Monday, April 29, 2013

Fr Touma Bitar on Remaining Firm in Times of Trial

Arabic original here.

ِAbduction and Being Snatched Away

On the 22nd of this month, our father Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the diocese of Aleppo, along with the Syriac Orthodox bishop Youhanna Ibrahim, were kidnapped as they were returning to Aleppo from the Syrian-Turkish border. As of the time of writing this essay, there is nothing to confirm that they have been released. This has put us in a state of difficult suffering, amidst the prevalent tension and loss, in a storm that God only knows what it will bring us down to, where it will lead us.

Whatever the case may be, we are certain as Christians that we are in no way cast into the unknown, but rather we are in the hands of the Living God, in the most perfect sense! When a ship sails on calm waters, the role of the human seems most prominent, within the bounds of what he knows. The Lord God wants him to be at peace, even as it is the Most High and the Most High alone who in His love guides the ship in every situation. In general, the human's role, even though he does not know it, is to cooperate with God to the small degree, naturally, that he is capable of. In every case, the human only puts in a penny, while the Lord God puts in a thousand dollars! Anyone who thinks that there is no one in the arena but himself is blind and conceited in his blindness! But when the ship sails amidst dangerous waves, then the human's role with regard to the ship is diminished to practically nothing. The Lord God at that point desires to completely take the ship upon Himself, leaving the human, especially if he is a believer,  to cloak himself in repentance, to put on the armor of patience, to gird himself with humility, to arm himself with prayer, and to stand firm in hope: hope in God does not fail!

There is no doubt that these days we are passing through critical circumstances. Far be it for God to have abandoned us! We are the ones who abandon God, God does not abandon us! Sometimes it appears to our eyes that He has left us; but He remains with us, continually active in us, sometimes visibly and sometimes invisibly. Those who so desire are able to flee or to compromise or to give up on faith in God out of panic. There are those who will surrender to despair. In critical circumstances ,there is always a sifting! In them especially a person's faith and reliance on God become clear, or his lack of faith and lack of preparedness to submit totally to God. We do not have the right to condemn any person for what he does. Each according to his ability. Each is free to do what he wants. However, he must then realize that he will reap the fruit of what he has sown. In this way we know that in a time of trial, despite it painfulness, God will only allow it to be for the good. The believer increases in faith during difficulties. One who is lax in repentance awakes and offers fuller repentance. One who is lukewarm at prayer, his prayer comes alive and deepens. Reliance upon God becomes an inner burning for God's help and mercy. Submitting to God becomes an existential need, without which a believer cannot go on. Does believer experience the pain of the nails in his hands and feet, the burning wound in his side, and suffocation?! All of this is true. In every trial this is an inescapable reality! This is an extension of the cross of Christ embedded in our flesh! A person cannot grow in the Spirit unless he goes through this type of experience, in a little way or a big way, to a greater or lesser degree. To flee from the cross is to flee from salvation! One who has toil, striving, pain, and suffering in Christ firmly is given grace and blessing, growing in stature and increasing. One who passes his life searching after God in comfort, does not want to exert himself for the sake of the truth of the Gospel, but rather seeks something to numb the senses and remove the pain of staying firm in faith in God. He does not desire, or even is not able, to suffer out of love for God. The opportunities, capabilities, and gifts that have been given to him are taken away and he is left empty, wallowing in delusion, anxiety, and vanity. He has no faith in the Lord Jesus, only idleness and accusation, like a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1)!

To return to the topic of what we are going through these days, in these lands, we are not only of the soil of this land, not only part of the patchwork of peoples of this region, not only a constituent part of this country since the earliest times. First and before all else, we are Christ's apostles here. We extend His cross, His Spirit, His love, His word,and His presence! We are not here for ourselves. We are supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world! Numerically, we are nothing. As a power, we are weaker than the rest. We are a little flock. The value and meaning of our existence here comes from our faith in the Lord Jesus. Otherwise, there is no value and no meaning to our existence. We remain here, not by chance, not because were are more clever than others, not because we are able, appropriately or inappropriately, to obtain our rights as a community. We remain here by the grace of God! If God rid His hands of us or, to better put it, if we relied on ourselves completely without God, then it would not be possible for us to endure here for a single day. We are here and we remain here because there are still among us those who bear witness to God and the means through which to bear witness to God. It is only as long as we preserve our faith in God and in God's Word that we remain. If God causes us to remain, then there is no power in the world that can wrench us from the soil of this land! If this is not our belief and our firm conviction, then woe to us! God planted us here to remain as long as He wills it. "No one can snatch them from My Father's hand," said the Lord Jesus (John 10: 29)! We were born here. We live here in Christ, and we will die here! We love everyone, or we must love everyone, but we love God more! Do we sometimes fear people? Naturally, we are human! But we fear God more and our fear of God is capable of plucking the fear of people out of our hearts! When the hour comes, the hour of facing death for His sake, we know in advance that it is out of our hands, but we know too that He can make us into giants! Will we die? We know that we shall die! What is important is that we die firm in our faith in Jesus to the end! It is better for us to die for the Lord Jesus' sake than it us for us to live for ourselves, out of love for the world!

Now, we pray to God that He safely return the two bishops. This comforts, strengthens, and makes firm, especially the faltering among us! But let us pray to God first of all that He strengthen the two bishops, wherever they are, to make them perfectly firm in faith and in bearing witness to Christ the Lord, and that He repel from them the snares, so that they will not grow weak. This is part of the battle that is not against flesh and blood, because "our struggle... is against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

Let the politicians work through politics to save them. This is blessed! Let each one work in his sphere, if he is able-- God's finger is in this! As for the Church, let earnest prayer come from her for their sake, just as she did for Peter when Herod seized him (Acts 12). If it is Satan's purpose to spread sorrow and despair, then it is God's purpose-- and God alone is Master of All-- is that we return to Him, that we rely on Him, and that we pray before Him!

We are on the path to the Heavenly Jerusalem. If it is God's will that we enter it through His passion, today, and not through rituals alone in the manner of "Hosanna to the Son of David. Hosanna in the highest," then blessed be the name of the Lord.

The important thing, O God, is for you to forgive us, even if we have sinned against you! To whom do we go, O Teacher? You have the words of eternal life!

Behold, He comes after the blackest of the night. Amen, our Lord!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fr Younes Younes on the Bishops' Kidnapping

Arabic original here.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.


Here we are at the edge of Holy Week, when we accompany the Lord Jesus in his Passion, so that He may grant us the grace of beholding His glorious Resurrection. We began preparing a few weeks ago with fasting and prayers. But some of our brothers had a different preparation. Our brothers in Lebanon, and especially our brothers in Syria,  accompanied the Lord in His passion in expulsion, destruction, and oppression, ending in the martyrdom of blood. Despite everything, they remain firm in their faith. They are patient in trials. They are children of hope. The trial is becoming harder to bear, because there are still people who believe that if the shepherd is struck, then the flock will disperse (Mark 14:27). They proceeded to abduct Bishop Paul, shepherd of the Orthodox diocese of Aleppo, and Bishop Youhanna, shepherd of the Syriac Orthodox diocese of Aleppo. In doing this, they  conspire with Satan not only against our brothers in Aleppo, but also against the one Church in Lebanon, Syria, and the entire Middle East.

