Thursday, February 27, 2014

Fr Georges Massouh on Forgiveness

Arabic original here.

He Who Forgives Resembles God

This coming Monday begins the path of Great Lent, at the end of which Christians greet the glorious feast of Easter, the feast of Christ's resurrection from the dead. Before this, the Church reminds her children through her choice of texts from the Gospel for the four Sundays preceding the fast that its purpose is nothing other than the acquisition of the Christian virtues, the most important of which are humility, repentance, love and forgiveness.

This coming Sunday is Meatfare Sunday, and the Church has chosen to give it the name "Forgiveness Sunday". On the eve of the fast, the faithful are called to heed the Lord and act according to His words, "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15).

In his commentary on these verses, Saint Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) warns the faithful of the necessity of adhering to the requirements for God forgiving them, which is their forgiving those who do them wrong. He says, "He will forgive our sin just as we forgive those who do us wrong, with the knowledge that we cannot obtain forgiveness of our sins if we do not forgive in return those who do us wrong."

Before asking for forgiveness, one must acknowledge that he is a sinner and that he is in need of God's mercy. In this context, Saint John the Theologian says, " If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9). Cyprian comments on this saying by affirming that the faithfuls' minds must continue to realize these sins, lest one become pleased with himself and indulge in self-flattery.

The tradition of the Church affirms that the Lord's Prayer is useless if the one praying it does not intend to forgive those who have done him wrong. Some saints have even gone so far as to say that it is better for one not to pray the Lord's Prayer if he lacks forgiveness within himself. How can one praying say "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" and then violate this rule by not forgiving those who ask him for forgiveness? He must forgive if he wants God to pardon the sins and iniquities he has committed.

"Nothing makes us resemble God apart from our readiness to pardon the wicked and the unjust," says Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407), that is, it is for God alone to forgive sins. So if Christ's teachings to His followers is the ideal path for a person to actually become in the image and likeness of God, then He must do what God does. There is nothing that makes someone resemble God more than forgiving those who do him wrong. Then Chrysostom warns of the consequences of not forgiving and says, "How severe is the punishment deserved by those who, after everything, do not forgive but rather beg God for vengeance against their enemies!"

The tradition of the Church is unanimous in saying that the purpose of Christ's becoming man is for man to become god by grace, after God having become man. So there is nothing that man must do other than imitate Christ who forgave those who beat, crucified and mocked Him. The coming fast is an opportunity we should seize, so let us practice humility, repentance, love and forgiveness. These four pillars cannot stand one without the others and if one of them falls, they all fall.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Met. Ephrem (Kyriakos) on the Divine Liturgy

Arabic original here.

The Divine Liturgy: The Sacrament of Thanksgiving

The most important prayer that we give to God is prayer of thanksgiving. The Divine Liturgy is the prayer of thanksgiving par excellence. Why? Because the best thing we can thank God for is His divine sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of our souls. "It is meet and right to praise Thee, to bless Thee and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion... Thou brought us out of nothing into being... For all of these things we give thanks to Thee... for all things of which we know and of which we know not, whether manifest or unseen..."

We do not give thanks to God only for money. We do not thank Him only for health. Health is not always useful and it does not always bring us closer to God. We also say in Liturgy, "We thank Thee for this divine sacrifice which Thou hast found worthy to accept at our hands..." The most important thing that happened in history was the divine sacrifice on the cross.

The divine liturgy is a wedding, wherein we are united to Christ by means of the Gospel and of partaking. It is a spiritual wedding where we pray that we may feel that we are poor before God. This is the most important grace that God gives us.

In Greek we call it the Eucharist, that is the giver of every grace.

The reason for coming to the liturgy is faith, thanksgiving, and giving praise and glory. We might not understand everything that is said and everything that happens at the liturgy. The encounter with the Lord amidst the assembly of the faithful, this is what is most important. There we share in the Lord's table.

We do not remain isolated in our homes. In Greek we also call partaking "koinonia", which means "society" or "communion". There is no private liturgy for a particular family. We are always together.

When someone says that "the liturgy is private", this does not mean anything in the Church's understanding. The sacrament of baptism, the sacrament of marriage, all the sacraments were performed with the community at the divine liturgy, as was priestly ordination. The priest does not perform the divine sacrifice alone. The priest stands as a representative in the presence of God, bearing with him the community and the world because the liturgy is the lifting up of the entire universe. Here is the entrance into the eternal kingdom of the Trinity.

"Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen...." This is how we would like our days to be, filled with God's presence. The believer is always reaching upwards, from earth to heaven, from bodily things to spiritual things. This is his ongoing struggle. It is the constant motion as long as we are in the body, estranged from God, until God reigns over our hearts in the kingdom of His love. When the believers taste the Gospel and the body of the Lord, they place themselves between the first coming and the second coming.

In sum, beloved, let all come to the divine liturgy and taste how good the Lord is!

