Friday, November 26, 2010

The Syrian Orthodox Church

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Syriac Orthodox Church

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Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East

شعار الكنيسة.jpg

Emblem of the Church

Founder Peter the Apostle

Independence Apostolic Era

Recognition Oriental Orthodox

Primate Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas

Headquarters Historically Antioch, Present time Damascus

Territory Syria, Lebanon, israel, Turkey, Iraq and Iran

Possessions Eastern Mediterranean, United States, Canada, Great Britain, Western Europe, South America and Australia

Language Syriac-Aramaic (liturgical), and local languages: Turoyo-Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, English, German, Dutch and Swedish.

Adherents 5.6 million Syrian Malabar Nasrani,[1] 4,000,000 around the World,[2] with 100,000 in the Middle East,[3] plus ca. another 200,000 in diaspora (80,000 in the USA[4] 80,000 in Sweden[5], 50,000 in Germany.)

Website Official website of the Syriac Orthodox Church

The Syriac Orthodox Church is an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox church based in the Eastern Mediterranean, with members spread throughout the world. The Syriac Orthodox Church claims to derive its origin from one of the first Christian communities, established in Antioch by the Apostle St. Peter. It employs the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity, the Liturgy of St. James the Apostle, and uses Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ and his Apostles, as its official and liturgical language. The church is led by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.

Official Name

In 2000, a Holy Synod ruled that the name of the church in English should be the "'Syriac Orthodox Church". Before this it was, and often still is, known as the "Syrian Orthodox Church". The name was changed to disassociate the church from the polity of Syria. The official name of the church in Syriac is ʿĒdtō Suryōytō Triṣaṯ Šuḇḥō; this name has not changed, nor has it changed in any language other than English.[6] The church is often referred to as Jacobite (after Jacob Baradaeus), but it rejects this name.

Place in Christianity

The Syriac Orthodox Church derives its origin from one of the first Christian communities, established in Antioch by the Apostle St. Peter. It is one of the two autocephalous which claim the title of the Patriarch of Antioch. The current head of the Syriac Orthodox Church is the Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, who resides in Damascus, the capital of Syria. The Church has about 26 archdioceses and 11 patriarchal vicarates. Patriarch Zakka was enthroned head of the church on 14 September 1980, on the feast of the Cross. Syriac Orthodox faithful around the world took part in the silver jubilee celebrations of his patriarchate in 2005.[7]


Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the ancient churches of the world. According to the New Testament "The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." (Acts 11:26).

St. Peter is considered as the first bishop of the Patriarchate of Antioch. When he left Antioch, Evodios and Ignatius took over the charge of the Patriarchate. Both Evodios and Ignatius died as martyrs under Roman Persecution. (Because of the prominence of St. Ignatius in the church's history, almost all of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs since 1293 were named Ignatius).[8]

Ecumenical Synods

The Church of Antioch played a significant role in the early history of Christianity. It played a prominent role in the first three Synods held at Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431), shaping the formulation and early interpretation of Christian doctrines.

Council of Nicea

In the 4th century, an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius began a theological dispute about the nature of Christ that spread throughout the Christian world and is now known as Arianism. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea AD 325 was convened by Constantine under the presidency of Saint Hosius of Cordova and Saint Alexander of Alexandria to resolve the dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. The Creed, which is now recited throughout the Christian world, was based largely on the teaching put forth by a man who eventually would become Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, the chief opponent of Arius.

Council of Constantinople

In the year AD 381, Saint Timothy I of Alexandria presided over the second ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit:

"We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and in One, Holy, Universal, and Apostolic church. We confess one Baptism for the remission of sins and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age, Amen."

Council of Ephesus

Another theological dispute in the 5th century occurred over the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who taught that God the Word was not hypostatically joined with human nature, but rather dwelt in the man Jesus. As a consequence of this, he denied the title "Mother of God" (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be "Mother of Christ" Christotokos.

When reports of this reached the Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark, Pope Saint Cyril I of Alexandria acted quickly to correct this breach with orthodoxy, requesting that Nestorius repent. When he would not, the Synod of Alexandria met in an emergency session and a unanimous agreement was reached. Pope Cyril I of Alexandria, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius known as "The Third Epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius." This epistle drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: "The Twelve Anathemas of Saint Cyril." In these anathemas, Cyril excommunicated anyone who followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, "Anyone who dares to deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!" Nestorius however, still would not repent and so this led to the convening of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), over which Cyril I of Alexandria presided.

The First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and confirmed the title of Mary as "Mother of God". It also clearly stated that anyone who separated Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Athanasius had said that there is "One Nature and One Hypostasis for God the Word Incarnate" (Mia Physis tou Theou Loghou Sesarkomeni).

