Wednesday, December 30, 2009
An Evolving Christian Population in Israel
by Jean-Marie Allafort
As in every year at Christmas, the Israeli Bureau of Statistics publishes the official statistics about the Christians living in Israel. According to the figures from the Ministry of the Interior, 81% of Christians are Arabs and the others are immigrants from the ex-USSR who are officially registered as Christians. However, the officially counted Christian population, which numbers 154,000 people at the end of 2009 underestimates the number of Christians living in Israel, both citizens and non-citizens such as foreign workers (Philippinos, Africans, Romanians,…) and religious workers (priests, pastors, monastics,…).
At the end of 2009, 154,000 Christians live in Israel, making up 2.1% of the totality of the population of Israel, which has 7.5 million inhabitants. These statistics do not include the Palestinian Christians in the Territories, except those living in East Jerusalem. 81% of the Christians are Arabs and almost all are Israeli citizens.
The great majority of Christians (98%) live in cities and 70% live in the north of the country. The largest Christian community in Israel is in Nazareth (20,100 people). Next come Haifa, with 14,100 Christian Arabs, Jerusalem (12,800), and Shefaram in Galilee (9,100).
Israel also counts almost 29,000 non-Arab Christians who are mostly from the countries of the former Soviet Union- 3,400 in Haifa, 2,600 in Tel Aviv, and 2,600 in Jerusalem. They declared themselves as such to the Ministry of the Interior. We should also note that 300,000 non-Jewish “Soviet” immigrants are not registered as Christians but are counted in a category specially created for them called “without religion,” a large proportion of which regularly go to churches.
This new, non-Arab Christian community has another statistical influence. An Israeli Christian family is now made up of an average of 3.4 members, a significant decrease since 1992—the average size of a Christian family was then 4.2—since Christian families of Russian origins have far fewer children than the Arab Christians. The growth rate of the Christians is the lowest of all the communities in Israel: 1% for non-Arab Christians and 1.3% for Arab Christians, compared to 1.7% for the Jews and 2.8% for the Muslims, who have the strongest demographic growth among Muslims in the Middle East because of a lower death rate compared to neighboring countries.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
By DANIEL SCHWAMMENTHAL
Wall Street Journal
December 24, 2009
(Bethlehem) Meet Yussuf Khoury, a 23-year old Palestinian refugee living in the West Bank. Unlike those descendents of refugees born in United Nations camps, Mr. Khoury fled his birthplace just two years ago. And he wasn't running away from Israelis, but from his Palestinian brethren in Gaza.
Mr. Khoury's crime in that Hamas-ruled territory was to be a Christian, a transgression he compounded in the Islamists' eyes by writing love poems.
"Muslims tied to Hamas tried to take me twice," says Mr. Khoury, and he didn't want to find out what they'd do to him if they ever kidnapped him. He hasn't seen his family since Christmas 2007 and is afraid even to talk to them on the phone.
Speaking to a group of foreign journalists in the Bethlehem Bible College where he is studying theology, Mr. Khoury describes a life of fear in Gaza. "My sister is under a lot of pressure to wear a headscarf. People are turning more and more to Islamic fundamentalism and the situation for Christians is very difficult," he says.
In 2007, one year after the Hamas takeover, the owner of Gaza's only Christian bookstore was abducted and murdered. Christian shops and schools have been firebombed. Little wonder that most of Mr. Khoury's Christian friends have also left Gaza.
A demonstration of power: Muslims praying in Manger Square, Aug. 7, 2009.
On the rare occasion that Western media cover the plight of Christians in the Palestinian territories, it is often to denounce Israel and its security barrier. Yet until Palestinian terrorist groups turned Bethlehem into a safe haven for suicide bombers, Bethlehemites were free to enter Israel, just as many Israelis routinely visited Bethlehem.
The other truth usually ignored by the Western press is that the barrier helped restore calm and security not just in Israel, but also in the West Bank including Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, which Palestinian gunmen stormed and defiled in 2002 to escape from Israeli security forces, is now filled again with tourists and pilgrims from around the world.
But even here in Jesus' birthplace, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Christians live on a knife's edge. Mr. Khoury tells me that Muslims often stand in front of the gate of the Bible College and read from the Quran to intimidate Christian students. Other Muslims like to roll out their prayer rugs right in Manger Square.
Asked about why Muslims would pray so close to one of Christianity's holiest sites, Pastor Alex Awad, dean of students at the Bible College, diplomatically advises me to pose this question to the Muslims themselves. Mindful of his community's precarious situation, he is at pains to stress that whatever problems Christians may have with their Muslim neighbors, it's not the PA's fault.
"Muslims and Christians live here in relative harmony," he tells reporters, only to add that Christians "feel the pressure of Islam . . . There is intimidation and fanaticism but these are little instances and there is no general persecution."
Samir Qumsieh, the founder of what he says is the holy land's only Christian TV station, also stresses that there is no "Christian suffering" and that the Christians' problems are not orchestrated by the PA. Yet his stories of land theft, beatings and intimidation make one wonder why, if the PA doesn't approve of such injustices, it is doing so little to stop it?
Christians have only recently begun to talk about how Muslim gangs simply come and take possession of Christian-owned land while the Palestinian security services, almost exclusively staffed by Muslims, stand by. Mr. Qumsieh's own home was firebombed three years ago. The perpetrators were never caught.
"We have never suffered as we are suffering now," Mr. Qumsieh confesses, violating his own introductory warning to the assorted foreign correspondents in his office not to use the word "suffering."
Always a minority religion among the predominantly Muslim Palestinians, Christians are, Mr. Qumsieh says, "melting away," even in Bethlehem. While they represented about 80% of the city's population 60 years ago, their numbers are now down to about 20%, a result not just of Muslims' higher birth rates but also widespread Christian emigration. "Our future as a Christian community here is gloomy," Mr. Qumsieh says.
Palestinian plight not attributable to Israel barely seems to register in the West's collective conscience. As Christians around the world remember Jesus' birth, perhaps we can think of Mr. Khoury and those Christians still suffering in Gaza and Bethlehem.
Mr. Schwammenthal is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe
And, despite what the Wall Street Journal might have one believe, Palestinian Christians are treated at least as bad by the Jews. An Israeli friend tells me that such graffiti has been found on churches all over Jerusalem----
"Death to Christians": Hebrew graffiti next to Upper Room in Jerusalem
The graffiti was immediately removed to avoid exacerbating tension between Christians and Jews. Those responsible are probably young Orthodox Jews. In the area of close to the Upper Room many other offences against priests, nuns and holy sites. Doubts about the ability (or willingness) of the State to protect the places of Christendom.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Graffiti in Hebrew, with the words "Death to Christians" appeared two days ago near the Upper Room, one of the most precious holy sites of Christendom. The vandalism took place in the Vatican in Rome the Plenary of the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel was being held.
The graffiti in black paint appeared along the wall of the Basilica of the Dormition on Mount Zion, a few meters from the place where Christians remember the birth of the institution of the Eucharist and the Church at Pentecost. The writing was immediately removed in order not to exacerbate tensions between Christians and Jews.
Church sources say that the authors are probably young Jewish nationalists, members of some yeshiva (Jewish seminary). Is not the first time that these young people have tried to offend the Christian presence and the holy sites in that area. Often, on the doorstep of the church of the Cenacle Room, run by the Franciscans, these groups carry out their physiological needs in open contempt of the site; other times, in dozens of cases, they spit at priests or nuns passing along the street; once they destroyed a stone cross along the wall.
The Church of the Cenacle is not the Upper Room itself, the place where Jesus instituted the Eucharist. This holy place is now owned by the government of Israel, although since the 14th century it had belonged to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. In the 16th century the Ottomans expelled the Franciscans, but they have never renounced their right to the property.
The graffiti incident took place while discussions were taking place in Rome regarding the return of the Cenacle and other holy sites to the Catholic Church. In this regard, Daniel Ayalon, Deputy Foreign Minister and head of the Israeli delegation, before and after the meeting said that "Israel would not give up its ownership of the Upper Room or other holy places under its direct sovereignty."
This episode and other offences cast a shadow of doubt on the ability (or willingness) of the State of Israel to protect the holy places and especially the Upper Room.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Saint John of Damascus
Saint John of Damascus, who was called Mansur ibn Sarjun in the world and took his monastic name in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas which still stands today near Bethlehem, was the grandson of Mansur ibn Sarjun who worked for the Byzantines in Damascus, governing the city. In the Caliphate of Mu’awiya the elder Mansur was appointed to manage the treasury. This was a matter with serious and profound ramifications and the office extended to his son and then to his grandson who bore his name according to this custom in those lands of naming a child after his grandfather.
It is clear that the Umayyads maintained the Christians in the positions they had occupied during the Byzantine period, because the various bureaus kept their records in Greek until they were arabized under Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. At that time, Greek was still the language of the people in the cities, just as Aramaic was the language of the people in the countryside. In the time of Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, Orthodox Christians had management over the treasury, even though the Jacobites (that is, the Syriac Orthodox) were the majority in Syria. The only explanation I have for this is that the Arabs maintained those whom they found in the bureaus during the Byzantine period and these were necessarily of the religion of the Byzantine rulers.
