Oriental Orthodox Church News

Attempted Assassination of Syrian Patriarch

On Sunday, 19 June 2016, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, following the celebration of the feast of Pentecost and after the inauguration of a monument for the Syriac Genocide Sayfo which His Holiness presided over, the faithful were gathered inside the auditorium of St Gabriel School to celebrate the 101st annual Sayfo commemoration when a suicide bomber detonated himself  a short distance from the place. Two members of the Sutoro Protection Units fell martyrs and several were injured.

The current situation of Patriarch Antonios  

On 13 January 2006 a secret session of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewehedo Church was held in Asmara which formally removed Patriarch Antonios from office. The Patriarch had increasingly resisted government interference in church affairs, especially instructions emanating from Mr. Yeftehe Dimetros, the governmernt’s official responsible for church matters.

Abune Antonios of Eritrea

In January 2005 the Patriarch’s annual Nativity message was not broadcast or televised and the Eritrean Holy Synod met on 6-7 August 2005 with the main purpose of removing all executive authority from the Patriarch. Among accusations brought against the Patriarch, were his reluctance to excommunicate 3,000 members of the Medhane Alem, an Orthodox Sunday School movement, and his demands that the government should release imprisoned Christians accused of treason. He was allowed to officiate at church services, but prohibited from having any administrative role in church affairs. Having deposed the Patriarch, in violation of the church’s constitution and canons, on 27 May 2007 the government installed Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera as anti-Patriarch. The same day, in the early hours of the morning, Abune Antonios, was forcibly removed from his residence and transported to an undisclosed location, where he was kept under house arrest.  The anti-Patriarch Dioscoros subsequently died on 21 December 2015.

On 8 August 2016 the Eritrean Holy Synod published a statement [http://lisantewahdo.org/], couched in eirenic language, announcing that after a long conversation and deep discussion, Abune Antonios willingly performed his fatherly responsibility by admitting each and every mistake  which he committed ten years ago when he was patriarch, which were the reasons for his dethronement. It stated that all the above-mentioned were mistakes which he had committed knowingly and unknowingly and he made a heartfelt apology to the Holy Church and the Holy Synod, as well as giving verbal and written confirmation to all the concerned bodies, adding ‘I am apologising with all my heart and willingly to continue in harmony and I confirm that with my official signature.’  The Holy Synod also reports that it has accepted the apology as it is merciful and called Abune Antonios to a meeting with its members to ‘make a heartfelt spiritual act of peace and love, forgiveness and mercy.’ The online report carried three grainy pictures of the Synod in progress and of Abune Antonios embracing fellow bishops.

Whilst we must rejoice at his release from unjust detention – if that is what has now happened – there are a number of aspects in the official statements which give cause for grave concern. The Diaspora Archdiocese of the Eritrean Church (North America, Europe and the Middle East) under His Grace Bishop Makarios, which has faithfully stood by Abune Antonios throughout, and worked for true freedom and unity among Eritrean Christians, has expressed grave doubts as to the circumstances and truth of the Synod’s statement.  Indeed, the only mistake made by Abune Antonios was in trusting the other members of the Holy Synod, who unanimously betrayed him and laid false accusations against him. As for ‘apologies’, it should be the Synod and the government who should be apologising to the Patriarch for usurping his authority, overturning canonical order and depriving him of his liberty for a decade. The Diaspora Archdiocese notes that there has been no concrete statement from the Patriarch himself, written or oral, and that no statement of reconciliation can be taken at face value where the venue is not free from any duress and without the participation of a neutral third party. The Synod, with the full backing of the government, cannot be the accusing party, the judge and now, the agent of the so-called ‘reconciliation.’

Other informed bodies have also raised their concerns about these events. Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, “It is not known what pressures have been put upon the elderly Patriarch, in a country where horrific forms of torture are practised (as confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur and the Commission of Enquiry on the situation of human rights in Eritrea), and indeed, whether any such confession was made under severe duress. Without independent witnesses, and other guarantees of the Patriarch’s free choice to make such a voluntary confession, the news conveyed … cannot be regarded as trustworthy or credible.” The highly respected Christian Solidarity Worldwide have stated, “Credible sources have informed CSW that the delegation had initially visited the Patriarch on 5 August to apologise for their part in his illegal removal and to begin the process of reconciliation. The Patriarch was subsequently transported to the Patriarchate in Asmara on 8 August for further discussions, and the pictures were taken at that time.” The information they have received so far suggests that the report had been fabricated to deflect criticism of Eritrea’s appalling human rights record by providing an illusion of progress. In reality, the continued detention of the legitimate leader of the largest permitted Christian denomination is a clear indication of the government’s obsessive determination to monitor, suppress and control every religious community.

