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ORIENTAL ORTHODOX CHURCH NEWS

Edited by James Kirby Tomblin

Ethiopian Churches Burned and Christians Attacked

In March 2006 a large Muslim mob orchestrated an attack on Christians in Kemisse approximately 350 km north-east of Addis Ababa. Three churches were burned and the field office of World Vision was attacked. Businesses owned by Christians were vandalized and several Christians were injured. Intervention by the Ethiopian army prevented further destruction and there were no reports of deaths, though a guard at the Lutheran church was sent to the hospital in serious condition. Several believers have fled to a neighbouring village to escape further persecution.

On 22 March, Nesero Abraraw was on duty as a guard of a Lutheran church in Arisi Negellie, 225 km south of Addis, when he was shot three times by an unidentified assailant. Abraraw, a Muslim convert to Christianity and father of seven, died at the scene. Local police have arrested some suspects but are facing pressure from wealthy Muslim businessmen to release them. The church has no doubts that this attack was orchestrated by area Muslims who regularly harass and intimidate local Christians.

In July 2006 reports were received that In the town of Yebu, Ethiopia, local Christians were able to obtain a piece of land for the purpose of constructing a building where they could meet to worship. Aware of the dangers facing them from Muslims in the community, they had delayed construction until they finally decided that they would begin at midnight on 2 July. The construction project continued until the following day, when an angry mob heard about what they were doing and attacked the workers. The Muslims completely destroyed the building. They confiscated the materials and used them to construct a building of their own. Many of the Christians were injured in the attack and two, Yoseph Gebresadek and Terefe Jirga, were admitted to hospital. Three of the Christian leaders were also accused of disturbing the peace and stability of the region. If found guilty, the leaders could face imprisonment.

In another incident, the Assembly of God church in the town of
Alemaya was lit on fire in the middle of the night on 30 June. Believers were able to intervene and prevent the total destruction of the
building. Alemaya is ninety-eight percent Muslim and the church had been threatened with violence several times to stop evangelizing.

Further Orthodox leaders jailed in Eritrea

On 4 April the Eritrean government jailed three more leaders of the Orthodox Church’s Medhane Alem renewal movement identified only as Samson, Michael and Naemen. The three men were accused of instigating open resistance to the church’s decree banishing them from their mother church.

A circular letter dated 28 March and addressed to every Orthodox parish throughout the country was issued by the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. It announced the excommunication of 65 key members and coordinators of the long-established Sunday School movement within the Orthodox church. Formal excommunication from the church excludes the former member from participation in all sacraments of the church, including communion, baptism, marriage and funeral rites.

Patriarch Antonios, the canonical head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, remains under house arrest with no news of him reaching the outside world. Nevertheless he is still commemorated in all Coptic Orthodox Churches and those Eritrean churches which have refused to accept his uncanonical removal. An excellent article by Brian Draper, “Tracking down the forgotten”, which appeared in the Church Times on 10 November 2006 quoted Abba Seraphim’s support for the deposed Patriarch.

Abune Dioscoros, since appointed ‘Head of the Holy Synod’, gave benediction in connection with Easter holiday. Abune Dioscoros conveyed congratulations to Eritreans at home and abroad, the EDF members defending the nation’s sovereignty and undertaking development programs, as well as hospitalized nationals. He further called on all citizens to extend a helping hand to the needy and advised fellow citizens to make good use of the promising current rains and thereby, achieve food security.

New Bishops for the Syrian Church

On 2 July Catholicos Mor Baselious Thomas I consecrated five Metropolitans at St.Thomas Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Paravur: Ramban Micah Koodal (Fr. Mathew P George) became Mathews Mor Theodosius, Bishop of Kollam; Ramban Nahum (Fr. James Chittathu) became Mathews Mor Aphrem, Metropolitan of High range Diocese. Ramban Haggai Pulikottil (Fr. Ekby Chacko), became Pathrose Mor Osthatheos, Bishop of Delhi – diocese of Greater India Outside Kerala; Ramban Malachi Chalakkatukudi (Fr. Kuriakose George) became Kuriakose Mor Eusebios, Bishop of Thrissur and Ramban Samuel (Fr. George Mathew Nalunnakkal) became Geevarghese Mor Coorilose, Bishop of Niranam.

On 14 July, at the Monastery of St. Ephrem the Syrian, in Ma’rrat Sayyidnaya, Damascus, Syria, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, assisted by Catholicos Mor Baselious Thomas I and other bishops, consecrated Rabban Markose as the Assistant Metropolitan for the Evangelistic Association of the East  with the name of Mor Chrysostomos.

Eastern Prelates assist at Free Church of England consecration

On 29 July, the Bishops of the Free Church of England and its American sister church, the Reformed Episcopal Church, consecrated Dr. John Fenwick and Paul Hunt respectively as bishops of their Northern Diocese and Assistant Bishop of the Southern Diocese. Assisting in the ceremonies, however, were Cyril Mar Basilios, Metropolitan of the Malabar Independent Syrian Church (Thozhiyur Diocese) and his predecessor, Joseph Mar Koorilose. This diocese, having retained an independent existence from the late eighteenth century, works closely with the reformed Mar Thoma Church but has largely retained the faith and traditions of Syrian Orthodoxy. This was an historic occasion for the Free Church of England, a nineteenth century evangelical separation from Anglicanism. Bishop Fenwick, a noted liturgical scholar, served as Assistant Secretary for Ecumenical Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 1988-1992, and established many long-lasting friendships with Orthodox churches.

Syrian Orthodox Priest Martyred

During the meeting of the Holy Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church, held in Damascus in October, tragic and painful news was received of the death of Father Boulos Iskander Behnam, Priests of St. Ephrem’s Church in Mosul, Iraq. Having been kidnapped ostensibly in retaliation for the controversial speech of Pope Benedict XVI, the extremist terrorists at first demanded that the Christian community in Mosul should display 30 large posters denying what Pope Benedict was alleged to have said about Islam. Although they complied with this demand, the terrorists then demanded that he renounce his faith and embrace Islam. When he refused they murdered him and brutally dismembered his corpse. In a statement issued by the Holy Synod on 13 October his murders were described as “people disconnected from humane, spiritual or ethical values.”

Concern has also been expressed that the Christians in Iraq continue to decline from a pre-war population of 1.2 million to a current estimate of 600,000. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, over 40% of Iraqi refugees are Christian even though they represent only about 4% of Iraq’s total population. “The growing and deliberate targeting of Christians is an ominous sign of the breakdown in Iraqi society of civil order and interreligious respect and represents a grave violation of human rights and religious liberty,” said Bishop Wenski of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in U.S.A., pointing to the murder of Father Boulos crucifixion of a Christian teenager in Basra.

New Armenian Bishops

Catholicos Karekin II presided at the Episcopal consecration of three new bishops on 19 November, which took place in the Cathedral at Holy Etchmiadzin. Father Ararat Dz. Vardapet Katakjian to be Dean of the Monasteries of the Mother See; Father Anushavan Vardapet Jamkotchian to be Dean of the Theological Faculrty of the Yerevan State University and Father Markos Vardamet Hovhannisian to be Locum Tenens of the diocese of Gegharkunik.

Heads of Oriental Orthodox Churches Meet in Egypt

Pope Shenouda III and Patriarch Mor Ignatiuus Zakka of Antioch, held their annual meeting from 22-24 November 2006, at St. Mark’s Centre, in Nasr City, Cairo. Unfortunately, at the last moment, as a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Catholicos Aram I, Head of the Armenian Orthodox Church of Cilicia, cancelled his scheduled trip to Egypt for the meeting. However, the two spiritual leaders remained in contact with H.H. Aram I throughout the meeting, exchanging views on a variety of issues.

At the end of the meeting, the three Heads of Churches condemned the ordination of Max Michel (see page 287) by schismatic and non-canonical bishops who claim to be Orthodox and emphasized the necessity of strengthening cooperation between primates and communities of the three Oriental Orthodox churches.

Joint Theological Commission

On 21 June the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeas received the Supreme Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, at the Phanar. During his speech, the Patriarch made some important comments about the Joint Theological Commission between the two Orthodox families:

“The official bilateral Theological Dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and the Ancient Oriental Churches that has existed for many years now, has certainly brought our two Church families closer, but this effort certainly needs our attention even more, as well as our willingness to apply the decisions that have been taken in the work of the Joint Theological Commission.

Your Holiness, allow us to speak a little about the history of the discussions between our two Church families, which began in the 5th century and continue for more than fifteen centuries, every time under different circumstances, on different levels, and with different perspectives, all of which have been usually influenced negatively by the well-known historical incidents, and have always fuelled the polemic theology of both sides with burdensome designations. However, despite the acute confrontations on the terminology of the Christological dogma, and the relevant ecclesiastical decisions of the IV Ecumenical Council (451), the deep theological relationship of the two sides remains very much alive in their conscience. This theological relationship has its common roots not only in the Christological teachings of the great Father of the Church, St. Cyril of Alexandria, but also in the entire pre-Chalcedonian ecclesiastical and theological tradition.

