Saturday, August 31, 2013

Official Statement from Patriarch John X on the Situation in Syria

This is the official English translation posted to the Patriarchate's Facebook page here.

Statement issued from the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East
Balamand, on 30th August 2013


“I raised my eyes to the mountains where I receive my help.”

Our countries are passing through a difficult phase and challenging circumstances with their peoples being threatened by several dangers. This painful situation in which we find ourselves and in which the lives of many are threatened by killing, kidnapping, forced immigration and the use of weapons of mass destruction, violation of international law, bombs everywhere destroying the security of individuals and home countries and religion being used to implant division between compatriots, make us feel sad. The war continues to threaten our homelands and the possibilities for peace seem to be diminished. In the midst of all these circumstances our Church is well rooted in this land and we insist on certain common principles as the basis for her involvement in public affairs. She demands that international organizations adopt appropriate steps which would promote the protection of the inhabitants of these lands. She invites all interested states to abandon, directly or indirectly, all their private narrow interests in order to help prepare an appropriate context for Syria to arrive at the fundamentals of a political and peaceful solution through the logic of dialogue rather than that of deadly conflict. We also insist on inviting all UN bodies to adopt new approaches to return security to the people of this region who pay a high price as a result of these conditions in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt. We proclaim this loudly to public and international opinion, for the tragedies are repeating unchecked and impinging on every formerly secure house of our cities and villages. We condemn every violation of freedom and every act which harms human dignity. Such a violation is condemned through the logic of the divine instinct implanted in the heart of every single human being, through the logic of Gospel and through the teachings of Christ the Lord, the Messenger of love and peace, as well as through the provisions of international agreements. This is our approach as a Church and as a people facing what is happening now. We do not consider ourselves to be a religious minority and we will not allow anyone to consider us as such, but only through the perspective of national responsibility and full citizenship. We will work with all those of good intention to arrive at one complete national attitude springing from our conventions about man, society and the role of politics in the growth of culture. The kidnapping of our two brothers, the Metropolitans Youhanna (Ebrahim) and Paul (Yazigi) is one of these cases which confronts our citizens and in the face of which we cannot remain without response.

On this occasion we are obliged to remind all that four months has passed since this sorrowful event. This period has been full of guesses, rumours and analysis about the reasons for the kidnapping, the circumstances of their capture and their fate. During these months, our Church has remained in continuous prayer and she has kept on supplicating God Almighty to overshadow them with His mercy. She has done all this with a complete awareness that our behaviour as the faithful living in love and peace, cannot but be in total accord with our faith, well rooted in the cross and deep-rooted in the resurrection. While our hearts and the hearts of our people have been warmed with prayers and supplications for the safe return of the two beloved bishops and all the kidnapped, the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East has done her best by contacting all international and regional channels and by knocking on all ecclesiastical, regional and international doors. In spite of all this, we have not obtained certain and sure information about this deeply human matter in any comprehensive way. We thank all for these efforts engaged in this matter and appreciate all those noble human attitudes and efforts which have shown solidarity and help, although they have not led to the expected goal. The kidnappers, those who are behind them and those who cover their crime, are aware of the bad consequences of this kidnapping of two such Christian people in the region and among its inhabitants.

As a community convicted of her cultural role and being an integral part of the society of this land, we insist on being in total harmony with our historical legacy. We shall therefore remain deep-rooted in this land, always trying to remain as messengers of peace and dialogue. In spite of all, we condemn what has happened and we wonder at the absence of effective efforts to put an end to this painful reality. We also wonder much at the lack of information. We shall plan for continuing rounds of visits aiming to bring a good end to this matter as soon as possible. Silence does nothing but encourage us to demand the immediate release of the Metropolitans, and all those kidnapped. We consider international society to be responsible for putting an end to this situation. We wish also that good efforts might prevail in the entire region. We hear this international society often pretending to cry for Christians in the East and to feel sorrow for what it calls their bad situations. However, we do not need this consolation since our fate in our countries is the same fate as that of our compatriots with whom we have lived in love and harmony for a long time. We do need real assistance to discover the fate of our brothers and we are convinced that the international society has the capacity, if it wants, to resolve this question.
We pray to God to have mercy on those who have died due to this situation; to console the hearts of the sad and to strengthen those passing through tribulation.

