It was in 2004. In the month of March I was invited to deliver a speech at the World Peace Conference in Turkey organized by the Inter-cultural Dialog Platform for the Advancement of World Peace with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Religion. As soon as I accepted the invitation the news spread among my students through my Turkish students whom I had consulted about my trip, rumors also began to circulate that I was leaving for Turkey for proselytizing. In view of some past hostile incidents confronted by foreigners, particularly Americans, in Turkey, I called Istanbul and cancelled my trip. However, upon consulting two other professors who had also been invited to present their scholarly papers, I was encouraged to attend and present my speech. I notified Turkey that I was sticking with the original plan of attending the Conference and making the speech on “Patristic Contributions to the Quest for Peace”.
However I was still apprehensive about my safety in Turkey. I immediately called the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church for Eastern United States of America, Dr. Kyrillos Karim Ephraim, with whom I had established a very cordial relationship as a hierarch who possesses outgoing manners and unusually welcoming attitude with a broad and attractive smile. On a few occasions I had been with Archbishop Mor Kyrilos when he visited his parishes in the Chicago area, and enjoyed his very courteous hospitality and sincere graciousness. From our conversation I realized that he was reading the monographs and articles I had been writing and publishing. It was this pre-established confidence that led me to contact Mor Kyrillos to check if our Syrian Church in Turkey might be of some help to guarantee my safety.
Archbishop Mor Kyrillos was very delighted that I was going to make a speech at the World Peace Conference in Turkey, and he offered his help. He asked me if my telephone was equipped with the Conference Call system, which I did not have. The Archbishop immediately turned on his Conference Call device and connected me with Metropolitan Philexinos of Constantinople. Archbishop Mor Kyrillos introduced me to Metropolitan Philexinos of Constantinople, and asked me to give him my itinerary. Metropolitan Philexinos offered his assistance while I was in Turkey. When I reached Istanbul at midnight on May 11, 2004 a chorepiscopus representing Mor Philexinos was there at the airport with two other persons representing the Conference authorities to receive me. I was in Constantinople and Mardin and Midiat until May 18, 2004, and enjoyed the hospitality and motherly love our Syrian Church at many cities and returned home safely. The affection and welcome that I tasted from our Syrian Orthodox brethren on the streets of Midiat during a long rally organized by the Turkish authorities is memorable.
I now recall this episode with deep gratitude to Mor Kyrillos, who was instrumental to make me feel safe in Turkey. He did not have to extend such generosity to a Chor-Episcopos of the Malankara Syrian Church which has some issues of administration with the Syrian Church in the Middle East. Although the Syrian Church in Malankara and the Syrian Church in the Middle East are one Church in faith and priesthood, there exist some administrative concerns that tarnish their wholeness; this has been producing some serious scandals before the eyes of heterodox Christians and pagans. I projected this episode to highlight the greatness of a prelate who was chosen by the Holy Spirit to be at the helm of the most ancient Church of Christ on earth, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, which alone presents the uninterrupted continuity of the faith, liturgy and priesthood of the ancient Aramaic Church of Jerusalem.
A Pure Aramaic from Turabdin, the Cradle of Aramaic Civilization
Turabdin is at the northern tip of ancient Mesopotamia, where the ancient Aramaic civilization started and flourished; it is from here that this civilization spread all over the ancient empires of Babylon, Chaldea, and Assyria at different periods of time before Christ. The people of this region are generally called “Pure Syrians (Syriacs) or Aramaics”. At present this region is within the Province of Mardin. I had the blessing of visiting this area during my visit of Turkey. It is with great pride that I reminisce the fascinating dance of the Syriac girls on the grounds inside the airport of Mardin that gave a warm and exciting welcome when the scholarly group of speakers and delegates of the Peace Conference landed at 9.00 AM. We were all without sufficient sleep in the previous night and deeply tired; however I still remember the arousal we all gathered from the heavenly and majestic choreography presented before us by those terrestrial angels.
The new Patriarch’s family is originally from this area.
During the early part of the 19th century Turkish Christians became the victims of one of the heinous brutalities in the history of the world. It is reported that millions of Armenian and Syrian Christians were butchered during this period; among them the Armenians outnumber the Syrians. There was a steady exodus of these ethnic groups to the countries south of this region to escape persecution. That is why we see a great number of Syriac and Armenian presence in many parts of the Middle East, such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, where they were welcomed by their own ethnic groups; and the Muslim regimes were also more accommodating.
