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An Antiochene Legacy: Greek Orthodoxy in Syria

The Church of Antioch remains vibrant in modern Syria.

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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The Church of Antioch, since its founding by St. Peter, has influenced communities far beyond the borders of this once important Roman city. Christians throughout modern Armenia, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey – even some in the New World – trace their spiritual roots to a center that is now little more than an archeological site in southern Turkey.

Yet the Antiochene roots of many Christian communities remain alive. In Baab Sharqi, the Christian quarter of Syrias sprawling capital city of Damascus, its dynamic Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Ignatius IV, holds the ancient title of Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.

“Today the majority of our community has emigrated to North and Latin America, Europe and Australia. As a result, there is no longer a clear picture of the Greek Orthodox Church in the East,” says the Patriarch.

Syrias Greek Orthodox community, however, which is estimated to include more than a half million members, is the dominant Christian force in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

“Diversity is always present where there are human beings,” reflects the Patriarch. “Diversity, however, is not synonymous with dissension. The notion of unity in the Church, as in a home, is that of loving and cherishing one another.

“Consequently, we have moved from the stage of antagonism and proselytism to one of collaboration and mutual respect,” he concludes.

The Patriarch’s role in the ecumenical movement has been considerable. Since his election in 1979, Patriarch Ignatius IV has fostered close relationships with the Syrian Orthodox and Greek Melkite Catholic churches, two churches that also stem from the Antiochene Christian tradition.

In 1991, the Patriarch cosigned a document with his Syrian Orthodox colleague, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, which called for “complete and mutual respect between the two churches” and even provided for Eucharistic concelebration. Five years later, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch welcomed a Greek Melkite Catholic initiative calling for the restoration of ecclesial communion between the two churches:

“Today, we no longer hide from reality,” asserts Patriarch Ignatius IV. “We have duties toward each other…we have to meet a challenge,” he adds, “the challenge of dialogue and cooperation.”

The picturesque village of Maaloula, perched in the Qalamun mountains some 30 miles north of Damascus, appears rather isolated from the challenges cited bythe Patriarch. Yet the villagers of Maaloula struggle daily to retain their Christian faith and culture. They also strive to preserve their ancient Aramaic tongue, the language of Christ, while meeting “the challenges of dialogue and cooperation.”

The village’s isolated location is symbolic of its history. Two-thirds of Maaloula’s 7,500 residents are Christian; most are members of the Greek Orthodox Church. For centuries her people have wrestled with schism and internal differences, as well as standing alone as a minority in a Muslim culture. Such circumstances have created a people who tenaciously cling to their culture and faith.

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Tags: Syria Christian-Muslim relations Orthodox Church of Greece Orthodox Church of Greece Antiochene church