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Mor Aphrem Theological Seminary at Ma’arat Saydnaya is the main Seminary of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. It is under the direct supervision of the Patriarch. It is the most important institution in the Syriac Orthodox Church. A church is strong when it has strong and educated pastors and clergy.
The Patriarchs and Bishops always aspired to have a seminary. This aspiration was realized at the time of Late Lamented Patriarch Aphrem Barsoum (+1957) who built in 1934 a suitable place for this purpose from his personal money in Zahleh – Lebanon in order to inaugurate it as the Theological Seminary. In 1939, he launched the seminary under the name of “Mor Aphrem Theological School”. The Seminary has since gone through 6 stages:
First Stage: Zahleh – Lebanon 1939-1946
This is the first stage when it was established and organized. The Seminary had 15 students and was under the supervision of His Holiness Patriarch Aphrem who was its supreme head.
Second Stage: Iraq – Mosul 1946-1962
For many reason, the Seminary moved from Zahleh to Mosul – Iraq in 1946. Its headquarters was the adjacent building of the Tahra Church. Under the administration of its new dean Fr. Boulos Behnam (later Archbishop Mor Gregorius Boulos Behnam) and the Spiritual guide Fr. Abdelahad Touma (later Patriarch Yacoub III) as well as the help of the Syriac people of Mosul, the Seminary leaped fast into success. The Church was provided with many graduates from the seminary to serve as clergy or teachers of Syriac language and liturgy.
Third Stage: Zahleh – Lebanon 1962-1968
Once more, the Seminary was brought back to Zahleh in 1962 where Rev. Fr. Ishak Saka was appointed as a dean.
Fourth Stage: Lebanon – Atchaneh 1968-1978
Late Lamented Patriarch Yacoub III had constructed a special building for the Seminary in Atchaneh where it was moved and continued its mission. It was closed around 1976 due to the incidents of Lebanon. All students were sent to their countries and parishes. In 1977 – 1978, some students returned to and others joined the seminary in Atchaneh. However, normal academic activity did not continue due to the tragic events in Lebanon. The students left the seminary and it was completely closed in Atchaneh. Patriarch Yacoub III gathered the remaining students in the Patriarchate in Damascus.
Fifth Stage: Damascus 1984-1996
When Late Lamented Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas became Patriarch, he gave special attention to the Seminary. In the first Holy Synod convened by Patriarch Zakka I Iwas in 1981, the issue of the seminary was studied and a decision was taken to encourage all the faithful of the church to support the seminary by sending the fit young men to study there and to provide academic staff to elevate its rank and the level of studies there. Also, it was decided to start working on a headquarters for the Seminary in Ma’arat Saydnaya. Some attempts were made to restore the seminary to Atchaneh – though for a transitory period – but it was difficult and near impossible. The situation remained in this way until the Holy Synod was convened again in 1984. A decision was taken in this respect to build a permanent headquarter for the seminary in Ma’arat Saydnaya. Meanwhile, the seminary continued its work in the temporary location of its headquarters in Haret El-Zeytoun in Damascus. A new code was settled and the academic regulations were reviewed. The Late Patriarch gave special attention to raising the academic and spiritual level of the seminary.
Sixth Stage: Ma’arat Saydnaya 1996 till present
The late Patriarch Zakka I Iwas took care of the seminary and worked with the deans on producing a complete curriculum which took into account the spiritual, academic, and social needs of the students as well as the pastoral need of the parishes. The seminary experienced many changes and is still undergoing development to raise the standards of teaching so that the graduates can become skilled pastors and spiritual leaders.
After his election as Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, His Holiness Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II started a thorough examination of the situation of the Seminary. He supervised the work of re-writing the curriculum using methods that are more adequate to modern times.