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The Patriarchate of Antioch

Antioch was a very important urban center in the ancient world, and it was there, according to the Book of Acts, that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Antioch eventually became the seat of a Patriarchate that included all the Christians in the vast Eastern Province of the Roman Empire and beyond.

Reactions to the Council of Chalcedon triggered a schism in the Patriarchate. This church is descended from those who accepted Chalcedon, mostly Greeks and hellenized sections of the indigenous population. A larger group, which repudiated the council, eventually formed the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Such was the situation when Antioch fell to the Arab invaders in August 638. The local Chalcedonian Orthodox now suffered sporadic persecutions, and the patriarchal throne was often vacant or occupied by a non-resident during the 7th and first half of the 8th centuries.

The Byzantines regained possession of the city in 969. The Greek patriarchate would flourish under Byzantine rule until Antioch fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1085. During this period, the West Syrian liturgy was gradually replaced by the Byzantine liturgy, a process that would be complete by the 12th century.

In 1098, the Crusaders took Antioch and set up Latin kingdoms along the coast of Syria that would endure for nearly two centuries. A Latin Patriarchate of Antioch was established, while a line of Greek Patriarchs continued in exile.

After Antioch was taken by the Egyptian Mameluks in 1268, the Greek Patriarch was able to return to the area. Because Antioch itself had long ago been reduced to a small town, the Patriarchate was permanently transferred to Damascus in the 14th century. The area was taken from the Mameluks by the Ottoman Turks in 1517 and remained under Turkish control until the end of World War I. The church was greatly weakened by a schism in 1724, when many of its faithful became Catholic and formed what would become the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

The great majority of the faithful of this Patriarchate had long since been Arabs or arabized. In 1898 the last Greek Patriarch was deposed, and an Arab successor was elected in 1899. Thus the Patriarchate became fully Arab in character. A strong renewal movement, involving Orthodox youth in particular, has been under way since the 1940s.

The St. John of Damascus Academy of Theology, located near Tripoli, Lebanon, was established by the Patriarchate in 1970. In 1988 it was officially incorporated into Balamand University.

The Holy Synod of the Antioch Patriarchate is composed of the Patriarch and all the active Metropolitans. It meets at least yearly, and has the function of electing the Patriarch and other bishops, preserving the faith and taking measures against certain violations of ecclesiastical order. In addition, a general community council is made up of the Holy Synod and lay representatives. Meeting twice a year, this body is responsible for financial, educational, judicial and administrative matters. When a new Patriarch needs to be chosen, it selects three candidates, one of which is then elected by the Holy Synod.

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