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The Current State Of The Dialogue For Orthodox Unity In The Middle East [Published in 1998]

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The Current State Of The Dialogue For Orthodox Unity In The Middle East

by Gabriel Habib [St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 125-132]


During the last three decades, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of the Middle East realized the urgency of their Unity, mainly for the following reasons:

1. Facing the same ecclesiological and missiological challenges of the western churches in general, they considered that they should have a common contribution to make to the organized ecumenical movement to which they were called to be affiliated on international and regional levels.

2. In light of the inter-Orthodox dialogues held in Aarhus in 1964, Bristol in 1967, Geneva in 1970 and Addis Ababa in 1971, they became aware of the anomaly of their separation since the fifth century. Accordingly, they felt the need to try, through dialogue, to recover their Church unity beyond the divisive powers and principalities that intervened in their life and despite the different philosophical ways of thinking that were used by the Alexandrian and the Antiochian participants at the Council of Chalcedon.

3. Realizing, through separate dialogues, that they have similar ecclesiological problems with the Catholic Church in general and “Uniatism” in particular, they started to cease all opportunities to define common attitudes toward the Vatican and its related Churches.

4. Challenged by the same regional politico-religious juncture, they are increasingly convinced that they are called to a common witness within the Middle East monotheistic ethos.

1. Meetings to form a Middle East Ecumenical Council. Between 1965 and 1972 a series of meetings took place with the participation of Bishop Ignatios, now Patriarch Ignatios IV of Antioch, Bishop Karekin now Catholicos Karekin I of Etchmiatsin, Bishop Samuel of the Coptic Orthodox Church who was killed with president Sadat of Egypt, Archbishop Athanasios Ephrem Boulos and Gabriel Habib who, at that time, was Middle East Ecumenical Youth and Student Secretary. They explored ways of fulfilling rich and effective Orthodox witness in the Middle East ecumenical movement. In 1969 and as a result of their deliberations, they proposed to the Protestant churches of the region to form a Council of Churches, where the 16 Protestant churches will be represented by 1/3 of the members of the Council’s decision making and program committees, the 4 “Chalcedonian” Orthodox Churches by 1/3 and the 3 “non-Chalcedonian” Orthodox Churches by the remaining 1/3. They thought that the work of such ecumenical Council will not be determined exclusively by the number of Church representatives but mainly by the ecclesiological nature of the constituent Churches. In that way, they considered that the Council will essentially be composed of 3 ecclesial families of Churches. In 1990, the 7 Catholic Churches of the region, joined the Council as a 4th ecclesial family of Churches. Consequently, the proportion of Church representatives became 1/4 instead of 1/3.
2. Meetings on Orthodox Unity. For the purpose of trying to overcome their historical differences and of defining their present common witness, the Middle East Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches held a first meeting at the Theological School of Balamand, Lebanon, in 1972 and a second meeting at the Pendelli Conference Center, in Athens, in 1978. The delegates to these meetings were mainly Metropolitans, Archbishops and Bishops representing the non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox churches of the region, i.e. the Coptic, Armenian and Syrian Church of Antioch and the Chalcedonian or Eastern Orthodox churches of Alexandria, Antioch Jerusalem and Cyprus. Their deliberations were based on the studies presented at the international meetings of Aarhus, Bristol, Geneva and Addis Ababa. They also used the statements of the Ecumenical Patriarch of June 1965 and the decisions of the Conference of the Eastern Orthodox Churches held in Chambesy, Switzerland in 1968.

a. The meeting at Balamand monastery, Lebanon, in 1972

At a meeting held in Balamand in 1972, representatives of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches reaffirmed the opinion expressed by the theologians gathered at Aarhus, Bristol, Geneva and Addis Ababa, that the “Chalcedonian” and “non-Chalcedonian” Orthodox Churches have the same Christological faith. They also declared that “all impediments will cease, every cause of division and estrangement will fail and all expression of denigration and enmity will be put aside with every suspicion which has troubled the work of true unity. Accordingly, cooperation in all pastoral areas and activities will be realized so that the words of the Apostle Paul will be fulfilled: “Now, there are varieties of services but the same Lord… For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… (1 Corinthians 12:4-27).”

