What’s a Melkite, anyway?
A Pillar interview
Tensions remain high in Israel and Palestine over the shooting death of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot May 11 while covering an Israeli Defense Forces raid of a refugee camp in the West Bank.
A Palestinian Authority prosecutor alleges that Abu Akleh was shot deliberately by IDF forces, and the journalist’s funeral procession in Jerusalem was broken up by police forces, who can be seen in video footage using tear gas and stun grenades, and striking mourners with batons, in a show of force police claim was aimed at preventing a riot. The situation adds to mounting violence in the region in recent months.
Shireen Abu Akleh was a Melkite Catholic, part of a 1.6 million member sui iuris Eastern Catholic Church with roughly 80,000 members in Israel and Palestine. But while people around the world are reading her story, few know much about the Melkite Catholic Church.
The Pillar spoke with Fr. Justin Rose, a Melkite priest, an adjunct professor of patristics at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the pastor of St. George Melkite Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Father Rose, the Melkite Church is Antiochian - its roots trace to the Christians of the city of Antioch, who were traditionally evangelized and led by St. Peter, before he went to Rome. What are the early origins of the Antiochian and Melkite Christian traditions?
The term “Melkite” didn’t apply to Antiochian Christians until the eighth century or so. Prior to that, we were all just the Church of Antioch — and there was always a missionary impulse in the Church of Antioch.
So the Antiochian influence spread in the early centuries of Christianity, and the Antiochian way of doing things was very deeply influential in the entire Church — and even, I'm not a liturgist, but, there are even elements of Antiochian liturgy in the Roman liturgy.
And so over time there developed a couple of legs of the Church of Antioch. You had what's today called the Syriac Church, which followed a more traditional Syriac style of liturgy and spirituality. And those of us who came to be identified as Melkites were kind of Antiochians folded into the Byzantine world — the Byzantine way of doing things, and Byzantine spirituality, which was essentially what the Eastern Roman Empire was doing after the fourth or fifth century.
And then with the heresy of monophysitism in the fifth century, the Coptic Church and the Syriac Church ended up kind of on the outs over their debate, and that created a strong rift within the Church of Antioch. You had Antiochian folks who were absolutely with the emperor, and adopting the Greek, the Byzantine style of worship and spirituality, and then you had those who essentially fled to Persia.
The term “Melkite” means “Kingsmen,” and it was used as a slur initially, for those Byzantine-aligned Antiochian Christians, especially in the seventh and eighth century, in the Holy Land, when the Holy Land was outside the empire - which is why it was a slur.
It was used for us specifically after we came into communion with Rome in 1724, so that the Antiochian Orthodox would not identify themselves as Melkites.
What prompted that union of 1724?
Well, that depends a lot on who you read. So under the Ottoman Empire, everyone was in a millet - a kind of religious, social, cultural, and social unit underneath the empire. So the Patriarch of Constantinople, for example, was essentially the governor of all Byzantine Christians - Antiochian, Greek, etc. And one narrative says that the Greeks were being so mean to the ethnic Arabs, even though they were all Greek Orthodox at the time, that the Greeks were taking advantage of their position with the Ottomans, and placing the Arabs at a disadvantage, which led to a split.
That is a very tidy narrative, but it doesn’t really pan out quite that neatly, things are more complicated than that.
What was actually happening was that Rome was sending missionaries after the Protestant Reformation - Franciscans and Dominicans and Jesuits to the Middle East, and under the Ottoman reign, education of clergy was very difficult - in some cases the Antiochian clergy weren’t even really preaching, because they had only really been taught how to celebrate the liturgy. And so the Middle Eastern bishops and the Antiochian patriarch welcomed these Christian missionaries because they were educated. So over the course of about a hundred years, that work continued, and then eventually we were at the point of unification.
There were trade advantages because the Catholic missionaries didn’t come by themselves. They came with Portuguese and other traders, who were doing business in the Middle East, which was beneficial to the Middle Eastern business people. There was a very heavy hand of the Ottomans, and the West was able to negotiate their way out of that.
So there were local advantages to the idea of a formal union with Rome. And the Patriarch of Antioch, Cyril VI Tanas, who was elected in 1724, was a part of that movement.
