Patriarch Aphrem II Converts to Islam
On Sunday, the 12th of February 2017, His Holiness, Ignatius Aphrem II, (born Saʿid  Karim on May 3, 1965), announced that he had converted to Islam; even going to far as to kissing the Quran. He later recanted and claimed that he was still a Christian, however he continued to discuss the Prophet Muhummed, and raise the Quran during a public ceremony at Saint George’s Cathedral in Bab Tuma, in the old city of Damascus. Immediately afterward, six bishops of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch announced multiple doctrinal condemnations of the patriarch,, and asked for him to immediately step down, which he then refused to do.
In an interview on Swedish television, Bishop Hazail Soumi said that Aphrem Karim has abused the fundamental pillars of the Christian faith "contrary to thousands of faithful whom for centuries had sacrificed their lives refusing to kiss the Koran... If the majority still will stay with the one who denies the faith, then we have same situation as Jesus and Barabbas”.
This 'theme' of conversion of Patriarchs of Antioch to Islam is hardly new or surprising, and has happened a number of times since the beginning of Islamic expansionism. Although Ignatius Aphrem II Sa'id Karim is not the first Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch to convert to Islam, he is the first to do so without acting directly under threat of death. Ignatius Nemet Aloho I (also Ignatius Ni‘matallah, Latinized as Nehemias) was the Patriarch of Antioch, and head of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch for nineteen (19) years from 1557 until he converted to Sunni Islam in 1576. Upon his abdication he appointed his nephew as Ignatius David II Shah to serve as Patriarch and fled to Venice, and then later to Rome. While in Rome, he was converted to Roman Catholicism and was given a prestigious role as an astronomer and mathematician in the Papal Court of His Holiness Pope Gregory XVIII. He also worked as part of the committee to create the Gregorian Calendar.
Aphrem II immediately retaliated by defrocking two of the six bishops and placing ultimatums on the other four who signed the joint statement asking for his resignation. He remains unrepentant, and has refused to apologize to his people for his actions. It remains unclear under whose authority the faithful and priests of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch will act, now that they no longer have a Christian leader; although at least some of his people are ignoring or even defending the crisis.
The fact that the majority of the Syriac Christian people have not reacted to their patriarch's open conversion to another religion by calling for his removal from office is of great concern to those of us who study the ecclesiastical politics of the Middle East in our time. By allowing a non-Christian to continue in the role of patriarch of a Middle Eastern church for purely political reasons indicates a shift in thinking which takes them even further away from the reality of the Christian mainstream than they already were.
As for the Nazarani Church, we are merely happy that we didn't respond to Patriarch Aphrem II's menacing behaviour to try to convert us since we would now be left seriously embarrassed and without legitimate apostolic authority.
- Arabic, "Cyril"
- Mark Woods,Rift Deepens In Syriac Orthodox Church Over Quran Row, Christianity Today, 21 February 2017
- Gianni Valente, Six bishops against the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch: “He betrayed faith”, Vatican Insider World News, 15 February 2017
- Bishop Hazail, The faith of the Patriarch main reason for our statement, Assyria TV, 13 February 2017
- Bishops Matta Roham and Hazail Soumi suspended from all church services, Assyria TV, 9 March 2017
- Statement by Malphone and Academics of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch on the Current Episcopal Crisis