The emergence of a Syriac Orthodox Mayan Church in Guatemala


The establishment of a Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Guatemala (including other countries in Latin America) in 2013 further complicated an already fragmented Guatemalan religious landscape. Under the leadership of a former Roman Catholic priest, now a Syriac Orthodox bishop, a religious renewal movement emerged in 2003, which was excommunicated in 2006 by the Roman Catholic Church. In 2013, the movement joined the Syriac Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch resides in Damascus, Syria. Members of this archdiocese are almost exclusively Mayan in origin, mostly live in poor, rural areas, and display charismatic-type practices. The communities that first joined this movement were located in areas severely affected by the armed conflict (1960–1996); but it subsequently attracted more diverse communities, including the cofradías (religious lay brotherhoods). This article studies the emergence of a Syriac Orthodox Church (SOC) in Guatemala, and argues that becoming Syriac Orthodox allowed these diverse communities to reconcile different aspects of their local world (traditional and charismatic practices, enhanced lay leadership, local Mayan identity) and its very shortcomings increased its attractiveness. This paper adopts a multi-disciplinary approach and draws upon diverse sources, including fieldwork in Guatemala and Los Angeles, to capture voices both inside and outside the archdiocese. While the Pentecostal and Catholic Charismatic movements in Guatemala have already attracted scholarly attention, the appearance of Orthodox Christianity on a large scale raises new questions.


In March 2013, under the leadership of a former Roman Catholic priest, Eduardo Aguirre Oestmann, some 500,000 persons in Guatemala joined the Syriac Orthodox Church, thus becoming the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese of Central America. This originated in 2003, when Fr. Aguirre, now Bishop Mor Santiago Eduardo,Footnote 1 founded a movement called Santa María del Nuevo Éxodo (“Saint Mary of the New Exodus”) which attracted communities in several parts of Guatemala that for various reasons were in conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. The movement was excommunicated by the Church in 2006. Nevertheless, it has dramatically grown: in 2004, comprising 130 communities with 50,000 people; in 2005, 275 communities of 120,000 persons (ICERGUA 2005); in 2008, 750 communities with 350,000 followers (ICERGUA 2008b); and in 2018, claiming over 500,000 people (Aguirre Oestmann 2018).

Described by Jakob Thorsen as an “independent Catholic Charismatic church” (Thorsen 2015, p. 32), this now Syriac Orthodox archdiocese is a complex body. The population of Guatemala is 45–60% indigenous (Prien 2007, pp. 395–6), but the followers of Father Aguirre are almost exclusively Mayan and speak more than a dozen different Mayan languages. They mostly live in poor, rural areas and display charismatic-type practices. Neither these communities nor Father Aguirre had any historical or cultural connection with the Syriac Orthodox Church prior to joining it in 2013. The fact that they joined an Oriental and not an Eastern (Greek) Orthodox body is noteworthy because, until then, the Syriac Orthodox presence in Latin America was limited to a single diocese in Argentina, whereas the Eastern Orthodox presence—though slight when compared to, say, Pentecostalism—is older and more extensive. The presence of an Orthodox Church in Guatemala is too recent to have been given extended scholarly study.Footnote 2 By contrast, renewal movements have attracted significant scholarly attention over the past few years, especially the recent Catholic Charismatic Renewal (Thorsen 2015, 2016; Hoenes del Pinal 2016a, b; Althoff 2017). The tremendous religious shifts in Guatemala over the past few decades have broken the monopoly previously enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church. In 2011, “traditional Catholics” made up only 27% of the Christians of the country, whereas revivalist types of Christianity—specifically Pentecostals and Charismatic Catholics—comprised, respectively, 25% and 27% (Jacobsen 2011, p. 207).

This article discusses the emergence of a Syriac Orthodox Church in Guatemala, arguing that becoming Syriac Orthodox allowed these diverse communities to reconcile contrasting aspects of their local world: traditional practices (for instance cofradías, lay brotherhoods organized around local rites), charismatic practices, religious and individual lay autonomy inherited from Pentecostal and Charismatic influences, attachment to the sacraments, and local Mayan identity. I further argue that what enhances the attractiveness of Syriac Orthodoxy stems not only from its religious content and ecclesiastical structure but also, perhaps more importantly, from the limits of the archdiocese (few means of coercion) in it.

This article therefore builds on the ideas of conversion, community agency, and local approaches. Described by L. Rambo as a “multi-faceted process of transformation” (in Barylo 2018, p. 29), his seven-step description of the conversion process (context, crises, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, consequences) (see Gooren 2010, p. 38) helps us trace the emergence of a Syriac Mayan Church in Guatemala. Closely connected to this, religious developments in Guatemala over the past few decades have created opportunities for lay people, including the Mayan population, to shape their local church. This has greatly benefited the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese. Furthermore, given the diversity of communities that have become Syriac Orthodox, there is a need to focus on the local level: as Sol Tax observed in 1941, “communities of typical Indians are identified with municipios [as] important ethnic units” because they “think of themselves as a distinct group of people” with “a relatively exclusive set of customs and practices” and “[e] ach municipio tends to have its own economic specialties, sometimes its own economic and social values” (Tax 1941, p. 29).

The present article adopts an historical, philological, and ethnographic approach using a comprehensive set of sources drawn from fieldwork conducted in Guatemala in November 2018 and in Los Angeles in August 2018, as well as sources produced by the archdiocese, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church, in an attempt to capture diverse voices inside and outside the Syriac Church in Guatemala.Footnote 3 The establishment of the archdiocese is so recent that it is still in development and therefore this contribution can only present preliminary results.

Part 1 describes the political and religious context in which the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese emerged. Part 2 shows the process by which it became a Syriac Orthodox archdiocese. Part 3 is concerned with how, beginning in 2003, Fr. Eduardo Aguirre Oestmann developed a narrative of conversion. Parts 4 and 5 look at how lay leadership is at the heart of this Syriac Mayan Church which (part 5) is constantly negotiated on the level of the local church. And part 6 goes beyond religious practices per se, highlighting the role played by the laity in shaping the boundaries of the archdiocese.

Part 1: setting the context

There are two possible explanations for the emergence of what would be the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Guatemala: the armed conflict of 1966–1996 and the tremendous religious shifts over the past decades.

