Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Melkite Catholic Church and the Syrian Conflict

With 1.6 million members world-wide, the Melkite Church is another significant sui iuris church in communion with Rome. However, Melkites are geographically very much spread out due to persecution and consequent emigration from the Middle East. Most recently Melkites have suffered greatly in the Syrian conflict.
Christian churches are destroyed in Syria by jihadists.
 In a recent interview (March, 2014) with Aid to the Church in Need, Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean Abdon Arbach of Homs said 20,000 Christians now live in Homs itself and altogether 200,000 in the region. He said that 600 families from outside Homs were now living there and that the area was home to many thousands of Catholics.
Mother and baby light a candle in a
Melkite church in Damascus.
The report continued: Speaking during a visit to ACN’s international headquarters near Frankfurt, Germany, the archbishop, a 61-year-old native Syrian, said: “The situation in and around Homs is calm. Government troops have almost complete control over the region and the rebels control four or five districts. The main fighting is taking place in the cities of Yabroud and Hama.”
Archbishop Abdon Arbach stressed that he and other Church leaders were determined to stay with their people. He said: “For the faithful, it is important that their priests and their bishop bear the suffering and persevere like anyone else.” He went on to warn of trouble ahead for Christians in northern Syria forced to comply with Shari‘a Islamic law rigorously enforced by extremists. He said: “Firstly, Islamic law is to be applied. Secondly, all Christian symbols, which are publicly visible, are to be destroyed and thirdly, Christians who wish to remain will in future have to pay a special tax.”
These are the terms spelled out by organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), which have required Christians and other minorities living under their rule to pay up to £435 per year in Jizya tax.
Archbishop Abdon Arbach’s comments came as fellow Melkite Greek Catholic Damascus-based Patriarch Gregorios III led calls for the release of bishops and other clergy, many of them kidnapped in rebel-held territories in Aleppo and elsewhere in northern Syria.
Archbishop Prendergast of Ottawa visited with Meliktes recently.
In a statement released following the recent Assembly of Catholic Hierarchs (Bishops) in Syria, Patriarch Gregorios singled out for special mention kidnapped Aleppo Archbishops Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yizigi as well as Fathers Michael Kayyal and Ishaq Mahfouz.
Stating that 100 Syrian churches now lie damaged or destroyed, Patriarch Gregorios stated: “We declare our rejection of all forms of extremism, murder and extortion and all attacks on people and buildings.”
In making his comments, the Patriarch was reflecting renewed hopes following the release on Sunday (9 March) of 13 Sisters kidnapped last December from their monastery in the mainly Christian town of Maaloula, 40 miles north of Damascus.

The term Melkite is from the Syriac word malkā meaning "King".  Originally it Melkite was a pejorative term for Middle-Eastern Christians who accepted the authority of the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) and the Byzantine Emperor. This was the name given to them by non-Chalcedonians.
Melkite Catholics celebrate Mass in Augusta, Georgia USA
The Greek element signifies the Byzantine Rite heritage of the church, the liturgy used by many of the Eastern Churches. The  Melkites are Catholic by acknowledgment of the authority of the Pope and participate in the worldwide church. 
The Melkite Church of Antioch claims to be the "oldest continuous Christian community in the world" dating to the time of St. Peter’s ministry. The first chair of Peter, before his move to Rome, is claimed by the Melikite community.
A Melkite Catholic Wedding in the USA
In Arabic, the official language of the church, it is called ar-Rūm al-Kathūlīk. The Arabic word "Rūm" means “Greek” from the word in Greek "Romioi" by which the Byzantine Greeks identified themselves.  "Romania" comes from the same root (Greek: Ρωμανία) or New Rome, (Latin: Nova Roma Greek: Νέα Ρώμη). The term refers to the Byzantine Greek heritage and the city of "New Rome", i.e. Constantinople. There is also the Romanian Greek Catholic Church, a sui iuris Eastern Rite Church not to be confused with the Romainian Orthodox or the Latin Rite Catholics in Romania.
Scholars attribute the writing of the Gospels in Koine Greek (the popular Greek language of commerce of the day) to the Hellenized (Greek) Christian people of Antioch. These included authors St. Peter, St. Luke and others. By the 2nd century, Christianity was widespread in Antioch and throughout Syria. Growth of the church did not stop during periods of persecution. At the end of the 4th century Christianity became the official state religion.
The Melkite Byzantine Catholic Church traces its origins to the Christian communities of the Levant (including Lebanon, Isreael, Syria and eastern Turkey) and Egypt. Until persecution drove them out, one of the largest Melkite Catholic communities was in Egypt where fully 20% of the population including Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholics were Christians (more about Coptic Catholics). The church's leadership was vested in the three Apostolic Patriarchates of the ancient patriarchates: Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
In 1847, Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), reinstituted the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Patriarch Gregory II Youssef (1864–1897) focused on improving church institutions. During his reign Gregory founded both the Patriarchal College in Beirut in 1865 and the Patriarchal College in Damascus in 1875 and re-opened the Melkite seminary of Ain Traz in 1866. He also promoted the establishment of Saint Ann's Seminary, Jerusalem, in 1882 by the White Fathers for the training of the Melkite clergy.
Following the Hatt-ı Hümayun of 1856, decreed by Sultan Abdülmecid I, the situation of Christians in the Near East improved. This allowed Gregory to successfully encourage greater participation by the Melkite laity in both church administration as well as public affairs. Gregory also took an interest in ministering to the growing number of Melkites who had emigrated to the Americas.

