MOSCOW, December 6 – Orthodox clerics this week paid tribute to a long-time leader of Christians in the Arab world, who was greatly influenced by Russian Orthodoxy and whose vision of an open-minded church contributed to dialogue with Islam and greater unity among different Orthodox traditions, while his flock gradually migrated from the Middle East to other parts of the world.
The Damascus-based, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch died Wednesday in Beirut after suffering a stroke the day before. He was 91 and had led the patriarchate – number three on the honorific list of the world’s unruly family of Eastern Orthodox sees – since 1979.
Although his title was Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, the church seat was moved to Damascus in the 14th century, after Antioch – one of the greatest centers of antiquity in what is now eastern Turkey – fell into total decline.
Fellow clerics remembered him as a disciple of the Russian theological tradition and a sometime ally of Russia. In his message of condolences sent Wednesday, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill emphasized his “many years of friendship” with the late hierarch and described him as “one of the outstanding religious figures of modernity” and a “friend of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
He also recalled his recent visit to Damasus and Beirut in November 2011 after the outbreak of violence in Syria, whose Christian minority has been targeted by insurgents, in part for its long-time support of President Bashar al-Assad.
The late patriarch, born Habib Hazim in a Syrian village in 1921, received his first university degree in Beirut and, in 1945, joined the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, which was established by Russian émigré theologians and philosophers who attempted to synthesize Eastern Christian tradition with the achievements of modern secular and non-Orthodox thought.
Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, who said he had spent many hours in talks with Ignatius over the years, said Thursday that a connection with the “spirituality and theological atmosphere” of the St. Sergius Institute had always been important for Ignatius.
“He was a patriarch – a thinker and a theologian,” Balashov said. “To the last days of his life, he perceived the lack of unity among the Orthodox Churches with a deep and sincere regret and said that the reason behind it is that we are still enchanted by the great heritage of Byzantium. He thought that the lack of our visible unity is connected with the lack of our openness to the realities of the modern world.”
Several clerics interviewed Thursday emphasized that Ignatius aimed to be Orthodox Christianity’s pointman for dialogue with Islam – a position quite fitting for a leader of a relatively small, indigenous Christian community in a predominantly Muslim region.
“He witnessed that Muslims and Christians are one family in the Middle East,” said Archbishop Nifon of Philppopolis, the long serving representative of the Patriarchate of Antioch in Moscow. “During his period as patriarch he tried to steer the church into a safe harbor, especially in these very difficult years.”
Despite the outreach and good relations with the ruling regimes, which have come under scrutiny during the current civil war in Syria, Patriarch Igantius witnessed an exodus of his flock from the Middle East and its consequent growth in other countries.
“During his life, the number of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, including in Syria and Lebanon, has dramatically decreased,” Balashov said. “It was a source of deep suffering for the patriarch. On the other hand, the church has done a lot to care about its communities around the world.”
Balashov said that Arab Christians today constitute the biggest Orthodox Christian community in South America and one of the biggest in North America, where it is also the most “flexible and missionary-oriented” among the Orthodox Christian denominations, and attracts many converts of non-Arab and non-Orthodox origin.
This too can be in part traced to the “Paris school of theology,” said Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, the ecumenical officer of the Orthodox Church in America. He recalled that Patriarch Ignatius was a student and friend of the towering figures in 20th-century Orthodox theology, protopresbyters Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff – Rusian émigrés who taught in Paris before moving to the United States – and even babysat for the family of one of them. “The vision of Patriarch Ignatius was very helpful for the mission of the Antiochian Archdiocese in America,” Kishkovsky said.
“His was not a selfish inward-looking leadership, but it was fully faithful to the mission and heritage of Antioch, in the Middle East and globally, but with a lively concern for the witness and mission of the Holy Orthodox Church everywhere,” he added. “It was a wonderful synergy, in which the one did not exclude or diminish the other.”
The Synod of the Patriarchate of Antioch is to elect an interim head Friday, who will appoint the date for the elections of the new patriarch, Archbishop Nifon said. Eighteen to 19 bishops from around the world will cast their votes, he said.