Wednesday, October 3, 2012

An-Nahar on the Controversy over the "Civil Commission"

Arabic original in today's an-Nahar, here

Update: Ibrahim Rizq's response is translated below.

The "Orthodox Civil Commission" Stirs Widespread Debate within the Community

by Pierre Atallah

The Orthodox community, or at least those who deal with its internal affairs, are in a state of tension that they have not known since the 1970's. The issue is not connected to anxiety about the condition of Orthodox in Syria and those who are said to be living in extreme anxiety about the state of their countries' deteriorating on every level, anxiety about the present, and fear for the future. Instead, it is on account of the inclusion of an item creating a "Civil Commission for Greek Orthodox in Lebanon" on the agenda for the meeting of the Orthodox Holy Synod tomorrow morning at Balamand Monastery under the leadership of Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim to decide about a series of pertinent matters.

The whole isue can be summarized as follows: personal, political, and partisan delegations visited the patriarch to present to him what  the Orthodox in Lebanon are suffering in terms of the loss of offices, and a decline in their presence on the level of general and particular decision-makers due to the lack of there being a commission or institution that oversees pursuing their causes and affairs in the institutions of the state, something that defends their affairs and strengthens their participation in Lebanese public life. In effect, the patriarch received a set of written proposals that present formulas and ideas for common Orthodox activity in Lebanon, without going into political questions like the administration of endowments, schools, and the like. After research and discussion between the patriarch and a committee consisting of Deputy Ghassan Moukheiber, the former minister Tarek Mitri, four others, and the six Lebanese metropolitans, a reasonable draft was set down that guarantees the demands of the Orthodox in Lebanon, under the title "The Civil Commission for Greek Orthodox in Lebanon", which includes the current and former deputies and ministers, officers, former diplomats and general directors, those who oversee the administration of Orthodox institutions, and other members chosen by the patriarch, who decided to raise the issue of the plan for discussion with the Holy Synod. At this point, opposing voices were raised, especially from the "Orthodox Youth Movement" and Orthodox parish commissions, as well as a group of clergy, monks, and nuns, accusing the plan and those behind it of attempting to exclude a large portion of the Orthodox and their institutions. However the most serious accusation against the plan is that it constitutes an affront to Orthodox teaching and previous decisions by the Church, especially those issued by the Holy Synod at the beginning of the 70's.

Orthodox "Taliban"

In responding to the above, former minister Mitri says that the proposed commission is not a replacement for any other commission named in the canons of the Church and that it has neither  the function of representing the community nor of speaking in its name, as those opposed allege. He emphasizes that its job is limited to strengthening the participation of Orthodox in the Lebanese state and nothing else, and that this commission will work under the oversight of the patriarch and metropolitans and that the draft for establishing it and the decision about it belongs to the Holy Synod, not as some media outlets have alleged.

Mitri explains about the plan for the commission that there is a denialist campaign against the plan that is based on the idea that 'those who do not think like us are against us' and that those who hold these ideas rely on leaking reports about "an unholy alliance between power, wealth, and the Church and that this commission is contrary to the teaching of Orthodoxy and the Church. I do not know if they read the text and studied it closely, but they are behaving along the lines of fundamentalists in rejecting others."

What is difficult for Mitri is that those who oppose the plan for the commission did not take upon themselves the burden of communicating with him, "even though I have known them and they have known me for a long time. Instead, they acted like the Taliban and went and leaked reports, accusing us on social networks and criticizing us without any discussion or justification." He explains that "the whole thing is an attempt to organize the political diversity of the Orthodox and to stress the seriousness of the Greek Orthodox not receiving the political positions defined by sect." He emphasizes the importance of there being a framework for organizing things and that the Holy Synod will study the entire issue and they are aware of the conditions of the Orthodox in Lebanon. As for the accusation of dividing the Antiochian Church into federal commissions, Mitri responds that, "these issues only come up in the minds of those who bring them up. The separation of the Church in Lebanon from the Church in Syria is not something that is actually happening." However, he emphasizes that, "there is an Orthodox particularity in Lebanon that must be preserved and the presence of members of the community in Lebanese institutions must be defended."

The Other Opinion

On the other side, the general secretary of the "Orthodox Youth Movement", Ibrahim Rizq responds that the outline for the plan was an object of study and scrutiny among laity, clergy, youth, monks, and nuns and that the consensus was for rejecting it, since it touches upon theological matters at the heart of the faith. Rizq explains according to the logic of one who knows theological matters, that "in the Orthodox Church there is no distinction between what is material and what is spiritual. The question is connected to the dogma of the Incarnation" and concludes that preventing the laity from dealing with the administration of the Church's affairs is not in accordance with Orthodox teaching. He explains, "this practice is unsound because this commission that is being planned will call for people who have reached important positions, those with wealth, and influential people, and appoint them to it, without regard to their effort within the Church or their adhering to its ideas." This is how the issue appears to those who are morally and in principle opposed to giving a decisive voice to those who are unconcerned with Orthodoxy and their involvement in the affairs of the Church.

Another issue for those opposing the plan is related the fact that many of the Orthodox leaders whose participation in the commission has been proposed are from the political sphere and this is divisive for the Orthodox in Rizq's opinion. Another objection is the attempt to please the rich and wealthy in the commission, and this very point constitutes grounds for condemning it, because the faithful, in the opinion of those opposed to it, are "equal in dignity and there is no discrimination for anyone. We cannot say to someone 'you are a member' just because he is wealthy and to another 'you are excluded' just because he is of a humble station." Thus the issue is "more than dangerous because it consecrates the existence of significant people and insignificant people within the community, even though all the people are called to participate in decision-making. And so things take a dangerous turn and enter into the labyrinth of a relationship between the Church and those who are wealthy and influential. It is a return to old practices that time has passed by."

Those opposed reject the formation of the commission in Lebanon and consider it to be a wedge driven into the unity of the Church of Antioch. They repeat the question about the commission being authorized to speak in the name of the Orthodox in Lebanon, demanding an improvement of their conditions and obtaining their rights, mentioning the Holy Synod's decision of 1973, which defined the organs for the faithful's participation in the life of the Church, the organization of the Church's educational institutions, the formation of community councils, and the organization of a General Orthodox Assembly. They ask, "Why was the plan not put into effect? Let the metropolitans instead prefer to apply the system of councils."

Ibrahim Rizq responds:

Arabic original here.

Honorable Editor of an-Nahar, greetings.

In its number 24966, dated October 2, 2012, your newspaper published at the top of page 4 an article by the writer Pierre Atallah under the title "The Orthodox Civil Commission Stirs Widespread Debate within the Community" in which some accusations appeared out of context and some positions were ignored. It is useful to publish this in order to guard objectivity and balance and out of respect for expressing others' opinions clearly, completely, and without omission.

For this reason, with a right to respond and for the sake of truth and objectivity, we send you the following response and ask you to publish it according to the principle of transparency and the provisions of the press law:

Certainly, the proposal to create what is called the "Civil Commision for Greek Orthodox in Lebanon" has stirred widespread controversy, and continues to do so. It is the right of any member of the Orthodox Church to express his opinion about the issue, whether in favor or opposed, insofar as it is an issue that touches upon his religious life.

The Orthodox Youth Movement, the Orthodox Pastoral Gathering, and all the fathers and brothers who expressed their rejection of the aforementioned proposal merely expressed their opinion after havind studied and discussed it, item by item and word by word. All of this took place in a civilized and scientific manner-- for an unpublished church document that was shrouded in secrecy!!! They announced clear and reasoned positions and advanced arguments and proof without putting forward any objection to any individual, since the focus was on discussing the text in isolation from the people who wrote it. We do not know who wrote it nor do we attempt to find out.

The article left out things that Mr. Atallah asked us about and to which we responded. They are:

- The Orthodox Youth Movement, the Pastoral Gathering, and the others who oppose it fear the tyranny of sectarianism over the future of the Church if the plan is accepted because we believe that if the community is not guided by the thought of the Church, it will turn into an idol.

- Also, when he literally asked, "They accuse you of being fundamentalists [lit. 'salafiyyun', those who blindly follow earlier generations]. How do you respond?" I responded that in Orthodoxy we learn from those who have gone before-- that is, from the saints-- to embody love for the other, to be open to him, to embrace him whoever he is. For this reason, we build our churches in their names, from Nicholas and Basil to Joseph of Damascus. In our view of the Church, we are inspired by the teachings of our fathers, especially Patriarch Ignatius Hazim and Metropolitan Georges Khdor. For this reason, we take pride in our faith when they accuse us.

It appears that our words on these two points did not meet with the approval of the former minister Tarek Mitri. So he completely ignored them and the term of accusation went from "fundamentalist" to "Taliban-like."

The words of the former minister appeared out of context. He did not discuss the matter, but rather was content with providing a brief explanation and issuing accusations without any basis or evidence. Perhaps this was under the influence of an emotional reaction, since we have no connection to him, close or distant.

The minister accuses us of being Taliban-like! And of being denialist [lit. takfiriyya- the technical term for Muslims who deny other Muslims' being Muslims]!!! Simply because we announced a clear, explicit, and studied position about a written text and frankly expressed our opinion without touching on any individual. And this occurred in public seminars that were open to all.

Unfortunately it is not true that we affronted his person, from up close or at a distance. We sincerely invite him to exercise prudence before issuing accusations. We are pained by the fact that "His Excellency" claims victimization and seeks sympathy over events that did not happen.

The minister faults us for not contacting him!!! But he did not mention in what capacity.

If he was in the capacity of one authorized to discuss the plan, then why did he not put it out for discussion and publish it for general dialogue? Instead, it was passed along shrouded in secrecy, in the manner of those whom he accuses us of being like.

The minister invites us to read what was written. We sincerely invite him to read what it is claimed that he wrote.

As for what he mentioned about fears and apprehensions that only exist in our minds, we say to him that many things begin one way and then go on to end up in a different way. He is the person with the most experience in this.

Finally, we express to the minister our sincere love for him. It is important to us that he knows that for us, more important than the fact that he is a minister is that he is a brother. If he is going to rush to speak through the newspapers, there is nothing to prevent brothers from addressing each other face to face. Let us continue discussing any document in the way that we have always been accustomed to having discussion, with freedom and responsibility, without getting personal. Let us go forward to tomorrow together, taking shelter in the space of our Orthodox Church, with more faith in the truth, asking the Crucified One to envelope us in His grace, that His commandments may remain in us.

Orthodox Youth Movement

General Secretary

Ibrahim Rizq

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