In January 1898 the Patriarch of Antioch Spyridon was forced to resign after a demand of the prelates of the throne of Antioch. His resignation brought the Church of Antioch into a very deep crisis which became known as the Antioch Question. The aspects of this question were not only ecclesiastical. Notwithstanding the fact that the parties involved mostly came from the area of the church, the rapid transformation of the issue into a political one involved non ecclesiastic authorities too. As a consequence, from 1898 until 1909 when the question was considered to be solved, the Church and the clergy of Antioch were in constant turmoil.
2. The 18th century
The course of the Church of Antioch from the first Christian years until the 19th century was adventurous and historical developments left their trace on it. The region of Syria passed from the Byzantine rule to the hands of the Arabic Muslim states and later of the Ottoman Empire, in which it was incorporated in the 16th century. During this period the Christian populations of Syria and of the wider area were substantially decreased, as a result of the islamization and warfare. After the Ottoman conquest of Syria the Church of Antioch experienced a withering course which was accelerated by the intervention of the Catholic Church in the region. In the early 18th century the Catholic missionaries in Damascus actively interfered in the quarrel between Athanasios IV and Cyril III, who were arguing over the throne of Antioch. The weakening of the Church of Antioch and the transfer of a substantial number of its members to the Unia church during this period caused the intervention of the Patriarchate of Constantinople which in 1767 christened the protosyngelos of the Great Church Daniel as a Patriarch; the former was to replace Philemon who had just passed away after spending only two months on the throne. Philemon had replaced Silvestros, former monk of the Holy Mountain, who during the long period of his duty (1724-1766) had fought harshly against the Catholic activity in Syria.
In any case, from the middle of the 18th century this informal regime was inaugurated, according to which the election of the Patriarch of Antioch took place in Constantinople. As it has been sustained, the first intervention of Constantinople occurred in a critical phase during which the prelates of the throne of Antioch could not agree on the election of a Patriarch in the same moment the Catholic propaganda strengthened its bases in Syria. Nevertheless, this unusual intervention of Constantinople soon assumed a more permanent character: all the Patriarchs of Antioch after Daniel and Spyridon were to be elected in Constantinople.
3. The Antioch Question during the 19th century
3.1. Patriarch Spyridon
In many aspects the Antioch Question is related to the act of the majority of the prelates of the Patriarchate of Antioch to choose a Patriarch from their own ranks excluding the election of “foreigners”. This issue could be of pure ecclesiastical order, if it was not directly connected with the correlations, quarrels and byzantinisms of all the ecclesiastic circles related to the quarrel, as well as with the secular, political and financial authorities. The first phase of the question is related to the acts of the prelates of the throne of Antioch aiming in forcing Spyridon to resign. The Patriarch Spyridon (1839-1921) ascended to the throne of Antioch in 1891. Spyridon, secularly known as Anastasios Euthymiou, was of Cypriot origin and belonged to the environment of the Patriarch of Jerusalem Cyril II, whom he had also escorted to Constantinople during the Church Council of 1872 when the Bulgarian exarchate was declared schismatic. Spyridon had not received any special education, since he had not attended any theological school, but he was the nephew of the metropolitan of Petra Meletios, a priest with a great property. Before his election as the Patriarch of Antioch he was the archbishop of Tabor and a patriarchal commissioner at Bethlehem. As the two previous Patriarchs, he was a member of the of Jerusalem, an ecclesiastic mechanism with a great influence on the Patriarchates of the East. When he settled in Damascus, where the seat of the Patriarchate had by then been transferred, Spyridon wanted to immediately fill the vacant Episcopal seats of the throne: from 13 metropolises 4 were vacant. The new Patriarch assigned the archimandrite Benjamin to the metropolis of Amida (Diyarbakır), the archdeacon Nektarios to the metropolis of Verroia (Aleppo) -both members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre- and his Arab-Speaking assistant Athanasios to the metropolis of Edessa (Urfa). Only the metropolis of Theodosioupolis (Erzeroum) remained vacant. After these assignments 12 out of 13 seats of the throne were filled. From the 12 prelates of the throne of Antioch, 7 were of Syrian origin (they are usually mentioned as Arabs locals) and 5 came from regions of the Ottoman dominion and Cyprus.
