Ignatius IV of Antioch

Eternal Rest: Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch

Hratch Tchilingirian

12 December 2012

One of the longest serving Orthodox Christian leaders in the Middle East, Patriarch Ignatius IV (Hazim) of Antioch and All the East -- locally known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch --  passed away at the age of 92, following a stroke on 5 December 2012 in Beirut. His death comes at a time when Christians in the Middle East from Iraq to Egypt and Syria are facing formidable security, political and socio-economic challenges.  

Regarding his native country Syria, Ignatius IV had recently pleaded from his Patriarchal headquarters in Damascus for Syrians "to accept each other and live as one nation in our beloved Syria, the cradle of prophets and religions". He insisted that "in spite of their religious backgrounds, [Syrians] have the right to live in their country with pride and dignity."  

Ignatius IV held the third highest position (after Constantinople and Alexandria) in world Orthodox communion of 14 autocephalous churches.  His flock numbers some one million Christians in the Middle East and around the world. 

The Patriarch's body was transferred to Damascus following a service in St. Nicolas Cathedral in Beirut's Ashrafiyeh district on 9 December. President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Miqati of Lebanon attended the farewell Mass, which was presided by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. 

On Monday, hundreds of people, scores of religious leaders of different faiths and Syrian government officials, including Syria's parliament speaker Jihad Lahham, attended the funeral service held in St. Mary's Cathedral in the Old City district of Damascus. He was buried in the Cathedral's Grotto of the Patriarchs. 

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zohbi noted the patriarch's importance to Syria in a televised statement and said, "his death is a loss for humanity."  

The previous day President Sleiman of Lebanon said "the sources of faith" in Lebanon will miss the Patriarch's "wisdom and valuable love," and awarded him with Lebanon's highest state award, the National Medal of the Cedar. 

Ignatius IV was an influential leader not only in the Levant, but also internationally through his charismatic personality, vision and theological dialogue with other denominations and Islam. Elected Patriarch on 2 July 1979, his 33-year tenure coincided with the most critical period in the recent history of the Middle East: the Civil War in Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, the second Iraq war, and the more recent Arab awakening. As one clergyman put it, "His Patriarchal 'watch' has been on some of the most tumultuous times both ecclesiastically and in the civil realm of the Middle East." 

Like his counterpart Christian leaders, the condition of Christians in the Middle East was a major concern of the patriarch. He strongly believed that while being integrated in their societies, the presence of Christians in Syria and Lebanon especially and throughout the Middle should be maintained and nurtured.  His efforts towards inter–faith and inter-religious dialogue, especially with Islam, were anchored in his understanding of the "witness of a church" under trying conditions. As he wrote, this witness "is sharing fully the suffering of our peoples, in patience but also in courage, a church that does not maintain itself in a survivalist conservatism and in an ethnic and linguistic particularism, a church dispersed like salt, seeking its identity in its vocation." 

Born in the village of Mhardey near Hama in Syria in 1920, Habib Hazim received his initial education in Hama and moved to Beirut in 1936 to study literature. He was introduced into the service of the Orthodox Church at an early age by his parents and served as an acolyte in his teens.  He graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1945 and continued his theological studies in Paris in 1949 at the Saint Sergius Theological Institute.  Upon his return to Lebanon in 1953, he was ordained a priest and took monastic vows.  

As a young bishop, in 1961 he became Patriarchal Vicar and soon after became the superior of the Monastery of Balamand in Lebanon and the dean of its Theological Seminary.  In 1970 he served as the Metropolitan of Latakia  in Syria until his election as Patriarch of the Church of Antioch in 1979. 

He paid particular attention to the youth and the task of ministering to them.  In 1942 he founded with colleagues the Orthodox Youth Movement of Lebanon and Syria, an active movement that enhanced the process of renewal of the entire Patriarchate.  The Youth Movement encouraged ordinary people to be engaged with the life of the church and to partake of Holy Communion on a regular basis, a rare practice until then.  In 1953 Father Ignatius was instrumental in establishing a wider movement, called Syndesmos, which is a fellowship of world Orthodox Youth and Theological Schools. 

The importance of being close to the people and their concerns was a valuable leadership approach from the moment of his election as Patriarch.  In his election speech, he had said: "I know that I will be judged if I do not carry the Church and each one of you in my heart. It is not possible for me to address you as if I were different from you. No difference separates us. I am an integral part of you." 

Indeed, during his long tenure, he "popularised" what was thought of as the ancient Orthodox Faith and made it relevant to the issues and concerns of modern life.  The renewal of the Church and the faithful remained constant focus of attention in his ministry. 

Upon become Patriarch, he infused the Holy Synod of his church with new dynamism by consecrating new cadre of bishop from among the clergy who were close to the people.  He expanded the mission of the Church internationally, overseeing the growth of the church in North America, especially by accepting non-Arabs into the ranks of the faithful. He believed that "the Orthodox Church is not only for one nation, one civilisation, one continent;" that it is "like God Himself, for all and for every place." 

As a scholar, Ignatius had authored a number of theological books and essays, including The Resurrection and Modern Man (1985), where he wrote:  "It is up to us whether the New Creation remains hidden and meaningless, or whether it deifies man and transfigures the world. Such is our responsibility in the quest for authentic renewal."  

Multilingual and well travelled, he has been awarded a number of honorary degrees in recognition of his theological contribution and leadership, including from universities of Sorbonne, St. Petersburg and Minsk.  

The transformation of Balamand monastery into a  leading university in the Middle East is one of the crowning achievements of Patriarch Ignatius IV. He turned a small theological seminary into a respected and intellectually well-endowed university in Lebanon, focusing on Orthodox education and theology. 

In October of this year, even at his advanced age, Ignatius IV paid a visit to the United States for a series of official functions. Most important for him was the meeting between Lebanese and American educators for the development of new degree programmes in theological studies.  Metropolitan Philip, the archbishop of the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America, paid tribute to the Patriarch "as a man of vision, especially in the area of education", noting the Patriarch's near impossible task of establishing the University of Balamand in 1988 in the midst of the civil war in Lebanon. 

Well loved and respected by his flock and clergy, Patriarch Ignatios IV leaves behind a strong, well-organised church ready to continue his legacy of service and mission to the world.

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A shorter version of this article was published in The Times (Obituaries) on 28 December 2012.

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