Originating in the Middle East in what is now Turkey, the Church of Antioch was founded by Sts Peter and Paul and is where the word ‘Christian’ originally comes from, according to the New Testament.
This developed into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. There are three parishes, in Belfast, Dublin and Kerry. The small community of just under 100 is set to grow, as Syrian refugees from the war-torn heartland where the Church was founded are relocated to safety in Ireland.
But so far the majority of current worshippers, particularly in Northern Ireland, are Anglican converts, according to Ireland’s only Antiochian Orthodox priest.
Fr John Hickey, ordained in 2013, said: “In Belfast the majority of the people there would be Northern Irish people. Interestingly they are mostly from the Church of Ireland in Belfast, mostly Anglican converts.”
Fr Hickey told The Irish Catholic that it was a huge difference for them, saying the attraction could be to do with the Orthodox liturgy which is chanted, adding “if you study the catechetics particularly around the notion of original sin, in the Orthodox tradition it’s ancestral sin, so there’s an enormous difference in the perception – it moves right away from the Augustinian notion of inherited guilt”. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are much more similar in theology and practice compared to Protestantism.
However, it’s believed the future of the Antiochian Church won’t be decided by conversion in Ireland.
With Christian Orthodoxy being the fastest growing religion according to the latest census, experts have said the increase in worshippers is mostly due to immigration rather than conversion.
There are exceptions however, and in one case, a young Belfast man of Evangelical origins was converted online.
Joshua Adido (24), said: “For me I think my conversion came through interaction with people online which led me to look at different resources, not really interacting with Orthodox people in person – that came a bit later in the conversion process.
“I don’t think in Ireland there’s an en masse conversion, maybe that’s happening somewhere else.”
Mr Adido, who is a Masters student of International Business originally from Congo, said people are bolder online, and that because it can be quite awkward to talk about matters of Faith in person, it’s a place for people to discuss religion openly.
Coming from an Evangelical background he much preferred the structure of Orthodoxy.
“The difference is that it’s more written down and set in stone. We follow the Church calendar more strictly. So for example not everyone follows a particular apostle’s celebration in an Evangelical Church, any Sunday can mean anything.”
“Whereas here there are particular days for particular feasts and particular Saints. In terms of the style, in the Orthodox Church the entire liturgy is sung, in our Mass anyway there are no instruments it’s a cappella, it’s very responsive.”
A lot of the chants would have Arabic and Middle Eastern tonalities due to the Church’s origin. The East-West divide played a large part in the separation of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
The fact the primacy of the Pope in Rome was not accepted by the Eastern Orthodox and the use of different languages, Latin in the West and Greek in the East, all contributed to the schism.
Mr Adido says fasting from all animal products on Wednesday and Thursdays has been one of the most difficult parts of being Antiochian Orthodox.
“We fast on a Wednesday and Friday, you basically become vegan essentially,” he said.
“That’s a really hard part for me in Orthodoxy because I’m a student still learning to cook, so having to fast twice a week isn’t something I’m very good at.”
He added that there are a lot of fasting seasons, saying that for lent in Catholicism it tends to be that you give something up, while they have to be vegan for its entirety.
Fr Hickey is now working towards helping Syrian refugees integrate into Irish society while also maintaining their own identities.
“We inherited, only a few weeks ago, 20 Syrian families, people coming from Syria, people fleeing the war. They’re around Dublin, and some are in Limerick. What we’re trying to do now is to get a bigger place, so that we can do the liturgy with them,” he said.
Currently the parish in Blackrock is very small, and wouldn’t be close to big enough to accommodate the families. Fr Hickey built it himself.
He learned some Arabic phrases – writing them down phonetically – so he can communicate with worshippers. He said Ireland is an “oasis” for the refugees.
“We have to understand as Irish people that we know what it’s like when our families had to go to far off distant lands, and we had to maintain our culture, our identity, our language: who we are. Because if you strip that away you’ve got nothing.”
“Basically the Syrian people lost everything, so what we’re trying to do is to maintain their language, their culture, and in some way allow us to fuse it into an Irish culture and an Arabic culture, which improves everybody’s culture.”
They are working with the Romanian Orthodox Church to find a premises that would be big enough to celebrate Mass for the refugee families.
“You’re talking about families that have experienced probably one of the horrendous wars of the 21st centuries, and they would have known families and seen people who died the most horrendous deaths, and it’s very easy to say that those people are martyrs and they’re in heaven, that doesn’t take away the pain.
“The trouble is they’re in a country where their priest doesn’t speak their language so it’s very difficult for them to express how they’re actually feeling. We need the prayers of this country, from the people of all Churches to help us to do this.”