Monday, December 11, 2017

L'Orient-Le Jour on Jordanian Christians' Reaction to Trump's Statement on Jerusalem

French original here.

"Trump is one of those that they call Christian Zionists"

In an Orthodox church in Amman, during the liturgy, priests and believers criticize the decision of the American president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

by Laure van Ruymbeke in Amman

It is a Sunday unlike other Sundays for the Christians of Jordan. This morning, all the country's homilies are talking about Jerusalem. In support, they say, of Christians and Muslims throughout the world. Jordanian Christians of all communities represent close to 6% of the population. In Amman's largest church, the Orthodox church of al-Waibdeh, faces are sad. At eight in the morning the regular liturgy begins. A choir sings the prayers. Little by little, the pews fill up. Then, around ten o'clock, Fr Mark starts to preach about Jerusalem. He appears very angry. From behind his pulpit shaped like a bird, he declares, "Trump is one of those that they call Christian Zionists."

The tone is set. "This is a sect of around 40 million people. But Zionism and Christianity don't go together. He is not Christian. So he has no right to speak in the name of Jerusalem, from a religious point of view. No one would dare do what he's doing," he states. Before the very attentive eyes of the community, he continues his sermon for half an hour. He announces that the American decision will only create chaos. "Trump is the leader of the biggest country and everyone is afraid of him. And everyone likes him because everyone has deals with him. He's a luggage carrier." He calls the American president "Antichrist," which provokes laughter from the faithful. A woman whispers, "But he has no right! Why doesn't anyone stop him?" At the end of the sermon, prayers are dedicated to the "prisoners of Palestine."

"It's Jesus' city."
As people leave the church, Jerusalem is one everyone's lips. The sermon was appreciated and shared. One woman says, "Jerusalem is our holy city. For Christians, Muslims and also Jews. Trump has no right to declare that it is only for the Israelis. He should take into account of the people who have rights in Palestine. Jerusalem is an international city." Her neighbor chimes in, "For Christians, it's Jesus' city, the place where he was resurrected... So it cannot just be for the Israelis. He [i.e., Trump] should let go of it now and forever. He has his own vision that favors Israel. Why? We have rights in Palestine! Which go back for more than two thousand years! He has no right to do this." The "illegality" and "injustice" of Trump's decision come up most often. "For us, Jerusalem is the holiest city in the world," says a man around sixty years old wearing a red keffieh. "Mr Trump, with all respect, should try to find a solution rather than create problems. His decision is unjust and illegal."

Fr Salem al-Mdanat agrees to share his point of view. He is the one who leads prayers every Sunday. He is in agreement with the words of the priest who says that Donald Trump is not a Christian. "There are a lot of people who call themselves Christians but who aren't. Someone who seeks to create a war is not, in any sense, a Christian because Jesus Christ said that the peacemakers are blessed. It is not because one wears a cross that one is a Christian. The Zionists insult Jesus Christ." He adds that Jerusalem is the symbol of Christianity and of holiness. According to him, Jerusalem is for Christians what Mecca is for Muslims. "It's the place of the symbolic birth, of the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's the landmark for all Christians throughout the world. Whatever their churches are. So it is not fair for one country to go against the other countries." According to him, this decision will only create problems in the region. "This will create terrorism and, frankly, we don't need it."

Katy Mansour is an 80 year old woman. She has a discrete cross around her neck and is very well-dressed. In her quiet voice, she recounts that she was born in Jerusalem and that she had to flee the city in 1948 because her mother was afraid. The American president's announcement was a great shock for her. "This is a president who doesn't own anything in Palestine and who gives people what he doesn't own... What does he have to do with the people who live in this country? They came from everywhere to live in Palestine. And they say that it's their country... But why? Tell me, why? It's too unjust." She says that she's not speaking as a Christian, but as an Arab. Because before the "occupation," everyone lived together, including the Jews. "I was born in Jerusalem," she continues, "and now I have to request a visa to go to my country?  But why? There are no words for this, it's terrible... This man is terrible. I don't believe that the Americans themselves, except for the Christian Zionists, agree with him. For me, Jerusalem isn't the east. It isn't the west. It doesn't belong to one religion or another."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Saint Nicholas

Arabic original here.

From the Manger to Holiness

Brothers, who is a poor person? A poor person, for us, is someone who hardly possesses anything. And who is a rich person? He is the one who possesses much. This is according to people, but according to God, poverty and wealth have a different meaning. According to the Lord God, the rich person is someone who only loves himself and the poor person is prepared to give everything he has, whether he possesses a little or a lot. The rich person is someone who loves himself and so whether he possesses a little or a lot, he is rich in what he possesses. But the poor person, who is prepared to give everything, is the one to whom the Lord God gives the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, in the Gospel of Matthew, for example, it says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The poor in spirit are like the widow whom the Lord saw giving everything she had into the offering box in the temple. There were many people putting different amounts of money in it. The Lord God doesn't look at the amount that we place in the offering box. It is certain that many people put more than this widow that the Lord Jesus pointed out. The Lord Jesus noticed. Suddenly, He looked to His disciples and said, "Truly I say to you, this widow put more than everyone in the box." Why? Did she have a great amount of money? No, never! She was a poor woman. But she put everything she had with her in the box: two small coins! Then the Lord Jesus added, "These have all contributed from their surplus, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her livelihood." These two mites, for her, were the price of a loaf of bread that she needed in order to eat. Despite this, she offered to the donation box in the temple of her own accord. And so, in the eyes of the Lord God, she contributed more than everyone. Therefore, the result is that she received the kingdom, because He said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." At that moment, the Lord Jesus gave her the kingdom. And so, brothers, for the Lord, the poor person is the one who is prepared to give everything. He is the one who is generous in giving. According to the Psalms, "he scattered"-- not spent. That is, he gave without reckoning: "He scattered and gave to the poor, for His righteousness endures forever." This is the person who is poor in the Spirit. Perhaps the person who is poor in the Spirit may possess much and he may possess little. Usually, he possesses little because if he possesses much, then he is subject to the temptation to keep the greater part of what he has for himself. Then, he gives to the poor-- if he gives-- from his surplus. And this is a temptation!