It slipped their minds that there is someone who preceded them in their sin and dared to conspire against the Good Shepherd and to crucify the Lord of Glory. He thought that the affair would end with a stone rolled over the door of the tomb. Did those who kidnapped Sayyedna Paul and Sayyedna Youhanna not learn that the Shepherd was struck but the sheep were not scattered, since they were established on the rock of faith? That the Shepherd was crucified and His Church was born from His pierced side? That the Shepherd was buried, but rose victorious over death?

Our brothers in Aleppo, our brothers in the entire Middle East, you are children of hope. You are children of the Resurrection. If you are faithful unto death, then the One who was dead and came back to life will give you the crown of life (Revelation 2:8 and 10).

Beloved Sayyedna Paul, we are not frightened by what is happening and we do not fear for you. You come from the way of life of the desert-dwellers, those who soar with divine love. Nothing frightens them except sin. How can we fear, when your love for God has made us disciples and we have learned from you that "Jesus being lifted up on the wood is a prefiguration of ourselves being lifted up as His disciples. When the disciple of Jesus looks at his Lord being crucified, he relies with Him on the likeness of His death and resurrection. When a brave soldier sees his leader wounded in war, he throws himself into battle even more fiercely" (Metropolitan Paul Yazigi, Safar al-Kalima, vol. 3, p. 8).

How can we fear, when you say, "Life and death are happiness, when near God, and Hell when defying Him. Death is a word and a fiction. There is death for the body, which we will get back glorified. Death does not exist. Thus, eternal life begins here" (Metropolitan Paul Yazigi, Safar al-Kalima, vol. 1, p. 145).

We only fear that we will not remain faithful to the Word of God. We rejoice to be among "the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Revelation 7:14-17). Amen.

Let us pray for our father Metropolitan Paul, shepherd of the Orthodox diocese of Aleppo, and for Metropolitan Youhanna, shepherd of the Syriac Orthodox diocese of Aleppo, who were kidnapped, in the hope that they will be safely returned to their flocks.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Patriarch John X's Pastoral Letter for Palm Sunday

Downloadable here, in pdf.Official translation.

 Pastoral Letter
With God's mercy
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
To my brethren, the shepherds of the Holy Church of Antioch
and my children throughout the Holy and Apostolic See

I address you today at the end of Great Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, and at a time when we are being surrounded by much pain and suffering. Throughout our Antiochian lands, danger threatens our homes, and political conflicts storm our countries. As a result, man's livelihood, dwelling, and even life are at risk. We are tried every day by death or abduction, and our latest plight is the recent kidnapping of our beloved brothers, Bishop Paul Yazigi, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Iskenderun, and dependencies, and Bishop John Ibrahim, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, and the killing of the Deacon who was accompanying them.

I share the pain felt by a large number of believers in our Church as a result of these difficult circumstances. I strive with my brothers, the members of the Holy Synod, to lessen the impact of these conditions on our faithful and all citizens. This is an essential part of our Christian witness. We, however, refuse to accept what man is undergoing today. We are working in that our rejection of this situation reflects the tenets of our beliefs. We reject this situation and condemn it. Since we are children of the Resurrection, we are not afraid of whoever takes violence to achieve his purpose. To be killed, or kidnapped, or to have our institutions destroyed, will not change our resolve to uphold our civil life and our co-existence; to cling to our homeland and to seek the reign of justice and rights in our homelands. Therefore, each and every one of us, whether in the Antiochian motherlands or abroad, is invited to express his concern and personal rejection of the recent course of events, aside from any political realignment. Humanity is the object of Christianity, for our Lord was incarnate for our salvation.

I take this opportunity to extend, on your behalf, in the motherlands and abroad, an appeal to the international community, urging it to do everything it can toward the release of hostages whose absence affects us deeply. The speedy closure of this issue is extremely important in order to avert the risk of terrible consequences that would follow. Our appeal also includes an urgent call for action in order to find a quick solution to the situation in our beloved Syria; for the salvation of the people who are the descendants of an outstanding human civilization of thousands of years, and in order to prevent the risky consequences that could affect the entire region.

    My beloved children,

As we are entering the time of the Holy Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, I invite you to reveal the unity of our Church who fervently gathers Her flock in all that is right and just. In this time, let us exceptionally intensify our prayers and supplications. Just as our Lord was not afraid to walk on the path of Calvary; in the same way we are invited to walk with Him along this path, being fully aware that by the Cross we shall conquer, because the Lord is risen from the dead and He will raise us with Him. Let us intensify our petitions as a living testimony, asking God to remove all injustice, praying for the quick return of our abducted hierarchs to their beloved ones, for the comfort of the bereaved, and for the deterrence of those people with cruel hearts, so that they may be inspired to refrain from harming their fellow human beings.

Therefore I call on everyone, faithful and clergy, to approach Palm Sunday with a new spirit, remembering the Passion of our Lord and connecting it with what we are living today. Let the Resurrection occur in every human heart, as the Lord has raised Lazarus from the dead. Let us work to have Christ triumphantly enter into the world's heart through our service and ministry, as He entered victoriously to Jerusalem. Let our processions be this year with candles tied with black ribbons, chanting the hymn "To Thee O Champion Leader...," instead of "Rejoice O Bethany...," asking the Virgin Mary to keep our Church as a fortified city.

I urge you to pray throughout this Holy Week with a broken spirit, being aware that in our trials, we have God as our refuge. God will not overlook His little flock. May love, service, and courage be the gateway to the joy of the Resurrection, a joy that cannot be taken away.

Issued at the Patriarchal Residence in the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand, on April 27, 2013 

Friday, April 26, 2013

al-Akhbar on the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister's Visit to Beirut

Arabic original here.

"Prince Vladimir's" Emissary forms the "Russian Party"

by Ghassan Saoud

Who loves Russia more than the member of the Orthodox Gathering Samir Naima? He has transferred his whispers from the ear of Cain to that of Abel (or vice-versa), in transferring from the political machine of the candidate for the Orthodox seat in Ashrafiya Michel Toueini to the machine of his brother and candidate for the same seat, Nicholas Toueini. "Nicholas is more honorable," they say in Ashrafiya. 

Naima intones, "Russia, you are our holy country... Russia you are our beloved country... You are an ancient union for brother-nations." As soon as the Russian national anthem ended, the competition began: the president of the Orthodox Scouting Association, Elias Hasbani, loves Russia, naturally as does the president of the Lebanese Greek Orthodox League, Nicholas Ghulam. All those who found it difficult to get up from their chairs on account of their old age were the "League". Not to forget Nicholas Toueini, who yesterday defined himself as the representative of the Orthodox families of Beirut, who does not forget the Russian czar's standing with his forefathers against the Ottomans in 1904 and against the Turkish massacres in the region. As for the president of the municipality of Amioun, Jirji Barakat, he does not mention Russia without following it with the adjective "the great": "Russia the great has not ceased for a day to love the people of Lebanon." Aside from the municipal council of Amioun, Barakat heads the "Imperial Lebanese Cultural Association" and expends more sweat than anyone just thinking about monetary proceeds for the Russian spiritual intentions of reviving the "Imperial Russian Society", which was concerned with countering Ottoman political and educational influence in the region. At the invitation of "Orthodox associations" to a meeting with the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian embassy in Beirut has done something unprecedented in terms of sectarian activity that no other embassy has done. The date of the meeting, at the beginning of Bogdanov's visit, which goes until this coming Sunday morning, indicates its importance for the embassy, noting that the only invited group that was absent, under the pretext that they do not participate in political gatherings.

