The Syrian Orthodox Church5
From the seventeenth century onwards the history of the Syrian Orthodox Church has seen a struggle between a romanising party and one opposed to all union.6 For most of the nineteenth century the anti-unionists were in the ascendant, but at the turn of the century there was a shift towards Rome. The bitterness of these disputes was soon overshadowed by the catastrophe which overtook the Syrian churches in the declining years of the Ottoman Empire. The first intimations came with the bloody repression of the Armenians in 1894-96. The massacres were not, however, limited to the Armenians, and the Syrian Christians of the region also suffered terrible losses. Figures vary, but one contemporary account puts the number of Syrian dead at 25,000, including 3000 burnt alive in the cathedral of Edessa (Urfa), in which they had taken shelter. Even more dire were the massacres perpetrated under the cover of the First World War in 1915. Once again, alongside the Armenian genocide, Christians of the Syrian churches perished in large numbers. In the oral tradition of the Syrian Orthodox, 1915 is known as sayfo, '(the year of) the sword' or firmano, '(the year of) the firman' (i.e. of the warrant to kill the Christian population). The figures given by Bishop (later Patriarch) Ephrem Barsaum in 1919 put the figure for Syrian Orthodox losses alone at over 90,000, more than a third of its population in the Middle East. Eight out of the twenty dioceses in the Middle East were either totally, or very largely, wiped out, and whole areas which had formerly had a sizeable Syrian Orthodox population were now left with none, since those who had escaped the massacres had fled elsewhere.7
Far from bringing an end to their sufferings, peace only created new difficulties for Syrian Christians. The Treaty of Lausanne did not include them among the minorities which the fledgling Turkish state undertook to protect. Aware of a total lack of external support, and confronted by a state which made no secret of its antipathy for Christians, many of them took advantage of the exchange of populations following the treaty to leave the modern
5 C. Sélis, 'L'Eglise syrienne orthodoxe', Contacts 187 (1999), 214-24. S. Brock, 'The Syrian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century', in Christianity in the Middle East: studies in modernhistory, theology and politics, ed. A. O'Mahony (London: Melisende, 2005). Of great value is C. Selis, Les Syriens orthodoxes et catholiques (Tournai: Brepols, 1988).
6 Iskandar Bcheiry 'A list of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchs between 16th and 18th century', Parole de l'Orient 29 (2004), 211-61.
7 See 'Documents sur les événements de Mardine, 1915-1920', Collectanea: StudiaOrientalia Christiana 29/30 (1996/97), 5-220. For an eyewitness account of the French Dominican Jacques Rhétoré, see Les chrétiens aux betes: souvenirs de la guerre sainte proclamée par les Turcs contre les chrétiens en 1915, ed. Joseph Alichoran (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2004).
Turkish Republic. The patriarchal see, which had been located at the monastery of Dayr al-Za'faran since 1293, transferred in 1924 to Homs in French mandatory territory.8
But even this did not bring an end to the troubles of Syrian Christians. Syrian Orthodox villages in parts of Tfür 'Abdln fell victim to the Kurdish uprising of 1925 /26. The survivors fled south en masse, settling in the Lebanon, northern Iraq, and especially Syria, where they revitalised isolated Christian communities living there since the Middle Ages. In addition to settling in Lebanon and Syria, a significant number of refugees fled to the west, and particularly North America, where an archdiocese for North America was created in 1957, and is currently responsible for the care of some 35,000 Syrian Orthodox, while others went to Brazil and Argentina. The Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, the June War of 1967 and the Palestinian intifada provided further impetus for the emigration of the Syrian Orthodox community from the Holy Land, led by Mar Athanasius Samuel, bishop of Jerusalem, who then did much for the development of the Syrian Orthodox community in America. The Syrian Orthodox in Iraq suffered from the war between the Kurds9 and the government of Baghdad, the long Iran-Iraq war, and the period of sanctions which followed the Gulf wars. There was also a second wave of emigration in the 1970s from eastern Turkey, where, trapped in the fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK insurgents, whole families followed the young Syrian Orthodox men who had left the region to work in Germany or increasingly in Sweden.10
Through this time of troubles monastic life has come to play an increasingly vital cultural and spiritual role within the Syrian Orthodox Church. From a low point in the mid-twentieth century it has seen an impressive revival over the last half-century. The monastery of Mar Gabriel in TTür 'Abdin, seat of the metropolitan Mar Timotheos Samuel Aktash, has played a significant role in this revival. The monastery has a school which provides training in liturgical services and classical Syriac. Many of the young men now teaching Syriac in Europe received their training at this school. Further examples of the Syrian Orthodox monastic revival in the Middle East can be seen in the monastery and seminary of St Ephrem in Saldnaya, north of Damascus, consecrated in 1996, and in the monastery of Mary, Bearer of God, situated at
8 Then in 1959 to Damascus.
9 RayJabre Mouawad, 'The Kurds and their Christian neighbours: the case of the Syrian Orthodox', Parole de l'Orient 17 (1992), 127-42.
10 K. Merten, Die syrisch-orthodoxen Christen in der Türkei und in Deutschland [Studien zur orientalischen Kirchengeschichte 3] (Hamburg: LIT Verlag, 1997).
Was this article helpful?