The cynical and ruthless use of the church by the Eritrean government is fully in keeping with its despicable and cruel treatment of its own people, which has caused countless Eritreans to flee from their homeland, which has become for them a living prison. Attempting to use Abune Antonios, a holy man who has already suffered much for his integrity and humanity, in order to gain legitimacy for a compliant Synod, demonstrates the government’s utter contempt for religion and empathy with the plight of its citizens. We commend Abune Antonios and all Eritreans to the mercy and protection of Almighty God.

Attack on Al-Boutrosiya Church

The news that a bomb containing 12 kilos of TNT and filled with ball-bearings had exploded in St. Peter’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Abbeseya, Cairo, during the morning Liturgy on Sunday, 11 December 2016, only broke for many people after they themselves were leaving their churches. Such an atrocity, committed with blasphemous and evil intent, whilst pious souls – including many women and children – were struck down as they met together for communion with their God. The response, not only of churchmen, but of senior Muslim clerics, is universal horror and revulsion, recalling the late Pope Shenouda’s saying that religion has no part with violence. Speaking after hearing the news, whilst leaving the Church at Chatham, Abba Seraphim commented that this was clearly a “Satanic attack, the fruit of hatred, cruelty, intolerance, strife and every evil which foments violence.”

The Coptic Church has a long history of being the victim of violence, which has produced a multitude of glorious martyrs, but like the Crucified Saviour, has never responded in kind. The Egyptian government acted promptly by offering facilities for the injured at military hospitals whilst the public sympathy of the President, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, and other ministers recognises and respects the unity of all Egyptians, regardless of their religious affiliation. The proclamation of three days of national mourning invites all Egyptians to unite in condemning such violence.

St. Peter’s Church (al Boutrosiyah) forms part of the Cathedral complex of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and stands next to St. Mark’s Cathedral, although its entrance is on Rameses Street. It brings violence very close to the heart of the Coptic Church, although His Holiness Pope Tawadros II was absent at the time on a pastoral visit to Greece, from which he immediately returned home to share the grief of his people.

The British Orthodox Church shares the grief of the worldwide Coptic Community and prays for the injured and the departed, as well as praying that peace and prosperity may soon be restored to Egypt, a country which has many historic links with the British Isles, whose past has so richly contributed to the civilisation of the world.  Abba Seraphim has sent a message of condolence to H.H. Pope Tawadros and on Sunday, 18 December Requiem Prayers for the departed victims will be prayed in all British Orthodox churches.

Coptic Pilgrims murdered

The sickening news which broke on the morning of 26 May 2017. Of the vicious attack on a busload of Coptic Christian pilgrims, in which at least 26 passengers were killed and a further 25 wounded, is the latest atrocity to be committed by murderous fanatics, masquerading as religious zealots. It comes at a time when the United Kingdom is still stunned and horrified by the massacre of innocents in Manchester. Over the past few years the frequency of attacks on Christians around the globe has become so common that there has been a danger of  us becoming desensitised to their suffering, tending to regard such events as a symptom of social and political chaos in countries lacking strong and stable governments. It is clear, however, from the spontaneous outburst of compassion and common humanity which the Manchester atrocity has ignited, that the British public is still largely tolerant, humane and loving and would regard the cruel treatment of innocent victim elsewhere with the same abhorrence as we do for attacks on our own citizens. Indeed,  Egypt is an ancient civilisation with a responsible and just government, which is doing everything within its power to protect all its people, regardless of their religious affiliation and, like us, most Egyptians reject the divisiveness of religious bigotry and long for peace and concord.

The perpetrators of these acts of evil are fully aware that their savagery occurs on the eve of the Islamic Holy month of Ramadan, which the prophet of Islam tells them is the month “whose beginning is mercy”, when the devout, through prayer and fasting and the giving of alms, seek forgiveness of their sins. As Christians we can identify with such religious aspirations, because we know that hatred, destruction and murder have no place in true religion. Such actions unjustly bring shame on god-fearing Muslims, who would never countenance such wickedness, and we must rejoice that among the thousands who came out onto the streets of Manchester and other cities around the world, to express their grief and opposition to violence, many were Muslims.

