His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, the 122nd successor to St. Peter in the Apostolic See of Antioch, completes 25 years in the Patriarchal See on the day of the Feast of Holy Cross, 2005. The Universal Syrian Church with its flocks spread over many nations, celebrates this unique historic occasion, of His Holiness’s Silver Jubilee of the Patriarchal enthronement, with great fervour and enthusiasm. It was on September 14, 1980, the Holy father was enthroned as the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church. He is one of the very few primates of the Syrian Church who have been in the Patriarchal office for an entire quarter of a century. As a true Shepherd, His Holiness has led the Holy Church to greater glories in these years of his Patriarchal See.
His Holiness was born on April 21, 1933 into the faithful family of ‘Iwas’ in Mosul, Iraq. He was born as the fourth child and was named ‘Seenaherib’ (name of the father of St. Behnam). His Holiness had three brothers and three sisters. The forbears of Patriarch Zakka, the Iwas family, originally belonged to Jessera on Tigris; they migrated to Mosul about three hundred years ago. Some of his ancestors adorned very important posts in the Kingdom. His grand father has received an award from King Faisal I of Iraq for his excellence in his job as Chief craftsmen and architect of the State.
The father of His Holiness, Basheer Iwas, who graduated from the University in Istanbul, the then capital of Ottoman Empire, later became a Professor in the Military Engineering College there. A faithful member of Church, he was very enthusiastic in attending the Church Services regularly and also inspired others to follow his path. It was his ardent desire to mould one of his sons as a priest to serve the Holy Church. After a few years of teaching, he left for his home state in Iraq where he started a wood-working factory of his own. But unfortunately, misfortune struck the family a few years later; Basheer Iwas died of a Cardiac arrest. His Holiness was only 10 at that time. Two years later in 1945, his wife, the mother of His Holiness, also passed away. Thus the young Seenaherib, who later came to be known as Zakka, becomes parentless at a tender age of 12.
Ecclesiastical Life & Graduation
After the death of his parents, Young Zakka decided to enter into the ecclesiastical life, thus fulfilling the wishes of his beloved father. But then some of his family members who felt bad about the parentless child being dragged into difficult circumstances, tried to discourage him. However our holy father, who from the age of six dreamt of becoming a monk, remained determined in his choice which finally paved the way for the family too to comply with his decision. Thus he joined the St. Ephrem Theological Seminary in Mosul in 1946 at the age of 13 and was henceforth came to be called ‘Zakka’.
On November 28, 1948, young Zakka was ordained ‘Koroyoo’ (Deacon) by H. E. Mor Athanasius Touma Kasseer and on February 8, 1953, he was elevated to the rank of ‘Afodyaknoh’ (Half Deacon) by H.E. Mor Gregorios Paulos Behnam. The very next year he graduated with a diploma from the seminary.
June 6, 1954, is an important date in the life of His Holiness. The Holy father accepted the order of monastic life on that day. He was then 21. It was Mor Gregorios Paulos Behnam who ordained him Rabban (monk). His Holiness recalls this as a very special day in his life. He used to say that he always felt the God caring him greatly though his parents left him in his childhood; he prayed to God and He cared him greatly.
On December 18, 1955, the new monk was promoted to the rank of full deacon by H.E. Mor Divanasious Jirges Behanam. In the year 1955, he joined the Patriarchal Staff in Homs as an assistant to the Patriarchal Secretary.
Young Zakka’s performance in schools was always excellent; he consistently scored high marks. His elementary education was in the schools at the Al-Tahra Al-Dakhilyah’s church (Our Lady’s church) and Mor Touma’s school (St.Thomas school) at Mosul. In 1957 he graduated from the college with 97 % of marks. Thus he completed his studies with success on the fields of history, philosophy, theology and church-law. He advanced in Syriac, Arabic and English languages, and received diplomas in each of these fields.
Soon after the graduation, he joined the faculty of the seminary where he taught Syriac, Arabic and the Bible. Little later, Rabban Zakka was called to the Patriarchate by the then Patriarch of Antioch Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem I, one of the most erudite scholars and efficient administrators the Church has seen in modern times. Rabban Zakka became the second, and later the first, Secretary to the Patriarch. After the demise of Moran Mor Aprem I, he continued as First Secretary to the new Patriarch, Moran Mor Ya`qub III.
On November 17, 1957, Patriarch Mor Ya`qub III ordained him a priest. On April 15, 1959, the Patriarch decorated him with ‘the Holy cross of the grand monk’.
From 1955 to 1958 Rabban Zakka studied journalism as a part-time student and took a diploma in journalism. In 1960, he joined the General Theological College of the Episcopal Church in New York in the United States, where he studied oriental languages, philosophy and pastoral theology and mastered in the English language. The college, later in 1983, offered His Holiness an Honorary Doctorate in theology.
Rabban Zakka travelled widely, both on his own and in the company of Patriarch Ya`qub III. He was at that time fortunate to visit all the countries in the Middle East and the America. In 1962 and 1963 he was delegated by the late Patriarch to attend the two Sessions of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council as an observer. It was while at the Vatican that he was called to the Episcopal office.