The earliest communities between 2003 and 2006 were located in areas particularly affected by the armed conflict and ethnic cleansing of the early 1980s, during which 626 villages were destroyed by the army, 1.5 million people displaced, and more than 200,000 died or “disappeared” (Sanford 2008, p. 106). The truth-finding commission established after the peace treaty in 1996 concluded that the violence on the part of the army was an actual genocide against the Mayan population (Sanford 2008, p. 106). In his first pastoral letter issued in 2007, Fr. Aguirre explicitly connected the war with the growth of the Orthodox communities: “A great many [communities] are in areas that suffered under the armed conflict, having been persecuted, slaughtered, and displaced, it is no coincidence” (ICERGUA 2007b). The areas most affected by the conflict were Quiché and Huehuetenango, where the first communities that joined Father Aguirre’s movement were located. In these departments, 25,000 Maya hid in remote places like forests (Jonas 1991, p. 185). A former seminarian of the archdiocese was born into such a family. In 1980, 130 delegates from Chajul, Nebaj, Cotzal, and Uspantán in Quiché protested in Guatemala City against the destruction of their villages (Prien 2007, p. 399), and Chajul as well as Nebaj and Uspantán all happen to be areas where communities joined the movement initiated by Father Aguirre (ICERGUA 2005). In the region of Ixil, Quiché, 90% of the villages were systematically destroyed between 1982 and 1983 (Salamanca Villamizar 2015).Footnote 4 Indeed members of a community in Chajul, Quiché, petitioned Father Aguirre to have the 70 to 80 persons killed by the army in 1983 recognized as bienaventurados (“blessed”), which was granted in 2007 (ICERGUA 2008b). The name of the parish in this area is “Faith of the Renewed Catholics of Chajul” (ICERGUA 2008a). Also, those seminarians from Mexico are among the 150,000 Maya who had to flee as a result of the conflict (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). In the case of Comalapa, Chimaltenango, another early Syriac Orthodox stronghold, the violence especially affected the rural areas surrounding the town (González Villarreal 2006, pp. 21–22) and torture was used in the city (Salamanca Villamizar 2015). All this is part of the context in which the Syriac Orthodox Church emerged, though, at this stage, it is not possible to state precisely the exact causal links with the conflict.

Besides the armed conflict, religious factors were key to the development of the Syriac Orthodox communities in Guatemala. Catholic Action (CA) has had a long-standing religious role in Guatemala. Ten communities in Alta Verapaz now part of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese were originally under the supervision of Catholic Action (ICERGUA 2007a). The appearance of Catholic Action in the 1950s was a result of the fact that, following Guatemalan independence in 1821, the Roman Catholic Church, due to restrictions by the various governments, had a very limited number of clerics. In 1944, there were only one hundred priests for 3 million people (Thorsen 2015, p. 33). Catholic Action was especially prominent in Quiché (Davis 2004) and other rural Mayan areas (Cleary 2009), and in Comalapa. Members of CA started to identify themselves with the Mayan population by establishing peasant leagues and agricultural cooperatives (Davis 2004). On the other hand, the movement opposed Roman Catholic-Mayan syncretism (Prien 2007, 396), which led to conflicts, especially in Comalapa (see below).

Most of the communities of the now Syriac Orthodox archdiocese stem from the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), which was a Roman Catholic response to the spread of Pentecostalism in Guatemala. It focuses on the Holy Spirit while maintaining the importance of the sacraments and the saints (Benoit 2012). However, the existence of the CCR in Guatemala cannot by itself explain the development of Father Aguirre’s movement. The attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward the CCR is crucial. In Quiché, it actively promoted the Charismatic movement to counter Pentecostalism (Hoenes del Pinal 2016a, 366), whereas, in the diocese of Huehuetenango, the movement was forbidden until 2012 (Thorsen 2016, 216; de Villa y Vázquez 2018) and developed clandestinely. In a letter Father Aguirre addressed to his communities in 2006, he alluded to this situation: “They were abandoned, marginalized, mistreated, rejected, and, in many cases, denied access to the sacraments” (ICERGUA 2006). This was also mentioned in Los Angeles by a community leader originally from Huehuetenango.Footnote 5

The case of San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango, differs from those of most communities because the dispute here was about the role of the cofradías organized around the colonial San Juan Bautista Church, famous for its many wooden statues of Christ, Mary, and the saints.Footnote 6 Located 70 km (50 miles) from Guatemala City in a somewhat isolated valley, the population of Comalapa is more than 90% K’aqchiqel-Maya (González Villarreal 2006, p. 25). A class of educated Maya emerged in the city in the 1960s and 1970s (see González Villarreal 2006, pp. 5–6) which opposed the costumbres (traditions) embodied by the cofradías (de Villa y Vázquez 2018). Currently, there are also 30% “Evangelicals” (de Villa y Vázquez 2018). As previously mentioned, Catholic Action came in the 1950s and, in its attempt to promote more orthodox Roman Catholic practices, alienated the cofradías, who consider themselves the guardians of the syncretic culture and the interests of the people.Footnote 7 The tension escalated in 1968, when one person was killed. As a result, another Roman Catholic Church (called here “Rosario”) was established (de Villa y Vázquez 2018). The cofradías claimed that the Roman Catholic hierarchy neglected the San Juan Bautista church, reducing the number of services (Cofradía Catedral de San Juan Bautista 2008). The religious landscape in Comalapa, however, is complicated by the fact that there are groups belonging to Catholic Action and Charismatic Catholic Renewal on both Roman Catholic and (now) Syriac Orthodox sides. Furthermore, according to Bishop Gonzalo de Villa y Vázquez, President of the Episcopalian Conference of Guatemala, there are many ladinos (individuals of mixed European-Mayan descent) among the cofradías (de Villa y Vázquez 2018). There are also socioeconomic differences because, according to a priest of the San Juan Bautista Church, people attending this church are generally poorer and less educated than those of the “Rosario” Roman Catholic Church.

These various contexts show that several factors must be considered simultaneously. A prime element in all cases, however, is the importance of lay leadership: first, because of the historically small number of Roman Catholic clerics; second, because Catholic Action fostered the role of lay people as catechists on the level below the parish to compensate for the lack of priests (Hoenes del Pinal 2016b, 186); third, because after the Second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church encouraged this and consequently thousands of Mayan became catechists in the 1960s and 1970s (Cleary 2009); and finally because, in both the Pentecostal and Catholic Charismatic movements, performing religious services like oraciones (prayer groups) does not require ordination or theological training, which further enhances the role of the laity (see Althoff 2017, p. 340).