Potential schism in Syrian Orthodox Church averted

On 8 February 2017 six bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church issued a statement in which they alleged that His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, had “betrayed” the Orthodox faith. Their concerns centred around various statements and actions by the Patriarch over Christmas.  Faced with the vicious polarisation of Syrian society and the rise of extremist Islam, the Patriarch is known for his desire to rebuild good inter-communal relations and has resolutely refused to side with those who would topple the Assad régime.  On New Year’s day Patriarch Aphrem visited the ancient, historic and once beautiful city of Aleppo following the end of four years of fierce fighting, which had left it devastated and in ruins. As a national figure he demonstrated his shared sympathy with all communities, visiting not only his own churches, but those of the Greeks, Evangelicals, Maronites and the ruined Omayyad Mosque. His solidarity was expressed in comments about his delight in the fighting having ended overshadowing even the joy of Christmas and the birthday of Muhammad (30 November) – the two most recent festivities of Islam and Christianity. Earlier, when congratulating Muslims on their feast, he had spoken of the Prophet Muhammad having come for the sake of mankind and, when handed a Koran which had been rescued from the rubble, he handled it with respect. For these signs of graciousness he was accused of venerating the Koran and recognising the prophet of Islam as God’s messenger.

In the same said statement, the six bishops announced their intention to administer their respective dioceses independently of the Patriarchate and, more dangerously, threatened to ordain parallel bishops to all the dioceses of the Church causing a lasting division. This was immediately condemned by the remaining thirty bishops of the Holy Synod, who issued a statement expressing their “utter condemnation and absolute rejection” of the claims by the six bishops and called on them to “return from their deviation.” In keeping with his whole demeanour, Mar Aphrem II offered a special prayer for peace in the Church and received immediate support from the Malphone and Academics of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, who called upon the six bishops to withdraw their statement and  bring their concerns to the Holy Synod, which they trusted would  mediate and ensure an amicable resolution.

 “As academics and historians, we would like to remind all involved and warn that if, God forbid, an ecclesiastical division takes place, its lasting effects will be disastrous, especially in light of the current political situation in the Middle East and the fragility of our existence in the diaspora. We know from history that such divisions take centuries to heal. Therefore, it is of the utmost responsibility of every single bishop to ensure that no such division takes place and to realize that such a division would not be tolerated by the laity—from all walks of life—as illustrated by the strong reaction of the faithful on social media during the past few days who expressed their allegiance to and their love for the Holy See of Antioch.”

Of the six bishops, only one, Mor Eustathius Matta Ruham, Metropolitan of Jazirah & Euphrates, had a see in Syria was which he had fled for Austria when the war broke out in 2012, abandoning his flock. Despite calls for his resignation, the Holy Synod in 2015 gave him six months to return to his diocese in he but he never did, so in 2016 he was deprived of his bishopric. The others were Mor Clemis Eugene Kaplan, Patriarchal Vicar, Western USA; Mor Severus Hazail Sawmi, Patriarchal Vicar of Belgium, France & Luxemburg; Mor Meletius Malke Malke, Patriarchal Vicar if Australia; Mar Bartholeaus Nathanael Youssef, Patriarchal Vicar of Arabian Gulf & Emirates; Mor Severios Malke Mourad, Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem

In a written response from the six Bishops, written on 14 February, they denied that they were fermenting schism or disobedience but although its tone was generally respectful, there was an underlying sense of grievance. They complained that some eighteen months previously they had asked the Patriarch to convene an extraordinary session of the Synod to review the dire situation of Christians in the Middle East, and also to discuss administrative reform in the church and to review the church constitution, which had not happened. However, they admitted they were satisfied with the patriarch’s response and renewed their obedience to him. Mor Eusthathius didn’t attend but refused to sign a letter of apology and was therefore suspended from all episcopal and priestly duties.

At a meeting of the holy Synod at Atchaneh in Lebanon on 16 February to discuss the statement issued by the bishops “as well as they consequent actions, the breach of the constitution committed and the resulting tarnishing of the church’s image and stumbling many faithful” Mor Severus Hazail Sawmi, was suspended for interfering in the affairs of another diocese and all the remaining bishops were given until 30 April to sign a letter of repentance, which they did. In a statement issued on 29 April by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, it was announced that the four other bishops had signed an apology and the issue was now closed.

