Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Al-Safir Interviews Archimandrite Christophoros

Arabic original here.

Archimandrite Christophoros to al-Safir: Our Goal is to Set the Church's Path Aright

by Rania al-Jafari

Six months passed between the promotion of Archimandrite Christophoros Hanna Atallah by Patriarch Theophilos to the position of spiritual director of the Greek Orthodox patriarchal schools in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories and his punishment of being cut off from the Church and expelled from the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher.

According to a statement issued by the Patriarchate, the punishment comes as a result of Christophoros' violations of the canons in force in the "Mother of Churches", including rejecting successive decisions of the Church to transfer the location of his activities.

Al-Safir met with Archimandrite Christophoros and tried to shed some light on aspects of an ancient struggle that is being renewed between the Greek administration of the Church of Jerusalem and the people of the Arab Orthodox flock.

What is the extent of your relationship with the Orthodox Church?
I was born in Jerusalem, but I am from the town of Jaffna in Ramallah. I returned to Jerusalem when I was nine years old in order to study in the school for clergy. When I finished my theological studies, I came to Jordan in 1989. I started studying sociology, psychology and law and since that time I have been continuously serving in Jordan.

What does the decision to cut you off from the Church of Jerusalem, after a lifetime of service?
Expelling me from my church means expelling me from my country. In order for me to preserve my priesthood, I must emigrate to another church in Greece, Cyprus or another country. I do not want to emigrate. I have no other choice but to confront this decision and I will remain here.

This is the reason why the Orthodox people took the decision to disobey the patriarch?
The people took this decision, but we the clergy are still examining the ecclesial steps that we will take. This is why we need support from all institutions and patriotic parties in our battle, because it is a battle for existence.

What are the consequences of regarding Theophilos as "not worthy"?
This is simply a popular demand that the name of the patriarch not be commemorated during prayers. When the patriarch's name is commemorated, those praying will cry out "not worthy... not worthy", which may lead us to a step-- which has not yet come-- regarding the priests, for them to refuse to commemorate the patriarch's name at prayer. This step, if it occurs, would mean that the Patriarchate is going through an ecclesiastical crisis requiring everyone to stop and listen to the demands of the Orthodox people.

What is the number or the proportion of priests in Jordan and Palestine who are in solidarity with you?
To be honest, the great majority of priests believe in the necessity of radical reform in our Church and believe in the impossibility of our Church continuing as it is. However, there are impediments before us, including that the priests today are the product of a situation in the Church that wanted to choose weak priests so that they will permanently remain under the authority of the leadership. So these priests bear the onerous legacy of ignorance and simpleness, though at the same time dedication to service, in addition to financial dependence on the patriarch. Usually a priest feels that he lacks any support apart from the salary that come from the Patriarchate. It's as though we are confronted with total colonization!
On the other hand, there is a dangerous movement represented by Fr Gabriel Naddaf who seeks to tear Christians out from their Arab social fabric. We have information that four priests are supporting him in secret, promoting the idea that the Christians' roots are not Arab. Unfortunately, there are young Christians who have come to believe this and this corresponds with Zionist schemes saying that the Christians' roots are Aramaic, not Arab. So Christians living in Palestine today are experiencing a crisis of identity and existence... I ask why Fr Gabriel Naddaf is not cut off from the Church. He remains, while I am cut off!

What is the proportion of priests in Jordan and Palestine that stands with you in your movement?
95 percent of the priests of Jordan and Palestine are with us, but in secret. Openly, the proportion standing with us is around 20 percent and those against us are no more than 20 percent.

In Jerusalem, what is the position of the Arab bishops and religious leaders?
Sadly, they are troubled and displeased with the Church's policy, but claim to be incapable of doing anything about it.

We hear voices saying that what is happening in the Orthodox Church is only a concern for Christians.
My being cut off from the Church is not only a Christian matter. I believe that the Jordanian state is committing an error out of its concern for the person of the patriarch since it honors and respects him him because it wants to maintain a bond with the Church. However, I believe that the bond should be through protecting this institution and ensuring the existence of this component of the nation in accordance with canon law. Indeed, the patriarch's behavior needs to be monitored by the Jordanian state and by the body of the Church and this should not be considered an intervention into Christian affairs.

During your service, did you object to decisions that you felt to be unjust?
When I was the deputy of the bishop of Amman, they sent me out of the capital. Afterwards, I was named deputy to the head of the ecclesial court and in 2009, they dismissed me in a humiliating manner. I only learned about the decision for my dismissal through lawyers. Then, they made me patriarchal vicar in Northern Jordan without responsibilities. In 2013, I was stripped of all my duties and they placed me in Dibbeen Monastery, which they did not recognize as a monastery. The goal of the decision to promote me last June was to keep me away from the monastery. Finally, there was the decision to cut me off from the Church. Moreover, my salary from the Church was ended nine years ago.

Why this war against the Monastery of Dibbeen by Patriarch Theophilos?
Monasteries come within the system of reforming the Church. Successive Greek administrations have undertaken to dismantle the monasteries. Now we have no monasteries or monks. Arabs are stigmatized as wanting to marry and not wanting monasticism, but this is not true. In my experience, during my service thirty young people have taken up monasticism in Jordan under my guidance... If I had a monastery, there would be something more like a hundred monks. The monastery is the Church's lung and the place where monks are born.

The fear of Arabs becoming monks comes from the fear that they might reach the rank of patriarch. This summarizes the Greek-Arab conflict over administration, does it not?

We are not against the Greeks. We are against a policy of the Church and we are calling for reform. We have asked to open a channel with the Greek state to affirm to them that we are not against Greeks. Rather, we are against policies of the Church that could be practiced by any individual, whether Arab or Greek. In short, we want our Church to remain in harmoney with its patriotic Arab line, that members of the flock have a role in the Church, and that its endowments not be diverted to the Israeli enemy.

The the goal of the escalation the retraction of the decision to cut you off from the Church?
No, not at all. I cannot be the goal. Perhaps cutting me off is a trap so that we will be distracted from reforming the Church. I will use my meeting with you to put out this message: I am not the issue, rather I am just a part of it. I am being targeted because I have taken up the issue. Our true goal is ecclesial reform and setting the Church's path aright... As for me, I will return to the Church.

