Oriental Orthodox church news


Fragments of Egyptian papyrus found in Ireland

On 6 September Ireland’s National Museum in Dublin announced the discovery of fragments of Egyptian papyrus in the leather cover of an ancient book of psalms. Although there have long been traditions about a connection between the Coptic Church and Ireland, supported by literary references, this could be a more tangible support for those traditions.

The manuscript known as the Faddan More Psalter was unearthed four years ago, in July 2006, by a man using a mechanical digger to harvest peat near Birr in County Tipperary, but analysis has only just been completed. It was the first manuscript to be found in a water-logged state in a bog and its discovery posed unprecedented difficulties for the Conservation Department of the Museum. It was only as the restoration was completed this summer that the fragments of papyrus were discovered in the lining of the leather binding, which is believed to be of Egyptian origin and date from the eighth century. About fifteen per cent of the illuminated Latin Psalter survived, preserved by the chemicals in the peat.    However, at what stage the manuscript, the papyrus and the binding come together is uncertain.

Raghnall O Floinn, head of collections at the museum, explained “the cover could have had several lives before it ended up basically as a folder for the manuscript in the bog. It could have travelled from a library somewhere in Egypt to the Holy Land or to Constantinople or Rome and then to Ireland” but he thought that it might prove possible that the imperfections in the hide might provide a means to confirm that the leather is Egyptian.

The Fadden More Psalter will go on display in the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street in June 2011.

Oldest illuminated Christian manuscript

As a result of modern carbon dating, an ancient illuminated manuscript, long treasured by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has been identified as the oldest illustrated Christian manuscript.

Originally believed to date from the eleventh century, the Garima Gospels have now been dated between 330-650 AD and could justify the belief that they were actually written by Abba Garima, who was one of the Nine Saints from the Byzantine Empire who re-evangelised Ethiopia after the Council of Chalcedon and traditionally arrived in 494.

Preserved in the Abba Garima Monastery in the remote province of Tigray, they somehow survived the Muslim invasion of the 1530s, the Italian invasion of 1896 and a disastrous fire which destroyed the monastery’s main church in the 1930s.

An excellent and informative article by Martin Bailey appeared in The Arts Newspaper for June 2010, which can be read online: http://www.ethiopianheritagefund.org/artsNewspaper.html

Eritrean government continues pressure on the Church

In a special report published in the Asmarino Independent in March 2010, the human rights charity, “In Chains for Christ” revealed that since the Eritrean Government revoked the exemption of all Orthodox clergy (priests, deacons and monks) from military service and ordered their conscription in July 2005, over 1400 known Orthodox priests and deacons have been forced into the military. The research unit of ICFC, in cooperation with persons who are well placed to have access to classified information, has undertaken a study to document efforts by the government to destroy the Eritrean Orthodox Church. The following is a preliminary report on an ongoing and thorough investigation.

In 1997 a letter was circulated within the office of the Ministry of Local Government – at the time headed by Mr. Mahmud Ahmed Sherifo who has been in prison since September 2001 and presumed dead. The letter contained a decision for the exemption of all clerics from serving in the military.  By the Beginning of 1999, all clergy were issued identification cards exempting them from the country’s obligatory military service.

But by 2002, the government’s attitude towards religion in general took a decisive turn for the worst. Just prior to the proclamation outlawing many evangelical churches and other sects on May 17, 2002, the government began the process of taking over (nationalizing) the country’s oldest and most influential institution – the Orthodox Church. The singular event that signalled this ominous development was the installation by the government of a political appointee, Mr. Yoftahe Dimetros, as the General Administrator of the Church.  With this act, the government essentially put the Synod of the Church under its full control. Yoftahe became the one person responsible for the implementation of the government’s total control of the church.

The one individual who took an uncompromising stand against all encroachments by the government in the affairs of the Orthodox Church was its patriarch, H. H. Abune Antonios.  In order to weaken the Patriarch’s opposition, however, the government orchestrated the arrest of all the leading clergy in the Orthodox Church and defrocking scores of others, leaving the Pontiff isolated.

Then, a circular letter, dated July 4, 2005, was issued by the Religious Affairs Department of the Ministry of Local Government. This crudely written circular officially revoked the exemption of all clergy from military service, and ordered all able-bodied priests, deacons and monks within a wide-range age group to report for military service.

By the end of 2005, having completely weakened the authority of the Patriarch through the arrest and defrocking of a large number of capable clergy, and having brow-beaten all the members of the Synod into submission, the government then moved against the person of H.H. Antonios himself by announcing his “removal from all administrative duties.”  In January 2006, he was put under house arrest. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

The past four years have seen the reducing of the Eritrean Orthodox Church to a mere arm of the Department of Religious Affairs. The historical artifacts and ancient manuscripts of the Church were all declared as “the property of the Eritrean people”, and have been removed from churches and monasteries. The finances of the church also fell under the control of the Department of Religious Affairs. According to associates of ICFC, the forcing of over 1400 priests and deacons into the army has had deleterious effects on the future of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Others chose to flee the country than joining the military.  The number of those who fled is in the hundreds.

