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The Melkite Catholic Church

The word “Melkite” comes from the Syriac and Arabic words for “King,” and was originally used to refer to those within the ancient Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem who accepted the christological faith professed by the Byzantine Emperor after the Council of Chalcedon (451). Today, however, the term more often refers to Byzantine Catholics associated with those three Patriarchates.

Jesuits, Capuchins and Carmelites began missionary activity in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch in the mid-17th century. While there were some conversions, the missionaries were primarily concerned with forming a pro-Catholic party within the Patriarchate itself. By the early 18th century, the Antiochian church had become polarized, with the pro-Catholic party centered in Damascus and the anti-Catholic party in its rival city, Aleppo.

Patriarch Athanasios III Debbas, who died on August 5, 1724, had designated as his successor a Cypriot monk named Sylvester. His candidacy was supported by the Aleppo party and the Patriarch of Constantinople. But on September 20, 1724, the Damascus party elected as Patriarch a strongly pro-Catholic man who took the name Cyril VI. A week later, the Patriarch of Constantinople ordained Sylvester as Patriarch of Antioch. The Ottoman government recognized Sylvester, while Cyril was deposed and excommunicated by Constantinople and compelled to seek refuge in Lebanon. Pope Benedict XIII recognized Cyril’s election as Patriarch of Antioch in 1729. Thus the schism was formalized, and the Catholic segment of the patriarchate eventually became known as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

In the beginning this new Catholic community was limited to what is now Syria and Lebanon. But Melkite Catholics later began to immigrate to Palestine, where Melkite communities had long existed, and especially to Egypt after that country rebelled against Turkish control. In view of the new demographic situation, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch was given the additional titles of Patriarch of Jerusalem and Alexandria in 1838.

At first the Ottoman government was very hostile to this new church and took strong measures against it. But conditions improved with the passage of time. In 1848 the government formally recognized the Melkite Catholic Church, and the Patriarchate itself moved to Damascus from Holy Savior Monastery near Sidon, Lebanon, where it had been established by Cyril VI after he fled there. This was followed by a period of growth, enhanced by the popular perception of the Melkite church as a focus of Arab resistance against the Turks. The Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, on the other hand, was viewed by many as dependent upon Constantinople and therefore upon the Ottoman government.

In the 19th century the Melkite church experienced tensions in its relationship with Rome because many Melkites felt that their Byzantine identity was being overwhelmed by the Latin tradition. This uneasiness was symbolized at Vatican I when Melkite Patriarch Gregory II Youssef left Rome before the council fathers voted on the constitution Pastor Aeternus, which defined papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction. At Rome’s request, the Patriarch later assented to the document, but he only did so with the clause, “all rights, privileges and prerogatives of the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches being respected” added to the formula.

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