Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on the Papacy

Arabic original here .

The Hoped-for Unity

Frankness requires us to admit that the great roadblock that prevents us from reaching the envisioned unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is the difference over the position of the pope, the Bishop of Rome, and his authority in the Church. In reality, no one who knows Church history can ignore the most important issue that led to the schism, the disagreement between East and West over "papal primacy". Orthodox theology confirms that, among the bishops, the pope is "first among equals" and has no canonical authority over the other patriarchs.

However, in the West a canonical understanding graduate took over that is completely contrary to the Orthodox view of primacy, in that the pope granted himself the absolute authority to appoint and remove bishops in every region of the world. The bishops rights turned into mere participation in the "total authority" of Rome. Hence the Orthodox apprehension of the pope's propensity for asserting his authority over all the churches. What we witnessed following the Great Schism of 1054 with regard to the pope tightening his grip over all the churches in the world to the point of even announcing the dogma of "papal infallibility" in 1870 confirms the fears of the eastern churches that hold to the primacy of the diocesan bishop over his local church.

The Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément, in his book You Are Peter: An Orthodox Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy argues that "the basis of every primacy in the Church is Christ alone, the Crucified and Risen from the dead, who conquers death by death. Christ alone is priest of the new and greatest covenant. All authority on heaven and earth derives from Him." Consequently, "every primacy in redeemed humanity, and especially the primacy of the bishop in the local church, the primacy of the metropolitan among his bishops, the patriarch among his metropolitans, and finally the primacy of the first bishop, the bishop of Rome, is only a fragile image of the primacy that Fr Lev Gillet called loving lordship, the primacy of service unto martyrdom, a martyrdom of blood and death if needs be."

Perhaps the declaration by the late Pope John Paul II that what he desires with the Orthodox is "communion not authority" is the true doorway to bringing back unity between the two churches. Thus it is possible to speak of a return to the traditional picture of relations between the churches, based on the independence of the local church, in which each one of them realizes the fullness of the Church and communio in sacris (the Eucharist) between all of them is what makes them one, what makes them the one Body of Christ.

We also must not forget that the Christian faith is fundamentally based on belief in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. Thus the theology of the Church emphasizes "diversity in unity" and "unity in diversity" in order to point out the relationship between the three hypostases. Unity does not eliminate the specificity that characterizes each of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Likewise, diversity does not mean individualism, isolation, or the absence of creative relationality. Unity among Christians must be based on this Trinitarian image. The hoped-for unity is a unity in faith that respects linguistic, ritual, cultural, and civilizational particularities.

The disagreement between Catholics and Orthodox about the place of the pope in the universal Church must not impede effort to resolve other disagreements of a doctrinal nature or disagreements that can be overcome at the local level... for the unity of all we pray to the Lord.

Human Rights Watch: Syrian Rebels Loot Churches

Read the entire article here.


Looting of Churches in Ghasaniyeh and Jdeideh
Local residents told Human Rights Watch that armed gunmen operating “in the name of the opposition” also broke into and stole from Christian churches in the villages of Ghasaniyeh and Jdeideh, in Latakia governorate, after the villages fell under opposition control.

A Jdeideh resident told Human Rights Watch that after the armed opposition took control of the village on December 11 and government forces had fled, gunmen broke into and stole from the village church and fired numerous shots inside, causing structural damage. Human Rights Watch visited the church on December 18 and observed that the doors bore signs of forced entry, and the windows were shattered. The church doors had been welded shut since the attack to protect against further attack.

The resident said that opposition forces also used the priests’ quarters next to the church to shoot at a neighboring village where government forces were present. In the process, the windows of the priests’ quarters were broken. He also told Human Rights Watch that people acting “in the name of the opposition” had stolen medicine from a clinic belonging to the church, looted homes, and kidnapped civilians. In one kidnapping during the summer of 2012, before opposition fighters controlled the village, he said that a family paid three million Syrian pounds (approximately US$42,250) to free their relative.

A Ghasaniyeh resident told Human Rights Watch that after armed gunmen operating “in the name of the opposition” came into the village in late November they broke into the local church and stole the gas and diesel fuel there. On December 15, Human Rights Watch visited the church, and observed that the church doors had been forced open. A cross had been left on the floor of the church, but the church otherwise appeared undamaged. The resident also told Human Rights Watch that opposition fighters had looted homes and kidnapped one resident, who remained missing. Two men from a local opposition group took the kidnapped man, a civilian whom he knew personally, from his home after opposition forces had taken control of the village. Despite his family’s efforts to secure his release by communicating with the kidnappers and the opposition fighters’ leader, they had not freed him as of December 15.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on Growing Sectarianism in Lebanon

Arabic original here.

