Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Syriadirect on Idlib's Fading Christian Community

From here.

Property seizures by hardline rebels stoke fears among Idlib province’s fading Christian community
By Ammar Hamou and Avery Edelman

Under the rule of Islamist rebels, Christian life has been largely relegated to the shadows: religious garments forbidden in the streets, crosses in public spaces removed or destroyed and church bells silenced.

These restrictions have also been accompanied by outbreaks of targeted sectarian violence—assassinations, abductions and attacks on religious institutions not unlike those seen in other minority communities that have fallen under extremist rule in Syria: Christian communities outside Idlib, as well as Druze and Shia Muslim communities around the country.

“Everything is done to make the [Christian] population feel unwelcome in their own land, and to push them to leave,” says Hélène Rey, a researcher focused on Christian communities in the Middle East, who works with the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity International (CSI).

Many did. By mid-2015, when a coalition of Islamist factions captured Idlib city and established full rebel control of the province, the majority of Idlib’s Christians—followers of various denominations including the Greek Orthodox, Latin, Armenian and Catholic churches—had already fled their homes. Some sought relative safety in government-held areas of the country; others joined the millions of Syrian refugees seeking asylum abroad.

A number of towns in the province have been entirely emptied of their former Christian inhabitants as a result.

And in Idlib city, just one or two Christian families are thought to remain from a population that once numbered in the thousands.

But in the collection of majority-Christian villages where Abu Elias used to live, a small Christian community—Rey estimates a few hundred people at most—has stayed behind, despite most residents having fled since 2011.


Read the rest here.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Orthodox Spirituality

Arabic original here.

Orthodox Spirituality

How can a person know God? How can he regain his immortality after having lost it through sin and disobedience? How can he conquer sin and death in Christ? How can the rich young man inherit eternal life?

Christ gives us the answer to this when He says, "‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself’" (Luke 10:27). The Apostle John says, "God is love" (1 John 4:16).

In his Gospel it says, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). Immortality comes, then, through knowledge of God, and true knowledge comes from love.

There is no love without a personal relationship, without persons.

Christ God, then, is a person.

God Himself, then, is not a vague idea. He is a person whom we know, whom we love .We have a personal relationship with Him: in Christ, in prayer, in fulfilling His commandments, in sincere love, in our neighbor.

God told Moses in the bush that was aflame but not consumed:

"I am that I am." God is a being of relation and we find His distinctive image in the icon of the Trinity, the icon of Abraham's hospitality toward God, to the three angels (cf. Genesis 18:1-2).

Here we find unity in love between the three hypostases, between the three persons.

"May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me" (John 17:21).

Here we also find unity in sacrifice because there is no true love without sacrifice: "All Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them" (John 17:10).

So we must find such a relationship, a relationship of love, in every human institution.

First, in the Christian family: the family is supposed to be a school of love, a school of sacrifice.

Second: we must find it in the parish and in the Church. "They had all things in common" (Acts 4:32). Likewise in a cenobitic monastery, if one's own will is cut off-- that is, self-denial as an expression of love, humility and obedience.

In the end, Christian obedience is nothing other than an expression of love. Obedience is not a military rule. What reigns in the monastery is not a rule, but love and self-sacrifice.

Here we also find the concept of true freedom in Christ, as described by the Apostle Paul.

"For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13).

All this causes us to know Orthodox spirituality as a spirit of peace, a spirit of joy and love, a spirit of gentleness, long-suffering and meekness. All these are fruits of the Spirit: all who acquire the Spirit and live according to Him, not according to the spirit of the world, receive divine consolation and a foretaste of the kingdom. Amen.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Jad Ganem: Let the Church Judge

Arabic original here.

Let the Church Judge

Yesterday, the "unifying council" was held at the Church of Saint Sophia in Kiev, which had been called by the Phanar after its experts decided that Ukraine canonically belongs to Constantinople, relying on a unilateral reading of history that ignores that the church in this country has belonged to Moscow for more than 300 years. As a preliminary analysis of this event, this observer concludes:

The legitimate church in Ukraine, apart from two of its bishops, did not participate in this council, which it regarded as a robbers' council.