Of course, there are poor people who give everything and there are also wealthy people who give everything. But the latter are extremely few. This is something that is only possible for God. So if we want to know if a person is poor before God, then his poverty is truly evident in his unlimited giving. The one who gives without reckoning, without limit, is the one who is poor before God and so is the one to whom God gives everything. He does not only give him the kingdom, but also everything he needs on earth. For this reason, there is no greater virtue than poverty in the Spirit. This is the greatest virtue. In truth, all virtues come from poverty in spirit. If the Bible said, "The love of money is the root of all evils," then it is possible for one to say in good conscience, "The love of poverty in spirit is the root of all good things and blessings." God came to us as a poor person and not as a rich person. God became incarnate and dwelt in this world as a poor person because He is rich. For this reason, He was born in a cave; He was born in a manger for livestock. He had no place among the wealthy people of this world. When one of them said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go," the Lord Jesus said to him clearly, "The Son of Man has no place to lay His head." Of course, at the beginning He lived in Nazareth and then moved to Capernaum. And of course He had a place to spend the night. But this was like nothing for Him: "The Son of Man has no place to lay His head." This means in practice that He is completely poor. He only finds rest for Himself in completing the work of the Heavenly Father, on account of which the Father sent Him. Therefore the Lord Jesus said to His disciples, "My food is to do the will of the Father who sent Me." This is My food and this is My work and this is My rest. The Lord Jesus has no food, no drink in this world to fill His existential void. Of course He ate and drank because He was human. Of course He slept. When He was in the boat, He was sleeping. When the storm raged, He was sleeping. But the storm did not affect Him because He abided in the bosom of the Heavenly Father and so was at perfect rest. It was not only that the storm in this world that did not affect Him, but also that He had authority over everything in this world that could be called a "storm". When they told the Lord Jesus that they were at the point of perishing, He got up and rebuked them for their lack of faith and said to the wind, "Be quiet." And there was great calm. The Lord gives such authority to all those who are willingly poor in the Spirit, those who learn day by day to not seek anything apart from the face of God.

Saint Nicholas, whom we celebrate today, was an image of the poor in the Spirit before the Heavenly Father. For this reason, his gifts were without limit and were not only gifts of money. He gave without reckoning. That is, he took care of people without limit. He loved people, kept up with people, and had concern for people. For him, this was his food, his drink, and his rest. Did Saint Nicholas not eat, drink and sleep? Of course. But his true rest was in giving rest to weary people. His true food was in feeding the hungry in this world. His true drink was in giving drink to the thirsty in this world. Above all else, his joy was in bringing the flock of Christ to the true, divine pasture, to the pasture of the Gospel, to the true pasture of the Gospel.

A person's life is for the sake of becoming God's man, someone who is poor before Him. His every concern is to be enriched by the word of God, to be enriched by God's Spirit, by God's light, by God's love. Therefore, love for him is food. It is medicine. It is joy. It is the kingdom. He who does not strive to console the sorrowing, cannot taste the kingdom from this moment. He who does not feed the hungry in this world cannot be filled with the heavenly manna that the Lord Jesus has given to this world and the next.

After the Mother of God, Saint Nicholas is the most prominent saint in history. Despite all that, we only know very little about him. Information about him, if we want to sift it by the standards of historical inquiry today, is of no value. Despite that, this saint has been alive in people's souls for seventeen centuries because he has taken care of them; he had concern for them. In his life, he was bishop of Myra in Lycia and he became, with his repose, a bishop for the entire Church, throughout the world! Every May in Russia, some tens of thousands of believers hold a procession for 170km, carrying an icon of Saint Nicholas, back and forth on foot! Children, the elderly and even the handicapped in carts, walk behind the icon. Are they crazy?! Saint Nicholas is alive in the souls of these people. Why? Because love, God's love, does not die. A person may search in his life for a person who is the model of one who loves: "Teach me to do what pleases You because You are my God." What is the person searching for? Who is the person? What does the person realize? Love, only love! The person is realized through love, through giving, through sacrifice, through poverty for the sake of God. He gives everything without exception. It is certain that Saint Nicholas prayed, but he prayed for the sake of others, for the sake of people. As for himself, he asked for the mercy of his Lord. He sought nothing for himself. The poor person seeks absolutely nothing for himself. He gives everything he has. He learns. Just as someone trains to cross the English Channel, he also trains to cross the sea of poverty. The spiritual life needs boldness and violence with the soul. There is something very important that one must learn before departing this world: poverty for the sake of Christ! When one is pleased to be completely uncovered, with nothing of himself to rely on and nothing but the Lord God to rely on, he has then realized his humanity; he has become a new, complete person in every sense of the word. Then he cries out like the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, "Into Your hands I commend my spirit!" Saint Nicholas was the model of the new person in the image of his teacher, the Lord Jesus Christ. Does anyone come across a memory of what Saint Nicholas ate or drank, where he slept, what sort of palace he had, what kind of vehicle he traveled in, what enjoyment he had in his bishop's palace? No one remembers absolutely anything of this sort because it is completely without value. Today, in the simple stories that are told about him and in the great presence he has throughout the world, the world's basic interest in Saint Nicholas is his great love for people!