Syria Comment on Christian Militias in Syria

Read the entire, very detailed article by Ayman Jawad al-Tamimi here.


Christian militia and political dynamics in Syria are by no means as simple as notions that all Christians side with the regime or look to the regime as their protector. As we have seen, sect affiliation and geography matter here, and divisions in alignments are particularly sharp in northeastern Syria.

However, one common thread is apparent: the rebel forces on the ground have overwhelmingly failed to attract Christian support for their cause, however many Christians may be in the opposition-in-exile. Christians on the ground look to the regime, Kurds or have formed their own independent groupings generally working with the latter while opposed to the regime, but they have not joined the various FSA-banner formations or other main rebel groupings in significant numbers. One of the biggest failings of the rebels in this regard is the degree to which they have allowed jihadi groups to grow, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

Of these two groups, the former is still the subject of much praise from rebels of all kinds in light of the fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups. Though Jabhat al-Nusra has been hailed as somehow magnanimous towards Christians because it protected the churches in Raqqa following the fall of the city to rebels in March 2013, this narrative is deeply flawed.

As al-Qa’ida envisions it, preventing Christian places of worship from being harmed is to be expected provided Christians accept second-class dhimmi status as accorded by Qur’an 9:29. Even once ISIS came into being in Raqqa, the churches were not harmed for some months. That they were eventually taken over by ISIS and converted into da’wah offices is simply the culmination of the dwindling of the Christian community in the city to negligible size. Indicative of the importance of dhimmi status is the case of Tel Abyad, which saw its Armenian church desecrated by ISIS on the grounds of violation of dhimmi conditions.

Elsewhere, al-Qa’ida’s ideals have not always translated into reality. In Tabqa, the situation was somewhat different, as desecration and looting of Christian property, with the destruction of local churches, began in earnest once rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra took over the city. This happened, it should be noted, before the announcement of ISIS. In any event, Jabhat al-Nusra was also a participant in the Sadad massacre of Christians, and is accused by the Syriac Military Council of being behind the burning down a specific church in Qamishli countryside. Simply blaming any abuses that happen against Christians on ISIS- typically characterized as a foreign-dominated group- is a distortion of the record that diverts attention from the rebels who abetted the rise of the jihadi groups.

Linked to the point on the growth of jihadi groups is another key rebel failing: namely, the obsession with the YPG [i.e., the main Kurdish militia in Northeast Syria, the Syrian military wing of the PKK] as a supposed agent of the regime and the desire to take over its areas of control. Whatever the supposed rights or wrongs of the YPG, strategically for the rebels, fighting with the YPG has proven to be merely a waste of resources, particularly on the Hasakah front. Even now, the fighting with the YPG produces an odd cognitive dissonance in the discourse of rebels and pro-FSA-banner activists in particular: namely, despite the fact that ISIS-widely accused by FSA-banner rebels and their supporters of being a regime agent- dominates the rebel front in Hasakah province, there is nonetheless condemnation of the YPG as it makes advances against ISIS, with accusations of the YPG being a regime agent.

Thus did prominent pro-FSA Twitter activist “Jad Bantha” decry the “pro-Assad YPG Kurdish militias” for a supposed “massacre in Tal Barek [Tel Barak].” Unless one wants to suppose an elaborate game devised by the regime to set its agents off against each other, one wonders how it can be claimed, as Bantha constantly tries to insinuate, that ISIS is a regime agent if it is fighting the YPG, a supposed agent of Assad (and indeed, unlike ISIS, the YPG does have a de facto though nebulous territorial accommodation with the regime in Qamishli). Yet this hostility to the YPG extends beyond the realms of social media: one should note the opposition-in-exile’s condemnation of the YPG for the takeover of the border town of Yaroubiya despite the fact that the takeover involved the expulsion of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The point is that this enduring rebel hostility to the YPG- when considered along with the growth of the jihadi groups- has prevented the reaching of any kind of cordial understanding with the YPG and the PYD, which in turn might have been able to persuade more Christians in the east of Syria of the validity of the rebel cause. Instead, all that has happened is the boosting of the PYD’s and regime’s status as protectors of Christians.

Thus far, the current attempts in opposition circles to try to counter the regime’s narrative of its being protector of Christians consist of pointing to incidents of regime bombing that have struck Christian areas and led to damage of churches. One example is the bombing of Tel Nasri in Hasakah province in November 2012, which damaged the village church. However, the opposition counter-narrative is ultimately unconvincing and hardly equates to a supposed persecution campaign against Christians by the regime, for the incidents in question are exceptional in nature, and merely reveal that the regime has scant regard for civilian casualties or historical heritage sites when it bombards areas in attempts to flush out rebels. One should compare with the regime’s willingness to bombard the Krek des Chevaliers area to rid it of Jamaat Jund ash-Sham, which uses the site as a base.

