Ignatius IV
The head of the world's oldest Christian church, Ignatius IV of Damascus, died Wednesday of complications from a stroke. Reuters

The long-time leader of the second-largest Christian church in the Middle East and the oldest in the world, Patriarch Ignatius IV, died Wednesday in Beirut after suffering a stroke earlier this week, the church said.

Ignatius, 91, died in St. George's Hospital. He led the Damascus-based communion, known as the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East, for 22 years. Its membership, which included believers in Lebanon, as well as Syria, is estimated at 1,100,000 members.

The death of Ignatius comes just months after the head of the largest Christian church in the Middle East, Egypt's Coptic Church, died. Pope Shenouda III died in March of this year after having led the church's 8 million members for 40 years. His successor, Tawadros II, 60, was elected head of the nation's Copts on Nov. 4.

Ignatius' death comes at a particularly trying time for Orthodox Christians in Syria, who comprise the world's oldest Christian communion, as the now 15-month-old civil war threatens to destabilize a peaceful relationship the church has had with Syrian rulers since the 14th century. It was not immediately clear.

“The Orthodox community has lost a historic, great man who led his people with great wisdom in a difficult phase of the region’s history,” Lebanon's Deputy Parliament Speaker Farid Makari said in a statement.

Saad Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, said the “Lebanese ... have lost a great, national and spiritual pillar as they look forward for the Greek Orthodox Church to remain a source of giving and love and which can remain loyal to its heritage in the Arab world.”

Fortunately, Makari added, “We assure him that his community will be fine ... and its role will remain one that is primarily aimed at building a new, democratic Syria and in strengthening stability in Lebanon and nation-building,” he added.

Ignatius had been active until recently, having visited the United States in October, presiding over ecclesiastical meetings and leading worship services.

Ignatius was born in the village of Muharda, near Hama, Syria, and at age 16 moved to Beirut where he took monastic vows. After graduating from the American University of Beirut, he studied theology at the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris.

He became a bishop when he was 41, and on July 2, 1979, he was named patriarch.
Globally, the eastern Orthodox church, of which the Antiochian church is one part, has about 300 million members, making it the second-largest Christian communion after the Roman Catholic Church.