What are the main points of church reform that you are calling for?
Our Church has abandoned its local, national context. We are being persecuted. The flocks of our Church are being made ignorant so that they will leave the Church. It was our duty to offer proposals to the Church based on the Church's canons and to offer solutions. Among them is the re-establishment of the system of dioceses. Each geographical region must have a bishop possessing all competencies to build churches, monasteries and ecclesial and social institutions. He should be the head of the local church in such a way as to allow him to maintain its revival. This bishop should be a permanent member of the Holy Synod. This brings us to the second defect,  the Holy Synod which is no longer made up of diocesan bishops, but rather its members are appointed by the patriarch, who is given final say. The Orthodox Church should be administered by the Holy Synod, which is a clerical body but it represents the people and so, consequently, it is the clergy and people who govern. Let's imagine if the system of dioceses existed, then no bishop in the Holy Synod would dare to vote to sell or rent land to the Israeli enemy because the Orthodox people in Jordan and Palestine would not accept that.

Why are there no seminaries in the Church of Jerusalem?
This is an important arena for reform. I presented to the patriarch a nine-page letter that included this request, but I did not receive any response. Knowing that the patriarchate will not pay for these schools, the flock in Jordan will take this matter into their own hands.

Al-Safir on the Return of Christians to Homs

Arabic original here.

Syria's Christians: Nativity, Golgotha and Resurrection... All at Once
by Wissam Abdallah

Putting up a Christmas tree with a small crèche beside it is something normal, but it is something exceptional in the Hamidiya neighborhood of the old city of Homs in a time of war and destruction, in a time when some residents are returning to their destroyed homes. To complete the image: a Golgotha of suffering experienced by the people and a Nativity and Resurrection of their will to live.

With the conclusion of the truce in the old city of Homs and the departure of armed groups from its neighborhoods, some residents have started to return to their homes and neighborhoods to contribute to the return of life as much as is possible.

As Christmas approaches, young people in the neighborhood of Hamidiya have started to celebrate in a way fitting the situation that the country is experiencing and in a way that confirms their presence and existence in their land.

A recital of Christmas songs was held at the Syriac Catholic church and a Christmas concert was held at the Umm al-Zunnar Church. Homs' director of endowments, Sheikh Issam al-Masri and the director of the Homs project of the Jesuit Commission for the Service of Refugees, Fr Ziyad Hilal and the coordinators of the Program for the Rehabilitation of Wells all took part in the blessing and rehabilitation of a number of water wells.

The flames of war have affected places of worship.  Fadi, from Hamidiya, spoke to al-Safir about this and says, "The area of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan has twelve churches of various denominations. These churches were damaged to varying degrees over the course of events. Some were completely destroyed, like the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, some were extensively damaged, like the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of Peace, the Church of the Holy Spirit, Umm al-Zunnar, and the Protestant church. Some were lightly damaged." Locals and Christian religious leaders are working together with official institutions and civil associations to rebuild homes and places of worship and to rebuild infrastructure such as electricity, telephones, water and sanitation, and to haul off the enormous amount of debris in the area.

Fadi explains the role played by Christian religious leaders in convincing the armed groups that were in Hamidiya and the old city of Homs as a whole, since they were accepted as dialogue partners by these groups. He says, "Today also they are contributing as much as possible to the special agreement in al-Waer. This does not mean that religious leaders from other communities have not contributed to these agreements. In their turn, they have put pressure on the armed groups and softened the government's demands in these settlements."

He adds, "In terms of the role of Christian religious leaders in bringing life back to the old city of Homs, it is true what is said about them, that they immediately started to provide water, supplies, meals and all the basic essentials of life in order to facilitate the return of residents to their homes. This continues even now."

Among ruined walls and burned-out rooms, residents are returning. Shops are opening and neighborhoods are being cleaned up. Around thirty thousand families are estimated to have fled Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, while the number having returned up to this point is no greater than 500 families. This is due to various reasons, the most important being that their period of displacement was very long.

A young man named Amjad who is among those returning to Homs spoke to al-Safir about this situation, saying, "Voluntary return is particular to families, each according to their circumstances and capabilities. However, I can confirm the return of a large proportion of those owning homes and means, at least to repair what was destroyed by the war and then to take up permanent residence in the coming period."

According to Fadi, "the decision to return requires an active economy in order to move their businesses back there again." He adds to these factors the inability of some to bear the costs of rebuilding their homes, especially those that have been seriously damaged. For his part, Amjad says that "the basis for this return is a sense of belonging to and love for this land and nation... Here are our homes... Here are our memories... Here are our churches. The armed groups forced us to leave at the start of the crisis."

As for Fadi, he believes that the situation of Christians in Syria is like that of all Syrians, who are attached to their land, their homes and their neighborhoods and that it is natural for them to return when circumstances allow. He adds, "I do not deny the high rate of refugees outside of Syria as a result of the crisis, but i believe that it is a temporary flight in order to wait for the security situation to stabilize in Syria as a whole."

Syria's Christians are among those who have chosen to remain and to continue life in their land and their institutions. They are contributing to the formulation of a new message at the threshold of Christmas, perhaps the beginning of a "theology of stone" to express the rootedness of their presence within Syrian society. It is a theology that is not based on religious dogma so much as a social engine that is not limited to Christians but includes all Syrians, so that each can contribute to building a bridge and forging a way to raise the nation up from its bitter wounds.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Met Elias Audi's Christmas Sermon

Arabic original here.



Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut and its Dependencies Elias Audi presided at the Christmas liturgy at the Cathedral of Saint George in central Beirut. After the reading from the Holy Gospel, Audi gave a sermon in which he said:

[...] More than two thousand years ago, God became incarnate to save man. What has man done? Has he understood this salvific message and accepted it or is he still languishing in disobedience and wallowing in sins? On a day such as this in a previous year, I said that Lebanon has become a house without doors and I am afraid that it will also be without a roof. Its children are close brothers who prey on each other instead of joining hands to fend off winds and adversities. Has anything changed in Lebanon and its surroundings? Perhaps, but only for the worse, because the winds have strengthened and are almost destroying everything. Hatred and blind prejudice have become more vicious and extremism captures weak souls and reaps the innocent with kidnapping, slaughter, abuse and torture. The things we have witnessed in the past year cause us sorrow: rampant terrorism in Lebanon and the region, the loss of innocent lives for no reason, unjustified assaults on people's dignity and unchecked disregard for the lives of citizens. Add to this the assaults on holy places, the destruction of churches and monasteries, the erasing of heritage and memory, the elimination of those who are different, the imposition of a single kind and a single religion, mass expulsion of people who have committed no crime other than being different, to the point that some people rival beasts in their violent tendencies and the destruction that they wreak. In the 21st century, very far from ages of ignorance and backwardness, is it reasonable for a man to kill his brother only because he disagrees with his opinion or has a different religious or political affiliation? It is very saddening that there is silence about the brutality of the killers and the barbarism of the extremist groups, as though those who kill, torture, oppress and expel were insignificant flies or insects. Even if we have heard a voice from some quarters in the world, it is a very timid voice and almost inaudible.

