Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on the Eclipse of the Arab Nation-State

Arabic original here.

Are Nations Historical Mistakes?

It becomes more certain every day that the sectarian consciousness in our countries continues to be stronger than all other forms of social cohesion. This sectarian consciousness even does away with religious consciousness that could bring together all those who belong to a single religion, across different sects, just as it does away with all common denominators on the basis of which children of the same religion can meet to resolve disagreements and deadly strife.

If religious consciousness was a factor for some in dividing a single country, then sectarian consciousness agitates, not to divide children of the same country, but children of the same religion. This means that sectarian consciousness, whenever it is misused, can be the cause of double strife.

Group consciousness, any group consciousness, is not bad if it is for the sake of solidarity, cooperation, and serving God's creatures and the country. However, when it turns into blind prejudice that permits destruction, expulsion, it becomes an absolute evil and corruption in the earth. What is happening in our countries confirms, without any doubt, that the sectarian sentiment whose fire many breathe has gone far beyond what could be described as blind prejudice.

What we are witnessing today is the result of sectarian bonds being elevated above any other religious, national, or ethnic bonds. Almost a century after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nation-states, sectarian consciousness and sectarian prejudice remains stronger than national consciousness, despite sugary words about the national bond and the final and eternal nation.

In this context, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) believed that no bond, not even love of the nation, could replace in the hearts of Muslims the bond created by Islam. Today, however, we can say that no bond, not even the bond of Islam, can replace the Sunni or Shiite sectarian bond.

Group consciousness, any group consciousness, is praiseworthy and honorable when its goal is struggling against a common enemy who occupies the land and violates human rights. However, group consciousness that eliminates citizenship and national cooperation for the sake of an "umma" that is assumed to be boundless, this group consciousness only produces more fragmentation, disunity, backwardness, and decline.

Those in charge of the affairs of Muslims, Sunni or Shiite, politicians or clergy-- at least most of them-- are embroiled in plans that surpass their limited statures and go beyond the borders of their countries. When they work to import foreign wars and struggles by militarizing their followers and inciting them against their fellow citizens of a different sect, this demonstrates that there are those among the Muslims who only see their nations as historical mistakes that must be erased in order to bring back the Islamic Umma, not on an Islamic basis, but on a sectarian basis that declares that those who belong to sects differing from the ruling sect to be unbelievers.

For children of a single nation, city, or street to be divided into two sectarian groups who fight each other, defensively or in support of a war taking place outside their country, simply because this war is being waged among their brothers in religion or sect, means nothing less than the destruction of the religion and the sects together, even apart from it being a cause for the destruction of humanity and the nation.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Met Saba Esber on the Purpose of Orthodox Spirituality

Arabic original in Majallat al-Nour, here.

The Purpose of Orthodox Spirituality

Question: I know, father, that many Orthodox do not like to use the term "spirituality." But insofar as it is a term that is current in the field of religion as in other fields, can you explain to us what is Orthodox spirituality?

Elder: We can define Orthodox spirituality as the path of the Christian's growth and his advancement in the way of perfection in Christ, the path that is completed through purification from the passions and the acquisition of the virtues. It is a way that is completed through a defined system and a well-known method. It describes the manner through which the Christian advances in the process of purification from each successive passion, while at the same time acquiring more virtues.

Question: Does this not give spirituality an ethical dimension?

Elder: When you are purified of a given passion and acquire the virtue that opposes it, your character naturally improves. However, Orthodox spirituality does not stop with good morals and does not consider that to be a goal in itself, but rather a natural expression of advancement of the life in Christ, reflecting God's grace active in the person being purified. In light of Orthodox spirituality, Christian ethics no longer appear to be the simple fulfillment of the duties demanded by God's commandments. In these commandments, there is a note of remuneration or reward. Orthodox spirituality transcends the issue of "putting the conscience at rest", "avoiding punishment" or "greed for reward."

Question: In light of what you said, what is the goal of Orthodox spirituality, then, if it is not good morals?

Elder: Orthodox spirituality aims for the believer's perfection in Christ. Its goal is the believer's unity with God, in Christ.
The Fathers affirm that perfection is not limited by any ceiling. Our perfection, or our unity with God, is not only a goal but also an infinite path. In this path, we distinguish two stages:
1. Moving forward toward perfection through purification from the passions and acquisition of the virtues.
2. The upward motion of life in union with God.
On this path lies a person's work to open the doors of his soul, so that it can be filled more and more with God's life.
Love of God, the desire to draw near to Him, and life in His constant presence pushes the believer to live this life and to be colored with the characteristic that we describe as spirituality.

Question: Are there specific qualities that distinguish Orthodox spirituality?

Elder: We can distinguish the following basic qualities:
1. The apex of spiritual life is the soul's union with God.
2. This union is realized by the work of the Holy Spirit, which supports the believer in continuing his efforts to purify himself.
3. The process of purification is achieved when the believer arrives at "God's likeness". That is, when he abides in knowledge and love.
4. This union appears in the focus of divine powers in a person, accompanied by various kinds of gifts.
The purpose of Orthodox spirituality is nothing other than living in a state of divinization or participation in divine life. The East dares to speak of man's divinization.

Question: What is our understanding of union with God?

Elder: Let us not speak to much of what is loftiest in human life. One of the spiritual fathers was accustomed to say "Talking about God is good, but listening to Him is better." Let's focus on the path that leads to this high level. However, let me answer you with the words of Saint Gregory Palamas, "Our mind leaves itself and is united with God. It becomes more than mind." This state is realized when the believer rises to what is above his own powers, through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Question: What did you mean, father, by focusing on the "path"?

Elder: In order to reach this state, a person must make constant effort and persevere in asceticism, my son. The Apostle Paul uses the image of the dedicated and diligent athlete who strives to win the prize. Constant athletic exercises are what makes the athlete maintain his fitness.

