Eastern rite churches move to end centuries of division


CYPRUS: Greek, Russian and Arab Orthodox churches around the world celebrated Easter yesterday. In Cyprus and in one church in Syria, local Catholics observed Easter along with the Orthodox. Although services were separate and at different times, these Eastern rite churches have taken the first step towards reconciliation and reunification after 10 centuries of deep division.

More than two decades ago, the Cypriot Maronite Catholic Church joined the Orthodox majority in the Lenten fast and commemoration of Easter. Even though this breakthrough was confined to this small island, it amounted to an ecumenical advance between traditionally distant denominations.

In Syria this Easter the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church have gone one step further. They celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ in separate Masses in a brand new church in the village of Dumar on the outskirts of Damascus, the city where the first Christian parish was established more than 2,000 years ago.

The Dumar church was built jointly by the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics on public land in a high-rise housing scheme. The Orthodox patriarchal vicar, Bishop Ghattas Hazim, told The Irish Times the two sects shared construction costs on a 50-50 basis. Each sect has a priest at Dumar, services are held and expenses are shared. The church was consecrated on February 7th and, as in Cyprus, Catholic parishioners observed Lent with the Orthodox.

On Saturday-Sunday night the Orthodox held their usual Mass and the Catholics had a their traditional Easter morning service. Bishop Hazim said there are a million Orthodox Christians in Syria and 300,000 Greek Catholics. At Dumar there are 110 Orthodox families and 50 Catholic families in the congregation, but the population is rapidly rising.

Bishop Hazim observed, "Co-operation is possible because the two churches have always had good relations and the patriarchs are both Syrians."

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV Hazim, strongly supports efforts to bring the eastern rite churches together. He is 170th in line from St Peter, who established the church of Antioch in 33 AD.

It was the second Christian congregation, after that of Jerusalem, and the first to embrace non-Jews. The Patriarch of Antioch is ranked third in the Greek Orthodox Church after Constantinople (Istanbul) and Alexandria.

The Greek Catholic Patriarch, Gregory III Laham, is a staunch supporter of ecumenicism. During a meeting with the late Pope John Paul II during his 2001 visit to Damascus, the patriarch said, "We Greek Catholics say to our Orthodox brothers: we want to celebrate Easter together for ever."

Although four years have passed, this has not been achieved but Bishop Hazim believes there will be joint services, closing the 1,000-year-old gulf between two ancient churches in the region where Christianity was born.