Malankara World

A Brief History of The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch

by Father Theodosius, St. Mary the Protectress Orthodox Church, Plymouth, Indiana

According to ecclesiastical history and tradition, St. Peter the Apostle established a bishopric in Antioch and became its first bishop and was succeeded by Evodius for the converted Jews and St. Ignatius the Illuminator for the converted Gentiles. After the martyrdom of St. Peter in Rome, was succeeded by St. Evodius and St. Ignatius respectively. Likewise, St. Peter was succeeded by a line of distinguished Patriarchs, most of whom amazed the world with their sanctity, wonderful writings and other accomplishments in many fields. The See of Antioch then becomes the first, the oldest, and the most famous Church in Christianity. It was the foundation of the Christianity in the East and mother of the gentile churches and the headquarters of Christianity in Asia. It’s proud to be the origin of the word Christian; it was in Antioch, after all, that the followers of Jesus Christ were called Christians as we are told in the New Testament, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26).

In the mid of the 5th century, the Bishop of Antioch, and his counterparts in Alexandria, Byzantium and Rome, would be called patriarchs. The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch used to be known by his own name; however, since 1293 the patriarchs of Antioch adopted the name Ignatius, after the Illuminator. The See of Antioch continues to flourish till our day, with His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, being the 121st in the line of legitimate patriarchs.

The patriarchate was forced to move from Antioch in ca. A.D. 518, after a period of turbulent history, to various locations in the Near East until it settled in the monastery Dayro d-Mor Hananya (also known as Kurkmo Dayro, Deir az-Za'faran--Syriac and Arabic respectively for Saffron Monastery) in Mardin, Turkey, during the 13th century. After another period of heinous violence during and after World War I, which took the lives of a quarter million Syriac Orthodox faithful, the patriarchate was transferred to Homs, Syria, in 1933, and later to Damascus in 1959.

The Syriac Orthodox Church is quite unique for many reasons. Firstly, it presents a form of Christianity, which is Semitic in nature, with a culture not far from the one Christ himself experienced. Secondly, it employs in its liturgy the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect akin to the Aramaic spoken by Christ and the Apostles. Thirdly, its liturgy is one of the most ancient, and has been handed from one generation to another. Fourthly, and most importantly, it demonstrates the unity of the body of Christ by the multiethnic nature of its faithful: A visit to your local Syriac Orthodox Church in Europe or the Americas would demonstrate, for example, the blend of Near Eastern and Indian cultures in the motifs and vestments of clergy. The Syriac Orthodox faithful today live primarily in Middle Eastern countries and the Indian State of Kerala, with many communities in the diaspora.

The Syriac Orthodox Church has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1960, and is one of the founding members of the Middle East Council of Churches. The Church takes part in ecumenical and theological dialogues with other churches. As a result of these dialogues, the Church has issued two joint declarations with the Roman Catholic Church and another with the Eastern Orthodox churches.

In Syriac, the proper name of the Church is 'ito suryoyto Orthoduksoyto d-Antiokhiya'. In the past, the name of the Church had been translated to English as “Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch”. The Holy Synod of the Church approved the translation “Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch” for use in English speaking countries in its session of March 28-April 3, 2000.


Throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, Aramaic, in its many dialectical forms, was the language of the land, and Syriac, originally the Aramaic dialect of Edessa in Northern Mesopotamia, must have been the most influential literary form of Aramaic. When we speak of Syriac Christianity, we refer to Christians whose native tongue was Syriac and those who employed Syriac as their liturgical language.

Syriac Christianity was not centered just in Antioch, the Roman capital of Syria. In fact, Syriac Christianity can be traced further East in Mesopotamia. As local tradition tells us, Christianity was received in Edessa during the time of the Apostles. This is reported in a number of documents including Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History. He gives us the text of a correspondence between the city's king, Abgar Ukomo, and none other than Jesus Himself:

“Abgar Ukomo, the toparch, to Jesus the good Savior who has appeared in the district of Jerusalem, greetings. I have heard concerning you and your cures, how they are accomplished by you without drugs and herbs ... And when I heard of all these things concerning you I decided that it is one of two things, either that you are God and came down from Heaven to do these things, or are the Son of God for doing these things. For this reason I write to beg you to hasten to me and to heal the suffering which I have ...”