The council was able to bring together and unite the two schismatic entities-- that is, the one known as the Kiev Patriarchate and what was known as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church-- into a single entity.

The holding of this council occurred amidst an obvious political presence and with an open admission of the intervention of politicians in ecclesiastical affairs.

The excommunicated "patriarch" Filaret imposed his conditions on Constantinople and was able to impose his loyal disciple as head of the newly-created “church”.

All of this may lead to the following conclusions:

Constantinople, which expected the participation of at least ten bishops from the legitimate church, failed in realizing its goal and thus failed in holding a "uniting council" as it had planned. It appears that all it was able to achieve was to lend legitimacy to schismatics.

The legitimate church in Ukraine appeared as a church standing firm in her witness, deeply rooted in tradition and preserving the ecclesiastical canons, despite the threats and pressure to which her bishops and faithful were subjected.

The majority of autocephalous Orthodox churches appeared incapable of putting the breaks on Constantinople's rushing or of taking the initiative to make sure that the Orthodox Church avoids the schism and feuding that she is experiencing today.

What happened yesterday will have a negative impact on the entire Orthodox Church in the future and on the faithful in Ukraine who will be subject to pressure and struggle between the two parallel churches.

In closing, whether the autocephalous Orthodox churches will accept the decisions of the "unifying council" and whether Constantinople will be able to impose the head of the newly-created church onto the dyptichs are what will determine the correctness of the steps she has taken.

Orthodox Synaxis: The Special Bishop of Caesar

This overview of the history of the Patriarchate of Constantinople reveals much of the psychology behind why that church caused so much harm to Orthodoxy in the Middle East and the Balkans during the period of Ottoman rule, when the direct oppressors were more often Phanariots than Turks.

While criticism of the close relationship between the Russian Church and state is (with good justification!) common, less attention is paid to the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople exists and claims primacy solely due to its relationship with now-extinct civil authorities. But it is only this history that can explain much of Constantinople’s modern-day behavior. There is, to put it bluntly, an emperor-shaped (or, more accurately, a sultan-shaped) hole in Constantinople’s heart that forces Ecumenical Patriarchs to court the support of the most unexpected worldly powers, from Harry Truman in Athenagoras’ day to Petro Poroshenko today. Writing in 1911, the English Roman Catholic scholar Adrian Fortescue sketched the pathos of Constantinople’s role as ‘the special bishop of Caesar’ with equal erudition and acerbity:

Read the rest here.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Jad Ganem: The Conspiracy of Silence

Arabic original here.

The Conspiracy of Silence
For Metropolitan Onufry and his struggling Church

On this sorrowful day for the faithful belonging to the legitimate church in Ukraine, and along with them everyone around the world who loves the Church of Christ; on this sorrowful day that we have reached as a result of the recklessness immersion in the politics of this world of the one called "first" in Orthodoxy and the hiding of those called leaders in the shameful conspiracy of silence; on this day when hatred overcomes love, the desire for revenge overcomes the desire to build up unity, political considerations overcome ecclesiastical considerations, and nationalistic retrenchment and enmity overcome openness and reconciliation between peoples, this words of Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) serve as a reminder for us that "the Church that is impossible by human standards is made possible by the righteous."