While many of the churches in the larger cities are still able to continue their ministry, numerous Orthodox Churches in rural Eritrea are devastated by the severe shortage of clergies resulting from the above policy.  According to the result of ICFC’s research, numerous examples can be cited of churches that have closed their doors as a result of the government’s pernicious and deliberate plans to depriving the Orthodox Church of priests.

The following are just a few examples of churches that have closed their doors: Medhane Alem (The Saviour of the World) Orthodox Church in Keru near Teseney, St. George Orthodox Church in Aligider, Gelila Mariam Orthodox Church in Shambuko, Medhane Alem Demas Orthodox Church near Ginda’E, St. Michael MeHrad Lam near Qnafna, an Orthodox Church in Adi-Itay in the area of Mendefera, and St. Gabriel Egela Orthodox Church near Teseney.

The report goes on to say, “What makes the policy of the government even more dangerous for the future of the Eritrean Orthodox Church are the government’s efforts to completely deprive the institution of future priests by conscripting ALL deacons and priests younger than age fifty into an interminable military service.  It is the young deacons who traditionally become future priests. The calculus of the government’s policy, therefore, is very simple: no deacons = no priests = no churches.

If this dangerous policy is not reversed immediately, and the disruptive blow that has been inflicted on the church is rectified, one ICFC researcher who participated in the study concludes that more than half of the 1500 Eritrean Orthodox churches in the country will be closed permanently within just two decades. This is an immense demographic catastrophe waiting to happen. Many things can be said about the ruinous ramifications of the government’s policies for the future of the country. But the destructive policy of the Eritrean government against the church will leave behind one of the most insidious and catastrophic legacies, namely, the ruining of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.”

New Armenian Bishops

On 18 April 2010 His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, presided at the consecration of three new bishops in Holy Etchmiadzin. Father Artak Tigranian, Dean of the Monasteries of the Mother See; Father Mkrtich Poshian, Locu,m tenens of the diocese of Aragatsotn and Father Hovakim Manukioan, Director of the Inter-Church Relations Office of the Mother See.

UN Agencies donate new technology to Church

In June His Holiness Patriarch Paulos received on behalf of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church a donation of ICT (information and communication technology) facilities worth 1.2 million Birr (about £58,000). This donation was made jointly by the United Nations Country Team, UNICEF (UN Childrens’ Fund), UNDP (UN Development Programme) and UNOCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) to help the Church improve its advocacy and social mobilisation activities. The Patriarch said it would also enable the Church to share the treasures of knowledge and traditions that have been passed down through the centuries.

Widowed Priests permitted to remarry

It is reported that the Episcopal Synod of the Malankara Orthodox Church has granted permission to priests who are widowers to remarry. This is quite a significant development as traditionally Orthodox priests and deacons should be either married or celibate (preferably monastic) prior to ordination, but may not marry after ordination. Remarriage of clergy following divorce or widowhood is forbidden. As a result the decision has met with some opposition. Commenting on this decision in an editorial inIndian Orthodox Herald, Chor-Episcopos Kuriakos Thottupuram, PhD, DD, writes, “This is totally unorthodox, and we think this will destroy the sanctity and integrity and historical character of our priesthood. Our priesthood is so unique that it maintains the character of the ancient Christian priesthood honouring a married clergy and its singular characteristic of unconditional monogamy supported by the ancient canons of the early Church. The ancient canons are not there as mere canonical injunctions or prohibitions; they are there for valid theological reasons.”

Armenian Genocide Commemoration in Cardiff

On 23 April Dr. Vahan Hovhanessian, Primate of the Armenian Church, travelled to Wales, for a commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The representatives of the Armenian community in Wales, headed by Mr. John Torosyan, welcomed Fr. Vahan at the Cardiff Temple of Peace, where the Genocide Monument is located. The day-long commemoration started with a visit to the statue of the Virgin Mary at Penrhys. There, the group was greeted by Mrs. Sharon Reece, General Secretary of the United Reform Church in Penrhys. This church played a central role in starting the recognition movement in Wales, and produced a special liturgy for the Armenian martyrs of the genocide. Following a brief prayer at the statue, Fr. Vahan thanked Mrs. Reece for the United Reform Church’s support of the Genocide recognition process. That evening the delegation returned to the Temple of Peace, where a group of Church dignitaries and government officials were gathered with members of the Armenian community for a requiem service in memory of the martyrs. Present around the Khachkar in the front yard of the Temple of Peace were, Canon Patrick Thomas, Vicar of St Peter’s Church, Carmarthen; Rev Dafydd Henri Edwards, the Baptist Union of Wales, Revd Dr Trystan Owain Hughes, Chaplain, Cardiff University; Stephen Thomas, Director of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs; Jenny Randerson, Assembly Member; Councillor Mohammed Sarul. The Primate greeted the crowd and invited them to join him in the traditional Hokehangist service, in memory of the martyrs. The service concluded with a reception in the library of the Temple of Peace.

