Arabic original here. In last week's article, referenced here, Fr. Touma wrote very forcefully about the responsibility that Syrian and Lebanese Christians have to remain in their homeland.You can donate to the International Orthodox Christian Charities Syria relief fund here, by selecting the 'Syria Relief Fund' under 'designations'. I also seriously hope that Orthodox churches in Europe and the Americas are making plans for how to care for a new wave of immigrants from the Middle East.
The Tormented: A Seal upon our Foreheads!
As I was preparing to write the article for this week, I received an email from a Syrian brother in the faith named Sh. M. This is some of what it contained:
“I read your article [the article from August 26, 2012 about Christian behavior in a time of tension]… What you wrote was very harsh on me personally… Each of us has his own capacity for dealing with what is happening… What applies to me does not necessarily apply to my brother in the flesh or in spirit… I am young and still unmarried and employed. My salary is still acceptable despite the exorbitantly high prices… But my brother A. is married and has an infant child… His work has been halved and his salary is a quarter what it was… The company where his wife was working closed and now she is without work… After enduring much… what is the solution?! I encouraged him to knock on the doors of the embassies, why not?! I told my other brother: Get your passport and your family ready… If an immigration visa can be found, travel to the Scandinavian countries, why not?! In the future, it is possible that I will join you… Father, I am able to remain without food or clothing… But what we cannot bear is for my brother to not be able to feed his son… unfortunately… the times have taken us in this direction…
From the spiritual side… did not the Apostles go out to establish churches in all the earth? So why should we be attached to one land?! I don’t know… How, when my Lord and God said, ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head’… I am able to build my family here or there, and my church and my family go hand in hand… The true Christian remains true wherever he is put… For example: my spiritual father is in Lebanon and I don’t think that that is a sin! Even though it is assumed or it is better for him to be the shepherd of the area [here it appears that he means for the shepherd to tend to his flock!
What I mean to say is that the connection to the Church is not bounded by space… The Church of Christ is not bounded by time or space!
I’m sorry! Perhaps I have bothered you with my inappropriate response to what was in your article…. But I wanted to send to you what was within my soul, body, and mind… thank you…”
In addition to this email, a family of Syrian brothers in faith came to us, a husband and wife, along with the husband’s brother and an elderly woman. The last days have been hard on them! They came to Lebanon to live temporarily with the husband’s sister. They are waiting. What will they do? The husband is looking for work, along with his brother. What will they do for a place to live and schooling for the children? The wife is a schoolteacher in Syria. She is required to register with her workplace during the month of September. The security situation is difficult. What will she do!? The family is waiting… and almost perishing!
Both the email and the visit of the family to us in the monastery have led me to expand on discussing the urgent issue of current suffering. Every other issue is set aside for the time being. Let us be concerned with what is more important!
I am not privy to information about what is going on in terms of offering various forms of assistance to those in need due to the current security crisis. However, it does not seem that anyone is minding the current suffering with any regard to its extent and what it may turn into, with the aim of containing it, in accordance with the spirit of communion that should reign over the land of believers, especially in times of difficulty. In this regard, I will present some observations and make some proposals:
First: What I painfully noticed through Sh. M.’s email and receiving the Syrian family is that are without anyone to turn to! Sheep without a shepherd! I do not want to go into a theological discussion with anyone. We have people suffering! Their sufferings make discussion tiresome! The need, first of all, is to embrace! My body pains me! “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)! Within a single body—and we are the body of Christ—all the body’s powers rush to support the afflicted member, because in true communion that which afflicts one member afflicts the entire body! If that is not our deepest feeling with regard to those who are suffering and who will suffer, then we do not belong to the body, to the one Church of Christ! If becomes a name that refers to nothing!
Second: My feeling is that we are burying our heads in the sand! We do not want—indeed, we fear—facing reality with realism and responsibility. We want to leave the lifeline up to individual initiatives. We ignore, in a sense, what is going on because we do not want to subject ourselves to annoyance! We insensitively imagine and hope that things will return to normal in order to save ourselves the trouble of planning and organizing, and insisting on prayers and supplications!