Of course there would still be Christians supporting the regime- particularly among the senior clergymen- regardless of whether the rebels strike an accord with the PYD, but to state it more generally, the most sensible policy for rebel groups to pursue would be simply to leave Christian areas alone (just as they should leave Druze areas alone), though given the overall lack of rebel unity and the prominence of jihadi groups, it seems doubtful whether such an approach can be implemented at this stage.

Israel Declares Christian Palestinians to be non-Arab

Read the whole article, by Yazan al-Saadi in al-Akhbar, here.

Israel’s legislative branch, known as the Knesset, passed a controversial bill into law that defines 1948 Christians Palestinians as “non-Arabs”, Israeli media reported.

The new law – passed on Monday with a vote of 31 in favor and 6 against – for the first time differentiates Christian Palestinians from the rest of the Palestinian community, who had survived the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing by Zionist forces, and remained within the 1948 territories.


Arab members of the Knesset unanimously condemned the bill as a “racist” act and a “divide-and-conquer” tactic.

"Colonialists try to separate groups of natives. The prime example of this is South Africa," MK Hanin Zoabi of the Arab political party, Balad, reportedly said to the media after the vote.

"We are the natives here and we have a clear identity, [we] are Palestinians, part of the Arab nation, and your law will fail. Part of the Zionist project is to oppress our identity, but I have the right to speak in the name of Palestinians."


In a similar vein, a 1948 Palestinian Christian from Nazareth, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Al-Akhbar, “I think [Levin’s comments] are outrageous and untrue. It is part of Israel’s broader attempt to segment and fragmentize the Palestinian community from one another inside Israel. Other examples of this are with the Bedouins and the Druze, and this is part of [Israel’s] attempt to break up what is a cohesive community. It won’t work.”

“I see myself as an Arab and so do other Palestinian Christians. [Levin’s] logic only reaffirms the agenda to separate and break-up minorities within minorities,” she added.

“There should be more representation of Palestinians in Israel in general. Christian Palestinians are just as repressed as Muslims.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fr Georges Massouh: We are not Dhimmis

Arabic original here.

We are not Dhimmis

Our column entitled "You ripped the cross from the nuns' necks-- go ahead and rip it off!" (an-Nahar, February 12, 2014) provoked resentment among some of our Syrian brothers, since they considered it to have a sectarian character because it talks about the suffering of one group of Syrians but not others. If those who feel resentment read the article well, they would find the following: "The Syrian Christian is not more precious than others, a church is not more precious than a mosque, and Maaloula is not more precious than the neighborhoods of Homs and Aleppo... We are all equal before the merciful God who loves mankind."

Did those who feel resentment not notice that we did not call for people to take up arms to liberate the bishops and the nuns and that we categorically rejected taking hostages to exchange for their release? Did they not realize that if we were forced to choose between being crucifiers and being crucified, that we would choose to be crucified like our Jesus of Nazareth?

However, we refuse to remain silent while our dignity is violated. Christ who refused to resist evil with evil did not remain silent. Rather, he said to the guard who struck Him, "“If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?” (John 18:23). Jesus did not imitate the person who attacked Him. However, He did demand the truth from him.

Our dignity compels us to refuse to be treated as though we were dhimmis. Is there not in the very use of the term "dhimmis [literally, 'people under protection']" arrogance and tyranny. Yes, we refuse to be "people  under the Prophet's protection" or "people under the Muslims' protection" or "people under God's protection" according to the Islamic understanding... Likewise, we refuse to be "people under the regime's protection" or "people under the opposition's protection" or Russia or America... We do not want favors or charity from anyone. We are the people of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.

It is recounted that the Christians of the Arab tribe of Taghlib refused for the term "dhimmis" to be applied to them  and refused to pay the jizya. Concerning this the sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi says that "the Christians of the Arab tribe of Taghblib asked Umar [ibn al-Khattab] to pay an alms tax like the Muslims, but doubled. Umar accepted this from them and made a truce with them on this basis. He said about it, 'These people are fools. They accept the meaning but they reject the name'" (from Qaradawi, Religious Minorities and the Islamic Solution, p. 14). No, these people are not fools. They are dignified and their nobility compelled them to refuse to be enslaved by their fellow Arabs on account of a difference in religious affiliation. What some consider "foolishness" others might consider "the peak of wisdom."

Our dignity lies in our "foolishness". We are "fools" because we dream of a just civil state where citizens are equal in rights and responsibilities. We are "fools" because we strive for good in a time when evil reigns. We are "fools" because we bear the cross of all Syrians... because we believe that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25). We are "fools", yes. But we are not dhimmis.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Met. Saba Esber Interviewed on the Situation in Syria

This interview appeared in the Syrian magazine al-Haqiqa. Arabic original here.

Your Eminence, the Syrian crisis or catastrophe is approaching the end of its third year. What is your analysis of this crisis? Where is it taking us?