The reply from Jesus to King Abgar, according to the same tradition, was carried by a certain Ananias and read:

“Blessed are you who believed in me, not having seen me ... Now concerning what you wrote to me, to come to you, I must first complete here all for which I was sent, and after thus completing it be taken up to Him who sent me; and when I have been taken up, I will send to you one of my disciples to heal your suffering and give life to you and those with you. “

The story continues to describe how one of the Seventy Disciples, named Adai, was sent to King Abgar to heal his disease.

Historical literary sources tell us that by the second half of the second century there was an established church in Edessa, though probably most of the inhabitants remained pagan. The Chronicle of Edessa tells us that in the year 201, a disastrous flood destroyed the church of the Christians in the city. However, it took only about a century until most of the city was under the umbrella of Christianity. Edessa, home of the Syriac form of Aramaic, indeed prides itself as the first kingdom that officially accepted the new faith.

Syriac Christianity has had a long history in India. According to tradition, Christianity in India was established by St. Thomas who arrived in Malankara (Kerala) from Edessa in A.D. 52. The close ties between the Church in Malankara and the Near East go back to at least the fourth century when a certain Joseph of Edessa traveled to India and met Christians there. The church in Malankara today is an integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church with the Patriarch of Antioch as its supreme spiritual head. The local head of the church in Malankara is the Catholicos of the East, consecrated by and accountable to the Patriarch of Antioch.

Syriac Christianity spread rapidly in the East. The Bible was translated into Syriac to serve as the main source of teaching as early as the second century. Till our day, the antiquity of the Syriac biblical versions is upheld with high esteem by modern scholars. In the words of Dr. Arthur Vööbus, “In our search for the oldest translation of the Greek original [of the New Testament] we must go back to the Syriac idiom” (Studies in the History of the Gospel Text in Syriac, p. 1). The Syriac Church Fathers made no less than six translations and revisions of the New Testament and at least two of the Old Testament. Their scholarship in this domain has no equal in Church history.

The Church of Antioch was thriving under the Byzantine Empire until the fifth century when Christological controversies split the Church. After the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, two camps of the one Church emerged: The Greek Church of Byzantium and the Latin Church of Rome accepted Chalcedon, but the Syriac and Coptic (later Armenian as well) Churches rejected the council. The former group professed that Christ is in two natures, human and divine, whilst the latter adopted the doctrine that Christ has one incarnate nature from two natures. It is worth noting that the drafts of the Council were according to the position of the Syriac and Coptic Churches. The final resolution, however, was according to the doctrine of the Western Churches and was rejected by the Syriac Church. This schism had sad consequences on the Syriac Church during the next few centuries.

As the Emperor supported the Chalcedonian camp, the Syriac Church came under much persecution. Many bishops were sent to exile, most notably Patriarch Mor Severius, who was later given the epithet togho d-suryoye, ‘Crown of the Syriacs’. Mor Severius died in exile in 538. By the year 544, the Syriac Church was in an abysmal situation with only three bishops remaining. It was at this time that Mor Yacqub Burd`ono (Jacob Baradeus) emerged to rejuvenate the Church. Mor Yacqub traveled to Constantinople for an audience with Empress Theodora, the daughter of a Syriac Orthodox priest from Mabbug according to Syriac Orthodox sources, and wife of Emperor Justinian. Theodora used her influence to get Jacob ordained as bishop in 544. Later, Mor Yacqub would travel across the entire land reviving the Church. He managed to consecrate 27 bishops and hundreds of priests and deacons. For this, the Syriac Orthodox Church honors this saint on July 30 of every year, the day of his death in 578. A few centuries later, adversaries labeled the Syriac Orthodox Church ‘Jacobite’ after St. Jacob. The Syriac Orthodox Church rejects this belittling label which wrongly suggests that the Church was founded by Mor Yacqub.

