A Brief History of the Melkite Church and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church
The word ‘Melkite’ comes from the Syriac malka, or Arabic malik, both meaning king or emperor. It was coined by the Christian monophysites condemned in the council of Kalcedon (451 A.D.) to describe the Christian dyophysites faithful to the Byzantine emperors who were trying to enforce the dyophysite Christology enunciated in the Council of Chalcedon within the borders of the Byzantine Empire (See at the end of this Melkite Letter – C. Miscellaneous – a definition of “Monophysitism and Dyophysitism”).
It was first employed in Egypt in 460 to designate the followers of the legitimate orthodox patriarch, Timotheus II, and from Egypt soon passed into the whole Near East under the influence of Arab and Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) writers. From representing all Christians faithful to the dyophysite doctrine of Kalcedon the word Melkite was finally applied only to the orthodox Christians of the Byzantine rite of Constantinople in the three patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Monophysites in Egypt took the name of Copts while those in Syria became the Syrian Orthodox Church (the Jacobites).
The Monophysites in the three patriarchates mentioned above were the Christian majority, while the Melkite minority was made up of certain Greek colonies in Egypt and Syria, a native community of Egyptian race and language in Egypt, another of Syriac descent and language in Syria and Palestine, and a certain number of Arab descent. From 457 two parallel bishops existed in Alexandria: the Melkite bishop, faithful to Constantinople, and the Coptic bishop, faithful to the Monophysite teaching. The Melkites, who remained politically and theologically faithful to the Byzantine emperors, were always a minority and settled in the large cities.
The patriarchal see was disputed between the Melkites and the Coptic Monophysites, and from 482 to 538 the later prevailed. After 538 there was a double patriarchal hierarchy in Alexandria, Melkite and Coptic.
During the Arab conquest of Egypt the Coptic patriarch was allowed to exercise his jurisdiction, and through financial and social pressure the number of Melkites was greatly reduced, principally because the Arabs distrusted Melkite loyalty to the Byzantine rulers.
From 550 onward the Patriarchate of Antioch was also split between the Melkites and the Monophysites, for James Baradai (c.543), with the co-operation of Empress Theodora, consecrated a Monophysite patriarch of Antioch. The Melkite church of Antioch remained powerful even after the Arab invasion because the Moslems preserved the status quo regarding the Church’s position, and the Melkite patriarch had his see in the imperial court at Constantinople until the end of the 7th century. From 702 to 742 the Melkite patriarchal see of Antioch remained without recognition from the Arabs, and the Maronite monks, in opposition to the Melkites, took advantage of this vacancy to establish their own Maronite patriarch.
Throughout the Monophysite conflict the patriarchate of Jerusalem remained Melkite, thanks especially to the efforts of the monk St. Sabas, who died in 532. But there were sufficient Monophysites in Palestine for the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) patriarch of Antioch to appoint Severus Bishop of Jerusalem in 597, and from him the line of Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) bishops of Jerusalem down to the present is derived .
When the Byzantines recaptured part of Syria in 960 and compelled the Arab army to withdraw from the north, the Melkite patriarch in Antioch gradually accepted the Byzantine rite and church law, thus becoming more dependent upon the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Moreover, the Melkites of the three patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria did not originally have the same liturgy.
The Patriarchate of Alexandria used a liturgy (the service or the ritual of the Church) attributed to St. Mark adopted by all the Christians of Egypt. In the two other patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch, the liturgy of St. James had been used by the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites) and the Maronites, as well as the Melkites. But under the influence of Constantinople, the Melkites abandoned their original liturgy between the 12th and 13th centuries to adopt the Byzantine liturgy of St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory.
After the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, the relations between the Melkite Church and the Western Catholic Church ceased completely, and the Latin Crusaders fomented division by regarding the Melkites as schismatics and heretics. Latin patriarchates were set up in Antioch and Jerusalem; and during the Latin occupation, the Melkite patriarch resided in Constantinople. After the fall of the Crusaders’ kingdom of Antioch in 1268, the Melkite patriarch returned to his native see, and from then on the Antioch Patriarchate was considered hostile to Rome.
