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Friday, 31 July 2009

Beacons of Peace


The Syrian Catholic Church recently elected its new patriarch. The appointment is important not only because the Syrian Catholics have a significant presence in the Middle East and Asia and a thriving diaspora, but also because of their influence on global Catholic identity, writes Anthony O'Mahoney, lecturer at Heythrop College, University of London.

Overshadowed by the election of a new patriarch for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic bishops who gathered in Rome in January elected their colleague Ephrem Joseph F. Younan as their new patriarch. Since the resignation in February 2008 of his predecessor Ignace Pierre VIII Abdel-Ahad, the affairs of the Syrian Catholic Church had been governed by a committee of three archbishops. The election of Ignatius Joseph III Younan, who for two decades had been charged with caring for the growing Eastern Catholic community in North America, draws attention to the increasingly complex and diverse nature of the global Catholic Church.

Most national borders in the Middle East are of recent origin and the parameters of the different streams of Christian tradition do not always correspond with the modern nation states. The ecclesial context for Middle Eastern Christianity is one of great complexity. The number of Christians, unfortunately, is very difficult to discern. However, the Middle Eastern church families represent about 30 million Christians, of whom approximately 15 million reside in the Middle East.

The Middle Eastern Christian diaspora in North and South America, Australia and Europe is an important and dynamic reality for all these Churches. Its influence means that Christian identity in the Middle East is often contested between an “Arab” Christian identity and an “Eastern” one. The jurisdiction of each Church normally corresponds to a definite territory, but emigration of numerous faithful has also given it a personal character.

The Churches have responded by creating numerous ecclesial structures in the West to help retain the link between the land of origin and these new Middle Eastern Christian spaces. This renewed ecclesiological link overcomes geography in this case, and the Eastern Churches, with regard to their respective diasporas, behave as though they were independent structures, constituting distinct episcopacies on the same territory. The New Syrian Catholic patriarch’s community is found on five continents, which for a Church with small numbers might seem to offer an overwhelming challenge, but these Churches can have an astonishing resilience.

All previous patriarchs have taken the name “Ignatius” (or “Ignace”) to symbolise their connection with the second-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch, whose ideas have been so important in giving character to the exercise of authority in the Christian Church. Ignatius Joseph III joins four other patriarchs who claim Antioch as their see: Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Maronite Catholic and Syrian Orthodox.

The Antiochene Church is often referred to as the “Church of the Arabs” and although the patriarchates themselves, two of which are based in Beirut and three in Damascus, would see this nomenclature differently, the title does correctly suggest an important religious interface with the Arab and Islamic world.

The rich pluralism of traditions in the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch, that is to say mainly the present states of Lebanon and Syria, has suffered many divisions in the course of history, but recent decades have seen new efforts to re-establish communion among the different traditions. Both Rome and Constantinople have responded by posing the question to Antioch as to whether reestablishment of ecclesial communion on the local level is conceivable without a renewed communion on the universal level.

Meanwhile, increasingly concerned about the diminishing presence of Christians in the lands of the Church’s beginnings, Benedict XVI urged the Patriarch and Syriac Catholics to be beacons of peace in the Middle East, “where the Syrian Church has an appreciated historical presence. My desire is that in the East, from where the proclamation of the Gospel came, the Christian communities continue living and giving testimony of their faith, as they have done throughout the centuries.”

The Syrian Catholic Church has its origins in the eighteenth century, when it emerged from the Syrian Orthodox Church. Today, Syrian Catholics are small in number, some 160,000, which – added to the 350,000 Orthodox – are what remains of this great Christian Church and culture. Between the mass conversion to Islam under the effect of persecutions, or the massacres of the early twentieth-century Ottoman period, which might have numbered well over 100,000, the Syrian Church took refuge, not without a certain grandeur, in its worship, liturgy and sacred Syriac literature. Acknowledging the greatness of the Syriac tradition, Benedict XV, in 1920, proclaimed St Ephrem the Syrian a Doctor of the Universal Church.