As a result of their discussions, the church representatives at that meeting made twelve recommendations aiming at increasing the awareness of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communities in the Middle East.

These included the following orientations:

  • i. That cooperation be encouraged between the Orthodox Youth Movements of the various Eastern and Oriental churches within the framework of SYNDESMOS, the world Fellowship of Orthodox Youth Movements.
  • ii. That when the Holy Synod of any Eastern or Oriental church meets, it should devote enough time to study the topic of Orthodox unity. On such an occasion a member of a Holy Synod of a Church belonging to the other family of Orthodox churches should be invited to participate.
  • iii. That the Eastern and Oriental churches of the Middle East devote the first Sunday of Lent of each year to Orthodox Unity. This issue should constitute the theme of the sermons delivered on that day by their respective priests.
  • iv. That exchanges be promoted between the theological schools or seminaries of the Eastern and Oriental Churches, on the levels of faculty, students and libraries.

b. Meeting at Pendeli monastery, Greece, in 1978

The delegates to the meeting in Pendeli, Greece reaffirmed in 1978 the conviction expressed by the 1972 Balamand declaration, that the faith of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches is common beyond all differences imposed by history. Accordingly, they have emphasized the need for mutual recognition conducive to full sacramental unity However, they have regarded their meeting as a contribution to the overall efforts towards Orthodox unity facilitated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and as a culmination of the local dialogues recommended by the inter-Orthodox Conferences of Rhodes in 1962, for the “Chalcedonian” and of Addis Ababa in l965, for the “non-Chalcedonian” churches.

On the occasion of this meeting, the participants had the opportunity to meet with theologians from the Church of Greece. It was followed by an audience with His Beatitude Seraphim, the Archbishop of Athens and Primate of Greece who blessed the work of the participants towards Orthodox unity. At the end of the meeting in Pendeli, the participants made several recommendations which included:

i. The need to publish a book which should contain a chronological account of all attempts towards Orthodox unity sincc 451 AD. including the reports of Rhodes in 1962, for the Eastern Orthodox and Addis Ababa in 1965, for the Oriental Orthodox. The book should also include accounts of the non official international consultations held in Aarhus, Bristol, Geneva, and Addis Ababa, as well as the statements of the Middle East meetings of Balamand in 1972 and Pendeli in 1978.

ii. The promotion of exchange of visits between priests, theologians, or lay people, belonging to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches with the aim of increasing knowledge of each other Tradition and contextual witness.

iii. The formation of joint working groups on liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal and canonical issues.

The movement towards Orthodox Unity in the Middle East is currently facing the following challenges:

1. The delay in making decisions. According to some church leaders, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not enough urging the Synods of the Eastern Orthodox Churches to act on the statements adopted by the joint commission mainly in Chambesy, in 1985 and 1990. Some, however, consider that the time element involved is not significant when compared with the period of 15 centuries the “Chalcedonian” and “non-Chalcedonian” churches have spent in separation from each other. For instance, in light of the statements of the Joint Commission, the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church had decided to lift its anathemas against the “Chalcedonian” Churches with the condition that these Churches would the same with regard to the “non-Chalcedonian” Churches. It seems that to this date, no Eastern Orthodox Church has taken such an action.

2. The opposition to Orthodox Unity. From certain quarters in Greece, Russia, Jerusalem and Ethiopia, there is presently, an important opposition to Orthodox Unity based on the assumption that the Oriental Orthodox Churches should not only confess the Christological belief of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but should also recognize the validity of the whole council of Chalcedon.

3. The internal politico-ecclesiastical tensions. The new political juncture, mainly in Eastern Europe is causing inter-Eastem Orthodox problems. It is also causing tensions within Oriental Orthodoxy, such as between the Coptic and Ethiopian Churches or between the Armenian Catholicosates of Cilicia and Etchmiatsin. In addition, ecclesiastical splits have recently occurred, in India, within the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch.