Assault on Ancient Monastic Properties

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Syriac population in the hilly region of Tur Abdin around the ancient city of Mardin in south-east Turkey was around half a million. Anciently it was the Syrian Orthodox “Mount Athos” with dozens of ancient monasteries. Today it numbers a mere 2,000 people, although a further 20,000 live in Istanbul.

When Mardin was erected as a Metropolitan municipality, its outlying villages were attached to the provincial administration. In 2012 the new Governorate of Mardin established a liquidation committee to redistribute in the city, the property of institutions whose legal entity had expired. In 2016, the Transfer, Liquidation and Redistribution Committee of Mardin transferred primarily to the Treasury as well as other relevant public institutions, more than 50 churches, monasteries, cemeteries and other assets of the Syriac community in the area of Mardin. The Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation appealed the decision, but the liquidation committee rejected their appeal in May 2016. These church properties were handed over to the Turkish Treasury before being transferred to the Diyanet, the Directorate of Religious Affairs,  the official state institution established in 1924 under article 136 of the Constitution of Turkey by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey as a successor to the Shaykh al-Islām after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. The Christian cemeteries were also transferred to the Metropolitan Municipality of Mardin.

Mor Gabriel Monastery dates back to the 4th century and is one of the oldest monasteries in the world which is still active as well as being one of the most ancient religious centres of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the entire world with its history of more than 1600 years. The maintenance of some of the churches and monasteries is currently being provided by the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation and they remain open for worship on certain days. Similarly, the cemeteries are still actively used by the Syriac community who visit them and still use them for burials. The Syriac Community has appealed to the Court for the cancellation of the decision.

For years, minority religious foundations could not acquire property in Turkey, but in 2002 legislative amendments were introduced enabling some of the title deeds to be registered in the name of the Foundation, but it was not possible to gather all the title deeds. In the meantime cadastral surveys were made showing the extent, value, and ownership of land, especially for taxation, although the cadastral offices showed little sensitivity about the legislative amendment enabling the acquisition of property by minority foundations. The Foundation filed lawsuits wherever possible, otherwise some monasteries and other property were given to the legal entity of the village.

The Foundation of Mor Gabriel Monastery, filed a court case at the Civil Court of First Instance in Mardin against the registration of title deed records in the name of the Treasury. In the petition filed it was pleaded that the properties subject to the court case had been, since ancient times, under the possession and ownership of the Foundation on the basis of a Regulation issued in 2002 by the Directorate General of Foundations and was included in the List of Religious Community Foundations drafted that same year. However, foundations that are not included in this list are not recognized as religious community foundations.

In July the Turkish authorities put on hold the transfer of the 50 churches and monasteries belonging to the Syriac orthodox community of Mardin, in Tur Abdin, to the Diyanet. The Mardin Governor’s Office said that until the issue is legally resolved the properties in question will not be turned over to the Directorate.

The Federation of Arameans (Syriacs) in Switzerland also intervened in an official statement expressing its opposition to what it considers an “illegitimate expropriation” of Turkey’s Christian cultural heritage. The Federation’s president, Melki Toprak, called the unchanged situation “alarming” because now it is now up to Ankara to decide on ownership. The leaders of the Christian places of worship sent a joint statement to the Turk-ish Interior Ministry to stop seizing assets and properties. If the appeal were ignored, all this would lead to “the final extinction of Christianity, of our ethnicity and Aramean culture in Turkey.”

Arameans in Turkey, as well as other minorities, are still not recognised and therefore do not fully enjoy human rights, including freedom of worship and property rights. The acquisition, preservation and construction of properties by the churches is hampered by huge bureaucratic difficulties. The situation remains “critical” from a human and legal point of view.

The Common Declaration issued following the Eleventh Meeting of the Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches convened in Cairo

 on March 19-20, 2015:

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

We, Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, Patriarch Mar Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and Catholicos Aram I, Catholicos of the Armenians of the Great House of Cilicia, give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ for granting us the opportunity to pray and to reflect together on issues and challenges of common concern, at St. Mark Cathedral, in Abbassia, Cairo-Egypt. This is the eleventh time that we officially meet as Heads of churches within the framework of the fellowship which was created in 1997.

We remember in prayer the passing away of the Patriarchs of blessed memory His Holiness Pope Shenouda III and His Holiness Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I, who together with His Holiness Aram I, may God grant him long life, have initiated this fellowship and its Standing Committee.

Congratulations were presented to His Holiness Pope Tawadros II and His Holiness Patriarch Mar Ignatius Aphram II for their Patriarchal enthronement.

