DAMASCUS, Syria – The patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who led one of the world's oldest Christian sects, was buried in a village near Damascus on Friday after an elaborate memorial service in the Syrian capital's cathedral.
The bells of St. George's Cathedral, located in the walled section of Damascus, rang out from the early morning as mourners dressed in black came to pay their respects to Ignatius Zakka Iwas, praising him for his loyalty to the church and the Syrian state.
A large banner bearing the patriarch's portrait hung on metal gates at the cathedral's main entrance pledging that Christians will remain in Syria. "Syria is our eternal homeland," it read.
Recent assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad's rule have fueled fears among the country's religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt.
Christians believe they are being targeted in part because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and partly as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad. The Syrian leader himself hails from a religious minority, the Alawaite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Iwas, a native of Iraq and a vocal proponent of Christian-Muslim coexistence, has lived in Damascus since he was enthroned as patriarch in 1980. He died in a hospital in Germany last week at the age of 80.
When Iwas conducted services at St. George's Cathedral, he spoke in Syriac, a modern version of Aramaic — the language Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken.
Friday's memorial service was conducted in Arabic. After it ended, eight clerics carried the coffin on their shoulders before it was transported to the Christian village of Sednaya, north of Damascus. He will be buried in the Mar Ephraim monastery there.
"He loved Syria and did not know the difference between a Christian and a Muslim," said Wasal Abi Khalil, a 50-year-old worshipper who attended Friday's service in Damascus.
Iwas' official title was the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. The Syrian Orthodox Church was founded in the year 452 after a schism with the bulk 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 the United States.