In terms of history and theological culture, both the Greek East and the Latin West seem to represent what is essentially a European cultural face of Christianity. This was encapsulated by the notion repeated by John Paul II that “it will be necessary [for the Church] to learn again to breathe fully with two lungs, the Western and the Eastern”, a metaphor which can be traced back to the great Dominican ecumenist Yves Congar. Bede Griffith, who practised the Syrian Catholic Rite, saw it as having a prophetic status for evangelisation in India and hailed the Syriac Christian presence at the Second Vatican Council as a marker that the Church was truly global, and that Asia had found its natural partner in rite and theological culture. Today Syriac Christianity is thriving in modern India. The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which emerged in the 1930s, has experienced significant growth, with over 500,000 members.

The cradle of Syrian Catholicism was Turkey, particularly the province of Tur Abdin. Today this is no more than a memory, and the 2,500 Syrian Catholics who have remained in Turkey are mostly in Istanbul. The main Syrian Catholic homeland today is Iraq (around 65,000). After the massacres of the First World War, numerous Syrians from Turkey found refuge in the north of what is now Iraq, above all in Mosul. Many of these émigrés became Catholics; consequently there are today more Syrian Catholics than Syrian Orthodox in Iraq.

Syriac Christians continue to experience their political weakness, with many of their number having been killed since 2003. The Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Basile Georges Casmoussa, was kidnapped and then released after pressure from the Vatican and other Middle Eastern states in 2006. The other home of the Syrian Catholic Church is Syria-Lebanon with 80,000 adherents. These are mostly of Turkish origin – their forebears moved following the First World War, joining a more ancient population in Syria, where there had been a Syrian Catholic community at Aleppo which went back to the constitution of the Church in the seventeenth century. Numerous Syrian Catholics moved to Lebanon in the eighteenth century to flee the Ottoman persecutions and then moved their Patriarchate to Charfeh in Mount Lebanon.

Elsewhere, Syrian Catholics are very few, about 2,000 in Egypt and 1,500 in the whole of Israel-Palestine-Jordan. And today possibly some 50,000 live in America and Europe. However, the Syrian Catholic Church has not been without influence: the great Patriarch Gabriel Tappouni, condemned to death by the Turks, escaped the gallows it is said by the intervention of the Hapsburg emperor. Tappouni was a good student of the Vatican, knew how to make himself understood in the Curia, and how to deal with the competing Roman institutions. During Vatican II, he was the only dignitary from the Oriental Churches admitted to the Council of Presidents.

Ecumenical dialogue gives a different meaning to the continuing division between Syriac Catholics and Orthodox. In 1971 the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Ya’qub III visited Pope Paul VI in Rome, the first such meeting between the two heads of Churches since their division over the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In 1984, John Paul II and the new Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, signed a “Common Declaration of Faith” which stated: “We find today no real basis for the sad divisions and schisms that subsequently arose between us concerning the doctrine of the Incarnation. In words and life we confess the true doctrine concerning Christ our Lord, notwithstanding the differences in interpretation of such a doctrine which arose at the time of the Council of Chalcedon.” These words, written just over 20 years ago, re-order 16 centuries of division.

War and interreligious conflict in the Middle East have always been of concern to the Vatican. The bishops of Iraq have called for a synod for the Church in the Middle East similar to those in America, Africa, Asia and Europe. The presence of the Syrian Catholic Church has meant that the Syriac Christian Orient cannot be regarded just as a curiosity or as an optional extra on the fringe of the Greek and Latin West, but is rather an integral part of its ecclesiology. Taking place on the borders between religion and culture, between the Greek East and the Latin West, between the Christian world and the Islamic worlds, the election of a new patriarch for the Syrian Catholic Church might prove to be not just a link with an important historical legacy, but
a sign of how complex the future character of global Christianity can be.

The Society is extremely grateful to The Tablet and the author for permission to reproduce this article.
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