"The Church, as the Bible describes her, is something that comes from Christ. In her situations, she is a human gathering that has the fragility of all institutions. In her, you receive the beauty, majesty and truth that come down upon her and in her you suffer your sins and the oppression that besets her sincere children. She is a place of unpleasantness that will repeatedly make you nauseous. This is the paradox. The Church is the place of splendor and stunning liturgies on the one hand and on the other hand the place of oppression and human banality.
The tragedy is that the man of sin sits "as a god in the temple of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:4). This may be related to "the lusts and bodily pleasures", as Chrysostom says, one who is "contentious, a lover of authority" as Ephrem says, irrational, unfit for teaching, intemperate, overbearing (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2-3). At that point, groups are led by the whim and fancy of sects that dream of God, but are a part of society's games and banalities, of influence-peddling, and the slyness of glory. The scepter often breaks the backs of those reaching the threshold of the kingdom. Shepherds relay liturgies that are not from them and might not be within them, if they are immersed in the conspiracy of silence and have traded eternity for the snares of this world... Only by disobedience does the Church devolve into an institution. At that point, her powers are enfeebled, her resources depleted and the Spirit is extinguished within her. She is a theater for great anger, great injustice, scandalous compromises, a playground for authoritarianism, a kingdom of fear.

Jad Ganem: Who will Protect Constantinople from the Phanariots?

Arabic original here.

Who will Protect Constantinople from the Phanariots?

Tomorrow, a "unifying council" will be held in the Church of Holy Wisdom in Kiev, called by His Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The holding of this council comes as the crowning event of a political plan in which Constantinople has become embroiled, with the cooperation of temporal powers in the country, to establish a national church in Ukraine. This plan would have never seen the light of day were it not for the Ecumenical Patriarchate's disappointment with the fact that the Church of Moscow did not go Crete, where the "Great Orthodox Council" was supposed to be held and her desire to take revenge on her especially after this council turned into a meeting of disputed legitimacy that exposed Constantinople's inability to play the role of first among the Orthodox churches, the impotence of Patriarch Bartholomew, and his failure to lead this world and coordinate activities between its various constituent parts. 

All the above, moved Constantinople  complex of inferiority towards Moscow, her pathological fear of the specter of "Third Rome", and the hatred that rules over some of the Phanariots because of the numerical superiority of the Church of Moscow. This is connected to the lack of any critical analysis in Constantinople of the mistakes committed by her delegates during the preparatory meetings for the Great Council, their arrogant behavior and indifference to the concerns of the autocephalous churches, in addition to the hazy image that Constantinople has created of the situation of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

These accumulating factors drove the Phanar to hastily enter the “Ukrainian minefield”, ignoring all the appeals and warnings from the leaders of the Orthodox world, who warned of the dangers of rewarding schismatics, dividing the Orthodox Church and weakening her unity.

Perhaps Constantinople seized the favorable political opportunity to use Ukraine not only to punish Moscow, but to establish her papism over the Orthodox world and to subjugate the churches and their leaders to the Phanar's synod. But it escapes her that this papism, which is alien to Orthodoxy, will sooner or later be expelled by the ecclesiastical body, just as the body expels strange things. But to describe the punishment and persecution of the faithful in Ukraine on account of being disappointed by Moscow as a "unifying council" that will only unite the schismatics in the face of the Church struggling there is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Hope remains that God will inspire the Phanar's leaders to realize that "hatred only kills the hater" and that repenting of unilateralism and imperiousness would protect the great Constantinople from the inevitable fate that the arrogance and historical hatreds of some Phanariots will bring upon her.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Partisanship in the Church

Arabic original here.

Lest Vision be Lost in the Church

"...wounded for our transgressions..." (Isaiah 53)