At the time of the conquest, the Arabs were not able to have administrative positions on account of their ignorance of the language of administration, which was Greek. The political situation was such that the Arab rulers had control over the caliphate and the army. That is, the Arab Muslims were entirely dependent on Christians in their administrative centers to the point that Mu’awiya put the elder Mansur ibn Sarjun in charge of the building of the first Arab fleet at Tripoli, with the goal of occupying Constantinople. In other words, Mansur’s responsibility was to build a fleet in order to attack the capital of the Orthodox world. It was not pleasant for a man who attended the liturgy in the port of Tripoli on Sunday to prepare the Muslim Arab army to attack Constantinople. This was not something easy for him, but he and the sons of his Church understood that the Muslims conquered Syria in order to stay there and that the Christian people of the land had no hope of the Byzantines’ regaining Syria.
To what people did the family of Sarjun belong? I have no evidence that they belonged to an Arab tribe, though there were Arabs among the Christians of Syria prior to the conquest. My opinion is that they were of old Syriac stock and had adopted the Greek language on account of their culture. (Syriac does not mean that they were of the Syriac Orthodox creed, as they were Chalcedonians and both churches used the two main languages).
The fact that Saint John did not write a single line of Arabic does not mean that he was completely ignorant of the language, especially since he and his family mingled with the Umayyad caliphs on account of their administrative work. The reason that John of Damascus did not use Arabic was that this language had not yet become the language of the Christians. But how did Mansur ibn Sarjun the younger, whose name became John of Damascus, address the Caliph Yazid when he would see him every day for consultation about matters of the treasury, when Yazid only knew Arabic? It seems to me that Mansur ibn Sarjun at the very least spoke to the caliph in colloquial Arabic, and everything points to the existence of a colloquial dialect among the Muslims. Saint John of Damascus composed a “Dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim” that has been read by Christian and Muslim men of culture since it was translated from Greek into Arabic and published in Egypt around sixty years ago. This proves to us that John of Damascus knew something about Islam from his friends. Despite that, I do not think that he read Surat al-Ikhlas, which he cites, since he makes a mistake in his translation of a verse. However, there is no doubt that he talked about Islam with Yazid, since he was not particularly pious. That said, Saint John of Damascus did not write anything else about Islam, despite what some scholars have thought.
In the end, the two men parted ways because Yazid attacked some Christian leaders, which caused the saint to leave Damascus for Palestine, where he became a monk. There in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas he composed the Fount of Knowledge which comprises a hundred chapters and is his book about the Orthodox faith. He begins it with a philosophical preface. German orientalists say that it was the foundational source for Islamic philosophy, which began in the Umayyad period. The philosophical problematic in the history of Islamic thought rests on the basis of the Fount of Knowledge.
John’s value in that book is that he is the first writer to put in writing the framework of thought of Christian theology. That is, a writing arranging all Christian thought. Before him, there had only been various compositions on this topic or that, one person writing on the topic of the Trinity, another on the incarnation or redemption, but John summarized all of Christian thought in interrelated chapters.
It becomes clear to one who examines this book that its author knew the early Fathers very well and that he compared them and chose from them as he saw fitting and that he depended in philosophy on Aristotle. Specialists have debated his creative power. No doubt he was less innovative than the greatest of the fathers. Perhaps that is the lot of one who receives a well-established intellectual tradition tied to logic. However, it is his merit that he was the first Christian to cast the faith in one book. He was the initiator of systematic theology. Thomas Aquinas drew on him frequently and in the Summa Theologica he cites him hundreds of times.
It was not enough for Saint John of Damascus to be erudite in theology, because he also practiced asceticism and mystical contemplation and composed numerous church services, including the Paschal hymns that all the Orthodox of the world chant to this day. Besides these texts, he composed the eight tones that till today dominate our chant after there having previously been another system of music. He was thus not simply a man of abstract intellect, but rather his heart was filled with the presence of the Lord.
Naturally, the determination of the family of Mansur in two matters draws our attention. First, that they held fast to their faith completely and with knowledge, and second, that they remained in their faith while honestly serving the government in a state that had become dominated by Arabness at all its levels. I think that the behavior of John of Damascus and his father and grandfather is a model for the stance of Orthodox Christians in an Islamic state, whether or not it accepts them with complete sympathy. They act based on their morals and the state according to its morals.
What is important in this behavior is that the inspiration for these eastern Christians was not based on a nationalism that had not yet been discovered then. Love alone was what motivated them and profound knowledge supported this love. Before the language of the Christians became arabized in Syria, and that took a very long time, the family of Mansur appeared there in complete harmony with the state and they historically received the glory that they deserved.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
The following is translated from the website of the Archdiocese of Tripoli. The original can be found here. A more detailed life of the Hieromartyr can be found here.
Nablus (30.11.2009)—Yesterday, at the Orthodox Church of Jacob’s Well in Nablus the beatification of the martyr Philomenos and the placing of his name in the Synaxarion of saints of the Orthodox Church was officially announced by the Holy Synod. His Beatitude the Patriarch presided at the Divine Liturgy, along with the bishops of the patriarchal see of Jerusalem and a number of bishops from the Church of Cyprus, in addition to a delegation from the Russian Church. The relics of the saint are preserved in the church in which he was martyred.
During the Divine Liturgy, the decision of the Holy Synod to place the martyr Archimandrite Philoumenos in the Synaxarion was officially announced. His annual commemoration will be
November 29, the anniversary of his martyrdom.
The Hieromartyr Archimandrite Philoumenos was the abbot of the Monastery of Jacob’s Well in Nablus. On November 29, 1979, as he stood in the church praying vespers a group of extremist Jewish settlers entered the church and brutally killed him using sharp objects. He fell, spilling his blood in the church where he had served and where he had prayed. It has been forty years since his martyrdom and his relics have been a place of reverence and humility for visitors to the Holy Land.
The hieromartyr was born in Cyprus and went to the Holy Land while he was still young. He served a number of monasteries and churches and he became a monk and was ordained deacon then priest. The last place in which he served was the Monastery of Jacob’s Well in Nablus, where he became a martyr.
His holy relics are a source of grace and blessings and have healed many people of their illnesses. His body gushes myrrh and those who enter into the church smell myrrh coming from the body of the holy martyr.
A special service has been composed for the Hieromartyr Philoumenos and an icon has been written of him.
Yesterday was a historical day in Nablus and thousands of believers and pilgrims attended and were blessed with the relics of the saint and his icon as they took part in this great celebration for the Church.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Happily, there have been preserved in Syria some Patriarchal and Diocesan monasteries which maintain Orthodoxy. Of the first kind are the following:
1. The Monastery of St. George—which is in the diocese Arki in the mountains of Akkara. It is not known when and by whom it was founded; but it was repaired in A.D. 1700 by the Patriarch of Antioch, Athanasius, and enlarged by additional buildings in the years 1837 and 1838. Of religious in this convent there are thirty persons, who are all Syrians. Among them there is no actual Hegumen, but his duties are performed by a monk selected by the Patriarch. The church is very small. This monastery has in its neighborhood a good quantity of arable land, which is cultivated by the free peasants of two neighboring villages according to a fixed rule of partnership, by which they are to be content with a fourth part of the produce. The live stock of the monastery is in a good condition. The monastery itself is surrounded by oliveyards and mulberry trees for silkworms. Of vineyards, too, there is a good number. This old monastery is regarded with pious devotion by the inhabitants of that region, who are in the habit of dedicating their new-born children to Saint George, inscribing them as belonging to the monastery, and then, when they are to be married, redeeming them by a small offering of money or of something else in kind. This custom even extends itself to the cattle of the Ansari, in case of any of them being sick and recovering. As this monastery is situated on the high way between Aleppo and Tripoli, it serves as a halting-place for whole caravans, so that of barely alone it expends as much as 1500 tchetverts and a great quantity of wheat, buckwheat, oil, wine, etc. But these great outgoings are compensated with some small surplus by the voluntary offerings of the travelers. This explains how it comes to pass that the monastery keeps in its pay as many as forty servants. Besides this, the monks of Saint George every year collect alms in the neighbouring and more distant villages, and especially from the Ansari, who are not Christians. The Kings of Georgia were benefactors to the monastery of Saint George by offerings of church plate and vestments, and allowed the monks to collect alms in their dominion every three years.