Sectarianism, not Citizenship, is the Common Denominator

Talk of "national unity" will not be valid as long as there is no "citizen" in the full sense of the word. The "citizen" is absent in Lebanon in favor of the sectarian group that imposes affiliation regardless of his will or his national choices. Talk of "national unity" that brings the Lebanese together is nothing but a mirage and pipe-dreams. The actual state of things points to the growth of sectarian units that do away with what remains of "national unity".

On the basis of a careful reading of religious and political discourse, we can say that for most Lebanese, sectarian identity has priority over national identity and belonging to Lebanon, "the final nation" according to the constitution. These words do not apply to one group more than another or to one sect more than another. Talk of belonging to the nation is just a cover that conceals sectarian discourse in order to mobilize and exploit whatever possible, be it at the ballot box, in armed struggle, or assigning "prerogatives" in the state.

Agreement between politicians on a sectarian basis does not build a united national society. Rather, the basis of the individual citizen who knows his rights and fulfills his responsibilities toward other citizens is the only thing that can create national unity. What we are living in our country today is a sort of balance of fear based on sects and their interests and the desires of those who control them and who strive for their slice of that cheese known as money and authority.

There is no doubt that sectarian polarization is becoming sharper in Lebanon. Sectarianism is spreading and citizenship is atrophying. Every political issue or plan for a new law turns now invites a sectarian debate and the mobilization of each sect's capabilities in order to gain a position that strengthens the clout of its members. This situation with the proposed plans for a "just" electoral law, as everyone with a plan claims.

The fact that the supporters and detractors of any proposed electoral law all equally start from a sectarian mindset after clothing it in talk of the nation is cause for cynicism. If we take, for example, the unorthodox proposal known as "the Orthodox plan", we find that both its supporters and its opponents invoke nationhood and coexistence, while both sides are only seeking their own sectarian interests and whatever seats they can gain, by adopting either this plan or that. Another cause for cynicism is that again and again they say that they are the opens who are secular and non-sectarian but because of the sectarian state of things they make sectarian choices and engage in the sectarian game, as they claim, until it ends.

The Lebanese are inventive at putting out slogans devoid of meaning. "Lebanon is the nation of coexistence," while there has not been a decade in at least the past two hundred years that did not witness internal strife on a sectarian basis! "Lebanon is the nation," when no citizen is equal to another in terms of rights and responsibilities in the country of cedars. "Lebanon is the message," but what message are they talking about? "Lebanon is the pioneer in human rights," but in Lebanon a person's rights and dignity are disregarded. "Democracy," from which nothing is taken other than the mechanism for polling and counting votes. "Freedom," yes, the freedom of corruption, bearing arms, and dependency on outside powers...

When will the awaited "Lebanese Spring" draw the curtain on this tragicomedy? Or shall we forever live in this sectarian autumn?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Eternal Perdition

Arabic original here.

Eternal Perdition as an Elixir

In a previous article I talked about eternal life. At the time I said that love alone is eternal and its eternality is the eternality of the incarnate Son of God. This might raise a question: but what about "eternal perdition"? How does perdition relate to love, if there is eternal perdition? We do not have a clear answer to this question, neither in tradition in general nor in the Bible in particular. However, there are glimmerings that shed some light on it, in the Bible and in the sayings and experience of the saints.

We find talk of "eternal perdition" in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians 9:1. John the Beloved, in his gospel, talks not only of a resurrection for those who do good works, which he calls "the resurrection of life," but also of a resurrection for those who did evil works, which he calls "the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:29). This means that evildoers do not pass out of existence, as though they never were, but rather are resurrected in the body at the general resurrection. This also means that "eternal perdition" is a continuation of existence, of some sort, different from eternal life and not at all obliteration!

What kind of existence does "eternal perdition" entail? The texts state that those who perish are cast into "the outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12). There, weeping and gnashing of teeth reign. There abides a fiery furnace that never goes out, and a worm emerges from those perishing that "does not die" (Mark 9:43-44).

With regard to the outer darkness, darkness is the complete absence of light. Sinners are banished from God's light, every blessing and every consolation. Before the general resurrection, the Lord God shines His sun upon the wicked and the good and causes it to rain upon the righteous and the unjust, so that, with long-suffering, the wicked might be guided aright and the unjust might pay heed. But on that day there is nothing to cool the flame of torment that afflicts sinners (Luke 16:24) and nothing to warm the total frost that envelops them. The outer darkness represents the ultimate banishment from God's presence. Sinners abide outside the range of the divine presence. Effectively, in existential nothingness, even if they remain in existence. This is worse than non-existence itself. For this reason, the Lord Jesus said of the man who betrays the Son of Man-- that is, Judas Iscariot-- that "it would have been better for that man had he never been born" (Mark 14:21)!