May Almighty God protect us with His right hand and give inspiration for a good path ahead.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh: Is Civil Strife Inevitable in Lebanon?

Arabic original here.

Is Civil Strife Inevitable?

When reason is absent and basic instinct reigns, it's useless for a person to be human. What distinguishes a human being from other creatures is nothing other than that he has the free will that God placed as a trust in human beings. As for instinct, which is possessed by all creatures, it is simply an inherent inclination, positive or negative, toward a specific behavior.

A person's humanity is complete only if he is able to tame his instincts and dominate them rather than letting them dominate him. What we are currently witnessing in our country is conclusive evidence for instinct dominating reason. What is happening now confirms that blind prejudice based on stirring up instinct has disabled reason, free will, and logic. Those who are ruled by instinct, then, have lost their humanity.

How long shall instinct control the people of this country? How long shall the children of this country fall like insects sprayed with pesticide? How long shall the people of this country wander like the beasts of the desert in search of shelter and sufficient food? How long shall they carry their homes in bags, homeless, refugees, displaced, emigrants rejecting the soil of their fathers and forefathers? How long shall they be human sacrifices and burnt offerings offered up on the altar of religious extremism?

For most people, religious or sectarian affiliation has become an instinctual affiliation, stripped of any religious values. What is wrong with this country, the cradle of the monotheistic religions, where God, the prophets, apostles, and saints and holy ones are banished-- where hatred replaces love and vengeance replaces mercy? How long shall religion remain a force for division and not for unity with us? How long shall religious affiliation be exploited in order to spread hatred and malice, the murder of innocents in the name of "divine truth"? How long shall wars continue to be stoked in the name of religion?

It is possible to say that our county has entered into a new phase. Without a doubt, it is a time of coming strife. Submission to it is submission to animal instincts that blind reason and foresight. The coming civil strife appears to be an inevitable and irreversible fate. Because it has come to be inevitable, this means that reason has been paralyzed and the heart as become nothing more than a pump for blood.

It says in the Qur'an "God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts" (Surat al-Ra'd 11). This verse makes it unambiguously clear that humans are called to strive to use reason in order to improve their conditions and lives. Islam, as we learned and came to know it, is not a fatalistic religion. Rather, it is a religion that respects reason and respects humankind as "God's vicegerent on earth." The Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib said, "In civil strife be like the suckling camel, without a back to ride or a teat to milk." Since the two sides of the conflict belong to two sects of the same religion, and since "the believers are brothers", we call on them to imitate Abel son of Adam who said to his brother Cain as the latter was intending to kill him, "Even if you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I will not stretch out my hand against you to kill you. I fear God, the Lord of the Universe" (Surat al-Ma'ida 28).

"Civil strife is coming." God has not allowed it. But God will allow it if some of them choose to be like the suckling camel. If they do not strive to change what is in their hearts, God will not change them. Either we shall be Abel or we shall be Cain. That is the tragedy.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on the Attacks on Copts in Egypt

Arabic original here.

Tertullian of Carthage (d. 240), one of the great apologists for Christianity, described that condition of oppressed Christians under the Roman Empire before it recognized their right to exist, "[The pagans] looked at the Christians as the cause of all catastrophes and all national disasters. If the Tiber floods in the City [i.e. Rome], if the Nile floods in the countryside, if the heavens stand still but the earth shakes, if a famine or plague is announced, a voice immediately goes up: let the Christians be thrown to the lions!"

Empires and conditions change, but the need remains for a sacrifice, a burnt offering, a scapegoat.  We cannot exclude any religious state, no matter what religion it belongs to, or any autocratic state from practicing this reckless policy. It has come to be acknowledged that any religious state cannot help but be autocratic. The Christian state, in the time of now-extinct empires, did not offer an exemplary model for dealing with those who disagreed with its religious affiliation.

Recent events in Egypt have shown that the Muslim Brotherhood found burning around thirty churches to be a means for scapegoating. The pretext claimed by those rioting "in God's name" is that the Copts, and at their head Pope Theodoros, supported the removal of president Muhammad Morsi and his Brotherhood regime. However, they ignore the fact that the Sheikh al-Azhar, the most important religious authority in Egypt and the Muslim world, also supported this removal. So why do they not burn al-Azhar or one of the mosques dependent on it? This question is not meant to provoke, which is against our principles and ethics-- it is a request for clarification.