2. The monastery of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin called Belemend, from the name of its founder, perhaps the same as the Crusader Belmond (Boemond). This monastery is built on the first rise of the Lebanon, within sight of the Mediterranean Sea, and is distant from Tripoli not more than a ride of two hours and a half on horseback. At the time of the Greek insurrection, it was entirely desolate; there were no monks in it, the church was without windows, without a floor, without an iconostasis, and without sacred vestments, and it was more like a prison than a house of God. The property of the monastery was in disorder, and in the hands of strangers. The present Patriarch, Methodius, wishing to restore the monastery, made a happy choice of a Hegumen for it in the Priest-monk Athanasius, a native of Damascus. In the course of thirteen years (1830-1842) this Hegumen by his disinterested and diligent management, put into order the old possessions of the monastery, and acquired it for new. With the revenues arising from these possessions, he repaired the church, and furnished it with sacred vessels, vestments, and books; so that it became the very best in all Syria: he repaired the whole monastery, added new cells, and furnished them with everything that was necessary according to the custom of the place. There collected around him thirty-five monks, all natives, and lived according to the rules of a coenobium. That is not all: pained to see Orthodoxy losing ground in Syria, loving his countrymen and lamenting their ignorance of their Faith, seeing examples of good management in the convents of the Maronites and Uniats, which diffused among the people a certain light of instruction and knowledge, the Hegumen Athanasius established in his monastery a school for monks, with a view to fitting them for the preaching of the Word of God, and for the holding of Episcopal Sees. Monks, young and old, were daily taught the Arabic and Greek languages and church music, by teachers brought expressly for them from Tripoli and Damascus; while he himself, every day after the customary Services, taught them the truths of the Faith and rules of good living, by reading to them the Lives of the Saints, or the Works of the Fathers of the Church, in their native tongue. Within the monastery there reigned order, obedience to the Superior, piety and chastity, industry and knowledge. It was a hive of God, and the bees themselves were fed in it with the honey of the Word of God, and built honeycombs for others.
The Hegumen Athanasius twice threw himself at the feet of Ibrahim Pasha, and begged him for two favors for his convent, viz., that it should be freed from imposts, and that it should be secured in the possession of its mills, which the Prince of Lebanon, the Emir Bashir, was seeking to appropriate.
After this Hegumen, who went away to Jerusalem in the quality of preacher, the best of the monks were dispersed; some to the monastery of Saint George, some to Mount Athos, some to Sidon; the remaining twenty-two live on, hoping for better days.
3. The Monastery of the Prophet Saint Elias on Mount Lebanon, at a distance of six hours’ ride from Beyrout. It is not when and by whom it was founded; but it was repaired and improved in the years 1842-43 by the Hegumen Macarius a Greek. The whole monastery is very small and confined. The church is small, but decent: the new cells, on the second story, are good enough. The monks in all are eight, and there are as many servants.
4. The nunnery of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, called Saidnaia, at the distance of six hours to the north of Damascus. This is the oldest convent in Syria. It was founded by the Emperor Justinian I in the fifth century. Its site is very picturesque. The convent occupies, and one may say crowns, the summit of a high and bare hill standing isolated like Mount Tabor. In this monastery the church is not small, but dark and poor: it needs to have its upper part rebuilt: behind the principal sanctuary there is a small oratory, in which there is a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin. The cells, with the guest-chambers, are in all eighty, the nuns thirty-eight in number: they come hither from all the Syrian dioceses, and are admitted by the Patriarch, on the recommendation of the Bishops. After a probation from one to three years, they are tonsured. Their habit consists of a black gown (riasa), and their heads are covered with a long black handkerchief, so that nothing of the face is seen except the eyes. The nuns of the Saidnaia live a strict and abstemious life: they eat no flesh meat; each one received from the convent bread, tolokno (oats boiled, dried in the oven, and ground), olive oil, fuel, and materials for their clothes and shoes, which they have to make up for themselves. The old nuns communicate in the Holy Mysteries every Saturday: the younger ones once in the month. They go out from the convent only when they go down from the mountain to the neighboring cemetery any one of the sisters who may have died. They have no Superior, but the duty of overlooking them is committed by the Patriarch to some one of the nuns who is more devout and intelligent than the rest. As for the administration of the temporal affairs of the house, it is attended to by two trustees; one chosen from the Priests of the Convent, the other a Christian of consideration from Damascus or from the village below the monastery. It is their duty to provide the monastery with all that is necessary: they are changed every year and render an account to the Patriarch of their income and expenses. The convent is maintained by the freewill offerings of pious visitors, especially of Christian women, who come to pray before the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin, and bring their sick in hope of obtaining healing through her. Besides this in every diocese there are persons acting in behalf of the convent, who collect for it voluntary offerings; but of property in general, moveable or immoveable, it has very little.
The Saidnaia Convent is exceedingly venerated by all the orthodox Christians of Syria. In it maidens who are poor or left orphans, crippled or diseased, and old widows, find refuge from the temptations and afflictions of the world, and serve the Lord day and night in fasting and prayer: there the sick obtain healing. In this convent there are also some educated nuns who teach the young novices and some girls from the village, to read and write. It is satisfactory to know that there is in the world a well-ordered Syro-Arab nunnery. It is a flower-garden consecrated to the Most Holy Virgin Mary; it is a hospital for sinful souls; a salutary well-spring of grace; the light of the younger Christian maidens.
5. The Monastery of Saint Thecla, at six hours’ distance from the Saidnaia to the north, at the Uniat village of Malloolah. It is built under the brow of a high and naked rock, and it is literally an eagle’s nest. Under the dark projection of the neighboring rock, in a cave arranged as a chapel, hidden within the rock itself, are preserved the relics of Saint Thecla. But in the monastery there is a poor church, dedicated to the name of the Forerunner. The Christians, and even the Mussulmans, have the utmost faith in the relics of Saint Thecla, and often obtain, through them, miraculous healing. But, unhappily, the convent is ill kept: in it there lives only a Greek Hegumen with a Deacon and two novices, whom he sends out to collect alms. Ten years ago he made some guest-chambers for pilgrims: and now he is intending to rebuild and enlarge the church.
Besides the Patriarchal Monasteries, there are also some small diocesan houses.
The Archbishop of Arki has two small monasteries of Saint Dometius and of the Prophet Elias, with two monks, not far from the Patriarchal Monastery of Saint George. The first possesses a small piece of arable land, enough for one plough; the second has land enough for four ploughs. These lands have been purchased.
The Archbishop of Tripoli has five small monasteries, within a short distance from the town of Tripoli.
1. Of Saint James the Persian, on the first rise of the Lebanon, which was made out of a cemetery church, about the year 1600; in it there are three monks.
2. Of the Entrance of Our Lady to the Temple, called Natour, on the sea shore, with three monks.
3. Of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, called Keftine, upon the stream Kadisha: in it there are five monks.
4. Of Saint Demetrius, on the banks of the same stream, but much higher up than Keftine, with two monks.
5. Of Saint George, called Kapher. In it there is one monk.
The Archbishop of Beirout has six small monasteries: (1) Of the Assumption, called Khamatour, on the stream Abou-Ali, near Tripoli; (2) Of the Assumption, called Kiaftoun, on the stream of the Asphour; (3) Of the Annunciation, called Nourie, on the sea; (4) Of Saint George, called Kharph, on the Lebanon; (5) Of the Archangels, at Boukaata, and (6) A new Monastery of Saint George at Souk-el-Garda, also on the Lebanon.
All the diocesan monasteries are supported by small portions of land, vineyards, oliveyards, by mulberry trees, feeding silkworms, offerings from pilgrims, and collection of alms. They are nothing else than so many Episcopal Lodges.
Taken collectively, the Syrian Orthodox Monasteries render a great moral service to the Church. Besides that they make bad people to become good, and some even to become holy;-- besides that they serve as a refuge for innocence, for poverty, for orphans, for the aged and for crippled sufferers;-- besides the consolations of grace;-- besides charitable attendance and miraculous healings; they support, at least in some small degree, the poor Episcopal Sees, and the Schools for the people. One must not omit here to mention also this, that if, through the inscrutable dispositions of Divine Providence, Orthodoxy should extend itself over Syria, the Patriarchal Monastery of Saint George will diffuse the light of Christianity among the tribe of the Ansari, who cherish a profound veneration for the monastery; while the Monastery of Khamatour will serve to baptize the tribe of Mutawali who bring their sick to that monastery and ask the monks to baptize them. Actual baptism is not given to them, but they are only washed with water; for the Mutawali, when they get well, remain Mussulmans. These two monasteries must be considered as bright sparks, from which the light of Orthodoxy may be kindled over all Syria.
The tolerance of the Turkish government allows the monasteries to acquire property, to any extent that is desired, but exacts from them the taxes fixed by the laws,-- which is quite equitable. The monasteries paid no tributes only during the time of the Egyptian rule in Syria, till the year 1840.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
In the last century there were counted within the Patriarchate of Antioch 16 sees, but now there are only ten: for the see of Akkis (Akhaltsikhe) has been incorporated into the Russian Church, and the other five, viz., those of Heliopolis, of Amida in Mesopotamia, of Bostra and Palmyra in Arabia and of Theodosiopolis (Erzeroum) have ceased to exist, Orthodoxy in those places having become extinct. However, there are two titular bishops, one of Heliopolis, who resides at Moscow, and the other of Palmyra, who governs the monastery of Saint Spyridion.
Of the nine sees at present existing, one, that of Tyre and Sidon, has the rank of Metropolis, while all the others are Archbishoprics: Exarchs in Syria there are none, and so all the Bishops address themselves to the Patriarch himself.