[...] In Lebanon, the country still has no head or it now has twenty-one heads. Regional and international rivalries are still reflected in the Lebanese parties, which prevent the election of a president for the republic. The president of the republic is a symbol of national unity who ensures respect for the constitution and preserves the independence, unity and territorial integrity of Lebanon. This is what is stipulated by Article 49 of the constitution. Now, eight years later, the unity of the nation has no symbol and there is no president to ensure respect for the constitution and preserve independence. Does this situation not impede the work of the state? Does this not detract from its reputation abroad? Does it not pose a threat at home? The Lebanese are in a strange situation. When presidential elections took place through intervention by foreign countries, they were restive. When they had an opportunity to elect a president of their own because other countries were occupied with other priorities, they missed the opportunity on account of excuses by which they camouflage their sins and private interests." [...] "Is the agreement that some call for democracy? Is the obstruction practiced by some democracy? Is clinging to a position without regard for the interest of the nation the behavior of adults?"

[...] The vacancy of the position affects all of Lebanon without exception. The Lebanese have the right to a republic with all its parts that is respected, capable and effective.

Do Lebanon and the Lebanese not deserve to be free from those who demand leadership out of private interests and minor considerations and to transcend their ego and sacrifice it for the sake of the public interest, the interest of all. We need a little humility, a lot of love, feelings of responsibility and self-renunciation on the part of those who are responsible so that the nation will be saved. Lebanon has not run out of men who are competent, patriotic, wise and capable. They are many. So why do deputies not agree on an issue that lies at the heart of their duties: gathering to elect a president from among this number of qualified men? Is this not the democracy of which they sing? Since they met to extend their term of office (and it is strange how the quorum was ensured), why did they not undertake this heroic deed once more, setting their interests and calculations aside and only looking out for the interest of Lebanon and its people, who are also their people? Here it must be stated that being a deputy is a mandate granted by the people for a specified period of time and that extending this mandate is to appropriate a decision that belongs to the people and to violate their right to elect their representatives. Did the deputies not wonder when they left the session for extension, why people were protesting in various ways? Did they not wonder why they were being called various names? Were they not affected by these protestors, despite their small number? Did they not read what was written in social media? Is disrupting the work of parliament and preventing a session to elect a president one of their rights or duties as representatives of the people that they have a duty to perform to the fullest? Is an employee in public administration or the private sector not punished if he neglects to do his duty or is absent from his job? So why do the representatives of the people disdain citizens and their rights?

[...] Here must be repeated what we always say. The people must also be aware of their responsibility and to hold their leaders to account, not be led along behind them unthinkingly. The people must know their interest because this land that is their nation is a gift to them from God and they must preserve it and not squander a single inch of it. They must choose their representatives well to govern this land that through the people becomes a nation and through its strong institutions becomes a state. If one of them fails, they should hold him to account and if one of them performs his duty completely, they should thank him. But the problem is that we are living in a state of political and social decay and general indifference. Even the laws in Lebanon have to be formulated for officials, even if it comes at the expense of citizens. [...] For example, we have been hearing about the food safety law for more than ten years, but it is still shelved because ministers cling to their powers. What about the health of citizens? Must politics corrupt everything in Lebanon, even that which pertains to citizens' health? Can you believe that the ministers still differ over the necessity of passing a law concerned with food safety? A minister's power cannot be touched, but there is no problem if citizens' health is affected, their dignity is trampled and their lives are threatened. Yesterday, we saw in the  Beirut airport storage rotten foods and medicines that one of the officials called garbage. Of course, we must thank every official who conscientiously bears his responsibility and exposes every violation of the law and public safety. We hope that all officials will have zero tolerance for anything that harms public welfare and will cooperate together for the common good. Having clean food doesn't matter. Having clean hands doesn't. Having a clean conscious doesn't matter. Having a clean environment doesn't matter. It seems that there is an ancient enmity between the Lebanese and cleanliness. In the context of talking about responsibility, I would like to draw the attention of the Lebanese media to the need to be faithful to the mission that they have chosen and that this faithfulness is reflected in telling the truth and nothing but the truth. Media is a two-edged sword. If they do good, they contribute to building up humanity and the nation and if they do wrong, their wrongdoing is devastating. So they must always search for the truth and express it in a constructive manner. The responsibility of members of the media is great because media enters into every home, so it must not be a vehicle for one person, a mouthpiece for one person, a means for violating privacy, or wantonly insulting dignity for no reason.

[...] The season of Christmas is a season of reconciliation between God and man and between man and all creation. Through Christ's incarnation, our nature is no longer the prisoner of evil, but rather the path to divinization has been opened before it. God's will is that no one remains outside the path of salvation. The incarnate God has prepared everything for our salvation. It remains for us to accept the call. Let us cast aside our old man with all his sins and failings and let us raise our eyes to Christ who bowed the heavens and came down to us to lift us out of the abyss of death and bring us into the life of the kingdom. Let us empty ourselves of our selfishness, our affiliations, and our interests and extend our hand to others and work together for our nation and its people. May God return this blessed season to you in wellness, health, peace and stability. May He return to us our bishops Yuhanna and Paul safe and sound, just as we ask Him to return all those who have been kidnapped to their families and all those who have been displaced to their homes, to heal the hearts of those sorrowing, to strengthen the resolve of the oppressed, and to accept into His kingdom the spirits of those who fell defending this nation, especially those from the army and all the security forces who were struck by the hand of evil and deprived of the breath of life.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Met Georges Khodr: The Sunday after Christmas

Arabic original here.


The Sunday after Christmas

The days of Christmas stretch on. On the second day there is the Synaxis of the Mother of God and on the 29th there is the commemoration of the children who were killed by Herod. For today, the Sunday after the feast, and on each of these three days, the Gospel reading is the same: "When the Magi departed" from the Gospel of Matthew, since as the days pass we continue to stay with the divine child.

Here stands Herod determined to kill the Lord, but Joseph fled with Jesus and His mother to Egypt. Is what was meant by "Egypt" the desert of Sinai and its eastern borderlands, which are not far from Bethlehem? In Sinai, where Herod had no authority, Jesus would have been safe from the king.

Killing the children was in keeping with Herod's character, since he killed many people on account of his policies, including his son and some of his relatives. There are many who resemble Herod. They are the ones who want to kill Christ in the hearts of those who love Him or those who want to eliminate the Christian Church. However, the God who said, "Out of Egypt I have called My Son," calls us out of the darkness of oppression into His wondrous light. In the Bible, Egypt is the image of non-being and slavery. Grace brings us out of this into the Promised Land, to our meeting with God. Liturgically, this takes place at the Feast of Epiphany.

