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This openness encouraged a number of Catholic religious communities, particularly the Capuchins and Jesuits, to work among the Melkites throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Their opening of schools strengthened pro-Rome sentiments while the erecting of parishes hardened anti-Rome hostilities, eventually polarizing the Antiochene Patriarchate into Catholic and Orthodox parties. In 1724, the Melkite bishops of Syria (all Arabic speakers) defied the wishes of Patriarch Athanasios III who, before his death, selected as his heir the Cypriot monk Sylvester. In his stead, they elected as patriarch a noted Catholic, Cyril Tanas. Fearing schism, the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople declared Cyril’s election invalid and formally appointed Sylvester, whose appointment was confirmed by the Ottoman authorities. Cyril fled Damascus, seeking safety in the traditional refuge of the eastern Mediterranean, Mount Lebanon. Many Melkites gravitated to Cyril, however, thanks to Sylvester’s heavy-handed governance.

Pope Benedict XIII recognized Cyril’s election in 1729 and extended full communion to Cyril and his followers, an action that formalized the schism of the Melkite Church of Antioch into two bodies: the Orthodox Church of Antioch, today led by Patriarch Ignatius IV, and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, led by Patriarch Gregory III.

Development and growth. The earliest Melkite Greek Catholic communities were in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, far from the reach of the Ottoman Turks. But the church grew as the Ottoman Empire declined, and Melkite Greek Catholics began to emigrate to Egypt and Palestine, where the Western influence was strong. The patriarchs sent priests, many of whom were educated in Rome, to build up these nascent Melkite communities. There they prospered, as many Orthodox from the patriarchates of Alexandria and Jerusalem joined the church, which some perceived as an Arab entity free of Ottoman and Greek influences. In 1838, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Maximos III extended his pastoral care to these Melkite Greek Catholics of Alexandria and Jerusalem, adding these ancient sees to his title.

Ten years later the Ottoman government recognized the Melkite Greek Catholic Church as a millet, or a legally protected religious minority, acknowledging Maximos as the head of this autonomous community. That year, the patriarchate moved from the mountains of Lebanon to Damascus, where it remains today.

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