The Word Magazine May 1997 Page 4-6


By Seminarian Bassam Nassif

In a time when the Orthodox Christian Church is facing new challenges, and the interaction between Her and different religious thoughts is growing and intensifying, it is needful and valuable to bring to light the unique traditional stand and mission of the Church of Antioch. The experience and mind-set of Middle Eastern Christians can certainly help to give many solutions to the new challenges facing the Orthodox Church in the Twenty-first century.

In Antioch, the Disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26), and the great missionary Paul and the unyielding faithful Peter worked to establish firmly the Kingdom of God in the hearts and minds of the Antiochians. In the meanwhile, a vivid interaction between Christians, Jews, and Pagans started to shape the mind and tradition of the local apostolic Church, impacting Christianity on a universal level. The book of Acts records the instance when Saints Peter and Paul confronted each other in Antioch over the issue of circumcision of the Gentiles. Their reconciliation happened after the first Apostolic Council proclaimed that the Good News is for all beyond any ethnicity (Acts 15). The same Holy Spirit who worked diligently and unceasingly in the Church continues today to shine the light of Truth in the words and prophesies of the Antiochian patriarchs and faithful. Throughout its history, the Patriarchate of Antioch has played a conciliatory role, as for example between opposing parties at the time of the councils. Most impressing is this Antiochian spirit of openness to other faiths and traditions, wisely dialoging the world with words of love and truth. The tradition of Antioch is the pride of the entire Orthodox Church.

Soon after the spread of the Gospel in Antioch, the Church of the East carried the Cross of Christ and followed the Master. She grew and matured while suffering violence and great pain: Roman-pagan persecution, schisms with the non­Chalcedonians, Jihad of the Muslims, Byzantine invasions, Crusaders invasions which forced Latinization, Mongol invasions which destroyed the city of Antioch (an event that led to the transfer of the Patriarchate’s residence to Damascus in 1322), Ottoman occupation, Uniatism and proselytism by 19c. Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Up to this century, the Orthodox of Antioch stand as a “confessing Church”, armed with the humility of kenosis (self emptying and sacrificing for others) and the power of love. Today, the Orthodox Church of the Arab East continues to bear the cross of suffering. Through Her endurance, the Church stands as Christ’s witness to the world: the Bride of Christ is manifesting the power of His Resurrection by Her remarkable “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Reconciliation between humankind, creation, and God brings peace, the peace that breaks down the walls of hostility between people.

The experience of Antioch in this holy ministry encompassed the whole creation. Saint Isaac the Syrian asked: “What is a compassionate heart? It is a heart which burns for the whole of creation, for the birds, for the beasts of the earth, for every creature.” Most striking is the theology and the person of Saint John the Damascene, prime minister of the Damascus Court during the reign of Caliph Ommyad. Saint John was an important symbolic figure representing the presence of Christianity in Islam, a presence capable of disassociating religious affiliation from political allegiance. Although his Faith was that of his state’s enemies, his loyalty to the Caliph gave a striking example about the possible continuity of the Orthodox presence in the homeland of Islam. His theology on the divine energies of the Risen Christ transforming and transfiguring matter reveals his traditional understanding of the ministry of reconciliation in the Church of Antioch. Using Greek as the universal language, the Church of Antioch lived and developed in first an Aramaic, then an Arab, cultural milieu. The Orthodox faithful of Antioch constitute a large part of the indigenous people in the East.

This spirit of openness is present in many historical events in the Patriarchate of Antioch. Today the work of the Holy Spirit continues to enrich the confessing Church, making fruitful Her ministry of reconciliation. The vision and prophesies of Her Patriarchs in the Twentieth Century are rooted in the tradition of the Church.

