Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fr. Georges Massouh on Antiochian Witness in the Contemporary Middle East

The Arabic original can be found here.

Between Existing and Witnessing to the Truth

"Antioch" is not merely a city. It has become a civilizational, religious, and historical symbol. "The City of God, Antioch the Great" is the city in which was born the name by which the followers of Jesus of Nazareth came to be known: "And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts of the Apostles 11:26). One cannot speak of Christianity in the Arab East without talking about the great influence left by Antiochian theology and figures of the Antiochian Church on the entire Christian world.

The role of the city of Antioch declined, but it remained a symbol affirming the unity of Christians living in the Eastern Arab nations that constituted, according to ancient administrative divisions, the geographical unit of one local church whose affairs were governed by a Holy Synod composed of her sons. Modern states were established after the dissolution of the Ottoman state, but the church remained Antiochian and was not divided according to the newborn states. Rather, she insisted that she transcended borders and nations. The unity of her Arab Christian children, Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian..., is too strong for its bonds to be broken by political or administrative boundaries.

These words do not come from partisan motives or from current political considerations. They are rooted in the Antiochian Church's consciousness of her identity and witness. No one can doubt the loyalty of the children of the Church of Antioch toward their nations. However, the majority of them believe that their national loyalty in no way negates their commitment to the causes of the rest of the children of their church who belong to the entire territory of Antioch. Thus, we see the importance of the role that the Antiochian Church can play in the events that the nations of the Arab East are witnessing.

During what is called the era of the Arab renaissance in the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, Antiochians adopted ideas produced by the European Enlightenment. In civil society, secularism, socialism, Arab and Syrian nationalism, they saw common linguistic, civilizational, cultural, national, geographical, social, or human bonds with their fellow-citizens and partners from among the Muslims and other people of the region in a single destiny. They saw in these ideas a way to liberation from the domination of a state clothed in religion that forbids them from their natural right to enjoy full citizenship without any disability. They were the point of the spear against ignorance, colonialism, and narrow sectarian affiliations and against the domination of backward religious thinking and the confusion of religion and politics.

Today we notice a regression on the level of the role entrusted to the Antiochian Church and to Antiochians, especially in matters connected to her witness and mission based on the living Antiochian heritage, from the Gospels to the writings of the fathers and teachers of the Church. In the context of events that will change the face of the region and the disappearing-- or almost disappearing-- stability of the future for its residents, the voice of the Church comes out with the truth.

For various reasons, the number of Middle Eastern Christians has continuously declined for four centuries. The Church's silence or at times her collusion, resulting from her fear for the fate of the Christian presence, will inevitably lead to the death of her witness and mission in today's world and at the same time it will in no way preserve the Christian presence. Fear over continued existence will lead to the loss of that existence and that witness at the same time. If only the Knower of the Unknown knows the future of existence, then "Antiochians" must not fear anything except losing their witness. Between existing and witnessing remains the hope that they will be able to carry out their witness without fearing for their existence.


NOCTOC said...

I always find it so fascinating how much the church leaders of the Antiochian Church are scared to say things by their name and they always beat around the bush, always stressing how "Arab" they are when in reality they are Arabized Greeks and Syriacs. They are always afraid to say that they were there long before the Arabs came and much longer before Islam showed up.
They are always afriad to say why the Patriach of Antioch no longer resides in the city of Antioch but took up residance in Damascus. Afraid to say why the Greek and "Arab" members of the Antiochian Church have dwindled to just a few thousand in the present day Hatay Province of Turkey. Afraid to say that a big part of the faithful beloning to the Antiochian Church are actually ethnic Greeks who had fled Antioch after it was annexed by Turkey in 1939 and many emigrated to Syria and Lebanon. Always afraid to say the truth so they will not offend the Muslims and try so hard to show how Arab they are in order to be accepted by them. Let's see now how many will be allowed to stay in Syria by their Muslim Arab brothers after Bashir al Assad who was prodecting them is gone. Maybe its time to stand up and say some truths before the Antiochian church leaders are left without much flock to attend to. And by the way, the Palestinian and the Jordanian Orthodox Christians are under the Church of Jerusalem and not of Antioch. So they cannot count on them either.

Samn! said...


While I'm sympathetic to a lot of what you have to say, we do have to realize that the Arabic language became a vehicle of Orthodox culture from the middle of the 8th century. That is to say, only the Greek, Syriac/Aramaic, and Georgian languages can claim a longer Orthodox pedigree than Arabic, a heritage that actually began in the Patriarch of Jerusalem, only to eb eclipsed in the late Ottoman period. It is only because of historical factors such as the Mongol conquest and the havoc wrecked by the 17th century Roman Catholic missions in the middle east that broke the continuity of the Arab Orthodox heritage.

So while I am very sympathetic to the historic martyrdom of the Christian populations of the middle east, we need to recognize the vital role that Arabic-speaking culture has played in the history of Orthodoxy. It is a great frustration of mine that such towering figures (and, if we trust Patriarch Makarios ibn Za'im, such saints) as Abdallah ibn al Fadl and Suleiman al-Ghazzi are not given the recognition that they are due. But I and and some colleagues of mine are working to fix that and, as our efforts are published I'll keep you abreast of it...

NOCTOC said...

I absolutely agree with you on what you are saying and I know very well that Arabic-speaking Orthodox culture has been greatly undermined. I personally had made as much efford as I could (based on my limited knowledge) to write about their contribution to Orthodoxy in my own blog.
However dear Samn, this is not what I was talking about. I was talking about the survival of the Antiochian Church as a living Church and not a museum piece. If Antiochian church leaders want to have a flock to attend to in their hostoric lands, they must stop distorting history and historical facts in order to please the Muslims who have been persecuting them in the first place. They think that they will be saved by claiming that they are Arabs, when in reality they existed there as Orthodox Christians for 1300 of years before the Arabs showned up. They also like to forget that a big part of the members of the Antiochian Church are actually Arabized ethnic Greeks. There is a big difference between being Arabic-speaking and being Arab. However, this is not the issue here, the issue is that the the Antiochian Church leaders must start defending their flock and their right to exist in their historic lands and not act like the Muslims are doing them a favour for allowing them to stay there in the first place. In any case, I think it is too late anyways in the case of Syria, and trying to stress their "Arabism" to the Muslim funtametalists who are very likely to take over the country, will not help much in allowing them to stay.

Samn! said...

Well, it is clear that these transitional times in the Middle East are going to be very difficult. Ideologically speaking, the stress that the Orthodox put on Arabness generally put them in a relatively decent position politically at the time that Arab and Syrian nationalism were live ideologies in the Middle East. This is also inseparable from the strong identification that the Orthodox in Syria and Lebanon have with the Palestinian cause.

The type of attitude you are suggesting- favoring pre-islamic ethnic identity over a modern Arab identity, being more confrontational with Islam, etc. is more or less the tactic that the Maronites took during the 20th century. And it has caused great harm both to their Church life and their political position in Lebanon, to not mention that it has promoted a perception of them as outsiders (if not foreign agents) within their own society. The dominant Orthodox discourse has been centered on emphasizing that Orthodox Christians are indeed part of the societies in which they live.

What sort of ideology comes to dominate in Syria and Lebanon is still to be determined. Not all Islamic fundamentalisms are the same, after all. It is entirely unclear how Orthodox Christian discourse is going to adapt to whatever new climate emerges, because it's going to be a situation for which there's not any clear precedent. That said, the more immediate worry is what is going to happen if there is civil war in Syria...

NOCTOC said...

Thank you. After reading your reply, I think their choices are limited. I am praying for them.