Despite the problems faced on the road to Orthodox Unity, one could discern the following signs of hope:

1. The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of Antioch. In 1991, the synods of the Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch have approved a joint statement concerning their pastoral needs and obligations. Their joint statement called the faithful to fully respect the spirituality, Tradition and the Saints of the two Churches as well as to preserve their respective Byzantine and Syriac liturgical cycles. It also asked them to include the fathers of both Church Traditions in the Christian Education Program and the Curriculum of their theological schools which should organize, between them a program of exchange of students and faculty. It also mentioned that if only one priest, from either of the two Churches concerned, is found alone in a region which has one Church, that can administer the holy sacraments and the other pastoral responsibilities, including the holy liturgy. In the case the sacraments of baptism and marriage are administered, that priest will have to keep separate registers for the two Churches involved. If two priests from the two Churches concerned are found in one place with one Church building, they can celebrate the liturgy alternatively. However, Inter-communion and mutual proselytism remained forbidden.

2. IOCC Middle East Consultation. From April 2 to 4, 1997, the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) held a consultation in Cyprus to define its future work in the Middle East region. The Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Armenian Orthodox Church of Cilicia were invited to send representatives. According to the recommendations of the consultation, these Churches will be asked to send there representatives to the future national committees.

3. SYNDESMOS Consultation on Orthodox Unity. In May 1997, SYNDESMOS, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth Movements organized a conference in Douma, Lebanon, on the relation between the Eastern and Oriental Churches. It was then recommended that Orthodox youth should activate dialogue towards Orthodox Unity. In particular, SYNDESMOS should publish booklets, in different languages, which should clarify the agreements made between the Churches involved and spread enough knowledge about their respective particularities as well as the significance of their common witness.

4. SYNDESMOS Conference in Cyprus. In July 1997, (SYNDESMOS) held a large gathering in Kikko monastery in Cyprus, to which it invited young people from the Oriental Orthodox Churches i.e. the Coptic, Syrian and Armenian Churches. The aim was the promotion of cooperation and exchange between youth from all the Orthodox Churches. 165 participants came from around the world.

5. Meeting of the official Joint Commission in Syria. In 2-5 February 1998, the Joint Commission of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches met in Damascus, Syria under the auspices of His Beatitude Ignatios IV, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Antioch and His Holiness Mar Ignatios Zakka I, Patriarch of the Syrian Church of Antioch. They agreed to reaffirm that the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches “basically maintain the old liturgical traditions in their local liturgical types, which coexisted in the undivided Church”. Also, the Joint Commission formed a joint Working Group to meet, for a week in Athens, between Easter and Pentecost of 1998. It is hoped that the Joint Working Group will discover ways of facilitating the mutual lifting of anathemas towards full Orthodox Unity.

Through their joint meetings of Balamand in 1972 and Pendeli in 1978, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of the Middle East have reiterated the conviction that they have the same Christological belief and a common understanding of ecclesiology that should make them urgently overcome the dogmatic and canonical obstacles that separated them for almost 15 centuries. Facing the same phenomenon of proselytism from foreign missions and the same politico-religious challenges, these churches have also become convinced that the fulfillment of their unity is of absolute necessity for credible witness within monotheism and in the ecumenical movement, in general. Moreover, those two meetings helped the participating Churches to fully subscribe later to the work of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue which met in Corinth, Greece in 1987, in AnbaBishoy monastery in Egypt in 1989, in Chambesy in 1990 and 1993 and recently in Damascus in 1998. All these meetings affirmed the common Christological faith and ecclesiology between the Eastern and Oriental churches and consequently envisaged the possibility of lifting the anathemas between them towards their sacramental unity. Nevertheless, disappointments continue to be expressed with regard to the slow pace of the work for Orthodox Unity. For this purpose your contribution and prayers are highly needed.

[Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 125-132]

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