ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Syria’s Syrian Orthodox Church: Small Yet Vibrant

A profile of an early Christian community in Antioch that developed into one of the great spiritual and theological centers of the Church.

Today, a baptism in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Tomorrow, a funeral in Hassaké, some 250 miles north of Aleppo. And the following day, a wedding back in Aleppo. Such is the life of Mar Yuhana Brahim, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo.

Who knows where he will be next week? In addition to his pastoral duties, Mar Yuhana frequently travels abroad, representing the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate at ecumenical meetings, including those of the Middle East Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, of which the Syrian Orthodox Church has been a member since 1960. Life rarely offers a respite for this amiable Bishop.

The Syrian Orthodox Church in Syria numbers some 150,000 members. A significant portion of the community live in the urban centers of this ethnically diverse nation: Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. The majority of Syrian Orthodox Christians dwell, however, in farming villages in the rural north, where they live in harmony with other Christian communities and Muslim Arabs and Kurds.

“Our bishop in Hassaké has a special position with the many Christian communities there. He is also consulted by the local civil authorities for various religious matters, and the coexistence of Christians and Muslims seems to be more natural in that area,” Mar Yuhana said recently.

The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its roots to the early Christian community in Antioch (a town in present-day Turkey), the capital city of Roman Syria and the guardian of the Asian trade routes. This Antiochene Church flourished and gradually became one of the great spiritual and theological centers of early Christianity.

The non-Greek-speaking, rural population of the Antiochene Church, however, grew tired of the hellenization of Christianity and the increasing role of the Byzantine emperor in the life of the local church. They refused to accept the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451), which they viewed as an expression of the role and position of the Byzantine Church and State.

In the sixth century, Mar Jacob Baradai, Bishop of Edessa, in defiance of Byzantine authority, ordained many bishops and priests, thereby securing the future of the Syrian Orthodox Church, which spread to Persia and parts of India.

Under the various Muslim dynasties, who wrested the Middle East from the Byzantines, the Syrian Orthodox Church flourished, founding hundreds of monasteries and schools for the arts, sciences, history, philosophy and theology. The devastating Mongol invasions in the late 14th century, however, ended this golden age, marking the beginning of this community’s decline. The Turkish-led wave of persecutions and massacres during World War I nearly destroyed the church, hastening its worldwide dispersion.

In full communion with the Armenian Apostolic and Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, the Syrian Orthodox, under the leadership of Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, have taken an active role in the ecumenical movement.

“The Syrian Orthodox Church,” reported Mar Yuhana, “attaches much importance to ecumenism. We are members of various ecumenical bodies locally, and on regional and international levels. We established dialogue with the Catholic Church in the 70s, with Protestants and especially with the Greek Orthodox, with whom we hope to reach full communion by the year 2000.

“On the threshold of the third millennium,” he continued, “it is important for all religions – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and others – to cooperate and work toward world peace.”

Perhaps the reason for the church’s intercultural sensitivity lies with its role as an underdog, whether as a minority in its homeland or in the diaspora.

“We have established over 30 churches in Sweden, where 50,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians now live,” Mar Yuhana said.

As a result of this wave of emigration, Syrian Orthodox priests and bishops have had to study different languages “in order to save the unity of our community.”

Until the sixth century, the Syrian Orthodox patriarchate was based in the city of Antioch. Today, the patriarchal see is in Damascus, where Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, elected as Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East in 1980, resides.

“Even though our community in Damascus does not exceed 10,000 members,” Mar Yuhana explained, “it is important to be present in the capital, along with all other Christian communities.”

The liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Syriac, which is used only among the clergy, is closely related to Aramaic, the language of Christ. The Divine Liturgy is not celebrated exclusively in Syriac; Arabic is also used so that the public will understand the liturgy.

Although rooted in an ancient culture, the Syrian Orthodox Church is keeping in step with modern times. Today, most monks are sent to Europe and to India to continue their higher education.

“We have a seminary in southern India, in Kerala, where some 60 seminarians are studying,” Mar Yuhana reported.

“The Syrian Orthodox community in southern India counts over one million members, most of whom embraced Christianity in the fourth century, through evangelization by missionaries from Urfa (Turkey).”

In addition, there are Syrian Orthodox seminaries in Mardin, Turkey, and in Mosul, an important city in northern Iraq. However, the principal seminary is St. Ephrem in Sayedniya, 18 miles from Damascus. There, 25 young men are in a four-year program that prepares them for monastic vows or priesthood.

The day begins early – 6:00 A.M. for seminarians. This year computer science courses will be added to their already heavy program, which includes Syriac writing, reading and speaking. Besides Syriac, students must study English, Greek and Arabic language and literature, theology, canon law, sociology, philosophy and patrology. After monastic vows are pronounced, the monks – the scholars of the Syrian Orthodox Church – will travel abroad for further study.

The seminarians of Sayedniya must also clean the rooms, the seminary chapel and the hallways. Although they come from all walks of life – one seminarian may be the son of a government employee, another, the son of a tailor – all must contribute to the community.

Sayedniya is also the site of the church’s primary Syrian monastery, which today houses 40 monks and 15 nuns.

The Syrian Orthodox community is a vital force in Syria today, especially among the young. The church began establishing religious education centers in 1980 to teach the young about their religion and to teach them to live as good Christian citizens. Today, over 1,000 young people attend these centers.

“It is important to make our young people feel at ease in their homeland,” Mar Yuhana commented.

“This in turn will discourage them from emigrating. Fortunately, emigration has slowed down considerably during the last few years.”

Armineh Johannes, a Paris-based photojournalist, frequently travels throughout “our world.”

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