In fact, the love of God, commitment to moral values, attachment to the homeland and living together with others with equal responsibilities and rights are basic Christian principles which should guide the life of our faithful. Christians are integral and inseparable part of the Middle East. Hence, preservation of their faith, culture, traditions, language and holy places is highly important. We are deeply concerned about the Christian presence in the Middle East, in the light of the latest tragic developments in the region. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were uprooted from their homeland, particularly from Mosul, Nineveh Valley, Saddad and other places in Iraq and Syria; many faced violence, persecution and death because of their faith; churches, monasteries, schools, community centers and houses were destroyed; the international community was shocked by the martyrdom of the twenty-one innocent Christian Copts who were decapitated on Libyan coast last February. We pray to Almighty God to strengthen the faith of our people and rest the souls of our martyrs in peace. We offer condolences to the families of our martyrs and to the churches.

We express our deep concern about the kidnapping of Metropolitans Yuhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, praying for their immediate release and asking the churches and the international community to exert their efforts in this respect.

We congratulate the Coptic Orthodox Church for the canonization of Pope Kyrillos VI (116) as saint by the Holy Synod in June 2013.

With great joy we were informed that during the Patriarchal visit of His Holiness Mar Ignatius Aphram II to India, a joint committee was formed to restore peace and reconciliation in the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.

We were also informed with particular joy that a round table was composed by the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahido Church which will meet in Cairo, to seek a solution regarding the house arrest of His Holiness Abune Antonios I, the third Patriarch of the Eritrean Church.

We welcome and congratulate the Armenian Orthodox Church for holding joint Bishops’ meetings of the two catholicosates.

We encourage the Subcommittees (Seminaries Committee, Publications Committee and Youth Committee) which were appointed by the Standing Committee, to continue with renewed efforts their activities.

In our endeavour for the unity of the church, our Churches are engaged in a number of bilateral theological dialogues:

a) Dialogue with the Catholic Church. The International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, held its twelfth meeting in Rome 24-31 January 2015. The Commission finalized its paper on “The Exercise of Communion in the Life of the Early Church and Its Implications for our Search for Communion Today,” and submitted it to the authorities of their churches for consideration and action.

b) Dialogue with the Orthodox Church. Invited by the two co-chairmen of the Joint Commission for the Official Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and with the gracious hospitality of the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew, a working group of official delegates met in Athens, Greece, 24-25 November 2014, to lay down a road map for the future work of the Joint Commission.

c) Dialogue with the Anglican Communion of Churches. The Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission held its third meeting from 13-17 October 2014, at St. Mark’s Centre, Cairo, Egypt. The Commission continued its discussion on Christology and Pneumatology.

We welcome the proposal for a unified and fixed Easter date and invite all churches to give serious consideration to this matter.

We were informed about the discussions and decisions of the last meeting of the Executive Committee of the Middle East Council of Churches in Jordan, 22-23 January, 2015. We fully support the mission of this Council in our region.

We encourage the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches to continue with its new structure the search for the visible unity of the churches and its reflection on moral discernment.

We were informed about the next meeting of the Permanent Committee for the Collaboration between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Orthodox Church with the United Bible Societies, in Constantinople from 14-17 April, 2015, and we affirm the importance of this collaboration in our region.

The Pro-Oriente Organization has celebrated its golden jubilee on November 6, 2014, where His Holiness Tawadros II was present and met the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew. We are committed to continue our collaboration with Pro-Oriente.

We invite the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Orthodox Church to a meeting in Alexandria in 2017, to discuss issues and concerns facing our churches.

We also invite the heads of the Churches in the Middle East in 2016, to discuss the vital importance of the Christian presence and witness in the region.

We acknowledge that the year 2015 is the centenary of the Armenian and the Syrian Genocide. His Holiness Karekin II and His Holiness Aram I will preside over the canonization ceremony of the one and a half million martyrs of the Armenian Genocide on 23 April 2015, in Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia. The martyrs of faith in Christ are indeed the martyrs of the universal church. The heads of Oriental Orthodox Churches and representatives of churches will participate in this celebration.

We welcome the creation of the Egyptian Council of Churches in 2013.

We congratulate Egypt and her president His Excellency Abd el Fattah Sissy for the great success of the Economic Summit and we pray for the prosperity and peace of Egypt.

As we conclude our Eleventh Meeting, we would like to express our warm thanks to His Holiness Pope Tawadros II for his warm hospitality. – Web site of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, March 20.

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