Oriental Orthodox Churches

Oriental Orthodox Churches

An Introduction to the Oriental Orthodox Churches

The Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syriac, and Indian Orthodox Churches–collectively referred to as the Oriental Orthodox Churches–are heirs to some of the richest and most ancient traditions in the Christian world. Today they are estimated to have as many as 50 million members worldwide, including significant diaspora populations. Nonetheless, they remain relatively unknown in the West, where the study of church history has traditionally focused on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and to a lesser degree Eastern Orthodoxy.

Each of the six churches traces its origins to apostolic missions of the first century. Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew are believed to have been martyred in Armenia; St. Mark is referred to as the first bishop of Alexandria; St. Philip is said to have baptized an Ethiopian pilgrim, who returned home to spread the faith in African lands south of Egypt; Antioch is mentioned in the book of Acts as the place where the term “Christian” was first used; and St. Thomas is believed to have been martyred in South India. While some of these claims are debated by scholars, the establishment of Christianity in these lands certainly dates to the earliest centuries of the Christian era.


The Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Church.

Indian Patriarch

Christianity in India has a far longer history than some might suspect, with origins stretching back more than a thousand years before the arrival of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Indeed, when the Portuguese began to colonize the southwest coast of India in the early sixteenth century, they were surprised to find there a Christian community tracing its roots all the way to the apostle Thomas. The Orthodox Church in India, the inheritor of this ancient tradition, is known as the “Malankara” Church, after an old name for the region where the church is centered, roughly equivalent to the modern state of Kerala. Since the early twentieth century, the church has been divided into two communities, both with historical ties to the Syriac tradition: the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is a fully independent church, recognizing as its head the Catholicos of the East, whose office is in Kottayam, Kerala; the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church remains under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, although it is administered locally with an office in Puthenkurishu, near Kochi, Kerala.

St. Thomas is said to have reached India in 52 A.D. According to tradition, he established several churches in Malankara and also spent time in what is today the state of Tamil Nadu; a small mount near Chennai (the capital of Tamil Nadu) is venerated as the site of his martyrdom and is a center of pilgrimage for Christians of many denominations in India. The history of the early “Thomas Christians,” as the converts of the apostle became known, is obscure, and some modern scholars have questioned the account of Thomas’s journey. What is certain, however, is that sea trade routes did exist between the Near East and the Malankara coast, and that Syrian and Persian merchants had contact with South India in the early centuries of the Christian era. A group of around 400 Syrians from Edessa is said to have arrived in 345, led by a merchant known as Thomas of Cana and accompanied by Mor Joseph, a Syrian bishop (Kottapparambil). Another wave of Syrian immigrants arrived in Malankara in the ninth century.

Beginning in the fifth century, the Syriac community in the Near East came to be divided between the Assyrian Church of the East, which accepted the doctrines of the theologian Nestorius, and the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, which regarded Nestorianism as a heresy. Although the influence of Syriac Christianity in India is uncontested, it is difficult to know which tradition was more influential, and at what periods. Many scholars have asserted the jurisdiction of the Assyrian Church of the East in Malankara from an early period; others have argued for a continuous Orthodox tradition until 1490, when it is well documented that the church began receiving Nestorian bishops from Persia. The period of Assyrian bishops continued until 1599, when Roman Catholics took control of churches in the region.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had reached India in 1498, and the following century marked the beginning of European colonization and missionary work there. Indian and European Christians seem to have enjoyed cordial relations at first, but by the end of the sixteenth century the situation had completely deteriorated: while the Malankara Christians were content to acknowledge separate apostolic traditions, stemming respectively from St. Thomas and St. Peter, Catholic missionaries sought to bring the Indian Church under the administration of Rome. The culmination of their efforts was the Synod of Diamper (1599), which proclaimed the Malankara Church a part of the Roman Catholic Church. Although canonical irregularities meant that Rome never accepted the synod, its conveners nonetheless enrolled the support of the local government and began enforcing use of a Latinized rite.

