits and the Franciscans, to work among the Melkites throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Their schools in Aleppo, Beirut and Damascus lifted people’s educational levels and strengthened their Catholic sentiments. But, the erection of parishes polarized the Melkites of Antioch into Catholic and Orthodox parties.

The division of the Melkites into Orthodox and Catholic camps resulted in a de facto schism in the patriarchate in 1724, when rival patriarchs consolidated communities and parishes sympathetic to their respective causes. The Ottoman authorities confirmed the appointment of the Orthodox patriarch, Sylvester, and drove into exile the Catholic patriarch, Cyril. However, due to the heavy–handed policies of Sylvester — a Greek–speaking Cypriot — most Melkites swore fealty to Cyril and formed the nucleus of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

For centuries, the Christians of the Antiochene patriarchate gradually adopted Arabic as the vernacular, relegating the use of Syriac to the home or village communities isolated from the big commercial centers such as Aleppo, Beirut and Damascus. Today, one Syriac–speaking Christian village survives in modern Syria, the heartland of the Antiochene patriarchate. Maaloula lies 45 minutes by car from the Syrian capital, but its 2,000 or so residents remain steadfast in their language and Christian faith.

Greek–speaking patriarchs dominated the Arab–speaking Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Antioch until 1898, when the Greek occupant of the throne was deposed and an Arabic–speaker was elected. Since the enthronement of Meletius II in 1899, the church has been thoroughly Arabized, participating in the century–old renewal of Arab culture, language and nationalism.

Modern challenges. Efforts to improve catechesis and the formation of the laity, particularly since the 1940’s, have helped this church of two million take on the challenges of the modern world.

Christian emigration from the Arab world began in the 19th century, as Antiochene Orthodox left Ottoman–dominated Lebanon and Syria for jobs in North and South America. While the typical immigration patterns of integration, assimilation and intermarriage have affected Antiochene Orthodox faithful — especially in areas without clergy and parishes — they have not hindered the church’s vitality or growth. Parishes in the Americas are bustling and are not exclusivist ethnic hubs: The church in Canada and the United States is responsible for receiving into Orthodoxy tens of thousands of evangelical Christians beginning in the late 1980’s. And it is also home to thousands of former Anglicans, who maintain their Anglican liturgy and patrimony while in full communion with Patriarch Ignatius IV, who resides in Damascus.

The Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Antioch has also been in the forefront of the ecumenical movement. The patriarch has deepened ties with the Melkite Greek Catholic Church to restore the undivided Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch. Relations with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch have improved dramatically, with the two patriarchs agreeing to provisions for intercommunion of the faithful and even the concelebration of the eucharistic liturgy.

But recent violence in Syria, which largely set Sunni Muslim insurgents against the Alawi supporters of the Assad regime, may prove to be the greatest challenge to this patriarchal church thus far. Protected by the Assad family for decades, the Christians of Syria — who make up more than 10 percent of the country’s 22 million people, most of them Antiochene Orthodox — fear a repeat of the violence directed against Christians in Iraq and Egypt.

Michael La Civita, CNEWA’s vice president for communications, has written extensively on the Eastern churches.

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