Their Church has apostolic roots, meaning that there has never been a time since the day of Pentecost when it did not exist and meaning that it was not founded by any human. In the older terminology of the Church, it is said of the Faith that it is Orthodox, which is a Greek word meaning “of right opinion” or “giving right glory.” That is, correct opinion is revealed in worship. Thus, it was not originally called the Orthodox Church. It was only called the Universal Church (“Catholic” in Greek). The Rum Orthodox Church was called Orthodox Catholic in later eras. The two terms are in fact synonymous. So Orthodoxy is the equivalent of Catholicity, and is not dependant on anything linguistically. The Muslim Arabs called what is now the Church of the Rum Melkite, or royal, because they considered them at the time to be of the religious opinion of the Byzantine emperors. This was not always true since we differed with the Byzantine patriarchs for a short time during the reign of Heraclius, who was a supporter of monothelitism, and we differed with the patriarchs who fought against icons, ending in 843.
It remains that the dominant Arabic name was true, because the Rum mentioned in the Quran were the Eastern Romans, that is the Byzantine Empire, which is the Western name for the Romans of the East who considered themselves to be of the Roman Empire, which in their view was still undivided. This is a mistake that Europeans fell into when they translated the term “al-Rum al-Orthodox” as “grec orthodoxe” in French and similarly in English. We are not tiny remnants of Alexander’s Greek army who settled these coasts. Panteleimon al-Jawzi, compiler of the Russian-Arabic dictionary, affirmed that at the coming of Christ’s apostles to Syria or the Fertile Crescent we were Arameans. The expression “Rum Orthodox” thus does not mean that we are of Greek descent.
Liturgical language is a different matter. It was Greek in the cities, the result of Alexander’s occupation, and Syriac in the countryside. This has nothing to do with sectarian differences. All the Christians used Greek or Syriac, according to their region. Our language gradually became Arabized and we have written in Arabic since the ninth Christian century and we have been eloquent in it since the eleventh century, when we debated the Muslims in the court of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, and their language was no more beautiful than ours. Syriac remained beside Arabic in Church services and priests would use this language according to what their flock knew. That is, the Byzantine liturgy was performed in Syriac for a long time and the Gospel was read in it in our churches until the sixteenth century.
To say that this Church is Arab by blood or by heritage or language would be incorrect. However, it is true that during the time of the Arab Revolution during the First World War she felt her own Arabness. We in Syria and Lebanon supported prince Faysal. This means that we rejected French colonialism and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire that resulted from it.
Once, with Ghassan Tueni, I tried to describe the Orthodox politically, and I said to him:
Nous sommes d’empire. It is not easy to translate this expression into Arabic. I explained to Ghassan that at the beginning of Christianity that we felt that we were within the Roman Empire (which is the same as the Byzantine Empire). After the Islamic conquest, we entered into the Dar al-Islam, in terms of governance but not religion. This is what we explained to the Umayyads when we arranged their finances and when we built a fleet for them in the port of Tripoli even while they forbade our belief and our worship.
However, we did not feel that we belonged to the Crusader principalities that persecuted us to the point of bloodshed. In the Islamic era the system of dhimmitude was not applied at all times. It is not historically true that our mentality was a dhimmi mentality while others did not have this mentality. All the Christian subjects of the Ottoman sultan paid the jizya when there was a jizya. However, it was legally abolished in the middle of the 19th century in the empire when it adopted civil law. I humbly say that I hope that Christians do not compete in denying dhimmitude. Those who implement it abandoned it one hundred and fifty years ago.
The Orthodox do not mix their religious affiliation with their civil governance. During the events of 1958, when fractiousness overtook the country, the Orthodox were one with the Lebanese government against what it considered territorial interference. During the last civil war, they did not have a militia and their Church neither blessed nor condemned any of her sons if they joined one political party or another. It is possible to say, even today, that the entire Orthodox people is Lebanese in Lebanon and there is no crisis in this. One should add that since 1975 the Church has taken explicit positions against Israel all of which appear in the record of the Synod of metropolitans headed by the patriarch and this was done entirely freely. This position was taken out of love for the Holy Places and to sanctify the rights of the Palestinian people. Not once did we talk about the Christians of Palestine, but rather about all Palestinians.
In domestic politics, the Orthodox do not have a single position, because deep down they do not feel themselves to be one sect among others. They know themselves as a Church. For this reason it is ontologically impossible for them to march behind Orthodox political leaders. They never once had a political leader, not because they are divided, but because they have forbidden political benefits for any one believer because they consider these benefits to have nothing to do with eternal life.
Today it is said that they have started to feel themselves cheated in matters relating to government positions. The newspaper al-Liwa recently made this clear with a rather academic list of names and positions. Twenty or more years ago I was talking to an Orthodox minister about this and he said to me that we can’t begin to do anything without taking a census. Perhaps the distribution of government positions took place without regard for the sect of the position-holder. But, a man has the right to wonder why high positions escape the most qualified Orthodox and they are left to be content with crumbs. I think that we in this country have sufficient understanding. But, before we abolish political sectarianism (and important people tell us that this would take two or three further agreements) we are still under the rule of political sectarianism. There are psychological minorities. Do not force this upon the fourth-largest group in the country, which, even if it is humble in its own self-estimation, is inferior to none in love of country and inferior to none in sacrifice for it. The Ottoman governates in greater Syria knew the gifts the Orthodox had for management and finance.
I am not asking for anything right now. And I am not giving advice on the level of spiritual guidance. But, I hope that the government, for its own benefit, will use employ good people. Ali ibn Abi Talib said, “Understanding. Understanding. I hope that we shall have a state built upon understanding.”