On 3 January 1653, Malankara Christians finally rebelled: thousands gathered before the Coonan (“leaning”) Cross in Mattancherry, taking an oath no longer to submit to the Roman Church. They attempted to re-establish communion with the Assyrian Church of the East but were unsuccessful; finally, they reached a connection with the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch, by which they would renounce Nestorianism and adhere to Orthodox faith and practice. The restored church thus became an autonomous and autocephalous part of the Orthodox Church.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave rise to two schisms within the Malankara community. The Malabar Independent Syrian Church of Thozhiyur was founded in around 1774, following the disputed appointment of a local bishop; today this church has fewer than ten thousand members.

Another split took place the following century, when Anglican-inspired reformers within the Malankara Church broke away to form a protestant Church; the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar. Today the Mar Thoma Church has approximately 700,000 members and is in communion with the Church of England.

The most significant schism for the Orthodox community of Malankara took place in the early twentieth century, when a large group of the faithful, pointing to the founding of the church by the apostle Thomas, insists for the freedom of an independent Indian Orthodox Church. Although the Malankara Church was already an autocephalous, autonomous, or self-governed, spiritually part of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Church desired to confirm autocephaly, or its own head rather than reliance on the patriarch of Antioch. The autocephaly was re-established in 1912, and became known as the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, while the church that showed adherence under the patriarchate became known as the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. Despite repeated efforts at reconciliation, relations between the two groups remain tense. As of 2004, each of the two churches has around 1,250,000 members.




The Armenian Apostolic Church


Armenian PatriarchAccording to church tradition, Christianity was introduced to Armenia by Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew, two of the twelve disciples of Christ. The early kings of Armenia were largely hostile to the new religion: the martyrdom of Thaddeus and then Bartholomew in the years 66 and 68 marked the first of several state-sponsored persecutions. Around the beginning of the fourth century, however, a young nobleman named Gregory succeeded in converting the king, and Armenia became a Christian country–the first Christian state in history. Hagiography records that St. Gregory, henceforth known as “the Illuminator” or “the Enlightener,” was instructed by Christ in a dream to build a great cathedral in the capital city of Vagharshapat, not far from Mount Ararat. In commemoration of this vision, the cathedral and the city both became known as Etchmiadzin, or the place where the “Only-Begotten” (Christ) “descended.” The Holy See of Etchmiadzin remains to this day the spiritual center of the Armenian Church.


Armenia has endured an unsettled and often violent history, with periods of foreign domination at the hands of Persian, Arab, Greek, Turkish, and Soviet invaders. Following Arab and Byzantine invasions in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the traditional kingdom of Armenia was more or less abandoned, and a new Armenian kingdom, known as Cilician Armenia, was established further west, at the eastern edge of Asia Minor. The Catholicosate, or central authority of the church, was likewise transferred from Etchmiadzin to Cilicia. The Cilician kingdom fell about three hundred years later, and the See of Etchmiadzin was restored in 1441; nonetheless, there remain to this day two Catholicosates within the Armenian Church: Etchmiadzin retains a primacy of honor, but the Catholicosate of Cilicia (presently centered in Antelias, Lebanon) is fully independent in administration. There are also two Patriarchates, one in Jerusalem and the other in Constantinople, both of which are under the authority of Etchmiadzin.

The darkest period in the history of the Armenian church and people was that of the Turkish massacres of 1915-1920, sometimes referred to as “the Armenian Genocide.” According to some estimates, around 1.5 million Armenians were killed and many more exiled; the clergy of the Armenian church were not spared, dropping in number from approximately 5,000 in 1915 to around 400 just eight years later. In 1920 Armenia was invaded by the Soviets and soon after incorporated into the Soviet Union. In 1991 the Republic of Armenia declared its independence from the U.S.S.R., opening the door to a revival of Armenian Orthodoxy in its traditional homeland.

For centuries the Armenian Apostolic Church has had a large Diaspora population. Today its faithful are spread throughout the world, including Turkey, the Middle East, Europe, Australia, and America. As of 2004, the number of Armenian Orthodox worldwide is estimated at six million.




The Coptic Orthodox Church

Coptic PatriarchThe term “Coptic” is derived from the Greek word aigyptios, meaning Egyptian. Today it is used to distinguish the Christian inhabitants of Egypt from the majority Arab Muslim population. The Coptic Church is presently centered in Cairo, though it is traditionally  associated with Alexandria, one of the five patriarchal thrones of early Christendom (along with Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople). St. Mark the Apostle, who is believed to have brought the faith to Egypt in the first century, is reckoned as the first bishop of Alexandria; Pope Shenouda III, the current Coptic patriarch, holds the title “117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark.”


Prior to the legalization of Christianity in 313, the church in Egypt suffered frequent persecutions under the pagan Roman emperors. The most severe was under Diocletian (284-305), who in a series of edicts ordered churches to be destroyed, copies of scripture to be burned, and clergy and laity alike to be imprisoned, tortured, and killed. To this day the Coptic Church follows a special calendar in commemoration of all who died rather than renounce their faith; years are counted not from the birth of Christ but from the beginning of Diocletian’s reign in 284, which corresponds to 1 “Anno Martyrum” (A.M.), or “In the Year of the Martyrs.”


One of the greatest legacies of the Coptic Church is the monastic tradition, described by Coptic scholar Aziz Atiya as “the gift of Egypt to Christendom.” As early as the second or third century, Christians desiring to devote themselves entirely to a life of prayer and fasting began to retreat to the solitude of the Egyptian desert. St. Antony the Great is generally regarded as the father of monasticism, though it was his younger contemporary St. Pachomius who first organized a formal, communal style of monastic life. From Egypt, the monastic movement spread throughout the Christian world. Coptic monasticism began to experience a revival in the late twentieth century, and today there are several hundred monks and nuns both in Egypt and abroad.


Many of the early church fathers flourished in Christian Egypt. Notable among them were Clement of Alexandria and his successor Origen, who headed the Catechetical School at Alexandria, one of the most famous institutions of learning in antiquity. Other towering figures were St. Athanasius the Great, a defender of orthodoxy at the First Ecumenical Council (325), and St. Cyril of Alexandria, the most influential voice at the Third Ecumenical Council (431). The works of St. Cyril, who vehemently rejected Nestorius’s apparent separation of Christ’s humanity from his divinity, are often cited by Oriental Orthodox theologians as a foundation for the rejection of the Council of Chalcedon (451).


The supporters of Chalcedon had on their side the Byzantine civil authorities, and as a result the non-Chalcedonians in Egypt faced harsh persecutions. The Coptic patriarch of Alexandria was deposed and exiled, leading to the permanent establishment of a dual partriarchate: one of the Greek Byzantine Church, and the other of the Coptic Church. In the two hundred years after Chalcedon, attempts at reunion were made, though without success; these efforts came to an end in the seventh century, when Egypt was cut off from Byzantium by Arab Muslim conquest.

In the centuries-long history of Arab rule in Egypt, the treatment of Coptic Christians has varied widely. At times there were persecutions, especially after the Crusades, which though initiated in Europe nonetheless tended to antagonize Muslim rulers against Christians in general. During other periods, however, the Copts enjoyed a remarkable degree of tolerance and respect. In recent times, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt has heightened tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities, and Copts have faced discrimination and sometimes even attacks at the hands of extremists. Nonetheless, relations between the patriarch and the Egyptian president are reportedly good, and there have been signs that the government is working to improve the situation.

With the elevation of the saintly Pope Kyrillos VI to the patriarchate in 1959, “there began a renaissance in all aspects of church life that is still continuing strongly under the present Pope Shenouda III.” Ancient monasteries have once again begun  to flourish, interest in Coptic studies has grown, Sunday School programs are strong, and churches have been established in North America, Europe, and Australia. Today the membership of the Coptic Church worldwide is estimated at roughly nine million.



The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church

Eritrean PatriarchThe history of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church is closely tied to that of its neighbor, the Ethiopian Church. Until the twentieth century, both churches were under the jurisdiction of the Coptic patriarch in Egypt: the Ethiopian Church received full independence only in 1959, the Eritrean Church in 1993. Relations between the two churches have often been tense, owing to war and subsequent border disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Nonetheless, they remain in full communion with one another, as with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches, and indeed share a common heritage of liturgy and art stretching back at least fifteen hundred years.