In 1889 Patriarch Gregory II dispatched Father Ibrahim Beshawate of the Basilian Salvatorian Order in Saida, Lebanon to New York in order to minister to the growing Syrian community there. Gregory was also a prominent proponent of Eastern ecclesiology at the First Vatican Council. 
In the two discourses he gave at the Council on May 19 and June 14, 1870 he insisted on the importance of conforming to the decisions of the Council of Florence, of not creating innovations such as papal infallibility, but accepting what had been decided by common agreement between the Greeks and the Latins at the Council of Florence, especially with regard to the issue of papal primacy.
He also defended the rights and privileges of the patriarchs according to the canons promulgated by earlier ecumenical councils. Speaking at the Council on May 19, 1870, Patriarch Gregory asserted:
The Eastern Church attributes to the pope the most complete and highest power, however in a manner where the fullness and primacy are in harmony with the rights of the patriarchal sees. This is why, in virtue of an ancient right founded on customs, the Roman Pontiffs did not, except in very significant cases, exercise over these sees the ordinary and immediate jurisdiction that we are asked now to define without any exception. This definition would completely destroy the constitution of the entire Greek church. That is why my conscience as a pastor refuses to accept this constitution.  (C. Patelos, Vatican 1st et les eveques uniates, Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1981, 482-283)
Pope Pius XII met with the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch.
Patriarch Gregory refused to sign the Vatican I Council  dogmatic declaration on papal infallibility. He and the seven other Melkite bishops present voted non placet at the general congregation and left Rome prior to the adoption of the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus on papal infallibility.  
Other members of the anti-infallibilist minority, both from the Latin church and from other Eastern Catholic churches, also left the city. Fr. John H. (later Cardinal) Newman, though not at the Council, was very sympathetic to those who did not think it wise to define “infallibility” at the Council.
After the First Vatican Council concluded an emissary of the Roman Curia was dispatched to again seek the signatures of the patriarch and the Melkite delegation. 
After further prayer and consideration Patriarch Gregory II and the Melkite bishops subscribed to it, but with the qualifying clause used at the Council of Florence attached: "except the rights and privileges of Eastern patriarchs."
Patriarch Gregory and the Melkite Catholic Church remained committed to their union with the Church of Rome. Relationships with the Vatican improved following the death of Pius IX and the subsequent election of Leo XIII as pontiff. 
Leo's encyclical Orientalium Dignitas addressed some of the Eastern Catholic Churches' concerns on latinization and the ultramontane centralizing tendencies. Pope Leo also formally recognized an expansion of Patriarch Gregory's jurisdiction to include all Melkites throughout the Ottoman Empire. 

Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh took part in the Second Vatican Council where he championed the Eastern traditions of Christianity, and won a great deal of respect from Orthodox observers at the council as well as the approbation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I.
Following the Second Vatican Council the Melkites moved to restoring traditional worship. This involved both the restoration of Melkite practices such as administering the Eucharist to infants following post-baptismal chrismation as well as removal of Latin-rite elements such as communion rails and confessionals.
A movement to celebrate the Melkite liturgy in the language of the local people wherever Melkites settled was spearheaded by the future archbishop of Nazareth, Father Joseph Raya of Birmingham, Alabama (later a member of Madonna House, Combermere, CANADA where he is buried.) 
The issue garnered national news coverage after Bishop Fulton Sheen celebrated a Melkite Pontifical Divine Liturgy in English at the Melkite National convention in Birmingham in 1958, parts of which were televised.
In 1960, the issue was resolved by Pope John XXIII, at the request of Patriarch Maximos IV, in favour of the use of vernacular languages in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. 
Pope John also consecrated a Melkite priest, Father Gabriel Acacius Coussa, as a bishop, using the Byzantine Rite and the papal tiara as a crown. Bishop Coussa was almost immediately elevated to the cardinalate, but died two years later. His cause for canonization was introduced by his religious order, the Basilian Alepian Order.
Today the Melkite Catholic Church is an Orthodox church in full communion with the Holy See of Rome and so an important part of the Catholic Church. Melkites have an authentic voice from the East for the worldwide Church. They are a bridge between peoples and traditions and as such an example for Ordinariate Catholics.

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