Starting from Patriarch Meletios Dumani, a man of rare wisdom and deep understanding of Orthodox ecclesiology, this Patriarch sent in 1904 an important letter to the then Russian Archbishop Tikhon in North America. Saint Tikhon was administering the needs of the Orthodox immigrants in North America. This letter was about the consecration of the Arab Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny in Brooklyn, in order for the Bishop to take care of the Syrian-Arab immigrants in the New World under the supervision of Tikhon. The late Father John Meyendorff noted that “very often, the Orthodox identify their ecclesial allegiance with ethnic culture and nationality, so that the concept of autocephaly becomes practically indistinguishable from national separatism.”2 Father Meyendorff most probably had in mind the situation of the Orthodox in North America. He outlined the unique tradition of Antioch by writing that “with a wisdom inherited from the Apostolic origins of the Church of Antioch, Patriarch Meletios proclaims that Bishop Raphael’s consecration in North America, by the local Archbishop Tikhon, would not prevent him

[Bishop Raphael] from being considered also a bishop of the See of Antioch. There is one Church, one Episcopate, but the Church is organized in such a way that it realizes unity both locally and universally.”3 Meletios’ words are prophetic if one would think of the new developments towards administrative unity of Orthodoxy in North America and how this unity will take place. The Patriarch’s ecclesiology is certainly in line with St. Ignatius of Antioch of the late first and early second centuries. After almost two thousand years, the spirit of Antioch, the spirit of openness and reconciliation stand as a striking example to be followed in North America today.

The successor of Meletios, Patriarch Gregory was so much loved by all the Arabs because of his wisdom and encompassing love to both Christians and Muslims of different backgrounds. The Patriarch made considerable efforts to arabize the Patriarchate of Antioch. His efforts brought tension between Antioch and the Greek Churches to the point that the Greek Patriarch Demianos of Jerusalem refused to accept the validity of Gregory’s consecration. However, in November 1917, the Jerusalem Patriarch was put under house arrest, and he was going to be taken to the Anadoles in present day Turkey. Gregory insisted that the Ottoman guards stop overnight at the Patriarchate in Damascus. This overnight visit lasted one year! The Patriarch of Antioch interceded to the Ottoman authorities to free Demianos. Gregory was successful in returning Demianos back to Jerusalem. When Gregory was asked how could he defend the Greek Patriarch when Demianos’ Synod in Jerusalem did not accept Gregory as a Patriarch, he replied:

“Demianos is my brother in Christ and in the Faith, and he is my guest. It is my tradition as an Arab Antiochian Orthodox to take utmost care of my guests!”

In 1912, Patriarch Gregory officially received into the Orthodox Church the former Syrian Oriental Bishop Peter of Saddad. Bishop Peter came with his large flock, and renounced all heresies showing great devotion and love to the Orthodox Faith. His journey to Orthodoxy was affected by the Patriarch’s personal character of openness, love, and holiness. The same spirit of love is touching today the Oriental Syrian Churches of Antioch. The Holy Spirit is acting to reconcile and heal the wounds of the schism that lasted many centuries. Long and elaborate theological discussions between the Orthodox and the non-Chalcedonians in Antioch have yielded fruits.

Another great man full of the Spirit and love to all was Patriarch Elias IV (Moawad). In the words of the Syriac scholar Sebastien Brock, Elias “won the love, sympathy, and admiration of both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, and he must be counted among the pioneers of peace, unity and reconciliation in that turbulent area. His influence as a Christian leader extended well beyond the Orthodox world.”5 In 1974, the Patriarch was chosen to head and lead a Christian delegation from the Middle East to address the Islamic Conference held in Lahare. His speech was very well received, and did much “to ease the course of the Muslim Arabs in general that he came to be known as ‘the Patriarch of the Arabs’.” Later on, he visited Saudi Arabia. His visit bore remarkable fruit: King Khaled permitted the creation of a metropolitan see in the province of Al-Hasr to serve the Greek and Arabic Orthodox workers living in the area. “Such a concession in the homeland of Islam,” noted Brock, “is a signal indication of the respect in which he was held in the Arab world.”’ Furthermore, after visiting North America, Elias revealed his vision for Orthodoxy in the New World: “we affirm that in North America, there should he an autocephalous Church with its own Patriarch and Holy Synod. However, all Mother Churches must agree on this point, and more importantly the faithful in North America must do their part to make independence and unity a reality and not just a written Tomos.”