In former times Eritrea was part of the Axumite Empire, the rulers of which traced their lineage to the legendary Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Although Christianity may have been introduced in Eritrea in the apostolic age, the earliest undisputed records of its existence date to the fourth century, when the king of Axum proclaimed it the state religion. The faith was further spread in the late fifth and sixth centuries by the Nine Saints, a group of exiles fleeing theological persecution in the Byzantine  Empire. These saints established churches and monasteries throughout Eritrea and Ethiopia, many of which may still be seen today. As a result of their labors, as well as of the traditional connection of Axum with the Coptic patriarchate in Alexandria, Orthodox Christians in Eritrea have always sided with non-Chalcedonian christology, which teaches that Christ has but one, undivided nature, at once human and divine. In celebration of this doctrine, the Eritrean Church also refers to itself as the Tewahdo, or “Unity / Made One,” Church.


Situated along the southwest coast of the Red Sea, Eritrea was home to several important trading ports. With the spread of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, however, its ports fell into foreign hands, and as Axum began to decline, the Christians of Eritrea entered a long period of relative isolation. In the sixteenth century the Ottomans seized the port city of Massawa, whence their influence soon spread inland. Eritrea was also ruled by Egypt during the nineteenth century, then by Italy, which in 1890 proclaimed Eritrea a colony; the name “Eritrea” itself comes from an Italian version of the Latin mare erythraeum, the old Roman name for the Red Sea.


During World War II, Italy lost power, and Eritrea was claimed by the British. In 1949 Britain agreed to administer the region as a trust territory for the United Nations; three years later, in accordance with a UN decision, Eritrea was declared an autonomous unit within a federated Ethiopia. In 1962 Ethiopia dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea as a province, sparking a prolonged and violent conflict between Eritrean rebels and Ethiopian forces. The rebels won a decisive victory in 1991, and in a referendum held two years later, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. Although Ethiopia recognized Eritrea’s independence, fighting broke out again in 1998 as a result of a border dispute. A peace agreement was signed in December 2000, but as of 2004 the final demarcation of the border is still unsettled, and relations between the two countries remain tense.


Prior to political independence, the church in Eritrea was administered as a diocese within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In 1993, however, the local church, led by Archbishop Philipos of Asmara and supported by the Eritrean government, petitioned the Coptic Church for ecclesiastical independence. The request was granted on 28 September 1993; the following year, “the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches signed an agreement in Addis Ababa that reaffirmed the autocephalous status of both churches, and recognized a primacy of honor of the Coptic Church among the Oriental Orthodox churches in Africa.” In 1998, Abuna Philipos was elevated to the rank of patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. As of 2004, the church is led by Patriarch Antonios, who was elected following the death of Philipos’s successor, Yacob. The church presently has around one and a half million members.



The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

Ethiopian PatriarchThe earliest contacts of Ethiopia with the Christian faith may have been in the first century: the New Testament records that an Ethiopian eunuch returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem met the apostle Philip on the road, receiving baptism at his hands (Acts 8:26-39). The eunuch was said to be an official in the court of the queen of Ethiopia, and tradition holds that upon his return he became  the first to preach Christianity there. A separate tradition also records that the apostle Matthew himself visited Ethiopia in the course of his missionary travels. The great turning point in Ethiopian religious history, however, was not until the fourth century, when the king of Axum proclaimed Christianity the state religion.


The Axumite Empire was at that time a formidable kingdom stretching across present-day Eritrea, parts of present-day Ethiopia, and additional territories along the Red Sea. According to legend, it had been founded in about 1000 B.C. by Menelik I, a son of King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba; indeed, down to the twentieth century emperors of Ethiopia continued to regard themselves as heirs to the throne of Solomon, Haile Selassie (reigned 1930-1974) being accounted 111th in the succession. The semi-historical Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings), a medieval work usually cited as the textual source for this tradition, further records the intriguing legend that soon after Menelik’s anointing the Ark of the Covenant was brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. There are many who believe the Ark is still there to this day, carefully guarded in a sanctuary near the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.


