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Syriac Orthodox Church

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Oriental Orthodox



Syriac Christianity


Syriac Orthodox Church

Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II

The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch (Syriac: ܥܺܕܬܳܐ ܣܽܘ̣ܪܝܳܝܬܳܐ ܬܪܺܝܨܰܬ ܫܽܘ̣ܒ̥ܚܳܐ‎), or Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, is an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox church based in the Eastern Mediterranean. Employing the Divine Liturgy of Saint James with Syriac as its official and liturgical language, it is part of the Syriac Christianity by heritage. The church is led by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Aphrem II since 2014, seated in Bab Tuma, Damascus, Syria.


The Syriac Orthodox Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodoxy, a distinct full communion of churches since the schism following the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Patriarch Severus of Antioch was a significant bishop in the establishment of the organisation of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Antioch, Byzantine Empire, around 512, while Bishop Jacob Baradaeus (died 578) is credited for consolidating its miaphysite theology in the 6th century. However, the church itself claims roots further down the centuries through means of the Patriarchate of Antioch to the first Christian communities established by Saint Peter in Antioch, Roman Empire, in 37, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (New Testament, Acts 11:26). Around 825, many Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala, India, affirmed allegiance to the Syriac Orthodox Church, establishing the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. In the Levant, controversy occurred in 1783, when the majority of its hierarchy entered in full communion with the Catholic Church, establishing the Syriac Catholic Church as part of the Eastern Catholic Churches. However, another part of clergy gained permission from the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul to reestablish the Syriac Orthodox Church soon after. Although originally established in Antioch around 512, due to persecution, the church's patriarchate has been seated subsequently in Mor Hananyo Monastery, Mardin Province, Ottoman Empire (1160-1933), whereafter Homs (1933-1959), and today in Damascus, Syria (since 1959).

The church's present circa 5 million members are divided in 26 archdioceses, and 11 patriarchal vicariates. Its original area is present-day Syria, Turkey, or Iraq. The church's Levantine ethno-religious identity has been a matter of controversy since the 20th century, see terms for Syriac Christians. Many refer to these as ethnic Syriacs or Assyrians, while other advocate the term Arameans (some even proposing renaming the church to "Aramean Orthodox Church").

The Syriac Orthodox Church participates in ecumenical discussions, being a member of the World Council of Churches since 1960, and of the Middle East Council of Churches since 1974. The precise differences in theology that caused the schism in 451 is said to have arisen "only because of differences in terminology and culture and in the various formulae adopted by different theological schools to express the same matter", according to a joint declaration in 1984 by the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, and the Pope John Paul II of the Catholic Church.

Due mainly to persecution throughout the centuries, a diaspora has spread from the Levant throughout the world, notably in Sweden, Germany, United States, Canada, Guatemala, Brazil, and Australia.

Apostolic succession

The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch claims the status as the most ancient Christian church in the world. According to Saint Luke, "The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (New Testament, Acts 11:26). Saint Peter and Saint Paul are regarded as the co-founders of the Patriarchate of Antioch in AD 37, with the former serving as its first bishop and considered the first patriarch of and by the Syriac Orthodox Church.

As Jewish Christianity originated at Jerusalem, so gentile Christianity started at Antioch, then the leading center of the Hellenistic East, with Peter and Paul as its apostles. From Antioch it spread to the various cities and provinces of Syria, among the Hellenistic population as well as among the Hellenistic Jews who, as a result of the great rebellions against the Romans in A.D. 70 and 130, were driven out from Jerusalem and Palestine into Syria.

When Saint Peter left Antioch, Evodios and Ignatius presided over the Patriarchate of Antioch. Because of the significance attributed to Saint Ignatius in the Syriac Orthodox Church, almost all of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs since 1293 have been named Ignatius.

Patriarchate of Antioch

Given the antiquity of the bishopric of Antioch and the importance of the Christian community in the city of Antioch - a commercially significant city in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire - the First Council of Nicaea (325) recognised the bishopric as a patriarchate along with the bishoprics of Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, bestowing authority for the "Church of Antioch and All of the East" on the Patriarch.