Question: Talking about asceticism scares people these days, father. What does asceticism mean?

Elder: The Greek word asceticism, my son, has taken in the East a monastic meaning, but the literal meaning of the word is "exercise". In the Christian understanding, an ascetic is one who exercises to return his passions to their root, through persistent practice of the system of abstinence and self-control, according to a defined program, in order to arrive at perfection.
Origen calls zealous Christians ascetics because they train themselves for liberation from the passions and to develop good habits that lead to perfection (1).

Question: Does this mean that it depends on the person, according to his ability to practice and live asceticism? Where is God's role in this path of perfection?

Elder: If we talk, my son, about the ascetical effort that is demanded of a person and its role, it does not mean that we give the person all the agency, nor do we mean that divine grace does not support ascetic efforts. Rather, we simply mean that this spiritual experience that is attained does not find its source in human spiritual powers, but rather exclusively in God. Divine grace supports the person who makes effort to persist in his ascetic efforts and to advance in it.
We must not forget that divine activity does not sanctify without human agreement. By agreement we do not mean a mere lack of objection,  but rather active acceptance.
There is a lovely saying by Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, in effect, "For you to create, this is something that depends on God. For you to be created, this is something that depends on man" (2).

Question: Why does Christianity in general and Orthodoxy in particular give such importance to asceticism?

Elder: If you desire life, you must put death to death. Asceticism is "killing death" within us, so that our nature may be liberated from its enslavement, according to the expression of Saint Maximus the Confessor (3).
The death of death, or the death of sin, is not something instantaneous. It requires a long ascetical preparation. Asceticism is a life that brings forth death to evil, according to the teaching of Saint Symeon the New Theologian. It is the gradual destruction of sin and every inclination towards it.

Question: But asceticism is based on abstinence, which is a negative activity. Can we strive toward perfection in Christ through negation?

Elder: No, my son. The negative connotation of the word "asceticism" comes from the prevalent erroneous usage. In our concept of it, however, asceticism is a very positive activity because one who struggles does not only strive to abstain from passion, but abstains from it in order to open space in his soul, so that it can be filled with virtue in its place. Asceticism sows the virtues in place of the passions. These, the virtues, in turn strengthen nature in truth.
The final goal of asceticism is to liberate our nature, not only from the movements of sinful lusts, but also from the thoughts that appear in our mind after its purification from the passions.

Question: But this liberation empties nature and the mind, father. Is emptying what is desired?

Elder: No, my son, we do not empty our nature and our mind. Rather, we replace the sinful, passionate, harmful things that fill them with what God created in us before the fall of our first ancestors. We sublimate our passions and lusts by becoming free of them. In this way, we replace, in the words of Saint John Climacus "longing with longing, desire with desire." We become free of earthly things and replace them with heavenly things. For us, emptying is a positive activity because on the one hand it displays a thirst exclusively for God and on the other hand it fill us with that which is beneficial for us and is meant for our salvation. The believer rejects passionate diversions in order to receive God in their place (4). We are emptied of what is harmful and sinful and are filled in their place with what is beneficial and good. Otherwise, there is no meaning and no use for asceticism. Asceticism is not a goal in itself.

Question: Is this not difficult for human nature?

Elder: Naturally, if we look at it from a purely human perspective, it is very difficult. But, if we are moved by love of God and know that God is with us, it becomes much less difficult. According to the teaching of the Fathers, the weakness of human nature is manifest in its lack of stability and firmness. It is like a branch shaken by the wind (the wind of the passions), and some compare it to a ball in the hands of the passions. However, by means of gradual ascetic exercises, our human nature participates more and more in the power of Christ's human nature. We must not forget that our efforts also include the power of Christ's human nature. The possibility of connection to Christ becomes active and effective through faith in Him. Consequently, His power becomes our power.

Question: So, ascetic efforts are more than necessary?

Elder: Our asceticism is the gradual death of the old man within us. It is an extension of baptism through will. Asceticism is not imitation of Christ as in the West, but rather a heroic death with Christ and in Christ. Our resurrection in Christ first means our death in Him. We cannot rise with Christ if we have not died with Him. The Resurrection is not a change of direction, but rather continuing along with Him. Death and resurrection in Christ are a single, continuous road.

Question: It is hard work, father! Who is capable of it?

Elder: Let the following words of the Apostle Paul be present in your mind, my son, "I can do anything in Christ who strengthens me." Christ is present in our favor. He is the primary actor in our asceticism, strengthening us, supporting us, and lighting our way.
Then, the real essence of asceticism is not limited to purifying the self of passions. Rather, at the same time it includes the acquisition of virtues, showing it to strengthen our nature. We not only remove the harmful weed, we immediately replace it with a good plant. This nourishes us daily with power, so that everything in us may become good.

Question: How does the Christian practice asceticism? Is it in a specific way? Or is it as the believer sees fit?

Elder: Asceticism follows a defined path, a system, a series of steps that we must never ignore. It is a specific discipline that takes into account the spiritual life's natural laws of development, as well as the principles of the faith and the person's capability. A battle like this one according to the law means that its way is based according to an authentic and inherent logic. This truth casts light on the final aspect of the spiritual life. This path of struggle requires an experienced and enlightened spiritual father.

Question: What is the role of God's grace?

Elder: Christianity holds that direct vision of God can only be realized through God's grace. In order to receive this grace, we must have moral perfection for the perfection of human nature, through unceasing divine help. Purely human training to awaken "the dormant power within us" is not enough. In Christianity, God does not have a nature that resembles a goal that we can seize with a human assault directed with clever tactics. God is a person. Thus, without initiative on His part, He cannot be known.
In order for God to reveal Himself in a mystical union, we must make ourselves worthy of this revealing by being sincere, pure, and good. God is above coercion that employs force. Thus Christian asceticism is a way enlightened not only by reason but also by faith, prayer, and God's help. It is a path in which our nature is entirely purified from sin and is morally strengthened.