The fourth-century conversion of the Axumite king to Christianity is credited to St. Frumentius, a Phoenician-born bishop ordained by St. Athanasius of Alexandria to minister to the faithful in Axum. Since that time, the Ethiopian Church has been closely tied to the Coptic Church, with the Patriarch of Alexandria overseeing the appointment of bishops until recent times; only in 1959 did the church receive full independence. Occasionally the Christians of Ethiopia are still incorrectly referred to as “Coptic Christians,” a label that belies not only the church’s autocephaly but also its distinctive heritage.


Together with the Coptic and other Oriental Orthodox Churches, Ethiopia rejected the Council of Chalcedon (451), which proclaimed Christ to have two distinct natures, human and divine. Wishing to stress that Christ has only one, simultaneously human and divine nature, the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia also refers to itself as the Tewahedo (also spelled tewahido), or “Made One / Unity,” Church. Non-Chalcedonian Christianity in Ethiopia was further strengthened in the late fifth century, when a group of exiles fleeing persecution under the Chalcedonian-leaning Byzantine Empire came to Ethiopia. These men, known as the “Nine Saints,” translated the Bible and important works of theology into Ge’ez (the language of Ethiopia at the time), established monasteries, and worked to convert the remaining pagans in the land.


In the seventh century Islam began its rapid spread through North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Ethiopia was exempted from jihad, perhaps at the order of the Prophet Muhammad, some of whose companions and relatives are said to have received shelter and religious protection from the king of Axum; but the surrounding conquests left the Christians of Ethiopia relatively isolated. The church continued to be governed by Coptic bishops, though the dangers of the road from Egypt to Axum at times left the see unoccupied. Beginning in the thirteenth century, Ethiopia faced intermittent conflicts with regional Muslim states, culminating with a devastating series of attacks led by the sixteenth-century ruler Ahmad ibn Ibrahim. With Portuguese assistance, Ethiopia eventually repelled Ahmad’s armies, but only after years of violence in which many churches, along with some of Ethiopia’s greatest artistic treasures, were destroyed.


The work of Jesuit missionaries during this period led to deep tensions within the church. In the early seventeenth century, Emperor Susneyos of Ethiopia converted to Catholicism, ordering the persecution of those who refused to accept Chalcedonian christology. A bloody rebellion followed, ending with the ascent to power of Susneyos’s son Fasiladas, who expelled the Jesuits from the country and proclaimed the restoration of Orthodoxy; for the next two hundred years, further missionary efforts were strictly suppressed.


In the twentieth century, with political support from Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian Church began pushing for greater independence from the Coptic Church. In 1948, the Coptic Church agreed to consecrate an Ethiopian rather than a Copt as the next metropolitan of Ethiopia. The Egyptian-born metropolitan died in 1950, and the Ethiopian-born Archbishop Basilios succeeded him the following year. In 1959, the move was made complete, as Basilios was elevated to the rank of patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. Henceforth, Ethiopia was fully independent from the Coptic Church, although it continued to accord to Alexandria a primacy of honor. In 1993, after the political independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Church was in turn to recognize the autocephaly of the Eritrean Church, which had previously been a province under the jurisdiction of the Ethiopian patriarch.

A Marxist revolution in 1974 led to the overthrow of Haile Selassie and the official separation of church and state. The years following the coup were marked by severe persecution of Christians: church properties were seized by the state, and as many as tens of thousands of Ethiopians were killed during a period known as the “Red Terror.” The communist government of Ethiopia fell in 1991, and this in turn led to a schism within the church, with Patriarch Merkorios being accused of collaboration with the communists and forced to resign. In 1992 Patriarch Paulos was consecrated in his place, but Merkorios refused to recognize the election. Merkorios, taking refuge first in Kenya and then the United States, established the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Exile; as of 2004, the division between the followers of the Patriarchal church in Ethiopia and the Synod in Exile remains unhealed. Together, members of the two groups number approximately 30 million believers throughout the world.