Aside from their ecclesiastical role, Syriac Churchmen have contributed to world civilization. As early as the fourth century, academies and schools were set up in monasteries throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. Monks and scholars where busy studying the sciences of the Greeks, commenting on and adding to them. It is no surprise that when the Arabs, who conquered the Near East at the end of the seventh century, wanted to acquire Greek knowledge, they turned to Syriac scholars and churchmen. Arab caliphs commissioned Syriac scholars to translate the sciences of the Greeks into Arabic. In his film Forgotten Christians, Christopher Wenner describes the impact of Syriac scholars and Churchmen when he describes the school at Deir az-Za'faran monastery, “It was through the monks here that the Arabs received Greek learning, and it was the Arabs of course who passed it back to Europe. Had it not been for the Syriac monks, we in Europe might never have had a renaissance.”

The Syriac Orthodox Church survived under the dominion of many empires in the centuries that followed. Under the Arabs, Mongols, Crusades, Mamluks and Ottomans, the Syriac Orthodox Church continued its survival. Neither intimidation nor oppression could suppress the faithful, but the Church diminished in size to a fraction of what it was.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Syriac Orthodox Christianity was confined mostly to mountainous rural areas, such as Turabdin, and various towns in the Ottoman Empire. The worst of the persecutions was yet to come. During World War I, massacres and ethnic cleansing befell the Syriac Orthodox Christians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks and the neighboring Kurds. The year 1915 is known in Syriac by sayfo, or ‘[the year of the] sword’. It is estimated that a quarter of a million perished; villages were emptied; monasteries and Churches were destroyed. This resulted in what the Syriacs call (in Turkish) sefer berlik ‘the collective exodus’, a migration to the newly established countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Some left the Middle East all-together, forming new communities in the Americas.

As a result of further immigration that ensued, the Syriac Orthodox Church today has faithful not only in the Middle East and India, but in Europe, the Americas and Australia as well.

Schisms in the Church of Antioch

(Source: The Syrian Orthodox Church at a Glance by Patriarch H.H. Ignatius Zakka I )

The Church of Antioch (Syriac Church) endured in its history many painful incidents that divided its flock into several sects at different times. These incidents, a few of which will be briefly discussed, weakened the church in many ways.

In 431 AD the Council of Ephesus rejected the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who claimed that there were two separate persons and natures in Christ. Patriarch Yuhanna of Antioch supported him. He was succeeded by his nephew Domnos who unfortunately accepted that same heresy. He was deposed in the year 449 AD by the second council of Ephesus and was replaced by Maximus. The teachings of Nestorius were accepted by some Syrians in the Persian Empire, some parts of Syria, Palestine and Cyprus. Those formed a church breaking away from the See of Antioch in 498 AD. They chose a leader for themselves who called himself Catholicos. Their first Catholicos was Bavai who had his headquarters in Selucia, Near Madaen in Iraq. This was later transferred to Baghdad in the year 762 AD. At the beginning of the 15th century it was shifted to Al-Kosh and in 1561 to Erumia,1 both in Iraq.

As a result of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, the four great sees were split into two groups and confusion dominated over the church weakening its discipline. Illegal interference took place in several bishoprics and fishing in troubled waters was considered a great gain. The Roman See was able to win a Nestorian bishop called Timotheos, Bishop of Cyprus. In 1445 AD he joined the Catholic Church with a group from his church. It should be remembered that this group comprised members of the Syriac Church who had already embraced the Nestorian ideas. Pope Eugenius IV declared: "It is henceforth forbidden to treat those Syrians who had left Nestorianism and joined the Roman Church as heretics, but they have to be distinguished with the particular name of Chaldeans." Five years later in 1450 AD, they returned to their Church. But disputes soon arose in that church when Patriarch Shemoun's Synod passed a resolution to the effect that no patriarch should be installed from outside his own tribe. When this decision was taken by Shemoun's Synod, a rebel synod which opposed Shemoun was convened in Mosul. A great number left Shemoun and joined the Roman See in 1553. Accordingly, Pope Julius III consecrated for them Patriarch Yuhanna Sulaqa. This split did not last long since Patriarch Yuhanna Sulaqa was killed in 1555 AD and the relation with the Roman See was severed.