It was during this period that the family of the new Patriarch moved from Ehwo, a small town in the Turabdin region within the Province of Mardin, and settled in Quamishli, which is in northeastern Syria. Turabdin literally means “the mountainous region of the servants of God” (mountains of the servants of God). In fact, the history of the Church testifies the fact that there had been a lot of servants of God from this mountainous region. Now we have one more illustrious servant of God originally hailing from this “mountainous region”, who is not only a servant, but a “servant of the servants of God” by his call to adorn the Petrine Throne of Antioch, one of the primordial Sees of ancient Christendom. Holy Father Moran Mor Ignatius Ephraim II: your genealogy from the cradle of the Aramaic civilization singles you out to be at the helm of our great Syrian Church. Axios, Axios, Axios!!!
The new Patriarch was born as Sa’id Karim on May 3, 1965 at Quamishli, as the youngest child of Issa and Khanema Karim. His father had passed away when he was very young, and he was raised by the rest of the family and the mother. He had his primary education at a local school in Quamishli.
Call to Religious Life and to the Service of the Church and Higher Education
From a very young age Sa’id Karim was imbued with a great passion for the service of God. Hence he chose a religious secondary school to complete his High School education. In order to achieve this goal, he moved to Atchaneh in Lebanon to purse his secondary education at St. Ephraim Theological Seminary, where he completed his High School education with a focus on religious studies in 1982. Immediately after graduating from this seminary-high school, at the very onset of his youth, he was exposed to the administrative process of the Church by becoming secretary to Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of Aleppo, Syria. He was with Mor Gregorios for two years equipping himself with initial skills in the management of affairs of the Church by assisting the Metropolitan he was serving.
In 1984 he started his post-secondary studies at the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, and graduated in 1988 with a Bachelor’s degree in Divinity. During the seminary studies he was tonsured as monk in 1985 and received the monastic name of Ephraim (Aprem) in honor of the great Syriac Doctor of the Church, St. Ephraim the Syrian, who remained a simple ascetic deacon all his life. In the same year he was ordained to the diaconate in Cairo, and subsequently received his priesthood in his hometown (Quamishli).
Upon graduation from the Seminary Hieromonk Ephraim moved back to the Patriarchal headquarters of his Church and became one of the personal secretaries of His Holiness Patriarch Zakka I, while keeping a faculty position at St. Ephraim’s Theological Seminary near Damascus, Syria. While at the Patriarchal residence, the Holy Father identified the scholarly aptitude and thirst for higher learning in this young monk and sent him for graduate studies in theology at St. Patrick’s College at Maynooth, Ireland in 1989. After two years of studies, Hieromonk Ephraim received the degree of Licentiate in Theology, which would qualify him to be teacher in theology at the seminary and postsecondary levels.
As a monk, who possessed tremendous craving for higher learning and theological erudition, Hieromonk Ephraim did not stop his education just with a Licentiate. A young man deeply passionate in Syriac Patristics, he wanted to deepen and widen his knowledge base as a scholar. He conducted investigative studies on the Syriac roots of the theology of the Holy Cross, which no other Church in Christendom had developed like the Syriac Church. In fact, it is only in the Syriac Church that the veneration of the Holy Cross has become a predominant part of the worship both in regular liturgy and in the canonical hours of the Church. The climax of most of the feasts of the Church is with the exaltation and veneration of the Holy Cross, and with the blessing of all four quarters of the cosmos with the Holy Cross. For Hieromonk Ephraim, the Holy Cross was a mystery in itself which only the Syriac Church could expound so vividly, elegantly and elaborately, and his scholastic curiosity thrilled. For three more years he continued at St. Patrick’s College to purse his doctoral studies. His researches on the topic brought him to a dissertation on the “Symbolism of the Holy Cross in Early Syriac Christianity”, and St. Patrick’s College conferred on him the earned degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1994.
During his graduate studies in Ireland he was a diligent pastor of the Diaspora Syriac Orthodox faithful in the United Kingdom, which provided him direct experience dealing with the rank and file of Church. The pastoral skills acquired in his tenure as priest in U.K definitely helped him later as a bishop of the Church.
Call to the Rank of the Successors of the Apostles
His Holiness Patriarch Zakka easily detected the apostolic zeal and episcopal potentialities in Hieromonk Ephraim to fill the vacuum created by the demise of the late Archbishop Mor Athanasios Yeshue Samuel of America. Hieromonk Ephraim was chosen to succeed Mor Athanasios. On January 26, 1996 Hieromonk Ephraim was ordained a bishop with the episcopal name Kyrillos by Patriarch Zakka with rank of a Metropolitan at St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Quamishli, Syria. By this time the Archdiocese of America had been already divided to create three separate eparchial jurisdictions, one for Canada, and the other two were for Eastern United States and Western United States. Metropolitan Mor Kyrillos was appointed to the See of Eastern United States of America. On March 3, 1996 Metropolitan Mor Kyrillos was enthroned to be the new Metropolitan Archbishop of his new See at St. Mark’s Orthodox Cathedral, Teaneck, NJ. Thus the new Archdiocese of Eastern United States was blessed with a new archpastor, well-qualified as a priest and erudite. It was the beginning of a new era for the Syriac communities in the Eastern United States. I have directly observed the magnificent growth of this Church which I gathered as a result of my close relationship with the Syriac communities.