Throughout history, the Levant is a region over which great empires have competed and struggled. This has been the case since the 13th century BC. All the powers that have passed through the Middle East have had a presence here and have interacted with the place. With the start of the modern era, the western powers have not deviated from this rule. When Europe arose from its slumber, it came to this region and colonized it, and this continues to be the case in various ways and through diverse means.

Externally, if we follow the development of this region's security and political situation over its modern history, at the very least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, or especially from the Balfour Declaration until today, we notice that the colonialist political plan does not want prosperity or stability for Arab region in general or for the Levant in particular. Internally, we notice that the concept of the nation has not sufficiently been absorbed by the majority of the population of the Arab world. The life-span of the nation-state in the modern sense is very short in our country. It was  born in 1920. For a long time, the Middle Eastern citizen became accustomed to life in a country without boundaries, to living with the concept of the state as umma rather than the nation-state. For this reason you see his attachment to tribe, clan, family or sect stronger than his attachment to the nation, and private benefit stronger than public benefit. This dialectic in the Arab nation was not treated appropriately, going back to various causes that this discussion can't go into. The lack of experience and the short life-span of the nation in the modern sense and that Arab-Israeli struggle are among the chief reasons. There have been many movements that have sought to establish a modern state wherein a person lives according to the principle of true citizenship, but they have not suceeded in achieving the least of their goals. It is very difficult for this region to remain in peace and to realize what it desires so long as Israel continues to exist, along with the political, military, and religious struggles that it creates.

Three years ago, at the start of the Arab Spring, those who said that the revolutions of the Arab Spring contained deception for the Arab peoples were castigated. There are those who have exploited the need of these peoples for freedom, dignity and self-determination, in order to turn what was called a Spring into destruction for the extant countries, with the goal of partitioning them. No one denies the peoples' right to development. This right has become legitimate in contemporary culture and one of the most basic human rights. It is the right of every human being to live with real dignity, but the path to realizing this goal was fraught with dangers. The scene has now become clear. It was a game of right substituted with falsehood. The external aspect has become clear and we are faced with a very complicated situation. Our emerging from this ordeal depends on the major international powers and is not only internal?!

Nothing in history lasts forever. All the travails experienced by the peoples come to an end. In our Syrian case, the burning question is: when and how? I see in the tormented souls and eyes of the people a cry for salvation and an eagerness to emerge from this ordeal as soon as possible. Along with everyone, I hope for salvation, the realization of the common good and the hopes of this good people, so that it can play its role in this great nation in the purest and loftiest way. This hope is what constantly propels us to not despair and to constructive work for the good of the nation and its people. With all those who are conscientious, we look forward to a better future, a brighter tomorrow and a more beautiful Syria.

How has this crisis impacted the social fabric of Syria in general and of the South in particular?

I'd like to begin with a medical analogy. The immune system differs between one person and another. There are some people with fortified bodies and strong immunities against diseases and others with weak bodies that collapse immediately whenever any disease inters them. In the country, there are those who have proven that they posses a high level of patriotic immunity, there are those who appear to be quickly influenced by the flux of the situation and there are those who are between the two to varying degrees. This ordeal has revealed the positive face of the Syrian people, possessors of a long history of civilization and the birthplace of the first alphabet. There is still exists cooperation among citizens, consciousness and true harmony. Otherwise, the country would have completely collapsed. What we palpably know of harmonious life among Syrians transcends the tragedies and allows for optimism about passing through this ordeal.

Up to this day, at the height of the conflict, we find abundant examples of every element of society coming together to contribute to cooperation, building up and overcoming barriers. This nourishes hope and banishes the specter of despair. In this regard I have some criticism for the media in general, both locally and internationally. They do not sufficiently show  the beautiful face of Syrian society. Instead they focus on the tragedies and atrocities that might afflict people more, but the media must be constructive and not provocative. This allows us to say all the attempts that have been made for years and until now with a view to creating an unbridgeable rift between elements of this society have only partially succeeded. We must distinguish between those who have been impacted and whose immunity has easily collapsed and those who have been impacted due to proximate causes, such as being in certain regions and being in need of the daily necessities of life, or being motivated by oriental sentiment.... etc.

 Christians are a basic element of society in Syria and its environs. Do you believe that one of the goals of what has been happening for years is the expulsion of Christians from the region?

Since I became aware of this world we have been hearing of the existence of a desire and a plan to expel them and to make this country monochrome. What is happening on the territory of the Arab countries until today permits us to accept these words. What happened during and after the American invasion of Iraq made clear the truth of these words and provoked great fears. Before 2003, many people did not agree and said that we have no definitive proof. But now the picture isn't this way for the majority that continues to refuse to emigrate. We have been watching what has been happening from 1967 until today and we notice a decline in the proportion and numbers of Christians in the Arab nation. Emigration and expulsion are among the chief reasons for this decline. However, we must not forget that the increase in births among non-Christians and the opposite among Christians is the most important factory in the reduction of their proportion in the population. This contributes to changing the culture of their countries and also encourages emigration.