In Guatemala, existing local traditions are integrated into Pentecostal and Catholic Charismatic practices differently. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has been more accommodating toward elements of popular religion (see Prien 2007, p. 221); ecstasy and healing especially are connections between CCR and traditional religion (Thorsen 2015, p. 56). But the Pentecostal movement is more ambivalent toward elements of popular religion and becoming Pentecostal seems to involve a more radical and complex break from them (see Pédron-Colombani 2001). Michael Löwy suggests that Pentecostalism can be understood as a strong spiritual resurgence of Latin American popular religion (Benoit 2012).

Part 2: Forsaking the Roman Catholic Church, joining the Syriac Orthodox Church

In 2003, Father Eduardo Aguirre OestmannFootnote 8 founded the “Catholic ecumenical communion of Saint Mary of the New Exodus,” a union of lay communities as well as the comunidad Nazaret of clerics (ICERGUA 2003). The movement was later named the Iglesia Católica Ecuménica Renovada (“Catholic Ecumenical Renewed Church”) (ICERGUA). The stated goal of this movement was to shift the locus of the church to the extreme local level, following the model of the Early Church founded at Pentecost, emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit, the idea of conversion, and the importance of the sacraments (ICERGUA 2003).Footnote 9

After the excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church in 2006, Fr. Aguirre sought to join another church body and was thus in contact with several Churches before establishing a dialog with Eastern Orthodox Church.Footnote 10 They, however, requested that he and his clergy be baptized and chrismated again, something he refused to do (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). By contrast, the Syriac Orthodox Church (SOC) seemed to offer more autonomy, recognizing the cultural individuality of Guatemala and the liturgy Father Aguirre had developed—called the Western Rite. In his encyclical establishing the union in March 2013, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas stated that “for pastoral reasons, given the culture and traditions of the presbytery and faithful of the archdiocese of Central America, elements of the Western rite have been maintained in non-essential parts” (ICERGUA 2014d). These “essential” parts are the liturgy of the Eucharist (called anaphora in the Orthodox traditions), which includes now the liturgy of Saint James used in the SOC (ICERGUA 2014a).

The Syriac Orthodox Church traces its origins back to the first century C.E. church established in Antioch, where the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians. It strongly identifies with the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect similar to that Jesus Christ spoke. Most of the Syriac Orthodox liturgy is in Syriac, while sermons are usually in the language of the community (Arabic, Malayalam, Turoyo). It is found in the Middle East, in the Indian state of Kerala, and increasingly in Europe and the USA due to growing Syriac Orthodox diasporas.Footnote 11 Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church long considered the Syriac Orthodox Church, termed Jacobites, as heretical for its refusal to endorse the Christological positions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. The Syriac Orthodox Church developed a rich tradition in theology, liturgy, and church music.

The changes implemented following the union continue changes introduced after 2003, which trend from a post-Second Vatican Roman Catholic tradition toward a Guatemalan-type Syriac Orthodoxy, and have been gradual and are not yet complete. In 2004, new criteria were defined with regard to the sacraments (ICERGUA 2015b) and baptism (including chrismation and First Communion). The sacraments and the liturgy formed part of a “renewed Catholic” rite, which was gradually adopted in the various communities and parishes, while, additionally in 2011, an “Old Catholic” rite was developed which included besides this “Catholic renewed rite” several old anaphoras (ICERGUA 2011a). Since Father Aguirre began contact with the Syriac Orthodox Church, further changes primarily related to matters of theology have been implemented with regard to the sacraments and the liturgy. However, confirmation as a separate ritual has been maintained. Visuals are the most conspicuous feature of a Syriac Orthodox church in Guatemala, starting with the vestments of the clergy, which after 2013, as a priest in Comalapa pointed out, became those of the Syriac Orthodox clergy. Yet, during services, the priests continue to face the community, in contrast to Syriac Orthodox and pre-Second Council Roman Catholic practice.

According to Fr. Aguirre, he consulted with his followers throughout the dialog leading up to union, and the extent to which Syriac Orthodoxy is being adopted in the archdiocese greatly varies between Comalapa, where people are very “traditional,” and the charismatic communities (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). The latter connection is reportedly “very easy.” The leader of a Charismatic community in Los Angeles indeed stressed the liberty and autonomy they have as part of the Syriac Orthodox Church: “There is freedom. We are Charismatic [ … ] Here, nobody pressures us, nobody forbids us, we are free and practice the charismatic faith, the sacraments.” In the case of Comalapa, by contrast, a Syriac Orthodox priest of that parish spoke to the author of the difficulty in adapting to Syriac Christianity: some people even left the San Juan Bautista Church when new changes were introduced. However, what has helped, according to him, has been the training provided to lay people. In both instances, we therefore see a desire to shape a church that reflects the needs and identity of its members, whether charismatic or Comalapese.

Part 3: Developing a Syriac Christian ethic

Joining the SOC has entailed changes in the rituals (sacraments, liturgy) and recognizing the authority of the SO Patriarch (instead of the Roman Catholic Pope). On the local level, however, the reality of this Syriac Mayan Church is more complex and has several layers. This part will analyze the theological dimension of the Church.

After 2013, the name of the archdiocese became: Iglesia católica apóstolica siro-ortodoxa de Antioquía / Arquidiócesis de Centro América (“Catholic Apostolic Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch/archdiocese of Central America”), though the name “Iglesia Católica ecuménica renovada–ICERGUA” continues to be used in the handbooks along with the official name. This official title often appears on community temples and churches with names reflecting the local identity: for instance in San Juan Sacatepéquez, “Catholic Apostolic Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch/archdiocese of Central America. Charismatic Catholic Renewal [name of the community].” Most people, however, identify themselves as “Catholics,” “charismatic,” and the Syriac Orthodox Church as a “Catholic church” (said the community leader in Los Angeles). A woman in San Juan Sacatepéquez said “we are ecumenical renewed [somos renovados ecuménicos],” and a community leader in San Juan Sacatepéquez called their church “our ecumenical charismatic renewed church of Antioch [nuestra iglesia ecuménica carismática renovada de Antiochía].” A priest in Comalapa identified himself as “orthodox” because of “[the] Mother church which maintained the correct doctrine, the true doctrine.” In some cases, however, there is confusion. For example, the certificates of baptism in one community stated “Catholic Apostolic Orthodox church of Antioch [Iglesia católica apostólica ortodoxa de Antioquía],” while it should be “Catholic Apostolic Syriac Orthodox church of Antioch [Iglesia católica apostolica siro-ortodoxa de Antioquía].” Part of the confusion stems from the fact that Fr. Aguirre himself hardly ever uses the term “Syriac Orthodox” because it has strong ethnic and cultural connotations: “The Syriac Church is thus the one which has maintained the direct link with the culture, mentality, and language of Jesus and the Apostles,” he stated in a document dated 2014 explaining the identity of the archdiocese (ICERGUA 2014c). Instead, Fr. Aguirre uses different terms in his sermons—such as, during a service in San Juan Sacatepéquez, “Commit yourselves truly as ecumenical renewed Catholics like the apostles.” The handbook for Christian initiation has “Catholic orthodox Christians [cristianos católicos ortodoxos]” in one place and a few pages further “We, Catholic renewed Christians [Nosotros los cristianos católicos renovados].”Footnote 12 In earlier texts, Fr. Aguirre established that, in the context of Guatemala, “Orthodox” and “renewed” could be used interchangeably,Footnote 13 for they, according to him, both express the early church, and in that regard “The SOC is the same apostolic church and the original identity of the SOC [ … ] is what the apostles experienced and lived” (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). This claim is supported by other figures of the SOC: “Our Church prides itself as being one of the earliest Apostolic Churches [ … ] In Antioch, the followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time [underlining by the author],” stated Mor Clemis Eugene Kaplan, the SO Bishop of Western United States in a document addressing SO priests in the USA (Kaplan n.d.).

At the core of these various terms is one consistent narrative Fr. Aguirre has conveyed since 2003, and which gained additional legitimacy with the union in 2013. He has developed a narrative of conversion of the individual which is not clearly identifiable with any specific Christian tradition, whether Roman Catholic, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Syriac, or Eastern Orthodox. His narrative is more of a Christian ethic that I would term imitatio apostoli.Footnote 14 It draws on the concepts of both “epistrophê [which] means ‘change of orientation,’ or ‘turning back to the origin or to oneself or to the perfect ideal’ [and] metanoïa [which] means ‘change of way of thinking,’ ‘to repent,’ ‘to be born again,’ and ‘to exit a state of perversion and sin’” (Barylo 2018, p. 33). It is a call to emulate the Apostles—and, to a certain extent, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ—as models of the ethical and moral attitudes proper to a Christian in Guatemala in the twenty-first century, drawing on the themes of repentance and conversion. It is more centered on this life than on the afterlife and addressing followers as both individuals and communities, conveying a positive image of what being a “true Christian” is like. As he said in a sermon during the Confirmation of 200 young people in Comalapa:

‘Authentic Christian’ means authentically anointed by the Spirit of God. And what is the consequence of one having been anointed, precisely by the Spirit of God? [It means] that every one of us turns [converts] into a living Gospel in his life. Every one of you is called to make this Word alive, this presence, this Good News of God [ … ] Convert yourself like the Virgin Mary did to become persons who carry this Gospel so that all can believe, change their lives, and become children of God.

This is a call for each member, including women, to be active and embrace a Christian ethic of becoming an actor for change. Although this narrative never addresses political and social issues, it carries a subtle social message of equality grounded in the Christian message “recognizing the fundamental equality of all members of the people of God” (ICERGUA 2008b). This narrative is found in the sermons and talks of Fr. Aguirre as well as in those of the priests. During a Sunday service sermon in Comalapa, the priest said: “There is much corruption. [...] And what is this hope that we have and live in our country? We want a better country. We want a better world. And who will accomplish this, according to you? [...] hope is within us.”

Despite the fluid designation of this church in Guatemala, Father Aguirre has consistently promoted a narrative since the early 2000s centered on imitatio apostoli, which is supported by ecclesiological structures based on the very local level.

Part 4: The church of lay people

When he established his movement in 2003, Fr. Aguirre aimed to shift the locus of the church to the extreme local level: that is, to “the organic, pluralistic, and autonomous organization of the different ecclesial communities” (ICERGUA 2003).

Consequently, from the very beginning, Fr. Aguirre envisioned a church in which local communities, established by one or several members, are the cornerstone of the whole undertaking. In his sermons, he has consistently reminded his followers that each community should have a financial and pastoral council (ICERGUA 2014b). Such parishes must also be able to provide pastoral care (ICERGUA 2011c). However, considering how often this is repeated in the noticias, this must not always be the case on the ground. Above the parishes, there are decanatos which comprise the representatives of the communities and the clergy of the geographic area (North or Central), in which matters are discussed and theological training is provided to the laity. This framework results in local lay autonomy, which benefits from the visit of priests and the bishop, the latter at least twice a year, to perform the sacraments.

This creates a situation in which the periphery becomes the center of the church, something that is enhanced by the limited number of clerics—both priests and seminarians. In 2008, there were 24 clerics and 35 seminarians for 750 communities and 350,000 members (ICERGUA 2008b). In 2018, in Huehuetenango, two priests attended 70 different communities totaling 50,000 members (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). Since the establishment of “Saint Mary of the New Exodus,” priests have been trained at the seminary Santa María del Nuevo Éxodo near Guatemala City. An important element of the priests’ role and presence is the fact that they speak and use Mayan languages in services because most of the priests and seminarians are of Mayan origin (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). Bilingual services are widely practiced, something that adds to the attractiveness of the Syriac Sunday service in the San Juan Bautista Church in Comalapa, according to one of the priests (both priests are of K’aqchiqel ethnicity). In this church, the introduction and sermon are first given in Spanish and then translated into K’aqchiqel by the priest. By contrast, the use of K’aqchiqel was much less prevalent in the Roman Catholic service attended by the author in the “Rosario” church. However, the link between the Mayan element and the Roman Catholic Church is more complex because, since its establishment in Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently integrated Mayan languages and cultures into its framework to promote Christianization (see Hoenes del Pinal 2016b, p. 184). The Bible has been translated into Q’eqchi’, and parts of the Gospel are available in a dozen Mayan languages.Footnote 15 Currently, most of the Roman Catholic seminarians, including the Rector, are Maya (de Villa y Vázquez 2018). As a result, local lay autonomy, in addition to pastoral care by the clergy, adds to the archdiocese’s attractiveness.

In the Roman Catholic Church, following Vatican II, a special service following the liturgy of the Word (the first part of the mass) has been introduced in which lay people can celebrate in the absence of a priest (see Hoenes del Pinal 2016b, p. 186) and receive communion. This practice has been maintained in the archdiocese because, in the absence of a priest, lay men can perform a type of Sunday Mass following the handbook for the liturgy and celebrate communion (but not Eucharist), in conformity with the Roman Catholic practice of keeping consecrated hosties. The author also observed in several communities that, while the Bishop was preparing the Eucharist, a lay leader would speak, asking for the blessing of the community. At the end of the Sunday service, community leaders inform the community about upcoming events, church construction programs, and the like. At a decanato in Comalapa (which was an opportunity for the Bishop to provide theological training to community leaders and active members of the region), the author talked with a woman who was formerly on the liturgical council.

Thus, Fr. Aguirre has integrated the role women play locally into the practices of the archdiocese (and traditionally not in SO): “Incomplete approaches: thinking that the woman’s role in the community is merely limited to secondary activities such as cleaning, cooking and domestic services” (ICERGUA c). Women are part of the decanatos, where they receive theological training and serve on various pastoral councils with men (for example, the Syriac Orthodox woman mentioned above who had been a member of a liturgical council). They are also very visible during religious services doing Bible readings (as was the case in all services attended by the author in Comalapa, San Juan Sacatepéquez, and Los Angeles) or in Comalapa as part of the hermandades (the women’s adjunct to the cofradías). They participate in the preparation of the Eucharist, entering the sacred space of the altar (something forbidden in traditional Syriac Orthodox churches). In some charismatic communities (including Huehuetenango and one community in San Juan Sacatepéquez), some young women have started to wear white veils, as in Pentecostal and many traditional Syriac Orthodox churches. According to Bishop Eduardo, the prevalence of this practice depends on the seminarian attending the community.

Given the pivotal role the laity plays both in theory and practice, what is the role of the clergy, besides performing Eucharist during Sunday service and giving the sacraments? That role is partially conditioned by the fact that the number of clerics and their leverage is limited. Fr. Aguirre himself typically visits each community at least twice a year—some of them being very remote. More important communities like Comalapa are visited more often. As mentioned above, this creates a situation in which the periphery becomes the center. The case of Comalapa, where the followers of the San Juan Bautista church have long complained about neglect by the Roman Catholic Church, shows in particular how the pastoral care of two priests has turned it into a center. According to one of the priests, their presence has resulted in the resumption of the decoration of the San Juan Bautista Church with flowers. They also participate in processions (which take place frequently) and even charismatic prayer groups. The priests’ presence in such contexts is reminiscent of John Early’s mention of the “insistence by the Maya on retaining the services of non-Mayan Catholic priests to celebrate Catholic rituals in their churches during Mayan festivals in honor of the saints” (Early 2006, p. 4). Though the processions and festivals of the saints (Virgen de Guadalupe for instance) clearly have local Mayan elements (as discussed below), the priests try to infuse them with the Christian ethic taught by Bishop Eduardo.

Part 5: A church constantly negotiated

While the theology and practices (including an adapted Syriac liturgy) of the archdiocese are clearly outlined in handbooks for the sacraments and the liturgy intended for use in the parishes and communities, the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese is a lived church negotiated on the local level. This part considers how the local churches (communities and parishes) are negotiated through a subtle balance of power between Father Aguirre (Bishop Eduardo), the clerics, and the laity. It is through this negotiation that local members assert their agency and identity.

Though a special liturgy has been approved by the SO Patriarch for the archdiocese and is available throughout the archdiocese via handbook, it is very flexible and designed to meet local needs. Fr. Aguirre adapts his services to every community. In Comalapa, where the changes have been implemented since the mid-2000s, he recites the memorial of the Last Supper in Syriac, whereas in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, where communities joined more recently (1 to 7 years ago), he uses some Syriac during that liturgy (for instance brikho instead of “blessed”) and interrupted his service at the moment of the Lord’s Prayer to ask the congregation, “Do you know what was Jesus’ language? Aramaic. Therefore for those who have the handbook, go to page 15.” The Lord’s Prayer was then recited in Syriac. In a service attended by the author, where the Bishop was not present, following the consecration, the priest mentioned in a prayer Pope Francis with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch. The issue of communion shows both the extent to which Roman Catholic practices remain alive and the flexibility of rituals. The 3-h fasting before receiving communion in traditional SO churches is not common in Guatemala. Fr. Aguirre stated it was not possible to enforce this practice (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). Also, communion is much more general when the Bishop is not present because he insists that people not sacramentally married cannot take the Eucharist.

The dynamics of negotiating the church on the local level depend to a large extent on whether the community was Charismatic or not. Consequently, the challenges vary. As mentioned above, according to Fr. Aguirre, merging Syriac Orthodoxy and Charismatic communities was easier than in Comalapa. In the former case, he integrates the Charismatic outlook into a SOC presented as the original, “apostolic” Church: “the joy of being part of the original Apostolic church and knowing that the lived and shared Charismatic Renewal in the Holy Spirit completely coincides with the experience and the life-style that the first Christians lived, first in Jerusalem and then from Antioch” (ICERGUA 2015a). Local Charismatic practices have been integrated into the archdiocese as a whole, such as the annual January 6th celebration in Nucá, Huehuetenango, of some men who reportedly had received the gift of healing in the 1980s (ICERGUA 2010, 2012a). Every year, on April 3, the 70 to 80 martyrs of Chajul, who were killed in 1983 by the army, are remembered (ICERGUA 2016a). The Libro de Oración states that a number of elderly men, women, and children were killed by the army after one of the inhabitants had received a vision telling him to remain steadfast and witness their faith.Footnote 16 The picture of the martyrs also appears in the Confirmation handbook used in the archdiocese. However, the topic of incense raises some challenges. In one instance in Huehuetenango, apparently as a result of Pentecostal practices, incense and candles are no longer employed. Bishop Eduardo has a tolerant policy, insisting on its use while referring to the alleged apostolic tradition:

The Bishop explained the fundamentals both in the Bible as well as in the apostolic tradition for the use of such elements. Nevertheless he pointed out that even if there is a need to patiently instruct so that the brothers understand its meaning and accept it, no one should be rejected if not open to the use of such symbols when he fully professes the Catholic apostolic faith and the sacramental life as a whole (ICERGUA 2013).