It is no surprise that these events keep pace with certain deviant fatwas. In a fatwa issued by Sheikh Muhammad Abdallah al-Khatib, a member of the guidance council of the Muslim Brotherhood, he states, "If a church is destroyed or collapses, it cannot be rebuilt and it is not permitted to build churches on new sites." The leader of the Salafist al-Daawa in Alexandria, Sheikh Yasir Borhami, explicitly called for "imposing the jizya on the Copts."

The Copts refuse to be the scapegoat for rabble and deviants and they will not be trapped into reacting in a way that harms their interests and their dignity. Pope Theodoros said in response to the church burnings, "If they destroy the churches, then we will pray in the mosques. And if they destroy the mosques, then we will all pray for Egypt in the street." This wise and elegant response unambiguously confirms that the Copts want nothing else other than to be recognized as Egyptian citizens equal to them Muslims, "having what others have and having to do what others have to do" in terms of rights and responsibilities. It is no wonder that many Muslims hasten to defend the churches and their Coptic citizens from those who ignore reason and are led by their base impulses. They believe that the Copts are not just ten percent of Egypt's population, but fundamental partners in citizenship from the dawn of history until the end of time. If we want to translate the expression "the Coptic Church" we find that it means "the Egyptian Church". It is, then, the national Church that lives, exists, and moves on Egyptian soil.

When Christ returns at the end of time, he will find the bells still ringing in the Nile Valley. Amen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Carol Saba on Arab Democracy

Originally published in an-Nahar August 13, 2013. Arabic original available here.

Is There a Coming Arab Renaissance?

"Our wars over heaven have caused us to lose the earth!" This visionary statement attributed to Antoun Saadeh concisely summarizes the Arab scene today, floundering through the erroneous policies that persisted over the course of the twentieth century.

Deadly authoritarian politics have caused Arab societies and their nations-- which are rich in human, civilizational, and natural treasures-- to lose their national awareness, their humanitarian sensibility, societal immunity, and the ability to position themselves as a civilization in the world today. But instead of progressing with modernity towards actualizing Arab strategic potential, following the model of plans for European unity that are constructing a European nationality without eliminating the nations within it, Arab progress since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has gradually been towards a hell of various authoritarianisms.

Instead of building secure societies and strengthening them through national cohesion and democracy,  there were coups, militarization, and "security regimes" that killed off diversity, freedom, and democracy. Some of them claimed secularism, nationalism, progressivism, socialism, republicanism but in the end wound up being ideological fronts for rule by personality cults. There are those that tried to yoke politics to religion, which resulted in stoking sectarian prejudices and attempts to bring back a long-gone past of religious empires, gradually isolating us from the rest of the world.

Instead of cultivating Arab civil societies and supporting them with the concept of citizenship that canonizes positive cooperation among all elements of society with equality of rights and responsibilities, making the Arab intellectual space, capabilities, and gifts into a driving civilizational force for the future, there was a gradual slide into military societies which colonized the present Arab space and weakened it through successive wars against internal and external enemies. Then came states of emergency, ideologies of security, national and nationalistic mystification, the systematic killing off of democracy, elites and the open-minded middle class, the establishment of political personality cults and oligarchies.

All these regimes failed to build firmly-established Arab societies that are aware of the challenges facing them and gather all capabilities. They did not preserve and develop civil peace internally and they did not defend their territory, geographically or existentially, from outside enemies. They were neither capable of waging war effectively or of imposing a just and dignified peace. We will not justify other countries' policies and interests, since they have long been lying in wait to seize our land and resources. But did Arab societies not give their castigator a whip in order to beat them with it? The Arab world was crushed last century and continues to be because of the failures of the "Arab crisis of governance" and its seven myths: republicanism, nationalism, liberationism, socialism, revolutionism, historicalism, and the myth of the regime about which the great Ghassan Tueni lectured at the American University of Beirut in 1967-- and his analysis is still correct.