(1) Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah, 19.7
(2) St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.64
(3) St Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassios, 61
(4) Saint Maximus the Confessor says, "Just as the sun dawns and enlightens the world, showing itself and the things that it enlightens, so too the sun of righteousness dawns in the pure mind, showing itself and the thoughts of every thing that God made or will make." Chapters on Love, 1

Saturday, May 25, 2013

An-Nahar: Kidnapped Bishops are in Good Health

From an-Nahar, here.

Syrian National Council: Metropolitans Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim are in Good Health

An official in the Syrian opposition announced that the two bishops who were kidnapped last month in Northern Syria, Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi and Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim, are in good health, without offering any details about the identity of the kidnappers. Abd al-Ahad Steifo, a member of the committee delegated by the opposition Syrian National Council with following the situation of the bishops, said at the gathering of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul that, "For us, the only certain information is that a doctor visited the bishops two or three days ago and they are in good health."

He stated that the committee failed to make direct contact with the kidnappers and stated that "there is a lot of contradictory information about the identity of the kidnappers and their demands for ransom," adding that, "Criminal gangs sometimes do kidnappings of this sort. Sometimes the Asad regime is behind it and, let's be frank, groups from the Free Syrian Army sometimes do kidnappings of this sort in order to make exchanges."

He noted that, "the bishops are known in Syria for their humanitarian activities and their defense of peaceful co-existence between the various religious groups in Syrian society. Their kidnapping sends a message to Christians in Syria and the region and so we are eager to obtain their release."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh: Between the Law and Perfection

Arabic original here.

Between the Law and Perfection

Christ distinguishes between the Law and perfection. When the young man asks Him about the nature of goodness, Christ replies, "If you want to enter life, keep the commandments... but if you want to be perfect, go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow Me" (Matthew 19:16-22). Christ does not nullify the Law, but rather considers it a guide to intuitive behavior. One who strives for perfection will not achieve it by only carrying out the law, but rather by practicing love in everything he undertakes.

The Holy Apostle Paul says, "No one is justified by the Law before God... but the Law was our tutor to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3: 11, 24). Thus, there is no perfection in the Law: perfection is in imitating Christ. In this context, Saint Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) says, "The Law taught us to take revenge on one who hurts us, following the verse that stipulates an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But Jesus taught us to go beyond this vengeance, looking at what is loftier."

The loftier thing that Jesus brought is His stating the Golden Rule of the new Law: "whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). After Mosaic law had been based on the principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", that is the principle of treating someone in kind which is closer to justice, Jesus turned this principle on its head when He said that people are called to behave according what they believe, not on the basis of reaction but from action flowing from perfect conviction of the correctness of their principles.

The commandment "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" realized human justice, but the Golden Rule allows its practitioner to reach the perfection of love. Justice, according to the teaching of Christ, is not the goal at which those who strive for perfection stop. Rather, they go beyond justice to something greater, to grace, forgiveness, and the abandonment of anything that draws a person to the dust that they are from. Perfection is not in justice, but rather in gratuitous love.

The Golden Rule, in contrast to the Mosaic commandment, does not call on people to imitate the people who harmed them, but rather to imitate God and Christ. Returning like for like sometimes means imitating the wicked and returning evil for evil. Thus Christ called his followers to robe themselves in divine virtues and strive for perfection, for divinization: "be merciful just as your Father is merciful", "be perfect just as your Father is perfect"...

Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407) says that nothing causes us to resemble God apart from our preparedness to forgive those who hurt us. In that way we will have acted like God  because God alone has the authority to forgive sins and He called on humans to participate with Him in this authority.

He continues, "If Christ's goal was for man to become god by grace, after God became man, then man must only imitate the Lord Jesus who forgave those who beat Him, crucified Him, and mocked Him."

Therefore, we are not satisfied to be governed by any law other than one law, the law of love, because what we are striving to reach is human perfection, resembling God. Other laws are not sufficient for us and do not match what we aspire to.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Patriarch John X's Sermon at Prayers Held in Damascus for the Return of the Kidnapped Bishops

This sermon was given on the occasion of prayers for the release of the kidnapped bishops held at Holy Cross Church in Damascus, Monday May 20, 2013, in the presence of the papal nuncio to Syria and representatives of all Christian confessions in Syria. As I haven't found an Arabic copy of the sermon yet, below is my translation of Carol Saba's French translation, available in pdf here.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

Beloved, we have now gone with you along our Savior's way of the Cross. We have seen Him in the tomb after His crucifixion, and then risen from the dead, raising us with Him. So let us take Him as the example for each one of us and draw from His glorious life among us a nectar and a perfume that anoint our wounds. Our Lord followed the way of the Cross and the Passion, this way that leads to the Resurrection. The Lord's resurrection is the end of His way of the Cross. The Lord's resurrection is the light that illumines every human person's heart and makes it into a dwelling-place for Christ. Christ's resurrection is that flash of light that disperses the ashes of complacency and discouragement from the embers of our souls. Your resurrection, Lord, is the source of hope in hearts ravaged by despair and in souls left to despondency. The Lord's resurrection is not recognized in souls that ruminate on pains and sorrows. The Lord's resurrection dwells in the souls of those who aspire, out of the bowels of suffering and the shadows of tragedy, to hope. Happy is the rock that concealed the Lord's body. Happy is the tomb that could contain the dead Lord! The Lord's body made its home in the tomb, making it into a heaven, just as it makes its home and dwells in each of us in the Eucharist and brings us up to heaven, making us into the temples of His Holy Spirit. Our hope in this paschal season is that each one of us can follow the example of Christ's tomb, this tomb that welcomed death and brought forth Life, which was in shadows and darkness and became a niche of light. May our spirits follow its example, whatever evils they face, so that the hope of these souls will be placed in the Lord risen from the tomb, who brought forth light for us and for all creation. Let us proclaim with Chrysostom:

Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are annihilated. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and now life reigns. Christ is risen and the tomb is empty of its dead.