All this poses the question: what is the value of sinners' existence if the abide in eternal perdition? The easy answer is that a person reaps what he sows, whatever that means, or that sinners reap the fruit of their deeds, or that God punishes sinners, or that this is what sinners chose for themselves, or that God leaves them the freedom to weave their own destiny on their own, or that sinners are tormented by their own sins apart from God, or similar things. God is love. All of Him is love. So how can God's love be manifest in any of these answers? That is the question! I know that God respects human freedom to the utmost. However, if a person misuses his freedom and goes astray and ends up becoming completely lost and falls into perdition, does this please God? Is He content to let His creation remain in the outer darkness out of respect for their freedom?! If that is the case, how do we reconcile God's love that desires that all be saved and approach knowledge of the truth-- notice that it says "all"-- with God's respect for human freedom, even if they want to cast themselves into hell? It is not possible for the freedom that God breathes into humans to be outside the range of His love for them. Even the Apostle Paul speaks of this love when he says of those who have gone astray from among the Children of Israel, "I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh" (Romans 9:2-3). Does God love less than His servant Paul, who speaks through His Spirit? Insofar as God is love, He cannot by pleased by or even accept the perdition of a sinner! Thus it is stated clearly that God is not pleased at the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his ways and live (Ezekiel 33:11). How can God be love and abandon any creature of His to eternal torment!? He is not heedless and vengeance does not befit God's love. So what remains? That God is incapable?! Of course not! It is said that for God everything is possible. So God wills the salvation of all and He is capable, through ways that only He knows, of saving that which has been lost! This means that salvation happens, even if we do not know how. In this case, we can only imagine God's heart, in a sense, in constant pain, tireless pursuit, and restlessness until He brings back the sinner, made white like snow! If there is great rejoicing in heaven over a single sinner who repents, is it reasonable for God's diligence in bringing back His creatures who died in sin to wane and for His joy at their return to be extinguished after they die?! Impossible!!!

Salvation, then, is inevitable for all! God's love and His power leave no room for doubt about this!

So where does this analysis bring us? To seeing what is called "eternal perdition" as a salvific dispensation, in a sense, even if this is beyond our understanding and we approach a threshold that the Lord God did not wish to reveal to us in total clarity because it is not helpful for us in our quest for His face.

Some of the holy fathers, such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Isaac the Syrian, were inclined to speak of salvation for all, even for the demons! However, the Holy Church does not officially permit their teaching. Naturally, there is wisdom in the Church's position. First of all, teaching in the Church is for building up. The Church is not an abstract philosophical school! We do not theorize about that which the Lord God has not revealed and rely on our theorizing for a rule of life. This might kill within the soul the need and effort for keeping the commandments and seeking holiness! There is definitely an outer darkness that sinners experience. There is torment. There is a furnace of fire. There is a worm that does not sleep. There is gnashing of teeth and there is weeping! There is no doubt about this! How can all this be for salvation? We do not know completely and it has not been given to us to know precisely. How can "eternal perdition" turn into salvation!? This is beyond imagining! This matter is beyond us and we will not enter into speculation. However, something occurred to me while I was reading the life of Saint Arsenius the Great that might perhaps be something of a key to unlocking the great door of God's final plans in this regard. It says that whenever he would sit down to work with his hands, he would place a handkerchief over his chest to collect the tears that would stream down from his eyes without ceasing. When Father Poemen saw him, he said, "Blessed are you, Arsenius. Because you have reward for the tears that you have shed in this age, you will have no need for tears in the age to come!" Notice what he says! "You will not have need for tears in the age to come"! For most, then, there is a need for tears in the age to come, not only in this age! This is because through tears contrition is completely restored and sin is washed away. This is the experience of the holy fathers! Is it reasonable for weeping, which is also one of the effects of eternal perdition, to be an entryway to salvation? At first glance, these tears appear to be tears of regret, tears of fear, tears of grief. Naturally, this is an internal state in which there is an existential goad, pain of heart, and even a stubbornness of attitude. However, in the face of profound suffering, suffering that is not the result of an externally imposed condition that the Lord God casts upon us as a punishment, like Purgatory or the equivalent-- this is in no way consistent with God's love, for which it is impossible to cause suffering for God's creation or to subject it to torture-- rather, it is the result of an internal, existential that to which humans were brought by sin: in the face of this profound suffering, perhaps the existential goad, the pain of heart, and even stubbornness, turn into contrition, like coal turns into diamond and venom into medicine! In this way the almighty God pulls something priceless from dross, just as He pulled resurrection from death and from the snake's venom medicine for the healing of ailing humanity! If this is true, then salvation lies in the mystery of tears, in its profound existential meaning! At that point, we understand what our saints experienced and repeated, generation after generation, that there is no salvation for those who do not weep! This calls to mind the eschatologically-tinged words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, "Fear and a snare have come upon us, desolation and destruction. My eyes overflow with rivers of water, for the destruction of the daughter of my people. My eyes flow and do not cease, without interruption, till the Lord from heaven looks down and sees... You drew near on the day I called on You, and said, 'Do not fear!'" (Lamentations 3:47-50, 57). If this is true, then the eternality of perdition is what creation needs in order for the time to be fulfilled contrition and longing for God to be returned to its being! In any case, this only happens through the divine, loving grace that secretly works for the salvation of all. God committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all (Romans 11:32)! Yes, "all", and it means no less than all in this world and the next, not because anyone is good but because God is love!!!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma
January 13, 2013

