The Official Name of the church today is the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch formerly known as the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch.
Historical Origins of the church
The Patriarchate of Antioch claims the greatest antiquity of all the Churches of Christendom. Acts 11:26 confirms that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
The Syriac Orthodox Church was established in the period, where Antioch was one of the three greatest capitals of Roman Empire. This was about the time when the apostles scattered from Jerusalem.
At that time Antioch was one of the leading centers of Hellenistic culture. Antioch kept its capital state during the Christianity period, becoming a managing center of Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate and their religious center. The Syrian church, the true church of the east, uniting faith, belief, and liturgy with religious culture has gained the honor and success of carrying the living Gospel of the Lord to the people living on the lands extending from the Middle East to the Far East.
Being the leading church of Christian faith amongst pagans, while it is the first Christian Church gathering people out of different ethnic roots under her roof.
One of the twelve disciples St. Peter came to Antioch at 37 AD and stayed there holding regular meetings for the assembly at the city, there he established “Apostolic Seat of Antioch” which was one of the main three seats of the Christian World between the years 37-43 AD.
Therefore church of Antioch is the first established church after Jerusalem Church, which is called the “Mother Church”.
Looking to its quality and structure the church of Antioch is the first “Mother Church” in regard of uniting the originally Syrian Christians and those of Jewish background, and in regard to administration, which became the center of Eastern Christianity.
It is the first Church, which was established in Jerusalem out of the Apostles, Preachers and other converted Jews, and was grafted in Antioch by those who were converted from among the Arameans and other gentile elements.
Historians declare that the survival of this Church was nothing short of a miracle. It suffered untold hardships and tragedies including massacres and repeated transfer of the See of the Patriarchate from one locality to another due to political and other developments.
It produced a line of succession beginning with Apostle Peter, which continues to this day in the Syrian Orthodox Church. The line of 121 Patriarchs spans twenty centuries, from St. Peter the Apostle to Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I, the present Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.
The Church of Antioch played a significant role in the early history of Christianity. It played a prominent role in the first three Synods held at Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431), shaping the formulation and early interpretation of Christian doctrines.
Major Turning Points in History
Around the beginning of the fourth century, the Catholicate of the East was established at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, comprising the bishoprics within the Persian Empire and Mesopotamian. The Catholicate eventually fell victim to Persian political persecution. In 628, a new Catholicate was established in Mesopotamia by patriarch Athanasius I and was soon expanded to include all Arabia, Persia, and Afghanistan. It lasted until 1859. In 1964, Patriarch Ignatius Yacoub III approved the establishment of the Catholicate of the east in India.
The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch participated in and accepts the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325 AD), Constantinople (381 AD), and Ephesus (431 AD), but rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), specifically concerning its interpretation of the two natures of Christ. Due to this, and to political oppression, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch was to undergo many persecutions and hardships.
In 518, Patriarch Severus was forced into exile and established his residence in Egypt, where he labored to keep the Syrian Church of Antioch alive. By 544, only three bishops remained free to serve the needs of the Church. During this critical period, a dedicated monk, Jacob Baradaeus, won the support and protection of Empress Theodora, and was consecrated as a general metropolitan by Patriarch Theodosius of Alexandria, and was authorized to restore the persecuted Churches of the Patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria. Assisted by three fellow bishops, Mor Jacob visited the faithful throughout the entire Middle East, Asia Minor, and even Ethiopia, rebuilding and expanding the Church. Tradition states he ordained over 100,000 priests, 27 bishops, and one Patriarch of Antioch, Paul II. Due to Mor Jacob’s efforts, the Syrian orthodox Church is often referred to as the Syrian “Jacobite” Church.
On the eve of the Moslem conquest, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch was once again a victim of Byzantine persecution. Constantinople recognized only the Byzantine (Melkite) patriarch of Antioch. The early years of Moslem occupation were characterized by religious tolerance and justice, and the Syrian Orthodox enjoyed positions of great influence and prestige under the caliphs. During this period, the Arabs were to profit from the culture and learning of the Syrian Church of Antioch.
Following the Crusades, religious toleration gave way to alienation and open persecution.
This situation was further aggravated by the Mongol invasions. The coming of Timur Lane was to spell slaughter and devastation fro the Syrian Orthodox Church.
In 1236, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch numbered about 20,000 parishes, not to mention hundreds of monasteries and convents. The Church also had great educational and cultural institutions, including the famous schools of Antioch, Nusaybin, and Edessa, and eminent scholars. The tragedies and difficulties already mentioned were to bring an end to the growth and cultural achievements of the Syrian Church.
The situation was further aggravated in the following years by divisions resulting from missionary endeavors, first by Roman Catholic and later by Protestant missionaries.
The coming of the First World War was to bring renewed persecution in Ottoman Turkey, with large numbers of Syrian Orthodox being forced to flee as refugees into various parts of the Arab Middle East. An estimated quarter of a million faithful were massacred during this period, chiefly at the hands of the Kurds.
The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch became a member of the World Council of Churches in 1961 and of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. in 1960. The Church is also an active member of the Middle East Council of Churches.
In 1980, His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas was elected as 122nd Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church.
In their Common Declaration of 1984, Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, among other things, considered their tow Churches so close as to even envisage cooperation in pastoral care, including some sacramental sharing.
In 1991, an agreement was reached between the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal See of Antioch that both Churches share one common faith and that all efforts must be make to manifest in reality the oneness of the Holy Church of Antioch. Respect for the liturgical and patristical traditions of both Churches was proclaimed.