THE SYRIAC ORTHODOX CHURCH
Few Christian denominations can claim the antiquity of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, whose foundations can be traced back to the very dawn of Christianity. The Church justifiably prides itself as being one of the earliest established apostolic churches. It was in Antioch, after all, that the followers of Jesus were called Christians as we are told in the New Testament, "The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." (Acts 11:26).
According to ecclesiastical tradition, the Church of Antioch is the second established church in Christendom after Jerusalem, and the prominence of its Apostolic See is well documented. In his Chronicon (I, 2), the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that St. Peter the Apostle established a bishopric in Antioch and became its first bishop. He also tells us that St. Peter was succeeded by Evodius. In another historical work, Historia Ecclesiastica, Eusebius tells us that Ignatius the Illuminator, "a name of note to most men, [was] the second after Peter to the bishopric of Antioch" (III, 36).
In the mid of the 5th century, the Bishop of Antioch, and his counterparts in Alexandria, Byzantium and Rome, would be called patriarchs. The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch used to be known by his own name; however, since 1293 the patriarchs of Antioch adopted the name Ignatius, after the Illuminator. The See of Antioch continues to flourish till our day, with His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, being the 122nd in the line of legitimate patriarchs.
The patriarchate was forced to move from Antioch in ca. A.D. 518, after a period of turbulent history, to various locations in the Near East until it settled in the monastery Dayro d-Mor Hananya (also known as Kurkmo Dayro, Deir az-Za'faran--Syriac and Arabic respectively for Saffron Monastery) in Mardin, Turkey, during the 13th century. After another period of heinous violence during and after World War I, which took the lives of a quarter million Syriac Orthodox faithful, the patriarchate was transferred to Homs, Syria, in 1933, and later to Damascus in 1957.
The Syriac Orthodox Church is quite unique for many reasons. Firstly, it presents a form of Christianity, which is Semitic in nature, with a culture not far from the one Christ himself experienced. Secondly, it employs in its liturgy the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect akin to the Aramaic spoken by Christ and the Apostles. Thirdly, its liturgy is one of the most ancient, and has been handed from one generation to another. Fourthly, and most importantly, it demonstrates the unity of the body of Christ by the multiethnic nature of its faithful: A visit to your local Syriac Orthodox Church in Europe or the Americas would demonstrate, for example, the blend of Near Eastern and Indian cultures in the motifs and vestments of clergy. The Syriac Orthodox faithful today live primarily in Middle Eastern countries and the Indian State of Kerala, with many communities in the diaspora.
The Syriac Orthodox Church has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1960, and is one of the founding members of the Middle East Council of Churches. The Church takes part in ecumenical and theological dialogues with other churches. As a result of these dialogues, the Church has issued two joint declarations with the Roman Catholic Church and another with the Eastern Orthodox churches.
In Syriac, the proper name of the Church is `idto suryoyto treeysath shubho. In the past, the name of the Church had been translated to English as "Syrian Orthodox Church". The Holy Synod of the Church approved the translation "Syriac Orthodox Church" in its session of March 28-April 3, 2000.
The supreme head of the Syriac Orthodox Church is the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East. He also presides over the Holy Synod, the assembly of all bishops.
The local head of the church in Malankara (India) is the Catholicos of the East. The Catholicos is under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch and is accountable to the Holy Synod and the local Malankara Synod. He is consecrated by the Patriarch and presides over the local Holy Synod.
The local head of every archdiocese is an archbishop. He is under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch and is accountable to the Holy Synod. The archbishop is ordained by the Patriarch and at least two bishops. Some archdioceses are 'patriarchal vicarates'; the patriarchal vicar, regardless of ecclesiastical office, is accountable directly to the Patriarch.
Each parish is assigned a vicar. He is under the direct jurisdiction of his archbishop and is directly accountable to him. The parish is run by a board of trustees (or a committee) which is elected by the parishioners and approved by the archbishop.
Deacons assist the priest in the administration of the liturgy. Each archdiocese may have one archdeacon who is called "the right hand of the bishop." Only qualified and learned deacons are elevated to this office.
There are three ranks of priesthood in the Syriac Orthodox Church:
Episcopate: Within it there are the ranks of Patriarch, Catholicos, archbishop, and bishop.
Vicarate: Within it there are the ranks of chor-episcopos and priest or qasheesho.
Deaconate: Within it there are the ranks of archdeacon, evangelical-deacon, subdeacon, lector or qoruyo and singer or mzamrono.