The Universal Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch

Fr. Greger R. Kollanoor

Syrian Orthodox Church Emblom


‘West Syrian Church’ is one of the common names which used to denote ‘The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch’. Church of Antioch, Syrian Jacobites and Monophysites [1] of Syria are the other names which used to mention this Church by various authors. The liturgical language of this church is ‘West Syriac’. Due to this peculiarity it is called as ‘West Syrian Church’. It is one among the six Oriental Orthodox Churches who discards the Council of Chalcedon held in 451 AD. This paper is an attempt to find out its origin, development and its present state.

1. Origin

Antioch was an important city in the Roman Empire. ‘Founded in 300 BCE, Antioch eventually developed into one of the most important cities in the ancient world. Famous for its beauty and wealthy, the city represented an amalgamation of different people, religion and traditions that made it in many ways comparable to a modern urban melting point’.[2] It was also the capital of the imperial province of Syria and thus constituted an important center of Roman power in the East. ‘Very soon Antioch became the centre of Hellenism in Syria’.[3] The History of the Syrian Orthodox church begins with that famous city.

There is a tradition that, at the event of Pentecost, a group of Antiochean was gathered at Jerusalem. These people receive the gospel from St. Peter and took baptism. They were the first group who bring the gospel to the city of Antioch. After the martyrdom of St. Stephen, a group of Christians went to Antioch due to the fear of persecution and preached Gospel there.[4] Sts. Paul and Barnabas also served in the Church of Antioch. ‘In CE 37, St. Peter went to Antioch and stayed there for seven years preaching the Gospel’.[5] Evodius was appointed as the First Bishop of Antioch after St. Peter himself and St. Ignatius becomes his successor.[6] In Antioch, the followers of Christ were called as ‘Christians’ at first.[7] After Jerusalem, Antioch holds the second position in History of Christianity.

Gradually, Antioch became a bishopric and developed as one among the Pentarchy[8]. A Cathecatical School was also developed in this region, found by Theodore, which later known as ‘Antiochean School’. ‘With standing attacks from Byzantines and Latins on one side and Mongols and Turks on the other, the Syrian Orthodox Church, spiritually rooted more in Syriac Edessa than in Greek Antioch…’[9] In the first three ecumenical councils of Nicea, Constantinople and in Ephesus, the Antiochean Church made its own contributions.

2. Syrian Orthodox and the Chalcedon Council

The Council of Chalcedon brought a new era in the history of Christianity. In the Council of Chalcedon, ‘The Oriental Orthodox churches take their stand on the Niceno-Constantinopolitan faith, and regard any creedal statement of dogmatic formulation beyond the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed as excess’.[10]

In this council, the Syrian Orthodox Church accepted the nature of Jesus Christ as ‘…fully God as he always was, of the same being as God the Father. He is fully a human being, sharing our fallen human nature, but without incurring sin. His humanness and his Godness are inseparably and indivisibly united without change or mixture. One divine-human Christ, one person, with one united nature and faculties which combine the divine and the human. Our union with the divine-human nature of Christ is what makes us participate in the divine nature (2 Pet. 2:4; Hebrews 2:10-14) without ceasing to be human beings’.[11]

After the Council of Chalcedon, the united church was divided into two parts. Those who accept the arguments of Roman Catholic Church and Constantinople Church were called as Chalcedonians and the others as Non-Chalcedonians. The Church of Antioch further divided in the basis of the Chalcedonian theories. A small portion of the Antiochean church accepts the Council of Chalcedon and later they called as ‘The Malkates’.[12]

3. Church in ‘Dark Age’

The Council of Chalcedon brought a new era in Christianity. People who belongs to the Syrian Orthodox church were mainly lived in the eastern province of Rome and the western regions of Persian Empire. These two empires always made wars between them in related with the territorial matters. When Nestorius was expelled from the Roman Empire, the Persians welcomed him wisely. The Persian Emperor released an edit that the Christians who belong to the Persian Empire must accept the teachings of Nestorius; otherwise they will ban from the empire.[13] So a major portion of the Syrian Orthodox Church forcly comes under the feet of Persian Church which later known as the Nestorian Church.

Life of the Syrian Orthodox Christians who were in the Roman Empire was also not in a safe position. Due to the Chalcedonian influence on the imperial family, most of the Roman Emperors started to persecute the Syrian Church. But there have some exemptions in limited times. Dr. Tim Dowley records it as; “The Emperors persecuted, as well as wooed, the Monophysites, which stimulated the formation of separate ecclesiastical organizations”.[14]

In the fifth century, a priest monk called Maro started a new sect within the Syrian community and later it was called as Maronites.[15] They also appointed a new Patriarchate for Antioch in that period.

4. Era of Jacobus Baradeus and Severius Patriarch

Through the persecution in both empires, the Syrian Christians lost most of their clergy and faithfulls.