A Tireless Worker in the Vineyard of Christ
Under the spiritual leadership of Archbishop Kyrillos Ephraim Karim the growth of the archdiocese was phenomenal. Compared to other ethnic Orthodox communities, the Syriac community has a smaller number in the United States; however he managed to develop more than ten parishes and granted them canonical status and appointed their pastors to take care of their spiritual needs. He set up a Sunday School Committee comprising principals and teachers of local Sunday Schools to unify the curriculum and to oversee it and monitor the progress of local Sunday schools across the archdiocese. He became a champion and supporter of the American Foundation of Syriac Studies to promote Syriac theology, Culture, History and Literature. Being a scholar in Syriac who is well-versed in classical Syriac which carries all writings and literature in that language (kthobonoyo) and the colloquial Syriac which has been spoken for centuries and still being spoken in various Aramaic communities in Turkey and the Middle East (Thuroyo), Mor Kyrillos eventually became a patron for Syriac Studies.
One of the well-noticed accomplishments of the Archbishop was the establishment of Syrian Orthodox Archdiocesan Youth Organization (SOAYO) to cater to the social and spiritual needs of the young people under his jurisdiction. SOAYO does coordinate the activities of local Youth Organizations within the archdiocese. Under this organization many other programs work to support the youth, for example, Academic Scholarship Program, Youth Retreats, Monthly Youth Liturgy, Archdiocesan Choral Society to promote Syriac Hymnology, Syriac Orthodox Scouts of America, Premarital Counseling Program, etc. Archbishop Kyrillos was not just an initiator of these programs from behind; he personally took active participation in these programs not only at the Archdiocesan level, but also at the parish level whenever possible to encourage the youth.
He was not only concerned about growing generation; he was indeed interested in the seniors of his Church. He organized Annual Elderly Liturgy Services which also have a social component. In these annual programs the seniors can bring up their concerns related to retirement, healthcare, housing and other relevant issues. These events also highlighted notable achievements and contributions of the elderly, and special recognitions are awarded to worthy seniors.
Following the same path of his predecessor, Mor Athanasios of blessed memory, he took special interest in continuing the translation and publication of certain liturgical books, which were not previously published. They include “The Book of the Order of Burial of Clergy”, and “The Book of Scripture Readings of Sundays and Feast Days”.
The Syriac Church is definitely blessed to have such a talented and God-inspired hierarch to take the responsibilities of its Patriarch. We believe it is God’s choice; actually this was not an election by the fathers of the Holy Synod; it was a selection by God.
No leader is measured on the basis of his past achievements, not even on one’s acquired erudition; they are only his qualifications to become a leader. Every leader has to go through the test of time, the time ahead with multiple challenges which are often very difficult to deal with and very complex deterring him from making viable and long-lasting solutions. The greatness of a leader is established on his merit in setting policies and strategies to counter challenging situations and holding on the principles of propriety. If we observe the curriculum vitae of Patriarch Ephraim II, we are assured that he is quite equipped with the knowledge base and will power for meeting the challenges and complex surroundings of his patriarchate; which is indeed a blessing not only for all Syrians both in the Middle East and India, and elsewhere the Syrians have migrated to.
The Syrian Unrest:
We do not ignore the tolerant and benevolent attitude of some Muslim rulers towards Christians during Caliphates in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. However some of them did not give freedom to Christians to freely practice their religion or equal citizenship rights. A good number of Christians left the Middle East during those days and settled in other parts of the world (this writer is a descendant of such an expatriate Syrian group). According to Time Magazine, a similar situation has been occurring these days in the Middle East (TIME; April 21, 2014). We have seen that after the Iraq war, which gave power to the present regime, Iraqi Christians have been leaving their motherland in great numbers; and it is said there are only 300,000 Christian left in Iraq now.
