Tag Archives: Syriac Orthodox Church

A Surfeit of Calendars in the Middle East

The story is related of Hulegu, the Mongol conqueror of Baghdad in 1258, that he once encountered a band of Qalandar sufis.  Those were the wild and woolly ones, who deliberately flouted social conventions and even the sharia in various ways to show how holy they really were.  Hulegu asked the Muslim leader Nasir al-Din Tusi, who was accompanying him, who these social misfits were, and Tusi replied that they were the excess waste of society.  So Hulegu ordered them all killed.  I am not a Mongol general, but after a frustrating series of miscalculations I can harbor similar feelings as Tusi to the plethora of calendars in the Middle East.

Most societies have found it useful to have a common calendar, and many indeed come to regard their shared ways of marking time as so natural that they forget the existence of alternatives.  Years, months, and days are simply natural phenomena with uncomplicated definitions.  Until one encounters a radically different calendar. Continue reading

Advertisements

The End of Christianity in Mosul

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its hold on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and is busy converting the metropolitan center to its own extremist brand of Sunni Islam.  Last week the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself Caliph Ibrahim, issued an order for Christians in the city to (a) convert to Islam, (b) pay the jizya tax on non-Muslims at an unspecified rate, or (c) be killed, although some awareness of the option to leave was displayed in the order as well.  Reports that a church was torched are of uncertain veracity (see a careful analysis of the photos circulating around the web at this blog), but images showing an Arabic ن (for نصارى, nasara, meaning “Christians”) spray-painted on various houses indicate that these houses were available to be seized.  Nor are Christians the only ones to suffer: reportedly some Shiite men have disappeared, Shiite families have been told to flee or be killed, and Shiite homes have been emblazoned with another Arabic letter, ر for رافضي (rafidi) something like “heretic scum,” while reports are also circulating that ISIS has destroyed the Sunni shrine and tomb of Nabi Yunus (the biblical prophet Jonah) in the ruins of ancient Nineveh to the east of the Tigris).  In this climate, most Christians chose to leave Mosul for the comparatively tolerant lands of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, although refugees have reported being robbed of all their belongings at the checkpoint leaving the city.

The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, who is presently the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of any denomination in Iraq, commented on the expulsion of the Christians, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” Continue reading

The Scurrilous Precision of Dates

Dates are reassuring.  They allow one to pin an event to a particular time and give the illusion of order and comprehension.  But sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they simply don’t apply.  Despite historians’ reputation for date obsession, this historian sometimes find they obscure more than they clarify.

While reading around on the new Syrian Orthodox patriarch-elect, I came across a repeated assertion that his particular branch of Middle Eastern Christianity was founded in 452 (e.g. here).  What happened in 452?  Well, plenty of things happened of course, but I cannot think of any significant event relevant to the future development of the Syrian Orthodox branch of Christianity.  The Council of Chalcedon, which was rejected by the Syrian Orthodox, met in 451, and so the source of this date seems to have simply added one to the date of the council.  This is a bad way to date an event.  If one wished to date the founding of the Syrian Orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon, why not upon the completion of the council in November of 451?  Or why not years later, perhaps in 457?

But even more important than the arbitrary nature of the choice of “the following year” is the problem that this is not how many religious groups develop.  If you ask the Syrian Orthodox, their church was founded by Christ and the apostles.  But that can’t be right, some will say, since Christ and the apostles founded “our” church (or at least the variety of Christianity we know better, whether Catholicism or Protestantism), and since the Syrian Orthodox are not that, their history must be shorter.  It always amazes me when even people who pride themselves on rejecting Christian theology adopt such a necessarily theological interpretation of the past.