‘During the first half of the sixth century the Monophysites party in Syrian was threatened with becoming gradually extinct, owing the deficiency of the clergy, of which the emperor Justinian had found means to deprive them, when a man arose among them, who was distinguished for indefatigable zeal in the cause to which he devoted himself, and who did more than anyone else towards preserving and extending his communion’.[16]

The person who became the indivisible part of the Syrian Orthodox Church History was Jacobus Baradæus –Al Baradai which means ‘the man in rags’.[17] He was a monk in the monastery of Phasitla, in the district of Nisibis. He traveled hither and thither with great rapidity in the face of many dangers, to protect the Orthodox Faith. He also visited the Persian Emperor as an apologist. ‘He is said to have visited the court of Chosroes I (the famous Arabic Kisra Anyu Sharwan at Seleucia) in 559 to gain tolerance for the Christian Jacobites’.[18] Though his aching efforts and sufferings the Syrian Orthodox Church still survive in this world. In other words, ‘Nothing could be more reminiscent of the memorable voyage of St. Paul in the Apostolic Age’.[19] Due to his mission, a large group of people return to the Orthodox Faith. For identifying them; the other called ‘Jacobites’ which means the followers of Jacob.

‘Severius, Patriarch of Antioch (512-38) gave Monophysite theology its definitive Cyril derived shape, and Jacob Baradeus vigorously created Monophysite bishoprics through out the east in the mid-Sixth century’.[20] The sixth century was a period of the theological and ecclesiastical developments of the Syrian Orthodox church.

5. Rise of Islam and Crusades

The rise of Islam, the new religion introduced by Prophet Mohammad, brings a sudden freeze of Christianity in the western empire. In 640 AD, the center of the Syrian Orthodox church i.e. Syria, was conquered by the Arabic Islam people. ‘During the seventh and later centuries the church in the East had to face the threat of Islam. Islam won most of the Eastern Empire and was turned back by the emperor Leo III, as late as 718’.[21] Along with the Islam, the movements of Vikings, Slavs, the Magyars and the Mongols were also threatened the church in the East. Thousands of faithfulls loose their lives through the invasions.

The Crusades instigate by the Roman Popes also produced big harm to the Syrian Christianity in east. The Crusade army treated the Syrian Christians as heretics and sinners. So they started to convert them into Roman Catholicism. Through the twelfth Century Crusaders, the Catholic Church succeeded to convert the Syrians partially[22] and they constitute a Latin Patriarch for Antioch. Continues threat from the Mongols, most of the Syrian Orthodox took refugee under the Catholic Church and thus produce a new group in the Syrian Orthodox church from 1662 i.e. Catholic Syrian Orthodox Church.[23]

Attacks of the Mongols in 14th Century and the establishment of Catholic Patriarchate for the Antiochean reduced the numbers of faithfulls in the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church. In the beginning of 20th Century, a notorious massacre done by Turkish also reduced the strength of this church.[24] It also scattered the flocks in to different continents.

6. Identity of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church

6.1 The liturgy:

Universal Syrian Orthodox Church holds one of the oldest liturgical traditions. The liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox church is ‘West Syriac’, which is a dialect of ‘Aramaic’, the language in which Jesus Christ spoke. ‘The liturgical Language is Syriac, the normal anaphora being that of St. James, and the church has a rich liturgy heritage’.[25] Liturgy of St. James is treated as the base of all liturgical forms which are developed in the West Syria. Besides the anaphora, church has different liturgical forms also. ‘This church has a very rich liturgical tradition, with some 90 different Eucharistic anaphorae, forms of the seven Canonical hours of prayer both ordinary and festal, at least three different baptismal liturgies, and an opulent holy week liturgy’.[26] The same Antiochean liturgy is followed by the Malankara Orthodox Syrians, Mar Thomas Syrians, Malabar Independent Syrians and Malankara Catholics other than the Syrian Orthodox Church.

6.2 Monastic Movements:

Syrian Orthodox Church had a long history of its monastic movements. From the period of St. Paulo and St. Antony, they practiced the life of ascetics in deserts. Different types of monastic orders were commonly practiced in the church. Community living of the monks is much familiar. Most of the times, the Monasteries functioned under the guidance of an ‘Abbot’. ‘Monasteries are under the rule of the bishop of the dioceses, except where a Patriarch or Maphrian is entombed, in which they are directly under Patriarch’.[27] Monasteries like Mor Mathai Dayaro in Iraq, Dayaro Turabdeen in Turkey, Mor Markose Dayaro in Jerusalem are famous in this church. The ‘Order of St. Antony’ is followed in the monasteries[28] and ‘Hudayo Canon’ compiled by the famous Maphrian[29] Mor Greegorious Bar Ebroyo, is the Official Canon of this church.

6.3 Ecclesiastical Hierarchy:

According to the Ecclesiastical Orders, Patriarch[30] is the supreme of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church. He resides in Damascus, the capital of Syria. The present Patriarch is His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius[31] Aphrem, the Second. Now the immigration of the Syrians to the developed countries facilitated formation of many new archbishoprics in different continents.

