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ORIENTAL ORTHODOX CHURCH NEWS

Coadjutor-Patriarch for Armenians in Jerusalem

In November 2010 it was announced that the Armenian Church in Jerusalem is to have a co-adjutor patriarch to assist His Beatitude Patriarch Torkom (Manoogian), the 96th Patriarch of Jerusalem.

This was  proposed by Patriarch Torkom himself, during the four-day 19th general Assembly of the monastic Brotherhood of St. James, whose members administer the Patriarchate. Patriarch Torkom, who is 94, has been in declining health for some time although he co-chaired the Assembly with Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the primate of Diocese of Armenian Church of America (Eastern).

Born in an Iraqui refugee camp in 1919 Patriarch Torkom studied at the Armenian Seminary in Jerusalem before becoming its Assistant Dean. Following his episcopal consecration in 1962 he served in the USA as Primate of the Western diocese and for a short period of the Eastern diocese, being elected Patriarch in 19990. Following the death of Catholicos Vazgen he served as locum tenens of Etchmiadzin 1994-5. He has tried hard to reinforce the Armenian presence in the Holy Land through administrative reforms, refurbishing the dilapidated residences of the priests, renovating churches and upgrading the educational standards of the theological seminary.

His insistence on accountability and transparency and imbuing the Armenian Church with his vision of a revived Jerusalem, has earned him universal respect from all Armenians and brought a measure of much-needed stability to the Armenian community but the strains have taken a heavy toll on his health.

Catholic-Oriental-Orthodox Joint Commission

The eighth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome from January 25 to 28, 2011. The meeting was hosted by His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, the new President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It was chaired jointly by Cardinal Koch and by 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 Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians), the Armenian Apostolic Church (Holy See of Cilicia), the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. No representative of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church was able to attend.

The two delegations met separately on January 25, and held plenary sessions each day from January 26 to January 28. Each day of the plenary sessions began with a common celebration of Morning Prayer. In his remarks at the beginning of the first session, Cardinal Koch welcomed the group to Rome, and said that “I have had an enduring ecumenical interest in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and in your history, your life of faith, your liturgy and theology. I have always felt very at home in your presence. Despite our longstanding separation, we share a solid basis of faith and ecclesial order.” With great sadness the Cardinal also informed the group of the death of one of the Ethiopian Orthodox representatives, Father Megabe Biluy Seife Selassie. He has been replaced by Archdeacon Daniel Seife Michael, an instructor at Holy Trinity Theological University College in Addis Ababa. The cardinal also offered congratulations to Father John Matthews who, since the last meeting, was ordained a bishop and given the name Metropolitan Dr. Youhanan Mar Demetrios, Assistant Metropolitan of Delhi, and to His Eminence Nareg Alemezian who has been elevated to the rank of Archbishop. Metropolitan Bishoy took the occasion to congratulate Cardinal Koch on his appointment as President of the Pontifical Council, and to express his gratitude to Cardinal Walter Kasper for his co-chairmanship of the commission until his retirement last year. He also stressed that the official name of his family of churches should always be “Oriental Orthodox Churches.”

At this meeting, the members continued their study – in a very friendly atmosphere – of the ways in which the churches expressed their communion with one another until the middle of the fifth century and the role played by monasticism in this. The papers presented included “The Communion and Communication that Existed Between Our Churches Until the Mid-Fifth Century of Christian History As Well As the Role Played by Monasticism: The Tradition of Antioch,” by Archbishop Theophilus George Saliba; “The Petrine Office and the Question, Who Established the Church of Rome?: Coptic Orthodox Perspective,” by Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, “Communion and Communication Among the Churches in the Tradition of Alexandria,” by Father Mark Sheridan, OSB; “The Role of Monasticism in the Development and Communion of the Churches,” by Father Columba Stewart, OSB; “Communion and Communication that Existed Between Our Churches Until the Mid-Fifth Century of Christian History and the Role Played by Monasticism: The Ethiopian Experience,” by Archdeacon Daniel Seife Michael Feleke; “The Reception of the Ecumenical Councils in the Armenian Tradition (VIII-XV cc.)” and “Communion and Communication,” by Archbishop Yeznik Petrossian; “Communion and Communication Between the St. Thomas Christians of India and Other Churches till Mid-Fifth Century A.D. – Indian Orthodox Perspective,” by Metropolitan Dr. Gabriel Mar Gregorios; “Communion and Communication Between the St. Thomas Christians of India and Other Churches till Mid-Fifth Century A.D. – A Syrian Orthodox Perspective,” by Metropolitan Dr Kuriakose Theophilose; “Communion and Communication Among the Churches: Rome in the Pre-Constantinian Era,” by Prof. Dietmar W. Winkler.