Since the time of their foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Arab countries have not arrived at treating individuals within society on equal footing. The concept of citizenship has not entered into collective consciousness for many of the countries that established constitutions, to say nothing of the countries that essentially do not have a constitution. Syria was one of the first countries to try to come close to the principle of citizenship in the constitution, but the lesson is in the application. Hence I will say that if Syria is able to get out of this ordeal and the horror of the current tragedy, she will be the example that revives hope in every corner of the Arab nation and awakens its peoples.

Is it possible for you to imagine a Syria without Christians?

It is very hard for me to imagine Syria without Christians. At that point it would not be the same Syria that has been known over the course of history. It is hard, to not say impossible, for Syria to be monochromatic. Her civilization and her history are  greater than the current difficulties and horrors. We hope to strive in Syria for a nation of equal citizenship, so that the blood that was shed and the destruction that has happened will not be in vain. May the new Syria be a nation of law, citizenship and civil rights, which brings together all her children in equality, freedom, dignity and civilization befitting the Syrians who have carried the banner of civilization through history.

The Archdiocese has an important social and humanitarian role in the region. How have you faced the crisis in practice through this role?

From the beginning of the crisis, we directed our children and our parishes to be bridges between all members of society and to avoid insularity, fear and isolation. We told them that what is happening in this country is against you just as it is against others, and you are required to protect it. When the tragedy began to be obvious with the arrival of refugees, we hurried to establish charitable humanitarian activity, which had already existed in basic form. We established centers in Dera, Ezra and Sweida to serve refugees throughout the territory of the archdiocese. We established aid centers and other centers for psychological, health and social rehabilitation and we cooperated with agencies working to provide food and necessary emergency supplies to wherever they were necessary but difficult to reach. We are undertaking this activity because it is our religious and patriotic duty and because of our belief that it contributes to solidifying the deeply-rooted Syrian tradition based on common life among all members of society.

Syria in general and the South in particular are distinguished by their religious diversity which has shaped conditions of enrichment and brotherhood. Do you fear that the crisis will impact this diversity? Is there coordination with the other spiritual organizations in order to preserve this diversity?

We hope that we will not drown in the current moment. The tragedies that are occurring today on the Syrian scene are not the true and ultimate image. We hope that this war will not have an impact on the beautiful diversity that exists in Syrian society. We should warn of the impending dangers to our Syrian nation and our Syrian society which has always been distinctive. Before the outbreak of this tragedy, we had contact with all and afterwards we worked to increase coordination. Naturally, the level of cooperation different from one region to another. However, we find good people in all places and we are trying to constantly work and cooperate in service for the good of the country and of people. This is not something new for Syrians.

We stress that we are all in one boat and preserving it is everyone's responsibility.

What do you say to Syrians in this ordeal that the nation is going through?

All nations have passed through very difficult periods. However, in my humble opinion the catastrophe has been more difficult in Syria. However, history tells us that many dark times have passed over Syria before, but she got out of them. Darkness doesn't last. The dawn always follows. Despite the horror of what is happening in Syria, Syrians must not forget the greatness and authenticity of their country and their make-up. We must not drown in the current moment. Rather, we must insist on holding fast to our patriotic, spiritual and civilizational principles. Syrians have become examples of steadfastness, fortitude and unity. Perhaps those who know this will transmit the flame of true humanitarian civilization to all the other peoples and teach them the meaning of patience, strength, resistance, freedom and citizenship, just as they brought letters and the alphabet to the world in ancient times.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fr Georges Massouh on the Nuns of Maaloula

Arabic original here.

You ripped the cross from the nuns' necks-- go ahead and rip it off!

The farce of keeping the nuns of Saint Thekla as "guests" with the pious gunmen who practice their slogans daily continues. This after they have added to it things that do not fit with what we have become accustomed to in the Levant, in historical Antioch, from our Muslim partners over fourteen centuries. However, they must be thanked because they have given us proof that the nuns are still breathing, something that the "hosts" of Metropolitans Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim and other priests have not given us until now. That is, indication of their fate.

It is true that Christ the Lord said, "Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also" (Matthew 5:39) and we do what we are able to follow this commandment of the Lord's with faith and firm conviction that "evil does not resist evil." However, He also commanded us not to lie, so why do you force the nuns to lie?  Is it in order to pile more sin upon your sins?

The Lord also said, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Be sure that the nuns have not departed from this commandment. They pray for your sake even as you  consider the prayer to be outright disbelief. You  have made yourselves their enemies, those who curse them, those who hate them, those who do harm to them, in addition to your having expelled them from their holy monastery unjustly.