The crisis is still raging and the Arab scene is in a total state of flux: growing division, structural conflict, persistent fragmentation, anxious vacillation, religiosity devouring religion and destroying the spiritual quality of faith: forgiveness and acceptance of the other.

The Arab Spring has revealed Arab sins and failures, both on the part of the regimes and the oppositions. All do wrong against all. Instead of us having a progressive vision of Arab national security that is intelligent and modern like in Europe, for the common greater good of all nations of the Arab family, we have become sects that fight each other for dominance over a shattered Arab geography, whose strategic scope has become limited to plazas and squares.

The Arab world missed the opportunity to enter into modernity at the beginning of the last century. Political sectarianism and prejudices grew, dismantling the state and national sentiment, turning us into sects that slaughter each other in the name of heaven and causing us to lose the ability to preserve the land, the people, and the nation. The crisis today is not the crisis of a pact for coexistence between religions-- in its essence, it is a crisis over the system of government. The Sheikh al-Azhar stands together, hand in hand, with the Coptic Pope to demand a state where all have equal rights and responsibilities.

It is a crisis of governing culturally and religiously diverse societies in which the government must embrace all, which requires the separation of religion from the state. This is possible in Islam, since al-Azhar says that it is possible to separate religious law from the law of the state; it is necessary in Christianity, which calls for leaving that which belongs to Caesar to Caesar and that which belongs to God to God. The Arab renaissance is possible if informed Arab elites realize that political sectarianism is the illness and that the cure is secularizing the state without secularizing society. It is now impossible for renewed authoritarian regimes to remain in the Middle East in the mold of a modern state, whether religious or radically secular and enimical to religion, whether arising from electoral legitimacy in a purely numerical democracy or from a quasi-military revolutionary legitimacy. The need today in our diverse Arab societies is for a system of governance that intelligently combines numeric democracy and consensual democracy and for building a civil democratic state that practices an open secularism, opening a single public square for all where the person and his rights are respected as a citizen.

The renaissance begins with recognizing that religious and cultural diversity is the constitutive element of Arab societies and that consequently these societies cannot be governed by the logical of numerical majorities, even if they triumph at the ballot-box. Rather, they must be governed with a logic of preserving diversity, protecting civil peace, developing habits of citizenship and the principle of equality of rights and responsibilities for all. Only then will we truly be builders of a sustainable, effective, and pioneering Arab national influence, not for the limited, teetering Arab "authorities" in the squares.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Patriarch John X's Sermon for the Feast of the Dormition

This translation is unofficial, but I have not come across any official translation. Arabic original here.

Brothers and loved ones,

The Virgin, whose assumption into heaven we celebrate today, never imagined that she would one day enter into the chamber of everlasting glory in this manner. It never crossed the mind of the daughter of Joachim and Anna that from the threshold of the temple she would cross the threshold of Paradise and have mastery over the angels of heaven. She never once thought from behind the temple veil that the veil of the heavens would be rent at her merely saying, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." When Mary entered the Lord's temple as a young girl, it never occurred to her that she would rise above the shoulders of the seraphim with just three words, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." The angel came to her to bring news that she would give birth to Emmanuel, so she asked him, "How can this be when I have not known a man?" There was no hint of doubt in her question and no opposition. The angel said to her, "The power of the Most High will overshadow you and the one to be born of you is the Son of God." She responded, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me as you say." This means, "May it be God's will and not my will." It is as though she anticipates the prayer of her son Jesus, who after thirty years would teach us the same thing: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done." At this time, the Virgin did not know that with her three words she would knock at the gate of divine compassion and the spring of divine mercy would stream forth for humankind. In a manger in Bethlehem, the Virgin laid her child as a storehouse of love for all humankind. In Bethlehem, the Virgin caused the noetic sun of righteousness to shine forth to the world and from there she followed that sun at every stage of His earthly life until His ascension to the Heavenly Father. The Virgin Mary is the daughter of this human clay that was kneaded with humility and purity, so she provided a blameless dwelling-place for the Word.

