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Oriental Orthodox Churches

The six Oriental Orthodox Churches -- Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian and the (Indian) Malankara -- are in communion with each other and are also called ancient Oriental, lesser Eastern, and pre- or ante-Chalcedonian churches. They are the churches of the first three ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus) and do not accept Chalcedon (451).

The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its history back to St Mark the Evangelist, who founded the church in Egypt. The ancient Egyptian patriarchate of Alexandria represented one of the chief sees of the early church within the Roman empire. The Copts, descendants of the ancient Egyptians, preserved the Coptic language in their liturgy. Through a long period of persecution since Byzantine times, the Coptic Orthodox Church tenaciously held fast to the "faith of the fathers". One of its chief strengths was in continuing the great ascetic-monastic traditions that originated in the Egyptian deserts. The church has initiated considerable missionary work in other parts of the African continent. The Coptic church has a significant diaspora in North America, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its history to A.D. 37 and holds the traditions of St Peter's work. The church suffered severe persecution during the struggle against Hellenistic domination at the time of the council of Chalcedon, and later through Mongol invasions and Turkish rule. The patriarchate had to be moved several times until it was established in Damascus in this century. Syrian liturgical and theological life flourished until the 13th century but steadily declined afterwards. The monastic movement produced many universally acknowledged saints and contributed enormously to the creation of a rich liturgical tradition. In 1665, the Antiochian church came into contact with the ancient church of St Thomas Christians in India, and the West Syrian liturgy was thus introduced to the Christians in South India. Though the Syrian church is vastly reduced in number because of Muslim domination, it has a considerable diaspora in the US, Australia and Europe.

The Armenian Apostolic Church: Armenia, the first nation to accept Christianity as the official religion (in 301), traditionally attributes the beginning of Armenian Orthodox Christianity to the preaching of St Thaddeus and St Bartholomew. Victims of terrible persecution through the centuries, Armenian Christians heroically preserved their apostolic faith. The catholicos of All Armenians resides in Etchmiadzin in the Soviet Union. There are three ecclesiastical centres within the church apart from Etchmiadzin: the catholicate of Cilicia (Antelias, Lebanon), the patriarchate of Jerusalem and the patriarchate of Constantinople. The Armenian church has a very significant diaspora spread out in all the continents. The Armenian national aspirations and the Armenian Orthodox faith are integrally interconnected.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church: An authentically African Orthodox church, the Ethiopian church has a history going back to apostolic times. For long under the tutelage of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian church declared its autocephaly in 1950 and is now governed by its own patriarch in Addis Ababa. The church uses both the ancient language of Geez and modern Amharic in its liturgy. Influenced by a long tradition of monastic spirituality, this church has produced considerable religious literature and has its own iconographic tradition. The Ethiopian church is now gradually emerging from age- old social and economic structures to meet contemporary challenges.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church is also an autocephalous church, depending directly on the Coptic Orthodox church.

The Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Church has always cherished the tradition of St Thomas as the founding father of Christianity in India. The Indian church, now divided into Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox families, has suffered from Western colonial missions. The church came into contact with the west Syrian patriarchate of Antioch in 1665 and thus inherited the Syrian liturgical and spiritual tradition. The Orthodox church in India declared itself autocephalous in 1912, though conflicts with the Syrian patriarchate continue. With a well- equipped theological college, a mission training centre and many educational and charitable institutions, the church is fully involved in the life of the country. With the catholicos residing at Kottayam, Kerala, the church has 20 bishops and more than 1,000 parishes. It has a diaspora in North America, Malaysia, Singapore and the Gulf countries.

 


Article by: Oriental Orthodox Churches by Geevarghese Mar Osthathios from the revised edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and Wm. Eerdmans in 2002.

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