It is however, obvious that both, the completion, during the 6th century of the schism between the advocates and the opponents of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, as well as their acute historical confrontations, have cast a shadow on the indisputable relationship of the two theological traditions, and highlighted their theological differences in the interpretation of the Christological dogma. Indeed, in periods of ecclesiastical confrontations what prevailed in the relations of the two ecclesiastical traditions, was the austere application of the principle of canonical accuracy, which would draw its arguments from their polemic theology, whereas in periods of compulsory or even circumstantial co-existence, what prevailed in their relations was the moderate principle of ecclesiastic oeconomia, which drew its arguments from the constructive propositions in every initiative of a theological dialogue, for the restoration of ecclesiastic communion.

We all know that it was in this light that the double ecclesiastical practice of the Orthodox tradition was shaped, namely the austere canonical and the moderate ecclesiastical confrontation of the relations of the Orthodox Church with the Ancient Oriental Churches. However, the inward tendency of both sides for a constructive theological dialogue remained always alive, up to this very day, and the visit of Your Holiness to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is yet another sign that shows the determination of both sides to work hard for the positive outcome of this effort. It is this theological dialogue that could cure the verified theological confusions, or even the ungrounded and insubstantial ecclesiastical controversies of the historical past. This tendency has been empowered in the last century and has been expressed with a prominent emphasis not only in the famous Encyclicals of the late Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III in 1902 and 1904, but also in the Answers of the local Orthodox Churches. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss the tragic consequences of the two World Wars, which for the most part did not allow for the local Orthodox Churches to assume particular incentives towards a solution of this pending problem.

These prospects have however returned onstage with the positive decisions of the Pan-Orthodox Conferences in Rhodes and prepared the ground for a bilateral Theological Dialogue between us. This dialogue has been further facilitated by the official participation of your Church family in the Ecumenical Movement for the unity of all Christians. You are of course well aware also of the importance and contribution of the unofficial Theological Meetings of the past decades, which had been crowned by the presence of distinguished theologians of both sides with the common goal of studying both, the convergent and divergent approaches of the Christological issue. The conclusions of the thorough theological presentations and discussions of these unofficial Meetings have been of immense value for the official Theological Dialogue, not only because they managed to accentuate the historical charge of the obfuscation of terms and meanings during the conversations, pertaining to the Christological issue, but also because they accentuated the positive prospects for overcoming these obfuscations within the framework of a Theological Dialogue, in the light of our common patristic tradition.

However, we deem it necessary to take us once more back in time and retrace our common steps in the developments in our Theological Dialogue. The Ecumenical Patriarchate evaluated the theological conclusions of the unofficial Theological Meetings and thus decided for the opening of the official Dialogue with the composition of the Joint Theological Commission, which had come together in Geneva in 1985. The dialogue, entitled “Towards a common Christology,” would address not only the issue of the common Christology, but also the problems of terminology, the Synodal decisions, the historical elements and the interpretation of the Christological dogmas today.

This decision was praised unanimously by the Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in 1986. What received the greatest praise was however, the choice of the critical Christological issue as the main topic, and the perspectives of the Dialogue had been established with a pan-Orthodox decision. These perspectives would “provide concrete hopes that solutions will be found by a common effort for all the issues adjunct to the Term of the IV Ecumenical Council, in an indissoluble unity, and according to the Christological decisions of the other Ecumenical Synods, a way of accepting the IV, V, VI and VII Ecumenical Councils, the lifting of the anathemas that had been imposed from both sides etc….” Apparently the particular satisfaction of the 3rd Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference was connected also with the hope of simultaneously studying the common pastoral problems of the two Churches, which “on the one hand live in a common for them environment, and on the other hand have common ecclesiastical presuppositions, which can contribute for the solution of their problems.”

The Joint Theological Commission has been fully aware, from their very first meeting, that the “only privilege of this Dialogue” that is “absent in all the other Theological Dialogues” was and is “the fact that both Churches receive their spiritual food from the inexhaustible wealth of sources of the same ecclesiastical and patristic tradition.” The study of the four sub-topics of the Christological issue was appointed to a small joint Sub-Committee, which came together and established the common theological criteria and the methodology that would be followed for the best-resulting conduct of the Theological Dialogue on the issue at hand. The common theological criterion that was established, was the Christology of Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the common methodology, the focalization of the theological discussions on the ascertained theological differences from the traditions of the two Churches. Thus, the Christology of Saint Cyril acted as the common and necessary theological criterion, for the evaluation of the theological differences, and this explains the impressive speed by which the Joint Theological Commission concluded on the two common Theological Statements for the agreement on the Christological issue.

