Syriac churches hold first meeting in 1500 years

The patriarch of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, Cardinal Béchara Raï, met with the patriarchs of the four other Syriac Churches in Atchané in order to renew the ties severed since the ecumenical church councils of the fifth century. This meeting made it possible to develop a common vision to deal with the exodus of Christians, their acculturation, and the loss of their identity.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on December 24, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

On December 16, the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Béchara Raï, visited Atchané to participate in a meeting of patriarchs of Syriac Churches. It is the first meeting of its kind since the schism of the Eastern Syriacs at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), and the separation between Maronites and other Western Syriacs after the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).

Council of Chalcedon in 451. ©Philosophy of Christianity

Sporadic reconciliations

What were times of fruitful exchanges in Mount Lebanon in the Middle Ages between the Jacobite (today Syriac Orthodox) and Maronite Churches, was brutally and decisively interrupted in the sixteenth century, after Roman influences introduced by e.g., the Franciscan Maronite Gabriel Barcleius, followed by the Vatican missions of the Jesuits Tommasso Raggio, Giovanni Battista, and Girolamo Dandini.

There have certainly been meetings in more recent times, but these were always within the broader framework of ecumenism and involving the various Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant branches, not touching on the substance of the Syriac cause.

Thus, for the first time since the fifth century, have the various Syriac Churches of the Eastern branches (Assyrian and Chaldean) and Western branches (Maronite, Syriac-Orthodox, and Syriac-Catholic) come together to develop a common vision about their cultural and historical identity, as well as about their presence and survival in the face of current challenges.

The patriarchs of Antioch, Mor Bechara Boutros Raï, and Mor Ignatios Ephrem II. ©Bkerké

The meeting of the patriarchs

It was at the Syriac-Orthodox patriarchal seat of Atchané that the patriarchs of the five Syriac Churches convened; Ignatios Ephrem II (Syriac-Orthodox), Ignatios Joseph III Younan (Syriac-Catholic), Béchara Boutros Raï (Maronite), Awa III Royel (Assyrian), and, via internet, Louis Raphael Sako (Chaldeans).

At the table, the prelates discussed the commonalities of their Churches: from their cultural, linguistic, and artistic heritage to the vicissitudes of history in which massacres, genocides, and acculturation have accumulated. Because, the patriarchs declared, the rooting of Christians in their ancestral lands is done by the transmission of their culture and by the cohesion between their various components. The latter is achieved through the safeguarding of the Syriac heritage which unites the members of these Churches and federates them, they underlined.

We cannot approach this heritage without highlighting the decisive character of its particular spirituality, in that it is alive and ubiquitous in both ecclesiastical and secular circles where it is part of everyday life. The five patriarchs thus pointed out this crucial role of the Christian faith and tradition which enabled their respective communities to cross the centuries and to survive oppressions, wars, persecutions, and genocides.

They nevertheless spoke about the major existential challenge of the moment, that of emigration. The many new parishes founded in the West will never be able to keep this culture alive without the presence of a main nucleus on its historic lands.

Atchané’s initiative has been intentionally referred to as the “first meeting”, meaning that it serves to inaugurate a series of annual meetings aimed to draw up a plan for the recovery of a martyred people in the process of disappearance. A monitoring committee has been formed to continue this first effort. It is made up of Bishops Youssef Soueif (Maronites), Daniel Gourié (Syriac-Orthodox), Elia Isaac (Assyrians), Michel Kassarji (Chaldeans), and Mgr. Habib Mrad (Syriac Catholics).

Atchané meeting, December 16, 2022. ©Bkerké

The joint statement

The published joint statement of December 16 is a first in these churches’ awareness of their common destiny in the East and in the diaspora. It emphasizes the central dimension of identity, which is now more threatened than ever, and stresses education in the Syriac language and culture, including at university level. The statement signed by the five patriarchs is presented in five points, all of which insist on the revaluation of the Syriac heritage that gives these Churches a historical and linguistic unity, in addition to their common ecclesial and liturgical rites.

1 – Monastic life and the missionary dimension

The statement appeals to the role of the Holy Syriac Fathers in the development of spirituality and in its dissemination at the level of the universal Church, both in monastic life and in missionary activity. This Syriac spirituality “is rooted in our Churches and we live it in the Eucharist and prayers”. “With apostolic fidelity and armed with this heritage, these Churches have been able to endure the centuries marked by many troubles and tribulations”, the patriarchs underline.

“And here we are today,” we further read in the first point, “deeming it necessary to strengthen the bond between our Churches and to intensify the cooperation between them… in an effort to spread our Syriac heritage, to bring it to light, and preserve it with care.”

2 – A common Syriac heritage

Regarding the pastoral challenges in the Middle East, the patriarchs again returned to the notion of unity. “We affirm,” they underlined, “that we are one people with its common Syriac heritage, rooted in the heart of this East, the foundation of its formation, despite the diversity of our Churches and the diversity of our apostolic traditions.”

After highlighting the precedency of this Syriac civilizational presence in the foundation of the East, the patriarchs expressed their concerns about the baptism in blood of a people who “testify to the Christian faith in general, and the Syriac faith in particular”. They mention the need for the establishment of mechanisms to support the existence of families in the East and to “reduce the migratory hemorrhage due to conflicts and political, economic, and social conditions”.

3 – In a state of permanent threat of disappearance

The Syriac presence in the diaspora does not escape its share of challenges either. This presence is under a permanent threat of disappearance by assimilation in the new societies in which the Syriacs found themselves widely scattered.

In the statement, the patriarchs therefore urge them to “adhere to the faith of their ancestors, to their identity and to their heritage, which they still have as a mission to spread and pass on in their new homelands to new generations “. They are also encouraged to maintain close ties with their countries of origin. In this perspective, the Church will have to assume its social, spiritual and pastoral role and responsibilities.

4 – Ecumenism of blood

In the fourth point, the patriarchs return to the principle of unity by raising “the ecumenism of blood which unites us in the witness of faith in the Lord Jesus and in the defense of our existence and our presence on our soil”. For this to happen, the Churches must open up to each other and get closer while “respecting the theological and doctrinal specificities of each of them”.

5 – Safeguarding the Syriac heritage

In their statement, the patriarchs finally pay tribute to the academic institutions and especially to the associative initiatives which contribute to the safeguarding of the Syriac heritage. They also advocate the establishment of “common mechanisms for the teaching of the Syriac language and its dissemination by traditional and modern means available”. They therefore encourage specialization in Syriac studies in universities, and the organization of activities aimed at raising awareness with the members of these Churches in the East and in the diaspora to the common Syriac identity. It aims to motivate future generations to preserve this authentic historical heritage.

In conclusion, the five Churches pledge to assume their responsibilities towards their faithful and to preserve their ancient Syriac heritage. They refuse to give up their presence in this “East, the cradle of Christianity and source of our roots, our civilization, our heritage and our culture”.

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2


For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org