I speak to you, with my brothers their beatitudes the patriarchs and the reverend bishops, as reasons for sorrow surround us on all sides. In our beloved country of Syria, dangers threaten our homes and menace human beings in their daily bread, their livelihood, in their dwelling-place and in their life. Every day we are put to the test by murder, by abduction, and by every sort of destruction. Once more, we deplore and denounce the abduction of our two brothers, bishop Paul, Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo and Alexandretta, and Youhanna Ibrahim, Syriac Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo, as well as the murder of the driver who accompanied them. We condemn their not having been freed up to now, despite all the efforts expended for this.

I share with you the pain that all of us feel. But we affirm and state that we are not willing to accept the situation that we are living here and now. We are working to make our refusal of this reality the mirror of our faith. We reject this reality and we condemn it. We are not afraid of those who adopt violence as their way, as we are children of the Resurrection. That we may be killed, that we may be kidnapped, that our homes may be destroyed, all of this will neither affect nor reduce our determination to cling to our citizenship and to coexistence, to cling to our land, and to demand rights and justice in our countries. Thus, each of us, whether in the Antiochian lands or in the diaspora, is called to express his concern, his rejection of the course of events, apart from any political orientation. Christianity's cause is the cause of the human being, for our Savior became incarnate for his salvation.

I will use this occasion to address, in your name-- you who are in the homeland or the diaspora-- an appeal to the international community to encourage it to make every possible effort to bring about the liberation of these captives, whose absence wounds us. Quickly turning this page is extremely important in order to prevent the serious consequences that may result. Our appeal also insists on working to find a rapid solution to the prevailing situation in our beloved country of Syria, out of mercy for this people who bear witness to a civilization coming from thousands of years of human presence, and to prevent effects and reactions that could effect the entire region.

Beloved children, even as we receive the blessings of the glorious Resurrection, let us multiply our prayers and supplications, so that they might be a way of living witness, by which we that God will cast injustice away from all, that the captives may return to their loved ones, that the bereaved may be consoled, and that the heard of heart will be inspired to stop harming their fellow humans.

I ask for constant prayer with a contrite heart, aware that if we are brought into temptation by these trials, we have in God a place of refuge, and also aware that God does not turn away from us. May love, may service, may courage, be an introduction to the joy of the Resurrection, that joy that will not be removed from us. Christ is risen!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Gathering in Beirut in Solidarity with the Kidnapped Bishops

From today's an-Nahar, here.

A Gathering in Sassine Square in Solidarity with the Kidnapped BIshops...
Afram: We Will Not Bow Before the Sword that Slaughters US

The Syriac League and the Council for the Syriac Orthodox Community in Aleppo held a gathering in solidarity and support of the kidnapped bishops Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim in Sassine Square, Achrafiye, Beirut.

Speeches began, at the inititiave of the journalist Pierre Atallah, calling for the release of the two bishops "bearers of the long and great legacy in the Middle Eastern Church." Then the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut, Daniel Kourya, recited a prayer for the two bishops and gave a speech in which he affirmed that "all the wars and struggles will not be able to rip us from our beloved Middle East, the cradle of Christianity. We have a civilization and history. We will not compromise. We will sacrifice our blood for the sake of this Middle East and in order to remain here. I implore God to grant the kidnapped bishops relief, as they are among the most important bishops in the Middle East."

Next, the president of the Syriac League, Habib Afram said, "We are not sheep without agency. We will not bow before the sword that slaughters us. We will not remain silent as we are kidnapped, expelled, and uprooted as though nothing happened. At the least, we are the Christians of Lebanon. Hence we lean on each other apart from any partisan, political, or sectarian alignment." He added, "It has been a month without any certain information. Will men of such importance disappear in this way? We pray, hope, act, and demand every nation and power to apply their influence to helping towards a happy ending. We sense feigned ignorance, inaction, and delay."

He called upon "Lebanon as a state and as civil society to view this kidnapping as a decisive issue for it, and to mobilize its capabilities to obtain the bishops' release." He regards it as "an issue that deserves a presidential initiative from the only Christian president in the region stretching from Morocco to Pakistan."

Participating in the gathering were the Minister of Communications in the caretaker government, Nicholas Sehnaoui, deputies Ghassan Moukheiber, Nadim Gemayel, former Deputy Prime Minister Michel Sassine, general secretary of the Orthodox Gathering, Nicholas Saba, president of the Syriac League Habib Afram, president of the "Lebanese Movement" party, Nabil Mouchantaf, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut Daniel Kourya, assistant to Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim, Fr Joseph Shabo, leaderof the Coptic community in Lebanon, Fr Roueiss Urushalimi, and a host of political, religious, and social personalities.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fr George Massouh on the Church of Scotland's Statement on Palestine

Arabic original here.

The Terrorism of "Divine Right"

Israel has not failed to use any violent means available to put an end to the Palestinian people, the owners of the land. However, they are not satisfied with practicing physical terrorism against the Palestinians—they also practice religious and intellectual terrorism against anyone who dares to cast doubt upon their claim of divine right to the land of Palestine or to cast doubt upon the myth of “God’s Chosen People.”

Jewish religious-intellectual terrorism is based on the Jews considering themselves as possessing the exclusive right to the Bible, the book that the Christians call the Old Testament, and its interpretation. Christianity, in most of its churches, rejects this Jewish monopoly and regards the Old Testament as constituting a basic element of the foundation of the faith, and that it has a special right to interpret it, especially since it includes many prophecies that were realized of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Arab Christians were pioneers in calling attention to the danger of reading the Old Testament literally and to the danger of using it to justify the establishment of the “Jewish state” in Palestine. They confirmed the incorrectness of Jewish exegesis regarding “the Land” and that it essentially contradicts the Christian theological principle of reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, which begins with the coming of Jesus Christ. Any other reading is nothing but a mutilated, distorted reading.