When two people disagree about something in the Church of Christ, if mutual understanding is not reached between them, they go to a third, whom they agree will judge between them and they are completely prepared to accept what he decides, as though it is from God. If they harden their positions and don't agree on any judge as an intermediary, advisors suggest a third party to come to them on their behalf. If they accept him with soundness of heart, because he is delegated by the group and the group has its right and precedence over its members because the spirit of prophecy is in it, as the Lord says to Moses, "Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel... elders of the people and officers over them... I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you" (Numbers 11:16-17). Moses was not reckoned as one of the prophets, but as an image of the coming Messiah, and so the Lord God spoke through Moses, "face to face, even plainly, I speak with him" (Numbers 12:8). I say that if those who are in a disagreement accept the one that the group names, the disagreement is resolved in humility and by imitating the Spirit of the Lord. Otherwise, the entire group must act on its own to settle the matter -- that is, the advisors within it. Call upon each other! First with a verbal call, as a preface to holding a council on the matter. Bilateral meeting is important, but honesty and mutual support is more important. So if the meeting bears fruit, this one and that, that one and this, meeting and understanding each other, the path of truth becomes clear. Otherwise, something hidden and harmful becomes clear in the positions, something alien to the Spirit of the Lord and thus to the Church of Christ. In that case, what should those who are zealous for the house of God do? It is no concern if they are few, nor if they are regarded as small in their nation. Greatness is in truth and not in station. Greatness is in speaking the Spirit and for us to reach in speech and truth the point of saying with the the apostles, the elders and the brothers, "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us...." (Acts 15:28). Those who are zealous, then, in prayer and fasting, speak the word no matter their number, as a testimony to God. What happens after that? The Spirit and the Word have their own way, and your Lord knows best. But if none of the traditional praiseworthy things happen, then we are without a doubt in a painful place. When witnesses who have been delegated by the group in the Spirit are no longer witnesses to the legitimate truth, God brings forth from the impotent visible presence a fruitful, unseen presence that bears witness. In the end, the word belongs to the Lord and not to those who reckon it to be theirs. The Church perseveres, no matter the circumstances, with the little flock, which your Lord alone knows, forever leavening the dough in the Church and in history until the end.

When two people disagree about something in Christ's Church, and each is hardened in his position, it is no longer possible or permissible for the issue to be, for you and for me, who is right and who is wrong, but rather who is in the truth. Each one regards himself as being right and his own position as correct, otherwise there wouldn't be a disagreement in the first place. The important thing isn't each one's perspective-- this we ear, examine and weigh-- but how they treat the issue. With what spirit? With a spirit of confusion or a spirit of understanding? With a spirit of listening to one another with the heart or a spirit of making pronouncements ex cathedra? With a spirit of aggression or a spirit of harmony? With a spirit of enmity or a spirit of peace? With a spirit of division or a spirit of unity? With a spirit of extermination or a spirit of reverence? With a spirit of submission to the powers of this world or with the fear of God? With a spirit of aversion or a spirit of friendliness? With a spirit of revenge or a spirit of conciliation? In a word, with the spirit of the world or the Spirit of God?

When the dispute broke out, then, I cannot consider myself-- you and I-- unconcerned with what is happening because in truth Christ alone is concerned; as it is neither fitting for me or for you to be partial to one side or the other, even if my conviction as a human inclines me one way or the other. Being satisfied to express an opinion at the level of who I think is in the right and who I think is not right keeps me at the level of human concern for the issues. But is there true human justice? In the Church, our concern rises above that! The question, in a situation of disagreement, is: what must we do to help both sides remain in the truth? That is, to keep the spirit of agreement, peace and unity in Christ between them, despite their disagreement. For us to really have an effective contribution in this regard, we need to mentally distinguish between the person and his position regarding the issue at hand. I am not committed to your opinion, whatever it may be, but I am committed to you. You are my brother by divine appointment! "You are all brothers," said the Lord Jesus. I may or may not like your opinion, I may or may not benefit from it. Here I am not talking about established dogmatic truths, but about procedural positions. And in procedural issues there are different opinions and the space for differences of outlook is wide. Factors of history and temperament, passions, sensitivities and similar things are not easily overcome. The matter requires that they be transcended with great humility and by the power of the Spirit in the soul. Therefore, the important thing in this case, in the absence of agreement, is for the Spirit of God to remain what brings together and for disagreements not to lead us into the depths of conflict. Therefore, you are my goal in the case of conflict, not your opinion. Confronted with people who disagree, you and I no longer have a position about what they say, but about who they are. We work hand in hand to affirm love in truth, despite all the difficulties. It is not only if we leave the disputants to harm Christ and His Church, and thus themselves, but we also participate in doing harm because he who is not with Me, so the Lord says, is against Me.

