By Andrea Kirk Assaf
St. Peter’s square these days is a particularly international meeting point. Amidst the throngs of ever-present tourists drawn together between Bernini’s colonnades strides an Iranian ayatollah in his distinctive round turban, followed shortly after by a group of Iraqi clerics in red and black vestments, who quietly and intently speak to one another as they move to their next appointment at the Vatican.
Other soberly yet ornately dressed Oriental clerics make a brief appearance as they too join this international delegation of Middle Eastern clergy gathered in Rome for the work of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which concludes Sunday.
In his briefing at the beginning of the synod, Archbishop Nikola Eterović, the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, recalled that in addition to the Latin Church, there six Eastern Catholic Churches “sui iuris” in the Middle East, each with its own patriarch, father and head of the Church.
Here, we look back on the ancient stories of these six Eastern Churches that eventually brought these men together to pray and ponder and propose solutions to the problems faced by their flock back home.
The country of Armenia was evangelized by Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, and was the first to make Christianity its official religion in 301 under the governorship of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The Armenian Church broke away after the Council of Chalcedon in 554, as did all the Eastern Catholic churches now referred to as “uniate.” After several attempts at reunification with Rome by members of the Armenian Orthodox Church over the centuries, Pope Benedict XIV ultimately announced the establishment of the Armenian Catholic Church in 1742.
Its patriarchate (currently led by Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni) is located in Bzoummar, Lebanon, and its communities are found in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Palestine, as well as in the global diaspora, particularly in the United States. There are an estimated 540,000 Catholic Armenians around the world.
The Catholic Chaldean Church originated in Edessa (in modern day Turkey) with the Apostle Thomas. Today its patriarchate is located in Baghdad, Iraq, headed by Patriarch Emannuel III Delly, and its members number approximately 419,000. In 2007, Patriarch Delly became the first Chaldean Catholic elevated to the rank of a cardinal.
The line of patriarchs in communion with Rome dates back to 1553, though this line was broken on several occasions and rival patriarchs created their own lines of succession. In 1830, only one patriarch remained and Pope Pius VIII granted him the title of Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans.
The history of the Chaldean Church has been marked by waves of persecution through the centuries in Iraq, nearly decimating their number and scattering their population, yet the Church to this day maintains a firm presence and vibrant community.
Catholic Coptic Church
The roots of this Church are found in the conversion of an Orthodox Coptic bishop, Amba Athanasius, to Catholicism in 1741, along with 2,000 others. Athanasius was appointed apostolic vicar to this new flock but later returned to the Orthodox Church. He left behind a line of Catholic vicars, however, and in 1824 the Holy See created a Patriarchate for the Copts, re-established in 1895 by Pope Leo XIII, who appointed the first patriarch.
The current Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, who heads a Church of 163,000 in Egypt, is Archbishop Antonios Naguib, the general relator of the Mideast synod.
Greek Melkite Church
The Melkites, also known as Byzantine Catholics, number 1.3 million around the world. They entered into full communion with Rome in 1729 under the Pontificate of Benedict XIII.
Melkite Patriarch Gregory refused to sign the declaration on the doctrine of papal infallibility at Vatican Council I, along with others in a minority called the anti-infallibilists, but later consented with the addition of the clause “except the rights and privileges of Eastern patriarchs.” Gregory’s concerns about the latinization of the Eastern Churches was somewhat relieved by Leo XIII’s encyclical “Orientalium Dignitas.” Following Vatican Council II, the Melkites took further measures to remove Latin-rite traditions from their liturgy.
The current patriarch in the See of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee is Archbishop Elias Michael Chacour, a Palestinian who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his charitable and peace-promoting work, namely with the Mar Elias Educational Institutions.
The current Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria, and Jerusalem is Gregory III Laham, who resides in Damuscus, Syria. In the Middle East his flock can be found in Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and also in Africa, South America, North America and Australia.
The Maronites derive their name from the Syrian monk St. Maron, who was an important figure in the Christian community of Antioch at the same time as St. John Chrysostom, but who left the city to follow the example of St. Anthony of the Desert and took up a hermitic life.
The Maronites voted in favor of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, subsequently finding themselves the sole Chalcedonian Christians in the region. Some 350 Maronite monks were then killed by monophysites, causing the Maronites to flee and settle in Lebanon, particularly in the mountainous regions.
The first specifically Maronite patriarch, John Maron, was elected in 687, in the midst of an Islamic invasion and conflict with the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian II. The Muslim conquest of Eastern Christendom cut off Maronite communication with Rome for 400 years, until the time of the First Crusade, when the Maronites re-affirmed their union with Rome in 1182, the only non-uniate Eastern Christian Church in the Middle East to this day. In 1584, the Maronites established their presence in Rome with the Maronite College, followed by the building of several monasteries and convents of Maronite orders.
Today, the majority of Christians in Lebanon are still Maronite, approximately 930,000, and the patriarch, currently the Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, resides outside Beirut in the town of Bkerke. The Maronite diaspora is far greater in number at nearly three million, with congregations in Australia, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Israel and Cyprus.
The Syriac Church, also referred to as the Western Syriac Rite, uses a Syriac language liturgy that is called the “Anaphora of St. James” and dates back to the bishopric of St. Peter in Antioch. The Syriac Catholic Church made a final split from the Orthodox Church and came into union with Rome in 1781.
Dramatically, in 1782, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Michael Jarweh of Aleppo declared himself Catholic and in union with Rome shortly after his election, and then took flight to Lebanon where he established an unbroken line of Catholic Syriac patriarchs. During the 18th century the Church went underground due to persecution from the Orthodox, encouraged by the Ottomans.
In the subsequent years the patriarchate was moved from Lebanon to Aleppo, Syria, then to Mardin, Turkey, and finally back to Lebanon to Beirut during the Assyrian genocide of World War I, which brought about the deaths of over 37,500 Syriac Catholics at the hands of Turkish nationalists.
Today there are approximately 159,000 Syriac Catholics globally, concentrated in the Middle East in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and also in the diaspora in Australia, Sweden, France, Venezuela, Brazil, Sudan, the United States and Canada. The current Patriarch of Antioch and All the East of the Syrians is Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, who resides in Beirut, Lebanon.