Like Shi’a Islam, Syrian Orthodox Christianity was not founded in a moment of time by some particular individual.  Rather what was one group with a range of different ideas and opinions before the council in 451 experienced mitosis slowly (over the course of about two centuries), and around about the rise of Islam had clearly divided into two distinct groups.  Speaking both sociologically and ideologically, there was a lot of continuity between each of the latter groups and what went before.  Differences developed within the two sides as they coalesced into distinct camps, and it became progressively more difficult to avoid being one or the other, although as late as the 520s the poet-bishop Jacob of Serug did not find it profitable to address these contested issues.  It was only from the 530s that separate clergy were being ordained for the two groups, and only from the 550s that a complete parallel ecclesiastical hierarchy was created.  And since members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy tend to be pickier about such issues than laypeople, we do not have any very clear idea when the laity considered these groups to be distinct Christian sects.  In any event, the process of religious divergence is almost always messy.  The emergence of the Khariji groups and the various extremist ghulat testify to the same messy divergence within Islam, and even the formation of Islam as a different sort of monotheism from Judaism and Christianity was not a smooth course.  But I do not think historians need be in the business of legitimating one set of heirs over another.

The process of religious divergence is complicated, but in both the Syrian Orthodox case and the early Islamic case the religion is misunderstood if it is characterized as something new.  Both groups took great pains to assert (outsiders would say fabricate) their continuity with what went before.  To characterize the Syrian Orthodox as a johnny-come-lately Christian sect disagrees with their own understanding, and makes it more difficult for the scholar to understand their viewpoint.  Even Islam, with its insistence upon Muhammad as the prophet of God (rasul Allah), taught equally that he was the latest and the last (the “Seal”) of the prophets, teaching what earlier prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had (allegedly) taught.  Traditional Muslim doctrine is that Islam was not a new religion, but the restoration of the original monotheism which had been corrupted by Jews and Christians in recent centuries.

This emphasis on continuity puts historians of religion in something of a bind.  Not all claims to continuity are true.  It is difficult to see how the Syrian Orthodox Church was founded by Christ and yet he was also a prophet of Islam.  On the other hand, for historians to insist on the differences and divergences makes it difficult to understand how members of those groups reasoned and understood themselves.  And yet to speak of these groups sensibly, historians must adopt distinct terminologies and determine when to apply those terminologies or the earlier labels.

In order to resolve these tensions, historians need to practice switching contexts, seeing the world (as much as possible) through the eyes of various historical actors and holding in abeyance the reflexive evaluation of an assertion as true or false (which is not to say that there isn’t a truth value to these assertions, just that our own evaluation may get in the way of our understanding those who evaluate the assertion differently).  But it is also necessary to adopt a more nuanced vocabulary regarding the origin and development of religious groups: instead of insisting that every group was “founded” at some point in time, it is necessary to recognize complex and drawn out processes of mitosis which result in two (or more) groups, while both claim continuity with what went before.  In other words, we must adopt the language of divergence.

(This is true not exclusively of religious groups; ethnic groups also experience mitosis, and new labels are adopted to replace old ones.  In the fourteenth century, the famous Muslim world traveler Ibn Battuta would have been offended if you had called him an Arab; in his travelogue, “Arabs” were country bumpkins and bandits, and had nothing to do with his sophisticated urban self.)

Some may feel that such an approach is too complex.  After all, a journalist is a busy professional who does not have time to describe the entire complex process by which two religious groups diverged, yet readers may wish some orientation to where this group fits in the grander scheme of things.  I have sympathy with this complaint, although as a professional historian I have an obligation to plea for people to slow down and add nuance.  Nevertheless, it is surely possible to do much better than a scurrilously precise date.  The statement that his church “developed out of a fifth-century schism” is no longer-winded than the phrase “was founded in 452 after a schism” as used in the ABC article cited above.  (The article’s statement that the schism was “with the bulk of the world’s Christians” is also questionable, but that’s an issue for another venue.)  There are sufficiently concise ways to speak of the divergences of religious groups without sacrificing accuracy.

Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim

Today I saw the “welcome home” party for the new Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim at his cathedral, which he left two weeks ago as a metropolitan archbishop going to participate in the late patriarch’s funeral and the selection of his successor.  (The archdiocese has posted a bunch of information about him here.)  Understandably, the cathedral was crowded, and I wouldn’t have gotten a seat had a friend not saved space for me, although in the event I was seated right next to the central aisle, so I had an excellent view of the patriarch-elect (technically, he isn’t patriarch until his enthronement, which I think will be later this month), but stupidly I forgot to bring my camera.

