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Melkite Greek Catholic Church Information Center

Holy, Glorious and Illustrious Princes of the Apostles Peter and PaulHistory of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church / Grec Melkite Catholique According to Rev. Fr. James Graham

This article was written by Rev. Fr. James Graham, Pastor of Saint Elias the Prophet Melkite Greek Catholic Mission, San Jose, CA.
This article appeared in THE VOICE OF THE PROPHET, News from St Elias the Prophet Melkite Greek Catholic Mission, in installments, from Volume 9, Number 6, June 2003 to Volume 9, Number 8, August 2003.

June 2003

Do You Know Our Melkite History? Part 1
On Sunday 18 May, Fr Peter Boutros challenged us to be proud of being Melkite Greek Catholic, for the Melkites have played an important part in Christian history. The Acts of the Apostles are the earliest history of the Christian Church, starting with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven 40 days after His Resurrection. Chapter 11 describes how the Apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch in Syria to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and how Barnabas recruited Paul to work with him. They stayed for a year, ministering to Jews and to Greeks, and it was in Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called "Christians." To this day, the head of our Church carries the title "Patriarch of Antioch and all the East" (also of Alexandria and Jerusalem-more about that in a later newsletter).
Antioch was a very important city in the Roman Empire, the capital of the province of Syria and All the East, including parts of what is now Iraq and Iran. Politically and militarily, it was much more important than Jerusalem. Antioch evolved into the most influential church in the area, and when the Fourth Ecumenical Council defined the five Patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), the Patriarch of Antioch became one of the five most powerful bishops in the world. St John Chrysostom, before becoming Archbishop of Constantinople in 397, preached many of his greatest sermons in Antioch.
The Fourth Ecumenical Council, held at Chalcedon in 451, caused a split in the Church of Antioch. That Council condemned the teachings of Nestorius, who had been Archbishop of Constantinople, and who was very influential in Greater Syria and the eastern part of the Roman Empire. He taught that the Virgin Mary should not be called Theotokos or "Mother of God," only Christotokos or "Mother of Christ." He reasoned that she could not be the mother of the divinity of Jesus, only of His humanity.
The Council of Chalcedon also condemned the teaching of two bishops from Alexandria, Dioscoros and Eutyches. They taught that Jesus had only one nature, to emphasize the unity of His divinity and humanity. But it seemed to other bishops that their teaching, called Monophysitism (from the Greek word for "one nature"), denied the equality of Jesus' human nature with His divine nature. Most of the Christians in the Patriarchate of Antioch disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon, but the Emperor supported it and put the power of the civil government behind what became known as the Orthodox or "Correct-Worshipping" church. As a result, the Antiochian Christians separated into two churches, the Greek Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox (sometimes called "Nestorian," or "Jacobite" because of an influential 6th century bishop named Jacob Baradei). The head of each church kept the title Patriarch of Antioch and continued to live in Antioch. The Orthodox, because they belonged to the church supported by the Emperor, were sometimes called Melkites or "Followers of the Emperor" (from the Syriac word for "king," melek). The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch remained united until the first Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch was elected in 1724. We will tell that story in our next newsletter.
The heads of two other Churches are now also called Patriarch of Antioch. The Maronite Church developed in the mountains of Lebanon from about the 5th to the 8th centuries, remaining orthodox in belief, but evolving independently because of its isolation. It was heavily influenced by the Latin Crusaders and confirmed its union with Rome in 1182. Eventually Bkerke became its headquarters in 1790.
The Syrian (or Syriac) Catholic Church was established in 1782 as the result of Latin missionaries working among the Syrian Orthodox people. The patriarchs lived in Aleppo, then Mardin, and finally moved to Beirut in the 1920's. To be continued.

July 2003

Do You Know Our Melkite History? Part 2
In last month's newsletter, we began to tell the story of the important part Melkites have played in Christian history. After the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in Chalcedon in 451, the Christian Church suffered a number of divisions. The Church of Armenia, the Coptic Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church rejected the Council's teachings on the two natures of Christ and the churches that supported the Council's teachings became known as Orthodox churches. Now it is understood and agreed by theologians that the disputes were not actually about doctrine, but about language and politics. The teachings of the Council were in Greek, and the bishop-theologians of the other churches taught in their own languages. The details of their arguments often could not be expressed in Greek or were even distorted in translation. In addition, the people resisted the enforcement of the Council's decrees by the imperial authorities of the Byzantine (Greek) Roman Empire, which controlled their countries.
So there were two Patriarchs in Antioch (Greek Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox) and two Patriarchs of Alexandria (Greek in the city and Coptic who actually lived in the desert at St Makarios monastery).
In 638 the Arab Muslim invaders conquered Antioch. Because the Greek Christians were viewed as allies of the Byzantine Empire, they were heavily persecuted. For about 300 years the Patriarchs of Antioch often lived in Constantinople. The Byzantines recaptured Antioch in 969. The Greek Patriarchate flourished until the city was taken by the Seljuk Turks in 1085. During this time, the Church of Antioch adopted the liturgy of Constantinople, called the Byzantine Liturgy, but kept some Syriac elements also.
In 1098, the Crusaders captured Antioch. They established a Latin kingdom in Syria and set up a Latin Catholic Patriarch of Antioch. The Greek Patriarchs for almost the next 200 years lived in exile in Constantinople, which had not been conquered by the Moslems or the Latins. The Greek Patriarch returned to Antioch after it was taken by the Egyptian Mamelukes in 1268. But because Antioch was by then reduced to being just a small town, the Patriarchate was transferred to Damascus permanently in the 14th century.
In 1517, the Ottoman Turks captured the area from the Mamelukes and retained control until the end of World War I in 1918. By the mid-1600's, Latin missionaries from the Jesuit, Carmelite, and Capuchin orders had been active in Greater Syria. Often they were welcomed by the Greek Orthodox clergy and faithful, who were not allowed much religious education. Despite very clear orders from the Popes of Rome, the missionaries began to proselytise-that is, to try to convert the people to Latin Catholicism
To be continued.

