ORIENTAL ORTHODOX CHURCH NEWS
Tragic Illness of Patriarch Mesrob
In July 2008 the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul issued a statement concerning the health of Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan, whose health had been giving concern for the past year although he is only 52 years old.
During the summer of 2007 those close to the Patriarch had noticed that he appeared to be uncharacteristically lethargic with a reduced attention span. Upon investigation he was found to be suffering from a diabetes, sleep apnea (pauses in breathing during sleep) and a thyroid tumour and treatment for these conditions was immediately begun. However, during various other tests the more serious condition of fronto-temporal dementia was diagnosed.
Fronto-temporal lobe dementia is a rare form of dementia more likely affecting those under the age of 65. There is no known cure and the porogression of the conditioin cannot be slowed. In the initial stages memory is still intact, but the personality and behaviour of the person changes. The rate of progression varies enormousdly, ranging from less than two years to over ten years. In the later stages, the damage to the brain is usually more generalised and symptoms usually appear to be similar to those of Alzheimers. People affected may no longer recognise friends and family and may need nursing care.
The response to this tragic illness of a dynamic and much-loved Patriarch has been an outpouring of prayer and tenderness, both on the part of the Armenians of Turkey and other churches, with which Patriarch Mesrob maintained warm ecumenical relations. On 21 November 2008 the tenth anniversary of his enthronement, a special service was held in the Patriarchal Basilica and water was solemnly blessed for the health of all those who are sick, after which the bishops present – led by the Ecumenical Patriarch – carried the water into the Patriarchate and laid hands on the Patriarch’s head, praying for his health. At a meeting of the Patriarchate’s Spiritual Council held on 24 December it was unanimously agreed that, despite his failing health, Patriarch Mesrob held office for life. Archbishop Sahan Sivaciyan, aged 83, is Deputy Patriarch and Archbishop Aram Atesyan is Chasirman of the Religious Council. Patriarch Mesrob remains living at the Patriarchate, where he is cared for by his mother.
New Bishops for Knanaya Archdiocese
On 11 June, 2008, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch, consecrated Ramban Kuriakose Kolath with the name, Mor Ivanios Kuriakose and Ramban Job Thottathil with the name, Mor Silvanos Ayoub as Auxiliary Bishops for Knanaya Archdiocese of Malankara at the St. Peter’s & St. Paul’s Patriarchal Cathedral of the St. Aphrem the Syrian Monastery at Ma’arrat Seydnaya, Damascus, Syria.
Patriarch Zakka returns to India
His Holiness Mor Ignatius Zakka I, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, paid his fourth apostolic visit to the Syrian Orthodox Churches in India from 17-29 October 2008. During this visit the Patriarch undertook a large number of engagements, despite suffering from a recent knee operation, which necessitated him attending some services in a wheeled chair. Among the many events marking his visit was the consecration of a new Syrian Orthodox Church at Kavumbegam near Thiruvalla and the formal canonisation of three Syriac Church fathers; Maphryono Mor Baselios Shakralla (1764, Kandanad), Mor Coorilos Yuyakkim, the Patrirachal delegate (1874, Mulanthuruthy) and Mor Coorilos Paulose Kochuparamabil, the former Malankara Metropolitan and local head of the Church in India (1917, Panampady). His Holiness also presided over a combined meeting of all the spiritual organizations of the Church at the Church headquarters in Puthencruz and conducted the consecration of the Holy Myron at St. Athanasius Cathedral at Puthencruz.
Two new Indian (Jacobite) bishops consecrated.
On 24 August 2008 at the St. Peter & St. Paul Cathedral, Mor
Aphrem Seminary, Damascus, H.H. Mor Ignatius Zakka I, Syrian Patriarch of Antioch, consecrated two Rambans as bishops of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. Dr. Kuriakose T. Abraham Pulliattu Thukalan (Rabban ‘Sthepahnos) as Kuriakose Mor Clemis , Metropolitan of Idukki and Fr. Paul (Ullas) Varkey Vettikkunnel (Rabban Shemavun) as Palouse Mor Ireneous, Metropolitan of Calicut.