In his speech, Bogdanov revealed aspects of Russian policy and diplomacy that had been hidden for many: "I am the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and at the same time I am the deputy of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society." This makes clear the weight of the connections between the Russian political position and the feeling of this group of Russian diplomats of a religious duty that requires them to turn to the Middle East. The society, which was founded in 1882, was concerned with countering Ottoman influence in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, as the Russian Empire was awakened to the danger of Ottoman influence in this region. However, it withdrew when the of the French and British mandates took control over these countries, and it was practically dissolved during the days of the Soviet Union. Today, however, it is under the leadership of former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who is now the chairman of the Accounts Chamber of Russia, and his statements give the impression that "regaining what Russia has lost" in the region is a national duty.

In a statement that Bogdanov addressed to those present, "We are joined by a unity of faith and a unity of purpose and vision." The majority of those present do not understand the Russian language that the the Russian functionary spoke. However some of them, such as Nicholas Ghulam, Salah Rustum, and Gabriel Harmouch nodded their heads in agreement with what he was saying even before it was translated for them. When the translator made an error, Bogdanov corrected him, amidst the laughter of the audience. In the speech, the former Russian ambassador to South Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Occupied Palestine noted the worry in Russian society (first) and the Church (second) and leadership (third, in his enumeration) about the kidnapping of the two bishops in Syria. He promised to relay what he heard to his leaders in order to convince them to strengthen bonds, not only between Lebanese organizations and their Russian counterparts, or between the organizations and the Church, but also between the organizations and the diplomatic apparatus.

In the hotel overlooking the Bay of Saint George, a Roman military leader that the Orthodox Church considers to be one of her chief saints, it was clear that Russian diplomacy should be numbered as one of the pillars of Russian influence in the region, in addition to the military apparatus in Syria. In the opinion one of observer, there are many friendships between Russia and Lebanon, but the Russian state is no longer content to support its relations through a party that owes ultimate allegiance to a regional state or to another state. It must have a special group that understands Russian interests very well and that works to deal with them by applying the Russian line first and last. They are Orthodox interests before anything else, based on fear of an Islamic blockade around Moscow.

In that hall at the Phoenicia, the characteristics of the "Russian party" in Lebanon became clear, after the characteristics of the other parties had already been known: Saudi, Iranian, Syrian, and American. It became clear that there are two chief forces that Russia can count on, the Party of the Levant, which is a group of young activists led by Rodrigue Khoury recalling the Orthodox Youth Movement of fifty years ago; and the Orthodox Gathering, which includes the majority of Orthodox former ministers and deputies, among whom Nicholas Saba plays the role of secretary-general. Khoury grabbed the first photo-opportunity, by entering the hall accompanying Bogdanov, without it being known whether this was coincidental or if he had really arrived with him. The second photo-opportunity was taken by Saba, when he embraced the Russian guest and gave him an icon of his patron, the Archangel Michael, who bears in his right hand the sword of justice and in his left hand the whole world. In his speech, Saba recalled the long history of Christian-Muslim coexistence in this region, bringing up "the Islam of tolerance, mercy, and love." In contrast to others who were content with generalities and flattery, Saba defined the requests of the Gathering: scholarships for Lebanese University students in Russia, support for relations between the Russian and Antiochian Orthodox Churches, encouraging the Russian state to purchase substantial land in Beirut a major Russian church educational facility. As for Khoury, he distinguished himself from the other speakers by his calm voice, precise expression, and looking up from his papers to make eye-contact with Bogdanov. Khoury recalled the spread of Orthodoxy in Russia, after "Michael the Syrian" in the year 988 convinced "Prince Vladimir" of it and he thanked "Vladimir the Russian" for sending in the year 2013 "Michael the Russian" to the Middle East. Khoury outidid himself and all the others in his courtship of the Russian embassy by recalling the testimony of a Russian visitor to Lebanon in 1896: "The love of the residents and their children for Russia almost reaches the point of madness. There are children who start to cry if anyone curses the Russians in front of them," without making it clear whether this Russian was distributing money or sitting behind a canon so that "the residents and children" would love him that much. After that, Khoury took a half-step back, making eye-contact with Bogdanov, and said, "Beloved, we here are the sons and grandsons of those children.  It is up to you to assess how we have grown up and what collective memory we bear." The Russian ambassador and the Deputy Foreign Minister were almost crying, they were so strongly affected. As for Ferzli's tears, they were ready to confirm Khoury's words: curse the Russians and you will make the former deputy prime minister cry.

 And from an-Nahar, here.

Bogdanov after his meeting with Audi: We will work to free the two bishops

After his meeting with Metropolitan Elias Audi, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov declared: "We are greatly affected by the His Eminence's assessment of what is occurring in the region, especially with regard to the situation of the Christian community. These problems raise the concern of Russian citizens and Orthodox Church circles... We in the Russian political leadership seek to strengthen the bonds that tie us to the Christian communities in the Middle East." Bogdanov condemned the kidnapping of the two bishops, affirming that "we will make the utmost effort to learn the fate of the two bishops and to secure their release."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Communique from the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, other small news items

Arabic original, here.

On the morning of Thursday, April 25, 2013, His Beatutide Patriarch John X Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox made a fraternal visit to His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas of the Syriac Orthodox at this patriarchal residence in Atchane, Lebanon. They discussed the latest information relating to the two kidnapped metropolitans, Paul Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim and once more condemned the fact that they have not yet been released, despite the efforts being expended. On this occasion they renewed their call for their release and called on the international community to make every effort to acheive this, to stop all forms of violence in Syria, and to establish peace through dialog and a political resolution. They likewise emphasized the symbols of coexistence, tolerance, and national unity. They agreed to take appropriate steps if the two metropolitans are not released in the coming hours, in the hopes that they will be in their dioceses by Palm Sunday so that we and our people may rejoice in them.

Arabic original here.

Maronite Metropolitan of Aleppo to an-Nahar: The Kidnapping of the two Metropolitans is very Disturbing for Christians

Maronite Metropolitan of Aleppo, Joseph Abi Ad said that, "the kidnapping of Metropolitans Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim has lead to a state of great anxiety among the people of Aleppo, especially the Christians.

Abi Ad stated in his talk with an-Nahar that "the people of the city do not know anything about what happened and no one in the city was expecting this to happen or had threatened the metropolitans, especially Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim, who had extensive relations with all political and partisan forces in the region and who is known for his openness to all without exception."

He added, "Metropolitans Yazigi and Ibrahim were going together to secure the release of the priests Michel Kayak and Maher Mahfouz, who had been kidnapped last February on the Damascus-Aleppo highway by an armed gang, during the visit by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai to Damascus, and they wound up in the ranks of those kidnapped."



 A petition to President Obama on behalf of the kidnapped bishops

A Statement by the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East

English coverage by SANA, the Syrian state new agency
Get Religion on the awful quality of coverage in the western media and again here

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

al-Akhbar on the Bishops' Kidnapping and the Plight of Syrian Christians

Today is the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. Arabic original here.

Two Bishops Kidnapped... The War is Closer than was Thought

by Ghassan Saoud

On a tray in the sitting-room of his home, Habib Afram displays some stones which are all that remain of his village, Ayn Ward, and a handful of soil that he says comes from the grave of one of the saints of his Syriac Church. When you see his joy over the manuscripts of his people or books in Aramaic, Assyrian, Syriac, Chaldean, Armenian, and Arabic and hear his sorrow when he recalls the ruins of the villages that he visited in the Nineveh Plain in Iraq and the Armenian Highland, you might think him trapped in the wrinkled face of his grandfather after he was expelled from Tur Abdin (now in Turkey) at the beginning of last century.