Those children died for the baby Jesus. We must pay heed to children, our brothers, and not grow hard and not commit a sin before them, as this would be killing their souls.

"Rachel weeps for her children." She is the grandmother of Benjamin and Ephraim, whose tribes settled the region. Her tomb is there, halfway along the route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This is the weeping of all humanity over injustice. Jesus and those who were martyred for His sake are an image of all those who are persecuted in the world. The Lord will draw our attention to the fact that "blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake."

After this retreat to Egypt, the baby Jesus returned with His parents to Palestine because Herod had died. Herod was king over Judea, the region around Jerusalem. There were fears about the new king Archilaeus, so Joseph wanted to go to Galilee and live in Nazareth.

The city of exile became the city where Jesus grew up in human terms and where he learned to work with his hands. That is, he appears as an ordinary person, as a simple person. There he was obedient to His parents. Joseph taught Him the Holy Bible according to the traditions of the Jews. When the Jewish scholars debated in the temple when He was twelve years old,  He was equipped with the knowledge that He received at home and that which He received from the Jewish scholars in Nazareth.

His reputation spread that He knew the Holy Bible and that He was a teacher. Thus, "He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.  And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah" (Luke 4:16-17). "Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him" because they were waiting for Him to preach to them and explain to them Isaiah's prophecy that He had read.

After Nazareth, He taught in Capernaum on Sabbaths, and then went out to all the synagogues of Galilee. We should not be surprised that the blessed Lord studied the scriptures. This is part of His humanity. The Bible says that "He grew in wisdom, stature and grace before God and men". His divinity did not devoid His humanity of progressing according to the laws of growth for all humans. This is part of the mystery of His humility which will also be manifest on the Feast of Epiphany when He goes down to the river to be baptized.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

al-Monitor Interviews Patriarch John X

If you do not already regularly read al-Monitor, do so!  Full interview here.

Syrian patriarch: To help Christians, stop flow of weapons

Al-Monitor:  Metropolitan Joseph has been described as a “son of Damascus” with a particular interest in protecting Christians in the Middle East. Do you foresee the US church playing a greater role in addressing the plight of Christians in the region?

John X:  We have a huge archdiocese here, with about 270 parishes, 500 priests and deacons, and nine bishops. We have a lot of hope for the ecclesiastical work this archdiocese can make for all our people to bear witness to Jesus Christ. We are one church, one family and all our people here have roots in Syria or Lebanon or Jordan or Palestine or Iraq and they help spiritually and financially. On the financial side, they send [aid] to the patriarchate to help our people there, in Syria especially these days. There are about 2 million Christians in Syria [and] we have a lot of needs these days. We try to help all without distinguishing between Muslims and Christians — we give to the Muslims and the Christians.

Al-Monitor:  Earlier this year a conference focusing on protecting Christians in the Middle East was held in Washington. Has it had any impact?

John X:  We are waiting. We are waiting. We are waiting to see some action. We finished the conference with a communique [urging] the governments [of the world] to find a peaceful solution, a solution through dialogue, not through other kinds of ways — the most important issue is to press all to find a peaceful solution for Syria.
Al-Monitor:  What has been your message in your meetings with US and other officials?

John X:  Our message is for peace, how to find a peaceful solution for Syria — that’s the most important thing. And the second is that we as Christians, we are not transients — we are not visitors. We are from these countries, and we live there, and we will still live there. Everywhere we go they ask us, are you remaining in Syria, or Iraq, or Lebanon? It’s a very sensitive and difficult topic. But we believe the solution is not to send war ships or ships for transportation to take us abroad. We ask all the governments to push for peace. If you want to help us as Christians, to protect us as Christians, you have to find a peaceful solution for Syria and for the Middle East. You can’t protect me only, if my neighborhood is not well.

Al-Monitor:  A key aspect of US policy is to empower so-called moderate rebels to help achieve such a political solution. What is your view on this?

John X:  We hope to find a peaceful solution through political dialogue, and to cut off all these sources of money and weapons to all these rebels.

Al-Monitor:  You’ve personally been impacted by the violence. Have you had any news of your brother [Paul Yazigi, Metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo] and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, who were kidnapped last year? Have you found out who is responsible?

John X:  Unfortunately, we do not have any news. We are afraid because we see this international silence. All [foreign officials] say to us is they do not know anything, unfortunately. It’s a shame for all the world, for all the governments, because they’re speaking about human rights and about democracy, but in this case where is the democracy and where are the human rights? Some governments have information, absolutely, but they don’t give it to us.

Al-Monitor:  How are you counseling other victims of violence? Are you worried about a cycle of sectarian revenge?

John X:  We believe the only way to live with the other is in a peaceful way, and to accept the other. We do not believe in extremism or takfirism or this kind of thinking. For these reasons as Christians we try to remain in our homes, in Syria and Lebanon and all the Middle East, and we do not believe that you can use the religion to divide families, to divide brother from brother. For these reasons we have to live in this spirit and to accept the others, to respect the others. We still live this sprit [and] have a very good relationship in our patriarchate with the Muslims.

Al-Monitor:  What kind of support do you need from the US and the rest of the world to achieve peace?

John X:  We still hope that we will have a good result and we will find a solution, despite all these catastrophes and tragedy. We still hope. And we still hope that some governments and institutions in the world want truly to find a solution. This encourages us to continue our mission, our work. We live with this hope that after the cross there is the resurrection. We are passing now in a very difficult cross, but we believe in the resurrection. We ask the international community not to think only about their interests in the Middle East — to know that the people of the Middle East is a lovely people, and they seek and ask for peace. And to help us to live all together peacefully.

Al-Monitor:  What are you doing to get across this message that the situation is salvageable?

John X:  We try to communicate [how] we try in the patriarchate to help the others, not only the Christians but the Muslims. That is the way we express our mission; that’s what we are, that’s what we believe. It’s very important for the outside world to know this is true. And I think they know.

Al-Monitor:  The Antiochian church is among the oldest Christian churches in the world. What are some of your plans for its future?

John X:  The church always has to be alive. And when we say has to be alive, that’s two things: You have roots in the past, your traditions for example, and you have a vision for the future. And you have to connect the past with the future. Now the youth have mobile phones, iPads. We have to change and speak their language. That is not a problem for us, because the truth is the truth. It’s the same content, in a different way. We have a lot of converts — Protestants, Anglicans. They realize they don’t have the true meaning of a lot of things in their life and they find it in the orthodox church, because we have this kind of thinking to connect the past with the future.

Met Georges Khodr: The Divine Child

Arabic original here.