Continuing concerns about clashes in Jerusalem
At a meeting held in November 2008 at the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo, His Holiness Aram I of the Holy See of Cilicia and His Holiness Patriarch Shenouda III released a joint declaration with regard to the sad incident between Armenians and Greeks in Jerusalem recently. The Spiritual Leader of the Syrian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Patriarch Zakka I expressed his support for the declaration. In their joint declaration the spiritual leaders expressed sadness at the clashes between the two groups. They emphasized the respect for the historic rights of all churches in Jerusalem and the importance for resolving misunderstandings and sensitivities through mutual understand. The declaration also stressed the need to strengthen Christian unity in the Middle East.
Mass commemorates Christians murdered in Iraq
Iraqi Christians exiled in the United Kingdom held a mass on to
commemorate relatives and friends murdered because of their faith in
their homeland. Around ninety Iraqi exiles living across Britain attended the service to say prayers for lost loved ones and those still in Iraq.
Led by Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawood, the head of the Syrian
Orthodox Church in the UK, the mass included prayers for Christians
killed in recent attacks in Mosul, northern Iraq. The mass, in the Holy Family Church in Fairwater, Cardiff, also featured prayers for peace.
Speaking before the mass, Archbishop Athanasius urged the British
government to help Christians in Iraq. “We wanted to show what is happening in Iraq and how people are suffering,” he said. “We wanted to show people that we are here and that we are alive and to raise our voices. And we want to show the government in the UK that we need to get help for our people.” Later Archbishop Athanasius said that thousands of Christians had left Mosul after being ordered to do so via loudspeakers.
He said: “Some Christians were forcefully evicted from their homes
and their homes were blown up in front of their eyes. Some had their
sons killed. “They have succeeded in petrifying the innocent and peace-loving people, forcing them to flee.”
Catholicos Aram I visits Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I
On 9 September 2008 His Holiness Aram I and the delegation visited Patriarch Zakka I Iwas in the Syrian Church’s summer residence. The Synod of Syrian Bishops is underway presently. Upon his arrival, His Holiness was received by the Patriarch and the Bishops.
Patriarch Zakka I warmly welcomed the Pontiff underlining the
friendly relations between the two churches. The Patriarch recalled
the Fellowship between the Coptic and Syrian Churches and the
Catholicosate of Cilicia, set up by the efforts of His Holiness Aram
I 12 years ago.
Making a brief overview of the relations between the Armenian and Syrian Churches, His Holiness Aram I said: “Our two churches have had the same theological approach and have together against all external heretical movements. We must further strengthen our cooperation in a world in which we are facing many challenges patching the daily life of our communities. He called upon the Bishops to continue the strong cooperation between the two churches with the same spirit particularly at the level of the Dioceses.”
The meeting was followed by a reception during which Syrian Bishops asked His Holiness questions about theological and ecumenical issues.
Eritrean Church Delegation cold-shouldered
The Eritrean government is still seeking to gain acceptance of its control of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and puppet Patriarch from the wider Christian community as well as the church in the diaspora. In December 2008 a delegation led by Mr. Yoftahe Dimtros, the government appointed “General Administrator” of the Church, toured Europe in an attempt at gaining support for the unpopular Eritrean government and legitimacy for the leadership of the EOC that is increasingly seen by the populace as being a subservient tool of the government of Mr. Isaias Afeworki. The delegation included Abba Dioscoros, the “patriarch” who usurped the throne of His Holiness Abune Antonios following the latter’s dethronement and subsequent detention in January 2006. Other members were Abba Matewos, Bishop of Dbarwa; Abba Yohannes Bishop of Keren, and Habtom Rusom, Mr. Yoftahe’s secretary.
The Vatican, which still recognises Abune Antonios as Patriarch, refused to receive the delegation. On 7 December, 2008 the delegation was denied entry to Kidist Mariam Eritrean Orthodox Church in Milan and they were denounced as not representing the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Local police officers ensured that they did not set foot in the church, so Mr. Yoftahe and his delegation were forced to spend that Sunday morning in another hall with a few political supporters of the ruling party in Eritrea.
Plans to extend their visit to the USA to resolve the position of the Eritrean bishop there appear to have been frustrated by the refusal of the Americans to grant visas to the members of the delegation.
