ARRIVAL IN ANTIOCH—Visit to St. Peter Grotto and the Cathedral’s Community Center; Vespers and Dinner at Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral - 11/12/10

Antioch, Turkey

Without question, the most important reason for this delegation’s historic trip was Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). We had seen the Antiochian Church in Lebanon and Syria and now we returned to its original root, planted by the Apostle Peter. As stated in the beginning of this article, Sayidna JOSEPH was born and raised in the Middle East and others have ancestry there, but no one, not even His Grace, had journeyed into Antioch, the “Great City of God” as styled in our Patriarch’s phimi (title). Now, this holy city, this birthplace of Christianity was no longer just some place situated in Holy Scripture, history books or our imaginations. Antioch is real, as evidenced by the holy sites and especially our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ that have survived and persevered there throughout the millennia.

We were greeted immediately at the border as we crossed from Syria into southern Turkey by the parish priests of Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Antioch, Father Dimitri and Father Jan. They waited for us to clear the patrol so they could escort us into Antioch, also known as Antakya. The priests then helped us check into our hotel, and then guided us on what would be the most unique experience of the pilgrimage.

Orthodox Christians have always struggled for the truth, giving their lives for the sake of Christ our Savior and the Holy Gospel. Nowhere was this more evident than the St. Peter Grotto, one of the original gathering places of our first Christian ancestors. It is a primitive cave church cut into the mountain that is nothing more than doors, windows and an altar table in its physical elements. As we sang the apolytikion to Ss. Peter and Paul, we felt as if we were standing there next to them, just as they worshipped twenty centuries ago. The cave had two side rooms cut deeper into the rock, but one of them revealed the reality of the persecutions of Christians: a thin passageway that our early brothers and sisters would climb up and into so that they could escape the murderous, idolatrous hordes. There was hardly room to move, let alone breathe.

St. Peter Grotto is not just an historic Christian site, but also a national one. We met schoolchildren on a field trip who welcomed us to their country, offering us the few words of English that they knew. After lunch at a local restaurant owned by our fellow Orthodox Christians in Antioch, we had the chance to walk through the bustling city streets (Antakya has a population of 215,000) along the Orontes River that also runs into Syria and Lebanon. Shops and bazaars sat at every turn, and we learned that the city specializes in the Middle Eastern desert called “kenefeh” (sweet cheese with toasted shredded wheat, drizzled in syrup).

Mr. Samer Laham also gave the delegation a glimpse into the life of the Church in present day Antioch. It’s not an easy one: religious minorities are allowed freedom of worship, but they endure social harassment and, on occasion, governmental harassment. Church lands can be confiscated and are seldom returned, especially in Istanbul, home to Ecumenical Patriarchate. In the eyes of the government, the elected chairman of Antakya’s Orthodox Christian community (who happens to be the head chanter) is the leader of the parish, not the priest. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Christians in Antioch (mostly of Syrian descent or ties) worship at six area churches predominately in Arabic. However, with more of their children learning Turkish, the parishes are introducing Holy Scripture and catechism in the Turkish language so that the true faith is transmitted to the next generation who will keep the Church in Antioch alive.

After soaking in a little bit of Antakya’s modern culture, we then prepared for Great Vespers at the Cathedral. With heavy traffic on the city’s tiny streets, our host priests said it would be faster if we walked—so we did. Our first stop was the Cathedral’s community center, a stately six-story building that has dining halls, activity rooms and, most importantly, apartments for the parish’s elderly members. One of the residents was the Cathedral’s caretaker for more than forty years. Now close to 90 years old, this pious man sat up in his bed to greet Sayidna JOSEPH, who made a special trip to his apartment so they could spend a few quality moments together. His Grace then offered special prayers and blessings over him and presented him with holy oil.

The delegation continued its walk to Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral for Great Vespers with the Service of Litia and Artoklasia. Not only were we honoring the Church of Antioch’s patrons and protectors, we celebrated another “local son’s” feast day: St. John Chrysostom. He was born and raised in Antioch and served here as a priest before he was taken against his wishes to Constantinople, where he was made archbishop. The choirs chanted antiphonally in Arabic and English, providing enough hymnography for everyone to understand. All of the area clergy came to welcome His Grace and the delegation. Following the service, Fr. Dimitri provided Sayidna JOSEPH with a commemorative plate that bore an illustration of the Cathedral.

The historic mother parish was built in 1833, though its facilities are so immaculate that it appears to be just a few decades old. The temple is built with limestone and the large wooden doors at the front have carved icons of Ss. Peter and Paul. The icons throughout the Cathedral are of the Syrian, Byzantine and Russian styles. The antique baptismal font is also carved from limestone and the water—once it is blessed—drains into the parish cemetery. The current church bell was mounted in 1931 and renovated twice in 1986 and 2000. The sizeable property also includes two courtyards and a fellowship hall, all encircled by a wall that keeps the bustling city life from distracting the worshippers.

Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral was originally the See of the Antiochian Patriarch, but since His Beatitude resides in Damascus (like his predecessors since 1342), its clergy and faithful still commemorate him by name in the divine services. However, Patriarch IGNATIUS has asked Metropolitan PAUL (Yazigi) of Aleppo, Syria to minister to the community’s needs. Sayidna PAUL visits every year at the end of June, when he celebrates Divine Liturgies at the Cathedral and St. Peter Grotto in honor of Ss. Peter and Paul’s combined feast on June 29.

In addition to the holiness filling this Cathedral, the delegation also felt the excitement of the parishioners who came to see their American brothers and sisters. Everyone struggled to communicate because of language barriers, but the smiles, warmth and Christian love was all the vocabulary that we needed. In his message to the congregation at the dinner next door, Sayidna JOSEPH assured them of the love and prayers of Antiochian Church—especially its Patriarch and hierarchs—around the world, which appreciates their struggles and dedication to keeping Orthodoxy alive in our spiritual homeland.