The Church in Syria Today
(28 June 2009)
In the Middle East, there are no reliable confessional statistics either for Syria or for other countries. We must keep to approximate estimates.
It may be said that there are, in our region, about fifteen million Christians, with five million more in Sudan, so less than five percent in relation to our countries’ three hundred and forty million Muslims. In Syria, the proportion of Christians is estimated at a little less than nine per cent, or about one million seven hundred thousand Christians out of a total population of nearly twenty million inhabitants.
In decreasing order of numerical importance, there are in Syria :
- The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (whose Patriarch, His Beatitude Ignatius IV (Hazim) has his seat in Damascus )
- The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate (whose Patriarch is your servant, also with seat in Damascus )
- The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate (whose Patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Zakka I (Iwas), also has his seat in Damascus )
- The Armenian Apostolic Church (the Eparchy of Aleppo is dependent upon the Catholicos of Cilicia, whose seat is in Lebanon, and that of Damascus is dependent upon the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin in Armenia)
- The Maronite Church (whose Patriarch has his seat in Lebanon ) with three eparchies
- The Syriac Catholic Church (whose Patriarch has his seat in Lebanon ) with four eparchies
- The Armenian Catholic Church (whose Patriarch has his seat in Lebanon ) with two eparchies and a patriarchal exarchate
- The Chaldean Catholic Church (whose Patriarch has his seat in Iraq ) with one eparchy
- The Assyrian Church of the East (currently divided between two Patriarchs, one in the United States and the other in Iraq )
- The Latin Church (Apostolic Vicariate of Aleppo .)
- Some Protestant Churches of different denominations.
On the ecumenical level, the main institution is the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), made up of four “families” – Orthodox, non-Chalcedonian, Catholic and Protestant, which has its headquarters in Beirut We belong to it.
Problems to do with schools, personal status and the common catechism, used by Christian pupils in all schools and published and distributed at State expense, are jointly dealt with by representatives of Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies.
In the meetings of the Assemblies of Catholic Hierarchs, there is generally a time available to Orthodox and Protestants for possible study of those problems.
There are also weekly meetings of Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs at local level in the city of Aleppo and a similar monthly meeting in Damascus .
We would also like to point out some facts, such as the common presentation of good wishes by Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs to State authorities on the occasion of major Muslim festivals, or the construction and use of one and the same church by local Catholic and Orthodox communities in the Damascus suburb of Doummar and in Aleppo .
In Syria, as in all other Arab countries of the Middle East except Saudi Arabia, freedom of religion is guaranteed in law: that is, there is freedom of worship, but not freedom of conscience, in the sense that it is not possible for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, even though, in Syria, the Islamic rule which prescribes the death penalty for anyone who forswears the Qur’anic faith is not in force.
There are tensions in places, in particular, in Iraq (where an Archbishop and several priests and deacons were martyred in 2008) and in Egypt , the result of extremist and fundamentalist elements.
We should like to point out too that in Syria and in several other countries of the region, Christian churches benefit from free water and electricity supplies, are exempt from several types of tax and can seek building permission for new churches (in Syria, land for these buildings are granted by the State) or repair existing ones.
It should be noted too that there are Christian members of Parliament and of government in Syria and other countries, sometimes in a fixed number (as in Lebanon and Jordan.)
Finally, we note that a new personal statute was promulgated on 18 June 2006 for the various Christian Churches found in Syria, which purposely and verbatim repeats most of the rules of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches promulgated by Pope John Paul II.
As for the various Catholic Churches, their mutual relations are conducted via the Council of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs and the Assemblies of Hierarchs of different countries: the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon (whose president is the Maronite Patriarch), the Assembly of Catholic Hierarchy in Syria (whose president is the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch), the Assembly of the Catholic Hierarchy of Egypt (whose president is the Coptic Catholic Patriarch), the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land (whose Patriarch is the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem) and the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Iraq (whose president is the Chaldean Patriarch.)