In Syria, as in all the East, from the time of the Apostles, it has been the rule to appoint as many Bishops as possible: each of them has a small flock; consequently he is able with greater convenience and facility, to guide it to everlasting salvation, calling by name each one of the sheep of Christ. All the families see their bishop every year, not only in the church, but also in their houses, and if he has the gift of teaching or of piety, which is more eloquent than all sermons, he is then a pillar and support of Orthodoxy. The habit and the pleasure of seeing the Bishop in their houses, the respect felt for his rank, and hearty gratitude for his apostolic labours, cause the Orthodox to press closely around him; and it is only flattery, deceit and violence, or influences of corruption that can draw away from him weak souls. If the Bishops had not been numerous in Syria, Orthodoxy would long ago have died out there.
The rights and duties of the Syrian Bishops are nearly the same with those of their Patriarch. A Syrian Bishop, as a man of God, enlightens by the Word of God, sanctifies by the Sacraments and disciplines by Ecclesiastical Censures, the souls entrusted to him by the Lord. As a man of the people, he shares with the Orthodox people poverty, humiliation, and persecution from misbelievers; he every year visits all the families, both rich and poor, and lives from their offerings: he blesses their marriages, their baptisms and their funerals: his door is always open for all whoever they may be who come to him either for counsel, or for judgment or for protection, and at his hearth there is often prepared a hospitable entertainment both for rich and poor from the means afforded by their own freewill-offerings, made according to their ability.
From the beginning of the last century till now, the Patriarchs and some of the Bishops have been and are Greeks: they have rendered the Syrian Church services of no small importance. They gave her peace, by putting an end to hierarchical divisions; they gave her independence, by breaking off her dangerous relations with Rome; they have established order in the monasteries, and defended them from being plundered by the Sheikhs and their relatives: they stopped the defection of the Arab bishops to the Unia, and long kept the Uniats in fear by the voice of the whole Church and the Greek nation, and by their persevering instances with the Turkish government.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
In the comments to an earlier post, Fr. Andrew asks:
Would you be willing to do a post on the history of the Arabic Orthodox Christian use of Allah to refer to the One True God? When was that word first used by Arabic-speaking Orthodox? What is its pre-Christian and pre-Muslim history?
and then adds:
The issue came up recently on an email list I'm on—a poster claimed that Allah as a word was somehow tainted due to its association with Islam and pre-Christian, pre-Islamic Arabic paganism.
Of course, the argument on that email list is nonsense, because all the words we have for God, whether it's God, Theos, Deus, Bog, or what have you, all have pagan backgrounds and are used in modern times to describe non-Christian gods. Arguing that the word for God should be untainted by other cultures would put you in company with the darker side of 16th century Catholicism.
Leaving that aside, the history of the word Allah is rather prosaic. The generic Arabic word for 'a god' is ilah. This is cognate to the most common Semitic word for a god and is thus related to the Hebrew Elohim (and possibly El), the Syriac/Aramaic Alaha, and the Old South Arabian 'lh-- so basically all the Semitic languages outside of Ethiopia. Ilah is used by Christian Arabs in compounds like walidat al-ilah (the Theotokos) and ilahu abaina (God of our Fathers).
The Arabic word for the one God, in the use of any Arabic-speaking religion, is of course Allah. This word either comes from a contraction of ilah with the definite article, al-ilah, or is a borrowing from the Syriac Alaha (the latter opinion is sustained by early 20th century scholars like von Gruenbaum, Cheikho, Mingana, and Jeffery). It could just as easily be the mutual influence of the two, as the line between borrowings and cognates among Semitic languages is notoriously hard to determine.
Allah was of course used by the pre-Islamic pagans of Arabia, at least those whose cult center was Mecca. For them, Allah was the supreme god and was worshipped at the Ka'ba with his three daughters Allat (fem. of Allah), Manat, and 'Uzza. As far as I know-- and I say this without having the labyrinthine works of Irfan Shahid in front of me-- we do not have any extent literary or epigraphic texts from pre-Islamic Christian Arabs.
We do have pre-Islamic poems composed by poets from Christian tribes and transmitted orally until written down in the early Islamic period. (And whose authenticity, of course, has been much-debated). They make very rare mention of any religious theme, but do sometimes use the word Allah.
However, we can turn to the Qur'an as evidence for pre-Islamic use of the word Allah by Christians and Jews. That is, the Qur'an was not composed in dialogue only (and I would argue even chiefly) with the pagans of Mecca. Rather, Muhammad was much more interested in delivering his message to the Jews (primarily) and to some degree Christians. Since Allah is used of God in Qur'anic passages like Surat al-Ikhlas* which are addressed specifically to Christians, it seems that Muhammad assumed that the Christians he was addressing would understand Allah to mean their own God, since it was almost certainly the word they used themselves for Him. (A possible case where the Qur'an actually does co-opt a foreign word for a god is the epithet 'al-Rahman', which was likely the name of the chief god among the South Arabians).
At no point in the literary history of Christian Arabic am I aware of any word other than 'Allah' used for God (that is, where Greek would use ο θεος). Nor am I aware of it having been controversial among Christian Arabs or non-Arab Christians who came in contact with the usage. After all, Byzantine refutations of Islam talk about what the blasphemies Muslims say about ο θεος, not what they say about αλλα........
*German scholar of the Qur'an and (incidentally) Orthodox Christian, Angelika Neuwirth argues that Surat al-Ikhlas is a point-by-point refutation of the first part of the Nicene Creed.
The indispensable Cypriot blog NOCTOC comes through with another gem--- a link to a download of the entire Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Arabic. The priest serving is Fr. Pandeleimon Farah, abbot of the Monastery of the Theotokos at Hamatoura and the choir is from the Ecclesiastic Music School of Mt. Lebanon.
It can be downloaded by linking from here. And if you like it, buy it.
For liturgical texts online in Arabic, go here, with the text of the Divine Liturgy in pdf here.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Fr. Elia is working to catelogue all extant manuscripts written or copied by Orthodox Christians of the Patriarchate of Antioch. This is an immense task, but one that is also immensely valuable. These largely unstudied documents provide information for the history of the Church in the Near East, both in their contents and in the colophons where copyists often recorded information about themselves and their times. Fr. Elia is often quick to point out how these colophons make manuscripts different from printed books because they are a personal document-- Orthodox copyists routinely ended works by signing their name and asking for the prayers of their readers and for readers' help in correcting slips of the pen. The beauty and humility in how Fr. Elia talks about working with these manuscripts show that he is a man of prayer as much as he is a scholar.
Another important aspect of his work is uncovering more information about how long the Syriac language remained in use Orthodox Christians in Syria and Lebanon-- in some regions, the lectionary readings were only translated from Syriac into Arabic in the 17th century! Orthodox Antioch's Syriac heritage has long been sadly neglected, but this is now starting to change...
The Antioch Centre produces a newsletter, the most recent issue of which can be found here. It includes information about some of Fr. Elia's most recent findings.
Also, a really beautiful interview with him can be found here.
The Antioch Centre's website contains much more information about the project, a few downloadable articles, and information about how you can help to financially support its work.
Please keep Fr. Elia in your prayers!
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The Words of His Eminence Metropolitan Ephrem Kyriakos upon his Consecration in the Maryamiyya Church
Your beatitude Ignatius IV, patriarch of Antioch and all the East,
Your eminences the members of the Holy Synod,
The members of the diplomatic corps,
A word is required here, a word of thanks and a word of hope. A monk becomes a bishop. Why and how did this happen? A hidden secret that only the Spirit of God reveals. Words spoken by His Beatitude echo in my memory: “Every true Orthodox is a monk, no matter where he may be in the world.” Is this because of his belonging to God or because of his practical moral conduct? This topic merits profound meditation, but its basis is the inner foundation of man.
Beloved, our noble people loves singing and entertainment and speechmaking. Words do not always reach their real meaning, but remain entertaining poetry. But what is the difference between poetic words and words inspired by God? A profound inner sensation comes down from the Holy Spirit to the heart. This sensation works in one’s entire being, even to the extremities of the senses and opens one to others. It connects words to action. It comes from God and opens a heart of flesh to others.
Here I ask myself, “Why did you come here, brother? What is your calling? What does the Church ask from you, one so wretched and weak?” The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a sacrifice for many (Matthew 20:28). I came, then, to serve my Church first of all, and the whole world, that is, every person I find along my way. I serve and I will give of myself unto death so that there will be no distance between speaking and doing, so that the people will never again say, “there is a chasm between us and the leaders” and word spread that the Church is far from her people. I know very well that our people are good and that they want from us today to go to them, to seek them out wherever they are, to search out the lost and return them joyfully to the fold. They hunger and thirst for the Word of God.
Our Church is an evangelizing church. Let us restore this tradition. “Woe to me if I do not evangelize (1 Corinthians 9:16)” says the Apostle. The Gospel, according to those who know the state of the world today, is man’s return to God, leaving behind his lusts, his pleasures, his selfishness. Our Antiochian Church has a unique and exceptional mission that it must carry out and take to all the world, to every person.