New Indian Catholicos enthroned

His Holiness Moran Baselios Mar Thoma Didimos I, Catholicos of the East & Malankara Metropolitan, announced his abdication at the special session of the Holy Episcopal Synod of the  Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, held at the Catholicate Palace, Devalokam, Kottayam on 29 November. In his statement His Holiness said, “The Almighty allowed me to lead the Church for the last five years. Looking back, I consider everything as grace of God. I love the Church and the people of God. I also thank all of you, who stood as strong support to me during these years ….. For the rest of my life, I want to retreat in prayer and wish to set aside myself from all administrative responsibilities”.

The Catholicos Designate, His Beatitude Paulose Mar Milithios was duly consecrated and enthroned as Malankara Metropolitan and 8th Catholicos of the East since its restoration in 1912 at St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Church (Parumala Pally), Parumala Seminary on 1 November 2011. The retiring Catholicos uniquely was the only Catholicos to have been enthroned by his predecessor and who also enthroned his successor. The new Catholicos will be styled His Holiness Moran Basilios Mar Thoma Paulos II. At this ceremony the new Catholicos read out and put his signature to his confession of faith (Amalogia), which he himself piously submitted to the retiring Catholicos, who then declared that the new Pontiff was worthy to be elevated to the Catholicate and to the throne of St. Thomas. This led to reading of the Gospel, with Metropolitans carrying the throne, on which the new Catholicos was sitting. This symbolised the authority of the new Catholicos over the Church of God. The pastoral staff for the new Catholicos was also handed over in a similar fashion, where nine Metropolitans held their hands below the hand of the New Catholicos, which was guided to the top by the reigning Catholicos.

Abba Seraphim responded to the news by sending his congratulations to the Catholicos Designate with “warm fraternal greetings and assurance of prayers” and spoke of the great importance of the advancement and ecumenical witness of the Malankara Church for the Oriental Orthodox tradition, not only for its sister Orthodox churches but also for all Christians. During his visit to Kerala in January, Abba Seraphim and his party were warmly received by Paulose Mar Milithios at Kunnamkulam. The new Catholicos was consecrated a bishop at the age of thirty-eight and elected Catholicos-Designate in 2006. At the relatively youthful age of sixty-four, he will bring energy and dynamism to a church which has already possesses vibrancy and vision.  The former Catholicos, who abdicated on his eighty-ninth birthday, showed his deep love for the church by laying aside his high office to enable his successor to take up his responsibilities in time for the Centenary of the re-establishment of the Catholicate, which will be celebrated in 2012.

Patriarch’s statements on Christians in Iraq

Following the attack on the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, HH Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas issued the following statement:

During the hard times, our struggling Church and the faithful are passing through, with other Christian brothers and sisters in our beloved East, especially Iraq, we can only express our deep sorrow for all the bloody massacres that took place, and are still going on, by the enemies of good and righteousness, without any deterrent conscious or power of love for peace and humanity.

While we feel very sad for these events, especially the brutal attack on our sister Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, in Karada region of Bagdad, we lift our prayers to the Lord Almighty, to accept the souls of our noble martyrs with joy and pleasure, for sacrificing their blood for the name of Jesus Christ, thus they deserve what Paul the Apostle said: “ What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us”. Romans 8:35-37.That was what our Lord Jesus told us about: “The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you”. John 15:20
Our condolence is; the grain of wheat which dies is the only one that gives fruits abundantly.

In this occasion we suggested to our brothers, the Archbishops in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to offer condolences to His Holiness, our honorable brother, Mor Ignatius Yusef III Yunan , Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church and all his Archbishops.

We firmly denounce all terroristic and criminal acts that spill the blood of innocent Christians, and terrorize them to leave our beloved East, especially Iraq. We denounce any opinion, or suggestion or encouragement to our peoples, the children of the Holy Church, to leave Iraq for any other country: The East is ours, and we are important partakers in its ancient civilizations, and no one can steal this sacred right from us.

Let’s all pray to the Holy Lord, to send His Holy Spirit to (check)? the face of the earth, and spread His peace and concord in our beloved East and all over the world. Let us have faith in the Lord’s words: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”.
Matthew 28:20

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