The Syriac Orthodox Church

Syrian PatriarchThe Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the oldest churches in the world, had its origins in the city of Antioch in the Roman province of Syria; according to the New Testament, it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Church tradition records that St. Peter served as the first bishop of the city, before his journey to Rome; the famous martyr Ignatius of Antioch, also known as St. Ignatius the Illuminator, is said to have been Peter’s second successor. Together with the patriarchates of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, and Alexandria, Antioch became one of the five great centers of early Christendom. The city of Edessa, to the northeast of Antioch, was also an important center for the church, especially in the development of a distinctively Syriac heritage. The Syriac language itself originated as an Edessene dialect of Aramaic.

As Latin was the lingua franca for the Roman Church and Greek for the Byzantine Church, the Syriac language united Christians across a wide geographical region. The patriarchate of Antioch originally included under its jurisdiction all the lands from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, and at its height extended even as far east as Afghanistan. In English the church was formerly known as the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, but in 2000 the Holy Synod decided to adopt the term “Syriac” instead, to avoid confusion with the modern nation of Syria.

Antioch was an important center of theology, and its students and teachers were deeply involved in the Christological debates of the early Ecumenical Councils. The third of these councils, held in Ephesus in 431, led to a schism within the Syriac-speaking community, with followers of the condemned theologian Nestorius eventually establishing a separate church in Persia, known today as the Assyrian Church of the East. The next major council was held at Chalcedon in 451, and its decision, too, proved divisive. The Syriac Church rejected the proclamation of the council that Christ has two distinct natures, maintaining instead a single nature, at once human and divine. The schism between the opponents and supporters of Chalcedon eventually led to the emergence of separate patriarchates in Antioch, which continue to this day: the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate belongs to the communion of churches known as Oriental Orthodox, while the other patriarchate is a member of the Eastern Orthodox communion.

At the time of the council, Antioch was part of the Byzantine Empire, and the Syriac Orthodox Church was frequently persecuted by Chalcedonian-leaning emperors. Many of its bishops were exiled, and by the mid sixth century the church was in great decline. But revival was soon to follow, through the labors of Jacob Baradaeus, who in around 544 was ordained bishop of Edessa. Jacob, who is commemorated as one of the greatest saints of the church, traveled extensively in an effort to renew the faith, ordaining twenty-seven bishops and hundreds of priests and deacons. So successful was his undertaking that outsiders sometimes refer to the Syriac Church as “Jacobite,” though the church itself rejects the appellation.

With the Arab conquest of the Near East in the seventh century, the church was delivered from the threat of further Byzantine suppression. Syriac Christians and Muslims generally enjoyed good relations: “The early years of Muslim occupation were characterized by religious tolerance and justice,” writes Chorepiscopus John Meno, “and Syrian Orthodox enjoyed positions of great influence and prestige under the Caliphs” . Relations deteriorated to some degree after the Crusades, which stoked anti-Christian sentiments among many Muslim rulers. Nonetheless, the seventh to thirteenth centuries in general mark a prosperous era for the church, with some of the finest outputs of literature and scholarship.

In the fourteenth century the Mongols entered Syria, destroying countless monasteries and churches. These invasions marked the beginning of a period of oppression and decline from which the church has only in recent times emerged. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the church suffered a particularly fierce persecution under the Turks, and “[b]y the beginning of the 20th century, Syriac Orthodox Christianity was confined mostly to mountainous rural areas, such as Tur Abdin, and various towns in the Ottoman Empire”. The greatest tragedy befell the church in 1915, remembered as Sayfo (“The Year of the Sword”), when tens of thousands of Syriac Christians were massacred by the Ottomans. Many of the survivors fled Turkey, resettling in North America and in the newly emerging nations of the Middle East.

As a result of the difficult and often violent history the church has had to endure, the office of the patriarch has shifted several times over the centuries. The most recent move was to Damascus, where church administration has been centered since 1959. Over the past several decades, the church has enjoyed a period of revival—sometimes referred to as a modern renaissance—much of it taking place in the new diaspora. Today Syriac churches exist throughout the Middle East, as well as in Turkey, North America, Europe, Australia, and especially in India, where the church has long had an important presence. (For more information on the Syriac Church in India, see the section on Indian Orthodoxy.)

As of 2004, the Syriac Orthodox Church is estimated to have around 1,700,000 members worldwide, including approximately 1,200,000 faithful in India.




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