With Wisdom and Courage, New Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Reaffirms the Church's Commitment to Syria

ISLAMiCommentary by Professor Lucas Van Rompay

In an unusual demonstration of resolve and courage, the newly elected patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, has decided to maintain the headquarters of his church in Syria, rather than transferring them to Lebanon as many expected. In the final years of his tenure, the aging and frail patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas (who died on March 21) had been living in Beirut. But as far as the new patriarch is concerned, this was not the prelude to a more permanent transfer of the patriarchal residence. Instead, the church, which is one of the oldest churches of the Christian world, has reaffirmed its commitment to Syria, the country in which the new patriarch intends to live.

Until his election as patriarch this past March, Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim (as he was then known) served as Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church for the Eastern United States, with residence in Teaneck, New Jersey. Born in Qamishli, Syria, in 1965, he received his education in Atchaneh, Lebanon, in Cairo, Egypt and in Maynooth, Ireland. His consecration as Archbishop of the Eastern United States followed in 1996. He held the position for eighteen years and now returns to his native country of Syria.

The installation of the new patriarch is expected to be celebrated tomorrow (May 29) in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Maʿarrat Saidnaya, 22 miles north of Damascus, on the date of the Feast of Christ’s Ascension. It will be followed a few days later, on June 1, by a second celebration in the St. Aphrem Church of Ashrafieh, in East Beirut, Lebanon. Visitors will come from all over the world, as the Syriac Orthodox Church throughout the twentieth century, and especially in the century’s last decades, has become a truly global church.

Of its faithful – some two million strong – more are living outside the Middle East, in the Americas, Europe, and Australia, than in the traditional homelands of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. Also affiliated with the Syriac Orthodox Church is the Indian Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church, in the state of Kerala; it recognizes the Syriac Orthodox patriarch as its supreme head while its local leadership enjoys some form of autonomy.

Organizing the two installation ceremonies in this problem ridden region, with so many uncertainties, must be a nightmare. With international flights to Damascus halted by the war, attendees were expected to assemble in Beirut today May 28. In official convoys they were travel to the Syrian border and enter the country for a less than 48-hour stay in Maʿarrat Saidnaya, Syria, where many Christians from all over Syria will have gathered around the new patriarch. They will return to Beirut on Friday morning. It is safe to assume that government collaboration and protection will be needed to make the Syrian trip possible. Visitors who don’t like the idea, are distrustful of the government, or feel insecure, will skip the trip to Syria and wait for the celebration in Beirut.

By returning to Syria, the new patriarch makes a clear statement which will resonate loudly all over the Middle East: the Syriac Orthodox Church is not willing to abandon its faithful in Syria and is determined to maintain its presence in the country. Right now many Syrians — Christians as well as Muslims — are living outside the country in other countries of the Middle East, in Europe, or North-America, waiting for better times to come. The Christian minority has suffered greatly from all sides in the conflict, and finds itself divided over the question of whom to distrust less. One of the most prominent leaders of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Archbishop Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim of Aleppo, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the same city, Boulos Yazigi, were abducted in April 2013. More than a year later nothing is known about their fate and whereabouts.

Historically the Syriac Orthodox Church has had a strong presence in Aleppo, Homs, and to the south as far as Damascus, as well as in the northeast, in cities such as Qamishli and Hassake. Many of the Syriac Orthodox in Aleppo and in the northeast belong to refugee families who escaped the atrocities in Turkey during and after the First World War, or who fled from Iraq during the various periods of unrest which this country has known. Under the watchful eye of the Syrian authorities they have been able to rebuild their lives and the structures of their church.

The Syriac Orthodox Church has a direct connection with the ancient city of Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). The church’s roots in antiquity are reflected in the full title of “Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.” The rejection of the fourth ecumenical council (of Chalcedon, in 451), however, brought the church in conflict with the official church (“Greek Orthodox”) of the Byzantine Empire and resulted in the loss of Antioch as its main residence. Today, the Syriac Orthodox Church belongs, together with the Coptic Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches, to the so-called Oriental Orthodox churches, even though they are involved in constructive dialogue with the major Christian traditions worldwide. In fact, the patriarch-elect already plays a leading role in this dialogue.

For centuries the patriarchal seat was in southern Turkey, in the Monastery of Dayr al-Zaʿfaran, outside the city of Mardin, before relocating to Homs, Syria, in 1933 and then to Damascus in 1959. While the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate was housed in the church of St. George, on the southern part of Bab Tuma Street (one of the most fascinating quarters of the Old City), the new residence of Maʿarrat Saidnaya was built in the 1990s. Situated on the road from Damascus to Homs, this region has a long Christian history, reflected in the nearby village of Saidnaya, with its famous Greek Orthodox monastery, and in the village of Maʿlula, where an Aramaic dialect continues to be spoken up to the present day.

Though the church’s physical and spiritual roots are ancient, the newly built center of Maʿarrat Saidnaya is forward looking. It serves not only as a patriarchal residence and monastery, but also as a training center and meeting point for Syriac Orthodox Christians living in the diaspora. Since its inauguration in 1996, and as long as there was peace in Syria, the center in Maʿarrat Saidnaya received many visitors, individuals and groups wanting to enrich their Syriac Orthodox identity with an authentic experience in the historical homeland — with its centuries old traditions, original languages, and monuments. With the faithful now scattered over the continents and the local communities reduced and weakened, the future of the Syriac Orthodox Church will depend on the harmonious interplay it will have to find between the old communities in the historical homeland and the new diaspora communities — each group bringing with them their own experiences. This will be the new global face of Syriac Orthodox life in the twenty-first century.

No one seems to be better placed to supervise and guide this process of enrichment and transformation than the newly elected patriarch, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II. Benefitting from his long experience in the United States and having overseen the establishment of several new Syriac Orthodox parishes from New Jersey to Florida and from Texas to New York, he has gained a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges of fully including the diaspora in the life of his church. He will be able to build bridges between the old world and the new world.

Even more importantly, he will have the wisdom to set out a new course for his church, transcending the divisions of the past, healing the deep wounds of suffering and pain, defining new relationships with the political and religious powers in the country, and building on the spiritual strengths of the church.

The election of the new patriarch and the positive responses it has received feel like a glimmer of hope in this dark night of the country’s history. Yet, the path ahead will be uncertain and difficult. Meeting earlier this month with a delegation of Syriac Christians in Sweden, he advised Syrians against migration and urged them to stay in the country and vote, calling Syria’s presidential election, set for June 3, an important step towards “building the Syria that the honorable Syrians seek.” With the choice for Syria and for Maʿarrat Saidnaya as his residence, he has laid the groundwork for a meaningful Christian existence in post-war Syria. One has to congratulate him with this courageous decision and wish him much strength in pursuing this noble goal.

Lucas Van Rompay is Professor of Eastern Christianity in Duke University’s Department of Religious Studies, and affiliated faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His research focuses on the religion, history and culture of Christian communities in the Middle East, especially the Syriac Christian tradition. He is co-author of the newly-published Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts and Fragments in the Library of Deir al-Surian, Wadi al-Natrun (Egypt). Commentaries on current events in Syria include Honoring the Extraordinary Religious History of the City of Homs and The Uncertain Future of Father Paolo’s Interfaith Legacy in Syria.