Spyridon’s policy, during his brief presence in the throne of Antioch, was characterized by his invitation to the Russian Orthodox Palestinian Society to expand its activity in Syria, offering them the Damascus school for girls which was founded by the Patriarch Ierotheos in 1868. We can assume that this act was made with the purpose of strengthening Orthodoxy in Syria. The Orthodox Palestinian Society was active for years in Palestine and had spent important sums of money for the creation of an Orthodox school network which was of course directed by its members. The establishment of the Society in Palestine had taken place with the consent of the Patriarch Cyril II, who was friendly disposed towards Russia, notwithstanding the reactions of members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. The same could be assumed for Spyridon himself, who was part of Cyril’s environment. The selection of the Palestinian Society as a privileged partner of Spyridon aimed in the activation of a factor with the declared intention to create an educational network which would address the Arab-speaking students who, since there were no Orthodox schools, turned towards the schools of the Western missionaries. After all, the Patriarch of Antioch, due to its difficult financial position could not sustain such an endeavour by itself, whereas in the same time a strong middle class of Orthodox merchantmen which could financially contribute towards this direction did not exist.
Notwithstanding Spyridon’s intentions his act offered access to Syria to a mechanism which the Patriarch did not control at all. The Palestinian Society did not just serve an Orthodox beneficiary organization aiming at providing education to the local Orthodox and the facilitation of the pilgrimage of Russians to the Holy Lands. It had close relations with the Russian policy and the Russian consulates in the region and in general favoured the promotion of local Arab-speaking Orthodox. Spyridon’s movement brought him in direct conflict with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, which wanted to resist to the expansion of the Russian influence in the Holy Lands considering that the existence of the Palestinian Society undermined its own existence.
The relations of Spyridon with the Russians seriously deteriorated during 1897, after some sad incidents which took place in the courtyard of the patriarchal house in Damascus (apparently due to a trivial reason) and upset the Orthodox Christians of the city. The extent of the incidents of Damascus remains uncertain; it does however appear that they caused the anger of the majority of the Orthodox against Spyridon. The Patriarch himself considered that the incidents were agitated by the Russian consul in Damascus Belayef and asked for an immediate return of the patriarchal school for girls, which he had ceded to the Palestinian Society, to his responsibility. Whether the Russian consul had indeed anything to do with the provocation of the incidents or not, something on which there are different estimations, he exerted all his influence on the local Arab-speaking Orthodox against Spyridon, in order to keep the school for girls under the responsibility of the Russian brotherhood. This confrontation was to be fatal for Spyridon’s presence on the throne, since it facilitated the actions of the other prelates of the throne against him.
Nevertheless, the result of the quarrel would not be inevitable if the crisis of 1897 had broken out in another time. Spyridon, having lost every support he had, was eventually forced to resign. The Patriarch of Jerusalem Gerasimos who supported Spyridon’s selections had died in 1896 and the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre was also hostile towards him. Furthermore, the Greek-Turkish War of 1897 had minimized the good intentions of the Porte which under other conditions could support the Patriarch of Antioch against the Russians. In the autumn of 1897 everything indicated that the Patriarch was pushed to resign. A result of this uncertainty was the mobilization of the interest of the prelates of the throne of Antioch, but also of others outside Antioch, for the election of a new Patriarch.
The first alliance formed was the one between the bishop of Arcadia, Nikodemos Zografopoulos, and the bishop of Tripolis Gregorios Haddad. The two priests agreed to support each other with the perspective of both of them ascending to the throne, fist the bishop of Arcadia and then the bishop of Tripolis. The one, however, who played the most important role in the resignation of Spyridon with the ambition to replace him, was the bishop of Tarsus of Adana Germanos Chourmouzes, who had abandoned his seat at Mersin and coordinated the actions of the prelates of the Patriarch of Antioch in order to force Spyridon to resign. These actions led Spyridon and the metropolitans which were still loyal to him, Benjamin of Edessa and Athanasios of Amida, to an intense confrontation with the rest of the prelates who demanded the resignation of the Patriarch declaring Germanos as the locus tenens of the throne. To ease the tension Spyridon left Damascus and settled to the monastery of Seidaniya but in vain. After the constant pressures he received he signed his resignation in January 1898 and left from Syria for ever.