The Divine Child

What shall we offer to the divine Child who is born for our sake after the magi recognized Him in their traditions as God, King, and one prepared for sacrifice? What more can we say than this, when the texts read to us at matins have taught us that what Christ wants from us is expressions of correct theology, that we confess Him as Redeemer, eternal God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made. I say these things that we confess because some people here and their claim that they were raised Christian, do not confess this faith, do not celebrate the birth of God Incarnate or His Theophany, but rather commemorate Him as a great man.

There are many even in our midst who, if you asked them, would say that Christ was a prophet, a great man, a social reformer or expressions like this. However, we who gather in His temples come together to confess Him first as God and to accept Him as Lord. We affirm  that God alone can redeem man, that man is stumbling in ignorance and death and that if we want to escape this cycle of despair and spiritual death, then we only have to confess that the table is prepared for us at every feast we celebrate and at every divine liturgy, bringing grace from God Himself to heal us. Christ brought good news of this grace, poured it out on the cross, and caused it to dawn in the resurrection. The birth that we celebrate today is nothing other than the beginning of that path that He will follow from cave to cave, from the cave of birth to the cave of death: Christ in swaddling clothes, then Christ in graveclothes. Christ is a sacrifice from beginning to end, in order to show people a light that shines upon them as fire. In Arabic, light [nur] comes etymologically from fire [nar]. He in whom the love of Christ is aflame is in Christ the light of the world.

If we know this, then we will surmise from it the words of the Apostle that are read to us in the Epistle on Nativity, where he said "When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born[a] of a woman, born under the law,  to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5). This means that Christ is the fullness of time and that we are not waiting for any time other than Him. We are not waiting for any place where we can live apart from the place of Christ. We are not waiting for any other idea. We are not waiting for another feeling. All things have been realized and now there is nothing we must do other than to receive, other than to listen to Him, to contemplate His face, to live from this face and to inspire others to Him.

Why are we able to live in the face of Christ and to extend Him to others around us?! This is because in Him we have become children of God. He has breathed the Holy Spirit into us, who will cause us to call Him "Abba", by which Jesus means "Father". This is a word of tenderness, a word of familiarity from a child to his father and mother. Therefore, we have entered into God's family. After having been born into a family of flesh and blood, we have been transported from everything that is earthly and fleshly and from every relationship in flesh and blood to a relationship of worship. In Arabic, worship [3ibada] is from slavery [3ubudiyya]. That is, we have made ourselves slaves of God. It is not that we are slaves, but that we have made ourselves slaves of the One whom we love insofar as we look at God Himself alone and obey Him. In this way we are born anew. We are born of the vision of love by which we see God. If He looked at us as we are in our sins, we would die, but He looks at us with mercy and encounters us in His fatherly heart.

Let us proceed in this way to the blessings of Christmas, born anew in a world that does not know God, that does not know the beauty of the Gospel, so that we may be a little bit of light in a darkened world and that people may see our works and praise our Father in heaven.

Friday, December 19, 2014

How Bishop Qais Sadeq Entered The Patriarchate of Antioch

From an interview in this month's Majallat al-Nour. Arabic original in pdf here.

Who is Qais Sadeq?

I was born in Amman, Jordan in 1954. My father is Fuad bin Georges Sadeq who put on the robe of Christ in the baptismal font of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Kousba, al-Koura, the village of his fathers and grandfathers. My mother is from Ramlet al-Bayda, Palestine. I received my general Jordanian secondary diploma in literature in 1972 from Taj High School in Amman. On the Feast of the Cross, September 14, 1986 Patriarch Ignatius IV ordained me as a celibate deacon at Holy Cross Cathedral in Damascus and as a priest in the same cathedral on September 14, 1988. I was elevated to the rank of archimandrite by Patriarch Ignatius IV on March 11, 1990 and was appointed as an advisory judge for the spiritual appeals court in Damascus (Patriarchal Decision no. 84/1990). On May 6, 1992, I was appointed pastor of the Church of Saint George in Damascus and pastor of the Romanian Orthodox in Damascus. With the blessing of Patriarch Ignatius IV, I returned to Amman to be a consultant at the Crown Prince's Office for Christian Affairs (1995-1999).

How did you come to the Patriarchate of Antioch?

In June, 1972, I came to Balamand from Jordan for the first time to participate in summer training workshops held by the Orthodox Youth Movement. Among those I met there were the Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon, the engineer Michel (now Metropolitan Ephrem) Kyriakos, Hani (now Patriarch John X) Yazigi, members of the Holy Synod of Antioch and senior members of the Youth Movement.

After two months, with the blessing of Patriarch Elias IV I returned once more to Balamand as a patriarchal student at the Saint John of Damascus Institute of Theology. Among those under whom I studied were Patriarch Ignatius IV of thrice-blessed memory, then Metropolitan of Lattakia and dean of the Institute; His Eminence Metropolitan Elias (Audi), his assistant; Sayyedna Georges Khodr; Nadim (Fr Paul) Tarazi; and Dr Adib Saab. Among my colleagues during my studies then were Metropolitans Elias (Kfoury), Samih (Mansour), Georges (Abu Zakhem) and Paul (Bendaly) of blessed memory. However, God's will was that I leave Balamand before the end of the first term and go to Bucharest in order to receive theological instruction at its theological institute as a student from the Patriarchate of Antioch.

How did you come to Romania?

Through the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth  Movements (Syndesmos) and with the blessing of Patriarch Justinian of thrice-blessed memory (the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church), I received a scholarship to do theological studies at the Orthodox seminary in Bucharest, Romania. Because of the position of the Orthodox spiritual leadership of Jerusalem toward Arab members of the Church, the bishop of the diocese (Diodoros, later patriarch of Jerusalem) refused to grant me a certificate of his blessing, claiming that the Church of Jerusalem was not in need of theologians and that the priests and servants that it already had were enough for it. Because of Patriarch Justinian's understanding of the pastoral situation in the See of Jerusalem, he regarded me as a member of the Romanian Church and so did away with the need for a recommendation from Jerusalem. With the blessing of Patriarch Elias IV and the encouragement of the dean of the Saint John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the time, Metropolitan Elias (Hazim), the future patriarch, I entered the Orthodox seminary in Bucharest at the end of the first term as a member of the Antiochian and Romanian Churches. This provoked a protest from the Church of Jerusalem, headed by Patriarch Venediktos, his vicar Metropolitan Basilios and the bishop  of Jordan, Diodoros against the Church of Romania. However, the unity of the position of Antioch and Romania resolved the issue.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Arab Orthodox Call to Cease Commemoration of Patriarch Theophilos

Arabic original below the jump.

