Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Archbishop Niphon (Seikaly) and the Antiochian Representation in Moscow

From Majallat al-Nour, original Arabic in pdf here.

The Antiochian Presence in Russia
An Encounter with His Eminence Archbishop Niphon Seikaly

Majallat al-Nour met with His Eminence the Antiochian Patriarchal Vicar in Moscow, Archbishop Niphon (Seikaly) and discussed the Antiochian metochion in Russia. First we will present a brief history of this edifice.

The establishment of the Antiochian Metochion in Moscow, 1848

There appears in a marginal comment in a Euchologion, "Patriarch Methodius, along with the metropolitan of Beirut and the metropolitan of Akkar visited Balamand Monastery and consecrated Neophytos for the country around Baalbek on Wednesday, August 12, 1842."

After Catholic and Protestant teaching and missionary activities in dioces of the Antiochian See expanded and Patriarch Methodius did not see in the Three Holy Hierarchs School that he had founded in Beirut something that would fend off the danger, he contacted Russian intermediaries. They asked him to send a bishop to tour their country and collect funds to repair churches, establish schools and publish books. In 1842, he sent Metropolitan Neophytos of Baalbek, along with Archimandrite Sophronius, the hieromonk Anthimus, and his secretary, Youhanna Papadopolou. In the patriarchal message, it stated that the Antiochian Church had long suffered from poverty and humiliation and so was surrounded by dangers coming from the Catholics who were spreading their doctrines, taking the best churches and monasteries and plundering houses of worship, which became empty as the faithful were languishing on the threshold of ignorance. That which they would collect from the Russian faithful would be consecrated for establishing schools and printing-presses and repairing the Church of Saint Nicholas in Damascus, along with other churches and monasteries. This statement was signed by Patriarch Methodios and Metropolitans Methodius (Homs), Benjamin (Beirut), Ioannikius (Tripoli), Armimius (Lattakia), Zachariah (Irqah), Barnabas (Hama), Jacob (Seleucia) and Isaiah (Tyre and Sidon). The Antiochian Church enjoyed the sympathy of Russian government and people.

When Metropolitan Neophytos Halabi of Baalbek arrived in Moscow in 1842, he was welcomed by Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow, who greatly loved the entire Orthodox Church. He asked that the Church of the Ascention and Saint Hypatius, in Moscow near the Kremlin, be given to the See of Antioch and the Synod accepted this. The decision was brought to the czar and it gained acceptance on December 22, 1848.  The following year the church, along with all its possessions and properties was handed over to the See of Antioch for he building of a patriarchal metochion in Moscow. The Holy Synod of Russia stipulated that the income of this metochion be used for educating the Antiochian clergy and laity. Metropolitan Neophytos purchased a house near the metochion from his personal funds and in turn sent everything that the metochion received to the See of Antioch. He remained head of the metochion for five years and died and was buried in Moscow in 1853, leaving behind twenty thousand rubles. According to his wishes, this money was put in the bank and its procedes were sent to the See of Antioch to be spent on schools.

After Neophytos, the metochion was headed by Archimandrite Anthimus. In 1862, Patriarch Hierotheus of Antioch named Archimandrite Ghufrail Shatila as head of the metochion. After he was elected, it was headed by Metropolitan Cyril of Palmyra, but he fell ill and returned to Damascus where he died. Despite this, Cyril sent enormous sums of money for the renovation of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Antioch.

Leadership of the metochion was subsequently held by a Father Isaias and some Russian monks, until 1879, when the patriarch of Antioch named Archimandrite Christopher Jabbara, a Damascus native, as head. He increased the metochion's income and erected numerous buildings with the help of Metropolitan Makarii of Moscow. In 1887 the patriarch of Antioch recalled him and until 1889 the metochion was led by the priest Nikon, followed by Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny.

In 1900, Patriarch Meletius Doumani appointed the priest Alexander Tahhan who, on April 7, 1902 was elevated to the rank of archimandrite. His accomplishments included improvements to the metochion's building as well as the addition of storehouses and houses. After his election as metropolitan of Cilicia, Archimandrite Ignatius Abu el-Rus was appointed in 1903 and afterward Archimandrite Antonius Mubayyed, until 1920.