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 church also maintained a smaller non-Chalcedonian church under a Catholicos, known by the title Maphryono, until the 1860s. This Catholicate was canonically transferred to India in 1964, as Catholicos of India and continues today as Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, an integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch as its head.

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 Severus of Antioch was exiled from the city of Antioch and took refuge in Alexandria. It was after Severius' exile and death that the Syriac Orthodox Church's distinct Patriarchate of Antioch was founded by Jacob Baradeus, in opposition to the Patriarchate of Antioch occupied by the pro-Chalcedonian partisans, today known as Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch; leading to its being known popularly as the "Jacobite" Syriac Church. 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 about 1160 its seat was transferred from Antioch to the Mor Hananyo Monastery (Deir al-Za`faran), in southeastern Turkey near Mardin, where it remained until 1933. They reestablished themselves in Homs, Syria due to an adverse political situation in Turkey. In 1959 it was then transferred to Damascus, where it currently resides.

On July 21, 1781, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch George IV died, and the five bishops present, clergy and laity met in the Mor Hananyo Monastery and elected Catholic convert Ignatius Michael III Jarweh as Patriarch; he accepted only after the reading and the approval of a Catholic declaration of faith in the Church of the Forty Martyrs. He was enthroned in Mor Hananyo Monastery on 22 January 1783 and took the traditional name of Ignatius. His election was confirmed by Pope Pius VI on 14 September 1783, and he received the Pallium, the sign of patriarchal authority, on 15 December of the same year.

However, from the perspective of the Oriental Orthodox clergy, the Syriac Orthodox Church thus had a Patriarch who was illegitimately enthroned after his illegal election by an illegitimate synod. Thus, two Syriac Oriental Orthodox bishops opposed his election. One of them, Ignatius Matthew, Bishop of Mosul, consecrated four of his monks as bishops in order to hold a second election and thus he was elected by them as Syriac Orthodox patriarch. This party arrived at Istanbul before Michael's envoy, and received the formal approval of the Ottoman authorities, and could thus continue a parallel Syriac Orthodox tradition.

The Patriarchate is now situated in Bab Tuma, Damascus, capital of Syria; but the Patriarch resides at the Mar Aphrem Monastery in Maarat Saidnaya, located about 25 kilometers north of Damascus.

Ecumenical relations

The Bishops of Antioch played a prominent role in the first three synods held at Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431), shaping the formulation and early interpretation of Christian doctrines.

In terms of Christology, the Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonian) understanding is that Christ is "One Nature—the Logos Incarnate, of the 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. The Chalcedonian understanding is that Christ is "in two natures, full humanity and full divinity". This is the doctrinal difference which separated the Oriental Orthodox from the rest of Christendom.

By the 20th century the Chalcedonian schism was not seen with the same relevance, and from several meetings between the authorities of the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodoxy, reconciling declarations emerged in the common statement of the Oriental Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and Pope John Paul II in 1984.

The Syriac Orthodox Church is active in ecumenical dialogues. It has been a member church of World Council of Churches since 1960 and Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas is one of the presidents of World Council of Churches. The Syriac Orthodox Church is also 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 Orthodox churches in the Eastern Mediterranean i.e. the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church meet regularly each year.


Syriac Orthodox clergy and some devout laity follow a regimen of seven prayers a day, in accordance with Psalm 119. According to the Syriac tradition, an ecclesiastical day starts at sunset:

  • Evening or Ramsho prayer (Vespers)
  • Night prayer or Sootoro prayer (Compline)
  • Midnight or Lilyo prayer (Matins)
  • Morning or Saphro prayer (Prime or Lauds, 6 a.m.)
  • Third Hour or tloth sho`in prayer (Terce, 9 a.m.)
  • Sixth Hour or sheth sho`in prayer (Sext, noon)
  • Ninth Hour or tsha` sho'in prayer (None, 3 p.m.)
  • Liturgy

    The liturgical service, 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 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.