Until 1827, there were two patriarchs for the Chaldeans, one of whom was called Patriarch of Amed, and the other, Patriarch of Babylon. In that same year, the distinction between the two Patriarchates of Amed and Babylon was abolished by Pope Leo XII. As of 1830, that is from the time of Patriarch Yuhanna Hermezd, there was only one patriarch who was called the Patriarch of Babylon. Yuhanna Hermezd was the first patriarch of the united Patriarchate of Bayblon. In the middle of the 19th century, Patriarch Yousef Odo who, unlike his predecessors, was known to have liked the Oriental Church and its ancient traditions, was installed as the Patriarch of Babylon.

Turning back to the See of Antioch, we shall see that since the time of Maximos (449 A D. - 512 AD) it was usurped by patriarchs who had followed the formulation of the Council of Chalcedon and by others rocking from one side to the other. During this critical period, the famous Patriarch Peter II the Fuller was installed to the Holy See of Antioch.

In 512 A D. Mor Severius was enthroned as the Patriarch of Antioch succeeding Philipianos who was deposed because of his unsteadiness of faith. Mor Severius ruled the holy See in peace until 518 when he was sent into exile. When the Orthodox Emperor Anastas died, he was succeeded by Justinos I who was a supporter of the Council of Chalcedon.

He sent into exile most of the orthodox bishops including Patriarch Mor Severius who died in the year 538 while in exile in Egypt. Mor Sergius succeeded Mor Severius to the Holy Throne of Antioch. Through all these great storms, the See of Antioch struggled hard to keep the succession of its patriarchs to this day.

The followers of the Council of Chalcedon seized the opportunity of the exile of Mor Severius to install from among themselves patriarchs with the title of "Patriarch of Antioch". From this time (518 AD) the series of Byzantine Patriarchs started. The most famous of these patriarchs was Ephrem of Amed. Most of those Byzantine Patriarchs were Syrians and others from Greek colonies. Those patriarchs and their followers were called "Melkites", i.e., 'followers of the king.' They were called so since they followed the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon which was upheld by the then king. They used the Syrian rites until the 10th century when they changed to the Greek rites. But, because of their ignorance of Greek, they used the Syriac translation of the Greek rites. In later centuries, after they learned Greek, they started to use the Greek rites both in Greek and Arabic. They collected the Syriac codices, which were preserved in the library of St. Mary's Monastery (a Syrian Monastery which the Greeks later occupied), in the village of Saidnaya, near Damascus and burned them.

At the beginning of the 7th century, a dispute arose among the followers of the Council of Chalcedon within the jurisdiction of the See of Antioch, because of the emergence of a new dogma of two wills in Jesus Christ. It resulted in a division among the Maronite monks in Lebanon leading to the establishment of a separate Patriarchate. In the 12th century, they joined the Roman See and started calling their Patriarchate the "Patriarchate of Antioch".

There were further new Patriarchates of Antioch splintered from the original Patriarchate of Antioch. At the beginning of the 17th century, through the influence of some Capuchin monks, and with the assistance of the French Consul, a group in Aleppo, Syria, left the Holy See of Antioch. They approached a Maronite bishop in 1657 to consecrate for them an Armenian priest by the name Andraos Akhijian of Mardin as bishop whom they called patriarch. The Syrian Catholic Patriarchate started with him. They also called their patriarch "Patriarch of Antioch".

At the beginning of the 18th century, a split took place among the Greek Orthodox, which led some to abandon their Patriarchate and follow the Roman See. They established for themselves a separate Patriarchate which they called 'Patriarchate of Antioch'. They are known as Greek Catholics.