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Met. Georges Khodr on Marxism and Christianity

Arabic original here.

The Poor

In the Gospel of Matthew it says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," meaning, according to the Fathers, the humble. Scholars of biblical interpretation agree that this verse is a lessening of the sharpness that appears in Luke, "Blessed are you who are poor," (Luke 6:20). The interpreters say that this form is older, meaning that it is what the Teacher said. Whatever the case may be in terms of interpretation, it is clear that the needy have a special place with Jesus of Nazareth, who says, "the poor have good news brought to them" (Matthew 11:5).

It is as though the one who laid out the text intended that the Gospel is for them, or that they are the ones who will receive it because they are the ones who seek the kingdom of heaven. It is as though it also says that the rich have their possessions because they have taken their livelihood as their place of rest and happiness. Money is the center of their emotions and they rely on it. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, wealth is synonymous with enjoyment and merriment. It is the extent of rest and it defines and comprises its possessor.

But what is poverty? Is it not being reduced to a low standard of living within a specific society? But what is low? There is a relatively new term, the "poverty threshold", at which a person barely has the resources to avoid dying from hunger or at which he is unable to provide his family with food, clothing, shelter, and education.

This situation creates a reality in which he belongs to a social group that is dominated by the powerful and is marginalized and not permitted to be a partner in production and effective political life. The world comes to be composed through the classification of all people into the rich and the poor.

Karl Marx came to work for what he considered to be justice and reasonable fairness. For this reason, he called for the abolition of classes, as European society was characterized by sharp class divisions. He did not dream of people having absolute economic and social equality, but he desired rational coexistence in which there is no humiliation on account of obscene differences in standards of living.

It appears that the Marxist call did not succeed in its Leninist realization. It is clear that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Communist romanticism has disappeared for the millions that it nourished, be they workers or intellectuals. However, the aspiration for rational justice remains alive for many.

It is clear to observers that Christianity is not based on an economic system and does not call for a system. If socialism condemns the individual possession of the means of production and exchange and rejects the lack of social equality, Jesus of Nazareth does not put Himself in this context, since it is a context of social organization and Christianity is a call for the sake of the poor or this call is found within it. However, it is not a system to be realized through revolution or through social reform without revolution, as in the Scandanavian countries.

The concern for revolution is outside Christianity, which is a call. This is what Jesus of Nazareth wanted, since He did not want to overpower anyone or to impose a system by force. This leads us to understand that Apostolic Christianity was not attached to a state and was not separate from a state. At the time of its appearance, its followers were from the Roman Empire and it was not possible to establish state structures apart from the Empire, since the Nazarene was content to demonstrate that His kingdom is the kingdom of God in people's hearts.

He did not conquer countries forcibly or peacefully. In His time, this was left to the Roman Empire. After His death, in the early decades of the Church, the spread of His kingdom was not in principle attached to politics. He wanted to work through His Spirit and His Gospel, while the kingdoms of the world are left to the vicissitudes of time. We, His followers, are not of them even if we are in them. Christ's kingdom is the heart.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not portray the rich as being heartless. However, it teaches that wealth is a danger for people. The Nazarene warns of the spiritual dangers of putting yourself in the service of any created or man-made thing. For this reason He says, "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). There is worship of the one and only God. Worship ('ibada) and servitude ('ubudiyya) are linguistically the same. It is not because God wanted you to be His slave, since He said, "you are My son." However, according to the teaching of one of our spiritual greats, you subjugate yourself to God through love.

If through love you become God's slave, beware of making another lord for yourself.

