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Ecumenical Relations of the Syriac Orthodox Church

OO Meetings


Other Dialogues

OO-Anglican: Nov-2003
OO-RC: Jun-2003
OO-Anglican: Nov-2002
Russian Orth: Sep-2001
Pope at Damascus: May-2001
OO-RC: Jun-2000
Syriac Consultation: Jul-1997
Easter Date: Mar-1997
OO-MSOC: Jan-1994
Melkite-SOC: Nov-1991
RC-SOC: 1971 & 1984


The Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 brought about the separation of the Syriac Orthodox Church along with the Coptic Orthodox Church from the Byzantine and Roman Christians. Polemically mislabelled as monophysites, the Oriental Orthodox Christians including the Syriac Christians were considered heretics by other Christians and were subject to political persecution in the Byzantine empire as a result. The advent of Islam in the seventh century and its growing political clout was in fact a respite for the Syriac Church which viewed it as a deviant Christian sect but a liberating force from the oppression of the Byzantines. However the liberties that the Church enjoyed declined over time and were particularly curtailed during the days of the Ottoman Empire and culminated in the massacre of several thousands at the turn of the twentieth century. From the seventeeth century the Church also had adverse encounters with the Western Churches when the Roman Catholics and later the Protestants sought to bring the Syriac Orthodox faithful under the sphere of their influence.

After centuries of isolation, the spirit of ecumenism that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century enabled the Syriac Orthodox Church to engage in constructive dialogue with sister churches which it continues to do. About seven centuries before modern ecumenical dialogue began, no less a person than Bar `Ebroyo noted:

When I had given much thought and pondered on the matter, I became convinced that these quarrels among the different Christian Churches are not a matter of factual substance, but of words and terminology; for they all confess Christ our Lord to be perfect God and perfect human, without any commingling, mixing, or confusion of the natures... Thus I saw all the Christian communities, with their different christological positions, as possessing a single common ground that is without any difference between them. (Book of the Dove, Chapter IV)

Much has been accomplished in the past few decades especially in relationships with the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. In addition to theological dialogue, the Church also actively hosts and participates in dialogue in topics such as inter-church marriages, setting a common date for Easter, etc.

H.H. Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch, speaking at the University of Humboldt, Berlin on May 16, 1995, stated:

"The split of the Christian church is a big mistake, a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and an ignoring of the existence of Christ who promised: "... the gates of hell will not prevail against it." (Mt 16:18) I invite you to stand before history for a moment to see the reason for our divisions. You will see that thousands of innocents have shed blood, righteous men have suffered and been expelled from their countries. We thank God that Christian churches in this generation have begun to feel the necessity of continuing the Christian dialogue and as a result they have drawn closer to each other and planned for continuous meetings at various levels to study different subjects. The unity of Christianity can only happen in and around Christ, who is the head of the Church and we with all our doctrines are only parts of the holy body of Christ.

Satan is still at work. He brings about disturbances, constantly encourages new splits and wants from that the division of the body of Christ which is the Church. We have to be careful. Politics usually uses religion to reach its worldly goals. We should limit our talks to spiritual themes because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world. We do not want the unity of Christianity to fight against other religions. Instead we want unity to reach our goal more quickly; that is the constructive dialogue with others who believe in God and here especially with the Muslims with whom we share one homeland. Let us learn from history. Let us avoid what splits us. Let us walk the way that leads to a better understanding, to a life in which love and peace rule."

The Syriac Orthodox Church has been a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) since 1960, and is one of the founding members of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). The Church is an active participant in the Middle-East Oriental Orthodox Churches Common Standing Committee which includes the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia.

Relationships with Other Non-Chalcedonian Churches

The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch is in full communion with other Oriental Orthodox churches (also called Non-Chalcedonian Churches)—the Coptic, the Armenian, and the Ethiopian. Since 1965, the Patriarch of Antioch and Pope of Alexandria are remembered in the diptychs of both Syriac Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches. The Syriac Orthodox Church routinely hosts and participates in the concelebration of the divine liturgy with the Coptic and Armenian Churches.