The Lord's resurrection is also our resurrection. The Lord's resurrection is the storing-up of virtue and effacement in humility. This is the condition of the Virgin Mary, who did not know that by her saying "Behold the handmaid of the Lord" she would be the first of those who follow the way of resurrection and victory. How could she know this, when she was a simple girl, robed in shyness, who avoided glories and triumphs as much as she could? However, she was never ignorant of the fact that the Lord is generous and inundates from the well of His goodness and benevolence. Mary opened to us the path of the resurrection and so her Son did not leave her to be a prisoner of death. From the temple of Jerusalem to the manger of Bethlehem, to the wedding at Cana of Galilee and thence to the passion, resurrection, and ascension, Mary knew the essence of the true resurrection. She knew that the way of the resurrection is seized by imitating God's will, purifying the soul, and protecting it from the clutches of temptation and vice. The Lord's resurrection is within her, the first person that He made worthy to be a witness to the resurrection of her Son. Thenceforth, from the empty tomb, Mary became the model for fallen humanity to learn from her that humbleness of soul and her following the will of the Most High Lord, leaving aside her own will, is what raises her above the ranks of everlasting glory and adorns her with the true resurrection. Because Mary is the firstborn daughter of the resurrection, the Lord God transported her, soul and body, to be with Him. How not, when she is the one who caused Him to shine forth, light unto light, life unto life, a flash of radiance to enlighten those floundering in utter darkness?

We ask you, O holy Virgin, who was transported by your Son to the chamber of His eternal glory on this day, from this church that has born your name over the ages, to protect all the souls that have basked in the shade of your holy protection. We ask you to intercede before your Son and our God to look down from upon His cross and have pity on your children in Syria and all the world. We ask you to ask Him as you asked Him in Cana of Galilee to fill the vessels of our souls with the wine of His divine consolation. We ask you to wipe away the tears of the sorrowful, to return our country to her original splendor, and to envelop her in the shadow of your protection that never falters. We ask you from within the Maryamiyya Church to entreat the compassion of your Son who hangs upon His cross of glory, that He may anoint with the balm of His divine love souls whose eyes are burdened with tears and a country whose limbs have been torn apart by violence. We ask you to heal sorrowful hearts and return the captives, first among them Metropolitans Boulos and Youhanna. We ask you to embrace our departed with your warm bosom and to bring them near with motherly boldness to the bosom of your Son. We ask you to enter into the cave of our souls, just as you entered into the cave in Bethlehem, and place there an outpouring of the light of your Child, so that he may change our souls into a niche of light for the entire inhabited world. We ask you to place in the manger of our faltering souls a glimmer of divine consolation, just as you placed in the manger of Bethlehem the bottomless well of solace and mercy, Jesus. We ask you to pray from the height of your glory just as you prayed with Jesus' disciples and heal the hearts of those who are called after His name with the sweet balm of your consolation. We ask you, by the Church of John of Damascus, chief of those who compose praises to you, to envelope the children of Damascus with the abundance of your protection and to provide this good country with a breath of your Son's peace. To Him be glory and exaltation forever, amen.

Fr Georges Massouh on Church Authority

Arabic original here.

The Church and Church Authority

Church history shows us that the leaders of the Church-- patriarchs and bishops throughout the inhabited world-- have on many occasions unanimously agreed on a single opinion that later proved to be incorrect. This erroneous consensus would only be corrected after years of theological debates and conflicts, which at times led to bloodshed. The consensus of the Church is not in itself the gauge for distinguishing truth from error, but rather the Church's acceptance-- by both the leadership and the laity-- of this consensus over the course of history is the sole gauge for truth.

Consensus alone is not enough to be considered infallible, but rather this consensus must agree with correct doctrine in order to be considered acceptable in the Church. Thus the Church has abrogated decisions made by certain councils that in their own time were called "ecumenical" or "universal" in which the majority of the world's bishops participated. After these councils had considered themselves ecumenical, the Church subsequently considered them to be "robbers' councils" whose teachings contradicted the true teachings of the Church.

In the seventh century, the churches in the East and the West agreed to adopt the doctrine of "one divine will in Christ." However, a monk named Maximos (d. 662) opposed it, saying that this doctrine contradicts correct belief. Peter, the Patriarch of Constantinople, summoned him and asked him, "To which church do you belong? To Constantinope, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, or Jerusalem? All these churches are united, so if you belong to the Catholic Church, you must adhere to our belief, so as not to be in heresy."