The current Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV (Hazim), is a leader of spiritual renewal, not only in Antiochian Orthodoxy but also in the Orthodox world. This fine contemporary theologian and Father of Antioch has a vision of regaining unity within the churches of Antioch. Similarly to his predecessors, he has been a great witness and an ambassador of Christ’s revelation in the heart of Islam and various other faiths. Witnessing to Islam is a mission of the Orthodox in the Near East. Carrying in him a spirit of openness and faithfulness to the Holy Tradition, Ignatius IV has worked diligently in the World Council of Churches and the Council of Churches in the Middle East. In 1987, addressing Christians of various denominations in Geneva, Switzerland, he declared: We wish to look beyond conflicting ideologies and to encourage in Islam the humble and noble faith of simple people, the lofty and often Christ-like mysticism of the Sufis. We wish to see and encourage in Judaism ethical vigor and the spirit of the prophets.”7

After his pastoral visit to Latin America in 1984, in an interview, Patriarch Ignatius reminded the Orthodox world of important truths so much needed to be put in practice in the Americas. Charismatically, he said about the Church in Latin America: “Orthodoxy should cease to be an exotic import of eastern origin. Orthodoxy is eastern only in its origin and its spirit. In order to remain faithful to itself, it must put down roots in the cultures and languages of the countries in which it lives.”5 Moreover, after Ignatius’ visit to North America, the Holy Synod of Antioch openly expressed its commitment “to make every possible effort to work together with the Orthodox Sister-churches towards the realization of full canonical unity in America.”9

His words reveal his prophetic spirit. His spirituality becomes clearer when one reads his book titled The Resurrection and Modern Man which is a meditation on salvation through the event of God’s Incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit who “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5). In the Patriarch’s ministry of reconciliation, all creation is accounted for, and his theology of creation reveals his spirituality deeply rooted in the Holy Scriptures and Tradition, especially in the Tradition of the Holy Arab and Syriac Antiochian Fathers such as Saints Isaac the Syrian, Maximos the Confessor, and Ephrem the Syrian.10

The position of the Antiochian Church today, through her ministry of reconciliation, shows that the Holy Orthodox Church of Antioch is built on the Rock, on Christ. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, Love, and Reconciliation is working in and through the leaders and faithful of the Church to bring the world to the mystery of the new creation in Christ: “The New Creation consists rather in the fact that the Lord acts and speaks within all reality, whether things or persons.”

1 Ignatius IV, “Three Sermons,” Sourozh 38(1989): p. 11.

2 Meyendorff, John, “The Patriarch of Antioch and North America in 1904,”

Saint Vladimir Theological Quarterly 33 (no. 1, 1989): PP. 80-86.

3 Ibid.

4 “Patriarch Gregory,” Al-Rissalat. Journal of the Archdiocese of Jubeil, Bitroun, and dependencies (Year 5, no. 1 & 2, May 1985): pp. 53-54.

5 Tillyrides, Andreas, and Brock, Sebastien, “Patriarch Elias lV,” Sobornost 4 (no. 1, 1982): pp. 63-64.

6 A Man of Love, A publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian

Archdiocese of North America, 1977, pp. 33-34.

7 Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch, “Uniting Ourselves in the Truth: in Someone, not in a Theory or Abstraction,” Sourozh 33 (August 1988): pp. 37-42.

8 “Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch reports on his visit to Latin America,” Sourozh 19 (Fall 1985): pp. 50-51.

9 “Antiochian Synod Pledges unity in American Church,” Sourozh 24 (May 1986): pp. 46-49.

10 See Ignatius IV, “Three Sermons,” Sourozh 38 (1989): pp. 1-14.

11 Ignatius IV, The Resurrection and Modern Man (New York: SVS Press, 1985), p. 27. This book is available from the Antiochian Archdiocese, 358 Mountain Rd., Englewood, NJ 07631.

Bassam Nassif is an Antiochian graduate from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA.