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The emergence of a Syriac Orthodox Mayan Church in Guatemala

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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.

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

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

  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. “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. 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. For further explanations, see below.

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

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

  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. 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. 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).


Qualitative interviews

  • Aguirre Oestmann BME (2018) Personal interview, 23 November 2018. San Lucas Sacatepéquez, Guatemala

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  • de Villa y Vázquez BG (2018) Personal interview. 19 November 2018. Panajachel, Guatemala


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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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