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The Syrian Orthodox Church

The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its origins back to the early Christian community at Antioch, which is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. The Antiochian Church became one of the great centers of Christianity in the early centuries. But the Council of Chalcedon in 451 provoked a split in the community. The council’s teachings were enforced by the Byzantine imperial authorities in the cities, but they were largely rejected in the countryside.

In the 6th century, the Bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradai, ordained many bishops and priests to carry on the faith of those who rejected Chalcedon in the face of imperial opposition. Consequently, this church became known as “Jacobite,” with its own liturgy (called “West Syrian” or “Antiochian”) and other traditions using the Syriac language spoken by the common people. Some communities were also established outside the Byzantine Empire in Persia.

The conquest of the area by the Persians and later the Arabs ended Byzantine persecution and created conditions favoring further development of the Syrian Church. There was a great revival of Syrian Orthodox scholarship in the Middle Ages, when the community possessed flourishing schools of theology, philosophy, history, and science. At its height, the church included twenty metropolitan sees and 103 dioceses extending as far to the east as Afghanistan. There is also evidence of communities of Syrian Orthodox faithful without bishops as distant as Turkestan and Sinkiang during this period.

But the Mongol invasions under Tamerlane in the late 14th century, during which most Syrian churches and monasteries were destroyed, marked the beginning of a long decline. Terrible losses were suffered again during and after World War I because of persecutions and massacres in eastern Turkey. This led to a widespread dispersion of the community.

Even now the Syrian Orthodox population is shifting. In the 1950s and 1960s many emigrated from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Within Iraq, they have been moving from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad. The most serious erosion of the community has taken place in southeast Turkey, where only a few Syrian Orthodox remain. Earlier in this century many Syrian Orthodox also immigrated to Western Europe and the Americas for economic and political reasons.

The Syrians have a strong monastic tradition, and a few monasteries remain in the Mardin province of Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. There are now three monasteries in the diaspora, located in the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland.

The Syrian Patriarchs resided in Antioch until 1034. Since that time they have resided in Mar Barsauma monastery (1034-1293), Der ez-Za’faran monastery (1293-1924), Homs, Syria (1924-1959), and finally Damascus (since 1959).

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