Council of Chalcedon

When in AD 451, the Roman Emperor Marcianus attempted to affect matters of doctrine, the response of Pope Dioscorus – the Pope of Alexandria – was that the emperor should not intervene in the affairs of the Church. It was at Chalcedon that Emperor Marcianus, through the Imperial delegates, enforced harsh disciplinary measures against Pope Dioscorus in response to his boldness, and would exile him until Pope Dioscorus' death in 458.

In terms of Christology, the Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) understanding is that Christ is "One Nature—the Logos Incarnate," of the full humanity and full divinity. The Chalcedonians understanding is that Christ is in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. Just as humans are of their mothers and fathers and not in their mothers and fathers, so too is the nature of Christ according to Oriental Orthodoxy. If Christ is in full humanity and in full divinity, then He is separate in two persons as the Nestorians teach, according to the Oriental Orthodox (the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, as well as most Protestants, vigorously deny this, teaching that Christ is a single Person or "hypostastis" who is in two natures which are hypostatically joined in His single Person). This is the doctrinal perception that makes the apparent difference which separated the Oriental Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox.

Holy Qurbono being celebrated at the St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox MonasteryThe Council's findings were rejected by many of the Christians on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, including Syriac Orthodox Church, Coptic Orthodox Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, and others.

Patriarchate of Antioch

The spiritual care of the Church of Antioch was vested in the Bishop of Antioch from the earliest years of Christianity. The first among the Bishops of Antioch was St. Peter who is believed to have established a church at Antioch in AD 37. Given the antiquity of the bishopric of Antioch and the importance of the Church in the city of Antioch which was a commercially significant city in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, the First Council of Nicaea (325) recognized the bishopric as a Patriarchate along with the bishoprics of Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, bestowing authority for the Church in Antioch and All of the East on the Patriarch. (The Synod of Constantinople in 381 recognized the See of Constantinople also as a Patriarchate).

Even though the Synod of Nicaea was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, the authority of the ecumenical synod was also accepted by the Church in the Persian Empire which was politically isolated from the Churches in the Roman Empire. Until 498, this Church accepted the spiritual authority of the Patriarch of Antioch.

The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Chalcedon in 451 resulted in a long struggle for the Patriarchate between those who accepted and those who rejected the Council. In 518, Patriarch Mar Severius was exiled from the city of Antioch and took refuge in Alexandria. On account of many historical upheavals and consequent hardships which the church had to undergo, the Patriarchate was transferred to different monasteries in Mesopotamia for centuries. In the 13th century it was transferred in the Mor Hananyo Monastery (Deir al-Za`faran), in southeastern Turkey near Mardin, where it remained until 1933. Due to an adverse political situation, it was transferred to Homs, Syria and in 1959 was transferred again to Damascus.

The Patriarchate office is now in Bab Tuma, in Damascus, capital of Syria; but the Patriarch resides at the Mar Aphrem Monastery in Ma`arat Sayyidnaya located about twenty five kilometers north of Damascus.

Primacy of Saint Peter

A 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai.The Fathers of the Syriac Orthodox Church tried to give a theological interpretation to the primacy of Saint Peter. They were fully convinced of the unique office of Peter in the primitive Christian community. Ephrem, Aphrahat and Marutha who were supposed to be the best exponents of the early Syriac tradition unequivocally acknowledge the office of Peter.

The Syriac Fathers following the rabbinic tradition call Jesus “Kepha” for they see “rock” in the Old Testament as a messianic Symbol. When Christ gave his own name “Kepha” to Simon he was giving him participation in the person and office of Christ. Christ who is the Kepha and shepherd made Simon the chief shepherd in his place and gave him the very name Kepha and said that on Kepha he would build the Church. Aphrahat shared the common Syriac tradition. For him Kepha is in fact another name of Jesus, and Simon was given the right to share the name. The person who receives somebody else’s name also obtains the rights of the person who bestows the name. Aphrahat makes the stone taken from Jordan a type of Peter. He says Jesus son of Nun set up the stones for a witness in Israel; Jesus our Saviour called Simon Kepha Sarirto and set him as the faithful witness among nations.

Again he says in his commentary on Deuteronomy that Moses brought forth water from “rock” (Kepha) for the people and Jesus sent Simon Kepha to carry his teachings among nations. Our Lord accepted him and made him the foundation of the Church and called him Kepha. When he speaks about transfiguration of Christ he calls him Simon Peter, the foundation of the Church. Ephrem also shared the same view. The Armenian version of De Virginitate records that Peter the Rock shunned honour Who was the head of the Apostles. In a mimro of Efrem found in Holy Week Liturgy points to the importance of Peter. Both Aphrahat and Ephrem the Syrian represent the authentic tradition of the Syrian Church. The different orders of liturgies used for sanctification of Church building, marriage, ordination etc. reveal that the primacy of Peter is a part of living faith of the Church.[9]


As Psalm 119 says,[10] a Syriac Orthodox Faithful has to pray seven times a day. They are:

Evening or Ramsho prayer (Vespers)

Compline prayer or Sootoro prayer

Midnight or Lilyo prayer

Morning or Saphro prayer (Matins)

Third Hour or tloth sho`in prayer (Prime, 9 a.m.)

