The Syrian Orthodox Church at crossroads:Worrying moments of reckoning

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Patriarchal Election

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” Matthew 25:21

Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas:
We cannot challenge the will of God when he calls his servant to share the joy of his Master. The first day of spring, Friday 21 March 2014, brought the long dreaded, yet inevitable, into realisation. His Holiness, Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, ended his rule, to finally receive his reward from his true and only Master, our Lord Jesus Christ. His departure has left us with a void at the Antiochean See of St. Peter. The 122nd Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church was among the most predominant church leaders, with His Patriarchal tenure outlasted almost all his predecessors (ranked as number 10), serving 34 years. He certainly raised the bar for his successors in respect to his different ecclesiastical accomplishments.

The thrice blessed, Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, served the Church during a difficult era. The period of his patriarchate was marked by sweeping technological advancement, globalisation, and, most importantly, consecutive regional wars. He captained his tight ship through its maiden voyage, when ecumenical, interfaith and diplomatic relations were the order of the day, which by his wisdom he excelled on all fronts. His Holiness conducted a record-breaking number of consecrations of monks and bishops. The majority of both clergy and laity of the Syrian Orthodox Church have solely been brought up under his pastoral baton. Indisputably, he is the spiritual father of the church today, as most adherents have seen no other Syrian Orthodox patriarchs. This suffices for the wise, as the list of virtues of His Holiness is unmatched.

Uncertainty in the Church:
With such a distinguished legacy, the patriarchal void we are faced with today has presented a mammoth challenge that definitely cannot be simply or hastily handled overnight. The only guideline the church possesses is based on an out-dated constitution. Good leadership, whether ecclesiastical or secular, paves the way for success. Traditionally, patriarchal candidates never produced a programme of action, or faced open public debates. It is rather premature and unwise to assess or suggest or hazard any astute and poised decisions. Thorough analysis should be encouraged to consider the qualities of potential patriarchal candidates to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us, before the accession and succession to the patriarchal See.

His Holiness’ State Funeral:
His Holiness is currently lying in state in Germany, and will, over the next few days, be flown to Lebanon, where the funeral prayers will take place. The hearse will, at a later stage, be moved to the Mausoleum of Patriarchs, built by His Holiness in Maraat Saidnaya, Damascus, according to his testament.

Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim:
Recent vital events complicate the process of the election of a new patriarch. On 22nd April 2013, an unidentified armed group, in the northern parts of Aleppo, kidnapped Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Mor Bolous Yazigi, the Archbishops of Aleppo. Recent encouraging developments reported by General Abbas Ibrahim, the main negotiator in the case of the kidnapped Archbishops, indicate that the case is at its final stage, and that their release is imminent.

Election Procedure (A few points to consider):
•Locum Tenens (Qaimaqam): The Patriarchal Secretary has issued a communiqué, stipulating the canonical procedure of electing a new Patriarch. The most important role is that of the Locum Tenens (Qaimaqam). According to the constitution, this delicate responsibility falls on the shoulders of the most senior Metropolitan by consecration. Indisputably, the Locum Tenant should be Mor Gregorios Saliba Shemun and/or Mor Severus Hawa, hence there is no need for the complexity of electing a Qaimaqam, which violates the constitution.

•Timeliness of the Elections: The future Patriarch must be respected, wise, mature, and meet the criteria listed in the constitution. Reflecting on the recent election of the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church (our sister church), a wise and calm procedure was executed, giving time for grief, and careful analysis of a suitable and worthy candidate. The procedure was given 247 days of grace period to find a worthy candidate (Pope Shenouda III ended his patriarchal rule on 17/03/2012, and Pope Tawadros II came to office on 18/11/2012). The college of Syrian Orthodox Metropolitans should be wise and mature enough not to hurry such an important event. They should learn from the recent successful election, with the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit, in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

•Last Wish: His Holiness, Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, on many occasions with regional heads of states and churches, clergy and laity, expressed his sincere last wish to see Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim to be released and to succeed him. The most recent witness to this claim was confessed on a live programme, Suryoyo SAT, by the Patriarchal Secretary who said, ‘Our Patriarch said, I wish that Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim is freed, as he would be the best Patriarch to lead our Church in the coming era.’ His Holiness was a learned man, who knew more than anyone about who could lead the Church during this period. A Patriarch who has been governing the Church for 34 years, should have his last wish fulfilled. Bless his soul!

•Absent Candidate: Metropolitan Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, is one of the most predominant, respected and well-known Metropolitans of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and his fate is linked with the Patriarchal succession. This is clearly indicated in almost all letters of condolence issued by world Church leaders, expressing their expectation of the new leader for the Syrian Orthodox Church, and praying for the imminent return of Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim. Out of respect for the position of the Patriarch, a considerable time-frame needs to be in place to allow Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim’s return to contest democratic elections. If there is a time-pressure for the election of a new Patriarch, the least we could do for Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim is to accept him as an absent candidate for the election of the new Patriarch, or better still, out of respect, to fulfil Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas’ last wish, and for the sacrifice of Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim’ sacrifice and suffering. The entire Syrian Orthodox Church, and the majority of world Church leaders would appreciate this noble gesture, by the members of the Holy Synod.

Call for Solidarity with the Syrian Orthodox Church:
“Our Church Needs You All” more than any other time. Please let us work together in solidarity. The Church needs our input, and above all, our sincere prayers. We pray for the Locum Tenant in his endeavours to achieve a careful and smooth Patriarchal succession.

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