Does your book not command you to treat Christians in your lands  well, where it asserts, "And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe to be those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud"(Surat al-Ma'ida 82). The nuns of Maaloula were not proud and they did  not bear arms. Rather, they armed themselves with love and mercy. And we saw their frightened eyes well up with tears not because they heard "what was revealed to the Messenger" (Surat al-Ma'ida 83), but because they witnessed your heinous deeds.

Does it not also command you to justice and fairness when it asserts, "Allah forbiddeth you not those who warred not against you on account of religion and drove you not out from your homes, that ye should show them kindness and deal justly with them. Lo! Allah loveth the just dealers" (Surat al-Mumtahana 8)? Where is the justice in your kidnapping nuns who did not fight you and who did not drive you from your homes? How can God love you when you go against what you consider to be the ruling of the revealed verses of God?

Then I hope that my Syrian brothers will understand that my words about the nuns here do not mean that I have no concern for what other Syrians are suffering through-- Sunni, Alawite, Druze and atheist. I have written in previous articles that the Syrian Christian is not more precious than others, that a church is not more precious than a mosque, and that Maaloula is not more precious than the neighborhoods of Homs and Aleppo... We are all equal before the merciful God who loves mankind.

The Holy Apostle Paul says, "But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).  You ripped the cross from the nuns' necks-- go ahead and rip it off! We do not depend on external appearance. But know that the cross is engraved upon the heart of each one of them, upon their flesh, their blood, their nerves, their bones, their minds and their pores... No one can to rip it off or efface it.

The message of the two bishops and the nuns and their companions is  that Syria belongs to us, just as she belongs to all her people and that we are called to bear witness there to our Lord and Redeemer and we will not fail Him. The hour is coming when she will hear us say, "We heed your call, O Lord of Glory, here we are."

Monday, February 10, 2014

Met. Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Christian Unity

Arabic original here.

Christian Unity

On January 25, the Week of Christian Unity ended with a blessed meeting at the Greek Catholic church in Shakka. It was a popular, fraternal meeting that kindled the spirit of solidarity and cooperation between believers in the one Christ. The cross of us Christians in Lebanon is that we want unity but each of us are isolated within his own community; we wrestle to divide up among outselves positions and gains. Perfect unity is possible in Christ alone. The more we approach Christ, the more we approach our brother, Christian and non-Christian. There must be earnest effort for us to "become one body, for we all partake of that one bread" (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). The Lord is the maker of this unity. In the time of the hoped-for unity, the churches' particular characteristics and distinguishing features with regard to worship and ritual must remain.

Do you see what brings us together and what divides us? In reality, today we are various sects and ethnicities. There is the issue of the Eastern Catholics Uniates. There is also the issue of the pope's infalliability, the issue of the bishop of Rome's leadership over the whole world. The Orthodox-- and Easterners in general-- do not agree to these two issues and they cannot agree with them. Christ alone is the head of the Church, within the original context of Peter's authority among equal apostles.

Christianity today is in decline throughout the world, especially in the West with its counterfeit civilization. This is the general trend because of materialism and individualism, while the Christian Church relies on the life of communion, after the image of the dogma of the Most Holy Trinity. Decline also comes from rampant luxury in every place. This is what leads to corruption and moral deviency. There remains a need to return to austerity of life, to the simplicity of the Gospel, which helps to make the human personality integral and avoiding having a fractured personality. Our faith must be our life. Also, when a person draws close to his fellow man, this strengthens unity-- not just Christian unity, but also unity with all humanity--  that is, unity with God, the Creator of all.

We live in hope. Consolations come amidst suffering, amidst divisions. They do not come by eliminating them or by forgetting about them, but rather through transcending them by way of faith, love, forgiveness and humility.

The secret to everything is always to be found in Christ's death and His ressurrection. We transcend pain through hope, so that the Lord might first of all grant us unity with Himself and also unity with our fellow Christians, so that together we may bear witness to the light of His love before the entire world.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Saturday, February 8, 2014

as-Safir: Residents of Saydnaya Remain Resilient

This originally appeared in Arabic here and was translated for Al-Monitor by Sahar Ghassoub, here.

Residents of historic Syrian town remain resilient in face of war

by Carmen Jokhadar

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13) There is nothing more accurate than these words by Jesus Christ for the people of Saidnaya, Syria.


The city rings its bells whenever danger is imminent, as was the case when mortar shells hit the Cherubim Monastery and the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya during the fourth attack [against the city] on Jan. 19. The city’s citizens are now “wanted” by armed militants.

Being from Saidnaya is enough reason to be killed by the militants who have suffered heavy defeats there, the most recent of which was the fourth attack. What’s more, the city’s people are also guilty of being nasara, a derogatory term used by armed groups to refer to Christians.