For this reason, the Lord God gave him-- and gave us-- a very important sign. For more than 1600 years, the bones of Saint Nicholas have streamed what is called "myrrh". His bones have not ceased to stream it until today. And so every year on May 9, in the city of Bari where his bones are located, they take some of this stream that has come from his bones during the previous year and distribute it to the faithful and many healings and blessings occur. This is a sign that he is alive and that life abides in his bones. His is alive because the Spirit of the Lord dwells in these bones. The Spirit of the Lord who is in him and whose presence remains in his bones gives this. Do the bones give forth liquid on their own? Of course not! Rather, the Spirit of the Lord, who abides in the man's bones, grants, through this man, for his belly to stream "rivers of living water", rivers of blessing, in the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. Saint Nicholas was, still is, and shall remain until the end an image of his Teacher who is poor before the Heavenly Father and also an image of the widow who, with two mites, purchased the kingdom. Saint Nicholas bought the kingdom and he has distributed it over the course of history to all those who seek it and he increases grace upon grace. For this reason, you and others come on the Feast of Saint Nicholas to share in the divine service and to lift up prayers and praises so that the Lord God may give you a blessing through Saint Nicholas. May the Lord God give you and us the grace of His presence through this great saint. Many years. Amen.

This sermon was given on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6, 2017.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan-- Douma, Lebanon
December 10, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Power of Prayer

Arabic original here.

The Power of Prayer

The Holy Spirit who dwells within us is the one who prays, since we say at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, come and abide in us..." That is, we address Him by the power that He has sent down to us. He is the one who changes us from one state to another and lifts our soul to prayer.

You have stripped your soul of its lusts and caprices and made it a dwelling-place of God. He moves us to Himself, as though God in prayer addresses Himself. The Lord enters into you with the Holy Spirit. He strips your soul of its lusts and makes it capable of talking to Him. When you address the Holy Spirit at the beginning of every prayer, "O Heavenly King, the Comforter..." the spirit of evil flees from you and the Spirit of Christ dwells within you and raises you up. You have no more words because Christ's words come down to you and Christ addresses Himself within you and by this you become Christ Himself.

It is true that prayer is the soul's being lifted up to God, but in the sense that it is lifted up by the power of Christ Himself.

Before the Spirit of God enters into it, the soul is falling, empty, darkened, or broken. And if God's Spirit enters it, it moves by His power to the Father and becomes a soul renewed in the Spirit. It attaches itself to the Lord, joining Him with all its powers and the Holy Spirit prays in it. For this reason we say at the beginning of our prayers, "Come and abide in us and cleans us of every impurity." The meaning of this is that we cannot pray profoundly unless we call upon the Holy Spirit to come down to us and push the soul toward God, so man prays by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer, then, from the first word, is from the Holy Spirit to the Father.

This means that prayer begins in us when we expel the evil spirits from us. That is, the idea of sin. Man's commitment to the Spirit of God within him is the condition for true prayer. So prayer from the beginning is repentance, in that through it you seek God and expel what is against God. It is possible for you to pray and to accept that sin remains in you. This is a contradiction. Prayer in its essence is repentance and it is clear that one who does not pray does not want to repent. In many cases, someone who neglects his prayer is someone who desires to not repent and someone who returns after neglecting it has decided to return to God. Prayer is the cord that binds us to God. It is to abide in God. It is the strongest proof of faith.

Prayer does not come from the mind alone. It is the power of the Holy Spirit Himself within us. It is our clear proof of our union with God.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Meditations on Death and the Resurrection

Arabic original here.

Meditations on Death and the Resurrection

There is an inevitable truth that death lies in wait for us at some moment of our life. So how must one deal with this eventuality? Do we surrender to it and live our life in fear of it happening sooner or later? Or should we face it with courage and live as though it could happen at any moment? Do we live this coming death in constant fear or do we regard it as something natural and go about our daily life in a normal manner?

Kallistos Ware begins his article "'Go Joyfully:' The Mystery of Death and the Resurrection", which appears in his book The Inner Kingdom as follows: "In the worship of the Russian Orthodox Church, while the prayers of preparation are being said before the start of the Eucharist, the doors in the center of the icon screen remain closed. Then comes the time for the Divine Liturgy itself to begin: the doors are opened, the sanctuary stands revealed, and the celebrant sings the initial blessing. It was precisely this moment that the religious philosopher Prince Evgeny Trubetskoy recalled as he lay dying. These were his last words: 'The royal doors are opening! The Great Liturgy is about to begin.' For him death was not the closing but the opening of the door, not an end but a beginning. Like the early Christians, he saw his death-day as his birthday."

These words remind us of what Simeon the Elder proclaimed when he held the child Jesus during His presentation in the temple. He said, "Now let your servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to Your word, for my eyes have seen Your salvation" (Luke 2:29-30). Simeon saw the Savior, the awaited Messiah, and so he lacked nothing in this world, so he asked God to release him from this world to the world of salvation. Evgeny Trubetskoy also saw that his departure from this world was a departure to participation in the Divine Liturgy, which is communion between the living and the dead. He saw that death is the true beginning of new life in the eternal presence of God.

In the same article, the author quotes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, "Death is the touchstone of our attitude toward life. People who are afraid of death are afraid of life. It is impossible not to be afraid of life with all its complexity and dangers if one is afraid of death... It is only if we can face death, make sense of it, determine its place and our place in regard to it, that we will be able to live in a fearless way and to the fullness of our ability." But he is quick to warn us not to ignore the mysterious nature of death and so we must not treat death lightly. It is, of course, an inevitable reality, but at the same time it is the great unknown.