I suppose that could sound a little mercenary, but when you’re living in a society where you’re literally a second-class citizen, at best, and struggling, and every time you get your feet underneath you a new tax or something is introduced, we can understand that movement to the West.
And so Rome was hesitant about Cyril’s movement. It took five years for a union that affirmed him as Patriarch of Antioch — I mean, he wasn’t really affirmed by the Vatican until 1729.
So as a result of that history, I presume that Melkite theology and ecclesiology tends toward a more synodal approach than a Latin theological approach.
Our union with Rome means that we lose some of that autonomy that we would have had as an Orthodox Church in communion with other Churches. So on paper, at best, we’re Churches sui iuris, unless the pope says otherwise. And so our ecclesiology isn’t purely Eastern, in the sense that the role of the pope changes things.
We do have a synod of bishops, and our ecclesiology is deeply synodal, but there’s a [Latin] cardinal in the Congregation for Eastern Churches that our patriarchs - all of the Eastern Catholic patriarchs - answer to. So I guess, to what extent synodal authority is expressed in our Church depends on what’s being decided.
I know that right now in the Latin Church this whole issue of synodality is an issue, but it is an ancient tradition, and I have to wonder if Pope Francis isn’t trying to open more doors for dialogue with the Orthodox. Because the College of Cardinals is a very old institution, but it is not an ancient tradition in the way that synods of bishops, in communion with their people, are. Synodality is the ancient tradition of the Church — despite what the Germans may or may not be doing — and it’s very healthy if it’s exercised properly.
Because of the history of the Melkite Church, it seems somewhat unique among Eastern Catholic Churches because it is less tied to one particular ethnic group - unlike the Ukrainian Catholic Church, or the Ethiopian Church, for example - and more tied to this complicated political history. Is that right?
Well, yes, though it depends on who you ask. I think for most Americans, “Arab” is an ethnic identity, whereas, really, there’s a huge difference between someone from Lebanon, someone from Palestine, or from Egypt, and I think of the Eastern Catholic Churches, our makeup is the most formally cosmopolitan, because our patriarchal title reflects the Ottoman boundaries. So basically what Rome did was to give our patriarch authority over all the Byzantine Christians in the Ottoman Empire: Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and eastward.
That relates to your patrimony. Your Church has a Byzantine patrimony — in fact, St. John Chrysostom was an Antiochian Christian. But what are the elements of the uniquely Melkite spirituality and liturgical patrimony, as you see it?
I think there are distinctive Antiochian elements to the way we celebrate some of the services during Great and Holy Week — adding certain dramatic elements to some of the services. And the Greeks have started to pull in some of that stuff over time too, but they’re thoroughly Antiochian.
Beyond that, while you can identify someone like St. Isaac of Syria, who had a distinctive way of doing theology that one can identify as Syriac or Antiochian, I think today our identity would be in line with the Byzantine patrimony from the Greek perspective. You’ve got a Greek recension of Byzantium and a Slavic recension, and then folks like Romanians, Bulgarians, and Serbians, who were geographically between two worlds and kind of blend those elements. But ours is a fairly authentically Greek way of doing things.
When you talk about Byzantine liturgy, for instance, there’s kind of a spectrum of the right way of doing things, and often you’re not talking about borders but about influence.
And then there are distinctively Antiochian Fathers of the Church, and even the Cappadocian Fathers, you see in their theology a certain Antiochian influence, because they were very close geographically to Antioch.
It’s perhaps hard to tuss out beyond that. Of course, you have guys who would disagree with me and see us as essentially Roman Catholics who say Mass funny, but, the [Melkite] fathers of the Second Vatican Council, like Archbishop Joseph Zogby and Patriarch Maximos IV, were very clear to see us as an Orthodox Church in communion with Rome — our identity has long been Orthodox.
Certain images have been used to describe the place of Melkites between Rome and Orthodoxy, like “bridge” and “window.” But a bridge or a window is a passage between two real things — and so those images would suggest that the Roman Church is real and the Orthodox Church is real and would see us as this kind of utilitarian thing in between. But if you shift perspective, to see that we’re a Church, really, and truly a Church, in communion with other Churches, then yes, we have this place and this identity, to be in communion and to seek communion.
Obviously, the goal of communion with Constantinople and the Orthodox Churches is an important one, but the doctrine of Petrine primacy is a major stumbling block, no?