For political reasons, from 1920 until 1948 management of the metochion was handed over to the Russian Church and at the end of 1948 it was returned to the Antiochian Church by Patriarch Alexei I of Russia. Leaders of the metochion included Metropolitan Basilius Samaha (Metropolitan of Bostra, Hawran and Jebel el-Arab 1962-1999) and  Metropolitan Alexi Abd el-Karim (Metropolitan of Homs 1963-1999).

Who is His Eminence Archbishop Niphon (Seikaly)?

He is the son of the priest Ghufrail Seikaly and his mother worked as director of the American School in Cairo.

He was born in the city of Zahle in the Bekaa, though his family is from Beirut. He grew up in Zahle and studied at the Evangelical School and then continued his studies at the Haigazian Institute in Beirut.

He was sent to Moscow to continue his theological studies by the then-metropolitan of Zahle, Niphon (Saba). He worked as Metropolitan Niphon (Saba)'s secretary and in 1959 was ordained deacon.
In 1964 he graduated from the Institute of Theology in Moscow and was ordained priest and archimandrite at the Church of Saint Nicholas in Zahle in the presence of Metropolitans Boulos (Khoury) and Sergius (Semneh) and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mar Jacob and he became the metropolitan's assistant. After the death of Metropolitan Niphon, he stayed with the new metropolitan, Spiridon (Khoury) for ten years. In 1977 he went to moscow as archimandrite and patriarchal vicar.

In 1988 he was consecrated bishop and in 2010 as archbishop. He lived in Russia during years of persecution, when the Antiochian Church was the only one to baptize the faithful without giving the government a list of names. He did not submit to political pressure during this period. He caused all to respect him and changed the face of interaction between the metochion and Moscow.


What are the activities undertaken by the Antiochian metochion in Moscow?
The number of Antiochians in Moscow can be counted on one hand, but attendence at the Divine Liturgy is excellent. 99% of the faithful are Russian. Thus, activities are relatively limited. We at the Antiochian metochion offer food as charity every week or two weeks, according to the funds available.

We preach at every Divine Liturgy. The metochion offers the Russian Church the sum of two thousand dollars in support every year, like all the other churches of Moscow.

In the last century, the metochion's role was to help Antiochian churches. What happened after that?
The metochion was re-opened on this basis, but it was exploited politically by the state, which sent funds to spiritual leaders in order to politically exploit them. However, from the time that I received leadership of the metochion, I have refused all assistance from the state and from the Russian Church. It is better this way. We do not need to ask for money from the outside. Antiochian benefactors have become many, thanks be to God.

How do you see the role of the metochion in the future?
We believe that the Antiochian metochion in Russia should be a bridge by which young people from the two churches meet through conferences, mutual encounters and the exchange of news between both groups. We are prepared to offer all assistance for this.

What are the sources of income and the endowments of the metochion?
All Lebanese from every sect who come to Russia  visit the metochion and are not stingy. Assistance comes to us from the Orthodox of Beirut, as well as Maronites and Catholics. God does not abandon us as long as we are with Him and rely upon Him.

With personal donations offered by foreign benefactors, I have purchased two apartments to rent out, which provides us with an income that is not large, but which provides part of our needs.
We have a church named for the Angel Gabriel and another named for Saint Theodore Stratelates, which was built to commemorate the Russian army's victory over Napoleon.

How many priests and workers are there at the metochion? Are they all Russian?
We have four priests and two deacons, all of them are by nationality Russian, along with a choir of fifteen members, guards and employees.

How do you assess the general situation in Russia with regard to pastoral care, guidance and evangelism of the youth, youth activities, spiritual life and monasteries?
The pastoral situation has greatly developed since the time of Patriarch Alexei. One can clearly see this revolution, since the Church has become a center for care, assistance, education and concern for the poor. In every church there are people charged with pastoral care and giving religious instruction.
In all the churches the priests preach and most of them are good preachers.