How does the resurrection relate to all of this? Kallistos Ware responds, "For Christians, the constantly-repeated pattern of death-resurrection within our own lives is given fuller meaning by the life, death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. Our own story is to be understood in light of His story-- that story which we celebrate annually during Holy Week... Christ's dying, in the words of the Liturgy of Saint Basil, is a 'life-creating death'... As we Orthodox affirm at the Paschal midnight service, in words attributed to St John Chrysostom, 'Let none fear death, for the death of the Savior has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death... Christ is risen and life reigns in freedom. Christ is risen, and there is none left dead in the tomb.'"

What is our attitude? Let us pray with those who pray, asking God to answer this supplication: "Let the end of our life be peaceful, without sorrow or shame before the judgment-seat of Christ." This requires us to be prepared through living a life of constant repentance, that we may stand not with those who are disappointed, but with those who are saved.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Question of Life

Arabic original here.

The Question of Life

This is the question of life: who is my neighbor? People think that the neighbor is a spouse, a child or an uncle, all those we call "relatives," and people distinguish between neighbors and strangers. A neighbor is someone with whom we share our tastes, our religion, or kinship and a stranger is someone with whom we differ and whom we find foreign.

Here the teacher of the law comes to Jesus, a theologian in Israel who had to have known the answer to the question before asking, and so the Bible says that he came to test Jesus and asked him, "How may I be saved?" Jesus replies, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself." The man knew that the Law of Moses commands love, but it distinguishes neighbor from foreigner. The Law says, "Only love the Jew." Non-Jews are called "gentiles" and Jews had nothing to do with them.

Although the Samaritans lived near the Jews in the land of Samaria, they were regarded as foreigners because they believed only in the five books of Moses and did not accept the Jews' prophets and because their blood had been mixed in marriage with foreign blood. Therefore the Jews regarded them as foreigners, had nothing to do with them and did not care for them.

When the teacher of the law asked Him, "Who is my neighbor?," Jesus told him the parable that appears in today's Gospel reading. Jesus did not answer the lawyer's question directly, but rather responded to the question with a question: who do you reckon became a neighbor to that wounded man? He said, "The one who worked mercy for him." This Samaritan, the hated, damned foreigner, became a neighbor to the injured Jew through love. The barriers between nations dissolved when Jesus came teaching mercy. The barrier between neighbor and stranger dissolved, between one neighborhood and another, between one region and another, between one village and another, between an old family and newcomers.

All of these worldly, self-interested concerns were destroyed by Christ. He said to us, "Before you is a specific person who needs you": the poor or injured or lonely, or the one who feels that no one loves him. God has designated this person as your neighbor, if you go out to him. Thus the question "who is my neighbor?" is irrelevant. Go out to the person who you see in need of you, the one whom circumstances have placed along your path of life, no matter what his nationality, his religion, or... If you go out to him and love him, you make him your neighbor.

The fathers of the Church say that the Good Samaritan is an image of Christ because he is the one one who breaks the barriers between people and goes to all people. He sent his apostles into the entire world to create love between all people. Those who love each other are the ones who became the Church of Christ in love. It is naturally supposed that those who are baptized will love each other, to be a model for people, so that the light that is in them will shine forth and go out to others by way of love. In this way the true Church spreads, the Church of those who love.

The remedy is love. This means that after we encounter each other, we care, we serve, we sacrifice, and in this way the other person gets better because we have loved him.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: George, Saint of Nonviolence

Arabic original here.

George, Saint of Nonviolence

Yesterday [i.e., November 3], the Orthodox Church celebrated the commemoration of the rebuilding of the church of the Holy Great-martyr George in Lydda and the transfer of his relics there. This Palestinian saint took Christ as his sole model in order to live according to His teachings and to bring his life into harmony with them, especially the cross, the distinguishing sign of true Christianity, not of just any Christianity that raises it as a slogan for sectarian mobilization.

George, the officer in the Roman army, was martyred because he refused to offer sacrifices in pagan rites, just as he refused to confess the divinity of the emperor. He willingly accepted martyrdom, abandoning his weapon and casting it aside. He did not resist with violence, but rather his resistance was non-violent, a simple declaration of his faith in Christ the Lord, Redeemer and Savior. He accepted martyrdom in order not to betray his faith and its fundamental principles or act against his firm conviction.

The majority of Christians have made George into a different person who has nothing to do with the martyr George. They have turned his icon, which is rich in symbolism, into a legendary hero and denied his martyrdom. They have made him into a warrior, when he refused to use his weapon against those who tormented him, beat him, and caused him to experience every sort of torture. This legendary icon has contributed to making many people say, as a reaction, that George never lived because he fought and felled the dragon. So if dragon is a legend, then the whole thing is a legend. But George the officer lived under the Roman Empire and was martyred during the era of persecutions (303-304).

There are two fundamental elements that we see in the icon: the dragon, which symbolizes evil, and the young woman, who symbolizes the Church. This dragon (the Evil One) demanded that the people of the city offer him a young virgin every day as a ransom for the entire city. George rejected this communal concession to evil and he endeavored to resist it. He defended the young woman (the Church) that the dragon wanted to kill and destroy. His war was not of this world. It was a war imposed upon him by his zeal for the Church, so that she would not be transformed into an institution of this world. He wanted the Church not to offer any concession, no matter how simple, to the forces of evil, but rather for her to resist them and eliminate them.

There is an essential lesson provided by this icon, which is ignored by many people who act contrary to it. The icon intends to remind the faithful that the essential less of George's martyrdom lies in that his steadfastness in faith and martyrdom and his refusal to submit to his tormentors are what made Christianity endure. The only thing that destroys Christianity is its transformation into one of the institutions of this transient world.

