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The origins of the Melkite Catholic Church go back to the establishment of Christianity in the Near East.[1] As Christianity began to spread, the disciples preached the Gospel throughout the region and were for the first time called “Christians” in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26), the historical See of the Melkite Catholic Patriarchate.[2] By the second century, Chrisitianity was widespread in Antioch and throughout Syria. Growth of the church did not stop during periods of persecution, and by the end of the fourth century Christianity became the official state religion.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church traces its origins to the Christian communities of the Levant and Egypt. The church's leadership was vested in the three Apostolic Patriarchates of the ancient patriarchates: Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The church's history and relation to other churches may be summarised in four defining moments.

Fallout from the Fourth Ecumenical Council

The first defining moment was the socio-political fallout in the wake of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in AD 451. Fifth-century Middle-Eastern Christian society became sharply divided between those who did and those who did not accept the outcome of the council. Those who accepted the decrees of the council, the Chalcedonians, were mainly Greek-speaking city-dwellers, and were called Melkites (imperials) by the anti-Chalcedonians.[3] These latter were predominantly Syriac-Arabic or Coptic-speaking provincials.

Fusion with Arabic language and culture

The second defining event is more of a period of change than a sudden movement. The Battle of Yarmuk (636) took the Melkite homeland out of Byzantine control and placed it in the hands of the Muslim Arabs.[4] Whereas the Greek language and culture remained important, especially for the Melkites of Jerusalem, Melkite tradition became fused with the Arabic language and culture. Indeed there was Arabic Christian poetry before the arrival of Islam, but this enracination into the Arabic culture led to a degree of distancing between the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Melkite patriarchs and their people.

Despite the Arab conquest, the Melkites continued to exercise an important role in the Universal Church. The Melkites played a leading role in condemning the iconoclast controversy when it re-appeared in the early 9th century, and were among the first of the Eastern churches to respond to the introduction of the filioque clause in the West.[5]

Communion with the Roman Catholic Church

The third defining moment were the Councils of Reunion in which the Orthodox hierarchs accepted communion with the See of Rome after a long period of schism. In 1054, Patriarch Michael Kerularios and Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida had excommunicated each other, thus formalizing a schism that had been developing for many years. The Melkite Patriarch Peter III of Antioch rejected the quarrel of the Latin Cardinal and the Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I "consigned these excommunications to oblivion."

However, during the Holy Crusades the Crusaders introduced Latin prelates into the apostolic sees of the East, and the Fourth Crusade saw the sack of the great city of Constantinople and its domination by the "Crusaders" for fifty-seven years. These developments brought the East-West quarrel home to everyone but there was no declaration of schism. Since there had never been any formal division from East-West Schism these 'converts' of the Latin missionaries simply became a pro-Western, pro-Catholic party within Eastern Orthodoxy. Throughout the 17th century Jesuits, Capuchins and Carmelites established missions with the consent of the local Orthodox bishops in the Ottoman Empire. The Dominicans had been in Iraq since the 1300s.

At the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1439) the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Emperor accepted union with the West hoping for aid to save Constantinople from Islam. Neither of these unions lasted, though the last two emperors of Constantinople were professing Catholics; nor was any significant aid forthcoming from the warring kingdoms of a soon to be torn-apart Europe.

From 1342, Roman Catholic friars opened missions in the Middle East, particularly in Damascus and their teaching had important influence over the Melkite clergy and people. Yet, in the Melkite tradition it was the Jesuits, founded only in 1534, who were really decisive in the formation of the Catholic party in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. The Jesuits were not friars but something like the highly educated priests of the Patriarchal Chancery, which made them more acceptable.

Election of Cyril VI

The fourth defining moment was the election of Cyril VI, in 1724, by the Melkite bishops of Syria as the new Patriarch of Antioch. As Cyril was considered to be pro-Western by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias III feared that his authority would be compromised. Therefore, Jeremias declared Cyril's election to be invalid, excommunicated him, and appointed Sylvester of Antioch, a Greek monk to the patriarchal See of Antioch.[6]

Sylvester exacerbated divisions with his heavy-handed rule of the church as many Melkites acknowledged Cyril's claim to the patriarchal throne. It was obvious to all that Cyril had been legitimately elected and consecrated, and that Jeremias had attempted to remove him only to bolster his own authority over the Antiochian Patriarchate. (This Greek domination over the Byzantine Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch lasted until 1899.) Jeremias and Sylvester began a five year campaign of persecution against Cyril and the Melkite faithful who supported him, enforced by Ottomon Turkish troops.

Five years after the election of Cyril Tanas, in 1729, Pope Benedict XIII recognized Cyril as the legitimate Patriarch of Antioch and welcomed him and his followers into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.[7] From this time onwards, the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church has existed separately from and in parallel to the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the Middle East; the latter is no longer referred to as Melkite.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church has played an important role in the leadership of Arabic Christianity. It has always been led by Arabic-speaking Christians, whereas its Orthodox counterpart had Greek patriarchs until 1899. Indeed, at the very beginning of her separate existence, around 1725, one of her most illustrious lay leaders, the savant and theologian, Abdallah Zakher of Aleppo (1684–1748) set up the first printing press in the Middle East. In 1835, Maximos III Mazloum, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, was recognized by the Ottoman Empire as the leader of a millet, a distinctive religious community within the Empire. Pope Gregory XVI gave Maximos III Mazloum the triple-patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, a title that is still held by the leader of the Melkite Church.

Expansion of the Church and participation at the First Vatican Council


Stained glass window at the Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Roslindale, Massachusetts depicting Christ enthroned in regalia of a Byzantine emperor

In 1847, Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), reinstituted the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the person of the young, 34 year old, zealous Giuseppe Valerga (1813-1872), whom the indigenous hierarchs nicknamed "The Butcher" because of his fierce opposition to the native churches of the Holy Land. When he arrived in Jerusalem in 1847, there were 4,200 Latin Catholics and when he died in 1872, the number had doubled.