Sixth Hour or sheth sho`in prayer (Sext, noon)

Ninth Hour or tsha` sho'in prayer (Nones, 3 p.m.)

According to the Syriac Tradition, an ecclesiastical day starts at sunset. Also the worshiper has to face the east while worshiping. (For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man - Matthew 24:27.)


The Mass, which is called Holy Qurbono in Syriac Aramaic and means 'Eucharist', is celebrated on Sundays and special occasions. The Holy Eucharist consists of Gospel Reading, Bible Readings, Prayers, and Songs. During the celebration of the Eucharist, priests and deacons put on elaborate vestments which are unique to the Syriac Orthodox Church. Whether in the Eastern Mediterranean, India, Europe, the Americas or Australia, the same vestments are worn by all clergy.

A Syriac Orthodox Rabban (Priest monk) giving communion to his congregationApart from certain readings, all prayers are sung in the form of chants and melodies. Hundreds of melodies remain and these are preserved in the book known as Beth Gazo. It is the key reference to Syriac Orthodox church music. Anyone who wishes to sing Syriac Orthodox music well must master the Beth Gazo[11]

Bible in Syriac tradition

Syriac Orthodox Churches use the Peshitta (Syriac: simple, common) as its Bible. The Old Testament books of this Bible were translated from Greek to Syriac between the late first century to the early third century A.D.[12]

The Old Testament of the Peshitta was translated from the Hebrew, probably in the second century. The New Testament of the Peshitta, which originally excluded certain disputed books, had become the standard by the early 5th century, replacing two early Syriac versions of the gospels.


A Monk, Priest, Cor-Episcopos of the Syriac Orthodox ChurchThe clergy of the Syriac Orthodox Church have unique vestments that are quite different from other Christian denominations. The vestments worn by the clergy vary with their order in the priesthood. The deacons, the priests, the bishops, and the patriarch each have different vestments.

Celebration at a Syriac Orthodox monastery in Mosul, Ottoman Syria, early 20th centuryMar Dionysus Metropolitan of Malankara Church

The priest's usual dress is a black robe, but in India, due to the harsh weather, priests usually wear a white robe. Bishops usually wear a black or a red robe with a red belt. They do not, however, wear a red robe in the presence of the Patriarch who wears a red robe. Bishops visiting a diocese outside their jurisdiction also wear black robes in deference to the bishop of the diocese, who alone wears red robes. Priests also wear phiro, or a cap, which he must wear for all the public prayers. Monks also wear eskimo, a hood. Priests also have ceremonial shoes which are called msone. Then there is a white robe called kutino symbolizing purity. Hamniko or Stole is wore over this white robe. Then he wears girdle called zenoro and zende meaning sleeves. If the celebrant is a bishop, he wears a masnapto, or turban (Very different from turban worn by Sikh men). A cope called phayno is worn over these vestments. Batrashil, or Pallium, is worn over Phayno by Bishops (Very similar to Hamnikho worn by priests).[13]

Ranks of Priesthood


Deacons of Syriac Orthodox ChurchIn the Syriac Orthodox Tradition, different ranks among the deacons are specifically assigned with particular duties. The six ranks of deaconate are:

1.‘ulmoyo (Faithful)

2.Mawdyono (Confessor of Faith)

3.Mzamrono (Singer)

4.Quroyo (Reader)

5.Afudyaqno (Sub-deacon)

6.Mshamshono (Full Deacon)

Only a full deacon or Masamsono can take the censer during the Divine Liturgy to assist the priest. However, in Malankara Church, because of the lack of deacons, altar assistants who do not have any rank of deaconhood assist the priest. The deacons in Malankara Church is allowed to wear a phiro, or a cap.

Priests (Kaseeso)

The Different Ranks of Priesthood in SOC i.e. Patriarch, Catholicos, Metropolitan, Corepiscopos, Priest, Deacon, Laymen.The priest is the seventh rank and is the duly one appointed to administer the sacraments. Unlike the Latin Rite of the Catholic church, a married man can be ordained to the priesthood of the Syriac Orthodox Church. There is another honorary rank among the priests that is Corepiscopos who has the privileges of "first among the priests" and are give a chain with cross and specific vestment decorations. Corepiscopos is the highest rank a married man can be elevated in the Syriac Orthodox Church.