Beloved, the ground upon which we tread is holy ground and its soil has been kneaded with the blood of martyrs and saints. “Let us redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Let us take advantage of the opportunity given to us before the moment slips away. Help me, O lovers of God, to not drown in the cares of this life, in its wealth and its pleasures, lest its thorns strangle me--- formalities, festivities, worldly banquets. I ask you to help me because without you I am nothing. One of the high priests said, “The Lord must die on behalf of the people, and not only the people, but in order to return to one all the dispersed people of God” (John 11:51-52).
Indeed, to die so that others may live, because service is servitude to God and to others, a servitude of love in which there is true freedom. I will not forget the prayers and trust of His Beatitude, which will watch over me, fortify me, and strengthen me throughout my life. I will not forget the prayers of all the metropolitans without exception. I will not forget the priests who will strive with me and those on whom I will especially rely. I will not forget the prayers of my brothers the monks and nuns and all the believers and especially the holy fathers at Balamand and on the Holy Mountain of Athos who begat me in Christ, my spiritual children and the nation and the Monastery of St. Michael and its monks and its beloved village of Nahr Biq’ata, who have caused me to relish the pleasure of true common life.
I will not forget my obligation: pasturing the new generation of youth, looking over them with nearness and love because “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). This is so that they may never drown in the lusts and seductions and poisons of this world. Last but not least, I will not forget my brothers the poor, those little ones whom I must approach with God’s compassion so that I will not be judged for not loving them.
I thank you all for your trouble and your love. I thank God for all things, amen.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Shedding Some Light on the Judgement
A wise man keeps his attention on the day his death before the days of his life. Before you make plans for tomorrow, remember the hour of your death! The day of death inevitably comes and can come at any moment, but another day of life might not come at all. Then, if you keep your attention on the day of your death, at all times and in all situations, you will no longer be concerned with your life on this earth, imagining that you will be there forever. Instead, you will take account of the fact that you will inevitably die today or tomorrow. This makes you, first of all, more realistic in your dealings with the matters of this world. Second, your consciousness of your reality gives you a profound sense that the things you deal with here, whatever they may be, are transitory. You are on a train taking you there and everything you see, here and there, are sights that pass each other by. Today you see them, and tomorrow they don't hesitate to pass behind you, as though they never were. Third, the things that you face in your day, at this moment, become well-ordered, because you accept them with greater ease, whether they're bitter or sweet, because your eye looks to the hereafter. Fourth and finally, if you become aware of the hour your death, that is, in practical terms, to the hour of judgment, then you will find yourself automatically pressed towards acting in an upright way, with mercy in your interactions with other people, because the hour is coming when you will find yourself having to respond to every detail of what has happened to you. For this reason, the remembrance of the of death and the hour of judgment is is an excellent and realistic way to order the affairs of life on this earth and an aid in freeing yourself from false imaginings and fantasies and a help for making your life, even in its simplest and most specific details, successful, peaceful, and joyous.
By no means think that if you keep your attention on the hour of your death that you will drown in sorrow and despair, that you will have no desire to continue any work here on this earth with all your heart. This is not true. The hour of death is only sorrowful and full of despair for those who do not believe in God and in Jesus Christ, glory to him. But for those who believe, the hour of death is the hour of meeting the One who has loved us, the hour of completion of man's preparation for eternal life. For this reason, this hour is the hour of joy par excellence. Indeed, in death we are not approaching nothingness, but rather fullness. It is not a loss, but a gain (Philippians 1:21). What awaits us is beyond imagining! "The eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).
So you should have no fear because you have sinned. All flesh and blood sins! We do not arrive at the hour of death without sin, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and no one is good except God (Matthew 19:17). What is important is that sin not become a natural thing in our life, that it not become us, that we not accept it as something desirable, that we not enjoy it without the slightest rejection on the level of the soul or the sense of prodding the heart against it. Did the Master not say, "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19)?. You will not be cast into hell and you will not be banished from the face of the Lord as long as sin does not become natural for you on the count of the depth of your heart's intimacy with it, as long as sin does not become a foreign body that has been assimilated within you, that is, an entity that has come to be united to you so that it has become you. The divine word warns you into the end and calls you to be violent with regard to your self: "If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire" (Matthew 18:8). No matter how much your sins have multiplied, have no fear. Your sins will not cast you into Hell, but rather your existential relationship to them. The Lord God is an ocean of mercy! All human sins are like a grain of sand before Him! They are like nothing before Him, since He wills that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). It is enough for you to weep! It is enough for you to repent from the depths! It is enough for you to feel pain in your heart! For you to say even just a word as a sigh: "Remember me O Lord, when You come into your kingdom!" "Make me as one of your hired servants!" And how will He reply? "Today you will be with me in paradise." "Bring out the best robe... bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this your brother was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found." The Lord does not ask for much. He asks for just a simple, painful, humble movement of the heart. How not, when "a heart this is broken and humbled God will not revile." The Lord God looks for the smallest reason to save man. God is all love! However smoky the candle may be, He does not extinguish it and however crushed the cane may be, He will not shatter it. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool" (Isaiah 1:18). Heaven is in mourning until the sinner repents, because "likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7).
Does this mean that we can consciously sin without accountability and then repent at the last moment? Of course not! Some saints sinned and repented at the last moment, this is true. But they were sins of ignorance and weakness. Can one surrender himself to the enemy and then expect to escape as though he were on a walk? One who says that it will be easy to be saved, what does he mean? The goal of your enemy the Devil is to crush you forever with sin. Will you surrender yourself to that!? So, the danger of sin is that when one submits himself to it consciously, his heart hardens to dealing with it and becomes the object of a deadening of sensitivity to it. Then if a man thinks that he is able to sin today, knowing that in truth, and that he can repent tomorrow, then he has dreadfully fallen and he has added to his sins the greatest sin, because he has surrendered himself to sin willingly and out of obstinacy and out of self-love! That is unbelief itself!!! How can he repent when he has denied the Holy Spirit!? For he had knowledge of truth, but despite that he chose falsehood, and he acted as though the truth were false. He was capable of struggle, but despite that he chose to plunge himself into sin as though sin were more useful! This is precisely blasphemy against the Holy Spirit! The Jews knew that the Spirit active in the Lord Jesus is the Holy Spirit, but despite that they said of Him, out of jealousy and pride and obstinacy, that it was the chief of demons. They were able to be humble and submit to the truth, they knew, but they denigrated the Holy Spirit and made light of the truth and chose sin! This is what the Lord God said about it: " all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" (Mark 3:28-29).
For this reason I strive to resist sin today, tomorrow, and to the end. As for the ignorant, it is our duty to teach them. "Make disciples of all nations." As for the weak, we help them through our prayers and the Lord will help them for the sake of His goodness, with us or without us!
And so we ask-- Are those who shall be saved few in number? We do not know, though we feel deep within ourselves that the One who is able to do all things and who desires that all be saved is able to save most, except those who, like Satan, do not want salvation because of stubbornness, who do not love the Truth, and who are not zealous for it. Whatever the case may be, judgement will begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). The Lord will judge us Christians first, because we have known Him, in a small way or a great way. After having known Him, we have ignored Him and made light of Him and we, who are called by his name, have become a cause for others to blaspheme! Had we preserved the faith and born witness in Spirit and in Truth, then we would have shared in the salvation of others. Most human suffering today is the result of Christians having departed from the truth of their Christ! For this reason, judgement will start with us, because from those to whom much has been given, even more will be asked. These words were not just for the Jews, rather they were especially for us Christians, if we do not repent, "tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you."
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma
October 25, 2009
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Arabs and Icons
by Karen Lewis
When most people think of icons they think of delicate Greek triptychs or the fabulous jeweled icons of Russia locked deep in the vaults of the Kremlin. Yet for almost three centuries, Arab artists, usually members of Christian religious orders, made icons in the Middle East. Icon is a Greek word meaning 'image' but on the basis of funeral portraits found in Fayyoum, Egypt, scholars have suggested that the iconic form itself may be Middle Eastern.
The Arab icons are called "Melkite" icons because they were painted by Arab artisans who belonged to the Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic Church. Virgil Candea, a Rumanian scholar, first used the term when he was consultant for an exhibition of icons from Lebanese and Syrian collections produced by the Sursock Museum of Beirut in May 1969. His source was the derisive expression "Melkite" used by heretic Nestorian Christians to refer to communities which remained loyal to the Byzantine State Church after the early theological disputes over the nature of Christ. In the 18th century, after reuniting with the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholics used the term to distinguish themselves from their former Greek Orthodox brethren.
According to Sylvia Agemian, the discovery of the Melkite icons is very important scholastically. Mrs. Agemian, a researcher at the Sursock Museum and possibly the only specialist in Melkite icons in the Middle East, says: "For the first time it is being recognized that there were schools of iconographers in the Middle East which followed the Byzantine or Greek iconic tradition with the addition of Islamic elements."
Icons are an integral part of the religious life of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Like statuary and Gothic carvings they are seen as holy objects to be venerated, not merely appreciated as decoration. Yet just as decoration they are unique. Icons—original icons—are images painted onto a gold veneer applied to a smooth coat of plaster on a wooden board. Usually they were placed on a screen in front of the altar for the congregation to contemplate during the services.
Because the first icon was thought to be the image of Christ left on St. Veronica's veil which she had given him to wipe his face with when he was carrying the cross to Calvary, the early Church decided that portrayal of the divine could not be left to the imagination of the individual artist. Up to the 17th century, traditional Byzantine icon painters were forced to follow instructions in a church manual which decreed that holy persons must be as other-worldly as possible. To achieve this the artist imposed geometric molding on the body to make his subjects appear almost fleshless, and minimized any hint of the sensual by swathing them in heavy draperies. Since the saints were blessed with the Beatific Vision and therefore exuded an inner holy light, the artist painted fine white lines on the saint's cheekbones and hands to suggest the light.
As part of the formula to emphasize holiness, the artist also gave his saints heads that were disproportionately large, and formally molded beards and hair. Even colors were specified by the church guide. The Virgin's maphorion, a veil which covered the head and shoulders of all female saints, was always an ochre red to symbolize the tragic fate of her son.
If they appeared, mountains and buildings were highly stylized, bearing almost no relation to reality. But they didn't appear often. On orthodox icons divine persons were pictured against a background of gold with no terrestrial elements other than those associated with the particular saint: books for the Evangelists and Patriarchs, swords for martial saints such as St. George.
Melkite artists probably learned the form of the icon from icons brought to the Middle East by Byzantine Greek and Russian patriarchs and pilgrims, and from Greek artists who lived and worked in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. But the Melkite craftsmen also knew the Cretan works of the 14th and 17th centuries. On an icon of the Archangel Michael, which he did in 1726, the artist Hanna al-Kudsi, who worked in Syria and Lebanon during the first half of the 18th century, put an inscription saying it was based on an earlier Cretan icon. Melkite icons, however, differ from their Greek and Russian counterparts more in detail and treatment of subjects than in form. General traits like decoration, the faces and bodies of the subjects, the frequency of certain themes and, of course, Arabic inscriptions, distinguish the Melkite icon.
In the early days, Melkite artists naturally looked to the Byzantine Greek models for guidance. But as they matured they quickly began to express their own tastes and feelings. Although the Byzantine elements prevail in the majority of the early paintings, the presence of markedly Arab characteristics is apparent. All the faces painted by the Melkite artists—not just Middle East saints, but Christ and his angels too—have Arabized complexions. There is a more natural oval to the faces and a softer expression than in the Byzantine icon. The bodies are fuller and rounder with less of the modeling which is characteristic of traditional icon painting. In addition, there are Arab costumes, contemporary furniture and daily household objects—all in sharp contrast to the other-worldly and awe-inspiring Byzantine saints. In one early 18th-century Melkite work, for example, the baby Virgin Mary is rocked in a cradle still common to Syria and Lebanon today. In others, Abraham, preparing to sacrifice his son, wears a turban, John the Evangelist writes at an Arab writing desk and St. George brandishes an Arab sword.
The earliest Melkite works are characterized by sumptuous decoration which the Christian craftsmen borrowed directly from Islamic art. The intricate decorations found on brasswork, on Persian carpets, and on the brocades and wood panels of Damascus are all found on Melkite icons. The whole surface of the icon was covered with floral, vegetable and geometric designs; bent leaves, lotus flowers, pomegranates, lilies, tulips and palms are scattered on the borders, the halos and the clothing of the saints. This is not to say that all Melkite icons are ornately decorated; the 19th-century ones are often simple in the extreme.
ike European artists, the Melkite painters were influenced by their environment when they chose themes to illustrate. Local saints and legends that are typically oriental or have an oriental setting were popular: St. George, who, legend says, fought his battle with the dragon near Beirut, St. Saba, who headed a monastic order outside Jerusalem, St. Simeon Stylites who stood on his pillar in Syria for 60 years, St. Mary the Egyptian, the Virgin Mary in the Garden of Jesse and the Prophet Elie beheading the priests of Baal.
Even the dedicatory inscriptions on Melkite icons take on a distinctly Middle Eastern literary flavor. Whereas Greek and Russian inscriptions are succinct, those on Melkite works are long and flowery. For example, an icon of St. Spiridon given to a Rumanian church in 1749 by Sylvester, the Patriarch of Antioch, has not only the giver's name and the occasion but blessings and salutations covering about one-fourth of the icon.
Most of the early Melkite icons were made in Aleppo, where a family of Syrians and their students produced some of the finest examples of Melkite work. The priest, Yusuf al-Mussawwir; his son, Ne'meh; grandson, Hanania; and great grandson, Girgis, span two centuries, from the 17th to the 18th, with their works. The greatest of this family of iconographers was Ne'meh, who developed the Aleppo style. Though he did not completely break with the traditional Byzantine manner of icons, he preferred a stylized naturalism. Ne'meh's angels and women have more pronounced oval heads than in Byzantine painting, his young people have rounded faces and his men have large heads with bulging foreheads, prominent cheekbones and hollow cheeks. While their noses retain the slenderness of their Byzantine prototypes, his saints have the fine almond-shaped and heavily lashed eyes found among Arab people. Ne'meh, moreover, personalized his icons with alternating green and red borders covered with gold decoration.
The influence of the Aleppo School lasted until the late 18th century with an astonishing continuity and abundance. Shukrallah ibn Yuwakim, also from Aleppo, Kyrillos al-Dimashki and some anonymous painters belonging to the Basilian religious order adhered to Ne'meh's physiognomic types, general ornamentation and the characteristic green and red borders that mark the Aleppo School of painters.
Although anonymity remained the general rule among icon painters outside the Aleppo School, several independent Melkite craftsmen do emerge. Hanna al-Kudsi, who painted during the early 18th century, did mostly restorations and reproductions of earlier works, including some of Ne'meh's. His own works are closer to traditional icon painting. Mikhail al-Dimashki, who worked in Damascus about the same time as Hanna al-Kudsi did in Jerusalem, painted traditional icons of a popular nature with elements taken from western painters.
The works of Sylvester, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, though made in the Middle East, are strictly Byzantine in form. They attest to the controversy between the Eastern Church and the Church of Rome. Sylvester spent most of his life fighting Cyrillus V, the Patriarch of Aleppo and some of Cyrillus' bishops who, under the influence of Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries, left the Greek Orthodox Church and joined the Roman Catholic doctrine. Sylvester's paintings are formally Byzantine because he was countering the spread of doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, which is not a precept of the Eastern Church.:
By the 19th century, the demand for smaller, more popular icons, and the larger prosperity made personal ownership of icons a possibility. At the same time, however, individuals had less money to use on the ornamentation of an icon than did the church so instead of etching their subjects on gold, artists took to painting directly on the wood. With the increased demand for icons, especially from the newly established Greek Catholic churches, the artists had less time, so the elaborate ornamentation of earlier Melkite icons gave way to simpler decoration and by the second half of the 19th century decoration completely disappears. Instead of intricate designs which cover the surface and borders of the icons in works from the Aleppo School, there are simple clusters of flowers. Stylized bodies and faces totally disappear and the painters break completely with dogmatic artistic restraints.
In these later icons, Middle Eastern villagers and peasants are prominent, particularly in the works of Butros 'Agaimi, a Lebanese priest who worked during the beginning of the 19th century near Deir al-Kamar. His icon of St. Jean Climaque pictures the saint with a large fleshy face, a wide nose, big eyes, and rough workman's hands. He could just as easily be a Lebanese or Syrian laborer as the sixth-century priest who lived in Sinai and wrote a famous book of virtues. There is no gold at all used in this icon and the colors are earthy browns and grays.
A mid-19th-century Melkite painter who also favored the simple style is Ne'meh Naser from Homs, Syria. His works are characterized by their roughness. He worked directly on the wet plaster and the grooves are visible even through several layers of paint.
Although the influence of the Aleppo School dies out in the 19th century, in the middle of the century another school of painters appears in Jerusalem—the Kudsi. A group of three Melkite artists, Mikhail Mhanna, Yuhanna Saliba and Nicolas Theodorus, must have had a kind of assembly line workshop because they have so many icons of the same subject done in the same manner. Their works are characterized by large brush strokes and simplicity. Their saints have heads as round as oranges and faces that are touched with a sweet serenity.
The biggest influence on Melkite painters in the 19th century came from a Cretan painter, Michael Polychronis, or Michael the Cretan, who lived and worked in Damascus from 1809 to 1821. Almost every church of any significance in the Middle East has an icon done by Michael. Although his icons have Byzantine and Italianate elements, his works, which are done in oil, include decorative themes from the woodwork panels of Damascus in the draperies of his saints and so are classified as Melkite. The draperies of the robe are magnificently molded and his saints retain the fierce spirituallity of expression of the Byzantine world. Michael's significance is not confined to his achievements but to his influence on the average artist of his day. Outside the primitive painters like Butros 'Agaimy, every Melkite painter tried to imitate Michael's occidental style.