    Apart from certain readings, all prayers are sung in the form of chants and melodies. Hundreds of melodies remain preserved in the book known as Beth Gazo. It is the key reference to Syriac Orthodox church music.

    Bible in the Syriac tradition

    Syriac Orthodox Churches use the Peshitta (Syriac: simple, common) as its Bible. The New Testament books of this Bible are estimated to have been translated from Greek to Syriac between the late 1st century to the early 3rd century AD. The Old Testament of the Peshitta was translated from Hebrew, probably in the 2nd 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.


    The Syriac Patriarch is named "Patriarch of Antioch" (one of the five Patriarchates of the early Christianity) and is the supreme head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, considered the "father of fathers". He must be an ordained bishop.


    Bishop comes from Episcopos a word that means "the one who oversees". In the Syriac Orthodox Church, a bishop is a spiritual ruler of the church. Bishops too have different ranks. The highest is the Patriarch. Next to him is the Catholicos of India, also known as Maphrian, who is the head of the integral Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in India. Then there are Metropolitan bishops or Archbishops, and under them there are bishops. Historically, in the Malankara Church, the Archbishop was called as Archdeacon, who was the local chief and/or ecclesiastical authority of the Saint Thomas Christians in the Malabar region of India.


    The priest is the seventh rank and is the duly one appointed to administer the sacraments. Unlike in the Catholic Church, Syriac deacons may marry before ordained as priests; however they may not marry after ordained as priests. There is an honorary rank among the priests that is Corepiscopos who has the privileges of "first among the priests" and are given a chain with cross and specific vestment decorations. Corepiscopos is the highest rank a married man can be elevated to in the Syriac Orthodox Church. Any ranks above the Corepiscopos are unmarried.


    In the Syriac Orthodox tradition, different ranks among the deacons are specifically assigned with particular duties. The six ranks of diaconate are:

    1. ‘Ulmoyo (Faithful)
    2. Mawdyono (Confessor of faith)
    3. Mzamrono (Singer)
    4. Quroyo (Reader)
    5. Afudyaqno (Sub-deacon)
    6. Masamsono (Full deacon)

    Only a full deacon or Masamsono can take the censer during the Divine Liturgy to assist the priest. However, in Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church, because of the lack of deacons, altar assistants who do not have any rank of deaconhood may assist the priest. The deacons in Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church are allowed to wear a phiro, or a cap. Historically the Malankara Church were administered by a local chief called Archdeacon ("Arkadiyokon").


    The 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.

    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.

    A priest also wears 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. Without wearing these shoes, a priest cannot distribute Eucharist to the faithful. Then there is a white robe called kutino symbolising purity. Hamniko or stole is worn over this white robe. Then he wears a girdle called zenoro, and zende, meaning sleeves. If the celebrant is a bishop, he wears a masnapto, or turban (different from the turbans worn by Sikh men). A cope called phayno is worn over these vestments. Batrashil, or pallium, is worn over the phayno by bishops, similar to hamnikho worn by priests. An important aspect is that bishops and Corepiscopos have hand-held crosses while ordinary priests have none.

    The priest's usual dress is a black robe. However, in India, due to the hot weather, priests usually wear white robes except when during prayers in the church, when they wear a black robe over the white one.

    Primacy of Saint Peter

    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 early Christian community. Ephrem, Aphrahat and Maruthas who were supposed to be the best exponents of the early Syriac tradition unequivocally acknowledged the office of Peter.

    The Syriac Church 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 "Kephas" 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 Kephas and said that on Kephas 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, sets 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. God accepted him and made him the foundation of the church, and called him Kepha. When he speaks about the transfiguration of Jesus 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 buildings, marriages, ordinations etc., reveal that the primacy of Peter is a part of living faith of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

    However, Syriac Orthodox don't believe that Saint Peter is indicative of the Papal primacy, but solely "Petrine primacy".