Under pressure from the Roman curia to adopt Latin rite practices, Patriarch Clement Bahouth introduced the Gregorian calendar used by the Latin and Maronite Rite in 1857; that act caused serious problems within the Melkite church, resulting in a short-lived schism.[8] Conflicts in the Melkite church escalated to the point where Clement abdicated his position as patriarch.

Clement's successor, Patriarch Gregory II Youssef (1864–1897) worked to restore peace within the community, successfully healing the lingering schism. He also focused on improving church institutions. During his reign Gregory founded both the Patriarchal College in Beirut in 1865 and the Patriarchal College in Damascus in 1875 and re-opened the Melkite seminary of Ain Traz in 1866.[9][10] He also promoted the establishment of Saint Ann's Seminary, Jeruselem, in 1882[11] by the White Fathers for the training of the Melkite clergy.

Following the Hatti Humayyouni decree by Sultan Abdul Majid in 1856 the situation of Christians in the Near East improved. This allowed Gregory to successfully encourage greater participation by the Melkite laity in both church administration as well as public affairs.[12] Gregory also took an interest in ministering to the growing number of Melkites who had emigrated to the Americas. In 1889 he dispatched Father Ibrahim Beshawate of the Basilian Salvatorian Order in Saida, Lebanon to New York in order to minister to the growing Syrian community there. According to historian Philip Hitte, Beshawate was the first permanent priest in the United States from the Near East from among the Melkite, Maronite, and Antiochian Orthodox Churches.[13]

Gregory was also a prominent proponent of Eastern ecclesiology at the First Vatican Council. In the two discourses he gave at the Council on May 19 and June 14, 1870 he insisted on the importance of conforming to the decisions of the Council of Florence, of not creating innovations such as papal infallibility, but accepting what had been decided by common agreement between the Greeks and the Latins at the Council of Florence, especially with regard to the issue of papal primacy.[14] He was keenly aware of the disastrous impact that the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility would have on relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church and emerged as a prominent opponent of the dogma at the Council.[15] He also defended the rights and privileges of the patriarchs according to the canons promulgated by earlier ecumenical councils. Speaking at the Council on May 19, 1870, Patriarch Gregory asserted:

The Eastern Church attributes to the pope the most complete and highest power, however in a manner where the fullness and primacy are in harmony with the rights of the patriarchal sees. This is why, in virtue of and ancient right founded on customs, the Roman Pontiffs did not, except in very significant cases, exercise over these sees the ordinary and immediate jurisdiction that we are asked now to define without any exception. This definition would completely destroy the constitution of the entire Greek church. That is why my conscience as a pastor refuses to accept this constitution.[16]
Patriarch Gregory refused to sign the Council's dogmatic declaration on papal infallibility. He and the seven other Melkite bishops present voted non placet at the general congregation and left Rome prior to the adoption of the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus on papal infallibility.[17] Other members of the anti-infallibilist minority, both from the Latin church and from other Eastern Catholic churches, also left the city.[18]

After the First Vatican Council concluded an emissary of the Roman Curia was dispatched to secure the signatures of the patriarch and the Melkite delegation. Patriarch Gregory and the Melkite bishops subscribed to it, but with the qualifying clause of the used at the Council of Florence attached: "except the rights and privileges of Eastern patriarchs.".[19][20] He earned the enmity of Pius IX for this; during his next visit to the pontiff Gregory was cast to the floor at Pius' feet by the papal guard while the pope placed his foot on the patriarch's head.[21] Despite this, Patriarch Gregory and the Melkite Catholic Church remained committed to their union with the Church of Rome. Relationships with the Vatican improved following the death of Pius IX and the subsequent election of Leo XIII as pontiff. Leo's encyclical Orientalium Dignitas addressed some of the Eastern Catholic Churches' concerns on latinization and the centralizing tendencies of Rome.[22] Leo also confirmed that the limitations placed on the Armenian Catholic patriarch by Pius IX's 1867 letter Reversurus would not apply to the Melkite Church; further, Leo formally recognized an expansion of Patriarch Gregory's jurisdiction to include all Melkites throughout the Ottoman Empire.[23]

  1. Tawil (2001), pp. 1-3
  2. Dick (2004), pp. 13-15
  3. Tawil (2001), p. 21
  4. Dick (2004), p. 21
  5. Dick (2004, p. 21
  6. Parry, (1999), p. 312
  7. Wikisource-logo.svg "Melchites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  8. Dick (2004), p. 38
  9. Dick (2004), p. 38
  10. Graham, James (2003-08-24). "History of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church". Melkite Greek Catholic Church Information Center. Retrieved 2008-12-24. 
  11. Raheb, Abdallah. "Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch: Birth, Evolution, and Current Orientations". Encyclopedia Phoeniciana. Retrieved 2008-12-24. 
  12. Dick (2004), p. 38
  13. Faraj, John. "History of the Melkite Community of New York". The Church of The Virgin Mary Melkite Catholic Church. Retrieved 2008-12-24. 
  14. Dick (2004), pp. 109-111
  15. Parry (1999), p. 313
  16. Dick (2004), p. 110. Dick notes that his source is C. Patelos, Vatican 1st et les eveques uniates, Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1981, 482-283
  17. Descy (1993), p. 64
  18. Descy (1993), p. 64
  19. Parry (1999), p. 313
  20. Zoghby (1998), p.83
  21. Parry (1999), p. 313. See also the account given by Zoghby (1998), p. 83
  22. Dick (2004), p. 39
  23. Dick (2004), p. 39

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