August 2003

Do You Know Our Melkite History? Part 3
The Latin missionaries who were welcomed into the Patriarchate of Antioch in the 16th century chose the brightest young men to send to Italy and France to be educated, and these men returned with a greater knowledge of Western theology than of Eastern. By the beginning of the 18th century, there was a strong movement toward re-establishing communion with the Church of Rome. But because the office of Patriarch of Antioch depended on the approval of the Ottoman government as well as the protection of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, it was not a simple matter to declare communion with Rome. In August 1724 Patriarch Athanasios III Debbas died. He apparently had designated as his successor a Cypriot monk named Sylvester, who had the backing of Constantinople and of the city of Aleppo. But it was customary at that time for the patriarch to be elected by the clergy and prominent citizens of Damascus, and they chose Cyril Tanas, who was very pro-Catholic and took the name Cyril VI. A week after Cyril's election, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople ordained Sylvester and the Ottoman government recognized him as Patriarch of Antioch. Cyril was deposed and excommunicated by Constantinople and fled to Holy Savior Monastery in Lebanon.
The election of Cyril Tanas as Patriarch of Antioch in 1724 marked the beginning of the separate Melkite Greek-Catholic Church. After Patriarch Cyril VI had been "on the run" in the mountains of Lebanon for five years, Pope Benedict XIII finally recognized his election as valid in 1729. However, he was not granted the pallium as a sign of communion with Rome until 1744. The pallium is a narrow band of pure white wool, embroidered with small black crosses, worn by Catholic patriarchs and archbishops. It symbolizes the bishops' role as shepherds, like Jesus Christ. For most of the rest of the 18th Century, the Melkite Catholics were just a small group in Syria and Lebanon. They were not recognized as a separate political entity or millet by the Ottoman Empire, and so were subject to the Orthodox Patriarch by the government. Later, Melkite Catholics began to move to Palestine, where Melkite Orthodox communities had long existed, and also to Egypt, especially after its rebellion against control by the Turks. Patriarch Maximos III Masloum was elected in 1833. In 1838 he obtained from Rome the additional titles of Patriarch of Jerusalem and Patriarch of Alexandria as a result of the movement of the Melkite people throughout the Middle East.
To be continued.