Almost half a century ago, Metropolitan Georges Khodr combatted the movement in the Western church calling for recognizing the Israeli entity as being the realization of God’s promise in the Old Testament. Khodr regarded the entire Old Testament as “having been realized in Christ the Lord… Christ is the temple, the nation, the inheritance, the kingdom, and the king. He is the completion of all the promises… For this reason, any effort to support Zionism with the Old Testament is something completely opposed to the Christian understanding of the Old Testament and is a sort of Judaization.”

Then came the statement “A Moment of Truth”, issued in 2009 by Palestinian Christian personalities in order to declare the falsehood of any theology that justifies the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It states, “Any theology that claims to rely on the Bible, dogma, or history to justify the occupation is far from the teaching of the Church because it calls for violence and holy war in God’s name, makes God subservient to temporal, human interests, and distorts His image in the human being who at the very same time is under political and theological oppression.”

Recently, some Western churches have begun to oppose the “divine right” that the Jews claim in the land of Palestine. The Church of Scotlandstates in a paper that has not yet been adopted that “the divine promise regarding the land of Israel must not be taken in a literal sense. The Old Testament is not supposed to be used to settle the dispute over domination over land.”

Israel was quick to utilize intellectual and religious terrorism against this paper and its issuers, reiterating the Jews’ exclusive right to interpret the Old Testament. The Israeli ambassador in Britain accused the Church of Scotland of spreading “anti-Semitic ideas through its challenging the basis of faith and the Jewish bond to Israel and distorting the basis of Zionism.” This despite the church’s affirmation of “Israel’s right to exist,” since it points out “the oppression of the Palestinian people.”

The church in Scotland made a bold step and we hope that it will be completed. As for the Israeli terrorism that prevents any alternative understanding of the Bible, brandishing the weapon of anti-Semitism, there is no other way to fight it than with more freedom and courage in expressing proper Christian belief.

Holy Synod of Antioch Issues Another Statement on Jurisdiction in Qatar

This is the official translation. While the Patriarchate's new website is still being constructed, official announcements and news are being posted on the Patriarchate's Facebook page, here.

Statement issued by the Holy Synod of Antioch

March 13, 2013

The Fathers of the Holy Synod of Antioch held a meeting on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, in the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand. The meeting was chaired by His Beatitude Patriarch JOHN X. The Fathers discussed the situation arising from the election of Archimandrite Makarios by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem as the “Archbishop of Qatar”, on March 4, 2013. This election is against the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Orthodox Catholic Church. After deliberations and the approval of the Holy Synod Fathers in the Mother lands and abroad (Diaspora), the following statement was issued to be distributed to all the faithful and to all the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches.

The Statement

In the midst of much suffering and pain that our region is going through, His Beatitude Patriarch JOHN X convened the bishops of the Holy Antiochian See in the region and deliberated with the bishops who are abroad (Diaspora) about the hurt that has been caused by the election of Archimandrite Makarios as “Archbishop of Qatar” by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. His Beatitude began the meeting by sharing all the steps that he made as soon as he knew about the issue through the media. After discussing the matter with all the bishops of the Antiochian Holy Synod, His Beatitude sent a verbal message to His Beatitude the Patriarch of Jerusalem and His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch. He then sent a written letter to both primates expressing surprise “regarding the decision of the Holy Synod of Jerusalem to elevate the priest sent to Doha city to the office of the episcopate, giving him the title of the ‘Archbishop of Qatar.’ This has been without any contact with the Antiochian Patriarchate. Qatar falls within the geographical jurisdiction of Antioch. It is the lawful prerogative of Antioch to appoint a bishop to that land, especially since we have a canonical Metropolitan ruling all the Arab Gulf countries, His Eminence Metropolitan Constantine.” His Beatitude pleaded for a reconsideration of this decision, asking “not to allow this episcopal consecration to occur since our Antiochian Apostolic See cannot accept any bishop in its territory, coming from outside its canonical jurisdiction.” He also expressed that, “Our hearts are wide open to meet with you and deal with this subject, and all other matters, fraternally in Christ’s spirit Who alone unites us.”

Since His Beatitude Patriarch JOHN X did not receive any reply to either of his letters, he later on sent a copy of the abovementioned letter to the primates of all the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches. Despite these brotherly efforts and fraternal approach, the consecration of Archimandrite Makarios occurred on Sunday, March 10, 2013.

The Holy Fathers affirmed all the efforts undertaken by His Beatitude and declared unanimously the following position:

1- The decision of the Jerusalem Patriarchate to establish an Archbishopric on a territory which belongs to the Holy Synod of Antioch is, without question, an illegal interference from the Jerusalem Patriarchate in the territorial jurisdiction of the Antiochian Church, thus breaking the ecclesiastical canons that regulate the relationship among Orthodox Churches.

On the other hand, the Orthodox parish in Doha, Qatar, is composed of Orthodox faithful from various nationalities. We are grateful that Archimandrite Makarios provided all necessary pastoral care to this particular parish, but it was a temporary arrangement to facilitate this pastoral activity, no more and no less. This pastoral arrangement cannot be taken as giving any ecclesiastical privilege, of any sort, to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem or to any other Orthodox Church. Again, the Arab Gulf falls under the canonical and ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East.

The Antiochian Church refuses to accept the action taken by the Jerusalem Patriarchate, and will not recognize any bishop on the territory of the country of Qatar outside the authority of the Antiochian Apostolic See, and asks that the Patriarchate of Jerusalem should resolve this matter as soon as possible. The Antiochian Church hopes not to have to take a stand leading to the breaking of communion with the Jerusalem Patriarchate. She also hopes not to have to reconsider the principles governing the Orthodox Church relations and the Geneva agreement which have been set by the preparatory committees of the upcoming Great and Holy Orthodox Synod, especially those dealing with the Orthodox worldwide(Diaspora).