On November 17, 1963, Rabban Zakka was ordained Metropolitan by the Patriarch Mor Ya`qub III for the Mosul Archbishopric with title ‘Severious’. Thus he came to be known as Mor Severios Zakka.
The very next year in 1964 he visited India along with the Patriarch where he participated in the Universal Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church, held in Kottayam. He later assisted the Patriarch Mor Ya`qub III during the consecration of the first canonical Catholicos of Malankara, Mor Baselios Augen I, on May 21, 1964.
Discovery of St. Thomas Relic
On September 1, 1964, during the renovation of the Madboho of the ancient St.Thomas Church at Mosul, Mor Severious Zakka discovered the remains of Apostle Thomas in the sanctuary wall. It was a memorable event in the Episcopal life of the Holy Father. In the first sermon of the Holy father when he visited India as Patriarch of Antioch in 1982 he said, “When we think of St. Thomas, our heart is particularly thrilled because we are very closely connected to St. Thomas. Even though St. Thomas enjoyed his martyrdom here in India, and was entombed in Mylapore, we were the Metropolitan of the church in which the holy relics of St. Thomas have been kept for the past many centuries. One day, unexpectedly, by the grace of God, we were led to reveal the Holy Relics of St. Thomas once again to humanity. It was unknown to the present generation, as to where the holy relic of St. Thomas was kept. But in 1964, according to the will of God, we were able to discover the Holy Relics which were kept in the walls of the sanctuary of our St. Thomas’ church in Mosul, Iraq which is the Cathedral church of our Archdiocese of Mosul.”
A portion of this Holy relic discovered by Mor Severios Zakka was presented to Malankara Church when Catholicos Mor Augen I paid a visit to the Patriarchate in 1965. In 1994, a small portion of the Holy Relic was again presented to Malankara to be kept at the ancient Mulanthuruthy Marthoman Church which is known as the 2nd Jerusalem of the Syrian Church. Three fathers of the Syrian Church who arrived from Near East were entombed in this church. The Holy Mooron was consecrated in this church once by Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Abded ’Aloho, in 1911. This ancient church has also been the venue for two historical Synods of the Malankara Church, one in 1876 and the other in 2004; both were held under the auspices of the Patriarchs of Antioch.
Involvement in Ecumenical Movements
In 1965, Mor Severios Zakka attended the Pan Orthodox meet at Adis Ababa. He was one of the 15 theologians from all over the world who met for the unofficial consultations between Oriental and Eastern Orthodox theologians in August 1964 and later. In 1968 Mor Severios attended the Lambeth Palace Conference as an observer. He participated in the consultation between Oriental and Eastern theologians, held again, in Geneva in 1970.
In 1969 Mor Severios assumed the charge of Baghdad & Basra Archdioceses. During this period he also served as the Head of Syriac Studies and a member of the educational academy in Bagdad. In the same year he was appointed to the membership of “Academy of Iraq Culture” and to the presidency of “Academy of Syrian Language and Culture”, besides being the Chairman of its Syriac Section and an honorary member of the pro-Oriente Organization in Vienna, Austria. In 1972 he was in Pro-Orinete, Vienna, to give a lecture on “The Church and the Ecumenical Synod.” Next year he addressed them again, this time on “What makes a Council legitimate and acceptable.” The topic of his address at the Pro-Orinete in 1976 was “The need for, and signs of, communion between local churches.” Following that he was granted their Fellowship. He was also given the rare privilege of preaching in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, in the presence of the Cardinal and other Roman Catholic dignitaries, the first Syrian Orthodox Bishop to be so honoured. In 1976, 1978 and 1979 he served as a consultant on the Pontifical Commission for revision of Oriental Canon Law in the Roman Catholic Church.
At Nairobi in 1975 Mor Severios was elected to the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, which position he held till his enthronement as Patriarch in 1980. From 1995 onwards, His Holiness the Patriarch, is one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches.
The Holy father who has an Honorary Doctor’s Degree in Syriac Literature from Sweden (Institute of Oriental Studies) and Diploma in Theology, Philosophy and Canon Law, has many works to his credit. He has published a series of text books for use in Christian schools. Some of his other major works are ‘Doctrine of Incarnation and Salvation’, ‘The Seven Sacraments’ (co-authored with Metropolitan Haksaka), ‘Yakoub III: Life and Apostolic Visit to Middle East and Latin America’, ‘Apostolic Visit of Yacoub III to North America’, ‘The Dove by Bar Ebraya, transalation from Syriac to Arabic, with footnotes and a foreword on the theme of monastic life’, ‘Mor Aphrem the Syrian’ (published by the Ministry of Information, Government of Iraq, in 1974 on the occasion of St. Aphrem’s Jubilee), ‘Mor Jacob of Edessa’ (633-708 AD), ‘Mor Dionysius Talmahari’ (ninth century), ‘Story of Seven Sleepers-a perspective from Syriac Sources’, ‘Syrian Orthodox Church through the Ages’, ‘Syriac literature in the sixth century’, ‘Bar Hibarius’. Among his important addresses includes “Syrian Orthodox Church and Ecumenical Movement”, “Position and Role of Women in the Church”, “Religious Virtues and Family Welfare”.