Incense constitutes an important element of Roman Catholic-Mayan syncretism (Cofradía Catedral de San Juan Bautista 2008). It is much more widely used in the Syriac Orthodox than in the Roman Catholic services. Incense is widely used in the most remote, rural areas of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese, and, according to a female member of one of these communities in San Juan Sacatepéquez, they have used it for a very long time.

Father Aguirre has displayed a similar pragmatic and tolerant approach when dealing with local traditions in Comalapa, in particular regarding the wooden statues of saints in the San Juan Bautista Church in Comalapa (now Syriac Orthodox), partly because he lacks the coercive means to enforce a strict Syriac Orthodox practice: “[The] Gospel says don’t take bad seed if good seed goes with it,” thus “[they] can keep it a [s] [part of] personal experience but cannot worship because [this is] not our faith” (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). He considers himself something of an iconoclast (Aguirre Oestmann 2018).Footnote 17 On the local level, priests tend to be more accommodating, acknowledging the peoples’ attraction to the statues for which the town of Comalapa is indeed famous. The San Juan Bautista Church has many more statues than the main Roman Catholic Church (the “Rosario”). In addition to the statues, whose veneration is more or less tolerated, the cofradías and female hermandades are fully part of every major religious event in the San Juan Bautista Church (Confirmation, Christmas, and any religious event attended by the Bishop, etc.) and are an important element of cohesion in the church.

The question of the integration of local elements into the archdiocese is not only the result of tacit approval by the clergy but is in fact a coexistence that takes place on several levels, as exemplified by attitudes toward the Virgin Mary. After 2010 (when contacts with the Syriac Orthodox were initiated), Fr. Aguirre promoted a Syriac Orthodox interpretation of Mary, referring to her as “Yoldath Aloho” or “Theotokos” (God bearing), a central doctrine in Syriac Orthodoxy (see ICERGUA 2016c). He thus opposes the Roman Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception: “For the Catholic Apostolic Orthodox faith, nobody but Christ has been conceived without original sin” (ICERGUA 2016e).Footnote 18 However, the role Mary plays in the Guatemalan Syriac Orthodox archdiocese is primarily that of a model to be emulated as part of the imitatio apostoli formulated by Fr. Aguirre: “Holy Mary, being our mother and model, must be invoked and imitated so that we can fully accomplish the mission that the Lord entrusted us with” (ICERGUA 2012b). On the local level, however, even though Fr. Aguirre does not agree with the veneration of Mary’s wooden statues in the San Juan Bautista Church, there is still room for individual and collective devotion to her. The church is always open and the author witnessed on two Thursdays that, outside services, women gathered to pray the rosary and sing toward the Virgen de la Medalla Milagrosa. Priests can be part of such practices: they celebrated a liturgy in the San Juan Bautista Church for the Feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe which they subsequently put on Facebook.

There are even hints elements of the Mayan traditions have found their way into the lived Syriac church. In the now Syriac Orthodox San Juan Bautista Church, which is always open, people come, light candles for saints (such as La Virgen de Guadalupe), and sometimes leave flowers or rose petals. This all strikingly resembles the Mayan practices described by John Early, which were “pre-Colombian ceremonies in which the Mayas fed their gods with offerings of candles, liquor, incense, and blood accompanied by formulaic prayers” (Early 2006, p. 213). In the case of consecrated oil, there are hints that people have come to espouse the anointing of the sick, for “[t] he brothers have experienced genuine miracles of healing through the use of blessed oil, as a result of which it has been requested in many places throughout the archdiocese” (ICERGUA 2016d). Based on this, we can hypothesize that the practice of including chrismation and First Communion with Syriac baptism may have enhanced the latter’s appeal. John Early wrote that baptism in Guatemala “evolved as a type of shamanic curing ceremony to protect against ever-present infant sickness” (Early 2006, p. 215).

On the very local level, in the context of the lived church, many elements of previous practices—Charismatic, Roman Catholic, Roman Catholic-Maya—manage to find their way into the SO archdiocese and be supervised and tacitly approved by the clergy.

Part 6: Shaping the boundaries of the community and the archdiocese

The superposition of and coexistence between Syriac Orthodoxy and contrasting aspects of the communities’ local worlds raise the question of the locus of the break: Where are the boundaries of the SO archdiocese? When asked about the differences between the Roman Catholics and “Syriac Orthodox,” most people in the communities could not really say. For instance, the self-defined “ecumenical renewed” woman in San Juan Sacatepéquez quoted in part 3 stated that both communities did things differently but use the same book. A woman parishioner of the San Juan Bautista Church in Comalapa said to the author during Confirmation that both the San Juan Bautista Church and the “Rosario” Church were Catholic, but mentioned that the members of the latter vilified the beliefs of the former.

Estrangement from the Roman Catholic Church thus is a powerful element of cohesion and further “conversion.” Although Fr. Aguirre opposes the idea of proselytizing, which he considers “a sectarian attitude in which personal beliefs and one’s own organization are presented as the only valid [one ...] and feelings of guilt, anxieties and fear are promoted which limit the ability to take a calm and free decision” (ICERGUA 2009), nevertheless in his sermons and discourses during his travels through the archdiocese, he systematically encourages conversion: for instance, during Confirmation in Comalapa he stated that “every one of us turns into a living gospel in his life.” In this context, “conversion” reflects a highly complex and ambiguous reality: it means both metanoia (discussed in part 3), and disaffiliation from the Roman Catholic Church for the SOC. According to Fr. Aguirre, the five communities in San Juan Sacatepéquez are the result of conversion efforts by a member of the San Juan Bautista Church in Comalapa who, a couple years ago while selling goods at the market in the town of San Juan Sacatepéquez, talked to a client whose Charismatic prayer group had reportedly been excluded from the local Roman Catholic church. The person from Comalapa reportedly said that this had happened to them as well and therefore talked to the man from San Juan Sacatepéquez about Fr. Aguirre. An important source of living for the Mayan are the markets across the region, from Comalapa to San Juan Sacatepéquez and Guatemala City, where they sell their products and commodities. Such economic ties may explain the presence of Syriac Orthodox communities outside Huehuetenango, Quiché, and Chimaltenango. The “conversion” of this community in San Juan Sacatepéquez led to serious tensions with the local Roman Catholic priest.

