Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fr. Touma Bitar on the Orthodox Reaction to Events in the Middle East

Arabic original here

Towards Elaborating an Orthodox Position toward What is Happening (I)

What I am presenting is observations and questions, nothing more. The children of the Greek Orthodox faith stand before a challenge. It is not possible for them to be isolated from what is happening. They cannot but be affected and suffer. They have their witness, amidst the suffering, which they draw from their faith in the Lord Jesus, their faithfulness to him, and their embrace of those who participate with them in the reality of the one nation.

With this in mind, I’ll say that I read in the newspaper an-Nahar last Monday June 25, 2012, in the local section, an article written by Pierre Atallah. I read it more than once. The article is exposition and commentary. It presents the position expressed by His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, for the second time in about a year, that “the Church of Antioch’s position regarding [current] events is expressed exclusively by the patriarch and was defined by the Holy Synod at its meeting that was held in Lebanon last year.” This was the exposition. As for the commentary, the writer of the article transmits two commentaries.  One of them from someone described as a lay official with close connections to the institution of the Church. The other is from someone who is said to be an Orthodox Syrian activist, one of the supporters of the Syrian opposition. The lay official states—in his words—“ Patriarch Hazim’s position is the historical political position of the Church that is careful to have the best relations with changing rulers and to not conspire against them but at the same time to not stand as an impediment against the movement of peoples and change.” He continues, saying that the Church condemns “oppression and violence and does not intervene in politics except when they oppose morals and values.” He closes by pointing out that “the one who speaks for the Church is the Holy Synod” and that “any position aside from this… “is a personal opinion and the one expressing it alone bears full responsibility for it.”

Additionally, the official expresses the discontent of “the institution of the Church”—an expression he uses twice—with the description of Syria’s Christians as “minorities”, rather emphasizing that they are citizens “who interact with their environment and their people.”

As for the Orthodox activist, it drew my attention, without going into details, his explanation “the Church as a whole does not want the bishops [pointing out the particular position of one of them] to be tied to any particular political situation, realizing the critical and sensitive nature of the Syrian situation. This is the reason for it keeps the best relations with the Muslims [it appears that he means the Sunni numerical majority].” In light of this fact, the activist affirms something very important, that “the majority of Christians in Syria seek a life in security, quiet, and peace with all components of the Syrian people without any discrimination.”

The sentiment hidden behind what both the “lay official” and the “Orthodox activist” express is without a doubt striking. The expectation is for a position in which the Orthodox—and Christians in general—interact with each element of the people without discrimination. But how are these positions embodied? The verbal formula by which this position is expressed is ambiguous, and thus impractical.

In my opinion, two things are clear: the first is that the majority of Greek Orthodox, even if in their deepest convictions they desired neutrality and sought to live in security, calm, and peace with all elements of the people, it is impossible for them, amidst the current conflict, to realize this. Even if we assumed for the sake of argument that they do not desire to take a political position, others will drag them against their will into what they do not want, or else they will consider them enemies. Secondly, the positions of the lay official and the Orthodox activist are academic and of no use on the ground. Perhaps they include intellectually correct elements, but it has a difficult ring in others’ ears, not to say hostile!

What do I mean?

It is absolutely true that the government is changing and that the people are moving. However, in the background of the current reality, does your statement not imply that there is no problem for you if the Syrian opposition succeeds in undermining the currently extant regime? Do you not think that if you held such an intent and reveal it, even implicitly, as a wink at the other side, then dealing with you will be under the assumption that you are an enemy of--or even a conspirator against—the current regime?! Then what chance remains for you after this, for having the best possible relationship to the government?!

From another perspective, in your weighing between the government and the people, do you not think (once more in the context the current situation) that your declaration that you do not stand “as an impediment to the movement of the people and change” means that you consider the Syrian opposition to be the people and that you lend it “the Church’s” legitimacy in its effort to strike down the existing political regime?! In this case, have you not turned a blind eye to the entrenched sectarian aspect of the crisis, and to the fact that the current spectacle is not only the spectacle of a local political conflict, but also the spectacle of a fierce regional and international conflict?! Do you think that this position of yours will result in good or disaster for the presence of Christians in these parts?!

I do not wish to go into the matter of the Church condemning oppression and violence. This is, in principle, true and self-evident, there’s no debate about it. My question is just, in the context of what is going on, whether oppression and violence is the language of all those fighting, even to varying degrees and in distinct ways? Is there, in the struggle of killers and those being killed, those who stand among the sheep and those who stand among the wolves? Is there, in any sense, “clean” violence in this world? Do we not agree with the words of the Lord, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”? Is not the only “clean” violence that we know in this world is for us to accept being persecuted and even to be killed as a testimony to God’s truth?  Apart from this, all violence is oppressive and tainted with sin for us!

Likewise saying that the Church does not enter into politics except when they oppose values and morals. This is a complicated topic. It is sufficient for me to say that we are no longer in a Christian world. The morals and values among us are not all the same. Even Christians have come to have various approaches, no longer having a single approach, to the issue of morals and values in politics. So who made us a watchtower and authorized us to intervene? These are words spoken into the wind! Perhaps here or there we can protest about an issue that is absolutely clear. But politics, realistically, are immersed in sharp moral and ethical difficulties, and the Church has no place in them and no say! The kingdom of Christ is not of this world even if we strive to bear witness to it in this world. When two brothers came to the Lord Jesus and asked him, “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me,” what was the response? “Who made me judge over you?” Not once did the Lord Jesus have a political position, in the political sense, despite the suffering of the Hebrew people during the time of Roman colonialism. Even when the Lord Christ described Herod as a “fox”, it was not a position about it as a ruler, but rather a description of his reality as a person!

As for considering His Beatitude the Patriarch, as delegated by the Holy Synod, the exclusive spokesman for the position of the Orthodox Church, is to prevent the spread of a chaos of private opinions that claim to speak in the name of the Orthodox as a community. This is in order to preserve the well-being of the children of the faith and their unity in the Church and to raise their witness to love in the nation. It goes without saying that the Church’s position in this situation is inspired by true, living faith and rises above—and encourages us to rise above—political and sectarian divisions. Hence the Church’s position regarding current conflicts is not a political position in the way that others have political positions. The Orthodox as individuals can naturally adopt political positions, if they so desire, which express their witness to Christ and their Church and I have nothing to say about this. We are a Church community and not a pagan tribe! As for the Church as a church, it has no political position. The Church does not deal with political positions. Political positions divide, while the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Holy Synod, bishops and patriarch in the name of the Synod, is from above and is to gather together and unify. It is the symbol of the unity of faith in Christ in Antioch. It is normal for a bishop of the Church, as a person, to prefer one political ideology over others, but he should realize, as a man of God, within himself, political thought is one thing and political practice is something else. For this reason, he should be careful to avoid speaking for any political orientation, whatever it may be, whether on the level of thought—lest he be misunderstood and made to say something other than what he says—or on the level of practice—lest he be found to be a cause of division. The Church deals with people regardless of their political positions. Indeed, the Church distinguishes between people and their positions. She engages them in any situation and does not necessarily engage their positions. This is contrary to the common practice that equates positions to those holding them. In the next essay, God permitting, I will deal with the issue of this distinction and its importance.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite—Douma
1 July, 2012

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