The city’s people boasted about the latest battle. “They are all dead. No one is left to tell the story,” they say about the insurgents, ignoring the shells showering them every day.
They cling to their faith in the Virgin Mary and her son, turning a deaf ear toward the promises of car bombs or more direct threats: “You will be next, after Maaloula,” recounts one of the city’s dignitaries.


During the latest crisis, the convent has been heavily bombed by dozens of mortar shells, causing significant damage. The latest shell went through the convent’s stone roof, cracking it in half, before settling in the room without exploding.

“Mortar bombs have failed to hit the citizens. The Virgin Mary is protecting the village and the people,” says one of the area residents.


In the church, you pray and light a candle and suddenly you are overwhelmed by an exceptional feeling of peace and humility. A nun would rush to ask you, “Did you take some incense and oil? How many blessed threads do you want?”

“Where are you from?” she would also ask. If you tell her you are from Lebanon, she would launch into a long narrative about Lebanese worshipers visiting the convent who never stopped pouring in, especially on St. Mary’s day. She would express her longing for those days.

“We never thought that we would suffer as we are today. Our faith in God and the Virgin Mary is great,” she’d say. If your tears betrayed you in the face of this injustice plaguing our land, she would hand you a handkerchief to dry them up, holding your hand and saying, “Do not be afraid. I am with you until the end of time.” (It's a saying by Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew.)

In the warm hall where photos of the Virgin Mary, patriarchs and prioresses are hung, the assistant prioress receives you to learn of the reason behind your being there. If it is a mere visit, Prioress Mother Verona Nabhan is ready to welcome the guests. When it comes to journalists, however, Nabhan now refuses to meet with them.

The assistant prioress asks about the reason behind the requested meeting. After answering, she smiles and calls on the prioress, who begins by saying, “The media has gotten to a point where it offends the people and the cause. It is adding fuel to the fire.”

Nabhan noted in her interview with As-Safir that bombs are continuously fired on the monastery. The sisters confront the cannon through daily prayers for the sake of “the homeland and the army, and to preserve our dignity and the sovereignty of our land so as not to be affected by demons.”

Nabhan adds that the “princesses of the Virgin Mary” — the girls who live in the orphanage — follow the traces of mortar bombs and investigate the damages. She affirmed that "[The girls] should understand and know what is going on. It is our responsibly and the parents' to not hide the plight of the country from them. They are part of the future of this planet.”

Nabhan refuses to talk about her communication with the Maaloula nuns, saying only, “This should not have happened. In any way, violating the town must have been thwarted. God be merciful. Oh, Virgin Mary, the soldier, the savior.” Nabhan called on Mary to protect the region.

On another level, a military source in the region says, “A stranger cannot lay a foot on this land at a time when even elderly people exceeding 70 years old are fighting.” The source noted that the region has been subject to bombardment for a year. Clashes have escalated as militants are trying to achieve a “presumed victory” and take control of Saidnaya after Maaloula.

One of the residents recounts, “The area has sacrificed 22 martyrs during the battles in the monastery and throughout Syria.” He reminds us, “Philip Ahmar died during the fourth attack after he insisted to head to the Cherubim monastery. After the death of Elias, his brother was on his own. Therefore, he engaged in the fighting, while Joseph and his two brothers stood at checkpoints.”

The 60-year-old resident looks at me with blue eyes filled with confidence, pride and determination, saying, “We are impatiently waiting for the response of militants and their return to our land.” He continues, “Do you see the guy standing at the checkpoint?" He points at a man belonging to the National Defense Force. "God and the Virgin Mary saved him. He cheated death.” The man was transporting the wounded during the latest attacks against the monastery. Militants set up an ambush and hid behind the rocks. Then, they opened fire on the car, wounding everyone but him, and he was able to deliver the wounded people and the martyr. The car stopped at the checkpoint of al-Jana restaurant at the entrance to the area.

One of the residents recounts that a monk bore a weapon and was ready to support the Syrian forces in their fight against extremists. Christian clerics in the area support the Syrian army and the National Defense Force, saying, “You did not die, but haven’t you seen those who did?”

Muslim clerics in Saidnaya supported the war on extremism, saying that attacks were equally targeting Christians and Muslims and distorting the image of Islam. They also opened their eyes to the fact that the practices of armed groups in the areas of their influence that do not abide by Islamic rules explicitly violate the principle of freedom of religion. In Saidnaya, women have played a leading role in the events. They served as a pillar of support. Women cooked, weaved wool, received first-aid training and encouraged the men of the village to fight against the fierce campaign aiming to displace the residents and take control over the historical village.

A while ago, Jabhat al-Nusra disseminated a video in which they addressed Christians, saying: “Over the two years we have been fighting, you supported the tyrant of Damascus and his thugs. You were uninvolved, and we protected you. Now, you have turned your churches and sanctities into military barracks for that tyrant, and God forbids that we accept this.” Jabhat al-Nusra warned: “God willing, the unsheathed swords of Islam will be raised on your necks in your own houses. God bear witness to what we say.”