September 2003

Do You Know Our Melkite History? Part 4
The Patriarchate of Maximos III Masloum (1833-1855) was one of the most significant in our history. In addition to gaining jurisdiction over the Melkites in Palestine and Egypt, he obtained in 1848, after a long stay in Constantinople, recognition of the Melkite Church as an independent millet from the Ottoman authorities. This civil emancipation gave the Melkite Church a political foundation for developing its unique autonomy in relationship with the Church of Rome Patriarch Maximos III set a course of having Melkite synods approve law for the Melkite Church without asking approval from Rome. Thus he was able to guide the Church according to the new political and social realities of the region, and to strengthen the authority of the Patriarch and the bishops. This would be extremely important in the later 19th Century and the 20th Century. Patriarch Clement Bahouth, elected in 1856 to succeed Maximos III Mazloum, imposed the use of the Gregorian calendar (introduced by Pope Gregory XII in 1582 to replace the inaccurate Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC) on the Melkite Catholic Church in 1857. In doing this, he gave in to the insistence of the Apostolic Delegate from Rome. His action practically caused a schism in the Melkite Church, because many bishops and laypeople opposed the change, which would further separate Greek Catholics from the Orthodox. Countries where the Orthodox Church predominated refused to use the Gregorian calendar because the Julian calendar had been accepted by an Ecumenical Council and because they did not want to accept anything authorized by the Pope of Rome. A few Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar, which is now 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. (Differences in the date of Pascha do not have anything to do with the Julian vs Gregorian calendar controversy. They result from a different rule for calculating the date of Easter.) Finally, Clement was forced to abdicate the patriarchal office in 1864. The Holy Synod of Melkite bishops elected Gregory II Youssef Sayour, Archbishop of Galilee, as the new Patriarch. In his long patriarchate (1864-1897), Gregory II Youssef proved to be one of the boldest and strongest defenders of the authentic Byzantine identity of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. According to the 1986 Almanac of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, "balancing his actions against their possible consequences on the capital work of the union of the Churches, he strove for the application of his great plan for the restoration of his Church. He wished for this to be done according to the pure oriental tradition and this explains his opposition to Vatican I [a general council of the Catholic Church held in Rome in 1868-1870] for its declaration of the dogmas of the Primacy and Infallibility of the Pope in the meaning given them by the majority of the Fathers present, as he considered declaration of these dogmas inopportune." Patriarch Gregory II based his opposition to the declaration of papal infallibility on the grounds that it would further separate the Orthodox from the Catholic Church. He voted against it at the Council, and left Rome before the Council session at which it was solemnly proclaimed. Later, at the insistence of Pope Pius IX (some historians say that the Pope forced the Patriarch to kneel in front of him, then placed his foot on the Patriarch's neck), Gregory assented to the declaration, but with the condition that "all the rights, privileges, and prerogatives of the patriarchs be preserved." This was the wording used at the Council of Florence in 1492, where reunion of the Orthodox and Catholics was attempted. It remains the basis for Melkite efforts to prevent Latinization and control of our affairs by the Vatican. Father Serge Descy, in his excellent book, The Melkite Church, writes that "this episode bears witness to the courage and determination of Patriarch Youssef in defending the Eastern ecclesiological conception of autonomy. . . . The Eastern convictions and truly ecumenical concern of Gregory Youssef made him one of the forerunners of interconfessional dialogue." The 1986 Almanac also says of Patriarch Gregory II Youssef, "He struggled against Protestantism, which was penetrating the area in force, by founding the patriarchal colleges of Beirut in 1865 and of Damascus in 1875. In 1866 he reopened the seminary of Ain Traz, but most important of all it was he who was behind the founding of the seminary of St Anne of Jerusalem in 1882. [St Anne's survived until the war of 1967, under the direction of the Missionaries of Africa, or White Fathers.] "He took a most important part in the Eucharistic Congress of Jerusalem in 1893. His suggestions had in addition an important influence on the elaboration of the encyclical Orientalium Dignitas, a veritable charter for the oriental Churches by which Pope Leo XIII ordered the strictest respect for the rights of the patriarchs and for the oriental discipline, correcting on several points the spirit of the majority of the Latin missionaries."
To be continued.

October 2003

Do You Know Our Melkite History? Part 5
After the death of Patriarch Gregory II Youssef Sayour, Patriarchs Peter IV Geraigiry (1898-1902), Cyril VIII Geha (1902-1916), Dimitrios I Cady (1919-1925), and Cyril IX Moghabghab (1925-1947) led the Melkite Greek Catholic Church into the middle of the 20th Century. This was a time of great political and social upheaval in the world and especially in the Middle East, with World War I and the decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, French and English rule in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, and then World War II.
In the midst of all this, the patriarchs of the Melkite Church strove to define and protect, under canon law and the structures of the Catholic Church, the identity and traditions of the Melkite Church.
Popes Leo XIII (1878-1903), Benedict XV (1914-1922), and Pius XI (1922-1939) assisted this effort, within the limits of their understanding of the relationship of the Eastern Catholic Churches to Rome. Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) tried to reassert the personal control of the Roman Pontiff over all the Catholic Churches, mainly through putting into effect new sections of canon law dealing with marriage and with church organization and government.
It was Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh, elected in 1947 and presiding over the Melkite Church until 1967, who became the great champion of the rights and traditions of the Eastern Churches and apostle of Christian unity. Patriarch Maximos IV, Archbishop of Tyre from 1919 to 1933 and Archbishop of Beirut from 1933 to 1947, was not early in his career a particular advocate of authentic Byzantine Christianity. Like most of his contemporaries, he was to some extent Latinized through his education and the church culture of the time.
But in the 1940's and 1950's, he came under the influence of strong theologians such as Archbishop Peter Medawar and Father Orestes Kerame, as well as the younger generation including Archbishops Elias Zoghby, Neophytos Edelby, George Hakim (later Patriarch Maximos V), and Joseph Tawil (first Eparch of the Melkites in the USA).
They convinced him to rediscover and promote the rich heritage of our Church, distinct from and equal to that of the Church of Rome.
Thus, when Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in 1959, the Melkite Church was prepared, under the leadership of Maximos IV, to send to Rome a delegation of bishops whose influence on the council and the whole Catholic Church would be astonishingly out of proportion to their numbers and the population of their Church.

To be continued.

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O God of all spirits and of all flesh, who have destroyed death, overcome the devil, and given life to the world: grant, O Lord, to the souls of your servants Bucky and Shirley, who has departed from this life, that it may rest in a place of light, in a place of happiness, in a place of peace, where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing. And since You are a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind, forgive him/her every sin he/she has committed by thought, or word, or deed, for there is not a man who lives and does not sin : You alone are without sin, your righteousness is everlasting, and your word is true. You are the Resurrection and the Life, and the repose of your departed servants Bucky and Shirley. O Christ our God, and we send up glory to You, together with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good and life-givng Spirit, now and always and for ages upon ages. Amen.

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