In these various studies, the members of the commission focused more precisely on the concrete expressions of communion and communication among the churches before the separation. Indeed, communion was expressed primarily through various forms of communication. It was noted that in the pre-Constantinian period, there was an intense communication among the churches, especially in times of crisis. There was a common sense of responsibility towards the other churches that was found most clearly in the exchange of letters and synodal decisions. These provided a means of conveying encouragement and challenge to one another, as well as theological clarifications. This exchange was mutual among the various churches. It exemplified a remarkable degree of communion among local communities in a process that lacked central direction after 250 years of expansion throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, including Armenia, Persia, Ethiopia and India. The universal phenomenon of Christian asceticism, present from the earliest times, found expression in the monastic movements, emerging from the late third century in all parts of the Christian world. There was a fruitful exchange of monastic spiritual writings emanating from the Christian Orient, even across doctrinal divisions.

In the evening of January 25, the members attended a Vespers service in the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls presided over by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In his homily the Holy Father made reference to the presence of the members of the dialogue, and said, “We entrust the success of your meeting to the Lord, that it may be another step forward towards our longed-for unity”. On Thursday evening January 27, Cardinal Koch hosted a dinner for the dialogue members and staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Domus Sanctae Marthae in the Vatican.

Pope Benedict XVI received the members of the commission in private audience on Friday morning January 28. Cardinal Koch and Metropolitan Bishoy thanked the Pope for receiving the commission, and Metropolitan Bishoy presented a Coptic icon of Saint Mary the Mother of God to him on behalf of the members of the commission. The Pope then greeted the members, saying “It is with great joy that I welcome you, the members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Through you I gladly extend fraternal greetings to my venerable Brothers, the Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. I am grateful for the work of the Commission which began in January 2003 as a shared initiative of the ecclesial authorities of the family of the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. As you know, the first phase of the dialogue, from 2003 to 2009, resulted in the common text entitled Nature, Constitution and Mission of the Church. The document outlined aspects of fundamental ecclesiological principles that we share and identified issues requiring deeper reflection in successive phases of the dialogue. We can only be grateful that after almost fifteen hundred years of separation we still find agreement about the sacramental nature of the Church, about apostolic succession in priestly service and about the impelling need to bear witness to the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the world. In the second phase the Commission has reflected from an historical perspective on the ways in which the Churches expressed their communion down the ages. During the meeting this week you are deepening your study of the communion and communication that existed between the Churches until the mid-fifth century of Christian history, as well as the role played by monasticism in the life of the early Church. We must be confident that your theological reflection will lead our Churches not only to understand each other more deeply, but resolutely to continue our journey decisively towards the full communion to which we are called by the will of Christ. For this intention we have lifted up our common prayer during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which has just ended. Many of you come from regions where Christian individuals and communities face trials and difficulties that are a cause of deep concern for us all. All Christians need to work together in mutual acceptance and trust in order to serve the cause of peace and justice. May the intercession and example of the many martyrs and saints, who have given courageous witness to Christ in all our Churches, sustain and strengthen you and your Christian communities. With sentiments of fraternal affection I invoke upon all of you the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The ninth meeting of the International Joint Commission will take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the invitation of His Holiness Abune Paulos I, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Tewahido Orthodox Church. The members will plan to arrive on Monday January 16, 2012, and depart on Monday January 23. The two delegations will meet separately on Tuesday January 17, and in plenary session on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, January 18, 19, and 21. They will participate in the celebration of Epiphany (Timkat) on January 20, and in Sunday liturgies on January 22.

Islamist Mobs in Ethiopia Destroy Church Buildings

On 2 March a Church in church in the area of Asendabo, some 250 kilometres southwest of Addis Abab was destroyed by a rampaging crowd of Muslims, incited by a rumour that a Christian had desecrated a Qu’ran. It was the beginning of a number of concerted attacks  during the following days, which spread to Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha, mostly on Protestant churches. When it ended an estimated 69 churches had destroyed; 10,000 Christians displaced from their homes and one Orthodox Christian was also killed. This area has a population almost equally divided between Christians (48.7%) and Muslims (47.5%).