2- The situation which Christians are enduring today encourages us to set aside all that threatens the unity of the faithful and their common witness. The Arab Christians are called to strengthen their intercommunication in order to face the great challenges that threaten their countries, so that they might be the yeast leavening peace and fraternity. The Antiochian Church is aware of Her historic and leading role in the region and elsewhere and will persevere in that role.

3- The continuous disregard of the situation on the ground caused by the consecration of the Archimandrite Makarios as the Archbishop of Qatar will make it inevitable for the Church of Antioch to take certain actions which She is trying to avoid on account of the love that ought to govern the relationship among the Orthodox Churches. Since Love is “patient and kind” (1 Cor. 13:4), and in order to open the way for peaceful efforts to resolve the issues and return them to their natural and canonical state, the Church of Antioch is planning to intensify Her efforts with the Sister Churches in order to explain Her position and work on unifying Her work in facing all the dangers that are threatening the Orthodox Catholic Church.

Issued at the Patriarchal Residence in Balamand March 13, 2013

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Carol Saba to Met. Paul Yazigi

Arabic original here.

To Sayyidna Boulos Yazigi: We Await You, For Christ Is Risen

The feast has passed, beloved Sayyidna, the Feast of the Lord's Pascha, and we await you. It will not escape you, wherever you are, that Christ is risen, since He nests within you. You embrace Him and He protects you. He is the one who raised you up for His people as a shepherd and model for emulation and strength in times of joy and hardship. It is the first time since God put us in constant contact for the service of His Church that I give you a Paschal greeting through the media and not personally by direct communication. My words are not to strengthen you in the trial, since you are at the forefront of the Church's vision and a pioneer in realizing pastoral programs and Christian witness in the world today. I will not strengthen you, since you are firm in upright, holy patience and if the earth shakes below your feet, you realize the Lord's words, "Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you" (John 16:22). Christ, Sayyidna, does not retreat. He grants respite and does not neglect. We, following the words of the Lord, remain firm in hope, realizing what is asked of us here and now. They thought that they had taken you captive. If they bound your hands in captivity as they did with the Lord, you are set free in Christ.  I am not here as an analyst of actors, motives, and beneficiaries, given all the complexity, ambiguity, and lack of clarity of this act. However, as I see it, Sayyidna, it is a major turning point in this fire that is raging in our beloved Syrian land. The target of your kidnapping, you and your companion Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim, is the model of a man who is a bridge-builder, a peacemaker, a man of moderation, openness, and dialog. The target is those who strive to build bridges, bridges of links, connections, and positive cooperation between all the different elements of Syrian society.

The target is the society of coexistence, the society of encounter and interdependence among all elements in a civil state that embraces all in equal rights and responsibilities and preserves diversity that enriches and does not negate. We realize, Sayyidna, that our peaceful witness to Christ risen from the dead is subject to dangers in this tormented Middle East, including persecution. The Lord warned us of this at the Mystical Supper: "the servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20). But He asked us to stand firm with courage and intelligence, that today more than any time in the past our witness might be effective and present: a witness of openness that rejects insularity, a witness of initiative towards the other that rejects retreat, a witness of encounter that rejects division, a witness of dialog that rejects unilateralism in thought, speech, and program, a witness of embrace that rejects any type of negation, a witness of freedom that rejects any type of dominance, the witness of a person who is free and dignified in his life, the witness of unity that admits diversity. The target today is the ability to encounter man and serve him anew, regardless of his religion, creed, or affiliation, to have boldness in national moderation and the refusal to follow sectarian plans and various unilateralisms. You and those like you, men armed with hope, are a danger to them. Your kidnapping is an attempt to hijack the bold line of national moderation, rooted in this Arab Middle East and which always has been and will remain the historic line of the Middle Eastern Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate, for which our beloved Patriarch John X is boldly and firmly working. If sorrow has enveloped his heart in awaiting your return, may our joy be fulfilled and let us complete the journey with you for the sake of a bold and loving witness and a model of openness in which we participate in citizenship with our Muslim brothers to build Arab nations, states, and societies that respect man. Let us make them long for the face of God in our neighbor also. Let us openly remain aware that when adversities are great, so too is hope!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on the Unforgivable Sin

Arabic original here.

Do Not Forgive Them, For They Know What They Do...

Christ the Lord forgave those who scourged and crucified Him. As He was nailed upon the cross, at the apex of His agonizing passion, He turned to God the Father and said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Indeed, they did not realize that their crime was not only that they were killing an innocent man, but that they were doing it in God's name. Despite this, Christ forgave them their double sin, against Him and against God.

The obvious question, however, is: would Christ have asked the Father what He asked had another been hanginging on the cross? We believe that Christ would have acted differently, rising up against them and condemning them.

Did He not condemn the scribes and Pharisees? "Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth" (Matthew 23: 33-35).

Christ forgave those who crucified Him without knowing what they were committing, but He Himself, when He spoke to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion about what would happen to them after His ascension to heaven said, "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you... If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin" (John 15:20-22). As for the sin that cannot be forgiven, it is killing in God's name: "They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God worship" (John 16:2).

Christ asserts that there is a sin that is not forgiven "neither in this life nor in the life to come," the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: " every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him" (Matthew 12: 31-32). What is meant by blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? It is to say of the Spirit of holiness that it is an evil spirit, and of the spirit of evil that it is a divine spirit.

It is interesting that Christ forgives those who commit a sin against Him and thus forgives His crucifiers. However, at the same time He warns those listening to Him against the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the sin of calling evil good and good evil.

