Death of a patriarch: end of an era, fears for the future

By Harry Hagopian
December 9, 2012

As reported on Ekklesia ( yesterday, Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch & All the East passed away as a result of a stroke at St George’s hospital in Lebanon on 5 December 2012 at the age of 92.

His funeral was held at noon on Sunday at Saint Nicholas’ Cathedral in the Ashrafiyeh district of Beirut and was attended by a number of politicians, including President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Miqati. The Lebanese President also inducted the late patriarch into the National Order of the Cedar.

His corpse has now been transferred to the Mariamite Cathedral in Damascus where it will be on display until Monday afternoon when it will be buried in the cathedral's graveyard.

Born in 1921 in Mhardeh in Syria's Hama province, the late patriarch graduated with a double degree in mathematics and philosophy from the American University of Beirut in 1945, and went on to study liturgy in France in 1949. He was consecrated as a bishop in 1962, and eventually became the 157th patriarch of Antioch on 2 July 1979.

I came to know the late patriarch during the 1980’s when he was one of the four co-presidents of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) in Beirut at the very time that I was the Assistant General Secretary under the leadership of Gabriel Habib. I remember him vividly as a clear thinker who was deeply steeped not only in the ecumenical movement but also in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

I was a young man at the time but I still recall with some amusement how my colleagues and I often referred to the late patriarch’s academic training as a philosopher since we occasionally had difficulty understanding his speeches at the various MECC assemblies or at other ecumenical conferences.

The late patriarch was also an astute politician who had mastered the art of survival in a Middle East riddled with tensions and contradictions - first during the long Lebanese civil war, followed by the two wars in Iraq and more recently with the bloody uprisings in Syria. He managed to co-exist with the Syrian regime (where the majority of his faithful are found) but the last two years were quite hard for him too as he had to cope with the fractures within the loyalties of the Christian communities as a result of the Syria conflict.

A thoughtful piece that lifts up the qualities of the late patriarch was published yesterday in the Lebanese As-Safir daily newspaper. Written by Michel Kilo, a Syrian Christian human rights activist who is also described as one of Syria's leading opposition thinkers, Kilo came to know the patriarch well over many years - both before and after his imprisonment by the Assad regime. In the article, he commends the late patriarch’s openness to other peoples’ views.

The choice of a successor to the late patriarch will be decided by the Synod of the Church in due course. But I fear it will be a very hard choice given the Hobbesian times that the whole Middle East North Africa (MENA) region is undergoing today. After all, there are many pitfalls and dangers that lie ahead for all communities - including Christians.


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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