Although it's been in communion with Rome since 1724, the Greek Catholic Church remains greatly concerned about its autonomy and prizes its Eastern traditions.

Melinée Le Priol | October 7, 2017 | international.la-croix.com

When was the Greek Catholic Church, known as the Melkite Church, born?

This church began in 1724 as a result of a split in the Greek Church of Antioch. Some of these Christians, Catholicized by (Jesuit and Franciscan) missionaries then present in the Middle East, opted to enter into communion with the Holy See. 

This is how the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church started. It followed Byzantine rites and was directly linked to Rome.

The Greek Catholics immediately chose an Arab patriarch, whereas the Antioch seat had until then been reserved for a Greek patriarch and Greek bishops. A double line of patriarchs was thus instituted, one Orthodox, the other Catholic. However, it was only a century later, in 1834, that the Ottoman Empire fully recognized this Church. The patriarch was then installed in Damascus, where he resides to this day.

The current Melkite patriarch of Antioch, Archbishop Joseph Absi, hails from Damascus and was elected in June last. He bears the title of "Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem" and has jurisdiction over many dioceses. Archbishop Absi succeeded Patriarch Gregory III Laham, who was opposed by some of his bishops for his authoritarianism and mismanagement.

What does the word "Melkite' mean?

This denomination dates back to the 5th Century. It comes from the Syrian word "malka", meaning "king" or "emperor" and designated Christians from the patriarchies of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch who had accepted the Council of Chalcedon and were thus faithful to the Emperor of Constantinople. 

These Christians consider Christ as both man and God, contrary to the monotheists, who say Christ has only one nature: divine.

“Today, only four Churches are monophysitic,” says Rev. Rafic Greiche, spokesperson of the Conference of Bishops of Egypt. They are the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Churches. 

“All other Churches are, strictly speaking, Melkite, but the Greek Catholics are the only ones to have taken the name for their Church,” he notes.

How many are they?

The Greek Catholics number about 1.5 million worldwide. They are thus far fewer than the 14 million Greek Orthodox Christians. About half of the Melkites live in the Middle East, mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and the Holy Land. Where nationality is concerned, the Melkite Church defines itself as Arab and asserts its Arab nature, according to Joseph Yacoub, a specialist on the Christians of the Orient and Honorary Professor of the Catholic University of Lyon.

The Melkite diaspora lives mainly in Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela) and North America, to which Middle Eastern Christians fled from persecution by the Ottoman Empire from the end of the 19th Century. France also has a community of 10,000 persons, mainly in Marseille, where their church, built in 1821, is one of the oldest oriental Churches in Europe.

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