But relations between the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese and the Roman Catholic Church are, on the whole, ambivalent. On the official level, relations are tense because, according to Fr. Aguirre, the Roman Catholic Church does not want to acknowledge the Syriac Orthodox presence (Aguirre Oestmann 2018). On the other hand, for the Roman Catholic Bishop Gonzalo de Villa, the core of the problem is a Syriac Guatemalan church that remains very much Catholic: “I have more the impression that [Fr. Aguirre] does many things that are not part of the Orthodox tradition, [but] very much of the Catholic Church [...] [F] or the Catholics, Evangelicals [evangelicos] are different, distinct but we don’t get confused [...] and because we are different, we are able to respect and understand [each other] as neighbors, as friends” (de Villa y Vázquez 2018). In Comalapa, especially, tensions were very high in the mid-2000s following the secession from the Roman Catholic Church (de Villa y Vázquez 2018). One young Roman Catholic man, involved in a Catholic Action Bible reading group, said that many conflicts arise from the processions in the town. Both a woman parishioner and a priest of San Juan Bautista mentioned “the criticisms, all the negative comments they have made against us.” However, there are many instances of what has been called in the context of the Middle East “wild ecumenism”—that is individuals attending services in a church to which they do not belong.Footnote 19 The above mentioned Syriac Orthodox woman said that she attended services in the Roman Catholic Church. A Syriac Orthodox priest even told the author that he would give communion to Roman Catholics. A decanato training in Comalapa witnessed by the author was poorly attended because, according to a priest, that same day Confirmation was held in the Roman Catholic church (“Rosario”) and active Syriac Orthodox members were there acting as godfathers and godmothers.

Relations of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese with Pentecostal Christianity seem for the moment to be smoother, though tensions are slowly increasing because, according to Fr. Aguirre, more and more (former Roman Catholic) Evangelicals are now joining the Syriac Orthodox Church. The boundaries of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese are therefore blurred because, first, Fr. Aguirre and the clergy encourage their followers to “convert” more people, and second, on the local level Roman Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and Evangelicals easily move from one church to another, and from one service to another. A presently Roman Catholic woman in Comalapa, who had become Pentecostal when she was a young woman, said she liked services at San Juan Bautista because, as in the Pentecostal church, they were “more profound,” insisting on conversion in every aspect of one’s life. However, she said that she did not enjoy the “ritualism”—that is, the Syriac liturgy—performed in the church.

Consequently, the line of conversion does not lie as much between persons and congregations as between specific places: the local church. During a training of the decanato in Comalapa, one priest questioned the very identity of the San Juan Bautista Church: “unstable identification: Catholic Orthodox and Catholic San Juan church?” Yet the SO laity contributes to establishing the (separate) identity of their churches, thus ensuring the visibility of their communities in a landscape that continues to be Roman Catholic and Pentecostal, simply by building more churches. For instance, the community in San Juan Sacatepéquez, whose conversion was outlined above, is still meeting for religious services in a shed but is currently constructing a huge church with funding provided by its members, by a donor in the USA, and by a Syriac Orthodox figure in Germany. The Syriac Orthodox presence is also advertised by the music group (usually drums, electric guitar, and keyboard) which most Orthodox communities have. Every place where a Syriac Orthodox community gathers (even if only a shed) is decorated in a special way with flowers, little paper-cut doves, a table for an altar, and such specifically Syriac features as pictures of the Bishop (Fr. Aguirre) and of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, or a Syriac calendar. One community in San Juan Sacatepéquez has a set of Syriac liturgical tools donated by one of its members. Women bought the tabernacle that is in the Santa Cruz La Laguna, Sololá, church (ICERGUA 2016b).

Lay persons continuously contribute to shaping the complex and unique face of their local “Syriac Orthodox” church—a church, a temple, or a simple shed—which subsequently becomes the heart of their community.


This article has analyzed the emergence of a Catholic renewal movement, starting in 2003, which joined the Syriac Orthodox Church in 2013, thus becoming the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese of Central America. It is still in the process of consolidation. We have offered a snapshot of how this church is negotiated (and, in fact, continuously negotiated) on the local level between Bishop Fr. Aguirre, the clergy, and the laity. Since the mid-2000s, there have been a number of ongoing changes in theology, the sacraments, and liturgy. Nevertheless, this adapted Syriac Orthodox Christianity has helped the laity assert the agency of their mostly poor, rural, Mayan communities.

Besides the very process of becoming a Syriac Orthodox diocese, the archdiocese has faced a number of challenges. First are the various degrees to which changes have been accepted or resisted. Second is the limited number of clerics who have few means and little will to coerce an orthodox Syriac Orthodox Christianity. Third are the unstable community boundaries caused by conversion, tensions with other Christian communities, and “wild ecumenism.” The very nature of this “conversion” process and the consequences it entails cause confusion and tension. Paradoxically, these unstable identities and boundaries do not affect the individual members’ strong identification with their local church and with the archdiocese as a whole. In fact, as this article has shown, the very shortcomings and challenges of the archdiocese constitute a large part of its attractiveness.

What lies at the core of the archdiocese’s attraction is that it is a place where the laity can actively participate in the liturgy and pastoral care. Lay people can shape their local church by enhancing its visibility and by actively contributing to the growth of the archdiocese through conversion, integrating the local world into, and shaping its coexistence with, the (new) SO identity. In this way, the periphery becomes the center and the local community is indeed the heart of the larger church envisioned by Fr. Aguirre since 2003. Thus, various elements of the local world can coexist, including a deep attachment to Christianity, traditional practices (such as the veneration of the wooden saint statues in Comalapa), Catholic Charismatic practices, access to the sacraments, and active lay involvement in liturgy, pastoral care, and the shaping of the local community. The Christian ethics expressed by Fr. Aguirre enhance identification with the local church through emphasizing the responsibility of every member, including women, to be active in their archdiocese. I think that it is this opportunity for the coexistence of various local elements—partly as a result of Fr. Aguirre’s theology, partly because of the lack of coercion, partly through lay assertiveness—which explains the attractiveness of the SO as opposed to the other religion options available to these communities.

The future will tell how sustainable this archdiocese is (the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch is supposed to visit Guatemala soon). Its development by itself is perhaps prophetic of religious developments in Guatemala and of the future of Orthodox Christianity throughout Latin America.


  1. 1.

    For the sake of clarity, the Bishop is referred to as “Fr. Aguirre” throughout this article.

  2. 2.