3.2. The confrontation for a “local” or “foreign” Patriarch
Spyridon’s resignation did not solve the problem of the patriarchal throne but made it more complicated. What followed considers the confrontation around the election of a “local” or a “foreign” Patriarch. As it was already mentioned, from the middle of the 18th century a practice was established according to which the Patriarchs of Antioch were elected from Constantinople. After Spyridon’s resignation this practice was directly questioned by the majority of the prelates which demanded the election of a new Patriarch to be made from a list in which only metropolitans of the throne of Antioch would be included. It is uncertain whether this demand had ever been presented before. Most probably, however, it was materialized in the uncertain climate of the crisis which followed Spyridon’s resignation and lasted until May 1898 when the list of candidates was deposited to the vali of Damascus, in which only names of metropolitans of the throne of Antioch appeared.
This move led the question of Antioch to its new phase. The established front of the metropolitans was divided and alliances were disturbed. The locus tenens of the throne Germanos disagreed with this selection and the metropolitans of Aleppo Nikodemos, of Edessa Benjamin, as well as the titular of the bishopric of Eirenoupolis Serapheim joined him. The other metropolitans insisted in the election of a Patriarch from the ranks of the throne of Antioch. The majority chose as the new locus tenens of the throne Meletios of Laodikeia whereas the minority would send constant referendums to the other Patriarchates and the Porte demanding the reestablishment of “order”. In February 1899 the majority organized a new council in order to elect a Patriarch; the minority refused to participate. In this council the locus tenens Meletios Dumani was elected as the new Patriarch of Antioch after a second vote. The election was initially not accepted by the Porte which asked the vali of Damascus to take measures against the majority. However, with the active intervention of the Russian embassy in Constantinople the Ottoman government changed its orientation and accepted the election notwithstanding the reaction of the Patriarch of Constantinople Constantine V.
Meletios was enthroned in Damascus in a great ceremony in October 1899 but the reaction of the four metropolitans did not cease. With the support of the Patriarchates these metropolitans settled in Constantinople and continued working for the cancellation of Meletios’ election. The rest of the churches with the Patriarchate of Constantinople leading them did not recognize Meletios considering his election as non canonical. Only the church of Russia recognized the new Patriarch with an official act shortly after his election causing many reactions.
3.3. The nationalistic dimension of the quarrel
In the years which followed and until the final solution of the Antioch question in 1909, the quarrel over Meletios’ election was intensified. The transformation of the question into a political one soon surpassed the closed environment of the enmities of Antioch and was directly connected to nationalistic confrontations and claims of san international character. The Russian side firmly continued supporting the policy it had followed in Syria. The Ottoman government after the validation of Meletios’ election did not seem disposed to once again interfere in this case. On its side the Patriarchate of Constantinople differentiated its position, mainly after Joachim III rose to the throne, looking for a solution which would please everyone. This was not the case, however, for the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre and the new Patriarch of Jerusalem Photios V, neither for certain other ecclesiastic circles which claimed part of the control over the issues of Antioch. These circles organized a great campaign of information concerning the Antioch question, with the publication of articles, leaflets and books where the ecclesiastic as well as the political nature of the problem were presented. The interpretations suggested by this literature underline the “conquest of the Greek church” by the “Arabs” and consequently present the confrontation under national terms. The four metropolitans of the minority are mentioned as Greek defenders of the legitimate order whereas the seven metropolitans as Arab violators of the church tradition. The same happens in the other side which reversed this argument suggesting that the election of Meletios who was local marked the end of the “Greek influence” in Antioch. This view was strongly supported by the Russian side too, which underlined the “national” differences between the Orthodox Christians to support its presence in Syria.