The distortion of George's image was increased through its use in launching wars and massacres that have nothing to do with the Christian faith or the teachings of the Church. If someone wants the great powers of the world to launch a war in the political, economic and military interest of his country, you see him taking the place of George on the back of the horse and killing the dragon. In fact, it would be more appropriate to draw a picture showing a dragon fighting another dragon, not a saint who has committed many crimes against the innocent people of the country targeted for war. But the dragons are many and there is a battle of dragons without saints or righteous ones.

Christianity does not accept any distinction between an ordinary evil and a greater evil. Evil is evil, so putting it into degrees as though that legitimizes the evil that we see as ordinary and acceptable in order to prevent a greater evil, but which others might see as a great evil, and what we see as normal they see as something great that must be eliminated. This happens because we don't agree on what is the ordinary evil and what is the greater evil. So dragons battle with a clear conscience.

Saint George is the saint of nonviolence who through nonviolence defeated the Roman Empire. The empire that wanted to put an end to Christianity was went extinct, while the Church was victorious over the great empire through nonviolence and continues to live by the grace of her Lord. Do not insult us, O dragons of this world, by using the image of Saint George or of any other saint in your wars and assaults. George is nobler than you and immeasurably superior. Leave him in peace, lest your condemnation be multiplied.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): The Shepherd

Arabic original here.

The Shepherd

The true Shepherd is Christ and so the true priest is the one who resembles Christ because he receives his priesthood from Him.

"The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep" (John 10:11).

The priest is numbered among the clergy. This word indicates ecclesiastical service. In our true reckoning, there are not classes in the church: between the patriarch, metropolitan (or bishop), priest, deacon, and layman...all of these are various vocations according to the service of each one of them. They are all equal before the Lord.

His calling is to lead his children to repentance. That is, continuous transformation into the mind of Christ. He does this through teaching and offering a model of life.

In this process, the priest always respects the freedom of the other. He wins him over with his love and dedication.

The true priest washes the feet of the faithful. We call him "father" because he points us to the fatherhood of God. He begets spiritual children by God's grace. He always strives to speak with God's words.

The prophet Ezekiel says, "'But you, son of man, hear what I say to you... open your mouth and eat what I give you.' Now when I looked, there was a hand stretched out to me; and behold, a scroll of a book was in it... Moreover He said to me, 'Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.' So I ate, and it was in my mouth like honey in sweetness." (Ezekiel 2:8, 3:1-3).

A priest does not lead anyone to himself, but rather to Christ the Savior. This is the work of every spiritual father. The prophet also says, "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves!" (Ezekiel 34:2) and adds, "I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down. I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment (Ezekiel 34:15-16). He does all of this out of his love.

Beloved, we are in dire need of such shepherds as these today in our age of materialism and selfishness. People today, especially the youth, seek to have a living model to imitate before them, to "leave everything and follow Christ." It is true that a shepherd needs much knowledge of God's word, but what attracts the person of today more than anything else is his free service in meekness and love.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Monday, October 30, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: Let Us Live with Christ

Arabic original here.

Let Us Live with Christ

In today's Gospel reading, there are two miracles: the first miracle is the healing of the woman with the issue of blood which came about by chance, because the intention was for the Lord to heal the daughter of Jairus, the head of the synagogue, who had died as He was on His way to her.What is important for us is to see that each one of us is represented by the woman with the issue of blood and the daughter of the head of the synagogue at the same time.

The woman had been bleeding for twelve years and has spent all her money on doctors. The Evangelist Luke places us before a desperate accident: a woman who is not healed. The Lord comes and immediately heals her when she touches the edge of his garment and He felt that someone had touched Him and that power had gone out from Him.

In our encounter with the Lord, we must first touch Him, draw near to Him like the lover draws near to the beloved. If it can be said, we must struggle with Him, as God said in the Book of Genesis (32:24), when it talks about Jacob struggling with the angel. We must struggle with Him truthfully, a struggle where we meet His power, a struggle where the Lord acquires us completely, then we are sated by His presence, we are sated by His consolations. Then we are healed. Our broken, tormented, bewildered souls are healed. Every soul, when its adversity increases or adversity strengthens around it in the world, is inevitably cast down, as though into a pit. When a person doesn't know his fate, when he neither lives for today or for tomorrow, he is despairing, his strength is drained and he needs to touch Christ. Christ alone is able to lift the nightmare from us and to place us in His sweet presence.

After death came to Jairus' daughter, the Lord took her hand-- here also we have touch-- and called out to her, "Girl, arise." The power of Christ seeps even into the germs of death. Just as the woman with the issue of blood was immediately healed, so too did the girl's spirit return immediately to her. The Evangelist Luke emphasizes the expression "immediately" because the Lord turns to us with all the power and life that is in Him.

In this regard, death does not appear to be something strange. Death was strange before the Lord came. It was our enemy, oppressing us through sin. But after the Lord died on the cross, we all became companions in His death. Therefore He constantly says to us, "Believing son, son for whom I died, arise, arise from your sin first, for this is the great resurrection."

We have trained to rise from sin. If we live with Christ, do we not also rise with Him? Those who despair along the pathways of death or those who renounce their faith when a beloved face disappears from them, they are people who do not draw near to Christ in their life and so death comes to them as a stranger, just as it came to the people of the Old Testament and pagans. We are a people who are not entranced by life until the end and are not drained by life. We are a people who know and taste that this life is passing because if we have touched Christ, nothing and no one else consoles us. If we come to be familiar with Jesus, then we are strangers to our things and to ourselves. Livelihood may go away without regret. So why does life not go away from us also without regret, if we encounter Him after it.

We give things more value than they deserve and so we are afraid at death. We are attached to people as though they are the source of our life and it is difficult for us to depart this world, as though we are torn from death or illness.

