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Icons? Quite orthodox

Published February 28, 2007


Against a darkening sky Sunday, the faithful clutched religious images to their chests and walked slowly around St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

They stopped to pray and sing, for the living, the dead, their Orthodox community and the world, at points south, west, north and east.

For Orthodox Christians throughout the world, it was both the first Sunday of Lent, or the beginning of the Great Fast, and Orthodoxy Sunday.

The occasion recognizes the return of icons - sacred two-dimensional images that are an important aspect of Orthodox worship - into churches during the middle of the ninth century.

Icons were banished during a 150-year-long battle that pitted so-called iconoclasts, who viewed the use of icons as idolatry, against those who favored them.

Priests in ornate vestments and members of Orthodox congregations around Tampa Bay, including Greek, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian and Armenian, joined St. Nicholas for Sunday's vesper service and procession honoring the restoration of the icons. Many carried personal icons. Orthodox icons depict Jesus, saints and events in Scripture.

St. Nicholas' Father Michael Massouh said the controversy surrounding the use and veneration of religious art "forced the church to articulate more clearly the use of icons."

"Icons are aids to worship, not to be worshiped themselves," he said. "They are reminders of these people and these events, so when one encounters them, if you will, the event or the person is brought to mind and helps in putting ourselves in a holy context."

The weekend's gathering was the first major celebration at St. Nicholas' new church, at 6447 76th Ave. N in Pinellas Park.

The church was started in 1976, a few years after Jerusalem-born Najib Jacob moved from Pennsylvania and discovered that there was no Antiochian Orthodox church nearby. At first the few worshipers of Middle Eastern descent gathered in Jacob's home. Years later the congregation has grown to 65 families, made up of people of various ethnic backgrounds and converts from other Christian denominations.

On Sunday, Jacob, a subdeacon, his wife, Anna, son, Michael, daughter-in-law, Randa, and 6-month-old granddaughter, Miranda, were among the worshipers who filled every seat in the church.

With the congregation in new, larger quarters, it can focus on other matters, Massouh said.

"We've been crowded until now," he said. "This gives us an opportunity to reach out and help people who want to learn more about the Orthodox faith."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at 892-2283 or

Fast Facts:

Antiochian Orthodox origins

- As part of the Antiochian Orthodox community, St. Nicholas traces its origins to the church established in Antioch by apostles Peter and Paul.

- The church was brought to North America in the late 19th century to serve immigrants from Syria and Lebanon.

- The first Arabic-speaking parish in North America was established in New York.

[Last modified February 28, 2007, 07:39:03]

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