There is no doubt that money and everything you acquire draws you into terrifying captivity. At that point, you no longer have the freedom with which to worship God. You submit yourself to it alone. This is the condition of love, and so there can be no other beloved. Thus there is no place left in the heart for money and no human servitude. To love humans according to the words of the Nazarene, "Love your neighbor as yourself," is something else. It is giving until the end, until death. This is in total conflict with love of possessions and the like.

Are the rich a group condemned by Christ? In reality, the Nazarene spoke of a group of rich people who loved their wealth, paid no attention to the existence of the poor, had no compassion for them, and cut themselves off from them. Jesus of Nazareth was concerned with us being one society with all humans, not divided by social class, insofar as we understand that we are entrusted with God's property.

Our wealth is not our own. We only manage it for our benefit and for the benefit of people. Christianity does not legislate about the acquisition and distribution of wealth. It says: the other is your brother; treat him with what you have as your brother.

If you act in this way, there will not remain any rift between you and him. You will not revel in luxury and sumptuousness. Instead you will act mercifully, not allowing your neighbor to come near to death from starvation or something like it, because he has become your own flesh and blood. What you have acquired by inheritance or work will be spent on those who need it and you will look out for their needs and serve them as though they were Christ.

Christianity commands you to give a portion of your wealth to those around you. It causes your heart to feel that it possesses nothing on this earth. Then you will arrive at the point where you do not believe in private property, but rather in sharing in common.

Sharing in common means that you are not able to say "I alone." Instead you say, "You and I," meaning that you really say "we." Translating this into our lived reality means that we love the group among whom you live and that is within you.

Differences will remain. "The poor will always be with you but I will not always be with you." This does not mean that Jesus accepts the existence of hungry people. He wants us to deal with them in the social situation by establishing justice, and above justice love.

Jesus did not put good things off until later. "Today you have heard His voice. Let not your hearts be hardened."

Love is the kingdom of God.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Fr. Georges Massouh on Christians' Right to Reject Islamic Law

Arabic original here.

To those who do not want to congratulate Christians on their feasts

In recent days, voices have been raised reminding Muslims of the impermissibility of congratulating Christians on their feasts. We respect the freedom of those who call on their coreligionists to not be attracted toward "infidels" under the guise of congratulating Christians on their infidel feasts. Religions are a private matter for those who belong to them, and we won't give anyone lessons on the soundness or unsoundness of the rulings they make about lifestyle and behavior.

However, if the discourse of these zealots for their faith is to be fair, they must refrain from inundating us, day and night, with talk of Islam's tolerance and openness and they must refrain from citing verses from the Qur'an that talk about respect human diversity and religious differences as being God's way. As they understand it, what is the meaning of the Qur'anic verse "O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct" (Surat al-Hujrat 13)? What is the meaning of the love that the Qur'an commands to Muslims when it says, "Thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud" (Surat al-Ma'ida 82)?

In reality, Middle Eastern Christians' concern is not for respecting social niceties and the exchange of greetings between Christians and Muslim, but rather that their rights to a life of dignity with their Muslim partners in a civil state and to complete equality between all citizens of the single country be respected.

Muslim-Christian relations cannot be reduced to photo-ops that gather a sheikh or mufti with a patriarch of bishop on religious occasions, but rather they are based on mutual respect within a state in which one religious group does not impose its law on other groups under the pretext that they are a majority and others are a minority.

Even if non-Muslims do not have the right to discuss the propriety of Muslims' congratulating Christians on their feasts, they do have the natural right to refuse the imposition of Islamic law as the primary source for their country's constitution. In a discussion that took place at a panel on Muslim-Christian dialog, one of the Muslims asked me how I, as a non-Muslim, can have the right to object to "the position of non-Muslims in Islamic law" when it is, in his opinion, a purely Islamic matter. I told him that this issue concerns me too, since it talks about me, so how do you have the right to prevent me from rejecting the legal restrictions that you draw up for me? I closed by saying that those who work for the return of Islamic law as the organizing principle for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are acting according to the logic of the ancient conquests. That is, according to domination based on the absolute sovereignty of a group that is victorious in war over a group that is occupied and not a partner in the nation.

That some of them do not congratulate Christians on their feasts does nothing to diminish Christians' divine joy that is based on the presence of the Master of the feast among them. Christmas, Epiphany, the Transfiguration, the Cross, the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost... these are occasions for them to rejoice in Christ their Redeemer. "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). We will not beg for the courtesies of this world that are called the exchange of greetings, although we have heartfelt appreciation for those who do not heed the call to cut themselves off and so congratulate the Christians every year according to their custom. However, we will not keep silent from demanding our right to a just state based on citizenship and total equality of rights and responsibilities among individuals within the one nation.