On the Road to Unity

Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholics together build a new church in Syria

text and pictures by Armineh Johannes

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In a move as practical as it is inclusive, the new St. Paul’s Church will give Melkite Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox worshipers the opportunity to share not only a common site, but will further unite their communities.

The church, which is almost completed, is located in Doumar, an expanding area in the western suburbs of Damascus, on the old road to Beirut. A middle-class neighborhood, Doumar used to be a summer resort for those wishing to escape the city’s heat in the days before easy travel to other locations became widely available.

Today, the suburb has undergone a major transformation, from refreshing resort noted for its gardens to urban center filled with skyscrapers. Most of Doumar’s population live there year-round.

According to Syrian law, when a new community is being developed, the government allocates a plot of land for Christians, free of charge, so a church can be built. The thinking behind this ensures a just and equitable balance between newly constructed mosques and churches.

In the past, however, when land was to be allotted to Christians, different denominations would try to monopolize the land and build its own church. The government always rejected this, stating that the land was for the use of the entire Christian community, not a single denomination. Such a deadlock usually led to the withdrawal of the land offer.

However, when the latest land offer was made in Doumar, according to Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Isidore Battikha, the patriarchs representing the two major Christian communities in the country – Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic – decided they should avoid previous conflicts and share a single church.

“This time the land was allotted without encountering discord. The two patriarchs agreed to build one church in Doumar, which would be shared by both communities,” said the Damascus-based Archbishop, who is Patriarchal Vicar.

“The two communities share the same faith, the same history and the same traditions – all rooted in Antioch. But there are two different jurisdictions – a parting of the ways came about in 1724, when one part of the church decided to enter into full communion with Rome,” he added.

The dual use of a single church is now in practice in the suburbs of Aleppo, where the Greek Orthodox and the Melkite communities share the newly constructed Church of St. Joseph.

“In Doumar, the two sister churches, Melkite and Greek Orthodox, to which the majority of Syrian Christians belong, thought it would be better to share a single church rather than to have none at all,” said the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV, who resides in Damascus.

“We will celebrate the Divine Liturgy at different times, for example, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.”

After the allocation of the land in 1996 and the decision to construct a shared church, a number of logistical difficulties were encountered.

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Tags: Syria Unity Melkite Greek Catholic Church