Ecumenical Relations of the Syriac Orthodox Church

“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.”

Bar `Ebroyo (Book of the Dove, Chapter IV)


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 this.

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.

H.H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas

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.)