Abba Sinouda, who was dispatched to the United States in October 2005 to undermine those Eritrean communities still loyal to Abune Antonios, has also proved a problem for the Eritrean government. One of the last acts of the Patriarch, before his removal, was to declare that Sinouda had left Eritrea neither with his approval nor knowledge. In fact Abba Sinouda arrived in the USA on a diplomatic visa and part of his salary was being paid by the Eritrean Embassy. It soon became clear that the Eritrean communities were unwilling to receive the government’s agent, so the synod ordered his early return to Asmara. However, Abba Sinoda has simply ignored his recall three times and completely cut himself off the synod. It is thought he may himself claim asylum.
The delegation had planned to confront Abba Sinouda in America and if he still refused to return to Eritrea, to convoke a meeting of the priests who are supporting the Eritrean government at which his removal would be announced and Abba Yohannes, Bishop of Keren, would become his replacement. If Sinouda resisted this plan, his excommunication would be publicly announced.
Catholic-Oriental Orthodox International Dialogue
The sixth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome from 26-30 January, 2009. The meeting was chaired jointly by His Eminence Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, General Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Joining delegates from the Catholic Church were representatives of the following Oriental Orthodox Churches: the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians), the Armenian Apostolic Church (Holy See of Cilicia), the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahido Church. As the members gathered for the meeting, they learned with great sadness that His Grace Philipos Mar Eusebius, Metropolitan of Thumpamon, India, a representative of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church since the inception of the dialogue, had passed away only a few days earlier, on January 21. They expressed their condolences to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.
Most of the members attended the Vespers Service presided over by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls on the evening of January 25 for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The first part of the meeting was devoted to the examination and approval of a common document entitled “Nature, Constitution and Mission of the Church.” The document describes broad areas of consensus regarding fundamental ecclesiological principles, and outlines areas that require further study. This common document of our dialogue is a major achievement and will be submitted to the authorities of our churches for their consideration and action. It is also recommended to all the faithful of our churches so that they also can participate in the growing understanding between us.
In line with the 2003 Agenda of the dialogue, the members of the commission also heard four papers regarding the nature of the communion our churches shared in the first half of the first millennium. These papers were “The First Three Ecumenical Councils and Their Significance for the Armenian Church” by Archbishop Mesrob Krikorian (read in his absence), “Reception of Councils in the First Five Centuries” by Prof. Dietmar W. Winkler, “The Exercise of Communion Among the Churches in the First Five Centuries” by Fr. Frans Bouwen, and “The Exercise of Communion Among the Churches and the Reception of Ecclesiastical Councils in the First Five Centuries” by Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak.
On 27 January, Cardinal Kasper hosted a dinner for the members at the Domus Sancta Martha in the Vatican. Each day began with a prayer service in which the members asked for the Lord’s blessings on their work. The members also signed a letter expressing their best wishes to Most Reverend Johan Bonny who, before he was consecrated Bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, earlier this month, had staffed the dialogue on behalf of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity since it began. The two chairpersons also sent a congratulatory letter to Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad on his election as Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in the name of the members of the Commission.
On 30 January, the members of the Joint Commission were received in audience by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Metropolitan Bishoy extended the greetings of the commission members to the Holy Father, and presented him with an icon of the Blessed Virgin Saint Mary “Mother of God” painted by Coptic nuns in Egypt. In his response, the Pope said, “The world needs a visible sign of the mystery of unity that binds the three divine Persons and, that two thousand years ago, with the Incarnation of the Son of God, was revealed to us. The tangibility of the Gospel message is conveyed perfectly by John, when he declares his intention to express what he has heard and his eyes have seen and his hands have touched, so that all may have fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-4). Our communion through the grace of the Holy Spirit in the life that unites the Father and the Son has a perceptible dimension within the Church, the Body of Christ, ‘the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph1:23), and we all have a duty to work for the manifestation of that essential dimension of the Church to the world. Your sixth meeting has taken important steps precisely in the study of the Church as communion. The very fact that the dialogue has continued over time and is hosted each year by one of the several Churches you represent is itself a sign of hope and encouragement.”
The seventh meeting of the International Commission will take place at the Catholicosate of the Armenian Apostolic Church – Holy See of Cilicia, Antelias – Lebanon, from 25-30 January 2010, at the invitation of His Holiness Catholicos Aram I. At this meeting more papers will be presented exploring the ways in which the churches expressed their full communion with one another during the first five centuries with particular emphasis on the churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Armenia, Persia and India. The session concluded with a prayer asking the Lord’s blessing upon the continuation of the dialogue’s work.