When the powerful are divided, the little ones are confused. And this at a time of weakness! Most are inclined to hesitation and reservation. They think over the steps to take a thousand times. Their primary concern is keeping what belongs to them. They go along, show deference and do not love. They say what they're not thinking and think what they're not saying. The priority for them is their own gains. Over the course of time, we have become accustomed to fearing the powerful in this world and likewise also in the Church, more than fearing God! This is even true with regard to those who are regarded as good. As for intruders in the Church-- and there are many of them-- there is no point to discussing them. As it appears, the spirit of weakness predominates. A very few walk in the spirit of bearing witness. Only a rare few accept do die for Christ's sake. Politics, in the worldly sense, has become a way of life in the Church, even if it has not generally kept pace with its malignancy and self-striving in the world. Dealing with God's wisdom, in love and truth, in a context of prayer and fasting, has little impact on the people of the Church in general. Most are satisfied with the wisdom of this world. This is because apathy overwhelms their souls. The warmth of the Spirit permits neither fabrication nor bargaining. And bargaining has, for the most part, become the accepted manner for resolving problems in the Church, just as it is in the world today, though naturally wrapped in an empty show of divine words. The exterior speaks of reason, logic, data and history, but where is the Spirit of God? Much talk and many arguments, but they embitter the soul, which means that the spirit behind them is unclean and not from the wisdom of God because the wisdom of God is peaceful, kind, full of mercy, without fear or hypocrisy. Has it not been said, "If you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there..." (James 3:14-16)?

Nothing justifies partisanship in the Church. The people of partisanship do not obey the truth (cf. Romans 2:8). The discussion of partisanship comes in the exposition of contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20). Partisanship is a work of the flesh and not a fruit of the spirit (cf. Galatians 5:19). Thus there is no praise for partisanship, but rather a warning about it. Let us not consider ourselves better than others. Instead, "let each esteem others better than himself" (Philippians 2:3). Even if there is good in us, let us turn a blind eye to it and look for the good in others without favoritism, to the glory of God, so that the good may be our goal and not love of appearances and superiority over others. What is partisanship? It is when you are attached to a personality and thus to what he says and claim that this is from God and attack others who do not say what he says about procedural matters in the life of the Church! And when you attack him, you accuse him of unbelief, work to defame him, display his flaws, and invent things about him that do not exist in order to tarnish his image. Where does partisanship lead? To schisms and rivalries. Did the Chosen Apostle not warn about them? "May there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:10). Neither Paul is what is important nor Apollos, nor Peter, but Christ in all and for all! So unity in Christ refutes partisanship and partisanship topples unity.

In confronting the repercussions of partisanship, holding fast to the spirit of unity, peace and agreement in the Church, you do not stand with someone against someone else, even for a moment. You might point out a point of truth that one side has or a fault in the other side. But in the present context, it comes as a presentation of falsehood even if it's true because it causes harm and is taken differently from its intent. Academic and historical arguments, in the context of an emotional confrontation, inflame the conflict and don't put an end to it. In a case such as this, every argument has its counter-argument. So what's the use? When the heart's intention is in the balance, the voice of reason is of no use. The heart is only calmed, if it is to be calmed, with the balms of gentleness and kindness. At the end of the day, man is a heart. "Give me your heart, my son!"

People form parties against each other out of ignorance of deceit. In either case, because they do not speak with the Spirit of God. If their intentions are good, your Lord finds a way to turn their path toward Him. If their intentions are wicked, they twist in abysses of loss, hatred and emotion, thinking that they are zealous for God in a good way. In the end, they are filled with bitterness and a sense of decline. They blame God's Church and accuse God of being unjust. They turn away from Him, as though they are the ones in the right and surrender themselves to great pains.