Maximos responded, "God, the Creator of Being, has shown that the Catholic Church is the one that correctly bears witness to Him." Then Peter excommunicated him and banished him from the Church if he did not support the consensus. Maximos responded firmly and confidently, "That which God determined from eternity is summarized by what I am saying." In other words, Saint Maximos declared that he and he alone was the Church in the face of an erroneous consensus.

The emperor Constans II ordered Maximos' tongue and right hand to be cut off and then banished him to the Caucasus, where he died. Thus the Church has given him the title "the Confessor" on account of the persecutions and torments that did not cause him to retreat from his position, but rather rooted him all the more firmly in it. Maximos was reconsidered when the Sixth Ecumenical Council was held in 681, nineteen years after his death, and declared the error of the previous consensus and the truth of Maximos' belief.

If those in charge of the churches sometimes make mistakes about essential matters and in defining doctrine, such as the error that Maximos opposed, then doubtless they may err in less important matters that do not touch upon the essence of Christian faith or fundamental doctrines. In this case, some of them should not slip into accusing others of unbelief or of departing from the faith and some should not slip into accusing others of fundamentalism and practicing takfir...

Outside the framework of settled doctrine and that which pertains to correct belief, Church authority cannot exercise its authority, especially in a matter that pertains to those who do not belong to the Church. When we say "Church authority", we mean to distinguish it from "the Church", the People of God. Church authority is within the Church, not above the Church, and so God is not the prisoner of Church institutions and their authority. He is free in relation to them and-- praise God!-- He is not bound by their decisions and commands. Indeed, God is greater.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

as-Safir on the Kidnapped Bishops

UPDATE: as-Safir has published a much-expanded version of this article, which has been translated into English here.

Arabic original here. Thanks to a reader for passing this article along to me. Naturally, the information should be taken with a serious grain of salt, but the political analysis is good.

Two disappeared bishops or two martyred bishops. And what is the connection of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio and his mission of mediating with the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" in Raqqa in order to clarify their fate, his disappearance, and perhaps his murder?

There are two hypotheses about what happened to the metropolitans of Aleppo, Greek Orthodox Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Youhanna Ibrahim, though there has been no material evidence until today that would confirm one hypothesis and eliminate the other.

Information from sources independent of each other leans toward the second hypothesis, that that two bishops were killed before the end of last May, a month after their kidnapping near Aleppo. The source of the information is inquiries made by elements of the "Free Syrian Army" close to the "Ninth Division" in Aleppo, formerly called "Ansar al-Khilafa" [Supporters of the Caliphate] and another inquiry conducted by Arab security agencies via Turkish intelligence.

According to Syrian opposition military sources, the kidnappers killed one of the bishops a few days after the abduction, while the second was killed in May. However, the Arab security source says that during a meeting two months ago with officials from Turkish intelligence to discuss the nine Lebanese hostages, the question of the kidnapped bishops' fate was raised and the Turkish security official tersely replied that they had been killed.

Over the past day, discussion of the two bishops has intensified in the media, when the Turkish foreign ministry itself was forced to deny the presence of the bishops on Turkish territory. The Turkish followed a letter last week from the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus calling on all sides to clarify their positions regarding the two bishops, who had been kidnapped some hundred-odd days earlier, without intervening parties from any of the sides being able to find even the start of their trail or any intermediary leading to the kidnappers.

Attention has focused on Turkish intelligence because of their proximity to all the kidnapping operations-- every one of which has taken place within a few kilometers of their crossing the Turkish border into Syrian territory, whether they are Lebanese, Syrian, European, or of any other nationality.

Numerous sources agree that the group "Jund al-Khilafa" [Army of the Caliphate] led by Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti carried out the bishops' kidnapping last April 22, minutes after their passing through a "Free Syrian Army" checkpoint in Mansoura, three kilometers from the northern entrance to Aleppo.