Additional Charges as Metropolitan
As Metropolitan of Mosul the Holy Father took special interest in youth activities. Under him, the diocese flourished spiritually and materially. In 1967 he was given additional charge of the European Diocese. In 1969 he was transferred to the Archdiocese of Baghdad and Basra, perhaps the most prestigious archbishopric in the Middle East. In Baghdad he built churches and opened secondary schools and high schools. As in Mosul, in Baghdad also he took keen interest in the spiritual life of the youth.
Following the demise of H.E. Thimotheos Yacoub, Metropolitan Mor Severious Zakka was given the additional charge of the ancient monastery of St. Mathew (Mor Mattai Dayro) in Iraq. In 1976, he was appointed as the Metropolitan of Middle Europe and Scandinavian countries and in 1978 Mor Severios Zakka was given additional responsibility for the new diocese in Australia. He consecrated several churches and organized congregations in Melbourne, Sydney and a few other places.
On June 26, 1980, the Patriarch Mor Ya`qub III passed away and was entombed at the St. George Cathedral, Damascus. Consequent to this, the Episcopal Synod was called to choose the new successor to the Apostolic See. The Holy Synod held on July 11, 1980, with His Beatitude the Catholicos of the East Mor Baselios Paulose II in the chair, unanimously elected Mor Severios Zakka, Archbishop of Baghdad and Basra as the new Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. This marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the Church.
On September 14, 1980, Mor Severios was installed as the 122nd Patriarch of Antioch & all the East, by name IGNATIUS ZAKKA I, in a rite officiated by the late lamented Catholicos of the East Aboon Mor Baselios Paulose II, along with the archbishops of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church. It was for the first time in the history of the Universal Syrian Church that the chief celebrant for the Patriarchal enthronement was an Indian.
Since that blessed day, the Syrian Orthodox Church has witnessed a remarkable revival through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the pastoral care of H. H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas. The 25 years of Mor Ignatius Zakka’s Patriarchate have been eventful and significant. In his very first address after adorning the Patriarchate, he stressed the need for a major seminary and centre for the Church. This was a great dream of the new Patriarch. The Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate after moving from the Monastery of Mor Hananyo (Deir ez-Za`faran/Kurkumo Dayro) in Turkey, to Syria in the last century, lacked a proper centre in the new circumstances. It was the Holy fathers’ vision that filled this gap. He acquired extensive lands, about 20 miles away from Old Damascus, where he built a magnificent Seminary with all facilities for theological students, accommodations for the visiting dignitaries, residence of the Patriarch etc.. Though officially, the Patriarchate still functions in the St. George Cathedral, Bab Touma, in the city of Damascus, His Holiness resides at the Mor Ephrem Seminary in Ma`arat Sayyidnaya, in the suburb of Damascus, Syria.
The Church which was in turmoil for a while because of persecution, is now witnessing a revival with establishment of churches and institutions in all parts of the world where the Syrian Christians has migrated. The largest congregation of the Church outside the Middle East and India is now situated at Germany where about 100,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians has settled. Similarly the Church has grown to other nations like Holland, Australia, USA, Canada and South America. And in all such countries, Monasteries, churches and other institutions have come up. Young bishops selected and ordained by the Holy father increased the pace of growth in all these places.
Despite his busy schedule, His Holiness has written many articles on a variety of subjects, in Syriac, Arabic and English. Selected articles and sermons of the Holy Father is to be published soon by the St. George Church, Chicago.
Another major achievement of the Holy Father is his close relationship with the other Churches and communities. The relationship with the Roman Catholic and the Byzantine Orthodox Churches were rewritten during his tenure. The Oriental Orthodox family came closer. From 1998, heads of the 3 Oriental Churches in Middle East – the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of Cilicia, Antelias, Lebanon) – meet regularly every year; two of such meetings were held at our Seminary in Ma`arat Sayyidnaya. Another meeting of the heads of Oriental Churches will soon meet in December again at the Mor Ephrem Seminary. For many decades, the Church is involved in the activities of the World Council of Churches in which both Episcopal and Non-Episcopal Churches are members. The Holy Father is now one of the honorary Presidents of the World Council.
The apostolic visits of His Holiness to India thrice, in 1982, 2002 and 2004, and to the various Archdioceses in the Middle East, Americas and Europe have been most successful. It was during the 2004 apostolic visit, the Holy father consecrated the new headquarters of the Church in India in co-operation with His Beatitude the Catholicos and the Metropolitans.
On July 26th 2002, His Holiness installed Mor Dionysius Thomas, the president of the Episcopal Synod of Indian Church, as the Catholicos of India with the title Baselios Thomas I. This was a great event in the history of the Church in India. The new Catholicos was consecrated as the immediate successor to the late Mor Baselios Paulose II who led the enthronement ceremony of His Holiness in 1980. Now the Holy Synod of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church consists of 41 prelates besides the Patriarch and the Catholicos, of which 22 were ordained by our Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas.
Biography of the Holy father prepared by John Philip Kottapparambil, India