No one under 50 can remember the last enthronement of a North American leader of the Antiochian Orthodox, a church with ancient roots in the Arab lands in and around Syria.
But they’ll experience it today in Brooklyn in a service that will formalize the election earlier this year of Archbishop Joseph Al-Zehlaoui as the new metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
“This event means to us a lot — joy for the faithful in America and the homeland,” Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, who arrived from Syria earlier this week to preside at the ceremony, said by phone. “We are one family.”
Even amid the full pomp and splendor of Orthodox liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Brooklyn, worshipers will be keeping in mind their counterparts in and around Syria, where Christians and other religious minorities have been targeted by the self-style Islamic State and other extremist militants.
“It’s not so easy, but … despite all these difficulties and tragedies, we still hope,” said Patriarch John, whose brother, also a bishop, was kidnapped with another bishop near Aleppo, Syria, almost two years ago. Both remaining missing. “We are people of the resurrection, not people of death. And our life is not finally in this earth.”
The Antiochian Orthodox have 266 parishes and missions in North America, with an especially strong presence in Pennsylvania due to the historic Arab Christian immigration here. St. George Cathedral in Oakland is the center of a diocese spanning five states. Antiochian Village, a summer camp and conference center in Westmoreland County, has become a regional hub of church activity.
Metropolitan Joseph is “a very pious man who places great value in the youth of the church,” said the Rev. Anthony Yazge, camp director at Antiochian Village, who is one of about half a dozen Pittsburgh-area priests headed to the enthronement. “He’s not a person who’s going to take the easy way. He’s going to take the right way.”
Metropolitan Joseph was elected earlier this year to succeed Metropolitan Philip Saliba, who died at age 82 in March after a 48-year tenure in which he expanded the church’s appeal to converts and other Orthodox beyond his fellow Arab-Americans. The denomination reports having about 100,000 members and more than 400 clergy.
Metropolitan Joseph, 64, was born and raised in Syria, where he began his ministry before working as a priest in Europe and later America.
In 1991, he began a tenure as bishop and later archbishop of Los Angeles. He was one of three nominees to replace Metropolitan Philip and elected by a synod in Syria earlier this year.
The enthronement is “not for me only,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a blessing to the entire archdiocese and the entire Orthodox world.”
He plans to continue his predecessor’s outreaches beyond the ethnic Arab community, continuing an emphasis on young people that has always marked his ministry.
“The problem is, whether within the archdiocese or any other jurisdiction, we are losing the new generation because we don’t have much for them,” he said. He said it’s important to meet with and listen to young people regularly.
He expects to be a regular visitor at Antiochian Village and elsewhere.
“I have a fancy office here (in New York), but you will not find me in the office most of the time,” he said. “I will be on the road.”
He said he’s on equal footing with the newest of converts.
“Even though I was born in the faith, I have to convert to the faith daily by practicing the faith and doing virtuous and Christian actions.”
Echoing the patriarch’s concerns for Syria, he said cousins have died and a young great-nephew was badly wounded in the fighting in his native land.
“Christians and Muslims lived side by side for all those years,” he said. Now various factions are “destroying Christianity,” he said. “We are between this and that.”
Patriarch John said he has no word on the whereabouts of his brother, Bishop Boulos Yazigi, or fellow Bishop Youhanna Ibrahim following their kidnapping in April 2013 near Aleppo. The relatively sparse news reports on them have given different accounts of which Islamic extremist group may be holding them.
Patriach John lamented how little attention their plight has received in news or diplomatic circles.
“We see an international silence about this matter, which is a shame for all the world when we speak about the democracy and human rights.”
Peter Smith: email@example.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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