Relationships with the Assyrian Church of the East

Dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East is more recent than that with other families of churches. The 'Syriac Dialogues' sponsored by the Pro Oriente foundation in June 1994, February 1996 (Vienna), and July 1997 (Chicago) among Churches of the Syriac tradition paved the way for theological discussions between the Syriac Orthodox Church and Assyrian Church of the East. At the 1997 meeting, it was announced that Patriarchs Ignatius Zakka I and Dinkha IV had "agreed to appoint a bilateral commission to explore ways to bring about a rapprochement between their Churches". In addition, Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV announced that the Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East held in the previous month had decided to remove from their liturgical books the anathemas and condemnations against such figures as Cyril of Alexandria and Severus of Antioch and to inaugurate a bilateral program to bring about the full ecclesial union of the two Churches (Brock et al, 2001). The position of the Church of the East on the lifting of the anathemas in the quest for ecclesial union is explained in the statement by Very Rev. Michael J. Birnie published in the proceedings of the Pro Oriente 3rd Syriac Consultation at Chicago.

On March 2, 1998, the two Patriarchs met at the Monastery of Mar Maroun in Annaya, Lebanon, and made further progress in dialogue between the two Churches. However, further dialogue became more difficult when the meeting of Oriental Orthodox Churches later that month convened by the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, Pope Shenouda, decided that all Oriental Orthodox Churches should act together in theological dialogue and not engage in bilateral discussion (See statement).

Relationships with the Eastern (Chalcedonian) Orthodox Churches

Among all Christian Churches, the Eastern Orthodox Churches are closer to the Oriental Churches in spirituality, doctrine, and in historical experience. Dialogue with this family of Churches has the potential to be the most fruitful.

Unofficial consultations were held in Aarhus (Denmark) in 1964 and in Bristol (England) in 1967, attended by leading theologians from the two sides; there were further meetings in Geneva (1970) and Addis Abbaba (1971). The results were unexpectedly positive. As Bishop Timothy Kallistos Ware of Dioklea states in his book, The Orthodox Church (1993), it became clear that on the basic question which had led historically to the division—the doctrine of the person of Christ—there is in fact no real disagreement. The divergence, it was stated in Aarhus, lies only on the level of phraseology. The delegates concluded, 'We recognize in each other the one Orthodox faith of the Church... On the essence of the Christological dogma we found ourselves in full agreement.' In the words of the Bristol consultation, 'Some of us affirm two natures, wills and energies hypostatically united in the one Lord Jesus Christ. Some of us affirm one united divine-human nature, will and energy in the same Christ. But both sides speak of a union without confusion, without change, without divisions, without separation.' The four adverbs belong to our common tradition. Both affirm the dynamic permanence of the Godhead and the Manhood, with all their natural properties and faculties, in the one Christ.'

These four unofficial conversations during 1964-1971 were followed up by the convening of an official Joint Commission representing the two Church families: this met in Geneva in 1985, at Amba Bishoy monastery in Egypt in 1989, in Geneva in 1990, and for a fourth time in 1993. On the matter of the different christological formulations, which had been a stumbling block in the past, there was agreement that the underlying understanding of the Incarnation was the same, even though each side had its own preferred formula, when speaking of one or two "natures". The doctrinal agreements reached at the unofficial consultations were reaffirmed, and at the end of the third meeting in 1990, it was recommended that each side should now revoke all anathemas and condemnations issues in the past against the other. The fourth meeting (1993) discussed how in practice this might be done, and the proposal reached was that the anathemas and condemnations should be lifted "unanimously and simultaneously by the Heads of all the Churches of both sides, through signing of an appropriate ecclesiastical Act, the content of which will include acknowledgement from each side that the other one is Orthodox in all respects". In the view of the participants, once the anathemas have been lifted, this "should imply that restoration of full communion for both sides is to be immediately implemented" (Brock et al, 2001).