Well, that doctrinally is a stumbling block, yes. But practically speaking, in a more practical sense, in the Middle East today, Melkites and the Antiochian Orthodox basically get along with each other and have a kind of practical, functional communion, in certain ways.
Here, in the U.S., because the Antiochian Orthdox Church has so many Protestant converts, who have brought a kind of Protestant mindset, a Western mindset about ecclesiology of black and white, and so we experience a lot of hostility. I don’t experience hostility in a Greek Orthodox Church, in fact, I’m greeted with hugs, but when I go to an Antiochian Orthodox Church, I’m greeted more cooly.
I’m curious about the contemporary pastoral state of the Melkite Church. There are many Melkites in the Middle East, but also very large populations in Brazil and Argentina, with smaller populations in Australia, Canada, and the U.S., among other places. What are the pastoral realities and challenges of the Melkite Church today?
In places like Brazil, we have six parishes in the entire country. So the pastoral reality is about personnel. We don’t have enough boots on the ground. Here in the U.S., we are in a much better position, and our current bishop has worked really hard to secure our right to have married priests and to ordain them. And so we are in a much stronger position pastorally than if you and I had talked 10 years ago.
A lot depends upon identity— in places where the parish is a social club, to preserve a language, or a cultural identity, and the liturgy has be in Arabic — if our identity is so much tied up with the ethnic identities, then the next generation couldn’t care less, and the generation after that cares even less, and all of the sudden, there’s nobody there. If our churches are only ethnically and linguistically aligned with one place, then, yes, they die.
In our eparchy here in the U.S., the Eparchy of Newton, our bishop has been very strong that we need to use English, and that we have to be able to move in a direction where we can evangelize our kids, and where we can evangelize non-Arabs. And so we’re actually growing as a Church in the U.S.
My parish here in Birmingham is very diverse, and we use almost exclusively English. We have visitors here weekly - and not everyone stays of course, but we get a whole spectrum: people who are atheists, all the way to “I’m a Roman Catholic who is really ticked off at Pope Francis.”
And those latter folks, by the way, don’t tend to stay, because we’re not Tridentine Catholics. We might kinda look like we might be in the ballpark, but once you start to listen to our spirituality and stuff, that’s not really where we’re at. So we’ve had a lot of those folks kind of come and go.
It occurs to me, though, that Eastern Catholics might play a unique role in evangelization in the U.S. Because people who are turned off by the accidents of Latin Catholicism - the appearances, or history, or associations, would not experience those same things walking into your parish church.
This is exactly right. Our categories are different. And so a lot of the things that people are put off by, in terms of the dynamics of a parish community, or even in terms of the spirituality, and to some extent the theology — we just look at the theology from a different angle.
We joke about our parish life — you know, “If you don’t like organized religion, come hang out with us.”
Our parishes are much smaller, and we’re very family oriented, we have an emphasis on hospitality, in part because of our Middle Eastern roots.
We’re small. There are a lot of Lebanese-Americans or Palestinian-Americans in this parish, but we’ve got a ton of other people who have intermarried with them, who’ve grown up with them, and between these families, there are these interwoven connections. And a lot of folks who have joined our parish who are not ethnically aligned or family aligned really do appreciate that.
They love the fact that they’re able to be part of a community that knows their name.
We’re talking today about Melkite Catholicism because of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian Christian, whose death has enflamed tensions among Israelis and Palestinians. What role can the Melkite Church play in Israel and Palestine?
Well, I’d like to cite historically the role played by Archbishop Joseph Raya, who was pastor of this parish, St. George, in Birmingham, Alabama, during the civil rights movement, and actually marched and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King.
He was elected as Archbishop of Galilee, and in the late 1960s and early 1970, he led peaceful protests on the steps of the Knesset, and hunger strikes, actually — to fight for the rights of Palestinians, but, like Dr. King, not only for the Palestinians, but for everyone, and for a sense of everyone’s good. That was the kind of movement that Archbishop Raya put his energy into.
The Melkite parishes are still in Israel. We continue to struggle for the justice of the people there. And it’s a small Church, but we have a presence there, and we continue to have bishops who speak out against injustices, and who try to build relationships that benefit everybody.