Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Melkite Greek Catholic Church
The coat of arms of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
Founder Apostles Peter and Paul
Independence Apostolic Era
Recognition Roman Catholic Church,
Eastern Catholic Churches
Primate Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of Alexandria, and of Jerusalem of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Gregory III Laham.
Headquarters Damascus, Syria
Territory Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria.
Possessions Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, United States, Venezuela.
Language Arabic, Greek
Adherents 1.6 million.[1][2]
Website Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church (Arabic: كنيسة الروم الملكيين الكاثوليك‎, Kanīsat ar-Rūm al-Malakiyyīn al-Kāṯūlīk) is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See as part of the worldwide Catholic Church. The Melkites, Byzantine Rite Catholics of mixed Eastern Mediterranean and Greek origin, trace their history to the early Christians of Antioch, Syria, of the 1st century AD, where Christianity was introduced by St. Peter.[3][4]

The Melkite Church has a high degree of ethnic homogeneity and the church's origins lie in the Near East,[5] but Melkite Greek Catholics are present throughout the world due to migration. At present there is a worldwide membership of approximately 1.6 million.[1][2] The Melkite Catholic Church's Byzantine roots and liturgical practices are similar to those of Eastern Orthodoxy, while the Church has maintained communion with the Catholic Church in Rome since a split from the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in 1729.[6]


Name of the Church

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Melkite, from the Syriac word malkā for "King", was originally a pejorative term for Middle-Eastern Christians who accepted the authority of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the Byzantine Emperor, a term applied to them by non-Chalcedonians.[7] Of the Chalcedonian churches, Greek Catholics continue to use the term, while Eastern Orthodox do not.

The Greek element signifies the Byzantine Rite heritage of the church, the liturgy used by all the Eastern Orthodox Churches.[8]

The term Catholic signifies the church's acknowledgment of the authority of the Pope and implies participation in the worldwide church. According to Church tradition, the Melkite Church of Antioch is the "oldest continuous Christian community in the world".[9]

In Arabic, the official language of the church,[5] it is called ar-Rūm al-Kathūlīk (Arabic: الروم الكاثوليك‎). The Arabic word "Rūm" refers to Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul), whose official name was New Rome (Latin: Nova Roma Greek: Νέα Ρώμη). Though the name is sometimes incorrectly translated as "Roman Catholic", the more accurate translation is Melkite or Greek Catholic, referring to the Byzantine heritage associated with the city of "New Rome", i.e. Constantinople.


The origins of the Melkite Catholic Church go back to the establishment of Christianity in the Near East.[10] As Christianity began to spread, the disciples preached the Gospel throughout the region and were for the first time called "Christians" in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26), the historical See of the Melkite Catholic Patriarchate.[11] Scholars attribute the actual writing of the gospels in Koine Greek to the Hellenized Christian population of Antioch, with authors such as St. Luke and others. By the 2nd century, Chrisitianity was widespread in Antioch and throughout Syria. Growth of the church did not stop during periods of persecution, and by the end of the 4th century Christianity became the official state religion.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church traces its origins to the Christian communities of the Levant and Egypt. The church's leadership was vested in the three Apostolic Patriarchates of the ancient patriarchates: Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The church's history and relation to other churches may be summarised in four defining moments.

Fallout from the Fourth Ecumenical Council

The first defining moment was the socio-political fallout in the wake of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in AD 451. Fifth-century Middle-Eastern Christian society became sharply divided between those who did and those who did not accept the outcome of the council. Those who accepted the decrees of the council, the Chalcedonians, were mainly Greek-speaking city-dwellers, and were called Melkites (imperials) by the anti-Chalcedonians.[12] These latter were predominantly Syriac–Arabic or Coptic-speaking provincials.

Fusion with Arabic language and culture

The second defining event is more of a period of change than a sudden movement. The Battle of Yarmuk (636) took the Melkite homeland out of Byzantine control and placed it under the occupation of the Arab invaders.[13] Whereas the Greek language and culture remained important, especially for the Melkites of Jerusalem, Melkite tradition became fused with the Arabic language and culture. Indeed there was Arabic Christian poetry before the arrival of Islam, but this enracination into the Arabic culture led to a degree of distancing between the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Melkite patriarchs and their people.

