Norwich Syrian Orthodox Christians celebrate St George

Norfolk members of one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world – the Syrian Orthodox Church – celebrated the feast St George, a major festival in their yearly calendar at the weekend (May 12). Mike Wiltshire reports.

The congregation is one of an increasing number of vibrant ethnic churches in Norwich, despite the fact that Norwich has been described as “the most ungodly city in the UK.”

Meeting at Bowthorpe Church, the Norwich Syrian Orthodox congregation was founded in 2008 and draws members from Diss, Dereham and Great Yarmouth. Most members are from a Kerala (South India) background, although the worldwide church of more than four million adherents traces its origin back to historic Antioch located about 15 miles inland from the Mediterranean sea, in what today is Turkey, just north of Syria.

Antioch became the home to the first Christian church outside of Israel and was the first place in which followers of Jesus were referred to as Christians. St Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, took the Christian faith to Kerala in AD52.

Today, the Syrian Church uses one of the oldest liturgies in Christianity. Members also use Syriac, (a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus), in their services.

In Norwich, the congregation – one of 30 in the UK – was founded by the Rev Fr Jomon Punnoose, 38, whose family of three children live in Bowthorpe. Jomon, who came to the UK in 2006, is a keen cricketer who also loves singing and writes songs in Malayalam, the language of Kerala where there are many Syrian Jacobite churches.

Jomon oversees five Syrian Orthodox congregations in the UK. Although happy to meet in Bowthorpe, the Norwich congregation “would love to find an unused church to establish a centre in Norfolk,” says Jomon, who also leads prayer meetings in members’ homes.

Throughout history, the Syrian church has faced strong persecution, especially in the Middle East, which has led to dispersion. Many members are suffering in modern Syria, where kidnappings of church leaders have also taken place. A third of Syria’s Christian population is believed to have fled the country since the uprising began.

Pictured above is Rev Fr Jomon, leading the special service on Sunday which also featured a parade by members celebrating the feast of St George.