Indeed, the II Conference of the plenum of the Joint Theological Commission was prepared on the basis of the aforementioned criteria, and came together under the presidency of His Eminence, Metropolitan Damaskinos, in the historical Monastery of Anba Bishoy in Egypt. The plan for a common document was accepted after many modifications and additions, and this short text was then placed within the Communiqué of the Joint Commission (1st Common Statement). It was this action, Your Holiness, that had finally opened up the way for an integral approach not only of the Christological issue, but also of the related topics, namely the inclusion of the seven Ecumenical Councils, the lifting of the Anathemas that had been imposed from both sides, etc. Simultaneously, the Joint Theological Commission decided the formation of a special joint Sub-committee on the pastoral problems, with the study of common practical problems and the submission of proposals for their adequate confrontation as its main mission.

The 1st Common Statement, despite the partial obscurities in its wording, affirmed the underlying positive prospects for a more conclusive appointment not only of the historical deprecation of the Eutychianic Monophysism by the pre-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox Churches, but also of the substantial agreement on the Christological issue. In this spirit and under those theological criteria that had the Christological teachings of Saint Cyril as a common basis, the Joint Theological Commission prepared and developed its 2nd Common Statement in the III Conference of its plenum. The thorough Theological presentations by reputable representatives of the two ecclesiastical traditions covered the following topics: a) Terminology of the Council of Chalcedon, b) Dogmatic expressions of the other Ecumenical Councils, c) the mutual Anathemas and the possibility of lifting them, and d) the interpretation of the Christological dogmas today. The Drafting Committee evaluated the theological prepositions of the presentations and of the discussions of the plenum of the Joint Theological Commission in the light of the agreement of the 1st common Theological Statement, in order to offer a compiled and wholesome common text of theological agreement on all the controversial points of the Christological issue.

None the less, this theological agreement did not cover two important aspects of the mission of the Joint Theological Commission, because the representatives of your Church family, although having accepted the orthodoxy of the dogmatic Terms of the IV, V, VI and VII Ecumenical Councils, expressed reservations and even objections on the issue of the imminent recognition of the ecumenicity of the aforementioned Councils, and raised as either plausible or pretending arguments the anathema by these Councils of leading figures of their ecclesiastical tradition, or their own predicament of lifting the anathema of Pope Leo I of Rome. However, the issue of the mutual lifting of the Anathemas seriously perturbed the representatives of our Church, both for the possibility, as well as the manner of lifting the Anathemas, which had been issued by the Ecumenical Councils. Therefore, the discussion of these issues moved within the framework of general theological presuppositions and ecclesiological criteria, since both Churches have different organizational structures and different difficulties in their approach. We see that as human beings, imperfection is one of our most common characteristics, and our imperfection is what stands in our ways by creating problems when our goal is to overcome them.

Therefore, the theological work of the Joint Theological Commission on the Christological issue and the related topics consist of a firm and trustworthy basis for the ecclesiastical approach of the utilization not only of the theological agreement, but also of the established disagreements on the relevant issues, on which the major arguments of the controversy were focused for the prospects of the restoration of the ecclesiastical communion. It is in this light and with this useful experience of the theological confrontations of an entire decade that the mission of the Joint Theological Commission has now started anew on the remaining issues to be discussed.

Nevertheless, Your Holiness, for all this to be realized we must always keep in mind that we aim only for the glory of God, and it is yet one more effort to be faithful and follow His will and desire for all of us who believe in Him to be one. He Himself taught us this: May they all be one. It is a sacred goal that we are pursuing, and it is by our determination and unfailing interest that we will see the fruits of the grace of God multiply in our midst. It is our duty to try and see deeper than just the surface, and open our hearts and minds and pray that what had happened on the way to Emmaus will not repeat itself in our Dialogue, but we will listen with all our heart and might and with our unceasing prayer we will beseech God so that He might grant us the opportunity to once again partake together of His body and blood that He has shed for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting. For, human intellect simply cannot grasp by its own devices the way of existence of the Holy Trinity and it is with this understanding that we pray that God will grant us the unification of our Churches, for this unity will come as a gift of Divine grace. Amen.”

Patriarch Theodorus offers clarification

In an article published in Al Ahram Weekly on 28 April 2005 (No. 740) the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, His Holiness Theodoros II, was quoted as describing the Copts as Monophysites. However, the Patriarch was pleased to denounce this attribution, explaining that it was a misunderstanding in translation from Greek into English. He accepted the reality of the official theological dialogue between the two families and that the term ‘miaphysite’ is more accurate as the Coptic Church believes in a united one incarnate nature. Although Patriarch Theodoros issued an official letter of clarification (available at http://www.socmnet.org/ExplanatoryLletterGOPA.JPG) Al Ahram Weekly refused to publish it.

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