Despite the Arab invasion, the Melkites continued to exercise an important role in the Universal Church. The Melkites played a leading role in condemning the iconoclast controversy when it re-appeared in the early 9th century, and were among the first of the Eastern churches to respond to the introduction of the filioque clause in the West.[14]

Communion with the Roman Catholic Church

Iconostasis at Saint George Greek-Melkite Church in Sacramento, California

The third defining moment were the Councils of Reunion in which the Orthodox hierarchs accepted communion with the See of Rome after a long period of schism. In 1054, Patriarch Michael Kerularios and Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida had excommunicated each other, thus formalizing a schism that had been developing for many years. The Melkite Patriarch Peter III of Antioch rejected the quarrel of the Latin Cardinal and the Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I "consigned these excommunications to oblivion."

However, during the Holy Crusades the Crusaders introduced Latin prelates into the apostolic sees of the East, and the Fourth Crusade saw the sack of the great city of Constantinople and its domination by the "Crusaders" for fifty-seven years. These developments brought the East-West quarrel home to everyone but there was no declaration of schism. Since there had never been any formal division from East-West Schism these 'converts' of the Latin missionaries simply became a pro-Western, pro-Catholic party within Eastern Orthodoxy. Throughout the 17th century Jesuits, Capuchins and Carmelites established missions with the consent of the local Orthodox bishops in the Ottoman Empire. The Dominicans had been in Iraq since the 14th century.

At the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1439) the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Emperor accepted union with the West hoping for aid to save Constantinople from Islam. Neither of these unions lasted, though the last two emperors of Constantinople were professing Catholics; nor was any significant aid forthcoming from the warring kingdoms of a soon to be torn-apart Europe.

From 1342, Roman Catholic friars opened missions in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Damascus and their teaching had important influence over the Melkite clergy and people. Yet, in the Melkite tradition it was the Jesuits, founded only in 1534, who were really decisive in the formation of the Catholic party in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. The Jesuits were not friars but something like the highly educated priests of the Patriarchal Chancery, which made them more acceptable.

Election of Cyril VI

The fourth defining moment was the election of Cyril VI Tanas, in 1724, by the Melkite bishops of Syria as the new Patriarch of Antioch. As Cyril was considered to be pro-Western, the Patriarch Jeremias III of Constantinople feared that his authority would be compromised. Therefore, Jeremias declared Cyril's election to be invalid, excommunicated him, and ordained the deacon Sylvester of Antioch, a Greek monk a priest and bishop, then appointed him to the patriarchal See of Antioch.[6]

Sylvester exacerbated divisions with his heavy-handed rule of the church as many Melkites acknowledged Cyril's claim to the patriarchal throne. It was obvious to all that Cyril had been legitimately elected and consecrated, and that Jeremias had attempted to remove him only to bolster his own authority over the Antiochian Patriarchate. (This Greek domination over the Byzantine Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch lasted until 1899.) Jeremias and Sylvester began a five year campaign of persecution against Cyril and the Melkite faithful who supported him, enforced by Ottoman Turkish troops.

Five years after the election of Cyril VI, in 1729, Pope Benedict XIII recognized Cyril as the legitimate Patriarch of Antioch and recognized his followers as being in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.[15] From this time onwards, the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church has existed separately from and in parallel to the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in Western Asia; the latter is no longer referred to as Melkite.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church has played an important role in the leadership of Arabic Christianity. It has always been led by Arabic-speaking Christians, whereas its Orthodox counterpart had Greek patriarchs until 1899. Indeed, at the very beginning of her separate existence, around 1725, one of her most illustrious lay leaders, the savant and theologian, Abdallah Zakher of Aleppo (1684–1748) set up the first printing press in the Arab world. In 1835, Maximos III Mazloum, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, was recognized by the Ottoman Empire as the leader of a millet, a distinctive religious community within the Empire. Pope Gregory XVI gave Maximos III Mazloum the triple-patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, a title that is still held by the leader of the Melkite Catholic Church.