If we place ourselves in eternal life, grace persists upon us in prayer that we send to the Lord. We confide in Him and we are intimates of the other life if it is brought to us. We are companions of Christ who beckons us to His face. Therefore we do not falter when someone or something departs, no matter how dear. While this world ends and people leave, we must know where is our life and where is our goal. If we are certain that Christ is our life, then we desire to be seized away to Him in glory.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Haaretz on the Patriarchate of Jerusalem's Real Estate Deals

Taken from here (Israeli website).

New Details Emerge on Greek Orthodox Church's Massive Asset Sell-off in Israel - and the Mystery Only Deepens

Senior official explains the Greek Orthodox church’s position for first time, insisting that sales of properties throughout Israel at seemingly rock-bottom prices are necessary and financially sensible

By Nir Hasson

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, is in the midst of an international public diplomacy campaign regarding the management of his church’s lands. On Monday he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and over the past two weeks he has met with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Next week he’s scheduled to meet the Greek prime minister and after that, the head of the Anglican Church.

Theophilos is waging war on three different fronts: Against Israeli politicians who are threatening to expropriate church lands to prevent them from falling into the hands of private developers who will undermine the rights of homeowners; against the right-wing Ateret Cohanim association, which is seeking to seize the assets in Jerusalem’s Old City that it bought from the previous patriarch; and against Christian communities in Israel, which are watching helplessly as the patriarch sells off church properties at fire-sale prices. Of these fronts, what worries Theophilos most is confronting the mounting criticism of his asset sales policy within the church itself.
For the first time, a senior church official agreed to explain the church’s position to Haaretz. He insists that the church’s sales of properties throughout the country at seemingly rock-bottom prices were both necessary and financially sensible.

Two weeks ago Haaretz exposed three such sales. The lands were sold at extremely low prices to companies whose unknown are owners because they are registered in tax havens. Some 430 dunams (108 acres) of land were sold in Caesarea for a million dollars, six dunams with commercial tenants at Clock Tower Square in Jaffa went for $1.5 million and an area of Jerusalem's Givat Oranim neighborhood containing 240 apartments was sold for $3.3 million. Even considering that the plots have long-term leases that reduce their values considerably, those prices are still incredibly low.

Other transactions that were conducted seven years ago in Jerusalem have come to light since then. In all cases, the buyer was a company called Koronetti, which is registered in the Virgin Islands and which also purchased the Givat Oranim property. No one knows who the company’s shareholders are.

According to sales contracts obtained by Haaretz, this company purchased a three-story office building on Jerusalem's King David Street, one of the city’s most prestigious locations, for $850,000. Another six-story building on nearby Hess Street, which has stores and the King David Residences luxury residential complex, was bought for $2.5 million; a 2.3-dunam plot in the city's Baka neighborhood was sold for $350,000. All these prices are exceedingly low, despite the decades-long lease agreements for properties there.

“Every square meter here goes for 60,000 [shekels, or $17,000] and there’s potential for 2,000 square meters,” says attorney Yitzhak Henig, whose office is in the building on King David Street. “Someone here won the lottery.”

For the first time since these transactions were publicized, the patriarch is trying to explain his position to the public. He recently engaged a PR firm, Debby Communications. In a conversation with Haaretz, M., a church official who is very close to the patriarch, explains his stance.

“There are no secret transactions,” he says. “There are no shady deals. No one is hiding anything. All the buyers are respected and well-known businessmen who for their own reasons prefer not to be exposed.”

According to M., the church evaluated each property before selling it, got an appraisal and demanded and received a fair price. There are two factors that negatively influence the price of the lands, he says. One is the long-term leasing agreements with the state, some that still have decades to go until they terminate, and the second is the fact that in the future, the state is liable to expropriate the land or otherwise undermine the property rights. The patriarch sees the bill recently proposed by lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), under which church lands sold to private developers will be immediately expropriated by the state, as proof of the risk to these church properties in the future.

“We are an organization that’s subject to blackmail in Israel, in the Palestinian Authority and in Jordan,” says M. “Everyone feels they can blackmail us. They’ve turned the patriarchate into a persona non grata.” That’s why he describes these properties as a “disease” that weighs heavily on the church and must be eliminated.

For example, M. says, the original leases signed with the Jewish National Fund for land in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood during the 1950s are like land mines for the church, since they allow the JNF to extend them for many years at very low cost. It seems that the buyers of this land, the Nayot-Komemiyut partnership, don’t agree with him. “We did a terrific deal and I’m not embarrassed to say so,” said attorney Avraham Aberman, who represents the group.

M. goes further in trying to explain the sales. “The patriarchate is an institution spread over three countries; it has no countries behind it, it has no sources of income. Its only sources of income are its properties. It’s an institution that for years bought and sold to fund its expenses. The church owns 10 percent of the land in the Old City and it yields barely a few hundred thousand dollars a year. You ask for rent, but the tenant says, ‘I’m a member of the sect, I’m not paying.’

“When the patriarch assumed his position the church was $40 million in debt; there were properties with liens and in receivership,” M. continues. “He came and instituted a reform. He doubled the salaries of the priests, provided larger budgets to the schools, and for this he needed money. So we have properties that we are interested in from a strategic perspective and there are properties that we sell and from that we support ourselves.”

“We may own the land, but when you have decades-long leases, it’s an abstract ownership,” he says. “Take the deal in Givat Oranim. When we concluded the transaction, there were still 60 years left on the lease. We got an appraisal and we got a price of $6 million. In the end we sold it for $3.3 million but together with the taxes, which the sellers are paying, we ended up getting almost $5 million, which is certainly a reasonable deal. In the Ramle industrial zone we sold 24 dunams for 30 million shekels [$8.6 million]. That’s more than what the Israel Lands Administration is selling for in the same place.”

