Syria’s Syrian Orthodox Church: Small Yet Vibrant

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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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.

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Tags: Syria Church history Syriac Orthodox Church