Melkite Greek Catholic Church

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church (Arabic: كنيسة الروم الملكيين الكاثوليك, Kanīsat ar-Rūm al-Malakiyyīn al-Kāṯūlīk) is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See as part of the worldwide Catholic Church. It is headed by Patriarch Youssef Absi, S.M.S.P., headquartered in Cathedral of Our Lady of the Dormition, Damascus, Syria. The Melkites, Byzantine Rite Catholics, trace their history to the early Christians of Antioch, formerly part of Syria and now in Turkey, of the 1st century AD, where Christianity was introduced by Saint Peter.[4]

Melkite Greek Catholic Church
كنيسة الروم الملكيين الكاثوليك (in Arabic)
ClassificationEastern Catholic
PrimatePatriarch Youssef Absi
First autocephalous
Cyril VI Tanas
RegionEgypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, France, Mexico, United States, Venezuela and Sweden
LanguageArabic, Greek
Diaspora: French, English, Portuguese, Spanish
LiturgyByzantine Rite
HeadquartersCathedral of Our Lady of the Dormition, Damascus, Syria
FounderApostles Peter and Paul, by Melkite tradition
Origin1724, with tradition tracing its origin to the 1st-century Church of Antioch[2]
Branched fromChurch of Antioch[2]
Other name(s)Melkite Church
Melkite Greek Church
Melkite Catholic Church
Roum Catholic

The Melkite Church is related to the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. It is mainly centered in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.[5] Melkite Greek Catholics are present, however, throughout the world by migration due to persecution. Outside the Near East, the Melkite Church has also grown through intermarriage with, and the conversion of, people of various ethnic heritages as well as transritualism. At present there is a worldwide membership of approximately 1.6 million.[3][6] While the Melkite Catholic Church's Byzantine rite liturgical traditions are shared with those of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Church has been part of the Catholic Church since the affirmation of its union with the Holy See of Rome in 1724.[7]


Melkite, from the Syriac word malkā for "King" and the Arabic word Malakī (Arabic: ملكي, meaning "royal", and by extension, "imperial"),[8] was originally a pejorative term for Middle Eastern Christians who accepted the authority of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the Byzantine Emperor, a term applied to them by non-Chalcedonians.[8] Of the Chalcedonian churches, Greek Catholics continue to use the term, while Eastern Orthodox do not.

The Greek element signifies the Byzantine Rite heritage of the church, the liturgy used by all the Eastern Orthodox Churches.[9]

The term Catholic acknowledges communion with the Church of Rome and implies participation in the universal Christian church. According to Church tradition, the Melkite Church of Antioch is the "oldest continuous Christian community in the world".[10]

In Arabic, the official language of the church,[5] it is called ar-Rūm al-Kathūlīk (Arabic: الروم الكاثوليك). The Arabic word "Rūm" means Roman, from the Greek word "Romaioi" by which the Greek-speaking Eastern (called "Byzantine" in modern parlance) Romans had continued to identify themselves even when the Roman empire had ceased to exist elsewhere. The name literally means "Roman Catholic", confusingly for the modern English-speaker, but this does not refer to the Latin-speaking Western Catholic Church of Rome but rather to the Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox "Byzantine" Roman heritage, the centre of gravity of which was the city of "New Rome" (Latin: Nova Roma, Greek: Νέα Ρώμη), i.e. Constantinople.


The origins of the Melkite Catholic Church go back to the establishment of Christianity in the Near East.[11] As Christianity began to spread, the disciples preached the Gospel throughout the region and were for the first time recorded to be called "Christians" in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26), the historical See of the Melkite Catholic Patriarchate.[12] Scholars attribute the actual writing of the gospels in Koine Greek to the Hellenized Christian population of Antioch, with authors such as St. Luke and others. By the 2nd century, Christianity was widespread in Antioch and throughout Syria. Growth of the church did not stop during periods of persecution, and by the end of the 4th century Christianity became the official state religion.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church traces its origins to the Christian communities of the Levant and Egypt. The church's leadership was vested in the three Apostolic Patriarchates of the ancient patriarchates: Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The church's history and relation to other churches may be summarised in four defining moments.

Fallout of the Fourth Ecumenical Council

The first defining moment was the socio-political fallout in the wake of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in AD 451. Fifth-century Middle-Eastern Christian society became sharply divided between those who did and those who did not accept the outcome of the council. Those who accepted the decrees of the council, the Chalcedonians, were mainly Greek-speaking city-dwellers, and were called Melkites (imperials) by the anti-Chalcedonians.[13] These latter were predominantly Armenian or Coptic-speaking provincials.