Afram is not there without there also being present the words "Eastern Christianity" and dozens of stories from Turkey, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria of forced expulsion after forced expulsion. If you hear him you might say that he is exaggerating. Is former Deputy Prime Minister Elie Ferzli not exaggerating when he says that the goal is destroying Eastern Christians so that the Vatican will be the capital of Christians, Mecca the capital of Muslims, and Jerusalem will remain for the Jews? But rapidly, an event is occurring that makes one reconsider the president of the Syriac League [Afram]'s close to the chapter entitled "Rahbani's Youths" in his new book Christians of the Middle East, when he says, "The war was closer than we had thought." The was was closer than the Christians of Syria had thought, when they had assumed, like the Christians of Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon before them, that the storm would exempt them from its repercussions. However, the kidnapping of the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox metropolitans of Aleppo, Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim has lifted the veil from the suffering of the second-largest Christian population in the Middle East, after Egypt. The CIA World Factbook says that Christians represent 10% of Syrian society. Church sources indicate that they are generally centered in the most troubled governates: Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Hassake, Aleppo, then Damascus and the Ghab Plain in Hama. The abbess of the Monastery of Saint James the Mutilated in the village of Qalamoun in the Damascus countryside, Mother Agnes-Maryam Salib, recounts that as soon as armed men took control of the city of Ras el-Ayn on Syria's northern border, Christians were expelled from their homes with abusive threats. As for the twenty Armenian families of Tell Abyad, now only two families remain in that village in the governate of Raqqa. In the Zarqa governate of Jordan, the Latin Patriarchate has established a special camp for the victims of Syrian "freedom". Maryam Salib says that the number of refugees from Homs alone is more than 150 thousand Christians, while some church sources estimate that the number of refugees, whether to the coast and Wadi al-Nasara or abroad, has reached 400 thousand. One observer notes that European embassies have made Assyrian immigration easier, while American authorities have made visas easier for those with relatives in the United States. Despite all that has occurred, the Syrian church deters its flock from enrolling in the popular commttees [i.e. pro-Asad local militias], alongside the commitment of Church authorities to emphasizing the necessity to work first of all to return stability to Syria and to adhere to political dialog as the sole solution to the crisis. On the other hand, the smear campaign against the Syrian church has not stoppe, arguing that the cause of Christians' fears is the regime and that their interests are not with it: Is not the one leading the opposition coalition today a Christian? Is not a Christian from Aleppo appearing on the "revolution's" televisions?

Despite this, Metropolitan Yazigi continued to give the impression to all he met in Beirut when he would visit or who would call him in Aleppo that morale was high. This "white lie" had the purpose of getting those who remained to stay. In the past few months and weeks, voices were trying to encourage themselves, as constant interruption of telephone service allowed them to vent what they were holding in. But the day before yesterday, everything changed. They know that their Orthodox bishop's influence extends beyond the borders of their city, not only to the archdiocese's dependency in Alexandretta, but also to Greece, whose European Orthodox Church has long treated him like a spoiled child. They know that the kidnapping of Yazigi, Brother of the Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi who is now almost residing at Balamand Monastery in Lebanon, and himself a favored candidate only confirms that there are no great men in the crisis. No cover-- spiritual or otherwise-- protects anyone.

Yesterday and the day before, the Syrian people's frustration has surpassed the bounds of despair. Metropolitans Yazigi and Ibrahim are numbered among the kidnapped. Orthodox church sources indicate that Yazigi had been working for months to secure the release of two priests-- one Armenian and one Orthodox, kidnapped by units of the Syrian opposition. The Church had been committed to keeping quiet about its captives in order to ensure their release. Making use of Metropolitan Ibrahim's relationships with various parties of the conflict in Aleppo, Yazigi was travelling with him from the Bab el-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in order to meet an intermediary in what appeared to be the conclusion of the negotiations. But they were surprised by an ambush, whose elements quickly threw Yazigi's companion and Ibrahim's driver from the car because they were civilians and kidnapped the two bishops. The opposition did not waste time in placing responsibility with the Syrian regime for the killing of one of the bishop's companions who-- to state it again-- were kidnapped by Islamic extremists in a region completely under opposition control. Later, the surviving companion affirmed that the appearance and language of the kidnappers gave the impression that they were not Syrians. Until yesterday evening, Syriac and Greek Orthodox Church sources were confirming that many had offered their services, along the lines of the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, the leader of the new opposition the Syrian National Coalition Georges Sabra, and opposition figures Samir Nachar and Abdalahad Istifo, amidst confirmation from regional and international authorities that they were closely following the issue. The patriarchate wished all of them success in their efforts. However, as of yesterday evening none of them notified the patriarchate of the kidnappers' identity, despite some speculation that the bishops were in the custody of the "Nureddine Zengi Brigade" which includes foreign fighters among whom are Chechens. Monday evening and yesterday afternoon two intermediaries suggested to Patriarch Yazigi that the time of the bishops' release was near, without adding any detailed information that would explain the reason for optimism. One observer notes the coinciding of the press conference that Geagea held with the purported time of their being freed, in order to give the impression if it happened that it had been thanks to him. Here it is clear that Christians who support the Syrian opposition, with Geagea naturally first and foremost, are expending great effort to exploit the event, whether by knocking on the doors of the Church whose leaders had closed it in their face, or by convincing Christian public opinion that their being present on the other side is beneficial for their community. One observer thinks that if the bishops were kidnapped simply because they are bishops, especially given the positive relations that one of them [i.e. Ibrahim] has with presumed revolutionaries coinciding with the "achievement" of Christian leadership in the opposition coalition, it represents a new blow to this coalition, and a message to the world that those who are described as liberating revolutionaries are nothing but extremist gangs who secure nothing but expulsions, murders, and kidnappings.

In remembrance of the massacres of Syriac Christians, Afram called once more on those concerned, Muslims even more than Christians, to be alert in the face of "the slow extermination of Syria's Christians because it will be the greatest catastrophe for the Christians of the Middle East since the Sayfo" (the Turkish massacres of  Syriacs, Assyrians, and Chaldeans). Mount Ararat is not very far from Aleppo. Tur Abdin overlooks it.

As-Saifr on Events Surrounding the Kidnapping

Arabic original here.

Balamand is a Hive of Phone Calls and Prayer

An Account of the Kidnapping of Yazigi and Ibrahim

by Ghassan Rifi

The bells of Balamand did not ring with thanksgiving or joy yesterday, despite all the reports that circulated in the media and on social networks about the release of Bishops Paul Yazigi (Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo and Alexandretta) and Youhanna Ibrahim (Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo) who were kidnapped the day before yesterday by an armed group in Aleppo. Orthodox patriarchal circles were not content with the announcement that official notice of the alleged release: Patriarch John X Yazigi tried to call his kidnapped brother, but the response was always that the number dialed was out of service, leaving serious fears in Balamand and in all Orthodox Churches in Lebanon and abroad concerning the fate of the two bishops. Patriarch Yazigi, who undertook intensive communications with the leaders of major countries and of concerned Arab states and their government leaders and with the leaders of religious communities in them in order to press for the release of the kidnapped men, sequestered himself from media and from most visitors and asked everyone not to make any political or other statements and to rely solely on prayer for the apostles of love Boulos and Youhanna.

Trusted church sources related to as-Safir how the kidnapping happened, noting the likely possibility that the bishops were ambushed, especially given that they had been following for months the issue of two priests who had been kidnapped by an armed group.

These sources say that the bishops visited Turkey in order to pursue the issue of the two priests, but they did not arrive at a positive result. As they were returning-- each in his own car with his driver-- they crossed the Turkish-Syrian border in the area of Bab el-Hawa and upon arriving in the village of Mansoura, they were met by an armed group that the sources say included Chechens as well as Syrians, who kidnapped the two and led them off in an unknown direction. After killing the driver and deacon of Metropolitan Ibrahim, who is from the Fatuh family, they asked Metropolitan Yazigi's driver to call the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan's office in Aleppo to retrieve his body from the side of the road. The Orthodox and Syriac patriarchates were careful not to point fingers of accusation in any direction, especially since none has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and no conditions for the bishops' release has been set, despite information circulated by some that calls about this had been made demanding that the Syrian regime release 500 detainees in exchange for the two bishops' release. Since then it has become apparent that this information was inaccurate.

Likewise, the two patriarchates have been careful to act with total calm and to not announce any positions that might reflect negatively on the efforts being made at the highest levels to achieve their release. They issued a joint communique expressing their regret at the kidnapping and at any similar activity that threatens citizens, without regard to their affiliation. They emphasized that Christians are an essential part of their lands. They suffer the pain every person suffers, work as messengers of peace to lift the injustice off every oppressed.

The two patriarchates are deeply sorrowed by what their countries are going through, namely violence that is spreading and killing the sons of the one country and exposing their lives to various dangers of which kidnapping, that represents one of its the most horrible expressions due to its absurdity and its jeopardizing of the lives of the peaceful and unarmed individuals. They urged the kidnappers to have respect for the lives of those kidnapped and called on everyone to refrain from any actions that might sow sectarian division among the people of the one nation.

They called on the whole world "to try putting an end to the Syrian crisis so that Syria becomes again a garden of love, security and coexistence. Settling accounts should not happen at the expense of the human beings who live here." They also called on all Christian Churches to "to stand fast in the face of what is going on and witness to their faith in the power of love in this world. It is necessary to take steps that reflect their refusal to all kinds of violence hitting the human beings living in the East."

 They called on Muslim partners in citizenship " to stand hand in hand and work on refusing the misuse of man and deal with him as a product, a shield in the battles or a means for monetary or political bribery."

They closed by addressing the kidnappers and telling them "that those whom they kidnapped are messengers of peace in this world. Their religious, social and national work witnesses for them. We call them to deal with this painful accident away from any tension that serves only the enemies of this country."

The "Change and Reform Bloc"

Yesterday afternoon patriarchal circles were confused by the news that the "Change and Reform Bloc" intended to meet under the leadership of Gen. Michel Aoun at Balamand. As-Safir has learned that quick telephone calls were made from the patriarchal residence to members of the bloc in order to have the meeting changed to simply a visit of solidarity without any political statements, in order to prevent the politicization of the issue or coloring current efforts to release the bishops.

In the end, Aoun arrived accompanied by the minister Jibran Basile and members of the bloc and they held a meeting with Patriarch Yazigi. All left without making any statement, while a communique issued by the bloc in the evening stated that the visit was in solidarity.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Statement from the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate: The Kidnapped Bishops Have Not Been Freed

Arabic original, here.

The Syriac Patriarchate and the Passing of the First Day of the Kidnapping of Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim

(Tuesday, 23/4/2013 22:00) Since early in the morning His Holiness Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas has been receiving telephone calls from a large number of politicians and diplomats in Lebanon, foremost among them Prime Minister-delegate Tammam Salam, in addition to the leaders and representatives of parties and political blocs in Lebanon. All of them expressed their condemnation of the kidnapping of the Metropolitans Youhnna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, affirming that they will spare no effort to secure the bishops' freedom.

One of the most important telephone conversations was that between His Holiness Patriarch [Iwas] and His Beautitude Patriarch John X Yazigi, in which both expressed regret and condemnation, and prayer for the liberation of the two bishops and of all captives and for security and peace in the country. They released a joint communique about this.

From among spiritual leaders, His Holiness also received telephone calls from His Beautitude Ignatius Yousuf III Younan, the Syriac Catholic patriarch; Metropolitan Roland Abou Jawdeh, the representative of the Maronite Patriarch His Beaitutide Bechara Butros Rai; the papal nuncio in Damasus; as well as a call from His Beatitude Maphrian Mar Basilius Thomas I, Maphrian of India; and others from the bishops of the Holy Synod and priests of the Church.

His Holiness expressed his heartfelt thanks for the prayer offered by His Holiness Pope Francis I in his prayer today for the bishops' freedom, as well as for the kind letter that came to the patriarchal office from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as well as the official communique from the Ministry of Religious Endowments of the Syrian Arab Republic.

His Holiness called the Syriac bishops in Lebanon for an emergency meeting in the women's Monastery of Mar Jacob Baradaeus in Atchane, Lebanon, where the following were present: Mar Iustinus Boulos, the patriarchal vicar in Zahleh and the Bekaa; Mar Clement Daniel Kouriya, Metropolitan of Beirut; Mar Chrysostomus Mikhail Shimoun, director of patriarchal institutions in Atchane; Mar Timotheus Matta Khoury, patriarchal secretary; His Holiness reviewed with their emminences all the efforts that the Church and her children are expending in th country and in the diaspora in order to secure the freedom and well-being of Metropolitnans Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi.
Finally, we confirms that the patriarchate has not officially received any information about the release of the bishops up to this moment.

Joint Communique from the Greek and Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch

This is the official translation, from here.

Joint Communique


The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
Of Antioch and all the East


The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate
of Antioch and all the East


On Monday the 22.04.2013, we were surprised by the news that our brothers Bishop Paul (Yazigi) of Aleppo and Alexandretta and Bishop John (Ibrahim) Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, have been kidnapped on their way back to Aleppo after accomplishing a humanitarian mission. We deeply regret what happened as we regret all similar acts targeting cvivilians, regardless of their belonging and therefore we address to the local and international communities the following declaration:

1- The Christians living here are an essential part of their lands. They suffer the pain every person suffers, work as messengers of peace to lift the injustice off every oppressed: They follow the teaching of their Gospel telling them that love ist the basis of human relations. The official positions issued by the spiritual leaders of the various churches, are the best expression in this respect and the mission fulfilled by the two kidnapped bishops is but a further proof of this orientation.

2- The Christians in this East are deeply sorowed by what their countries are going through, namely violence that is spreading and killing the sons of the one country and exposing their lives to various dangers of which kidnapping, that represents one of its the most horrible expressions due to its absurdity, and ist jeopardizing of the lives of the peaceful and unarmed individuals. We call the kidnappers to respect the life of the two kidnapped brothers as well as everyone to put an end to all the acts that create confessional and sectarian schisms among the sons of the one country.

3- We understand the anxiousness of the Christians because of what happened and call them to patience, to hold on to the teachings of their faith, and to rely on God whose strength lies in our weakness. For defending our land means first of all to hold on to it and to work on making it a land of love and coexistence. We are also aware that all citizens from all confessions suffer the same pain due to such acts, and we pray that the Lord may strengthen them in their difficulties . We support them to raise the voice high in refusing all sorts of violence tearing up our countries and making our hearts bleed.