    Jakob Thorsen briefly mentions it in 2015 and 2016. An article in The Glastonbury Review discusses the “Catholic Ecumenical Renewed Church” of Fr. Aguirre at some length (see Seraphim 2015).

  3. 3.

    Written sources provided by the website of the archdiocese of Central America as well as handbooks for the liturgy, for baptism, etc., were useful for capturing the evolution of the movement which eventually became Syriac Orthodox. Particularly useful were the noticias on the archdiocese’s website tracing the almost daily activities of Father Aguirre Oestmann (and written by him), and addressing the challenges and problems faced by the archdiocese since 2003. In addition, fieldwork (qualitative interviews, participant observation, and informal conversations with members) was conducted in Los Angeles in August 2018, where a charismatic community originally from Huehuetenango and the Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Western United States, who played an important role in the union, are located, as well as in Guatemala in the city of San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango, and the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, where more recent, poor, and rural communities are located. I joined Fr. Aguirre in his pastoral activities in the rural areas of San Juan Sacatepéquez. Sources were also gathered from the Roman Catholic Church (written statements, a qualitative interview with Bishop Gonzalo de Villa y Vázquez, and informal conversations with Roman Catholics in Comalapa). Consequently, the ethnographic sources used for this article comprise qualitative interviews, informal conversations with Syriac Orthodox clerics, community leaders, and active or simple members, both male and female as well as participant observation (services with and without Fr. Aguirre, observation outside services at San Juan Comalapa, theological training of laity). Another type of source used were social media, in particular the Facebook page of clerics in Comalapa dedicated to that church and its charismatic prayer group.

  4. 4.

    In this area, there was a surge of Evangelical converts, partly because under dictator Ríos Montt, the army distinguished between Catholic and Evangelical Christians (Prien 2007, p. 399).

  5. 5.

    There are a few small Charismatic communities in Los Angeles who joined Fr. Aguirre’s movement in the 2000s.

  6. 6.

    The Cofradías and female hermandades are lay brotherhoods organized around local cults, such as cults to saints. In the context of Latin America, they have come to embody the fusion of local Mayan practices with Roman Catholic beliefs, called costumbre as a result (see Pédron Colombani 2014).

  7. 7.

    “Customary practices like burning pom, incense, candles during Catholic religious activities were fused to become what is currently called religious syncretism, which have ever since been practices special of the Cofradía as a representative group of power, not only within the Catholic Church, but for the whole people” (Cofradía Catedral de San Juan Bautista 2008).

  8. 8.

    Eduardo Aguirre Oestmann, now Bishop Santiago Eduardo, was born in 1952 in Quetzaltenango into an upper middle class family of European Guatemalan descent. Prior to obtaining his doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Gregorian Institute in Rome, he was ordained a priest in the dioceses of Sololá (Aguirre Oestmann 2018) and received the title of Monseigneur in 1985 (Aciprensa 2006). Before establishing “Saint Mary of the New Exodus,” he was youth director and founded a seminary (Aguirre Oestmann 2018).

  9. 9.

    For further explanations, see below.

  10. 10.

    After the excommunication in 2006, Fr. Aguirre first contacted the Old Catholic Churches of Utrecht, then the Catholic Apostolic Church of Brazil (which ordained him bishop), and finally the Eastern Orthodox Churches (see Seraphim 2015).

  11. 11.

    The Syriac Orthodox suffered catastrophic death and displacement during World War I with the Armenians.

  12. 12.

    Iglesia Católica Apostólica siro-ortodoxa de Antioquía (ICASOA). Guía de formación catequética para la primera reconciliación y la comunión solemne. Editorial Nuevo Éxodo, collección “Didache” Número 2/9a, San Lucas Sacatepéquez: 10.

  13. 13.

    “The word Orthodox is replaced with ‘renewed’ […] they are synonymous, because by ‘renewed’ we understand the Church that was born the day of Pentecost and then witnessed and organized by the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church, which matches ‘Orthodox’” (ICERGUA 2011b).

  14. 14.

    The idea of imitatio apostoli builds upon a religious movement which emerged in the late fourteenth century in Netherlands and considered itself a modern movement of religious piety (devotio moderna) practicing individual meditation, private prayer, and devotion. Its most famous text is The Imitation of Christ published around 1420. See Jouanna et al. (1998) Histoire et dictionnaire des Guerres de Religion. Robert Laffont, Paris, p. 33.

  15. 15.

    See Presentación de la Sección de Animación Bíblica de la Pastoral ( accessed 25 March 2019); Información sobre la Biblia en Quiché ( accessed 25 March 2019); Audio Bible Recordings ( accessed 25 March 2019).

  16. 16.

    As of November 2018, the Libro de Oración común (p. 465) has not been blessed by the Patriarch.

  17. 17.

    In the SOC, a type of veneration is expressed through incensing. The cross and the Gospel are incensed, whereas images of saints are only incensed on their feast days.

  18. 18.

    The late Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas argued against the Immaculate Conception thus: “It is noteworthy to mention that the conception of Mary took place according to the natural law for she was of a man (Joachim) and a woman (Hanna). [...] She inherited, just like them, and like other people, the original sin of Adam and Eve” (Iwas 2010). The Patriarch furthermore rejected the veneration of Mary: “It’s already been mentioned that the Syrian Church venerates the Virgin Mary and that prayers to God include interceding with the Virgin Mary, but the faithful in the Syrian Church do not worship her. Only God is worshiped. We denounce the legend of worshiping Mary.”

  19. 19.

    Historian Bernard Heyberger termed this phenomenon “œcuménisme sauvage” (English “wild ecumenism”), by which members of the Christian communities, for instance in Lebanon and Syria, do not necessarily practice rites and attend services in the church into which they were born (Heyberger 2013, pp. 62–63).


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This article was completed during a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (IVOC), Radboud University, Netherlands. I would like to thank Prof. Heleen Murre-van den Berg and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments as well as Prof. Jakob Thorsen and Mor Eduardo for their help, and all those individuals I had a chance to meet in the course of this project who provided me with their valuable insight and support.

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Correspondence to Anna Hager.

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Hager, A. The emergence of a Syriac Orthodox Mayan Church in Guatemala. Int J Lat Am Relig 3, 370–389 (2019).

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  • Maya
  • Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR)
  • Orthodox Christianity
  • Syriac Orthodox Church
  • cofradía
  • Guatemala