Malankara[32] Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church (MJSOC) and Malankara Knanaya Arch- Diocese are also a part of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church. MSOC is an autonomous church under the title of ‘Catholicos’. The present regional head of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church is His Beatitude Aboon Mor Baselious Thomas Ist and Arch Bishop Mor Severious Kuriakose is the head of Knanaya Community.

7. Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church

Malankara is the other name of Kerala, a state of Indian Union. It is traditionally believed that St. Thomas, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, visited India in AD 52 even before Christianity reached in Europe. He preached the Gospel all over Kerala and established Churches in different parts of the country. He also ordained priests from various families to minister the newly formed Christian community. But in the course of time, they failed to succeed in the church. So the church went in to an end. On the mean time, Thomas of Cana, a merchant from Uroho visited Malabar and he reported the pathetic condition of this church to the Patriarchate of Antioch through his bishop. Then the Patriarch of Antioch ordered Mor Joseph of Uroho, the then Metropolitan of Edessa to proceed to Malabar and gave help to the Christians of this land. It was happened in AD 345 and so, the Church of Malankara made a direct allegiance towards the Patriarchate of Antioch. From that period itself, the Church of Malankara is treated as an integral part of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church. With this effect, the Malabar Church received the whole characteristics and peculiarities of the Syrian Orthodox Church. From 4th century itself, Malabar church came to known as ‘Syrian Church’ due to its usage of Syriac Liturgical language.

From time to time, the Patriarchs send various delegations and Metropolitans to Malabar for the administration of the Church. But due to the political scenario of Syria, no delegation was reached between the periods of 10th to 16th century. Meanwhile some Persian Bishops reached Malabar and the Church received them without knowing, they are from the Babylonian Patriarchate. In the beginning of 1500 AD, Portuguese landed on Malabar and later they created a split in the church. With their influence, Catholic Church was established in Malabar for the first time. Later, the Anglican Church, Mar Thoma Church, Malabar Independent Syrian Church etc were originated from this St. Thomas Christians. In 1912, a new church called Malankara Orthodox church was originated. They follow the whole rituals, traditions, liturgy and practices of the Syrian Orthodox Church, but rejects the Patriarchate of Antioch and Holy Patriarch. They made a big harm to the church both physically and emotionally. Later the Apostolic Throne declared them as schismatics and appointed Aboon Mor Baselious Paulose 2nd as the New Maphriano-Catholicose for the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Christians. The issues of this division is still prevailing.

8. Syrian Orthodox Church in the New Millennium

In the long years of journey, the Syrian Orthodox Church underwent various crisis and persecution. After the Council of Chalcedon, both the rulers and the Chalcedonians persecuted the church. The Patriarchate itself moved form Antioch to Iraq, Beirut, Homs, Lebanon and at last in Damascus. Today there are some attempts which are made for the progress of the church. The Church also took much interest in the Ecumenical sectors. It is also a member of the common body for the Oriental Orthodox Churches which was constituted in 1965 at Addis Ababa. Present Patriarch of Antioch is himself a spokeman of Ecumenism. The Late Patriarch H.H. Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka Iwas 1st was one among the Presidents of WCC and the Chairman of the council of Oriental Orthodox Churches. He participated in the Second Vatican Council as an observer and later made a common declaration with the Catholic Church in 1984.

There were new missionary societies which were formed in the church for the completion of her mission in this world. St. Paul’s Prayer Fellowship, St. Johns Mission, St. Paul’s Mission of India etc are some of them. Evangelical Association of the East is one of the oldest missionary societies in India under the Patriarchate of Antioch.[33] New Schools, Colleges and other educational institutions were also constructed through out the world for the betterment of a good future.

The Church constitutes some committees for the modification of its liturgy according to the modern world. Reprinting and publishing of the old manuscripts were done by the Bar-Hebreus Publications in Holland. The Late Arch Bishop, H.E. Julious Yeesu Chechek is the pioneer of these attempts. Along with that, ‘Kolo-Soroyo’ called church weekly is also produced from there. Church owns St. Ephrem Theological Seminary in Damascus to produce competent clergy for its development. In 2008 itself, a ‘Medical Mission Board’ is constituted for the future medical perception of the church. Some hospitals and clinics were run by the church in different parts of the world for providing witness in the medical missions of the church. The Patriarchate of Antioch has also taken much effort for the development of Syriac Language. By the support of the Turkish government, the Patriarchate started some schools and institutions for the enlistment of the Syrian language and patrimony.


Universal Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch has a long history from the beginning of Christianity. In her long journey of mission the church struggled a lot for its identity. In the beginning age, church had to face the universal persecution, then from the Chalcedonians and later from the Islam and Turks. It is true that this church is small in its appearance but great in its liturgy and traditions. During the period between 6th to 19th centuries, church could not contribute much in Christian realm. But in this new millennium, Syrian Orthodox Church is trying to bring forth its own contribution to the world.