According to M. the money made through the sales is being invested in yield-bearing real estate in places like Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem and Givat Hamatos in the south of Jerusalem. In both cases, private developers are building hundreds of apartments on church land; in return, the church will get some of them.

Attorney Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox Christian and real estate expert, is a sharp critic of the patriarch and rejects M.’s explanations.

“He describes someone bankrupt who wants to sell spoiled goods, but these are the words of someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” says Khoury. “Can you imagine a country selling its lands because it doesn’t want them anymore? These aren’t Theophilos’ private properties, they are the properties of the entire community and they must remain in the community’s hands for generations to come. He’s just trying to minimize the crime they’ve committed.”

In 1999, during the reign of the previous patriarch, Irenaios I, Khoury attended meetings with Rafi Eitan, then the Jerusalem Affairs minister, where they discussed extending the lease on church lands in the Rehavia neighborhood. “Then we calculated that if we took the market value and capitalized it, we would get to hundreds of millions of dollars on Rehavia alone. I told Rafi Eitan to send me the government assessor and he started to laugh. It was clear that the government could never pay that price. Someone trying to get rid of such an asset is a man with no eye to the future.”

Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Jerusalem District Court issued a restraining order on the sale of the Rehavia lands. The patriarchate had filed a petition demanding that the municipality produce a document stating there are no taxes owed on the land. The city argued that it would need a lot more time to gather the information and produce the document. The court accepted this position and froze the transaction for several months.

Next week the patriarchate plans to appeal to the Supreme Court over the sale of three buildings in Jerusalem's Old City to Ateret Cohanim. Two months ago the Jerusalem District Court rejected the patriarchate’s claim that the sales were part of the corrupt operations of the previous patriarch and his treasurer.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Is the Ecumenical Movement "Heretical"?

Arabic original here.

Is the Ecumenical Movement "Heretical"?

John said, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us." So Jesus said to him, "Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side" (Luke 9:49-51). This discussion comes in the context of the healing of a young boy from an "unclean spirit" that was living within him, after which came John's question and Jesus' reply in the the next two verses.

What is meant by the unclean spirit cannot be limited to illnesses alone. Rather, it means in particular the evil that man commits against his fellow man. The unclean spirit does not enter into a person by its own force. Rather, it is the person who cordially invites it to dwell within him and guide him along the path of evil. When something serious happens, this person rushes to curse the devil responsible for his evil deeds in order to excuse himself, while he is primarily and ultimately responsible for his evil deeds.

Today, in certain circles of the Orthodox Church, a takfiri language is prevalent, one that regards the ecumenical movement as a "Christian heresy." These extremist circles likewise think that those taking part in the activities of this ecumenist church are heretics. Their list of names includes Antiochian patriarchs, bishops and priests, given the fact that that the patriarch of Antioch and All the East, His Beatitude John X, is a leading participant in the World Council of Churches.

We need to start by saying, on a dogmatic level, that in its ecumenical discussions the Orthodox Church has not offered any dogmatic concession in order to please her partners in the Christian faith. One can only pronounce a judgment of heresy against something that touches upon the essence of the faith. That is, what was decided in the Creed and some of the rulings made by the ecumenical councils, such as the decision issued by the Seventh Ecumenical Council regarding the necessity of venerating icons... As for Christians praying together during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity-- that is, outside the mysteries-- this is in no way heresy. Did not Peter and Paul pray together despite their fierce disagreement, so that the Lord might inspire them to the path of peace, reconciliation and love...?

Christ did not ask those who want to cast out demons in His name whether they are His followers or not. He did not ask them to recite the Creed or what church they belonged to. He said one thing: "He who is not against us is on our side.' What is this love-killing pride that wants to monopolize work in the name of Jesus for itself, rejecting that someone else might do work in Jesus' name that it would like to perform? Jesus Himself prevented His disciples from monopolizing this for themselves, when they wanted to monopolize Christ for themselves alone and not for others. It seems like that they are greater than the disciples, God knows.

 Along with our partners in the World Council of Churches, we strive to regain visible unity. In order for this to happen, we must take significant steps, including that they are churches, not merely Christian communities, so that we can sit together and dialogue about what separates us. The Church cannot dialogue except with a church that she recognizes, which with she is together in many things and separated in other things. So why focus on the disagreements in order to confirm division and not recognize the things in common in order to make it possible to solve the disagreements? Moreover, no Orthodox has ever said that the Orthodox Church does not realize the perfect expression of what the Creed confesses, "and in one, holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."

What prevents us Orthodox from casting out demons with people of other the churches-- with the Catholic Church, the non-Chalcedonian churches, and some of the Protestants? The first demon that must be cast out is the demon of the schisms and quarrels that divide us, especially in the East. Are they not demonic, those who refuse to recognize the martyrdom of Copts in Egypt, the Syriacs and Chaldeans in Iraq, or of the martyrdom of Catholics in Syria?

A heretic is someone who does not confess the activity of the Holy Spirit in the world, in Christians and in non-Christians. Therefore let us dare to speak of the madness of those who accuse the ecumenical movement and those who work in it of heresy.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: Man, not God, Created Hell

Arabic original here.

The Heart is God's Dwelling-Place

What does it mean for us to gather together and perform the divine sacrifice for the soul of a brother of ours who has gone on to God's mercy? What we know about death from the New Testament is that God recompenses each according to his deeds and that one's eternal fate is tied to his actions. What I would like to draw attention to in the saying "Man's actions follow him and God recompenses each according to his deeds" is that it does not mean that God keeps an account, a record in heaven in which man's deeds are accounted to him, whether good or bad. Rather, it is a calling to good work.