In the last quarter of the 18th century, a group of Syriac Orthodox in Iraq was compelled to join the Roman See, through the connivance of the French Consul, who advised the Ottoman ruler to impose heavy taxes on the Syriac Orthodox people. The Consul encouraged the Dominican missionaries who had already spread roots in Iraq to persuade the simple-minded Syriac Orthodox people to ask for French protection in order to reduce the burden of taxes. But when they approached the French officials for help, they were told that unless they followed the Pope of Rome, no help would be provided. This is how Catholicism spread in Iraq. The first group to embrace it were the inhabitants of Karakoush in 1761 AD. Later, in the middle of the 19th century, other groups from Bartelleh and Mosul followed suit.

Faith and Doctrine

The faith of the Syriac Orthodox Church is in accordance with the Nicene Creed. It believes in the Trinity that is one God, subsisting in three separate persons called the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three being of one Essence, of one Godhead, have one Will, one Work and one Lordship. The special aspect of the First Person is His Fatherhood, that of the Second Person His Sonship, and that of the Third Person His Procession.

The Syriac Orthodox Church believes in the mystery of Incarnation. That is, the Only Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, took to Himself a body and became man. It further believes that at the time of Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit came upon her and cleansed her of all natural impurity, filling her with His grace. Then the Only Son of God came down and entered her immaculate womb, and took to Himself a body through her, thus becoming a perfect Man with a perfect Soul. After nine months, He was born of her and her virginity was maintained contrary to the laws of nature. It further believes that His true Godhead and His true Manhood were in Him essentially united, He being one Lord and one Son, and that after the union took place in Him, He had but one Nature Incarnate, was one Person, had one Will and one Work. This union is marked by being a natural union of persons, free of all separateness, intermixture, confusion, mingling, change and transformation.

The Syriac Orthodox Church calls Mary yoldath aloho, ‘Bearer of God’, because she gave birth to Christ, God truly incarnate.

The Syriac Orthodox Church believes that the death of Christ was the separation of His soul from His body, but His deity did not at any time leave either His body or His soul. It further believes that by His death for us, He conferred upon us salvation from eternal death and reconciliation with His Heavenly Father.

The Syriac Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit of Truth, proceeding from the Father. The Holy Spirit is equal with the Father and the Son. (Note. The word for ‘spirit’ in Syriac, ruho (which is also the word for ‘wind’), is grammatically feminine. Holy Spirit is referred to with the feminine pronoun in almost all early Syriac writings, though later writings refer to it in the masculine.)

Concerning the Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church believes the Church is the body of true believers in Christ, and that the Head of the Church is Our Lord God Jesus Christ. The Chief Bishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church is the Patriarch of Antioch.

With regards to Sacraments, the Syriac Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Sacraments are tangible signs designated by the Lord Christ to proclaim divine grace, which He gave for our sanctification. The Sacraments of the Church are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Repentance, the Priesthood, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. Holy Sacraments are offered by the Bishops and the Priests. Only believers can receive the Sacraments. All but four of the Sacraments are essential for salvation: Baptism, Confirmation, Repentance and Eucharist. Of the sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation and the Priesthood may be received only once.

The Syriac Orthodox Church conforms to the teachings of the Three Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (A.D. 325), Constantinople (A.D. 381) and Ephesus (A.D. 431). It rejects the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451).

Form of Worship

In accordance with Psalm 119, verse 164, “Seven times in the day have I praised thee for thy judgments, O Righteous One,” the Syriac Orthodox Church set the times for prayer to seven: Evening or ramsho prayer (Vespers), Drawing of the Veil or Sootoro prayer (Compline), Midnight or lilyo prayer, Morning or saphro prayer (Matins), the Third Hour or tloth sho`in prayer (Prime, 9 a.m.), the Sixth Hour or sheth sho`in prayer (Sext, noon) and the Ninth Hour or tsha` sho`in prayer (Nones, 3 p.m.). The Midnight prayer consists of three qawme ‘watches’ (literarily ‘standing’).

The ecclesiastical day begins in the evening at sunset. For example, Monday starts at sunset on Sunday evening. Hence, Monday's evening (ramsho) and compline (sootoro) prayers, are actually performed on Sunday in our modern reckoning. Today, even in monasteries, the evening and compline prayers are said together, as also the Midnight and Morning prayers, and the Three, Six and Nine O'Clock prayers, reducing the times of prayer to three.