Evangelical work is very active. For a time, Patriarch Cyril had been in Japan where there is an Orthodox church dependent on Moscow. Likewise in Vietnam, Cuba and South Africa, where evangelical work is active and many churches are being built. In Kazakhstan, for example, there are 4.5 million Orthodox with twelve bishops. All of this is on account to evangelization in Russia and abroad. There is a special office in the Moscow Patriarchate that oversees evangelical work.

His Beatitude Patriarch Cyril has consecrated 65 bishops in a period of three years. He has recently issued a decision to build 200 new churches in Moscow. The Church has recovered its buildings, lands and monasteries but has not yet made use of all of them. It is in a rebuilding stage.

With regard to pastoral care for the youth, there is a special bishop for youth named Ignatii. He is responsible for youth movements. There are Divine Liturgies and spiritual meetings for them. This office is very active. There are very many demands for ordination, whether to the priesthood or to monasticism.

Is the Russian Church Orthodox-nationalist or is she truly Orthodox Christian?
It is a national, patriotic church par excellence. All the Russians are Orthodox, while the Muslims are from among the Tatars, whose number reaches 25 million. The Catholics are Germans and foreigners. The Orthodox Church stands in front in its estimation.

There are many heresies in Russia. How does the Church confront them?
Spiritual life is active and heresies have no value today. The problem for these heresies is that they talk against the Virgin, and for Russians the Virgin has an enormous place, so no Virgin means no religion.

The Church is active and alive. His Beatitude Patriarch Cyril is active, speaking and logical. He has made the Church a center for gathering the Russians together.
There are courses for religious instructions for both children and adults.

Russian society is suffering from poverty and many social problems such as abortion and moral decline. How does the Church deal with this reality?
In the Moscow Patriarchate today there is a special office concerned with care for the poor. In every church there are centers for care, assistance and education. The Church is always helping.
Regarding abortion, atheism and the western concept of human rights has impacted people, even in Russia and so many abortions are conducted.

Social stratification has historically existed in Russia since the time of the czars and people have become accustomed to this. What we see as poverty, they do not regard as such.

How does the Russian Orthodox Church deal with Catholic and Protestant missionary activity?
Western missionary activity does not threaten the Church in Russia. Foreign embassies are reducing the number of their employees in Moscow on account of the economic situation in Europe and so funds are not flowing to Russians to entice them.

Where does Russia stand with regard to the World Council of Churches?
It is more of an observer than a participant. It places conditions, such as rejecting homosexual marriage or women's ordination, for example. The Russian Church engages in institutions and organizations according to its spiritual values. Recently, there has been cooperation between it  and the Catholic churches in Europe to spread the authentic spiritual values of the Gospel in order to confront secularism.

How would you describe the Russian Church's relations with the Vatican?
With the Vatican there is a strong disagreement on account of the Ukranian Church and the current schism there. It is well-known that the Catholics in Ukraine have taken around 700 churches from the Orthodox Church and this has had a catastrophic effect on the situation between the two churches.

How do you see the future of Christians in the Middle East, especially after the visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI?
In my opinion, the Christians' future is murky. His Holiness the Pope's visit gave strong momentum, but for how long?

In the past, Russia was charged with protecting the Orthodox. Is there still concern for this issue? How does it face Christian emigration from the Middle East? What is the role of the Russian Imperial Palestinian Society in this regard?

The situation today is different from how it was in the past and the Russian state and the Russian Church are not concerned with the issue unless they are asked to be. The patriarch's visit to Antioch strengthens Christians in Lebanon after the increase in Islamic extremism. Today there is no one charged with protection and also there are no local initiatives undertaken by spiritual leaders. As for the Society, it has taken a political orientation and its goals are different from what they were in the past.

How do you assess the relationship between the Russian Church and Islam?
Islam is a traditional religion in Russia and has been present for a long time, especially in the former Soviet states. The Church is cautious in dealing with Islamic extremism, but she believes in a dialogue of civilizations and participates in all the conferences. Love is glory and intolerance is death.

Is Russia participating in the preparation for the Great Pan-Orthodox Council?
Yes. However, there are difficulties on account of some problems between the Orthodox churches and our lack of love. Patriarch Bartholomew I is a kind man. I saw him when he visited Russia. He was humble. Those around him are the hard-liners.

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