Expansion of the Church and participation at the First Vatican Council

Stained glass window at the Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Roslindale, Massachusetts depicting Christ enthroned in regalia of a Byzantine emperor

In 1847, Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), reinstituted the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the person of the young, 34 year old, zealous Giuseppe Valerga (1813–1872), whom the indigenous hierarchs nicknamed "The Butcher" because of his fierce opposition to the Eastern Orthodox churches of the Holy Land. When he arrived in Jerusalem in 1847, there were 4,200 Latin Catholics and when he died in 1872, the number had doubled.

Under pressure from the Roman curia to adopt Latin rite practices, Patriarch Clement Bahouth introduced the Gregorian calendar used by the Latin and Maronite Rite in 1857; that act caused serious problems within the Melkite church, resulting in a short-lived schism.[16] Conflicts in the Melkite church escalated to the point where Clement abdicated his position as patriarch.

Clement's successor, Patriarch Gregory II Youssef (1864–1897) worked to restore peace within the community, successfully healing the lingering schism. He also focused on improving church institutions. During his reign Gregory founded both the Patriarchal College in Beirut in 1865 and the Patriarchal College in Damascus in 1875 and re-opened the Melkite seminary of Ain Traz in 1866.[16][17] He also promoted the establishment of Saint Ann's Seminary, Jeruselem, in 1882 by the White Fathers for the training of the Melkite clergy.[18]

Following the Hatt-ı Hümayun of 1856, decreed by Sultan Abdülmecid I, the situation of Christians in the Near East improved. This allowed Gregory to successfully encourage greater participation by the Melkite laity in both church administration as well as public affairs.[16] Gregory also took an interest in ministering to the growing number of Melkites who had emigrated to the Americas. In 1889 he dispatched Father Ibrahim Beshawate of the Basilian Salvatorian Order in Saida, Lebanon to New York in order to minister to the growing Syrian community there. According to historian Philip Hitte, Beshawate was the first permanent priest in the United States from the Near East from among the Melkite, Maronite, and Antiochian Orthodox Churches.[19]

Gregory was also a prominent proponent of Eastern ecclesiology at the First Vatican Council. In the two discourses he gave at the Council on May 19 and June 14, 1870 he insisted on the importance of conforming to the decisions of the Council of Florence, of not creating innovations such as papal infallibility, but accepting what had been decided by common agreement between the Greeks and the Latins at the Council of Florence, especially with regard to the issue of papal primacy.[20] He was keenly aware of the disastrous impact that the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility would have on relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church and emerged as a prominent opponent of the dogma at the Council.[21] He also defended the rights and privileges of the patriarchs according to the canons promulgated by earlier ecumenical councils. Speaking at the Council on May 19, 1870, Patriarch Gregory asserted:

The Eastern Church attributes to the pope the most complete and highest power, however in a manner where the fullness and primacy are in harmony with the rights of the patriarchal sees. This is why, in virtue of and ancient right founded on customs, the Roman Pontiffs did not, except in very significant cases, exercise over these sees the ordinary and immediate jurisdiction that we are asked now to define without any exception. This definition would completely destroy the constitution of the entire Greek church. That is why my conscience as a pastor refuses to accept this constitution.[22]

Patriarch Gregory refused to sign the Council's dogmatic declaration on papal infallibility. He and the seven other Melkite bishops present voted non placet at the general congregation and left Rome prior to the adoption of the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus on papal infallibility.[23] Other members of the anti-infallibilist minority, both from the Latin church and from other Eastern Catholic churches, also left the city.[23]

After the First Vatican Council concluded an emissary of the Roman Curia was dispatched to secure the signatures of the patriarch and the Melkite delegation. Patriarch Gregory and the Melkite bishops subscribed to it, but with the qualifying clause of the used at the Council of Florence attached: "except the rights and privileges of Eastern patriarchs.".[21][24] He earned the enmity of Pius IX for this; during his next visit to the pontiff Gregory was cast to the floor at Pius' feet by the papal guard while the pope placed his foot on the patriarch's head.[25] Despite this, Patriarch Gregory and the Melkite Catholic Church remained committed to their union with the Church of Rome. Relationships with the Vatican improved following the death of Pius IX and the subsequent election of Leo XIII as pontiff. Leo's encyclical Orientalium Dignitas addressed some of the Eastern Catholic Churches' concerns on latinization and the centralizing tendencies of Rome.[26] Leo also confirmed that the limitations placed on the Armenian Catholic patriarch by Pius IX's 1867 letter Reversurus would not apply to the Melkite Church; further, Leo formally recognized an expansion of Patriarch Gregory's jurisdiction to include all Melkites throughout the Ottoman Empire.[26]

The Church in modern times

Conflicts over Latin and Melkite traditions in the Church

Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh took part in the Second Vatican Council where he championed the Eastern tradition of Christianity, and won a great deal of respect from Eastern Orthodox observers at the council as well as the approbation of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I.

Following the Second Vatican Council the Melkites moved to restoring traditional worship. This involved both the restoration of Melkite practices such as administering the Eucharist to infants following post-baptismal chrismation as well as removal of Latin-rite elements such as communion rails and confessionals. In the pre-conciliar days, the leaders of this trend were members of "The Cairo Circle", a group of young priests centered around the Patriarchal College in Cairo. This group included Fathers George Selim Hakim, Joseph Tawil, Elias Zoghby and former Jesuit Oreste Kerame; they later became bishops and participated in the Second Vatican Council, and saw their efforts vindicated.

These reforms led to protests by some Melkite churches that the de-latinisation had gone too far. During the Patriarchate of Maximos IV (Sayegh), some Melkites in the United States objected to the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, a movement that was spearheaded by the future archbishop of Nazareth, Father Joseph Raya of Birmingham, Alabama. The issue garnered national news coverage after Bishop Fulton Sheen celebrated a Pontifical Divine Liturgy in English at the Melkite National convention in Birmingham in 1958, parts of which were televised on the national news.

In 1960, the issue was resolved by Pope John XXIII at the request of Patriarch Maximos IV in favour of the use of vernacular languages in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Pope John also consecrated a Melkite priest, Father Gabriel Acacius Coussa, as a bishop, using the Byzantine Rite and the papal tiara as a crown. Bishop Coussa was almost immediately elevated to the cardinalate, but died two years later. His cause for canonization was introduced by his religious order, the Basilians of Aleppo.

Further protests against the de-latinisation of the church occurred during the patriarchate of Maximos V Hakim (1967–2000) when some church officials who supported Latin traditions protested against allowing the ordination of married men as priests. Today the church sees itself as an authentic Orthodox church in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. As such it has a role as a voice of the east within the western church, a bridge between faiths and peoples.[27]

Attempts to unite the Melkite diaspora

Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Damascus

Due to heavy emigration from the Eastern Mediterranean, which began with the Damascus massacres of 1860, in which most of the Christian communities were attacked, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church today is found throughout the world and no longer made up exclusively of faithful of Eastern Mediterranean origin.

The Patriarchate of Maximos V saw many advances in the worldwide presence of the Melkite Church, called "the Diaspora":[28] Eparchies (the Eastern equivalent of a diocese) were established in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Argentina and Mexico in response to the continued emptying of the Eastern Mediterranean of her native Christian peoples. Some historians state[citation needed] that after the revolution in Egypt in 1952, many Melkites left Egypt due to the renewed Islamic, nativist and socialist policies of the Nasser regime. In 1950, the richest Melkite community in the world was in Egypt. In 1945 the most populous single diocese was Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee.

In 1967, a native Egyptian of Syrian-Aleppin descent, George Selim Hakim, was elected the successor of Maximos IV, and took the name Maximos V. He was to reign until he retired at the age of 92 in the Jubilee Year of 2000. He reposed on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 2001.

Church traditions

The Melkite Catholic Church is in full communion with the Holy See but fully follows the traditions and customs of Byzantine Christianity.[29] The traditional languages of worship are Arabic or Greek, but today, services are held in a variety of languages depending on the country where the Church is located.


