As with most Christian communities of the Middle East, the Syriac Catholic Church has suffered severely as the region’s stability has deteriorated in the last 100 years or so. During Iraq’s civil war (2006-2007), thousands fled the violence in Baghdad and Mosul, where they had once enjoyed relative prosperity. The displaced found security in their remote ancestral villages near ancient Nineveh.
Now, these once proud centers of the church — the source of many of its vocations to the priesthood and religious life — have been lost, too, as Islamic extremists invaded the Nineveh Plain in August 2014, displacing more than 100,000 Christians, as well as Yazidis and other minorities. Civil war in Syria has uprooted thousands more, while economic stagnation and political uncertainty in Egypt and Lebanon have encouraged some Syriac Catholic families to emigrate to the West.
A small church, numbering about 207,000 people worldwide, the Syriac Catholic Church somehow endures, despite the repeated conflicts and cycles of persecution in the last 120 years.
Together with the much larger Syriac Orthodox Church (which numbers some 4.2 million people, including 3.7 million in India), the Syriac Catholic Church shares in the heritage of the Syrian city of Antioch, the political and socioeconomic center of the eastern Mediterranean in the ancient world. Though inhabited by a diverse population — Greeks and Macedonians, Romans and Jews, Syrians and Nabateans — Antioch was culturally Hellenic and its lingua franca, Greek. But those who lived in Syria’s rural interior spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic nurtured in the city of Edessa.
In the seventh century, Syriac Christians generally welcomed the invading Muslim Arabs, who accepted them as “People of the Book.” Syriac Christianity flourished. Poets composed hymns that simplified complex ideas. Scholars translated ancient Greek texts and wrote biblical commentaries. Monks explored grammar, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric and science. Theologians and poets continued the tradition of creating liturgies, borrowing elements from the Byzantine and other traditions.
Arab Muslim leaders employed Syriac scholars, who were largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.
In the 18th century, a renewed Catholic presence in the Middle East, bolstered by the presence of French and Italian missionaries, formed a Catholic community within the Syriac Orthodox Church. The growth of this new church ended, however, as the long and painful decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire coincided with the rise of European colonial ambitions. Suspicious of collusion, the Ottomans murdered more than 25,000 Syriac Christians between 1895 and 1896.
During World War I, the Christian subjects of the Ottoman sultan were caught between two opposing cultures — their Sunni Muslim superiors and the Allied “Christian” powers of Great Britain, France and Russia, which encouraged separatist movements. The consequences were grave. Hundreds of thousands were killed, including some 50,000 Syriac Catholics and six of the church’s bishops. Survivors, including the patriarch, sought refuge in cities, especially Beirut, which remains the seat of the Syriac Catholic patriarchate.
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