The same situation is happening to Christians in Syria in pockets where anti-regime militants have tightened their grips. In the northern town of Raqqa, for example, 20 Christian families have been asked to pay a tax equivalent to $650.00 as a cost of protection. Christians in general face similar situation in many parts of the Middle East (Time). According to media reports the Middle East currently has only 3 % Christians left. The condition is getting worse everyday. During the regime of Saddam Hussein the protection of Christians was basically guaranteed; but Christians do not feel secure anymore. The Azad regime in Syria is protecting minorities; no one knows how long Azad will last. Christians are panic-stricken; and when a chance is open they want to get out their own country for freedom and protection.
The Syrian Orthodox Christians are scattered all over the Middle East; realizing that they are not safe anymore many of them may leave when there is an opportunity. Their number is steadily decreasing. How would the new Patriarch deal with this hostile situation? Patriarch Ephraim does have good rapport with many leaders in that region. He is skillful to go through all possible diplomatic avenues for the protection of his faithful and to develop an atmosphere for peaceful coexistence with the majority population in the Middle East. If results are not produced, the theories of coexistence would be mere academic jargon. At that point Patriarch Ephraim would go on his knees and intercede for his people so that the Almighty God may rescue them and make him stronger to defend his people. The world wants a strong Christian presence in the Middle East at least by maintaining the status quo, because they are children of that land. May the new Patriarch be a Moses to his people in the Middle East, not for expatriation, but for leading them to freedom in their own fatherland! We pray for him to have strength and divine guidance.
The Malankara Question:
The new Patriarch will be confronted with the question about Syrian Church of Malankara, India. No one presenting an answer that the Church of Malankara is with the Patriarch can be justified in view of the history of the Syrian Church of Malankara and the current ecclesiological practices in Christendom. Thus Malankara is a very serious issue before the new Patriarch of Antioch. The fact that less than one third of the Church is directly under the Patriarch and that more than two third, although do recognize the Patriarchate of Antioch, seek a different path in recognizing the role of the Antiochian Patriarchate, gives ecclesiologists enough doctrinal points to argue for the will of the majority in light of the two criteria mentioned above, i.e. history of the Syrian Church in Malankara and current orthodox ecclesiological practices.
This writer does not believe in two Syrian Churches. There is only one Church, one set of doctrines of faith, and one priesthood. As we all know the Syrians in the Middle East are at a vanishing point, although they remain as immigrant communities elsewhere in many parts of the world; still their total number is behind the Syrians in India. The Patriarchate will be strengthened manifold times if the entire Syrian Church in India totally remain with Patriarchate of Antioch with its Catholicate of the East. The ideal is the corroboration of both national churches with mutual collaboration. The Catholicate and the Patriarchate should be in a position of respecting each other; both Sees have almost the same historical and canonical legitimacy.
An impartial observer can easily realize that the 1995 Indian Supreme Court verdict was the best document for forging a viable and long-lasting unity between the two groups, one recognizing the Patriarch alone as the head of the Church and the other recognizing the Catholicos as the head of the Church of the East, and recognizing the Patriarch according to the provisions of the Constitution of Orthodox Syrian Church of the East. It was a right opportunity. But who short-circuited the union between them? Only some prelates who claimed to be subservient to the Patriarchate for their own ulterior motive of clinging to power they already had already possessed. In the event of a union they had to give up their power positions for the legitimate position of the Catholicos of the East recognized by the Supreme Court of India. The majority of the bishops in Synod obedient to the Antiochian Patriarchate wanted an immediate union with the Catholicate of East, but a few did not go for it to save their positions (some of them told this truth personally to this writer). But if the Catholicate of the East and Patriarchate of Antioch were united, keeping their national identities and autonomous and autocephalous individualities, our Church would have been the shining mystical body. One Church and two jurisdictions each having its own autonomy and autocephaly with primus inter pares status for the See of Antioch is the only solution for long-lasting peace between these churches. Keeping a smaller group under the Patriarchate and leaving the other larger group as a separate body is not canonically tenable (although there may exist such arrangements in other churches, again with selfish and imperial interests). The majority of Indian Syrians want their Church undivided, but in cordial relationship with the Patriarchate of Antioch.
We believe, the Holy Father Mor Ignatius Ephraim II, who is well-educated in oriental ecclesiology, will take the initiative to recognize the current ecclesiological practices in Orthodoxy.
The history of the Church in Malankara asserts that a formal relationship between Antioch and Malankara began to develop only by the 17th or 18th century. Historically the Church is India was attached to the Catholicate of the East headquartered in Seleucia-Ctesiphon. After the Catholicate fell into Nestorianism, the Orthodox succession of the same Catholicate was erected as a Mafrianate by Antioch, meaning, a dependent See under the Antiochian See. The Orthodox Catholicate lost its independent status as a See due to two main reasons: The majority of Syrians identified with the Nestorian Catholicate, which itself enjoyed the status of a Patriarchate (the titles Patriarch and Catholicos were interchangeable names then, such is the case with the Catholicoi of Armenia, Georgia, and Cilicia). Thus the number of the Orthodox Syrians in the East was reduced to a weak minority. Secondly, Muslim invasions considerably weakened both groups of Syrians, particularly the Orthodox Church which had suffered terribly due to Nestorian influence in those regions.