But the city of Antioch had suffered greatly under the siege of the Mameluke Turks; its glory was gone; hence the Melkite patriarch changed his see to Damascus (1366). This patriarchate was more strictly controlled by the Moslems than the Maronite one, and the sultans of Egypt, on whom Syria depended during this time, forbade all contact with the West.
Work for union began in the Patriarchate of Antioch with the arrival of the Capuchins, Jesuits, and Carmelites after the foundation of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome in 1622. These missionaries slowly infiltrated the community with Catholic elements so that eventually a Catholic religious authority could be introduced, which at first allowed Catholics to receive the Sacraments from the Orthodox clergy. For a time no true distinction was made between Catholic and Orthodox, but gradually one or another patriarch or bishop and many faithful were reconciled with Rome.
The two rival patriarchs, Athanasius III (1686-1724) and Cyril V (1672-1720), were recognized as Catholics by Rome at different times but still governed mixed Catholic and Orthodox communities. Archbishop Euthymius Saifi of Tyre and Sidon played an important role in the reunion when in 1701 he was accepted by Rome as bishop of all the Melkite Catholics who did not have their own bishop.
On the death of Athanasius III (c. 1724, as a Catholic), it seemed to the Catholics of Antioch that the moment had come to make the patriarchate unmistakably Catholic, and they chose an unequivocal Catholic for the patriarchal see. This was Cyril (Seraphim) of Turiv, the nephew of Archbishop Euthymius, who took the name of Cyril VI. The patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated Cyril VI as an apostate, but In 1729 he received recognition from Rome, and in 1744 the pallium from the Pope.
With the election of Cyril, against Rome’s intention, the Antiochene Patriarchate was in practice split into two communities: one unmistakably Catholic the other acknowledged as schismatic. In 1759 Cyril VI retired and named his young nephew Ignatius Gohar as his successor; this led to complications, because some of the bishops rejected the nephew and appealed to Rome. Rome named Archbishop Maximus Hakim of Alep as patriarch. This was a difficult test for the still new union, but it soon proved a happy solution.
Melkite Catholics. At first the authority of the Catholic patriarch was confined to Antioch, but on July 13, 1772, the Holy See gave the patriarch jurisdiction over the Catholic Melkites in the territories of Jerusalem and Alexandria.
In the course of history there have been conflicts between the Holy See and the Melkite patriarchs caused by each side asserting rights. The Synods of Qarqafel (1806) and of Jerusalem (1849), aimed at making the Melkite community an independent law-making body, were not acknowledged by Rome. The renowned Patriarch Maximos III Mazlum (1833-1855) had many difficulties with Rome, but in 1838 the Holy See gave him as a personal privilege the right to assume the threefold title of patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem; which has been uninterruptedly renewed by all his successors.
Maximos was able to set up a residence in Damascus in 1834, and he received full civil recognition from the Sultan in 1848. Gregory II Jusof (1864-97) appeared at Vatican Council I as an opponent of the definition of the Primacy of the Pope because he saw in it an obstacle to reunion with the eastern Orthodox Churches.
He accepted the definition only on condition of the acknowledgement of the rights accorded the patriarchs by a clause in the acts of the Council of Florence (1439), which Pius IX took amiss. Under Leo XIII, who valued him greatly, Gregory played a leading role in the Conference of Oriental Patriarchs held under the presidency of the Pope in 1894. Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh proved himself an energetic assertor of the traditions of the Oriental Churches and the rights of the patriarchs at Vatican Council II.
In 1662 Andrew Akidgean was consecrated Syrian Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, thus creating the confused picture of an ancient apostolic patriarchate broken up into five distinct patriarchates. Today there are two patriarchs of the Byzantine rite who claim the ancient patriarchal See of Antioch as their legitimate heritage: the Orthodox and the Catholic Melkite. The Maronite patriarch also claims Antioch as his rightful patriarchal see. As a result of Monophysitism the Syrian Orthodox Christians claim Antioch for their patriarchal lineage, while the Syrian Catholics do the same.
The Melkite Catholic Church is also called the Greek Catholic Church while its Melkite opponent is called the Greek Orthodox Church, because of their strong links with the Byzantine Greek heritage.