Major step for Syriac unity in diversity: Patriarchs hold first official meeting and “affirm that we are one people with its common Syriac heritage”

The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II hosted the first official meeting of Syriac Patriarchs. In attendance were Syriac Catholic Patriarch, Mor Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Awa III Rowel, Syriac Maronite Patriarch and Cardinal in the Catholic Church Mar Béchara Boutros al-Raï and, via conference call, Cardinal Mar Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church.

ATCHANEH, Lebanon — In an exceptional first official meeting of Syriac patriarchs held on December 16 at the Syriac Orthodox patriarchal residence in Atchaneh, five Syriac Church hierarchs affirmed their common and “ancient Syriac heritage, which unites them and constitutes a rich sacred historical heritage,” and which stems from their historical unity, their use of the Syriac language, and their common church and liturgical rites. In the meeting’s official communique, they affirmed their unity in diversity and stated “that we are one people with its common Syriac heritage”, deeply rooted in the Middle East of which the Syriacs were one of the primary shapers.

In addition to discussing their common Syriac spirituality and the intention to work together to strengthen their common heritage through the teaching of the Syriac language – spoken by Jesus Christ and His Apostles – and the establishment and promotion of Syriac studies, schools and universities, the five patriarchs highlighted in their communique the highly endangered Syriac presence in the Middle Eastern homelands which are “baptized with the blood of our fathers and grandfathers.” The Syriac patriarchs are deeply concerned about the “bleeding of migration due to the existing conflicts and the difficult political, economic, social and living conditions,” and they speak out their firm determination to continue the paternal care for the Syriac people in the Middle East in order to establish them in their homelands.

The large and increasing Syriac diaspora, to a large extent due to forced migration, needs to be closely monitored and serviced to preserve the Syriac heritage. The five patriarchs encourage all Syriacs in the diaspora to maintain close and solid ties with their ancient motherlands in the Middle East.

The importance of this first meeting of Syriac Patriarchs should not be underestimated. Sweden-based award-winning investigative journalist Nuri Kino commented via Twitter that the “Majority here on Twitter won’t have an idea on how big this is. History is written. After 1,700 years they meet, the leaders of the Syriac churches.”

The Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite and Chaldean Patriarchs already share a dialogue platform in the form of the Middle East Council of Churches. However, this is a much broader ecumenical platform for various different churches, which includes many non-Syriac churches and of which the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East are no members (or are not allowed to be).

Not present at the meeting was incoming Syriac patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East, Mar Gorgis Younan. After earlier unsuccessful attempts, the Ancient Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East held reunification talks in May 2022. So far these have not led to a major breakthrough. The division between the two churches is the most recent within the universal Church of the East. The Chaldean Catholic church seceded centuries ago. The urgency of far-reaching cooperation and reunification was all the more apparent when Mar Louis Raphael Sako, who is stepping down mid next year, said in September this year that he does not see anything that prevents the merging of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East under the name of the Church of the East.

A major omission in the communique issued by the five Syriac patriarchs is that it does not mention any follow-up steps for further official meetings accompanied with a timetable. A major risk of the absence of concrete steps towards far-reaching cooperation or reunification between Syriac Churches is that the Middle East will continue to “bleed” Syriac emigration, the language of Jesus Christ will slide further into the existential abyss, and that the much-needed awareness of and effort towards national unity among Syriac Church members will not take hold.

This first meeting of Syriac patriarchs is definitely exceptional and very welcome. Whether it is a real breakthrough however, depends on the concrete next steps towards far-reaching cooperation or reunification.