The Syrian Orthodox Church

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The Syrian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian churches related to the Church of Antioch that was established as the second Christian church after the Church of Jerusalem. Antioch is a city located in southeastern Turkey. However, at the time of Christ, Antioch was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. People spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Aramaic is still the language used for worship. The New Testament says that it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus, the Apostles, were called Christians, "the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch". (Acts 11:26). Thousand of years later, and despite many percussions and isolation, the Syrian Orthodox Church is still surviving in a very troubled region, the Middle East. Today, you will find Syrian Orthodox Christians in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, but also in India, North and South America, Europe and Australia.

However, due to the conflicts in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, many families are fleeing the region.

The Syrian Orthodox Church claims its birth from the very early days of christianism. The church was established in Antioch by St. Peter, head of the Apostles, who is considered to be the first patriarch of the "Holy Universal Church". The successive patriarchs, also called bishops, of Antioch were recognized as heads of Christianity like the Roman and Byzantine patriarchs. Everything was going well until the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 when the Syrian Orthodox Church separated itself from the Byzantine Church of Constantinople and the Latin Church of Rome because of a different view on the definition of the Faith of the Universal Church. The Byzantine and Roman Churches declared that "there are two natures and two persons in Christ, therefore, He is two Christ, One is Son of God, and the other is Son of man, One that Mary did not give birth to an incarnate God, but to a pure human who is Jesus Christ". The Syrian Orthodox Church refused to accept that new definition and continued to believe in "one nature in Christ after the union of the two natures" versus "the two natures in Jesus Christ even after the union of the two natures", which is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

This division was the start of terrible persecutions and adversity for the Syrian Orthodox Church. After the council, the Syrian Orthodox Christians were considered heretics by the other Christian churches. The Byzantine Empire started persecuted them in the 6th and 7th centuries. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Crusaders persecuted them as well, followed by the Mongolians, and from 1400, they suffered discrimination under the Ottoman Empire. More misery followed when, at the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire got weaker and started losing territories to Western Christian powers, thus viewing Christians as a threat. According to the records of the Church , from 1895 onwards, the persecutions were so bad that about one third of the Syrian orthodox population was destroyed and a massive emigration started. Ten thousands of them settled in different parts of the Middle East, especially in Syria, and other parts of the world like India, Europe, Australia, and North and South America. According to these records, about 25,000 were massacred in Turkey between 1895 and 1986; in 1915, about 90,314 people, including 154 priests, were killed in 346 villages.

Like other Christian denominations, the Syrian Orthodox Church believes in the Trinity, that there is one God, living in 3 separate persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The church also believes in the mystery of the incarnation and the Virgin Mary. They have their saints. Centuries ago, they built many monasteries that were centers of education. However, there are some very important differences between the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, specifically in the definition of faith in God, the biblical faith versus faith and "reason" which plays an important role in the Roman Catholic doctrine, as well as the doctrine of the incarnation that caused the schism after the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th century. The Syrian Orthodox Church rejected the dogma of the Council of Chalcedon that claimed "Jesus has two natures, one divine and one human, although inseparable". The Syrian Orthodox Church bases its faith and doctrine on the belief that "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father"; the Roman Catholic faith claims that "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son." The Syrian Orthodox Church interpretation of the faith is biblical and it worships the Christian values as they were in ancient times. The Bible as the "Divine word of God" should not be changed to accommodate new trends of thoughts and human needs. They claim that, because the teaching of Christ has not changed throughout the centuries, its interpretation should not be modified by men because they live in different times. Simply put, "you just express your faith under new circumstances". They reproach to the Roman Catholic Church to have let scientific knowledge dilute their doctrine to accommodate the change of times. For the Syrian Orthodox Church, there has always been "One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism". (Eph. 4:4).

One wonders whether geography influenced the evolution of both faiths. For centuries, the Syrian Orthodox Church has been isolated in the Middle East, surrounded by Islamic nations that do not recognize the separation of church and state, thus secularism and the freedom of expression. With such isolation, it was probably hard for Orthodox Christians to really be influenced by European cultures, especially if they could not afford to travel outside the Middle East. However, they survived and managed to remain very close to their ancient Christian roots. The Syrian Orthodox Church never stopped believing that the teaching of Christ is divine, therefore cannot be contradicted by humans. But Europe, with no other influence than Christianity, dealt with their Christian faith far away from Jerusalem and Palestine. The Vatican likes to refer to "biblical faith and "reason", biblical faith inherited from Jerusalem, but reason as a philosophy inherited from the Greco-Roman civilization that shaped Europe. Human beings need to use their reason to better understand God's world and improve their conditions of life as well as their relationships with others. The use of reason gave us democracy and religious freedom. "Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature …. It is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith."Another disagreement is on spiritual leadership. Their spiritual leader is called the Patriarch of Antioch who is residing in Damascus, Syria. They believe that the only spiritual leader of the Universal Church is Christ, not the Pope. They consider the pope to be the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church only. This contradicts the Roman Catholic Church who considers the Pope to be the highest authority on earth and as such, is infallible when making decisions. In the Syrian Orthodox faith, a council of bishops makes the decisions; but these decisions must be accepted by the whole Syrian church before being applied. In fact, this sounds very democratic.

Some other differences are listed below:- For Roman Catholics, marriage is an "unbreakable contract"; divorce is not acceptable. For the Syrian Orthodox church, marriage is not a contract; Divorce is just the proof that human beings are weak. One might be surprised by the fact that divorce is accepted by the Syrian Orthodox Church. This is a contradiction - being faithful to ancient teaching although accepting divorce, which was probably not acceptable when Christ was alive.

- Roman Catholic priests cannot marry; Syrian Orthodox priests are allowed to marry. The Vatican believes that priests must live their life as Jesus did, i.e. celibate. You could see it as a contradiction in both faiths - The Syrian Orthodox Church follows the teaching of Christ but allows its priests to marry when the Vatican refuses to adapt its values to the modern world.

The Syrian Orthodox Church has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1960. After thousands of years of separation and isolation, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church have finally developed a new friendship and accepted their differences, especially thanks to the efforts of Pope John Paul II, who truly fought for reconciliation between the different faiths around the world, Christian and non Christian.

"The confusions and schisms that occurred between their Churches in the later centuries, they realize today, in no way affect or touch the substance of their faith, since these arose only because of differences in terminology and culture and in the various formulae adopted by different theological schools to express the same matter. Accordingly, we find today no real basis for the sad divisions and schisms that subsequently arose between us concerning the doctrine of 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."Truly, "reason" played a role in these decisions.

However, it is worth thinking of the future and the survival of Christian minorities like the Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Middle East in the 21st century. They survived centuries of adversity and are still facing hardship. For example, in Turkey, there are about 100,000 Orthodox Christians left. As more and more Syrian Orthodox Christians are leaving the Middle East and settling down in Europe, the Americas and Australia, where secularism is the norm, will the Syrian Orthodox Church become less conservative? Or will it still be a matter of cultural survival through their orthodox faith? - Syriac Orthodox