With the attraction of things western at the turn of the century, artists abandoned the local style. For decades the knowledge of Melkite icons was the privileged information of only a few Lebanese and Syrian collectors. With their rediscovery a valuable addition has been made to art and religion. Scholars are hoping, although the study of Melkite icons is still germinal, that they will provide new insights into the lives of the Arab Christians.
Karen Lewis is a graduate of Miami University of Ohio, a former Peace Corps teacher in Ethiopia and a former reporter for the New York Post. In Beirut she has contributed to the Washington Post and does news broadcasts for ABC radio.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Here is the column Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Mt. Lebanon wrote in the newspaper an-Nahar for October 17, 2009. The original Arabic can be found (at least this week) here.
That the Bishop be Blameless
One who sees himself as nothing becomes something when spiritual men say it to him. No one approaches the divine glory by his own power. The divine glory pulls him in and if a person approaches it, he feels that he is nothing and he remains effaced in his own eyes until the Day of Reckoning. Indeed, each one of us needs to know his own talents because in this is a recognition of God’s gift. But one is lost if he thinks that his talents are his own possession. They only exist on account of God’s favor, which He takes back when He so wishes.
Thus in the Church of God we accept each responsibility as a gift. This is the meaning of service and service comes down to you from above. If you are entrusted with it, don’t allow yourself to feel that you deserve it. This is the meaning of God’s creating, that your Lord brings you into existence every day as a “new creation.” If you think that you have become vessel for God, do not forget that “we have this treasure in a vessel of clay.” Happy are you if you contain the treasure with which you have been entrusted and woe to you if you think yourself by your own virtue to be more than clay.
In light of this, I read the words of Paul: “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work, so a bishop then must be blameless (1 Timothy 3:1-2).” At the moment I’m not going into the position of what today we call “bishop [usquf].” At the time of the writing of the epistle, the distinction between the bishop and the priest did not yet exist, or at least the arrangement of orders was not yet the same in all the churches. Nevertheless, in our reading today of the word “position of the bishop,” we must understand that it also means the position that we call in colloquial Arabic the mutran, which comes from the Greek metropolite, meaning the bishop of a major city.
Be that as it may, this does not mean that Paul was praising desire for the position of the bishop and was encouraging people to want it. It is a gift from God and desire is against divine giving. The meaning, as it appears, is that if you desire it, then know that you desire something immensely important. For this reason you must be without blame. Those with spiritual insight—and not you—will discover if you are without blame.
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As for one who has been witnessed committing a filthy act of the work of the devil, it is not permitted to pause at his name for a single moment. One who pauses for a moment has entered into his filthiness. One who is afflicted with filthiness leads in filthy things because a corrupt person is necessarily corrupting.
Among the examples of blamelessness, Paul mentions that a candidate for spiritual leadership must be “sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome.” One in whom these virtues do not abound is subject to blame. There is not space here to discuss every virtue in detail. He must be wakeful, watchful of himself, possessing self-control. This condition is so that he may wake others to adopt the path of the Lord. No one sleeps in the Church, so there must be wakefulness in prayer and attentiveness to it and love for all people and the unity of the Holy People of God in repentance and constant sacrifice for our brothers. But as for those who snore, the Church is no one’s bed.
I move now to the man’s being a good teacher, as Christianity is knowledge and teaching, since “In the beginning was the Word.” The church that is satisfied with rituals of which no one understands anything is worthless. One who was not given the gift of teaching and preaching is not worthy to be thought of for the position of priest or bishop. Such a one should be content to be a cantor or a silent monk or a servant in the temple, and these are blessed responsibilities, those of us who are appointed to them are content with them. Christianity is the explanation of the Holy Bible and the acts of worship and the tradition. Their study is at all levels and lasts a lifetime. If an ordinary believer is demanded to confess with his tongue, as the Apostle says, then it’s even more appropriate for a servant of the Word, as we call him during his ordination, to testify to this Word. For this reason, our Church of Antioch requires that one who advances to the episcopate must have perfected his theological knowledge and have kept company with scholars. A mute has no vocation in the Church, even if his holiness is loftier than all those who hold positions. When some faithful brought a man to John Chrysostom in order for him to make him a priest, he asked them what they knew about him. They said that he was pious. He replied that this is not enough, since all Christians must be pious. He must be knowledgeable.
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“Not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome,” since the Lord said, “learn from Me, for I am humble and lowly in heart.” Why did the blessed Lord choose these two virtues to describe himself? Because they are the loftiest. Only if you are lowly will God raise you and will you by your lowliness raise others. Only if you have desired humility and lived it will you go to that sacrifice to which the Savior went.
I do not know the semantic difference between kindness and humility. In the epistle to the Galatians, the Apostle mentions kindness and humility together and makes them fruits of the Holy Spirit in us. If we relate this to previous words of his, we understand that the Spirit of God produces in us a spiritual way of life.
Since Paul said that the bishop should not be quarrelsome, in my meditating on this in a number of matters, I have discovered that the sharpest rebuke for a believer is one that is not accompanied by anger and that the best thing is to remind him, if he’s overcome with anger, because reminding is a return to God, both for yourself and for the one you’re reproaching.
When the Bible says that the bishop should be without blame, it means that such a person exists and that there are some matters that one can’t play around with. Those who are responsible must examine shine a close light on and study in detail the life of the one that they nominate and elect. They must set up barriers to advancement to lofty stations. Barriers mean that you do not make a blameworthy man a deacon, and if you made a mistake in ordaining him, he should not advance to the priesthood. If you make a mistake, he should not then advance to the episcopate. A worthless episcopacy subjects the church which that bishop tends to worthlessness. One who loves money causes those who engage in bribery to approach the leader, and likewise robbers, and so the temple becomes a den of thieves.
Because the canons of the Church recognize that it is possible for these sins to occur, they mention the judgment of priests and metropolitans and sometimes as a result of this, defrocking, that is, expulsion can occur. For me, the Church which does not judge cannot determine virtue. The Church is the place in which we are purified. Jesus wanted us to be purified through the apostles and the successors to the apostles. The corrupt are successors to their sins and not to the saints.
Reform in the Church starts with its leaders. The Church does not wait a long time for its priests and bishops to repent. She does not let the evil of those who have had a great fall to get out of control. Its end result is expulsion.
Saint Basil the Great once defrocked a priest because he committed adultery. After many years, this priest was at a funeral. He approached the casket and touched the dead man and the dead man rose. He went to Basil and said to him, “Do you need a greater sign than this of the holiness that I have acquired in order to send me back to my flock?” Basil replied, “Your holiness is between you and God, but I cannot return you to your flock because you scandalized them. It is not right for you to go to them again.”
Who will give us the like of Basil the Great so that we feel that the group we are a part of is truly the Church of Christ?
Friday, October 16, 2009
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Finally, after a long wait, following the repose of Metropolitan Elias Kurban of blessed memory, a new angel was chosen for the diocese of Tripoli, Koura, and their dependencies, on Wednesday, October 6th—the monk Archimandrite Ephrem (Michel) Kyriacos. Was this choice from above or was it the arrangement of people in this world? There is no doubt, and the conscience deeply testifies to this, that the Spirit spoke through the bishops and the Merciful One had favor in kindness on His flock in the diocese of the north and nothing is sweeter! Thus, in joy and thanksgiving we raise up our voice: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “You are great, O Lord, and wondrous in your works!” When the calls that have been lifted up here and there have gone idle, these cannot. The cries of the idle are forever just noise, but these alone are the whisperings of the Holy Spirit rending the veil and to stay in the depth of the Church and the hearts of the servants of God. “For the sake of the cries of the poor, for the sake of the shout of those in pain, I rise up, says the Lord.”
The most important thing that happened is that the Lord God gave us one whom we know. “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”
O our beloved brother and father Ephrem,
Today, they take you nailed upon the cross, that you may be bread which your Teacher will make into a sacrifice from His body, which he breaks to feed those who hunger for eternal life. You come broken, and tears are your companion, since it was written about you that we must bear in our bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:17). It is not easy for a man to go from monasticism to the episcopacy. Monasticism is, at its base, a cross and the emptying out of the self. Today, as you approach the episcopacy, you find yourself high upon the cross and in the depths of self-emptying. You have devoted yourself assiduously to the canonical monastic life for many long years, advancing deeply into the interior desert. The custom is for monks, when they have reached the spiritually strictest point, to choose their own private desert, out of a desire for the most perfect asceticism and the most complete solitude in which there is no consolation except from above. But you, today, and we know you and speak from knowledge, you are not one who chooses his own interior desert. Your Teacher has chosen it for you. As though in Him I speak to you: You have enjoyed traditional monasticism enough! You have stayed in Baskinta enough! Come, I will send you into the desert of the world! As a stranger you came to the Monastery of St. Michael, and now you have many loved ones and spiritual sons there. Lest you get to be at home there and become content, I want you to start anew, in new places, as even more of a stranger, so that I can increase grace upon grace in you, before you approach Me completely and remain in Me and unto Me.