The current Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and Alexandria and Jerusalem is Gregory III Laham. The patriarchate is based in the Syrian capital Damascus. In the Arab World, the church has dioceses in:

Throughout the rest of the world, the church has dioceses in:

The patriarchate is administered by a permanent synod which includes the patriarch and four bishops, the ordinary tribunal of the patriarch for legal affairs, the patriarchal economos who serves as financial administrator, and a chancery. The Melkite Synod of Bishops, composed of all of the Church's bishops, meets each year to consider administrative, theological and issues affecting the entire Church.[30]

There are also several patriarchal organizations with offices and chapters throughout the world. These include the Patriarchal Order of the Holy Cross of Jeruselem, which promotes religious, cultural, charitable and social works of concern to the Church; the Global Melkite Association, a group which networks eparchies, monasteries, schools and Melkite associations; and Friends of The Holy Land, a lay charitable organization active in the diaspora which provides clothing, medicine and liturgical items for churches and communities in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria.

See also


  • Descy, Serge (1993). The Melkite Church. Boston: Sophia Press. 
  • Dick, Ignatios (2004). Melkites: Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics of the Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. Boston: Sophia Press. 
  • Faulk, Edward (2007). 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches. New York: Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0-8091-4441-9. 
  • Parry, Ken; David Melling (editors) (1999). The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Malden, Massachusetts.: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23203-6. 
  • Raya, Joseph (1992). Byzantine Church and Culture. Allentown, New Jersey: Alleluia Press. ISBN 0-911726-54-3. 
  • Roccasalvo, Joan L. (1992). The Eastern Catholic Churches: An Introduction To Their Worship and Spirituality. Collegeville, Minnesota.: The Liturgical Press. ISBN 0-8146-2047-7. 
  • Tawil, Joseph (2001). The Patriarchate of Antioch Throughout History: An Introduction. Boston: Sophia Press. 
  • Zoghby, Elias (1998). Ecumenical Reflections. Fairfax, Virginia.: Eastern Christian Publications. ISBN 1-892278-06-5. 


  1. ^ a b Faulk (2007), pp. 9-10
  2. ^ a b Ronald Roberson. "The Eastern Catholic Churches 2010". Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Retrieved December 2010.  Information sourced from Annuario Pontificio 2010 edition
  3. ^ "History of the Melkites". 
  4. ^ "Melkite Greek Catholic Church". 
  5. ^ a b "Church History". Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate. 
  6. ^ a b Parry, (1999), p. 312
  7. ^ Dick (2004), p. 9
  8. ^ Faulk (2007), p. 5.
  9. ^ Martha Liles. "Unofficial History of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church". 
  10. ^ Tawil (2001), pp. 1-3
  11. ^ Dick (2004), pp. 13-15
  12. ^ Tawil (2001), p. 21
  13. ^ Dick (2004), p. 21
  14. ^ Dick (2004, p. 21
  15. ^  "Melchites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  16. ^ a b c Dick (2004), p. 38
  17. ^ Graham, James (2003-08-24). "History of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church". Melkite Greek Catholic Church Information Center. Retrieved 2008-12-24. 
  18. ^ Raheb, Abdallah. "Patriarcat grec-melkite catholique d'Antioche. Naissance, évolution et orientations actuelles". Ekklesiastikos Pharos 52 (s.II, III): 47–72. 
  19. ^ Faraj, John. "History of the Melkite Community of New York". The Church of The Virgin Mary Melkite Catholic Church. Retrieved 2008-12-24. 
  20. ^ Dick (2004), pp. 109-111
  21. ^ a b Parry (1999), p. 313
  22. ^ Dick (2004), p. 110. Dick notes that his source is C. Patelos, Vatican 1st et les eveques uniates, Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1981, 482-283
  23. ^ a b Descy (1993), p. 64
  24. ^ Zoghby (1998), p.83
  25. ^ Parry (1999), p. 313. See also the account given by Zoghby (1998), p. 83
  26. ^ a b Dick (2004), p. 39
  27. ^ Joffe, Lawrence (July 28, 2001). "Obituaries: Maximos V: Spiritual leader of a million Christians". The Guardian (London): pp. 22. 
  28. ^ The History of the Melkite Byzantine Church
  29. ^ Faulk ((2007), pp. 5-7
  30. ^ The Melkite Handbook (2008), p. 12

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