4- In this painful situation, we can but call the whole world to try putting an end to the Syrian crisis so that Syria becomes again a garden of love, security and coexistence. Settling accounts should not happen at the expense of the human beings who live here.

5- We also call all the churches in the whole world to stand fast in the face of what is going on and witness to their faith in the power of love in this world. It is necessary to take steps that reflect their refusal to all kinds of violence hitting the human beings living in the East.

6- We take the opportunity to call our partners in citizenship, from all islamic confessions, to stand hand in hand and work on refusing the misuse of man and deal with him as a product, a shield in the battles or a means for monetary or political bribery.

7- Finally we address the kidnappers and tell them that those whom they kidnapped are messengers of peace in this world. Their religious, social and national work witnesses for them. We call them to deal with this painful accident away from any tension that serves only the enemies of this country.

We pray the Lord in these blessed times so that this crisis quickly ends and that the souls of all our brothers and sisters regain their security and peace, so that our country enjoys the prosperity and peace it deserves.

Patriarch Jon X Yazigi Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas

Early Reports of Bishops Release Premature

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch has made the following statement on Facebook:

"Beloved, do not pass around news here and there that play with people's emotions. there is no news about Their Eminences. Let us pray until there is certain news."  

The Antiochian Archdiocese of North America has released the following statement:

"There have appeared many reports in both the Eastern and Western press that the two hierarchs who were abducted yesterday by terrorists in Syria, Metropolitan Boulos Yazge, Antiochian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, and Archbishop Youhanna Ibrahim, Syriac Archbishop of Aleppo, have been released. His Eminence Metropolitan Philip spoke by phone this morning to His Beatitude John X, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East (pictured), who said that these reports are false, and that the release of these two hierarchs has NOT taken place.

We ask you to continue to pray for their safety, and eventual release. Confirmed updates will be published as soon as they are known."

This is in response to reports such as the ones here and here, here, and (in French) here.  Their apparent source in French can be read here.

The Guardian's live feed on Syria, which is closely following the kidnapping, can be read here. They are reporting that the bishops have been released--- citing a non-existent bishop named "Tony Yazigi"!!! The BBC cites the same (fictitious?!) source here. The NYT relays the same non-existent source from Reuters, here. This should be a lesson on the reliability of English-language media about what goes on in Syria!

According to, here:  

"Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has just had a telephone communication with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, during which he briefed them on the release of Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo Paul and Syriac Bishop Gregory.
The Ecumenical Patriarch expressed his satisfaction with the successful outcome of the case that shocked Christians of the whole world."


Monday, April 22, 2013

al-Joumhouria: Details Emerge about the Metropolitans' Kidnapping

Arabic original, from the April 23 al-Joumhouria, here.

For background on the kidnapped priests whose release they were trying to secure, see here.

The Whole Story of the Kidnapping of the Greek and Syriac Orthodox Metropolitans of Aleppo

The two kidnapped metropolitans are Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, and Boulos Yazigi, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo and Alexandretta, brother of Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X Yazigi, who has been struck with a double tragedy.

Bishop Matta Khoury, secretary to Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Zakka I Iwas, spoke to al-Joumhouria on behalf of the patriarch, who had just come out of the hospital on the night of the incident. He confirmed, also in his capacity as Bishop of Bab Touma in Damascus, that the Patriarchate will not take any decision while awaiting any contact from the kidnappers, in order to know their intentions and demands.

Khoury states that, "As Christian clergy, we do not fear Syrian Muslims. We have no problem with any Syrian Muslims, whether they are Sunni, Shii, or Alawi. Rather, our problem is with foreign Muslims who come from abroad, Chechens, Taliban, Afghans who want, for example, to fight Russia in our region. " He adds, "We have lived with Syrian Muslims for a long time and we coexist with them in peace. We are brought together by feasts and united by traditions." Khoury emphasizes that "Muslims from all sects have built our patriarchal residence in Bab Touma, decorated it, and carved icons of Saint George for us."

Khoury likewise affirms to al-Joumhouria that his Muslim children who fled from Homs and whom he met in Lebanon confirm to him that "there is no connection between Syrian Muslims and what is happening. They are sorry about what has happened in Homs and are afraid of the foreign groups that have come from abroad." He points out that, "the Syrian Muslim does not constitute a source of fear for the Syrian Christian, as history testifies."

Details of the Kidnapping

Bishop Matta Khoury recounts to al-Joumhouria the details of what happened: After some effort, one of our priests in Aleppo was able to contact us and to confirm the kidnapping of Metropolitans Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, who were on a humanitarian mission that they had been preparing for a long time, obtaining the release of an Orthodox and a Catholic priest. They were accompanied by a man named Fatuh, who has been Metropolitan Ibrahim's driver for more than five years, and a fourth, unidentified person.

On their way to the specified area to carry out the task which, according to al-Joumhouria's information was ready and approaching its conclusion-- liberating the priests, their car encountered a foreign group.

Khoury reveals that initial information indicates that the kidnappers are Chechens and when they saw that two of those riding in the vehicle were laypeople, they threw them out of the car and fled with  Metropolitans Yazigi and Ibrahim in an unknown direction.

Khoury confirms that the fourth, unidentified person is "a close confidant of Metropolitan Yazigi" and he believes that he was playing a fundamental role in the operation to release the priests who had been taken hostage. He reveals that this person and the driver were both thrown onto the road. After several hours, news arrived from Fatuh's family who contacted the Metropolitan's office in Aleppo and informed them that his son had found him murdered and had identified him from distinguishing characteristics. The whereabouts of the fourth person are still not known.

However, Khoury confirms that the fourth person is free and that "he is the one who made it known that the kidnappers did not attack the two of them, but rather threw them on the side of the road before each left in a different direction. He confirms that the party that found and murdered Fatuh are unconnected to the kidnappers."

Khoury recounts that, "the agreement to release the hostages required Metropolitan Yazigi to come from Turkey while Metropolitan Ibrahim set out from Aleppo, and that they would meet at an agreed-upon location in order to carry out the operation to liberate the priets."

Khoury, who is responsible for the patriarchal residence in Bab Touma in Damascus and is currently overseeing the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, explains that the fourth person confirmed this story and said that the kidnappers' features indicate that they are foreigners. Chechens are distinguished by their accent and coloring (beards, light skin, and blue eyes, in addition to language) and so we deduce it from the information that we have from Metropolitan Yazigi's friend.

Regarding Fatuh's family, Khoury states that they received his body and identified him, emphasizing that "we acknowlege that the kidnappers are not the driver's killers and that, according to the fourth person, they are Chechens. However, we are not sure whether they are really Chechens or whether they belong to another group."

He adds, "We are waiting the kidnappers to contact us, the patriarchate, or the metropolitan's office in Aleppo so that we can know their demands. Our sources confirm that efforts continue to release the two metropolitans and for this reason we have waited to publish a statement and we have not yet contacted the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.

We are calmly working individually, but this does not mean that we do not want to cooperate. Just the opposite, we want each one to work separately because we do not want to make a hasty decision, lest we put the metropolitans' life in danger."

Khoury called for "Waiting for the legal deadline, 24 hours, before holding any wider meeting or making any serious decision." He explains that "We do not possess much information to act upon. Our position as a patriarchate is unenviable position. We live in a state of sorrow, grief, and pain and we are upset by this news, especially Patriarch Zakka Iwas, who left the hospital today and his health is critical. The news startled him and increased his pain."