You asked, my brother, that the Lord take this cup far away from you if he can. But your words were completed with “But let not my will be done but Thy will.” Like a lamb, today, being led to the slaughter. Are we not, in any case, the children of sacrifice? So it is not a problem for you! In accordance with your having been gone in the spiritual place which your Teacher chose for you, your angel is with you. The peace of Jesus is with you in your going out and your coming in, in your leaving and your arriving. Today the Lord deprives you of what you have accumulated in order to fill you with what he has accumulated for you.
They said, “You are a man of prayer and not an administrative man,” but they do not know that the administration of the church, in its profundity, is not a worldly science. Administration in the church is not administration in the institutions of this world. The two things that hold up the institutions of this world are organization and effectiveness. Some of this is useful in what pertains to the Church, because there is doubtlessly a human veneer over all this. But the basis, the basis is not in either of these two things and not with the two of them together. The basis is in these words of the Lord: “I send you out like sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as humble as lambs (Matthew 10:16).” Wisdom and humility! These two things are born of pure prayer! We are not involved with institutions and activities for their own sake! “The body is of no use. The spirit is that which gives life!” We bring the Word of God to the people in every organized endeavor. Our concern is to bring the people to the streams of salvation. “All things are for you, and you are for Christ, and Christ is for God.” We are not the guardians of earthly endeavors that those who preceded us undertook. We are the guardians of the poor that they be sated in Christ, after we have come to love Him and shared with Him in those things that we were given freely. We are the guardians of the wealthy, that they come to realize their poverty and need for Christ, after we provide them with love so that they may share with the poor in what they are given freely. For us, administration is for Christ to be with us and first among our concerns, for us to allow room for the Spirit of the Lord to direct us as He wills so that we may become one and move toward the One. Let us not make idols of our endowments and our institutions! They are for us, we are not for them. Our value and our honor is for us to treat all as our needed brother so that God may be glorified in us. In our poverty, not in our wealth do we enrich many. One who is wealthy and does not acknowledge his poverty before his Lord is content with worldly praise and neglects the poor on account of their poverty. The meaning of all this is that a man of prayer is an administrative expert in the Church of Christ because the Spirit teaches him and because he deals with people’s hearts first of all, not stone and money and communiqués. These all have their place, but the Spirit of the Lord within us is admistrator and administration together in every situation, He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
They said, “You are not a man who is comfortable facing politicians and especially prominent and important people. Trablus and Koura need someone who can face them.” By my life, it is not just for you to be judged in matters where you haven’t been tested yet. How are you not a man comfortable facing [such] when you have faced demons day and night, with the grace of God and your own resolve? You have faced the passions and burdens and temptations. If faced the tricks of the Enemy, how could it be harder for you to face the tricks of men? You are a teacher of the practice of facing [others] with kindness. It’s not a problem for you if they don’t understand you at first. What is important is for you to stand firm in what you were instructed from above and in the end they will understand you! In wisdom and humility you will triumph over anything the Enemy throws at you. One who knows how to face his own sin knows how to face the world!!!
For this reason, have no fear! He who helped you in the deserts that you have crossed up till now will help you in the desert that you now come to. All the while, you have remained a vessel for your Lord and have remained an instrument of prayer to him for the sake of the world. All the powers of sin, both demons and men, have been defeated before you. Rise up! Go, do not fear weakness, and do not hesitate! Don’t look back, lest you become a pillar of salt, far be it! The angels are with you and the demons, by the will of God, are under your feet! The Spirit of the Lord is stronger in you and we, your little brothers, are always there for you. God be with you!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma
October 11, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The 45th regular session of the Holy Synod of the Church of Antioch was held in Damascus between October 6th and 8th presided over by His Beatitude patriarch Ignatius IV and with the participation of their eminences the reverend fathers belonging to the Holy Synod of Antioch. Metropolitan Phillip Saliba (North America) was absent.
During this session, the metropolitan who was elected for the archdiocese of Tripoli and Koura, archimandrite Ephrem (Kyriakos), presented himself and was congratulated by the members of the Synod, who congratulated the archdiocese for his selection. Then, welcoming him in the name of the members of the Synod, His Beatitude addressed him and said:
“I know Sayyidna Ephrem in his service and his engagement. He is a brilliant man and a true monk. A monk can live as a monk wherever he wants, but he does not make a monastery of the diocese. The diocese requires a total giving away of the self. This bishop-elect is not a stranger to us. When we met today, I reminded him about when he stood up at the general meeting of the dioceses in 1993 when he spoke words the likes of which are rarely heard. I ask all of your prayers for the wellbeing of this elected brother and for the wellbeing of this archdiocese. His presence among us adds gifts and blessings upon the gifts and blessings in this Synod. I ask the Lord to grant a long life to Sayyidna Ephrem and the future will say and will confirm how the true consecrated ones are.”
The metropolitan-elect responded: “I thank you, Your Beatitude, and I thank Your Eminences the fathers because you have put this trust in my person. I hope to be able to bear this responsibility with the help of the Lord and your prayers. I say that I am weak like every human being, a vessel of clay, and I confess before you that I have loved the Lord and this Church and that I am ready to shed my blood for her.”
At the beginning of the session, their Eminences the fathers of the Synod addressed two letters to their Excellencies the presidents of the Republic of Syria and the Republic of Lebanon in which they affirmed to the two presidents the Church of Antioch’s support for the efforts made in the interest of the wellbeing of the two countries and they asked the Lord to make them strong so that they can continue to support the sons of the two countries.
This session was characterized by discussions between the fathers of the Synod about the pastoral aspect of service to the Church from every angle. They insisted upon priests in the parishes being the bearers of the teachings of the Church as well as the decrees of the Holy Synod to each home so that prayer be tied to service and so that our people may feel that they are loved and that they are borne in fervent and constant remembrance in the liturgical and sacramental prayer of their pastors. This also requires that the service of the pastors speak to current reality and current reality is in space and time, which change. Just like pastoral criteria, criteria of behavior, which cannot be removed from current reality, so that effective action be well-established in current reality, so too pastoring is the affirmation of the Incarnation of the Lord in His Church and in human history.
First of all, the Synod decided to elevate bishop Niphon (Saykali), the patriarchal vicar to the Church of Moscow, to the rank of archbishop.
Then, their eminences the fathers of the Synod studied the pastoral situation in the Sanjak (province) of Alexandretta [on Turkish territory] and learned about the pastoral efforts expended there. They decided to elaborate a plan of action with the necessary human and financial resources so that the people will feel that they are at the heart of the concerns of the Church of Antioch.
Then, the Holy Synod spent a long time on the topic of exchange between neighboring dioceses and on the importance of coordination with regard to questions of regional importance and that require a common approach. They decided to hold when necessary local meetings of the metropolitans of these dioceses in order to coordinate and to take advantage of different expertise. This is both in the dioceses of in the home countries and in the diaspora.
Given that communication is considered a priority in our current reality, communications, both in their pedagogical and their informative aspects, were an important area of discussion. The fathers learned about a project for an electronic newsletter for the patriarchate that will include spiritual topics and news from all of the dioceses of the patriarchate. They decided that it will be weekly and that it will have correspondents from the dioceses. They also decided to rely on experts to elaborate a comprehensive communications program that will use audio-visual media to serve missionary work.
Because where the bishop is, there is the Church and where the Church is, there is the bishop, and because the bishop as head of the priests and as pastor is an event in the life of the Church, and because the current reality of the Antiochian dioceses in the homeland and in the countries of the diaspora has evolved, the Holy Synod delegated to one of its members to prepare a study about the evolution of the episcopacy within the Orthodox Church from theological, canonical, and historical points of view so that the role of a bishop who is not a metropolitan and his position within the Church of today will be determined.
Because the people of our Church deserve that the service of their pastors within the parish be well-ordered and in order to give a proper form to the service, the Synod decided to put into place a pastoral guide for the priests that will be adopted by all the priests of the See of Antioch in their services. This is for an annotation of the Small Euchologion, especially the services of Baptism and Marriage.
The Holy Synod examined the question of the relations between the sister Orthodox churches and heard and report about the conclusions of the meetings of the Orthodox churches in Chambésy, Switzerland in preparation for the Great and Holy pan-Orthodox Council. They also heard a report about Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and affirmed, while raising up prayer, the desire of the Orthodox Church that communion of love and unity between churches be realized in Jesus Christ.
The Synod did not finish its work without reserving a large amount of time for the Saint John of Damascus Institute at Balamand, to study its conditions. They affirm that while this institute has an academic nature, because it is the place where Antiochian pastors are raise and their clerical, churchly sense is developed and they are prepared mystery of the washing of feet, it is a place of permanent prayer where knowledge rises up to the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding. On this basis, the synodal commission presided by His Beatitude keeps watch that this goal is always brought to the attention of theology students.
In conclusion, the fathers of the Synod affirm to their children that, by the power of the Lord, they keep watch over the flock as faithful shepherds and they ask them to be strengthened and to stand firm and to not allow despair or sorrow or the cares of life and difficulties to dwell in their hearts because the Lord does not abandon the ship that is battered by waves in the middle of the storm without His peace. He is at the center of the Church, preserving His children from the Evil One though His All-Holy Spirit, until the end of days.