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Antiochian Church Asks for Autonomy

Religion: But the North American primate voices doubt that the mother church in Syria will go along any time soon.

July 28, 2001|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Declaring that its church had come of age, the North American convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church voted Friday in Los Angeles to ask the mother church in Syria for autonomy.

The 721-11 vote with six abstentions at the church's General Assembly, held at the Century Plaza Hotel, came after Archbishop Philip Saliba, the church's North American primate, declared that Orthodoxy's growth and vitality are to be found in the New World.

"This is the new Antioch," he said, referring to the ancient Turkish city where the New Testament (Acts 11:26) says followers of Christ were first called Christians. "Antioch is here in North America."

While the number of Christians and their influence is diminishing in many ancient centers, the Antiochian Church has grown to 500,000 members in the United States and Canada, half of them American converts.

Started in Brooklyn in 1895 as a small Syrian mission of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Antiochian Church today has 350 priests and deacons and 235 parishes and missions.

Despite the growth, Saliba said he is not optimistic that the North American church will be granted autonomy any time soon by the Damascus-based Antiochian patriarch, the Most Blessed Ignatius IV, and his Holy Synod of metropolitan bishops.

"The reaction in Damascus I hope will be positive, but I have a feeling it's going to be negative," the Michigan-educated Saliba said in an interview.

Earlier, during his address to the General Assembly, Saliba declared, "Do not fall under the illusion that the old patriarchate [mother church] desires [Orthodox] unity in this hemisphere. . . . Unity cannot be given. It must be taken!"

He said it took the Russian Orthodox Church 140 years to win its independence as a self-governing church from the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Then, referring to his history of heart problems, the 70-year-old archbishop exhorted delegates, "If I leave you before we reach this safe harbor, I beg you to keep the torch burning and the dream [of autonomy] alive."

Under the resolution adopted Friday, delegates did not seek full independence, or what is known as autocephaly, but autonomy. That would mean, if Damascus approved, the North American Antiochian Orthodox convention could elect its auxiliary bishops and tend to its internal affairs. However, Damascus would still have the final word on who the top bishop or primate would be. The beliefs and liturgy of the church would remain unchanged.

Saliba, born in Lebanon and a naturalized U.S. citizen, sought Friday to reassure both Damascus and possible opponents in the U.S. and Canada that autonomy did not mean leaving the mother church.

Over the years, he said, the North American church had given millions of dollars to the patriarch in Damascus while also aiding orphanages, a school of theology, hospitals, Palestinian victims of the intifada, food programs, and relief for Mexico, Turkey and Iran during earthquakes.

"Some people are spreading rumors we are going to abandon our people, that we are going to separate ourselves from Antioch," Saliba said. "These are vicious rumors. We have no intention of separating from Antioch."

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