According to experts on Syrian jihadism the kidnapping group, made up of eight Chechens, belongs to  Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti's group, which until a few months ago was known as "Jund al-Khilafa" before changing its name to "Liwa' al-Muslimin" [Banner of the Muslims]. Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti leads a group of foreign fighters, including 200 Chechens. Al-Kuwaiti is of Shi'i origin, but his father converted to Sunnism. His real name is Husayn Lari and he has pledged obedience to Muhammad al-Rifa'i, one of the leaders of "Afghan Jihad" residing in London, as caliph of the Muslims.

What happened before the kidnapping and did the bishops fall into a trap that had been prepared for them? Had the trap been prepared for Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim alone and not for Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi, since Yazigi's presence in the silver Kia Cerato  beside Metropolitan Ibrahim had not been decided until a few hours earlier, and that purely by chance? In the case of Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim, his presence in the area was normal within his network of connections.

The issue of the bishops has not received a serious inquest that could lead to negotiations with the kidnappers. Instead, from the very beginning it followed the path of political accusations without any evidence, first against the regime. This allowed ransom profiteers to start attempting to make contact with the kidnappers ahead of the Church, the Syrian National Committee, or the Free Syrian Army.

One of the ironies of this affair is that statements have been issued by all sides with the exception of the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" which has kept silent and has not responded to any of the calls from the opposition Syrian National Council or from activists in Northern Syria to clarify the fate of the bishops and of the other kidnapping victims.

In a statement to the Italian news agency Aki, assistant director of the Vatican press office Father Ciro Benedettini denied any knowledge on the part of the Vatican of Father Dall'Oglio's having been killed, expressing his hope that "the issue will be resolved positively in the quickest possible time."

In related news, the London-based, rebel-connected Syrian  Observatory for Human Rights claims that Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, an outspoken supporter of the rebels, was killed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the local al-Qaeda franchise. Read about it here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on the Transfiguration

Arabic original here.

The Divine Transfiguration

"Christ is the light of the world" is an expression summarizing the whole of the divine purpose behind the event of the Transfiguration which Christians commemorated yesterday. He identifies Himself by saying "I am the light of the world... he who follows Me does not walk in darkness but has the light of life." Thus the Gospels present Him as an eternal light that leads those who walk under His guidance to eternal life. 

The Gospel account speaks of Christ going up to Mount Tabor with three of His disciples and "He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun as his clothes became as white as the light." This event happened immediately after the Apostle Peter's confession that Jesus is "Christ, the Son of the Living God." Peter, according to the Gospel, did not make this confession on his own, since Christ told him that "it is not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but rather My Father in heaven." Thus, the Transfiguration is the completion of divine revelation through divine prophecy, and is a confirmation of it.

It is noteworthy in the event of the transfiguration that the light did not come from outside to illumine Christ. Instead, the light came from Him and illumined His companions. Since He is the Son of God made man, "the ray of His glory and the image of His essence", this divine light was manifest through His humanity. Thus human nature became the dwelling-place of God and of His eternal, uncreated light. Thus the Orthodox Church believes that the divine light or, in other terms, the divine grace, that God pours out upon humankind, is uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit Himself.

In the event of the Transfiguration, the prophets Elijah and Moses appear "speaking with Him." This is an indication that that which was prohibited to the two of them and to tall people in the Old Covenant, beholding Him, has become possible upon the face of Christ. "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" and thus the longing of Moses and Elijah to see God was realized in their seeing Christ. They saw God, who spoke to the prophets of old without their seeing Him. Thus through the transfigured Christ God Himself appears.

Their are two appearances of God as the Holy Trinity in the New Testament. The first appearance occured at Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan, when John the Baptist saw "the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon Christ, and a voice from heaven saying 'this is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.'" The second appearance happened at the Transfiguration, when "a luminous cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him.'"

In the Old Testament, a cloud symbolizes  God's presence among His people. In this context, the Apostle Peter who was present at the event of the Transfiguration, bears witness in his second epistle to this divine presence when he says, "For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.' And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:17-18).

The Evangelist John does not give an account of the Transfiguration. However, his gospel is full of verses that point to the meanings of the Transfiguration, especially th verses that talk about light's triumph over darkness. This struggle between light and darkness or between good and evil is ongoing, perhaps until the end of time. But the world has judged itself because "the light came into the world and people preferred darkness to the light because their works were evil."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Downloadable Dissertation on Ottoman Relations with the Arab Orthodox Patriarchates

Relations between the Ottoman central administration and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria: 16th-18th centuries

Çolak, Hasan (2013)
Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham

This dissertation is of very high interest because it is, to my knowledge, the only treatment of the subject by an Ottomanist, using Ottoman archives. It does much to dispel the idea that the Ottoman government treated these patriarchates as totally under the authority of Constantinople....