    It is estimated that the church has over 5,000,000 members globally. This includes 1,500,000 members in India and Indian diaspora. The majority of their remaining followers are ethnic Syriacs/Assyrians, who comprise the indigenous pre-Arab populations of modern Syria, Iraq and south eastern Turkey. They were also the ethnic group that converted the St Thomas Christians of India in the 700s. Additionally, there is also a large Syriac community among Mayan converts in Guatemala. In addition, there are a few other autocephalous(independent) Syriac Orthodox Churches following the same or similar liturgy and the same West Syrian rite Christianity including the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and Mar Thoma Syrian Church, both based in India and followed by ethnic Indian St Thomas Christians.

    According to 2001 estimates, around 260,000 ethnic Syriacs live in the Middle East. A similar number live in Western Europe and North America, most notably in Sweden and Germany (100,000), and the Americas (50,000). In terms of specifics, There are 170,000 Syriac Orthodox members in Syria, 50,000 in Iraq and 15,000 in Turkey. However, The number of Syriacs in Turkey is rising, due to refugees from Syria and Iraq fleeing ISIS, as well as Syriacs from the Diaspora who fled the region during the Turkey-PKK conflict(which occurred from the late seventies until the late 90s) returning and rebuilding their homes. A specific instance of this occurred in Elbegendi, where a German Syriac returned to his village with a few other families and rebuilt the town together with money earned abroad. In addition to those larger populations of Syriacs, 5,000 live in Palestine (500 in Jerusalem and 5,000 Bethlehem), and around 50,000 are estimated to live in Lebanon.

    In the Assyrian/Syriac diaspora, there are approximately 80,000 members in the United States, 80,000 in Sweden, 100,000 in Germany, 15,000 in the Netherlands, 200,000 members in Brazil, Switzerland, and Austria and around 2,000,000 in Central America, which is mainly made up of indigenous Mayan converts in Guatemala, in addition to the 1.5 million adherents of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church and their own ethnic diaspora.

    Official name

    Since the church has never been the officially adopted religion of a modern-day country, a unique name had long been used to distinguish the church from the polity of Syria in most languages besides English. This includes Arabic (the official language of Syria), where the Church has always been known as the "Syriani" church; the term "Syriani" being the same word used to identify the Syriac language in Arabic. Being the lone exception up until the year 2000, English identified the church as the "Syrian Orthodox Church"; with "Syrian" being derived from the term "Syrian church" used by English-speaking historians to describe the community in ancient Syria prior to the Nestorian/Jacobite split in the 5th century. (see: Christianity in Syria). Syriac-speaking Christians have historically referred to themselves as Suraye/Suryaye, literally "Syrian", leading to most members favoring the term "Syrian Orthodox". However, Assyrianism|Assyrian nationalists]] favored the term "Assyrian Orthodox", some arguing it was more accurate because the term Syria is now generally accepted as an Indo-European (Luwian) corruption of Assyria (see Name of Syria). The name "Syrian Orthodox" failed to distinguish the church in English which uses "Syrian" to mean the Arabs of Syria, and the term Assyrian Orthodox Church led to confusion with the Assyrian Church of the East, itself renamed from the Church of the East in 1976. Hence, in 2000, a Holy Synod ruled that the church should be named after its official liturgical language of Syriac (i.e. Syriac Orthodox Church), as it is in most other languages. The official name of the church in Syriac is pronounced ʿĒdtō Suryōytō Triṣaṯ Šuḇḥō; this name has not changed, nor has it changed in any language other than English. The church is often referred to as Jacobite (after Jacob Baradaeus), but it rejects this name.


    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 church leaders. Also the church has an international Christian education centre which is a centre for religious education. In 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.

    Two new seminaries have been instituted in Sweden and in Salzburg, Austria for the study of the Syriac Church, Syriac theology, Syriac history and Syriac language and culture.

    Jurisdiction of the patriarchate

    The Syriac (Syrian) Orthodox Church of Antioch originally covered the whole region of the Middle East and India. However, in recent centuries, its parishioners started to emigrate to other countries all over the world. Today, the Syriac Orthodox Church has several Archdioceses and Patriarchate Vicariates in many countries covering six continents.


    Middle East India


    Syriac Orthodox Church Wikipedia