Episcopos is a word that means "the one who oversees". In the Syriac Orthodox Church, an episcopos is a spiritual ruler of the church. In episcopos too there are different ranks. The highest and the supreme is the Patriarch, who is the "father of fathers". Next to him is the Maphriyono or Catholicos of India who is the head of a division of the Church. Then there are Metropolitans or Archbishops and under them there are Episcopos or Bishops.[14]

Church Today


A Syriac Orthodox church in Midyat, Turkey.It is estimated that the church has about 2,250,000 members globally including 1,200,000 members in India. There are 680,000 Syriac Orthodox members in Syria and 5,000 in Turkey (numbers in Iraq, and Palestine are unknown). In Lebanon they number up to 50,000. In the diaspora, there are approximately 80,000 members in the United States, 80,000 in Sweden, 50,000 in Germany, 15,000 in the Netherlands, and thousands of members in Brazil, Switzerland, and Austria.[15]


The church today has two seminaries, and numerous colleges and other institutions. Among those there are several religious institutions which are noteworthy. Patriarch Aphrem I Barsoum (†1957) established St. Aphrem's Clerical School in 1934 in Zahlé, Lebanon. In 1946 it was moved to Mosul, Iraq, where it provided the Church with a good selection of graduates, the first among them being Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and many other of the Church's eminences. Also the church has an international Christian education centre which is a centre for religious education, knowing that youth play a vital role in the Church's future. In the year 1990 he established the Order of St. Jacob Baradaeus for nuns and renovated St. Aphrem's Clerical building in Atshanneh, Lebanon for the new order.[6]


Monastic life was vigorous in the Syriac Orthodox Church and many scholars and poets were monks in these Monasteries.

v • d • eSyriac monasteries

Syria: Ma'arrat Saidnaya

Iraq: Mar Mattai

Turkey: Mor Hananyo · Mor Gabriel · Mt. Izla · Mor Malke · Mor Hobil and Mor Abrohom

Netherlands: Mor Ephrem

Switzerland: Mor Augin

Germany: Mor Ya'qub of Sarug

Ecumenical Relations

The Syriac Orthodox Church is very active in ecumenical dialogues. It has been a member church of World Council of Churches since 1960 and the Patriarch, Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas is one of the presidents of World Council of Churches. The Syriac Orthodox Church is also actively involved in ecumenical dialogues with the Catholic Church and Eastern orthodox churches. There are common Christological and pastoral agreements with the Catholic Church. It has also been involved in the Middle East Council of Churches since 1974.

Since 1998, the heads of the three Oriental Churches in the Eastern Mediterranean i.e. the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicate of Cilicia, Antelias, Lebanon) meet regularly each year.[8]

Jurisdiction of the Patriarchate outside Middle East

Church in India

Main article: Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church

The church in Malankara, Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church is an integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church, with the Patriarch of Antioch as its supreme head. The local head of the church in Malankara is the Catholicos of India, currently His Beatitude Baselios Thomas I, ordained by the Patriarch in 2002 and accountable to the Patriarch of Antioch. The church in India has been under the Syriac Orthodox church of Antioch since apostolic times. The church in India is an integral part of St. Thomas Christians. Some of the Knanaya Christians in India are also under the leadership of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The language of the Syriac Orthodox Divine Liturgy in India is partly Syriac and partly Malayalam.


North & South America

The Syriac Orthodox Church has Archdioceses and dioceses all over the globe. In North America, there are three archdioceses in the USA, and one in Canada In South America, there are two Archdioceses, one in Argentina, and the other one in Brazil.


1.^ Gall, Timothy L. (ed). Worldmark Encyclopedia of Culture & Daily Life: Vol. 3 - Asia & Oceania. Cleveland, OH: Eastword Publications Development (1998); pg. 720-721. [1]


3.^ Bishop, Peter & Michael Darton (editors). The Encyclopedia of World Faiths: An Illustrated Survey of the World's Living Faiths. New York: Facts on File Publications (1987); pg. 85. [2]

4.^ Spence, Hartzell. The Story of America's Religions; New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1960) [1st printing 1957]; pg. 117. [3]

5.^ "Religionswissenschaftlicher Medien- und Informationsdienst e.V. " [REMID: Religious Studies Media and Information Service, Marburg, Germany]; web page: "Informationen und Standpunkte " (viewed 2 August 1999). [4]

6.^ a b Patriarchate of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch

7.^ a b The Syriac Orthodox Church Today

8.^ a b Chaillot, Christine. The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East. Geneva: Inter-Orthodox Dialogue, 1988.

9.^ [Primacy of St. Peter by Mor Athanasius of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church]


11.^ Beth Gazo D-ne`motho

12.^ Brock, Sebastian P. The Bible in Syriac Bible. Kottayam: SEERI.

13.^ Detailed explanation of vestments of Syriac Orthodox Church

14.^ Corepiscopos, Kuriakose M. A Guide to the Altar Assistants. Changanacherry: Mor Adai Study Center, 2005.


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