There is nothing more horrible than the sin of those who, in God's name kill, commit massacres, and expel people from their homes... And God, here, is not necessarily only the god of any of the religions. He may also be a human whose followers have raised him to the rank of the gods, calling a god an emperor, sultan, king, or president...

They know the crimes that they are committing. They insist on persisting in their transgression, tyranny, and oppression. They are premeditatively crucifying an entire people: elderly, men, women, children, old and young.

They are doing evil and consider it good. They are carrying out the will of Satan and attribute it to God. "They have no excuse for their sin."

Until when, O Lord, until when?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Preview Now Available of Sidney Griffith's The Bible in Arabic

Sidney Griffith's much-awaited book, The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the "People of the Book" in the Language of Islam is now partially available as a preview on Google Books, here.

It can also currently be pre-ordered from Amazon at a pretty big discount, here. The release date is May 26.

I'll make more mention of it once I get my own copy, but the publisher's synopsis reads as follows:

From the first centuries of Islam to well into the Middle Ages, Jews and Christians produced hundreds of manuscripts containing portions of the Bible in Arabic. Until recently, however, these translations remained largely neglected by Biblical scholars and historians. In telling the story of the Bible in Arabic, this book casts light on a crucial transition in the cultural and religious life of Jews and Christians in Arabic-speaking lands.

In pre-Islamic times, Jewish and Christian scriptures circulated orally in the Arabic-speaking milieu. After the rise of Islam--and the Qur'an's appearance as a scripture in its own right--Jews and Christians translated the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament into Arabic for their own use and as a response to the Qur'an's retelling of Biblical narratives. From the ninth century onward, a steady stream of Jewish and Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament crossed communal borders to influence the Islamic world.

The Bible in Arabic offers a new frame of reference for the pivotal place of Arabic Bible translations in the religious and cultural interactions between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

as-Safir on Syrian Christian Refugees in Lebanon

Arabic original here.

Christians: We are being Stoned for No Crime

The kidnapping of the bishops of Aleppo, Paul Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim, in Syria over a week ago was not the chief reason that many of the Syrian Christians displaced to Lebanon have decided to remain there and attempt to secure a visa to any Western country.

The incident was no more than conclusive evidence of the "correctness" of their decision not to return to their homes. They have been made certain that they are a group that is no longer welcome by the "makers" of the revolution and the parties of the conflict.

In public, Syrian Christians talk about the concern over security and blame it for their fleeing and seeking to emigrate. Privately, however, they are terrified of "fundamentalist Salafi rule" that does not allow for any partner in the state or in the general future of the region.

As for partnership in government, this is a dream that they have given up on for some time, even as they mention from time to time that they are the original inhabitants of the land who did not leave their country, neither at the birth of Islam nor at the outbreak of any of the wars that the region has experienced over the course of history.

But today the situation is different from the killing and distruction that they have lived through. This is what has made the distance between the Lebanon to which they fled and their homeland of Syria greater than the distance between Lebanon and any other country. Even if a small number of them express their intention to return, the conditions that they express partially and partially fear to express are almost impossible to connect with the strong intention and repeated efforts, which they have not given up on when they fail, to emigrate far away.

It is still not known if Syrian Christians are the ones who walled themselves in, locking the door to return to Syria while the doors of western countries were shut in their face. Thus there is no country for them to take refuge in apart from Lebanon, which has come to resemble a prison for them. They grasp after a livlihood, and hide in the villages and cities, not only from the hands of the butchers in Syria, but also from any count that might number them.

For this reason, as well as for other reasons, aid is not reaching these refugees in an regular and sufficient manner, while in some cases they fall prey to certain sectarian and civil groups and organizations that  solicit funds in their name without necessarily using it to help them.

Up till the present moment, neither the eastern nor western churches have provided systematic assistance to Christian refugees, neither opening the doors of their monasteries to them nor offering them any of their proceeds. They are only covered in speeches by their leaders that mention the necessity of preserving Middle Eastern Christianity and a diverse Middle East.

Perhaps the churches are waiting are waiting for the picture of the new Middle East that the West is designing to be complete. However, it is certain that Christians have come to realize that they role that they had long thought they had been entrusted with, spreading the spirit of change and democratization in the region, has been taken by other interests, and the winds are blowing in directions their ships do not desire.

No one in Lebanon has precise or comprehensive figures for the number of Syrian Christian refugees there (the number of Christians in Syria is about two million out of a total population of 23 million). 2,777 Christians reguees are registered with the High Commission for Refugees, a total of 0.9% of all Syrian refugees. The Commission knows that the majority are not registered with them. The Syriac League estimates the number of Christian refugees from Syria to be around ten thousand. A small number of them are living in monsteries and small communities, while the majority of them are spread out in citie and villages where they have rented homes or stay with relatives.

Christians have fled from Aleppo and its surroundings, while a smaller number of them has fled from Damascus and nearby areas. Across their various social classes, they think that their stay in Lebanon will be long, because their return to Syria depends on an end to the fighting and the rebuilding of the country. Even though they have their hearts set on emigration, a large number of them are trying to work in Lebanon, as they waver between liquidating their businesses and selling their assets in Syria and holding on to them. In this they are trying to "benefit" from the experience of Iraqi Chrisians and the Copts in Egypt, worrying about "the completion of the process of ethnic cleansing" in the region, according to one of them.

Their situation today resembles that of Saint Barbara, who fled, hiding in fields and deserts, from her pagan father's punishment. Today they wear masks, trying to hide facts and fears. First they change their names and refuse to talk about politics. They even subject the story of their flight to self-censorship, desiring to ensure their future as individuals and not as a group out of the fear that group decisions that they do not want would be imposed on them, such as repatriation or political refugee status.

Class and Options

The majority of Christians fled from Syria on account of their areas being targeted directly, according to Aleppo native Teodoros, while others lingered in their areas "awaiting big decisions." For the Christians, big decisions are those that could lead to their being expelled from the Arab countries, in the manner of the Christians of Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Egypt, after which they no longer experienced being directly targeted.