One basic truth that should be recognized is the apostolicity of the Indian Church, i.e. the Church of India (Malankara) was founded by the Apostle St. Thomas. In other words, the Church of Malankara is not the result of the evangelizing activities of any other Church which could claim parental rights over Malankara. This justifies its claim for self-determination.
Now let us come to current practices in Orthodoxy. The Church of Ethiopia was under the Coptic Church since Church history started in that region, and she had a filial relationship with Alexandria. It is modern history that when the Ethiopians demanded autocephaly and autonomy with their own Patriarchate, Alexandria had to give up all claims over Ethiopia, and subsequently gave all moral support for Ethiopia’s freedom. In the very recent past, the Eritreans had a similar claim, and succeeded, although with resistance from Ethiopia; but other Churches have already recognized their Patriarchate.
Coming to the Armenians, there are two jurisdictions, one in Armenia and other in the Middle East; for some time the Armenian Catholicate considered the Catholicate of Cilicia a schismatic group. But now look what happened! They are one Church now, but with two jurisdictions and two Catholicoi.
The Church of Malankara is the most literate among all Oriental Orthodox churches, and the largest within the Syrian communion, and possesses the most educated clergy among all Orthodox churches, runs the highest number of university colleges and secondary schools; and two accredited major seminaries, one with doctoral degree offering accreditation, and a School of Sacred Music. Its spiritual activities, such as Sunday School, Youth League, and Women’s apostolate vividly display the spiritual maturity of a fully developed Church.
With such a growth and maturity, does not the Church of Malankara deserve autonomy and autocephaly? Does she still have to be a dependency?
The new Holy Father Moran Mor Ephraim II, being a visionary, should extend his magnanimity to embrace this Church of Malankara in order to avoid a division in the Syrian Church in India.
His Holiness Moran Mor Ephraim personally knows me, and how I value and venerate the Patriarchate of Antioch. My ancestry is originally from the Middle East, a few centuries ago shooting from a Pure Syrian stock. Hence my Syrian heritage is of paramount significance to me; hence my unwavering support and adulation for the Antiochian Patriarchate. Personally speaking, I want the Syrian Church to restore its past glory prior to the period of Muslim expansion. I have highlighted in my past writing the need of supporting the Dayarul Safran ( Monastery of Kurkuma) and the Monastery of Mor Gabriel near Mardin, the spiritual centers where Syriac spirituality and liturgy developed and were perfected. When I defend the autonomy and autocephaly of Malankara it is not to implicate any reduction of honor for Antioch; on the other hand it is to give witness to Christ as one team composed of two national jurisdictions with dignity and equality for each, never implying any form of subjugation of one by the other. I believe the historical significance of the Antiochian Patriarchate would be further enhanced with this kind of relationship. The Roman doctrine of universal jurisdiction by any See over other Sees has never been, nor is, a dogma within Orthodoxy. All the Byzantine Orthodox churches are autocephalous with their own Patriarchates, but a position of preeminence always goes for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
I urge our new Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Ephraim II to invite the Catholicos of the East for a friendly meeting, and later move towards creative dialogs for complete union. There is a dictum in English, “Charity begins at home”. Most Holy Father, we are all ONE family, ONE home; we are all waiting for the light of love (charity) in our home lighted by Your Holiness. I understand that Malankara always wanted and does want a healthy sisterly relationship with Antioch.
Most Holy Father, this is the most important challenge of your Patriarchal ministry: to bring the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Catholicate of the East together as ONE team keeping both jurisdictions independent without one encroaching the other in autonomy of administration and autocephaly.
On the 29th of May 2014 the newly elected Patriarch of the Antiochian See will be consecrated and enthroned the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East with the name Patriarch Ignatios Aprem II. We send our warmest greetings and prayers on this occasion not only to His Holiness, but also the faithful under his Patriarchal ministry.
We pray for Your Holiness’ ministry from the Chair of St. Peter at Antioch, and for your health and longevity to serve the Lord and His people with apostolic zeal. May we also be blessed! May your prayers be a fortress for us! Amin.
AXIOS, AXIOS, AXIOS,
MORAN MOR IGNATIOS APREM THRAYONO PATRIARCHO D’KURSYO SHLIHOYO D’ANTHIOKYA D’SURYOYE!!!