The altar area was flanked not only by the episcopal throne (to the left, as is customary in Middle Eastern churches), but also by seats placed for hierarchs from many other churches who came to congratulate and felicitate the new patriarch-elect.  Included were (among others; I didn’t have a program and am now writing from memory): Mor Titus Yeldho (Malankara Archbishop of the US), Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard (OCA Metropolitan of North America), Bp. Nicholas Samra (Greek Melkite Catholic Eparch of Newton), Bp. Gregory John Mansour (Maronite Bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn), Bp. Yousif Habash (Syrian Catholic Eparch of Newark), Bishop David of New York and New England (Coptic), and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (Armenian Orthodox Primate of North America), as well as representatives of Archbishop Demetrios (Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the USA), of Metropolitan Silouan (Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchal Vicar of All North America), and of the Knanaya Christian community.

Phew.  That’s a lot of names and titles.  It was certainly interesting to see all these hierarchs, and their various different vestments.  In a previous century, they would almost certainly not have been seen on the same platform, and certainly not speaking encouragingly to each other.  Even more interesting where the various surprising statements (surprising due to their transgressions of canonical norms, primarily).  Pope Francis wrote a letter congratulating Mor Ignatius Ephrem II on being elected “Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East” without any qualification upon that title to indicate it only applied to Syrian Orthodox.  (Of course the Syrian Orthodox do not insert “Syrian Orthodox” before “Patriarch,” any more than the Roman Catholic Church uses the adjective “Roman”; both adjectives are qualifiers applied by external interlocutors for the sake of clarify and sanity.)  Another of the Catholic bishops said that he was asked why he was here (being Catholic, not Orthodox), and he reported his response was that this church was his home, and that he was here as both an Orthodox bishop and a Catholic bishop.  That’s a challenging canonical tangle.  He also attempted to kneel to Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II, who prevented him and embraced him.

The Chalcedonians were generally more circumspect in their congratulations, as is to be expected.  But even a Chalcedonian metropolitan referred to the late Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (the predecessor of the newly elected Syrian Orthodox patriarch) as “thrice-blessed,” the language used by the Syrian Orthodox but certainly inappropriate for a “heretic.”  Another Chalcedonian metropolitan expressed confidence that the selection of this patriarch was God’s choice, and prayed that the new patriarch would be guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Armenian, Coptic, and Malankara bishops were all unstinting in their praise of the new patriarch, as may be expected from within the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, although good relations between the different branches cannot be taken for granted historically (in the twelfth century the Armenians and Syrians cast mutual anathemas at each other, for example).

All acknowledged the very difficult times facing Middle Eastern Christians both in their home countries and in the diaspora, and the names of the abducted bishops of Aleppo were mentioned frequently.  The new patriarch mentioned Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim as a mentor, and specifically asked for everyone’s prayers for the abducted bishops.  But perhaps the difficult times are also encouraging multiple Middle Eastern Christian groups to build bridges across ancient divides.  This is not a necessary result of difficult times (thinking of the original Islamic conquests, of the Turkic conquests of the eleventh-century Anatolia, and of the plague years and instability in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), so it is interesting to speculate whether the difference today lies in the nature or severity of the difficulties, in the surrounding culture (perhaps Western liberalism or secularism), or in the character of the participating hierarchs themselves.

Found: A New Patriarch of Antioch

The head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, one of five claimants to the ancient title Patriarch of Antioch, passed away on March 21, and was soon buried in Saydnaya outside Damascus.  (“Mor” is an honorific title meaning “my lord,” given to all Syriac bishops.)  The council of bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church selected on March 31 his successor (official announcement), the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of the Eastern United States, Mor Cyril Karim, who will take the regnal name Mor Ignatius Aphrem II Karim.  The new patriarch was born in Qamishli, on the Syrian border with Turkey, according to an article published on the archdiocese website, and as patriarch he intends to move back to Damascus, which has been the seat of the patriarchate since the mid-20th C (before that is was briefly in Homs, and from 1293 to 1915 it was at Dayr al-Zafaran outside of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, although until 1445 there was a rival Syrian Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus).