Statement of the Arab Orthodox Youth in Jordan and Palestine and the Orthodox Society

On December 15, 2014, the Arab Orthodox Youth learned that the so-called "Holy" Synod of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem decided at its meeting that day under the presidency of His Eminence Theophilos, Archbishop of Tabor and so-called "Patriarch" to punish the Reverend Archimandrite Chrisophoros, abbot and spiritual father of the Monastery of the Life-Giving Spring in Dibbeen, with ecclesial dismissal and expulsion from the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher because of his having asked the illegitimate patriarch to apply the canons of the Church in the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.


This decision comes after a series of other arbitrary decisions issued against several priests and monks, threatening them in order to silence the voice of truth within them, which is an  unprecedented approach in the history of the Church. This has come as a result of the illegitimate Patriarch Theophilos' violation of the canons in force in the "Mother of Churches", including his refusal to apply Jordanian law number 27 of the year 1958, his repeated violations of the Canons of the Holy Apostles (numbers 25, 29, 30, 35, 36, 38 and 58), his rejection of the repeated demands by clergy and lay members of the flock to perform his sacerdotal and pastoral duties as patriarch in addition to his many and deliberate abuses against the Arab monks and venerable priests, his many other abuses against the Orthodox Church through disregarding the Apostolic Canons and the canons of the Patriarchate, his unjust campaigns to politicize and Judaize the Church, and his silence about the symbols of corruption within her which have distorted the glorious image of the Church along with her honorable patriotic positions and  has caused scandal and division among the members of the same Church and the same nation.


With this statement, we reply to this uncanonical decision issued by an unqualified synod and declare that His Eminence Theophilos, Archbishop of Tabor, is not the legitimate patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem. He is unworthy of trust and neither he nor his synod represents us or represents the Arab Orthodox flock in Jordan and Palestine. The decisions issued by this synod are void and have no connection to the Church and will be combated. From this very moment, we declare his deposition from being spiritual father of the Orthodox Church in Jordan and Palestine after ten years of his ignoring the demands of the Arab flock, his intransigence, his racism and his flagrant violations of Jordanian law pertaining to the Patriarchate. We likewise ask all sincere priests to refrain from commemorating his name as patriarch at divine liturgies and also to refrain from commemorating the names of Bishops Venedectos and Philoumenos, as they are members of this so-called synod and are direct accomplices in this sinister decision, and to replace the name of Theophilos with that of the Ecumenical Patriarch, as historically he is the first  among equals.


We declare to everyone, near and far, that the Reverend Father Christophoros, pastor of our only Orthodox monastery in Jordan shall remain in his monastery in dignity and honor no matter what, and shall celebrate the divine liturgy at the appointed times and the services of the Church as usual. No harm will come to him so long as we are his flock, as the flock chooses its pastor.


Here we are surprised by the position of the Jordanian government and the Palestinian National Authority which support the unworthy Theophilos who represents a historical colonization of the Orthodox Church with his racist policy against the people of this country. We wonder about the forces that support the so-called Theophilos, push back against the Arab Orthodox cause and flex its muscles against the Arab Orthodox in Jordan and Palestine. We hold the governments entirely responsible for the eventual results of this ecclesial crisis.


As the Arab Orthodox youth in Jordan have submitted to His Majesty King Abdullah bin Hussain a petition containing around ten thousand signatures of Jordanian citizens regarding the Arab Orthodox issue that absolutely supports the position of Father Christophoros, the Arab Orthodox youth appeal to His Hashemite Majesty to intervene immediately and directly to bring justice to the case of Father Christophoros Atallah and the Arab Orthodox flock and to right the injustice and historical slander committed against us by the Greek colonizers.


We ask the patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches in the world to send official delegations to meet with representatives of the Orthodox flock in Jordan and Palestine and to ascertain all the facts with total transparency and impartiality and to provide the prospective recommendations before it is too late.


The Arab Orthodox Youth in Jordan and Palestine and the Orthodox Society

Amman, December 16, 2014



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Princeton to Offer Intensive Course on Christian Arabic in May 2015

From here.
 
Intensive Course on Christian Arabic
Princeton, New Jersey (USA) May 11-15, 2015
 
Thanks to a number of generous grants from the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project, over the last few years the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University has organized a series of short, intensive courses for graduate students on a variety of subjects in the broad field of Islamic studies not normally covered in the Princeton curriculum. In each case, an internationally-recognized expert has been brought in to teach the course over a period of five weekdays.
 
This year, we plan to offer such a course on Christian Arabic.
 
The course will take place in May, starting on Monday May 11, and ending on Friday, May 15, 2015. The course is intended primarily for graduate students, both from Princeton and from other universities; applicants should have some knowledge of medieval Middle Eastern history.
 
The instructor will be Alexander Treiger of Dalhousie University, an expert on Christian Arabic literature, Sufism, and medieval Arabic philosophy. The course will focus on Christian literature in Arabic, with emphasis on the Arabic-speaking Chalcedonian Christians (called “Melkites” or “Rum”). The first part (Days 1-2) will offer a general survey of Middle Eastern Christianity, its ecclesiastical, ethnic, and linguistic divisions, and Christian Arabic Studies as a field of research, central to the study of the Christian Orient and highly pertinent to neighboring fields (Late Antiquity, Syriac Studies, Islamic Studies, Byzantine Studies, etc.). Particular attention will be given to the library of the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai – arguably the richest repository of Arab Christian manuscripts in the world, at least as far as Melkite material is concerned. A special session will therefore be devoted to dated manuscript colophons from the Sinai collection. The second part of the course (Days 3-5) will focus on select genres of Christian literature in Arabic: biblical and patristic translations, apologetic and polemical literature, and world chronicles. Select texts will be read in printed editions (whenever available) and in manuscripts. 


Application process and deadlines
 
Applications must be emailed to Judy Schedneck (jschedne@princeton.edu) at the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University by February 19, 2015. The subject line of the email should read, “Application for Christian Arabic Workshop.” Applications should comprise the following:
 
Letter of application with statement of interest
CV
 
Names, positions, and email addresses of two referees
 
All items should be included in a single attachment, which may be a pdf.
 
Successful applicants will be notified in early-to-mid March 2015 and students accepted for the course but coming from outside of Princeton will receive partial scholarships to help defray travel and accommodation costs. The course itself is free.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Bibliographical Guide to Arab Orthodox Christianity

Dr Alexander Treiger, a professor at Dalhousie University and co-editor of The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources has posted for download on his Academia.edu page an extremely useful bibliography of scholarly works pertaining to Arab Orthodox Christianity and translations of primary sources into English and other Western languages.

It can be downloaded here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Met Georges Khodr: Your Life is Hidden with Christ

Arabic original here.

Your Life is Hidden with Christ

In the text of the Epistle assigned for us today, the Apostle Paul addresses the Colossians saying, "Your life is hidden with Christ in God... When Christ, who is our life, appears, then you will also appear with Him in glory."