Third: I do not think that those who hope that things will return to the way they were sufficiently realize all the aspects of what is happening. Naturally, what God has is not what we have. We hope, if it is possible, that the Lord God will take this cup from us! Perhaps, if the faithful concentrate their energies on repentance, mercy, fasting, prayer, and tears, God will turn from handing them over to suffering, as He did with Nineveh (Jonah 3)! Do you still see us “dreaming” of profound universal repentance and that God is able to stop the bleeding, and stop it quickly?! Whatever the case is, as things progress, they portend difficult developments and painful repercussions. The future appears even more difficult! The rate of suffering is increasing! We are not witnessing events that will pass us by. My feeling is that we are in the midst of a volcanic explosion! This is not to stir up people’s fears, but to put an end to people’s fantasies, even if it scares them!
Fourth: Now we will either become the Church in spirit and in truth or our confusion will increase so that we do not hear one another’s screaming and the Lord God will scatter us over the face of the earth, in an existential Babel because we did not want to love each other! If today the crisis does not bring us together with Christ and with each other, then nothing will bring us together again! The finger of God is in what happens in history, today, and in what is happening to us in these lands. The time has come “for judgment to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17)!
Fifth: As Christians, events do not concern us as events—who rises against whom, how many are killed and how much is destroyed, what one’s plans are and what one’s interests are. That is the world, and if it speaks it speaks of what pertains to it. We are rather concerned with the word of God in what is happening. The putrescence of the world fills the world! “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throat is an open tomb…their feet are quick to spill blood in the path of destruction and misery. They do not know the path of peace. The fear of God is not before their eyes” (Psalm 13:3 LXX)! Unless the Lord of hosts had left to us a very small remnant, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been made like Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9)! For this reason, “Be instructed, O Jerusalem, lest My soul depart from you; lest I make you desolate, a land not inhabited” (Jeremiah 6:8)!
Sixth: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). When people say, “we have done our share. Now it’s other people’s turn” these are the word of ignorant people whose feeling has died! Those who do not weep with the weeping do not belong to the One who wept for Lazarus! “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). If the Lord God desired that we pass through what is upon us now, then it was to make us holy and to renew the spirit of communion among us! “That both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (John 4:36)! So that, at this time, people’s abundance may supply those who are lacking, that there might be equality (2 Corinthians 8:14)!
Seventh: On this basis, I propose and call for the establishment of a church relief organization that will manage the affairs of displaced people, whether in their own countries or in neighboring countries, especially in Syria and Lebanon. By the affairs of displaced people, I mean everything connected to their situation: sustenance, housing, education, medical care, employment, and pastoral care.
Eighth: I propose and call for the establishment of a central fund for relief and emergency humanitarian aid in order to take care of needs that are arising now or will arise in the future. We must be prepared to face the economic crises that began in 2008 and are increasing in addition to the repercussions of the current local security crisis.
Ninth: I propose and call for funding this fund from two sources:
1—The funds of parishes and all church organizations at home and in the diaspora should dedicate 5% of the money they have in the banks.
2—Fundraising campaigns should be held among the faithful at home and in the diaspora, to give a place for all to bear the burdens of their brothers who are in difficult circumstances, fulfilling God’s words, “Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Tenth: I propose and call for the establishment of fixed and voluntary staff from among God’s beloved, on the diocesan and parish level, to take care of the initial rapid and urgent step to assist children of the faith who are suffering, to become acquainted with them, to monitor their situation, to secure communication with them, and to provide them with pastoral care.
Eleventh: I propose and call for securing communication and coordination with humanitarian organizations in general in order for us to provide support for all elements of the one nation, in order to meet the needs of those in need, whoever they may be. Taking care of children of the faith rests on the basis of providing bread to the hungry and medicine to the sick, regardless of what “sect” they may belong to. If it is assumed that humanitarian organizations will take care of people’s needs without discrimination, then even more so church organizations according to the rule “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to me” (Matthew 25: 35-36).
Twelfth: The time is critical and the opportunity is coming to bring together the children of the faith once more as one. Hardship renews, draws together, strengthens, and unites. If we do not take the opportunity to treat the wound, then we shall be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. The spirit of communion is the spirit of hope, otherwise we no longer belong to the Church or to the land or to each other. We are facing a great trial. We are in a great fast for the sake of repentance and the needy. Either we will stand indifferently before Christ stretched out upon the cross or we will meet Him rising from the dead on the faces of the suffering and tormented!
Fr. Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St Silouan-- Douma
September 2, 2012