Attacks on churches have been a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia like Jimma and Jijiga and Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Eventually 558 people were sentenced to imprisonment, for terms ranging from six months to 25 years for these attacks. Regional officials reported that almost all the displaced people were returned to their homes, some of which had been repaired with support from local Muslims. The Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, blamed a little-known local Muslim group for preaching intolerance in the region, and warned of growing religious tensions in the Christian-dominated country.

Syrian Orthodox Patriarch visits Turkish Premier

H.H. Patriarch Ignatius Zakka, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, accompanied by four members of the Holy Synod, was received in Ankara on 30 March by the Prime Minister of Turkey (Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). They had gone to discuss the disputes over the land belonging to Mor Gabriel Monastery in Tur Abdin. The monastery’s bishop, Mor Timotheos Samuel Aktas was among the delegation, which also included the presidents of the diocesan councils of Tur Abdin and Istanbul and the lawyers acting for Mor Gabriel monastery. Representing the Turkish Forestry Commission, which is in dispute with the monastery, was the Turkish Secretary for the Environment.

The Prime Minister said that he had been following the case and would do his utmost to find a proper outcome to settle the dispute after the court had issued its verdict, when he would be happy to meet again with the Patriarch.

Christians face unrest in Syria

Syriac Christians, faced with the current unrest in Syria and violent opposition to the régime of President Bashir Al-Assad are torn between desiring a return to stability and a horror at the violence which has ensued. It is a fact that under President Assad and his father, Christians, who comprise about 10% (1.7 million) of the population, have enjoyed considerable freedom to practice their faith in a stable society.

The principal Christian church is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East with large communities of Syrian Orthodox, Armenian and various Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome. Christians tend to be urbanized, and most live in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Lattakia, although significant numbers live in the Hasaka governorate in the northeast.

There is a strict de facto separation of church and state. Religious groups tend to avoid any involvement in internal political affairs. All religions and orders must register with the Government, which monitors fundraising and requires permits for all religious and nonreligious group meetings, except for worship. Recognized religious groups receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes and personal property taxes on official vehicles. Orthodox and Western Easter, as well as three Muslim religious holidays are official national holidays.

The Government generally refrains from becoming involved in strictly religious issues but its policies tend to support the practice and study of moderate forms of Islam and the Government selects moderate Muslims for religious leadership positions and is intolerant of and suppresses extremist forms of Islam. It encourages the genuinely good relations which have existed between all the recognised religious communities for many years.

It is hardly, surprising, therefore, that the churches are generally pro-government and fearful that any régime change will result in the dominance of Islamic extremists. Many of these same ancient Christian communities in Iraq have suffered appalling violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein and their co-religionists in Syria have good reason to fear that they will be possible victims of violence. For this reason they are largely silent in the midst of the anti-government protests.

In April H.H. Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia wrote to President Al-Assad supporting the reforms he initially promised and re-affirmed the commitment of the Armenian community in Syria to their country.

Then the Council of Bishops of the Christian Churches of Damascus, Syria, met on 16 June 2011 at the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to discuss the current sad situation which is sweeping over Syria – ‘the country of civilizations and the cradle of heavenly religions’ they issued the following declaration:

“The Council of Bishops condemned the foreign interference in Syria, and asked the Syrian citizens to be united. They asked Almighty God to enlighten the minds of the people, feed love in their hearts, and spread security and peace all over the country. The Bishops continued their statement by saying: Today and more than ever before, we refer to prayer and fasting for the sake of the safety of Syria, the country of tolerance and coexistence. Our hope is that Syria will overcome this crisis to find itself in a better shape which may protect it from any danger that might threaten its existence, or divide it, or lead its citizens to seek refuge into other countries. Every drop of blood that is shed from any Syrian citizen, it is shed from the entire Syrian body. St. Paul refers to the body of Christ our Saviour when saying: ‘If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts suffer with it’ [1 Cor. 12:26]. At a time when our beloved country Syria is living in vigorous days, the Holy Church is living the time of ‘Pentecost’, which is the time of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, and the time of the foundation of the Church and launching the process of evangelization all over the universe in a spirit of love, peace, tolerance and acceptance of other. These spiritual and ethical values are an integral part of human principles. The event of Pentecost is not a historical moment of the past; rather it is a renewed occurrence. From it, we acquire our strength and faith, and in it we live, moves, and exist. Therefore, we call on all Christians in Syria and all other Syrian citizens who wish to join us, for a ‘day of fasting’ on Thursday 23 June 2011, where we will gather at 6:30 pm on that day at the Holy Cross Church in Kassa`a area, Damascus, to pray for peace which is a human, religious, and national responsibility. By this we deserve the blessing of being peacemakers which Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us in His saying: ‘Blessed are those who work for peace, God will call them his children’(Matt. 5:9)”