Khoury emphasizes that, "We have always denounced and continue to denounce attacks on all priests, whether they are of our community or of another community, just as we denounce the death of Muslim clergy because the mission of all clergy is peace and love. Their position with the opposition or the opposite, but rather a purely humanitarian position." Khoury described the metropolitan's office's position as "bound" and we are unable to take any decision or issue any statement because we do not want to subject the metropolitans to danger.

He explains that, "Kidnappers' demands are usually material or with the goal of political pressure, to pressuring the state to arrange an exchange. That is, the kidnappers may have a list of names they want to make an exchange for."

He states that, "The kidnapping will not be easy for Christians in Syria because Metropolitan Yazigi is close to the regime and to the opposition and he has equally good relations with both sides. He has political tact, and whenever he expresses his opinion, his demands are the same as the demands of honorable Syrians: reform and an end to corruption."

Khoury denies that the two metropolitans have enmity for any specific group, "and so we support the possibility that the kidnappers are neither close to the regime nor to the opposition and are not Syrian." He adds, "They could be Afghan or Chechen extremists, Jabhat al-Nusra, Lybians, or Egyptians who have come from abroad.

We do not know who Metropolitan Yazigi was in contact with in order to release the priests. However, it is most likely that he was not in contact with foreigners, but rather the Free Syrian Army. News of their coming may have been leaked or their kidnapping could have happened by chance, since the area is not secure."

Khoury calls for patience, pointing out that the fourth person "was only with difficult able to get to a telephone and communicate with the Greek Orthodox metropolitan's office in Aleppo. If the situation is not resolved tomorrow and the metropolitans return to their homes, we will work on the level of the two patriarchates."

Khoury expresses his sympathy for Patriarch John X Yazigi, who is facing a double problem, for his family and for his church. He states that his heart is large and that he would deal in the same way, whether the person being kidnapped is his brother or any other person from his community.

Khoury warns that "Over-analysis could cause danger for the metropolitans. For this reason we must be patient because each group of kidnappers has its own way of dealing and we do not want recklessness or their being killed."

Khoury closes by saying, "Today is the Feast of Saint George. For the Syriac Patriarchate and bishops, it is a feast for praying that all the kidnapped priests may be freed, especially Metropolitans Yazigi and Ibrahim." He calls on Lebanese in general and especially Christians to "participate in prayer for the intention of their speedy release and the release of the nation's captives."

Met. Boulos Yazigi Kidnapped Outside Aleppo along with Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim

Translated from here. More as soon as any news comes out. For more details from tomorrow morning's Lebanese press, see here.

The name of the driver who was killed, a deacon in the Syriac Orthodox Church, is Fatuh. May his memory be eternal!

Armed men have kidnapped the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo and Iskanderun, Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi and the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahm near the city of Aleppo.

An-Nahar has learned that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which recieved news of the kidnapping of the two metropolitans this evening, will not issue any statement before tomorrow, pending their receiving complete and precise information about the kidnapping.

According to details relayed to an-Nahar by concerned sources, Metropolitan Yazigi was on the Turkish side of his archdiocese, which extends from Aleppo to Antakya and Metropolitan Ibrahim and gone to accompany him. Along the road on their return to Aleppo, an armed group stopped them before they could arrive to the city, killing Ibrahim's driver and kidnapping the two metropolitans. The Orthodox metropolitan's office relates that the two metropolitans were not injured. Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji is the brother of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East John X Yazigi.

[Update] Additional information has been made available to an-Nahar indicating the possibility of a connection of this incident to what happened in Boston, since the kidnappers include individuals from Chechnya. Intensive contacts to establish the circumstances of the incident.

From the Daily Star, here: Rebels kidnap two Aleppo bishops

BEIRUT: Two Aleppian bishops were kidnapped by Syrian rebels in the outskirts of the city Monday evening, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.

The driver of Boulos al-Yazigi, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo and Iskandaroun and Yohanna Ibrahim, the Syrian-Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, was killed during the attack.

The NNA reported that Ibrahim, Yazigi and the third man, also a priest, were driving from a village near the Turkish border to Aleppo. As they approached the city, they were met with an armed group that forced them out of the car.

The bishops are believed to alive and efforts are ongoing to secure their release.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on St Mary of Egypt

Remarkably, this article was posted to the website of Ayatollah Hussein Ismael al-Sadr, here.

 Mary of Egypt and Divine Longing

The Orthodox Church chose to place the feast of Saint Mary of Egypt (from Alexandria) on the fifth Sunday of Lent, this coming Sunday, in order to present her as a living model of repentance that makes a complete break with sin. Mary, a seller of passion, reached the apex of sin and was immersed in the deepest depths of transgression, but when she returned to her senses she pursued repentance as the path of rejecting sin. She practiced repentance to an even greater degree than she had practiced sin and with a burning desire even greater than the desire that drew her to sin, she longed for God and God alone.

The life of Mary of Egypt says that after she had lived seventeen years in vice and debauchery, she went to Jerusalem to attend the blessed feast of the Elevation of the Cross. There she "engaged in shameful deeds and drew many into the pit of perdition." When she tried to enter the church, she repeatedly felt an unseen power preventing her from entering and "her heart was wounded by this and she resolved to change her life and to entreat God in repentance." Immediately, she withdrew to the furthest desert and lived there for forty-seven years "a very hard life that no human could bear."

The Church raises all saints to the rank of a good example  and a living model, she sings  on Mary's feast day: " O Mary of Egypt, inasmuch as we have taken you as a model for repentance, intercede with Christ, that He may grant it to us during the time of the fast." Mary is the living example of the sinner who does not despair of the possibility of repentance, but who, having reached the enormity of sin, must completely realize that God is waiting for her return, to number her among the chosen. The great sin is despairing of God's mercy and of His answering the prayer of one who repents.

Mary's life story is filled with lessons. One cannot treat God with an unbearable levity. She wanted to enter the church, the house consecrated to God, not for prayer and worship and hearing the word, but in order to seduce many away from themselves. She was prevented from entering the church in order remind her that appearing in God's presence requires a great change in her behavior, her mentality, and the way she treats herself. She realized this, grasped the divine sign and acted according to it, becoming great among women.

However, the human person is holier than places of worship. The human person is the temple of God, which God made in His image and likeness and into which He breathed His Holy Spirit. Every sin that a person commits, especially sins of the body, is an insult to God's temple, which is his body. Here lies Mary's sin when she committed transgressions. In this context, the church sings this hymn to Mary: "O righteous and chaste one, when you did not know things divine, you profaned the image of God. But by divine care you purified it, and were divinized through divine deeds." Mary returned splendor to her body and it returned to being a holy temple and a dwelling-place for God.

When God prevented Mary from entering the church, He opened for her the doors of repentance and invited her to His banquet. She accepted His invitation and went out to the desert to practice asceticism, cutting off every thought that would incite her to return to sin. Mary went to the desert in order to live with God alone. She realized how much she had hurt herself with sin and she strugged for the rest of her life to repair herself. Holiness is nothing other than the realization that we are sinners and that our healing is found in the struggle to repent through prayer and fasting. Lent is our desert through which we must cross in order for God's image to return to us.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

al-Akhbar on the Orthodox Dimension of Russian Policy in Lebanon

Read the entire article here.