The report shows the bombardment of the monastery coupled with a song that goes: “We tear apart the tyrant and apostasy with a great determination and a will that knows no defeat. We will color the dawn with our blood. The night of polytheism and atheism will be long gone.”
The residents face the failed attempts of terrorists with further resistance, determination and a smile. Saidnaya, in which Noah planted the first vine — as legends have it — is offering sacrifices on the altar of Syria’s salvation.

Read the entire article here!


Friday, February 7, 2014

Fr Sidney Griffith on the Bible in Arabic

For the past several years, St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero, Illinois has hosted lectures about the Arab Orthodox heritage each November, in honor of Arab Heritage Month. This past November, the speaker was Fr Sidney Griffith, who talked about the history of the Bible in Arabic, the subject of his most recent book.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

al-Akhbar: Syria’s Valley of the Christians Under Fire

From al-Akhbar English.

Syria’s Valley of the Christians Under Fire

by Firas Choufi

The fierce battles between the Syrian army and armed extremist groups in the town of Zara, surrounding the Krak des Chevaliers, are echoing throughout Wadi al-Nasara, which is Arabic for the Valley of the Christians. Each day, the villages in the valley bury new victims. Those who have not fled have now resolved never to abandon Syria.


Most of the Christians who remain in the region are not banking on salvation to come from Western Christendom. Those who have not fled say they now prefer to die here as opposed to receiving the “White Man’s charity,” anyway.

Tony, who works at a shawarma restaurant in the village of Hawash, does not want to leave. Like him, the mother of Hossam, from the village of Hanbara, who was killed in the conflict, wants to stay close to his grave so she can visit him every day. Countless others like them want to stay, too. Syria is the only home they have.

During a January 29 attack on a National Defense checkpoint in the town of Ammar al-Hosn, the militants took great joy in mutilating the bodies of the troops who had been manning the checkpoint. They gouged the eyes of one corpse and beheaded another, taking the head with them.
Over the past several weeks, the militants beheaded many others, including fighters from the National Defense Forces, an SSNP fighter named Hanna Karam, and also civilians, most recently a young man named Fadi Matta, from Marmarita.

Some come from universities, others from their jobs in restaurants, farming, and various other professions. One of the fighters said, “Life on the battlefield robs you of everything. You only think about killing militants or imagining yourself dead.”


Read the whole article here!

For coverage of Syriac Christian militias fighting alongside the Kurds in the Northeast, see here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fr Georges Massouh on How We Will Be Judged

Arabic original here.

What Have You Done to Your Fellow Man?

"I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," (John 14:6) says Christ the Lord. The Christian understands these words as a commitment realized in the here and now, where he is, breathes and moves.

Christ being the Way means for the Christians that he follows in the path of his Teacher. That is, he walks in love to the utmost, to the point of sacrificing himself for the other, since "the servant is not better than his Master."

Christ being the Truth means that the Christian does all he is able to realize the truth and to eliminate falsehood when he sees oppression, enmity or compulsion.

Christ being the Life means that the Christian lives in his daily life like Christ lived, that He and He alone is the model, ideal and good example.

Thus we find Christ to be the companion of the vulnerable and tormented on the earth. He hungered with them. He thirsted with them. He  had no place to lay His head. Thus Christianity is not merely a spiritual life in which we advance through prayer and fasting alone. Rather, it is a material and moral commitment to our neighbor. Not our neighbor in terms of flesh, blood and natural descent, but the one who has "become a neighbor" after you had mercy upon him.

Christ made Himself equal to the vulnerable, the oppressed and the tormented on the earth. He said that the basis for judgment on the Last Day is nothing other than the love that man shows his fellow man, incarnate in mercy. To say that "God is love", "God is merciful" or "God is holy" remains sterile and impossible for any human to believe if these truths are not reflected in the lives of those who believe it.

Notable in this context is what is said in the Gospel of Matthew about the standards for judgment, where the people gathered are asked a single question that defines their fate, "What did you to your fellow man?" Christ gives the response to those who are saved from eternal fire, "for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me," affirming to those listening that "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25: 31-46).

The apex of the Christian life is manifest in the most glorious of its images in the cross, where Christ the Lord gave Himself freely "for the life of the world." Thus the Christian must love his fellow man to the point of sacrificing himself so that the other who is placed in his responsibility might live. Of this Christ says, "Let him who desires to follow Me deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it" (Mark 8:34-36).

There is no doubt that the nine Beatitudes with which Christ opens his preaching career in His famous Sermon on the Mount are a summary of His teachings. He grants blessedness, that is eternal life, to "the poor in spirit, the meek, those who sorrow, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers and those oppressed for righteousness' sake." Must we wait for Christ to come again in order for this blessedness to prevail? No, it is present from this moment in those who live it in hope.