Christ is our life. This meas that every good thing is in Him and every truth is from Him. This expression must be taken literally. These are words spoken between lovers: "You are my life." That is, "I have no existence apart from this constant encounter between us." Thus, says Paul, we have no existence if we are not being constantly transformed into the face of Christ who is our life. Of course, Paul is realistic and he knows that man constantly falls into sin. However, Paul says that those who are in Christ expel sin like healthy bodies expel a foreign body. When there is surgery that requires implanting a new member, the patient remains in danger of his body rejecting the foreign member until that foreign member takes on the characteristics of the healthy body and the patient is healed. It is exactly in this sense that the Apostle Paul says, "Put on the new man." Put on the new man who is healed in Jesus Christ, then you will expel every illness within you. A Christian may commit sins, but if he is truly in Christ Jesus, then the light of Christ will inter into the folds of his darkened soul and show him the ugliness of his condition. Christ is in him, leading him to expel the sin that is in him, to heal and purify himself and to yearn for the new, healed man that he acquired at baptism.

This new man, Paul continues, who was planted in us at baptism, "is renewed in knowledge in the image of his Creator." Thus the constant longing for Christ that is planted in us at baptism is renewed and constantly grows. He is renewed in the image of his Creator. That is, he becomes like God. This is Christianity: the human person extending from earth to heaven. There are no boundaries before the Christian, no ceiling over his head. He pushes up against heaven. He does not want anything less than heaven. The Christian truly strives to become a god. He is renewed in the image of the Creator. As long as the believer's face is constantly toward his Lord, as long as he fixes his gaze upon Him, despite his weaknesses and his sin, then he will be transformed into the glory of Christ's face.

Then Paul goes even further when he goes on to say that if we have this love for Christ, this constant longing for Him, "there is no Jew nor Greek". This means that there is no fence between people and no enmity and so "neither slave no free". Why do people enslave each other? Why is there oppression and tyranny? Why do people despise each other? Because they are slaves to created things, outside the communion of the love of Christ. We cannot ask a person to refrain from sin and from greed, which is idolatry, unless he becomes free in Christ. This is what the Holy Scriptures confirm to us and what the Church calls us to as she takes us to receive the feast that comes to us with blessings.

The Church calls us to try to be people who want to exterminate sin within ourselves: greed, impurity, lust in all their variety. The Church calls us today from slavery to the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus. She says to us that the newborn God is given to us anew at Christmas so that we may know His headship. Let us confess before His light that we are weak, and that faced with this weakness, we want Him to be in us strength and life.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fr Georges Massouh on Sheikh Abdallah al-Alayli

Arabic original here.


Islam according to the Approach of al-Alayli

Sheikh Abdallah al-Alayli (1914-1996) was characterized by boldness and progressiveness where other jurists held back. He published the book Where is the Error? Correcting Concepts of Renewal.... (First printing, Dar al-Ilm li-l-Malayin, 1978; Second printing, Dar al-Jadid, 1992) in which he criticized, from his position as an expert in Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh], various juridical issues that he saw to be at a variance with the correct Islamic method. Very quickly the first printing of his book was prevented from publication and distribution.

Al-Alayli decries the paucity of those who can properly be qualified as experts in jurisprudence. A jurist [faqih] must "possess the gift of acquiring, not of ordering for something. The jurist is not one who memorized what has been said, but the one who deduces and infers from what has been said. His disapproval grows when he deals with traditional jurists who rush to serve the governing authorities and to justify their actions and transgressions. He cites as a glaring example of this the issue of a monopoly over oil, which he views as public property which, on the basis of a prophetic hadith that says, "People are partners in three things: water, pasturage and fire", must be for the benefits of all Arabs and Muslims, not only the countries that produce it.

Al-Alayli also calls for the necessity of active legal reasoning [ijtihad] even in issues where there is a "consensus", especially if it is "of the sort of late consensus that does not stand up to argument unless it is based on conclusive evidence." Therefore, according to al-Alayli, Abu Hanifa did not accept the consensus of subsequent generations with his famous statement "they are men and we are men". By this statement, he meant that each generation has the right to use reason in the issues at hand and to discern the appropriate response by relying on Islamic principles, especially the Qur'an and hadith. Thus al-Alayli does not oppose civil marriage because he sees nothing in the Qur'an or the hadith that prevents the marriage of a Muslim woman to a man from the People of the Book. In this regard he says, "This issue is basically without any proof, except for the practice of the ancients, which became widespread."

With regard to punitive and criminal punishments and their application in Islam, al-Alayli puts forward an ideal rule for dealing with the issue, "The stipulated punishments are not in themselves intended literally, but rather what is intended is their goals." Punishment, according to al-Alayli, "has the purpose of deterrence. Anything that has this effect is equivalent to it. It remains the maximal, most severe punishment to be relied upon when all other deterrents are exhausted" and "it is not resorted to except when everything else is despaired of." However, he affirms that there are rulings that have no basis in Islam and must be eliminated, including stoning. He says, "There is no stoning in Islam... despite what has been spread about regarding it calling for stoning, it relies upon a group of hadiths that do not rise above the rank of hasan [i.e., one step below a 'sound' hadith]."

Al-Alayli's approach is based on his famous saying, "Tradition with error is not conservatism and reform that achieves knowledge is not deviance."  For this reason he came into conflict with the traditional religious establishment that connects the correct path with the literalist preservation of tradition, while he strove to reform the traditionalist viewpoint so that it could be closer to the authentic concepts of Islam.

Al-Alayli placed man at the heart of his thinking about religious renewal. He realized that religion was made for man by the Lord of the Universe out of mercy and kindness, "so Islam respects man in himself, insofar as he is man. .. Islam believes in man comprehensively, as a whole." This is the Islam that we knew in many historical periods in our country and which we hope to know once more in our own days, Islam according to the approach of al-Alayli.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Met Georges Khodr on the Sabbath and the Meaning of the Law

Arabic original here.


The Sabbath

Today's Gospel reading talks to us about the healing worked by the Lord on the Sabbath. The issue of keeping the Sabbath played a very important role in the life of the Lord, since the conspiracy of the Jews to kill Him began when Jesus healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Matthew 16:9-13). From that time, the Gospel tells us, they conspired to kill Him because they believed that He not only broke the Law as they interpreted it, but He was also demolishing the Jewish political order.

If we want to examine the true reason for killing Jesus in the minds of the Jews and their leaders, we find that it is that Jesus wanted to extend the boundaries of the People of God beyond Israel, to bring the gentiles into the covenant between God and humankind, to allow all humankind to enjoy God's sweetness and His blessings and, as a result, to break the Jews' state of insularity and do away with their feelings of superiority.