Those who have grown weary of being shelled flee to Beirut, leaving behind a house, a business, or school... Some of them stay as guests with relatives and friends at first. Their fates differ according to their material circumstances, which already defined for them in principle the possibility of fleeing to Beirut or of remaining and enduring the dangers.

Doctor Raymond, a gastrointestinal specialist who fled from Aleppo to Beirut, says that the poor have no choice and are unable to flee on account of the expense. This is an opinion that not all agree with, since in principle possessions such as real estate are often what makes the decision to flee difficult.

However, Christians' fears have made them immune to these constraints. Financial concerns have not delayed the flight of the poor nor have possessions and employment caused the middle class and wealthy, as they prefer keeping their necks to keeping their livelihoods.

In Lebanon, poor Christians search for a livelihood but are unable to find it, neither through religious sources nor through finding a new employer. They live day by day, the most they can hope for is to be given their daily bread and that the Lord will save them from the evil one.

Wafa recounts that she has neither obtained her bread nor has been saved from the evil one, because the crying of her daughter Layla, who is not yet eight months old, has not reached any ears that listen or hearts that take pity on her. Her mother, who continues to look for work after the death of her husband in Syria, moved between seven locations before taking refuge in a monastery in Keserwan. Lebanese and Syrian men tried to harass her, and her daughter was almost snatched from her, had a passer-by not intervened in the market in Jounieh. He brought her to that monastery where she lives today off of what is provided to her by a charity. However all of this does not keep her from anger at her unknown fate and a future that she no longer has any ability to plan.

By contrast, there are Christian refugees who sought out fancy hotels who were unhappy even with giving up their perfume. They possess the right to decide their own fate, since western countries open their doors to them, especially if they bring along their assets.

"They chased off the specter of the Commission"

The communications director of the Commission, Dana Sulayman, discloses that a team is in communication with a number of bishops and monks to encourage Christian refugees to register with them. She realizes that "they fear that this registration will be interpreted as a specific political affiliation. But it is necessary that we reach those of them that are the most in need."

For them, this is not a convincing reason. Wael, forty and the father of two children, says, "The Commission has indicated in a communique that they do not have sufficient funds to assist the Syrian refugees, so how can they chase after us? Is it only to gather information about us to sell to powerful interests? As long as there is no funding, why should we go to them to wait for months for a bag of rice or a sack of sugar?"

Wael, like the young woman Bana, refuses to rely on the Commission for repatriation in countries of its choice, according to demand and quotas, just as they refuse to change their requests to emigrate to requests for political asylum.

Christians try to be based in Christian regions of Lebanon. Zahle, the Metn, Keserwan, and Beirut have received the lion's share of them. The majority of the needy among them have sought out dioceses and religious charities, and they have received a scant portion as "these organizations cannot provide more than this."

A large number of them have heard about the activity of the organization Caritas, only to learn that this activity is tied to cooperation with the work of the Commission. The head of Caritas in Lebanon, Fr Simon Faddoul, says that of those his organiation has helped through cooperation with the Commission, "92% are Muslim, 4% are Christian, and 2% are other."

Fr Faddoul places the blame first of all on the unregistered Christians themselves for the lack of assistance reaching them, stating that Caritas is a humanitarian organization and does not work according to religion. Among the few groups that work to provide assistance specifically to Christians, one organization that refuses to be mentioned by name indicated that it is in contact with donors that can offer assistance for a period of six months and through this funding they assist around one thousand Christian families. However, those in charge of the organization do not know what will happen to them if funding is not secured to provide continued assistance at the end of those six months.

As for the monasteries and some of the dioceses, they support refugees as they are able and receive funding for this from their flocks abroad.

Likewise, the Syriac League, along with Assyrian and Chaldean groups, are working to form a committee to keep track of the situation of a number of Christians, but their effort is tied to their ability to secure funding according to the League's president, Habib Afram.

Furthermore, a number of organizations seek to exploit the situation of Christian refugees. They count them for aid in exchange for them enrolling with them, but the aid never comes.

It is worth mentioning that the American congressman Frank Wolf visited Egypt and Lebanon and listened to the concerns of Christians there, especially Syrian refugees. He discovered that funds sent through private channels for the aid of Christians had not reached them.

Awaiting the "New Middle East"

No matter how much the words and deeds of western countries differ, a large number of Christian refugees find that events are demanding that they build their future far from the region. They point out the experience of Iraq first of all and then that of Egypt, and they are wary of a new Syrian regime nibbling away at what remains of their role in the country.

Some of them call what is happening persecution and indicate that they will wait in Lebanon until the new picture of the "new Middle East" is completed.

Fr Faddoul states that he cannot talk of persecution of Christians in Syria, despite the kidnapping of the two bishops and before them three priests, since killing and destruction are affecting everyone.

On the other hand, Afram believes that current events are leading to the removal of Christians from the Middle East. He does not believe that any plan exists that includes them or takes them into account, since they are not longer a means for realizing any of the interests of the western countries. He says, "There is no special file on the Christians, either for the Europeans, the Americans, or even the Saudis. We are not on anyone's mind."

The intellectual Fr Michel Sabeh goes so far as to even speak of the absence of a Christian role in the Middle East. "Christians first preserved their role through proposing the project of Arab nationalism in the face of Ottoman arms, then by changing into an effective bridge between the major western countries and Arab oil. But, with the transformation of relations between the West and Islam into direct relations, through the development of Islamic schools and Israel's failure at using Christians as a weapon against Islam, Tel Aviv has found that the solution to being accepted as a religious state is to work to undermine the relatively moderate Arab regimes and to replace them with statelets under Islamic fundamentalist leadership."

Before this reality, Sabeh considers the possibility of Syrian Christians remaining to be dependent on "the victory of a moderate Islam that accepts the other."