Tensions in Armenian-Georgian Church relations

H.H. Catholicos Karekin II of Etchmiadzin paid an official visit to the Georgian Orthodox Church in June 2011, the first visit of an Armenian Catholicos to Georgia since 1894.  His visit was intended to improve relations between the Churches of the neighbouring Caucasus Republics, both Orthodox but one belonging to the Eastern Orthodox family and the other to the Oriental. There are some 171,00 Armenians living in Georgia, notably the province of Samtskhe‐Javakheti, which borders on Armenia and the old Armenian provinces of Turkey. Catholicios Karekin also sought the return of several ancient Armenian churches, which were closed in the 1930s under the Soviets but not returned after independence. Notable among these are the Soorp Narashan Church, built in the mid eleventh century, which is being used by the Georgia Orthodox Church as part of a policy of “Georgianisation” of Armenian Churches. Other churches (like the Karmir Anetaran Church, with its 40 metre high spire) have either been destroyed or allowed to fall into disrepair.

Despite attempts to appear cordial, Catholicos Karekin was unable to obtain any agreement or even the signing of the usual joint declaration with H.H. Catholicos-Patriarch Ilya II, who insisted that any agreement  over the return of churches would need to have a quid pro quo for the buildings in Armenia which the Georgian Church claimed as theirs. The situation was not improved by Catholicos Ilya saying “Karekin is young and apparently lacks experience,” and observing, “He is intelligent but wants to do things quickly, which will not work. I told him that I have a 30-year experience and that staying calm is the best thing.” A few months earlier the Deputy Minister of Reintegration, Yelena Tevdoradze, had told an Armenian audience that the Armenian Apostolic Church “will never be granted an official status” and “will only be a so-called branch in Georgia …I repeat, we will not recognize the Church of Echmiadzin,”

However, less than a month later, on 5 July 2011 the Georgian parliament approved amendmentsto Georgia’s Civil Code granting legal status to “those faiths that are considered legal religions by member countries of the European Council” enabling them to register as full-fledged religious organizations. Previously, such groups were only able to register as charities or non-government organizations. The five religious minorities covered by these amendments were the Roman Catholic Church (0.8%), the Evangelical Baptists (0.1%), the Muslims (9.9%), the Jews (0.1%) and the Armenian Apostolic Church (3.9%).1

Unfortunately this eirenic measure by the government was not well-received by some members of the Georgian Orthodox Church (83.9%), who are hostile to Armenians, both on religious and ethnic grounds. Thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi carrying Georgian icons and flags, to protest at the parliamentary resolution, which they viewed as pro-Armenian and complaining against “anti-Orthodox forces”. Catholicos Ilya II urged President Mikheil Saakashvili to veto the law and to organize additional discussions.

Protests were halted only after a strict order was given by the mayor of Tbilisi and, most importantly, certain revisions had been made by Georgian lawmakers in the Civil Code that essentially reduced the former broad powers granted to religious organizations. The Georgian Holy Synod, which met on 12 July, called for calm and urged parliament in future to discuss with the Patriarchate draft legislation related to religion so as “to avoid any possible complications.” President Mikheil Saakashvili attended a liturgy conducted by Catholicos Ilya II at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral the following day, publicly showing that church-state relations had improved.

Of the estimated more than 300 Armenian churches situated in the territory of Georgia only 40 of these are functioning churches. In the capital Tbilisi only two of six Armenian churches function, while two are in ruins and the other have been taken over by the Georgians. The Armenians, however, demands that they be returned. By having the status of a legal entity in public law it is feared that the Armenians will possess greater opportunities for settling property demands.

  1. Vide: UN Country of Origin Report, Religious Minorities in Georgia (December 2006).



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