The Sabbath was a symbol of Jewish exclusionism, of Jewish racism and this is why the Jews took such a hard position against the Lord on account of what they regarded as his having transgressed the Law. The Lord came and wanted the people to transcend their obstinacy. He wanted to make it clear to them that the Sabbath was made for man and that every law was set down for the sake of man. Man was not created for the law. The Law exists for the sake of man, for his growth and knowledge of God. This is why Jesus brought something new in human history: He taught us that man, his heart and his spirit is better than the law and that we may transgress the law for the sake of man.

The days when marriages are not permitted to take place, the days when we must fast, fasting before receiving the Eucharist and so forth... these good, human rules were set forth in the councils, but they are general rules. If there is good for man in transgressing the law, then we should not be attached to general rules. For example, someone may be exempted from fasting and someone may be given the Eucharist even if he did not fast because there is a good in receiving it and this person may be in need of it. Therefore, let us not be attached to the law of fasting with regard to this person in this particular circumstance. This rests on the shoulders of the one who is responsible for discerning situations.

What is important is that our relationship with God be a relationship of spirit to spirit, the relationship of the human heart to God's heart, not a relationship of slaves submitting to an external law. What is important is that we transform the commandment from an imposed law to a beloved law. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Honor thy father and thy mother... These begin as external commandments that a person learns and sometimes feels to be a nightmare because he considers God to be far away and external and assaulting him. But if the believer knows God as his Father and realizes himself to be a Son to God, then he comes to realize that the commandment are not a nightmare that are imposed and are not like the sabbath of the Jews, but rather something beloved that points the way to salvation.

In Christ Jesus was have been transported from fear to live, to hope, to trust. Thus, as we go along our path to Christmas, we must not feel that Christianity is something external to us, merely rituals and social customs, like the sabbath of the Jews. Let us not be content to put a creche under the Christmas tree, but rather let us strive to transform our heart into into a manger to receive Christ. In this way we make the faith in our heart into a vision of Christ, holding close to Him and loving Him, so that Christ may be born in us as a wellspring of goodness and giving, and that our Lord may become everything in our life. In this way, we grow in the love of Jesus until Christ says in Himself, "Every house in this diocese is My house as though I am born in it and in the hearts of its people every day."

Georges, Metropolitan of Jbeil and Batroun (Mount Lebanon)
December 7, 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014

La Croix on Russia's Role Protecting Middle Eastern Christians

French original, by Samuel Lieven, here.

Russia Aims to be the Protector of Eastern Christians

Starting on December 4, Moscow is waging a diplomatic offensive on several fronts to come to the aid of Christians in the Middle East.

A historical legacy, the Russian presence in the region tends to occupy the void left by the Western powers.


As the conflicts in Iraq and Syria continue to bathe the region in blood, Russia plays its cards in the Middle East where more than ever it is positioning itself as the champion of the protection of Christians. After the categorical rejection of military intervention against Damascus in 2012 and 2013, it is now time for the offensive in multilateral forums.

During the course of a ministerial council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Basel on Thursday, December 5 and Friday, December 6 dedicated to the situation in Ukraine and the struggle against international terrorism, Moscow intends to seek that more steps be taken for the Christians of the Middle East and North Africa. Simultaneously in Geneva, a Russian draft resolution for coming to the aid of the Christians of the region may be submitted to the United Nations Council for Human Rights.

There is nothing new about Russian activism on behalf of the Christians of the Middle East. "In the late 19th century, the protection of Orthodox minorities in the region was the workhorse of the Russian Empire, as indeed,  France and Austria were the principal powers protecting the Catholics," remarks Carol Saba, director of communication for the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in France. After the long, anomalous Soviet period and the end of the Cold War, now that France and the United States are less and less present in the Middle East, Moscow is making a return, including in its portfolio the safeguarding of Christian communities.

"The Christian roots of European Civilization have been forgotten."

These initiatives on the diplomatic front are being accompanied by a more general discourse on the defense of Christian values and the struggle against "Christianophobia". In an article published on November 25 on the website of the English-language Russian network RT.com, the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alexander Yakovenko, called upon European countries to take into account "the Christian roots of the European civilization, which are now often forgotten for the sake of political correctness." "These are two sides of the same coin," says Fr Nicholas Kazarian, an Orthodox priest and a researcher affiliated with the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, "Facing a secularized west accused of having abdicated on values, Russia is positioning itself as the protector of Christianity wherever it is attacked, in the East as in the West."

The Syrian conflict has served to catalyze this policy. "From the beginning, the Russians have taken into account the analysis of local prelates: even if it is far from representing the ideal, the regime of  Bashar al-Asad at least has the merit of protecting Christians in the face of the Islamist menace," summarizes Stanislas de Laboulaye, a former diplomat posted successively to Jerusalem, Moscow and the Holy See.

However, as explains Fr Nicholas Kazarian, it is especially the ancientness of the ties between the Patriarchate of Antioch (the most important church in Syria) and the Patriarchate of Moscow that explains the existence today of a veritable "religious axis" between Moscow and Damascus. This is especially true as regards the ancient Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society: in March 2013, it sent 70 tons of aid to Damascus, to which was added a check for 1.3 million dollars from the Patriarchate of Moscow. Visits at the highest level-- Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Aleppo in 2011 and Patriarch  John X of Antioch to Moscow in early 2014-- illustrate the quality of the historic ties between the two patriarchal sees.

"It appears for the moment that this solidarity is only a moral solidarity."

However, as in the 19th century, this aid remains selective and primarily concerned with the Orthodox. In October, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch received a representative from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow who came to assure him of the "solidarity of his church with the suffering of the Christians of the Middle East." "But for our church, it seems for the moment that this solidarity is only a moral solidarity," according to someone in his circle. Likewise in Iraq, where Petros Moshe, Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul today has taken refuge in Kurdistan along with the majority of Christians from the Niniveh Plain. "Despite all the sympathies expressed in official declarations, I have never seen any Russian aid materialize for Iraqi Christians."

On the ground, reactions to the Russian presence are divided. "Those who have a knife to their throat after having been forcibly displaced, who have lost their relatives and have seen their churches and monasteries burned, are inevitably receptive to talk of the powerful Russian Church that comes to their aid," says someone close to Patriarch John X of Antioch.

Others, while remaining grateful, prefer to emphasize that the future is citizenship, not the protection of minorities. Georges Massouh, a professor at the Orthodox Balamand University, takes a  harsher position. "The US, France or Russia, it's the same fight! Under the pretext of defending minorities, these powers have always put their own interests first: oil, gas, access to warm water ports... It is for us, Christians and Muslims of the region, to rebuild our political contract without intervention from outside."