The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch was established by St Peter the Apostle and the Church today is divided into some 70 dioceses throughout the world.
It will come as a surprise to most, however, that the church’s leader, His Holiness Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, spent several formative years in Ireland.
In 1989, after a number of clerical appointments in the Middle East, Patriarch Aphrem II entered St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, from where he received a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (1992) and Doctorate of Divinity (1994). During that time, he also served as a priest to the Syriac Orthodox Community in the United Kingdom.
The patriarch speaks fondly of his time in Ireland and, despite “not being able to develop a taste for Guinness”, he admits to being bowled over by the “warmth” of the Irish people, finding it “very easy to make friends and be part of the life” of those around him.
“I miss Ireland and I would love to go back and visit,” he told The Irish Catholic.
On a more serious note, Patriarch Aphrem II said his time in Ireland provided “a unique opportunity to experience the life of the Church and the country at a turning point in its history when the country was adapting to certain laws and regulations as required by the membership to the European Union”.
“Some of these laws posed a real challenge to the teachings of the Church and the norms of Irish society,” he said.
Born Said Karim in Qamishli, north-eastern Syria, on May 3, 1965, the youngest son of Issa and Khanema Karim, Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II became the 123rd Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch when he was enthroned as patriarch in Damascus in May of this year.
The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch is a member of the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches which are also known as Non-Chalcedonian. These Churches refused to accept the Christological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon (451) which recognised two natures in Christ.
Instead, they adopted the Christology of St Cyril of Alexandrea, which teaches that, after incarnation, Christ has one incarnate nature made of two, namely divine and human natures. He is fully divine and fully human with one nature.
“Following deep theological dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, both sides now accept that the difference is in the way we express our faith and not in what we believe,” the patriarch said. “We teach the same doctrine, but in two different ways.”
Before his election to the patriarchate, Ignatius Aphrem II was Archbishop for the Eastern United States, then known as Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim. In that role, he established 11 new parishes, introduced a number of new programs for the youth and worked for inter-church unity.
Since his installation as patriarch, however, he has spent most of his time visiting members of the church who are suffering as a result of the crisis engulfing the Middle East. The patriarch views his primary role as “very much a product of the time we are living in”.
He has visited northern Iraq twice to be with the refugees and displaced people from the city of Mosul and the Nineveh plains. He has also visited several areas in Syria where homes have been destroyed and lives shattered, as well as attending several meetings and conferences in many parts of the world dealing with the situation in Middle East.
Patriarch Aphrem II insists that he will “continue to be close to the suffering people and try to comfort them”.
“The patriarch is the symbol of the unity of the Church and shepherd who should always be with his flock in their joys and sorrows,” he said.
Speaking frankly about the situation in Syria at present, the patriarch noted that, while security is of great concern, “people are more concerned about their daily needs”.
“More and more Syrians are becoming poor. Our cathedral church alone in Damascus is helping more than 5,000 families with diverse needs such as milk, baby food, clothing, hygiene items, apartment renting, health care services and medicine,” he said.
The patriarch noted, however, that Church members “are divided concerning what is happening in Syria”.
At the beginning, he noted, “a decent number of people were sympathising with the demands of change and political reform”.
However, very soon, “it became evident that these legitimate demands were not the real goals of this crisis,” he said.
“Many countries, western and Arab, have become involved and fanatic Muslims and terrorists from all over the world came to Syria for Jihad.
“The majority of the Syrian people, including Christians, distanced themselves from the so-called opposition which, very early on, carried arms and started targeting Christians and Muslims alike.
“More than one hundred churches, parochial schools, hospitals and other Church-related institutions have been destroyed.”
In terms of a global response, the patriarch urged the international community “to exert pressure on countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop sending terrorists to Syria”.
He said the US and other western governments “should collaborate with the Syrian government if they are serious about fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups”.
“We also wish to draw the attention of our brothers and sisters in the west to the importance of working through the local Churches in their relief efforts for the Syrian people,” he said.
As previously mentioned, Patriarch Aphrem has vast experience working for inter-Church unity in the US and continues these efforts in his current role in Syria today.
He maintains that the current crisis has brought the Christian Churches “closer to each other”.
“Churches of all denominations are praying together for peace in Syria. Churches are also coordinating the relief efforts,” he said.
The patriarch’s peace building efforts also extend to other major world religions, Islam in particular.
“The majority of Muslims in Syria are suffering from the crisis. The Church is providing help for all needy Syrians, regardless of their religious denomination. Our relations with Muslims are very cordial,” he said.
In a message to Ignatius Aphrem II congratulating him on his election earlier this year, Pope Francis prayed that he may be a “spiritual father” for his people and an “untiring builder of peace and justice, serving the common good and the good of the entire Middle East in today’s difficult circumstances”.
“It is important for all Christians to bear witness to the love and fellowship that binds us together, mindful of the prayer offered by our Lord at the Last Supper: that all may be one, so that the world may believe,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis, according to Patriarch Aphrem, “has changed the face of the Catholic Church”.
“He has managed to show the human face of the Church: a Church that is concerned with the weak and the needy. I hope that his style and compassion will help bring back the people, especially the young, to the Church,” he said.
A desire shared by many.