Church leaders welcome new Syriac Orthodox Patriarch

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian (left) and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian with His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II Karim in New York.

New York – – On May 13, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), hosted an ecumenical gathering at the Diocesan Center in honor of His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II Karim, the former Metropolitan of the Syriac Archdiocese of the Eastern United States who was recently elected as Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, Episcopalian, and Eastern Orthodox churches came together at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral for a prayer service, followed by a reception to honor Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem.

His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, visiting New York after having traveled to Rome, where he met with His Holiness Pope Francis, presided over the gathering.

The assembled church leaders congratulated the new Patriarch on this latest calling in his ministry, and expressed their solidarity as he embarks on leading a church that finds itself beleaguered by the conflict in Syria.

Metropolitan Tikhon, head of the Orthodox Church in America, delivered the invocation, and Archbishop Barsamian welcomed the clergy to the Diocesan Center. “It is a great pleasure for me to greet you, on this deeply meaningful occasion,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to come together, in the warm embrace of our shared Christian heritage-to give physical expression to our sense of friendship and common mission in the world today.”

He went on to speak about Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem’s spiritual leadership in America, and the friendship that has grown between them. “Throughout these years, I have been privileged to witness his virtues of energy, spirituality, wisdom, and humility,” Archbishop Barsamian said. “He exemplifies the best qualities of the Christian heritage of the East; and he has given these virtues exemplary life and vitality here in the West.”

Turning to the civil war in Syria, Archbishop Barsamian said, “through prayer and fellowship, through mutual support and love-we stand in solidarity with you.”

All of the church leaders expressed gratitude for the presence of Catholicos Karekin II and paid their respects to the leader of the worldwide Armenian Church.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, thanked Archbishop Barsamian for his hospitality and reflected on the blessing of religious freedom people of all faiths experience in the United States. “This gathering seems particularly appropriate in the radiance of the Easter season,” Cardinal Dolan said. “And one can sense the spirit of the Risen Christ in this room-in our fraternity, in our warmth and brotherly love.”

Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, expressed his appreciation to Archbishop Barsamian for the warm welcome and congratulated Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem on his election. He presented the latter with an engolpion bearing an icon of St. Mary.

Archbishop Demetrios spoke about St. Ignatius of Antioch-the first century martyr, theologian, and hymnist-whose spirit, he said, is embodied by Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem.

“We are going to miss you,” he said to the Patriarch. “You have a very difficult mission, but be assured that you have our prayers, our love, and our support.”

In introducing His Holiness Karekin II, Archbishop Barsamian spoke about the Catholicos’ work in continuing to revive Christianity in Armenia after years of Soviet hostility toward the church. He mentioned Holy Etchmiadzin’s emphasis on Christian education and youth programs, which are making it possible for generations of Armenians to reassert their Christian heritage.

His Holiness Karekin II spoke about Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem’s commitment to serving God and his people. “We have known him as a good shepherd, well loved by his flock,” he said. “Despite all the challenges facing Syria, he has no doubt in accepting his new responsibility. This shows his endless love for the church of Christ and for his people.”

He said that the Armenian Church, too, has been closely following the war in Syria, where there is a sizeable Armenian population, and mentioned his recent meetings with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Moscow and Roman Catholic Pope Francis in Rome. In both meetings, the church leaders expressed concerns about the situation in the Middle East, and specifically in Syria, and discussed ways to bring peace to the region.

“I want to assure you that you are not alone,” His Holiness Karekin II said. “You will have our full support and our prayers.”

He presented Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem with medallions inscribed with Armenian crosses and etchings of churches. The Patriarch, in turn, presented the Catholicos with The Chronicles of Michael the Great, a new volume published by the Syriac Archdiocese.

In a moving valedictory address, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem said he is “encouraged and strengthened to know that your prayers are with me. I hope and pray that my ministry will be of service to all people.”