Fusion with Arabic Language and Culture

The second defining moment is more correctly a period of change. The Battle of Yarmuk (636) took the Melkite homeland out of Byzantine control and placed it under the occupation of the Arab invaders.[14] Whereas the Greek language and culture remained important, especially for the Melkites of Jerusalem, Antiochene Melkite tradition merged with the Arabic language and culture. Indeed, there was Arabic Christian poetry before the arrival of Islam, but the Antiochene blending with Arabic culture led to a degree of distancing from the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Despite the Arab invasion, the Melkites continued to exercise an important role in the Universal Church. The Melkites played a leading role in condemning the iconoclast controversy when it re-appeared in the early 9th century, and were among the first of the Eastern churches to respond to the introduction of the filioque clause in the West.[15]

Communion with the Roman Catholic Church

The third defining moment were the Councils of Reunion in which that part of the Church of Antioch which had elected Cyril VI in 1724 was recognized as the legitimate Patriarch by the Pope in 1729. In 1054, Patriarch Michael I Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida excommunicated each other thus formalizing a schism that was developing for many years. The Melkite Patriarch Peter III of Antioch rejected the quarrel of the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople meaning that the See of Antioch was in union with both until 1729. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I "consigned these excommunications to oblivion" (at the time the Papal envoys placed the bull of excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia the Pope who had issued it was already dead so it was invalid).

However, during the Crusades the Crusaders introduced Latin prelates into the apostolic sees of the East, and the Fourth Crusade saw the sack of the great city of Constantinople and its domination by the Crusaders for fifty-seven years. These developments brought the East-West quarrel home to everyone but there was no declaration of schism. Since there had never been any formal division from the East–West Schism these 'converts' of the Latin missionaries simply became a pro-Western, pro-Catholic party within Eastern Orthodoxy. Throughout the 17th century Jesuits, Capuchins and Carmelites established missions with the consent of the local Orthodox bishops in the Ottoman Empire. The Dominicans had been in Iraq since the 14th century.

At the Council of Florence (1439) the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Emperor accepted union with the West hoping for aid to save Constantinople from Islam. Neither of these unions lasted, nor was any significant aid forthcoming from the warring kingdoms of a soon to be torn-apart Europe.

From 1342, Roman Catholic friars opened missions in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Damascus and their teaching had important influence over the Melkite clergy and people. Yet, in the Melkite tradition it was the Jesuits, founded only in 1534, who were really decisive in the formation of the Catholic party in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. The Jesuits were not friars but something like the highly educated priests of the Patriarchal Chancery, which made them more acceptable.

Election of Cyril VI

The fourth defining moment was the election of Cyril VI Tanas, in 1724, by the Melkite bishops of Syria as the new Patriarch of Antioch. As Cyril was considered to be pro-Western, the Patriarch Jeremias III of Constantinople feared that his authority would be compromised. Therefore, Jeremias declared Cyril's election to be invalid, excommunicated him, and ordained the deacon Sylvester of Antioch, a Greek monk, a priest and bishop, then appointed him to the patriarchal See of Antioch.[7]

Sylvester exacerbated divisions with his heavy-handed rule of the church as many Melkites acknowledged Cyril's claim to the patriarchal throne. It was obvious to all that Cyril had been legitimately elected and consecrated, and that Jeremias had attempted to remove him only to bolster his own authority over the Antiochian Patriarchate. (This Greek domination over the Byzantine Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch lasted until 1899.) Jeremias and Sylvester began a five-year campaign of persecution against Cyril and the Melkite faithful who supported him, enforced by Ottoman Turkish troops.

Five years after the election of Cyril VI, in 1729, Pope Benedict XIII recognized him as the legitimate Patriarch of Antioch and recognized his followers as being in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.[16] From this time onwards, the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church has existed separately from and in parallel to the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in Western Asia; the latter is no longer referred to as Melkite.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church has played an important role in the leadership of Arabic Christianity. It has always been led by Arabic-speaking Christians, whereas its Orthodox counterpart had Greek patriarchs until 1899. Indeed, at the very beginning of her separate existence, around 1725, one of her most illustrious lay leaders, the savant and theologian Abdallah Zakher of Aleppo (1684–1748) set up the first printing press in the Arab world. In 1835, Maximos III Mazloum, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, was recognized by the Ottoman Empire as the leader of a millet, a distinctive religious community within the Empire. Pope Gregory XVI gave Maximos III Mazloum the triple-patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, a title that is still held by the leader of the Melkite Catholic Church.

Expansion and participation at the First Vatican Council

In 1847, Pope Pius IX (1846–1878) reinstituted the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the person of the young, 34-year-old, zealous Giuseppe Valerga (1813–1872), whom the indigenous hierarchy nicknamed "The Butcher" because of his fierce opposition to the Eastern Orthodox churches of the Holy Land. When he arrived in Jerusalem in 1847, there were 4,200 Latin Catholics and when he died in 1872, the number had doubled.

Under pressure from the Roman curia to adopt Latin Church practices, Patriarch Clement Bahouth introduced the Gregorian calendar used by the Latin and Maronite Churches in 1857; that act caused serious problems within the Melkite church, resulting in a short-lived schism.[17] Conflicts in the Melkite church escalated to the point where Clement abdicated his position as patriarch.

Clement's successor, Patriarch Gregory II Youssef (1864–1897), worked to restore peace within the community, successfully healing the lingering schism. He also focused on improving church institutions. During his reign Gregory founded both the Patriarchal College in Beirut in 1865 and the Patriarchal College in Damascus in 1875 and re-opened the Melkite seminary of Ain Traz in 1866.[17][18] He also promoted the establishment of Saint Ann's Seminary, Jerusalem, in 1882 by the White Fathers for the training of the Melkite clergy.[19]

Following the Hatt-ı Hümayun of 1856, decreed by Sultan Abdülmecid I, the situation of Christians in the Near East improved. This allowed Gregory to successfully encourage greater participation by the Melkite laity in both church administration as well as public affairs.[17] Gregory also took an interest in ministering to the growing number of Melkites who had emigrated to the Americas. In 1889 he dispatched Father Ibrahim Beshawate of the Basilian Salvatorian Order in Saida, Lebanon, to New York in order to minister to the growing Syrian community there. According to historian Philip Hitte, Beshawate was the first permanent priest in the United States from the Near East from among the Melkite, Maronite, and Antiochian Orthodox churches.[20]

Gregory was also a prominent proponent of Eastern ecclesiology at the First Vatican Council. In the two discourses he gave at the Council on May 19 and June 14, 1870, he insisted on the importance of conforming to the decisions of the Council of Florence, of not creating innovations such as papal infallibility, but accepting what had been decided by common agreement between the Greeks and the Latins at the Council of Florence, especially with regard to the issue of papal primacy.[21] He was keenly aware of the disastrous impact that the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility would have on relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church and emerged as a prominent opponent of the dogma at the Council.[22] He also defended the rights and privileges of the patriarchs according to the canons promulgated by earlier ecumenical councils. Speaking at the Council on May 19, 1870, Patriarch Gregory asserted:

The Eastern Church attributes to the pope the most complete and highest power, however in a manner where the fullness and primacy are in harmony with the rights of the patriarchal sees. This is why, in virtue of an ancient right founded on customs, the Roman Pontiffs did not, except in very significant cases, exercise over these sees the ordinary and immediate jurisdiction that we are asked now to define without any exception. This definition would completely destroy the constitution of the entire Greek church. That is why my conscience as a pastor refuses to accept this constitution.[23]

Patriarch Gregory refused to sign the Council's dogmatic declaration on papal infallibility. He and the seven other Melkite bishops present voted non placet at the general congregation and left Rome prior to the adoption of the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus on papal infallibility.[24] Other members of the anti-infallibilist minority, both from the Latin church and from other Eastern Catholic churches, also left the city.[24]

After the First Vatican Council concluded an emissary of the Roman Curia was dispatched to secure the signatures of the patriarch and the Melkite delegation. Patriarch Gregory and the Melkite bishops subscribed to it, but with the qualifying clause as used at the Council of Florence attached: "except the rights and privileges of Eastern patriarchs.".[22][25] He earned the enmity of Pius IX for this; during his next visit to the pontiff Gregory was cast to the floor at Pius' feet by the papal guard while the pope placed his foot on the patriarch's head.[26] Despite this, Patriarch Gregory and the Melkite Catholic Church remained committed to their union with the Church of Rome. Relationships with the Vatican improved following the death of Pius IX and the subsequent election of Leo XIII as pontiff. Leo's encyclical Orientalium dignitas addressed some of the Eastern Catholic Churches' concerns on latinization and the centralizing tendencies of Rome.[27] Leo also confirmed that the limitations placed on the Armenian Catholic patriarch by Pius IX's 1867 letter Reversurus would not apply to the Melkite Church; further, Leo formally recognized an expansion of Patriarch Gregory's jurisdiction to include all Melkites throughout the Ottoman Empire.[27]

Vatican II conflicts over Latin and Melkite traditions

Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh took part in the Second Vatican Council where he championed the Eastern tradition of Christianity, and won a great deal of respect from Orthodox observers at the council as well as the approbation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I.

Following the Second Vatican Council the Melkites moved to restoring traditional worship. This involved both the restoration of Melkite practices such as administering the Eucharist to infants following post-baptismal chrismation as well as removal of Latin-rite elements such as communion rails and confessionals. In the pre-conciliar days, the leaders of this trend were members of "The Cairo Circle", a group of young priests centered on the Patriarchal College in Cairo. This group included Fathers George Selim Hakim, Joseph Tawil, Elias Zoghby, and former Jesuit Oreste Kerame; they later became bishops and participated in the Second Vatican Council, and saw their efforts vindicated.

These reforms led to protests by some Melkite churches that the de-latinisation had gone too far. During the Patriarchate of Maximos IV (Sayegh), some Melkites in the United States objected to the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, a movement that was spearheaded by the future archbishop of Nazareth, Father Joseph Raya of Birmingham, Alabama. The issue garnered national news coverage after Bishop Fulton Sheen celebrated a Pontifical Divine Liturgy in English at the Melkite National convention in Birmingham in 1958, parts of which were televised on the national news.


In 1960, the issue was resolved by Pope John XXIII at the request of Patriarch Maximos IV in favour of the use of vernacular languages in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Pope John also consecrated a Melkite priest, Father Gabriel Acacius Coussa, as a bishop, using the Byzantine Rite and the papal tiara as a crown. Bishop Coussa was almost immediately elevated to the cardinalate, but died two years later. His cause for canonization was introduced by his religious order, the Basilian Alepian Order.

Further protests against the de-latinisation of the church occurred during the patriarchate of Maximos V Hakim (1967–2000) when some church officials who supported Latin traditions protested against allowing the ordination of married men as priests. Today the church sees itself as an authentic Orthodox church in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. As such it has a role as a voice of the East within the western church, a bridge between faiths and peoples.[28]

Attempts to unite the Melkite diaspora

Due to heavy emigration from the Eastern Mediterranean, which began with the Damascus massacres of 1860 in which most of the Christian communities were attacked, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church today is found throughout the world and no longer made up exclusively of faithful of Eastern Mediterranean origin.

The Patriarchate of Maximos V saw many advances in the worldwide presence of the Melkite Church, called "the Diaspora": Eparchies (the Eastern equivalent of a diocese) were established in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Argentina and Mexico in response to the continued emptying of the Eastern Mediterranean of her native Christian peoples. Some historians state that after the revolution in Egypt in 1952, many Melkites left Egypt due to the renewed Islamic, nativist and socialist policies of the Nasser regime. In 1950, the richest Melkite community in the world was in Egypt. In 1945 the most populous single diocese was Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee.

In 1967, a native Egyptian of Syrian-Aleppin descent, George Selim Hakim, was elected the successor of Maximos IV, and took the name Maximos V. He was to reign until he retired at the age of 92 in the Jubilee Year of 2000. He reposed on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 2001. He was succeeded by Archbishop Lutfi Laham, who took the name Gregory III.


The Melkite Catholic Church is in full communion with the Holy See (the Latin Catholic Pope of Rome and his Roman Congregation for the Eastern Churches), where the Patriarch is represented by his Procurator at Rome, but fully follows the traditions and customs of Byzantine Christianity.[29] The traditional languages of worship are Arabic and Greek, but today, services are held in a variety of languages, depending on the country where the church is located.

The Melkite Synod of Bishops, composed of all of the Church's bishops, meets each year to consider administrative, theological and Church-wide issues.[30]


The current Patriarch is Joseph Absi who was elected on 21 June 2017.[31] The patriarchate is based in the Syrian capital Damascus, but it formally remains one of the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs claiming the apostolic succession to the Ancient see of Antioch, and has been permanently granted the styles of Titular Patriarch of Alexandria and Jerusalem, two other patriarchates with multiple Catholic succession.

The patriarchate is administered by a permanent synod, which includes the Patriarch and four bishops, the ordinary tribunal of the patriarch for legal affairs, the patriarchal economos who serves as financial administrator, and a chancery.[30]

Current (Arch)Dioceses and similar jurisdictions

In the Arab World and Africa, the church has dioceses in :

Throughout the rest of the world, the Melkite Catholic church has dioceses and exachates for its diaspora in :

Furthermore, one of the Ordinaries is appointed Apostolic visitor for the countres without proper ordiariate in Western Europe, while in some countries the Melkite diaspora is served pastorally by Ordinariates for all the Byzantine Rites or – for all Eastern Catholics.

Titular sees

Religious institutes (regular orders)


There are also several patriarchal organizations with offices and chapters throughout the world, including:

  • the Global Melkite Association, a group which networks eparchies, monasteries, schools and Melkite associations
  • Friends of The Holy Land, a lay charitable organization active in the diaspora which provides clothing, medicine and liturgical items for churches and communities in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine, Jordan), Lebanon, Egypt and Syria.

Ecclesiastical decorations


See also


  • Descy, Serge (1993). The Melkite Church. Boston: Sophia Press.
  • Dick, Ignatios (2004). Melkites: Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics of the Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. Boston: Sophia Press.
  • Faulk, Edward (2007). 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches. New York: Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0-8091-4441-9.
  • Parry, Ken; David Melling, eds. (1999). The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Malden, Massachusetts.: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23203-6.
  • Raya, Joseph (1992). Byzantine Church and Culture. Allentown, New Jersey: Alleluia Press. ISBN 0-911726-54-3.
  • Roccasalvo, Joan L. (1992). The Eastern Catholic Churches: An Introduction To Their Worship and Spirituality. Collegeville, Minnesota.: The Liturgical Press. ISBN 0-8146-2047-7.
  • Tawil, Joseph (2001). The Patriarchate of Antioch Throughout History: An Introduction. Boston: Sophia Press.
  • Zoghby, Elias (1998). Ecumenical Reflections. Fairfax, Virginia.: Eastern Christian Publications. ISBN 1-892278-06-5.



    1. The Search For Sacred Quietude (
    2.  Francis James Schaefer (1913). "Church of Antioch" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
    3. Roberson, Ronald G. "The Eastern Catholic Churches 2017" (PDF). CNEWA. Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Retrieved 2019-05-19. Information sourced from Annuario Pontificio 2017 edition
    4. "» The Melkites".
    5. "Church History". Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate. Archived from the original on 2007-03-05.
    6. Faulk (2007), pp. 9-10
    7. Parry, (1999), p. 312
    8. Dick (2004), p. 9
    9. Faulk (2007), p. 5.
    10. Martha Liles. "Unofficial History of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church".
    11. Tawil (2001), pp. 1-3
    12. Dick (2004), pp. 13-15
    13. Tawil (2001), p. 21
    14. Dick (2004), p. 21
    15. Dick (2004, p. 21
    16.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Melchites" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
    17. Dick (2004), p. 38
    18. Graham, James (2003-08-24). "History of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church". Melkite Greek Catholic Church Information Center. Retrieved 2008-12-24.
    19. Raheb, Abdallah. "Patriarcat grec-melkite catholique d'Antioche. Naissance, évolution et orientations actuelles". Ekklesiastikos Pharos. 52 (s.II, III): 47–72.
    20. Faraj, John. "History of the Melkite Community of New York". The Church of The Virgin Mary Melkite Catholic Church. Archived from the original on 2008-09-08. Retrieved 2008-12-24.
    21. Dick (2004), pp. 109-111
    22. Parry (1999), p. 313
    23. Dick (2004), p. 110. Dick notes that his source is C. Patelos, Vatican 1st et les eveques uniates, Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1981, 482-283
    24. Descy (1993), p. 64
    25. Zoghby (1998), p.83
    26. Parry (1999), p. 313. See also the account given by Zoghby (1998), p. 83
    27. Dick (2004), p. 39
    28. Joffe, Lawrence (July 28, 2001). "Obituaries: Maximos V: Spiritual leader of a million Christians". The Guardian (London). p. 22.
    29. Faulk (2007), pp. 5-7
    30. The Melkite Handbook (2008), p. 12
    31. "Joseph Absi elected patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church | News , Lebanon News | THE DAILY STAR".
    32. "The Order of St. Nicholas".
    33. "Short History of the Order of St Lazarus". 2003-04-17. Retrieved 2018-08-25.
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