The language which was used during the confrontation in Antioch had direct national meanings and took ideas from the political vocabulary of the ecclesiastic and secular quarrel which had marked the Bulgarian question. During a period in which the social function of religion retreated fast, the ecclesiastic vocabulary was no longer adequate for someone to address a literate audience which increasingly understood the conditions of its existence in national terms. After Spyridon’s resignation, the minority of the metropolitans accused the majority for “tribalism”, in order to revoke the argument that the “locals” had no right to elect a Patriarch of their will. Meanwhile, the metropolitans of the minority and their supporters refused that they were “Greeks in the race” and related this attribute with the defense of the church order. The other side avoided the accusation of tribalism and accused the minority for “nationalism”, i.e. for a deviation of the tradition of Orthodoxy which dictates the administration of the local church by the locals themselves. In this climate the history of the Church of Antioch became clearly political. The side of the “Greeks” sustained that Orthodoxy in Syria was endangered by Papacy and Unia due to the incapability of the “Arab” Patriarchs and that it was saved only after the placing in the head of the church of “Greek” Patriarchs, starting with Silvestros. The side of the “Arabs” objected by stating that the period of the “Greek” Patriarchs represented obscurantism and the tyranny of the locals by foreigners and that Meletios’ election ended this situation.
The nationalistic aspect of the quarrel over the throne of Antioch was promoted with emphasis during these years, as well as the ones which followed. It was also suggested that Meletios’ election was the first conscious act of the Arab nationalism and of the Arabs’ national renaissance. However, although this dimension cannot be underestimated, there are questions concerning the extent in which the manifestation of the crisis of Antioch and the demand for Spyridon’s resignation can be interpreted in this way. It should be remembered that the moves of the prelates of the throne were mostly caused by personal motives and ambitions rather than ideological or political differentiations and also that the scenery of the first phase of the Antioch question was particularly clear. The metropolitan Germanos who was the leading man behind Spyridon’s resignation came from Patmos. Nektarios of Aleppo from the beginning kept a conciliatory stance and along with the metropolitan of Seleuceia Gerasimos tried to prevent the resignation. Benjamin of Amida and Athanasios of Edessa initially supported Spyridon but changed side after his resignation. Nikodemos of Arcadia who thoroughly supported Meletios came from Chrysoupolis of the Bosporus. From the local prelates the only one for whom there exist references for an “anti-Greek menace” was Athanasios of Emesa. Consequently it would be an exaggeration to consider that the two confronting groups of priests were coherent from the beginning. On the contrary, it would be reasonable for someone to consider that the tension and time extent of the problem finally placed it in a framework of wider nationalistic quarrels. The nationalistic dimension assimilated the Antioch question afterwards and into a changing scenery where the personal ambitions and political intrigues were inseparable.
The nationalistic aspect of the problem was strengthened in the degree in which the communities of the seculars which took the part of one party or the other were intervened. In Damascus the Orthodox community sided up with the majority of the metropolitans of the throne, as most of the Arab-speaking communities of Syria. In contrast, in Cilicia the communities of Mersina, Adana and Tarsus, Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking in their majority, took the part of the minority and refused to accept the new Patriarch and the new metropolitan of Tarsus-Adana, as well as the patriarchal exarch who was sent to solve the issue. The communities of the sanjak of Adana refused to accept the new situation even after the official reestablishment of the relations of Antioch and Constantinople in 1909. Notwithstanding the official solution of the Antioch question the metropolitan issue in the province of Adana remained unsolved.
Such was the tension of the reaction of the three communities that in 1910 they asked to be annexed from the Patriarchate of Antioch and to become part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, a petition which was rejected by Joachim III. Meanwhile, however, the Greek embassy in Constantinople adopted a plan of the archimandrite Karapatakes (member of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre), for the appointment of “Greek in nationality” prelates in the three empty seats of the Patriarchate of Antioch (Tarsus-Adana, Theodosioupolis and Aleppo) in order to return Antioch in “Greek hands”. However, this bold plan, which in case of success would be a supportive move for the preservation of the control over the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, came as an epilogue of the Antioch question. The enthronement of Gregorios Haddad as the Patriarch of Antioch after Meletios’ death, in February 1906, established the practice of the election of new Patriarchs from the prelates of the throne. The Organic law of the Patriarch of Antioch which was compiled in 1900 and published in 1906, clearly regulated that the candidates, as well as the electors should belong exclusively to the ranks of the throne of Antioch.