Of course, there is still a civil war going on in Syria, though the statement by the Patriarch-elect that “I believe [that] me moving to Damascus will give Syriac-Orthodox and other Christians hope to remain in our beloved Syria, a country that is named after our nation” indicates he hopes to help the Christians in Syria rebuild after the violence.  Nevertheless, since he has been the metropolitan of the eastern USA, it would not be surprising if the Syrian government were to view him with some suspicion.  This disjuncture may be one of the factors which underlie the fact that out of 41 votes from the council of bishops he only received 23 (56%), a small majority.  He will certainly need to build bridges with sectors of the episcopate which favored other candidates if he is to lead the Syrian Orthodox Church effectively through this crisis.

The council of bishops was also noticeably missing a key voice: Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, who along with the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji of Aleppo was abducted a year ago.  Before his abduction, some were saying that Ibrahim might make a good patriarch some day, and I have even heard speculation that Ibrahim’s abduction was orchestrated by a group outside the church which wanted to prevent him from becoming patriarch!  (Middle Eastern expats are great for generating conspiracy theories.)  In any event, it is unclear whether the election of a new (and comparatively young) Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch will affect the attempts to locate and release the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.  But I expect it will be on the new patriarch’s list of goals.

Still Looking: Abducted Bishops

The Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star reported today that efforts to release the two bishops of Aleppo who were abducted in April 2013 are, according to the Lebanese intelligence chief seeking their release, “complicated” but “on the right track.”  Due to the sensitivity of the situation, he said, he could not give any details.  The same intelligence chief helped secure the release of the abducted nuns of Maaloula earlier this month, so he could be in the know.  I have previously questioned the veracity of leaked reports about the whereabouts of Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji by people who clearly stood to gain from the publicity, and some news reports have simply “stirred the pot.”  But I must confess I don’t know Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s profile and where he might fit in Lebanese (and Syrian) politics.  So I can only hope that this news is real, and may lead to the end of these bishops’ captivity.

Found: Rumors and Suppositions of the Aleppo Bishops

There is still no solid news of the two metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo who were abducted on 22 April, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, but there are more rumors.  Al-Monitor yesterday published a long article on the subject translating and expanding an Arabic article published on 13 August by the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir (for an English translation of the original al-Safir article, see the blog Notes on Arab Orthodoxy).  The al-Monitor article especially is very detailed, but it is not at all clear what the sources of these details are.  The Lebanese Daily Star also published an article disputing most of those details and suggesting other ones.

If the play-by-play account of the abduction of the bishops by Chechen jihadis working for Abu Omar al-Shishani has any validity, it must have ultimately come from Fu’ad Eliya, the only passenger of the vehicle not abducted or killed, but it is not clear whether the al-Monitor journalist interviewed Eliya.  The detailed account is not in the al-Safir article, and the details disagree with what Hurriyet reported second-hand from Eliya back in May.  Particularly curious is the al-Monitor article’s unsourced reference to “the small message written in Greek and sent by Bishop Yazigi to a friend in Greece and to his brother Yohanna. The message, written in Greek, said, ‘We are being held by al-Qaeda.'”  Where did that information come from?  In light of the obscurity of the information’s provenance, these details must be regarded as unreliable.

Particularly interesting to me was the last portion of the al-Monitor article, which quoted various people who have made pronouncements in the past about the fate of the bishops, including George Sabra, all saying that there is no real knowledge about their fate.  That still seems to be the end of it.

For those feeling that the saga of the kidnapped bishops has dragged on with no real resolution, that is just a microcosm of the Syrian Civil War in total.  Meanwhile, although we still hope the victims will be able to say with Mark Twain, “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” that seems decreasingly likely.