The Syrian Catholic Church

During the seventeenth century individual Syrian Orthodox bishops, under the guidance of Roman Catholic missionaries, recognised the supremacy of Rome. These unions were of a local and temporary nature. As the number of Roman Catholic missionaries increased, the logistical framework and ecclesiastical context for a wider and more comprehensive union with the Syrian Orthodox emerged. A second factor contributing to union was the political situation of Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, in which each minority, whether of a religious or a national character, normally became a self-governing millet or 'nation'. Each of these Christian millets was ruled by a patriarch or the equivalent, and the bishops and clergy assumed civil duties, the most important of which was the collection of taxes and the administration of justice both in ecclesiastical and to a limited extent in civil law. The Syrian Orthodox Church was not, to its misfortune, granted the status of an independent millet until 1882 but was considered part of the Armenian millet.12 Hence, the Syrian Orthodox Church was dependent on the decisions of the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople. This arrangement was not in the best interest of the Syrian Orthodox Church, which under the Ottomans suffered precipitous decline.13

The combination of a Latin missionary presence, the example of the Maronites and the difficult position of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire made union with Rome attractive. So it was that in 1656, Abdul-Ghal Akhijan, a Syrian from Mardîn, converted to Catholicism and under the name Andreas was consecrated as the first Syrian Catholic bishop by the Maronite patriarch. In 1662, he was officially recognised as patriarch by the Ottoman authorities, although it was only in 1677 that he received his investiture from Rome. The fledgling church sought French protection in 1663, which its detractors pounced upon.14 On the death of Akhijan in 1677, the French imposed a candidate of their own, but this line of 'French patriarchs', as they were disparagingly called, ended in 1721. Remnants of the Syrian Catholic Church found refuge in the mountains of Lebanon, where they received support from the French, the Maronite Church and the Druze Emirs. Towards

12 Though this was not formalised until 1783.

13 Olivier Raquez, 'L'Eglise syrienne catholique', in Sacrae Congregationis de Propaganda Fide: memoriarerum 1622-1972, ed. J. Metzler (Rome, Freiburg and Vienna: Herder, 1973), 111, pt 2,19-28.

14 See J. Metzler, 'Die syrisch-katholische Kirche von Antiochen', in Sacrae Congregationis de Propaganda Fide, 11, 368-78; and for the Ottoman background J. Hajjar, 'La question religieuse en Orient au déclin de l'Empire ottoman (1683-1814)', Istina 13 (1968), 153-236.

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