“Orthodox Revival” in Russia’s Lebanon Policy

 by Nasser Charara


Moscow is averse to Saudi involvement in Lebanon, as well as Saudi attempts to use the country as a staging ground for the armed Syrian opposition. Furthermore, Moscow has qualms about Russian radical Islamic groups using Lebanon as a safe haven to plan acts that undermine Russian national security.

With Chechen Islamic movements fighting in Syria, particularly in the Homs countryside, Russia would like to see Lebanon monitoring these groups more strictly, especially as they have ties with Salafis in north Lebanon. Protecting Christians in the Levant is one of the key themes of Russia’s renewed engagement in Lebanon, especially in the wake of the conflict in Syria. In particular, an Orthodox Christian “dimension” has returned vigorously to Russian policy in the Middle East.
Moscow is keen to express this in a number of ways. For instance, the Russian embassy in Beirut was supposed to be relocated from Corniche al-Mazraa to elsewhere in the capital. However, the decision has since been cancelled. One explanation is that Russia wants to maintain the Orthodox symbolism of its embassy’s premises. The Russian embassy building dates back to the early 20th century, when it was acquired from Russian missionaries.

With the start of WWI, the educational mission was closed, as Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Beirut at the time, were on opposite sides of the conflict. Today, the Russians are proud of the origins of their diplomatic mission’s building.

The Russians also like to draw attention to the fact that the Russian missionaries, unlike their Western peers, did not seek to gain political influence in Lebanon, but only to contribute to education. For this reason, they say, they only taught in Arabic, rather than in their native Russian.

Naturally, the “Orthodox revival” seen in official Russian discourse on Lebanon has political undertones. Russia wants to emphasize a certain moral aspect in its stances in order to counter, among other things, allegations of opportunism in its attitudes in support of the Syrian regime.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Volos Conference on Christianity in the Middle East

Below is a summary of the conference that was held in Volos, Greece last week about Christians in the Middle East.

The Present and Future of Christians in the Middle East in
Light of the Recent Developments in the Arab World.

  On Saturday, March 30, 2013, the Volos Academy for
Theological Studies successfully concluded its roundtable discussion
entitled “The Present and Future of Christians in the Middle East in
Light of the Recent Developments in the Arab World.” The event, which
was held at the “Thessalia” Conference Center in Melissatika, Volos,
was part of the Academy’s broader program of events for the current
academic year, entitled “Theology in Dialogue.”

The speakers (who came from countries or Christian communities of the
Middle East) presented timely perspectives on the ongoing discussion
not only about the difficulties facing Christians’ very survival, but
also the new challenges posed by the so-called “Arab Spring.”

The roundtable began with introductory remarks by the Director of the
Academy for Theological Studies, Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, who
moderated the event. Dr. Kalaitzidis began by noting the Volos
Academy’s enduring interest in the question of the presence of
Christian in the Middle East, highlighting the Academy’s previous
events on the topic, especially the major international conference in
Volos, organized in conjunction with the World Council on Churches, in
June 2011.

The first speaker, Bishop Elia (Toumeh) of Marmarita (Patriarchate of
Antioch, Syria), described the dramatic consequences of the ongoing
civil war in Syria, which has already last two years, for both
Christians and Muslims, while focusing particularly on the
difficulties, dangers, and painful dilemmas faced by Christians in
Syria. As His Grace emphasized in his remarks, Christian religious
leaders are called to correctly interpret the signs of the times, so
that, with the help of prayer, they are able to understand coming
events. The Orthodox Church, after the difficulties pass, must be able
to participate in the new Syrian society that will emerge. That is why
all Christians must play a constructive role in the reconciliation of
opposing factions. Everyone, he noted, Christians and Muslims alike,
fear fanatical Islam, and this is why Islam must demonstrate its
respect for minorities and present its plan for the future governance
of Syria, providing a positive and peaceful solution to the people
demonstrating on the streets. Christians’ role is to remind Muslims
that they should not behave with the arrogance of the majority, but
according to the logic of patriotism, in which all are equal citizens.

Next, Dr. Hanna Grace, Coptic Christian and Member of the Egyptian
Parliament, gave a historical overview of the position of Christians
in Egypt during both the Ottoman period and the most recent periods of
governance by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, eventually focusing his
attention on the treatment of Christians today by the Islamic
government authorities in Egypt. Based on the latest developments and
the results of the recent referendum, Dr. Grace expressed his belief
that the Islamists will ultimately fail to hold onto power in Egypt,
due to the growing frustration with their governance, as well as to
the more democratic and liberal bloc of voters, as well as the Copts,
especially of the younger generation, who increasingly support the
secular, non-religious parties and movements with a view to building a
pluralistic and democratic Egypt that respects human rights and
religious freedoms.

Dr. Antoine Courban, Professor at the Saint-Joseph University of
Beirut, and an Orthodox intellectual from Lebanon, then spoke about
the hopeful signs that have come out of the upheavals in the Arab
world. The speakers stressed that the core of the message that has
sent people rushing into the streets is freedom and democracy, dignity
and respect for the human person. He also argued that, as Christians,
we must recognize Christ himself in the face of every victim of the
uprising, regardless of religion or confession. With the revolt,
Arabs—both Christians and Muslims—are attempting, albeit very late, to
enter into modernity and defend the values of freedom, human dignity,
tolerance, diversity, and peaceful coexistence, values that are
quintessentially Christian.

The final speaker was Fr. Georges Massouh, Director of the Center for
Christian-Muslims Studies at the University of Balamand in Lebanon,
who—without neglecting the risk posed by extreme Islamic
fundamentalist movements to Christians but also more broadly to all
citizens—maintained that the uprisings and revolutions taking place in
the Middle East also contain many promising signs, first and foremost
being the people’s thirst for political and religious freedom,
democracy, egalitarianism, solidarity, and tolerance of difference. He
argued, however, that only a secular—and not religious or
theocratic—government can provide a guarantee for the above, while
recalling that Christians in the Middle East have always been in favor
of secular brand of government and law which bridges the religious

These presentations were followed by a fruitful dialogue and exchange
of views with the attendees, and the event concluded with remarks by
His Eminence Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, who thanked the
speakers for their participation and extremely enlightening
suggestions, while also noting the Metropolis of Demetrias’ enduring
interest in and support for Christians of the Middle East. He also
recalled the important ecclesiastical, theological, and pastoral work
carried out within the Patriarchate of Antioch and the fruitful
exchanges between Orthodox from Greece and the Orthodox Youth Movement
(MJO) in Syria and Lebanon.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Orthodox anti-Sectarianism in Lebanon

Read the whole article here.

The Non-Sectarian Sect

by Samuel Noble


For the Orthodox of Syria and Lebanon, now is perhaps the most challenging period since the anti-Christian pogroms of 1860 that began the process of emigration from the Levant resulting in the majority of the world’s Arab Christians today living in the Americas and Australia. Fears of Islamist rule in Syria loom on the horizon, but there is little realistic hope that the defeat or removal of the Baathist government would actually succeed in establishing any sort of government that could put an end to the vortex of violence engulfing that country. Christians, Syria’s most vulnerable minority, often have little choice other than to seek refuge wherever they can. In Lebanon too, emigration brought on by political and economic uncertainty is a serious threat to the long-term survival of the Orthodox community. These challenges and anxieties have led to much discussion as well as certain concrete, controversial proposals for political changes purportedly aimed at strengthening the Orthodox community’s position in Lebanon. At the heart of all such discussions is a single question: can the Orthodox maintain their traditional identity as the “non-sectarian sect” or do challenges within a sectarian system require sectarian solutions?