He reflected on the close ties between the Armenian and Syriac churches, and recalled His Holiness Karekin II’s visit to the Syriac Orthodox Church in America. He added that he looks forward to visiting Holy Etchmiadzin next year on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

“The courage of those martyrs will always inspire us and give us wisdom and energy,” he said. “Their sacrifice gives us courage to continue on the same path of martyrdom.”

The Patriarch will be formally installed in Damascus on May 29. He said he will continue to seek ways to promote the work of the ecumenical movement, and asked that the church leaders in America continue to support the cause of Christians in the Middle East.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Roman Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C., delivered a benediction, in which he underlined the need for common love and understanding among the various churches.

Other high-ranking clergy in attendance were Archbishop Mor Silvanos Ayup of the Malankara Syriac Archdiocese; Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, Apostalic Nuncio of the Roman Catholic Church at the United Nations; Bishop Andrew Dietsche, the Episcopal Bishop of New York; Bishop Makarios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church; and Bishop William Murphy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Long Island.

Also in attendance were Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; Rev. Kurt Dunkle, dean of General Theological Seminary; Rev. Ronald Roberson of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches; and Warren Clark, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace. Accompanying His Holiness Karekin II was the Rev. Fr. Vahram Melikyan, director of Information Services at Holy Etchmiadzin.

Representing the Eastern Diocese at Tuesday’s event were Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, the Diocese’s Ecumenical Director; Archbishop Yeghishe Gizirian; Very Rev. Fr. Simeon Odabashian, Diocesan Vicar; Very Rev. Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian, dean of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral; Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Diocese’s Zohrab Information Center; Very Rev. Fr. Aren Jebejian; Very Rev. Father Papken Anoushian; Very Rev. Fr. Oshagan Gulgulian; Very Rev. Fr. Vazken Karayan; and Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian, dean of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary.

Celebration in New York

Clergy of the Eastern Diocese were among the guests welcoming His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II Karim, the newly elected patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, to St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, N.J., on April 5.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Diocesan Primate; Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, the Diocese’s Ecumenical Director; and the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Diocese’s Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center, were among those gathered to welcome Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II to the cathedral where he has served for nearly two decades.

On March 31, the former Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, Metropolitan and Patriarchal Vicar at the Archdiocese of the SyriacOrthodox Church for the Eastern United States, became the 123rd Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. He will serve in Damascus, Syria, where the Holy See of the Syrian Orthodox Church is based.

At St. Mark’s Cathedral, a prayer of thanksgiving was said by Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem. He went on to speak about the plight of Christians in Syria, and called on people to “pray for our beloved Syria to have peace again.”

The Syriac patriarch also stressed the importance of Christian unity, and said he looks forward to working with other church leaders in the region. “This divine calling does not come without divine help,” he added.

Archbishop Barsamian delivered remarks congratulating Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem on behalf of the Armenian Church of America. He also conveyed the well wishes of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

“You exemplify the best qualities of the Christian heritage of the East; and you have given these virtues exemplary life and vitality here in the West,” Archbishop Barsamian said. “I know that your experience here in America, and your leadership on the ecumenical stage, have given you the knowledge and ability to govern wisely in a church that now straddles the East and the West, the ancient and the modern.”

A native of Syria, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem studied in Lebanon, Egypt, and Ireland. During his tenure in the United States, he helped establish new parishes, launched a youth organization, and was an active member in the ecumenical arena.

Throughout his ministry in the U.S., he has been a close friend of the Eastern Diocese, frequently joining Diocesan clergy in ecumenical meetings, in efforts to advocate on behalf of Christians in the Middle East, and in other initiatives.

He has served on the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches in the USA. He was also among the founding members of the ecumenical organization Christian Churches Together, and has co-chaired the Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation.

Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem succeeds His Holiness Ignatius Zakka I, who entered his eternal rest on March 21.

Among other clergy present at Saturday’s welcoming service were Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America, Archbishop Mor Titus Yeldho of the Malankara Orthodox Church, Bishop David of the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as representatives of the Antiochian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches.