Orthodox Church Eyes Syria for Next Patriarch

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A man kisses the Bible that is put on the body of Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and the whole East Ignatius Hazim IV as the body lies in state at Saint Nicolas Church in Ashrafieh district, East Beirut 5 December 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Mohamed Azakir)

By: Ghassan Saoud

Published Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Orthodox Church will bid farewell to its deceased Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim in a service that will see the participation of the churches of Russia, Greece, Jerusalem, and Egypt. As for Hazim’s successor, Syria will have the final say.

Until early 2012, the late Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim maintained a close relationship with the Syrian leadership. This relationship was not shared by the patriarchate of the Maronite Church, but it was in line with the majority of other Christian patriarchates.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had perpetuated a family tradition of inviting the patriarch to participate in Christmas Mass held in a Damascus church each year. In April 2011, Hazim said that he saw “a positive and energetic desire by the government in Syria to foster the state.”

“I always perceive Dr. Bashar al-Assad in a positive manner…and I know that he is the head of a family, and an honest man working for reform,” he said.

On Wednesday, the meeting of the Holy Assembly of the Orthodox Church was adjourned until Friday morning, after several bishops, particularly those who live in remote parishes outside of the country, confirmed that they would be unable to reach the Balamand Orthodox Monastery today.

The Church’s canon law stipulates that the assembly must elect a caretaker patriarch, likely a senior cleric, who would then set a date for the funeral of Patriarch Hazim, and take care of the administrative affairs of the patriarchate.

After about ten days, the caretaker patriarch may summon the assembly to convene once again at one of the patriarchate’s headquarters – Damascus or Balamand – to elect a new patriarch.

According to the law that governs how the Orthodox patriarch is elected, candidates may not nominate themselves for the post. Instead, the members of the assembly must each write down the names of three candidates of their choosing. After the votes are counted, the names of the three bishops who received the most votes are announced.

After that, the Holy Assembly votes again for one of the three names, and whoever receives two-thirds of the vote is declared the winner of the first round. If none of the candidates manages to secure a third of the votes, the bishop who receives a majority of votes in a second round is declared the winner.

Canon law limits the right to stand as a candidate to those Antioch bishops who head parishes, or what is known in church terminology as metropolitans. There are about 19 prospective candidates, but many can be ruled out.

Church law does not allow the assembly to choose a bishop who has been a metropolitan for less than five years, so this narrows the list. In addition, the bishops of Hama and Latakia are ill and will likely not encourage their colleagues to nominate them. Meanwhile, the bishop of North America Philippos Saliba is preoccupied by the concerns of his vast parish.

Accordingly, of the remaining prospective bishops who are believed to be the most likely candidates, the Bishop of Brazil, the Bishop of Aleppo, and the Bishop of Horan seem to be the ones who have demonstrated the most desire to stand in the election.

Meanwhile, the most prominent Lebanese bishop besides George Khodr of Mount Lebanon, namely the Bishop of Beirut Elias Aoudeh, has decided not to fight a losing battle, according to sources close to him. Indeed, in light of the continued survival of the regime in Syria, Aoudeh’s election as patriarch would be the equivalent of the Orthodox Assembly declaring war on Damascus, given his political positions that explicitly favor the Future Movement.

For this reason, Aoudeh has remained mum on his intentions. This is while bearing in mind that the Russian Orthodox Church, which supports President Assad, is widely believed to wield huge influence on the Holy Assembly.

It may also be worth noting that the attitudes of the majority of bishops over the Syrian crisis and the role of Islamists in the country are largely similar.

With the bishops observing a period of silence in deference to the death of Patriarch Hazim, a cleric familiar with the affairs of the Patriarchate spoke to Al-Akhbar and said that the events in Syria make it imperative and an absolute priority to pay attention to the Syrian parishes.

Therefore, he said, the assembly must think seriously about electing a new patriarch who is well-informed about what is happening in Syria, and who has a minimum level of experience in dealing with the Syrian reality, where the majority of the Antiochian Orthodox community resides. According to this source, this may mean that the race is edging closer towards favoring either the Bishop of Horan Saba Esber, or the Bishop of Aleppo Boulous Yazigi.

What is certain is that the Orthodox Church has officially lost a patriarch who was brought to his post by the bandwagon of the “Orthodox Youths.” Like the majority of the youths’ bishops, he did not discharge his duties in his post with the same youthful enthusiasm and instead worked quietly, achieving a minimum of institutional achievements and avoiding any clashes.

His successor, no matter who he will be, will not be able to achieve any miracles, not least in Syria and Lebanon.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Note to the translator-- ابرشية should be translated 'diocese' or 'archdiocese'. 'Parish' in English ordinarily means simply a church, or literally رعية

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