Ignatius Zakka Iwas welcomed President Bashar Assad after he arrived at St. Aphrem church in Damascus in 2007.
Ignatius Zakka Iwas welcomed President Bashar Assad after he arrived at St. Aphrem church in Damascus in 2007.
Associated Press

DAMASCUS — Ignatius Zakka Iwas, the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the leader of one of world’s oldest Christian sects, has died. He was 80.

Syrian state news agency SANA said Patriarch Iwas was admitted into a German hospital for treatment Feb. 20. He died on Friday in Germany after a long illness, the official news service said.

Patriarch Iwas’s official title was the patriarch of Antioch and All the East. His church, known as the Syriac Orthodox Church, was founded in the year 452 after a schism with the majority of the world’s Christians. There are more than 4 million members, living in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq although there are also significant communities in Germany, Sweden, and in the United States, where immigrants introduced the faith in the late 19th century.

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Patriarch Iwas was born in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

He was enthroned as patriarch in 1980 in St. George’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Damascus.

Before that he served as metropolitan bishop of Mosul. He was the archbishop of Baghdad and Basra when he became patriarch. Since then, he had lived and worked in Damascus, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church. He also spent two years in the early 1960s in New York City, studying at the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary in downtown Manhattan.

When he conducted services at St. George Cathedral, located in the walled section of Damascus, Patriarch Iwas had spoken in Syriac, a modern version of Aramaic, the language Jesus is believed to have spoken.

Church officials said Friday that his remains will be brought from Germany to Lebanon. From there they will taken to Syria for burial.