Within this framework, the issue of the Church and politics has its own dialectic. From the beginning, the Church suffers from the pressure of politics and politicians on her. In history, religion was a tool in the hand of rulers, to the point that kings sometimes considered themselves gods and demanded that they be offered worship. Authority, in this age, is inclined to seek worship. The temptation has always been that the only purpose for God or the gods is to support authority and those who wield it. This has gone on throughout history. Therefore, politicians have rarely refrained, practically speaking, in the history of the Church, from deifying themselves and then from eagerly working to lobby the Church or subject her to their aims. Since the Church by nature has no master but the One in heaven, even if she commands that what belongs to Caesar be rendered unto Caesar, freedom of conscience in Christ was generally not preserved in her, especially in lean times, except by undergoing violence, persecution, imprisonment, torture or martyrdom of blood. In this regard, there are great models from Saint Athanasius the Great to Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Basil the Great, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Mark of Ephesus and many others. Despite the occasional good times and many bad times that the relationship of the Church to the state has known, especially in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine system made the framework of the empire ecclesiastical and the emperor a representative of Christ in governing the oikoumene, in principle according to the faith of the Church, preserving and supporting her.

Today, with globalization, things have changed. We are faced with a sweeping current that is totally alien to Christianity. Politics has become completely worldly. It no longer has a religious character. It has its aims and its agendas and the Church in itself means nothing for it. Or perhaps, on a personal level, for very few. This being the case, if the Church is anything other than a moral force, politicians will attempt to seize her, wanting to dominate and exploit those belonging to her within the framework of a worldly vision that has absolutely nothing to do with the Church. In this sweeping system of globalization, if the Church holds fast to her traditional identity, she not only annoys policymakers in the world, but also constitutes a threat to their efforts and an impediment to their arrangements. Therefore, the politics of globalization seeks to fragment and dissolve the Church. On the level of the spirit, the Church is in an existential confrontation with the spirit of the world. Convergence is impossible. In a case such as this, without any exaggeration, the Antichrist, in the precise meaning of the term, comes today in the garb of politics, seeking, in disguise and putting on the appearance of Christ, to overthrow Christ the Lord in those who believe in Him.

"I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). This is the credo of one who holds fast to Spirit and to truth, in Christ and in his relationship with people wherever they may be, to whatever nationality they belong, and whatever country they are from. Constantinople, apart from Christ, means nothing to us! But the faithful who are zealous for the Spirit of the Lord, whether or not they are called by the name of Constantinople, wherever they reside, mean everything to us. We belong to them and they belong to us, for we belong to the same land: the land of the living-- that is, Jesus Christ. Everything else is external adornment, chatter and vanity. So too the Moscow of the faithful. They are dear because the Lord's Christ has made us their brothers in His flesh. And Ukraine, which has been sacrificed in history for Christ's sake, with the blood of her martyrs, the sweat of her ascetics and the toils of her faithful. This is what has meaning for us! And so, in this manner, in every place and region. The martyrs of Christ in Russia are our Church. The monks of Mount Athos are the body of Christ within us. The relics of the saints in the Kiev Caves are our bones! If the wounds of history divide us, what will dress the wounds, unless it is the Spirit of Christ, who alone brings us together? A church based on disagreement, coercion, enmity, division, hatred and struggle between brothers is the Church of Satan and not the Church of Christ! If canons, arguments and historical facts lead to estrangement between believers, then what do they have to do with us? Let them fall. Shadows and silhouettes do not quench our thirst for the Spirit of the Lord. Nothing brings together except the crucifiedness of your Lord. But the one who bows before his brother as the Lord bowed His head upon the cross alone stands in the truth. Everything else is false.

Do not call politics your imagining that in it you have a concern other than the concern of your Christ. Christ alone is the concern! Behold, Satan has sought you in order to sift you and beware of letting things go too far!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma, Lebanon
Sunday, November 4, 2018