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The Oriental Family of Churches and "The Society of Saint Thomas" - Morten Møbjerg

When we talk about church-families, we divide the world in a Western and an Eastern part - taking together the Roman Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation as the Western Church and the different Orthodox Churches as the Eastern Church.

In doing so, we disregard the existence of a third great and venerable church-family - the Semitic or Syrian Churches. Antioch, the starting point for the spreading of Christianity to the West - to Asia Minor, Greece, Rome and further on to the rest of Europe. But Antioch is more than that. The town was also the starting point for the spreading of Christianity to the East - as far as to China and South India. In that part of the church the language was not Greek - as in Antioch - but Aramaic (or Syrian) - the mother tongue of our Lord Jesus. This church, whose language was Aramaic, was very skeptic about the Greek culture and had it's connections with Jerusalem and the Semitic world, which very much influenced its liturgy and spiritual practice.

The cultural and political differences were complicated by the Christological conflict in the 5th century .The later socalled Nestorians - or East Syrians - underlined the two natures in Christ very strongly. The other part - the so-called Monophysites - or West Syrians - underlined the unit y between the two natures. The main body of the church in the Roman-Greek empire "solved" the problems and balanced the two views - and excommunicated both the West and the East Syrians. And a real "Iron curtain" was established, lasting nearly 1500 years, between the Roman and Orthodox churches to the West of Antioch and the Syrian churches to the East of Antioch. They were forgotten about, and only recently the contacts were renewed.

It was not a tiny church at all which developed East of Antioch. About the year of 1200, the East Syrian church alone had 27 archbishoprics with 230 dioceses and millions of believers scattered from the Euphrat in the West to Peking in the East and to the uttermost South of India. The spreading of the Syrian church from 5001200 has been called the biggest mission enterprise in history. Who, today, knows that Syrian monks were the first to bring the Gospel to China, and to India, and to translate the New Testament into Chinese as early as about the year of 600?

The rather peaceful life during first Persian and later Arab domination came to a sudden end, when the Mongolian invasion within a few decades nearly destroyed the church, not only in Asia and China but also the main areas of Persia and Mesopotamia. To this day, the only part of the Syrian church which has survived outside the Middle East is the Thomas Christians of South India. Legend has it that St. Thomas - the apostle of the Christian church East of Antioch - came to India shortly after the resurrection of Christ. Re left a large congregation in the state of Kerala, South India. Today, the Christian community makes up approximately 25 per cent of the total population of Kerala. Nowadays, the Indian church and the Diaspora all over the world of refugees from the Middle East has more members than the church in the original area of Mesopotamia.

When we speak about our common Christian heritage and tradition, it is absolutely necessary also to bear in mind the Syrian church - even more so, as it is a branch of the church which is neither Roman nor Greek, but Semitic, expressing its spiritual experience not in philosophical and legal terms - but based on the evidence of Holy Scripture in worship and prayer. Add to this that this church in the Middle East has lived with Islam from the very beginning and in India has more than survived in a Hindu society for nearly two thousand years, and it will be immediately intelligible, why we have established " The Society of Sct. Thomas":

To support this ancient church and to learn from its experience with religious and cultural encounter during two thousand years.