Memory eternal: A giant of Orthodoxy has died

Let me state right up front that, as a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish, this post hits close to home. However, this is also a story that is linked to one of the most important news trends in our world today, which is the growing state of chaos in Syria and the plight of religious minorities in the wider Middle East. For weeks now, Eastern Orthodox Christians have been praying for the safety of His Beatitude Ignatius IV, the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, the ancient church based in Damascus (on the "Street Called Straight") that traces is roots back to the leadership of St. Peter and St. Paul. In the Book of Acts (11:25-26) it is recorded:

Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

We have been praying for our elderly patriarch for a simple reason -- the clashes between various Islamist factions and supporters of President Bashar Assad's regime have been getting closer and closer to the heart of Damascus. The situation on the ground is both highly complex and increasingly deadly, especially for the nation's sizable Christian minority and those in other minority faiths.

Now there is this news, which only adds to the already tense, if not perilous, situation for Orthodox Christians in Syria. This is part of the short Associated Press report, care of The Washington Post:

BEIRUT -- The patriarch of a Damascus-based Eastern Orthodox Church, Ignatius Hazim, has died in a Beirut hospital. He was 92.

Hazim was named Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox in 1979. His church is known as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Antioch. He died of a stroke in Beirut’s St. George’s hospital on Wednesday, Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said.

Hazim hailed from the Syrian town of Maharda in the central province of Hama. SANA said his remains will be brought from Lebanon to Syria for burial. ...

Born April 4, 1920, Hazim moved from Syria to Beirut in 1936, where he later became a priest. He graduated from Beirut University in 1954. He studied in France, and after his return to Lebanon co-founded the Orthodox Youth Movement in Syria and Lebanon in 1942.

A year after he was named Bishop for Palmyra and deputy Patriarch of Antioch in 1961, he was sent to the Balamand Monastery, where he became president and dean of the Theology Faculty.

In other reports -- such as this short BBC item -- the patriarch is identified by another title, one that I fear will cause some confusion among journalists. The headline, for example, states: "Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Syria Ignatius IV dies."

The top of this report states:

The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Syria, Ignatius IV (Hazim), has died in neighbouring Lebanon at the age of 92. ...

Ignatius had led the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East, the largest Arab Christian Church in the Middle East, since 1979. There are believed to be about a million members, the majority of whom are Syrians.

The Church is one of 14 autocephalous (ecclesiastically independent) Eastern Orthodox patriarchates, third in honorific rank after the churches of Constantinople and Alexandria. Since the 14th Century, the patriarch has resided in Damascus.

As is often the case, there is a lot of history behind the name of this Eastern Orthodox body -- click here for some of the details. I worry that some journalists will see the term "Greek Orthodox" and fail to read on to the crucial fact in this story -- which is the towering role that Ignatius IV played among Arab Christians.

In this case, the historic name of the patriarchate may actually obscure a key element of the story. Thus, I think the wording in the AP lede is more helpful, stating that he was the leader of "a Damascus-based Eastern Orthodox Church."

Currently, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese here in North America has a number of tributes on the front page of its website, including this link to information about his 2012 tour of churches here in America. The English version of the patriarchate's website can be found here.

Once again, please know that I understand that this story matters to me because of my own church affiliation. However, I think it is crucial for journalists to grasp the grave importance of THE TIMING of this loss, seen in the context of events in Syria and several hellish years for Arab Christianity in the wider region, especially Iraq and Egypt.

Also, for many converts to Orthodoxy, Patriarch Ignatius IV will always be known as the man who backed the open embrace of the late Father Peter Gillquist and the other leaders of the so-called "Evangelical Orthodox Church" into the Church of Antioch in 1987. In the pivotal meeting, the patriarch told Metropolitan Philip of North America that he did not know how he would be able to "face Our Lord on Judgment Day" if he turned away these believers who wanted to enter Orthodoxy.

Memory eternal. And Axios.

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