Abstract: This dissertation seeks to understand the relations between the Ottoman central administration and the Eastern Patriarchates. Against the current literature submitting these patriarchates to the authority of the Constantinopolitan patriarchs in the period following the Ottoman conquest, we suggest that such exclusive focus on the role of the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate prevents one from seeing the true networks of power in which the Eastern Patriarchates were engaged. To that end, in addition to the major patriarchal and missionary sources a large corpus of unpublished and unused Ottoman archival documentation has been consulted. During the first centuries of the Ottoman rule the Eastern Patriarchs benefited largely from the local Ottoman legal and administrative bodies, semi-autonomous provincial rulers, and foreign courts. In early 18th century, alongside the rise of Catholic missions among the Orthodox flock and hierarchy, and of a wealthy and powerful lay class supported by the central administration, a patriarchal elite class with close affinities to Istanbul began to interact with the Eastern Patriarchates. Getting closer to the offers of the central administration, in both administrative and economic terms, these patriarchates’ relations which were formerly dependent on local and foreign dynamics were largely replaced by the new networks supported by the central administration.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh on the Nature of Tradition

Arabic original here.

Between Tradition and Reasoned Interpretation

There are those who believe that the venerable tradition of the Church is transmitted by the faithful from generation to generation without utilizing their mind or making effort according to social and cultural changes and without taking historical context into consideration.

Tradition is not merely receiving what Christian thought has produced over the ages. Being a living tradition, it is also bringing it up to date so that it is appropriate to the circumstances. It is subject to interpretation, addition, and revision. This a distinction must be made between that which is essential and unchanging within it on the one hand and that which is unessential and mutable on the other. A lack of distinction between these two things may lead to a deadly rigidity and a literalism that eliminates the true spirit of faith.

The only things that are fixed in tradition are the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, and dogma as decided by the ecumenical councils. As for canons, rituals, and arts, they are, at least in theory, subject to modification. In saying this we are not necessarily calling for their modification today. If we take, for example, the question of choosing bishops from among married priests, we find that until the seventh century the Church did not reject the consecration of married bishops. In theory, then, there is nothing to prevent us from returning to this tradition once more, if the Church deems it necessary to revive what was in the past the predominant practice.

Not all tradition is fixed. Additions have been made to it over successive eras of the Church's history. If it were fixed, then we would be content with what was produced by the first generation of Christianity as it grew, the age of the Apostles. But since tradition was not closed off at a specific point in time, this means that it is capable of absorbing that which is good in every place and time, as long as the Church accepts and adopts it. This has happened in numerous circumstances through history.

The Church believes the the living Jesus Christ guides His Church through history. She believes that He is present in His body, which is the Church, and is active within it. This truth of the faith applies in every place and time. This is tradition that goes back to the apostles and has been transmitted from generation to generation and there is the real presence of the Lord that accompanies the Church along her path through history, which causes her to not fear keeping pace with changes that are in line with the essential foundations of the faith.

Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (d. 202), wrote "This faith that was passed down in the Church is the same one that we preserve. This faith, which comes from the Spirit of God, resembles a treasure in a precious vessel that continually renews itself. This causes the vessel that bears it to be renewed in a similar fashion... Where the Church is, there too is the Spirit of God and every grace. The Spirit is the truth." Thus the Church must be constantly renewed without hesitation, fear masquerading as concern for tradition, so long as the treasure is within her.

Tradition is not frozen. It is alive because Christ is alive in His Church. Tradition is not frozen because it is guided by the Holy Spirit. Khomiakov (d. 1860), one of the renewing Russian Orthodox theologians, believed that the Orthodox people themselves bear the Holy Spirit, who is the principle of tradition. Tradition is not merely the process of transmitting what is old. It is a living connection that is only lived in the communion of the Church. Thus, tradition cannot but be the work of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the fullness of truth. Yes to reasoned interpretation.