Difficulties still remain, for not everyone on the two sides is equally positive about the dialogue: there are some in Greece, for example, who continue to regard the Oriental Orthodox as 'Monophysite heretics', just as there are some Non-Chalcedonians who continue to regard Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo as 'Nestorian'. But the official view of both families of Churches was clearly expressed at the 1989 meeting: 'As two families of Orthodox Churches long out of communion with each other, we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the apostolic faith of the undivided Church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed.' (Ware, 1993).

Other meetings aimed at bringing the two families of Churches closer together have also taken place, such as that between the two Youth Movements in May 1991, and the meeting of different Patriarchs of the Middle East in 1987 and 1991 (the specified aim of the second of these was "to give concrete expression of the close fellowship between the two Churches"). As a result of the second meeting, on 22nd July 1991, between Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I and Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim a number of important decisions were published in a statement. (Brock et al, 2001).

Relationships with the Roman Catholic Church

Dialogue between the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church was initiated under the auspices of the Pro Oriente, an ecumenical foundation in Vienna, founded by Cardinal König, Archbishop of Vienna in 1964. Pro Oriente initiated unofficial consultations with the Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians in Vienna in 1971, 1976, and 1988. In 1994, the Pro Oriente constituted a Syriac Commission at its meeting in Lebanon for dialogue between eight Churches (including three Catholic rites) of Syriac tradition; three Syriac Consultations have been held in 1994 and 1996 at Vienna and in 1997 at Chicago.

The Pro Oriente consultations focussing particularly on the Christological doctrines resulted in what is known today as Vienna Christological Formulations and paved the way for subsequent bilateral Christological agreements between the heads of the Churches. The first of these during the reign of Patriarch Mor Ignatius Ya`qub III of Antioch and Pope Paul VI of Rome resulted in a joint declaration issued in Vatican on October 27, 1971 signed by Patriarch Ya`qub III and Pope Paul VI. This dialogue was continued by their Holinesses Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, and Pope John Paul II and culminated in a joint declaration on June 23, 1984 at Rome. In November 1993, the Joint Theological Commission of the Catholic and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Churches drafted an agreement on inter-church marriages, known today as the "Kerala Agreement." This was approved by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Zakka I and released on January 25, 1994. A set of pastoral guidelines also accompanies this agreement.

Relationships with the Anglican Communion

The Anglican Communion has had a long relationship with the Syriac Orthodox Church both in the Middle East and in Malankara over the past two centuries. The Christian Mission Society established missions at the turn of the 19th century ostensibly to emancipate the ancient communities. The relationship became strained for various reasons and resulted eventually in the establishment of Anglican communions and other Protestant denominations among the Syrian Christians.

In November 2002, the Anglican Communion reached a consensus on Christology with the Oriental Orthodox Churches . Both Churches said they confessed that there was "one Christ, one Son, one Lord" and that "the perfect union of divinity and humanity in the incarnate Word is essential to the salvation of the human race". (See report by The Right Rev Geoffrey Rowell.)


Brock, Sebastian and David G.K. Taylor (ed.s), The Hidden Pearl: The Syrian Orthodox Church and Its Aramaic Heritage. (Rome: Trans World Film Italia, 2001).

Chediath, Geevarghese, "Syriac Churches in Dialogue," The Harp, vol. XI-XII (1998-99).

Madey, John, "The Ecclesiological and Canonical Background of the So-Called Kerala Agreement", The Harp, vol. XI-XII (1998-99).

Paul, Daniel Babu, The Quest for Unity. (Damascus: Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, 1985).

Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia), The Orthodox Church. (London: Penguin Books, 1993).

Wensinck, A.J. Bar Hebraeus's Book of the Dove. (Leyden: Brill, 1919).

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Last Update: December 3, 2002