During prayers, the worshipper stands facing the East, holding his hands stretched out. (For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man - Matthew 24:27.)

The sign of the cross is made with the right hand. The thumb, first finger and second finger are brought together and the first finger is extended further than the thumb and second finger, indicating that Christ is the One and Only Savior. The sign of the cross is drawn starting from the forehead, down to the breast and then from the left to the right shoulder. This tradition symbolizes that the Lord Christ, came down to earth from the heights, and redeemed our earthly body from the gloomy paths of darkness (left), to the paths of truth and light (right).

Public prayer is important in Syriac Christianity. Traditionally, the Holy Qurbono, i.e. Eucharist, is celebrated every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Presently, only monasteries and some churches observe the Wednesday and Friday Holy Qurbono, and daily prayers known as shhimo ‘simple [prayers]’.

Apart from sermons, all prayers are sung in the form of chants and melodies. Thousands of tunes and melodies existed, most of which are unfortunately lost. Still hundreds of melodies remain and these are preserved in the Treasury of Tunes known in Syriac as Beth Gazo. Since a musical notation system was not developed, the tunes were transmitted down the ages as oral tradition. As a result a few schools of music emerged, most notably Mardin, Edessa, Turabdin, and Kharput, to name a few.

During the celebration of the Eucharist, priests and deacons put on elaborate vestments which are unique to the Syriac Orthodox Church. Whether in the Middle East, India, Europe, the Americas or Australia, the same vestments are worn by all clergy.

Church Hierarchy

The supreme head of the Syriac Orthodox Church is the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East. He also presides over the Holy Synod, the assembly of all bishops.

The local head of the church in Malankara (India) is the Catholicose of the East (temporarily, the Church in Malankara is governed by the council of bishops following the death of the late Catholicose, Abun Mor Baselious Paulose II). The Catholicose is under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch and is accountable to the Holy Synod and the local Malankara Synod. He is ordained by the Patriarch. He presides over the local Holy Synod.

The local head of every archdiocese is an archbishop. He is under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch and is accountable to the Holy Synod. The archbishop is ordained by the Patriarch and at least two bishops. Some archdioceses are ‘patriarchal vicarates’; the patriarchal vicar, regardless of ecclesiastical office, is accountable directly to the Patriarch.

Each parish is assigned a vicar. He is under the direct jurisdiction of his archbishop and is directly accountable to him. The parish is run by a board of trustees (or a committee) which is elected by the parishioners and approved by the archbishop.

Deacons assist the priest in the administration of the liturgy. Each archdiocese may have one archdeacon who is called “the right hand of the bishop.” Only qualified and learned deacons are elevated to this office.

There are three ranks of priesthood in the Syriac Orthodox Church:

  1. Episcopate: Within it there are the ranks of Patriarch, Catholicos, archbishop, and bishop.
  2. Vicarate: Within it there are the ranks of chor-episcopos and priest or qasheesho.
  3. Deaconate: Within it there are the ranks of archdeacon, evangelical-deacon, subdeacon, lector or qoruyo and singer or mzamrono.


· Brock, Sebastian and David G.K. Taylor (ed.s), The Hidden Pearl: The Syrian Orthodox Church and Its Aramaic Heritage. (Rome: Trans World Film Italia, 2001).

· Patriarch Ignatius Aphram I Barsoum, The History of Syriac Literature and Sciences. tr. Matti Mousa. (Pueblo, CO: Passeggiata Press, 2000).

· Mor Clemis Eugene Kaplan, The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch: A Brief Introduction. (Unpublished manuscript, 1996).

· Witowski, Witold, The Syriac Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre. (Uppsala: Studia Semitica Upsaliensia, 1987).

Source:  and Syriac Orthodox Church history

See also:

 The Syrian Orthodox Church at a Glance by Patriarch H.H. Ignatius Zakka I

History of The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church in India

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