The blessed saying that God recompenses each according to his deeds (Romans 5:2-6 and Revelation 22:12) mean that man is purified by his deeds. If you love the Lord and your neighbor and you do good to him, pay attention to him, distract him from his sorrow and distress, are there for him in all situations, and are humble, then your works purify you. It is not that God reckons them. They purify you and lift you up to Him. It is not an issue of recompense or punishment. God does not take revenge and He is not pleased to see people being punished in hell.

The truth that has been declared to us is that God draws man to Himself and that man also approaches God through obedience. Man sees himself loving God and he sees God loving him and it is all love. One who loves is drawn to the face of God. One who does not love goes away from the face of God and remains in his darkness. It is not that God casts anyone into the outer darkness. It is not that God created hell: God did not create hell. Man created hell for himself and he torments himself in his sins. There is no sin that does not bear its own punishment.

God does not punish. Man hates and the hate itself is a torment. Man is not cast into hell haphazardly and arbitrarily, but rather brings hell to himself. It is cast into him and he is not cast into it. Man puts himself in darkness because he does not love, because he does not purify himself. If he loves, he places heaven within himself. Man does not go and come. He does not rise and fall. Man is here in this human heart. He brings God to his heart or he fills it with evil. He rejoices at virtue and it elevates him and makes him beautiful.

If God dwells in the human heart-- that is, if virtue dwells within it-- then it is a heaven. And if we understand that if sin dwells within the human heart and rends it, it becomes a hell, then we have understood everything. There is nothing in this world apart from God. If you love Him, then you are with Him and you are in Him and He is in you. If you love your lust and your sin and you hate people, then you are in hell and hell is in you. You are with the devil and the devil is attached to you and you are far from the face of God because you shrink from Him and because you anger Him with your deeds.

Do not think that a person loves God because he talks about Him and because he prays. This is not the criterion. The criterion is someone loves God if he obeys His commandments and is obedient to his brothers. Prayer, the holy mysteries, fasts and spiritual efforts are all only necessary means for us to arrive at the spiritual beauty within us, which is God's dwelling there.

We gather together in the Divine Liturgy because of our faith that the divine love that was poured out  on the cross is poured out in the Divine Liturgy, which is the celebration of the cross that was completed on Golgotha and the celebration of the Resurrection.

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on the Passions

Arabic original here.

The Passions

The chief passions are three: money, authority and pleasure. Authority is itself legitimate, but domination is not legitimate.

Saint John Climacus says in his book The Latter of Divine Ascent, "God did not invent evil. Those who claim that there are evil passions in the soul have erred, having missed the fact that we ourselves transformed the properties of our nature into passions." The ability to produce offspring, for example, is within us, but we have transformed it into fornication. We have within us desire for food, but we have transformed it into gluttony. We have within us the incensive faculty in order to be angry at evil, but we have turned it to harm our neighbor...

We combat the passions by acquiring the opposing virtue and practicing it. We combat gluttony with fasting, pride and selfishness with humility and brokenness of spirit. Love of sin is replaced with love of Christ: "Longing for Christ has extinguished longing for sin."

The Apostle Paul says, "Everyone who strives for the kingdom is temperate in all things" (1 Corinthians 9:25). Saint Macarius of Egypt says with regard to the spiritual struggle in his book of spiritual homilies:

"When one approaches the Lord, he must compel himself for the sake of good, even if his heart does not want this. He must compel himself in order to love without having love. He must compel himself to be meek without having meekness. He must compel himself to pray without having the desire for it... When God sees his effort, He will then give him pure, spiritual prayer. He will fill him with the grace of the Holy Spirit."

"From my youth many passions have fought against me." Beloved! Sins are works of passions and they produce pain and depression in the soul. Sin is the loss of grace.

A person does not become perfect without God. "This world is not enough." Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is denying grace. It is falling into the corruption of nature, according to Saint Athanasius the Great.

Grace is a free gift whose price is the blood of Christ. It is a gift of pure love.

"We have this treasure in vessels of clay" (2 Corinthians 4:7). In order for one to master his passions, he must compel himself, as we mentioned above, to train himself ascetically in abstinence, to struggle and so be purified: this is Orthodoxy in practice. It begins with repentance, with purification from the wicked passions. Then grace is active in us and we are illumined by God's light.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fr Touma (Bitar): Why Icons?

Arabic original here.

Why Icons?

Today, brothers, the Holy Church commemorates the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which affirmed the veneration of icons after a long period during which those who venerate them were persecuted and most ancient icons that had existed before the eighth century were destroyed.

What is the importance of icons in the Church? First of all, brothers, we honor icons and do not worship them. For this reason, all that can be said about us worshiping idols if we use icons in the Church is false. There is a great difference between veneration and worship. Worship belongs to God and God alone. But man expresses himself with word and image. Man has senses with which he expresses himself. Thus we use incense. Incense, for us, is a sign of venerating the faithful and of worshiping God in the faithful. So too with the Holy Bible. There are words in it, but these words are only vehicles for God's presence among us. We cannot express ourselves in a non-human way. We are human. Thus we express ourselves with sound, with the written word, with icons, with incense... All of these are languages. However, we need to know that the word of God which is read to us, though it has a human garb is not limited to human words. These words bear a divine presence. Thus we call this book the Holy Bible. It is the Holy Bible because it has a human dimension and another, divine dimension. It is different from every other book in the world. All the books in the world are human books, but the Holy Bible is a theanthropic book. In other words, we believe that the Son of God became flesh, that God became human. He is God and man at the same time. The Lord Jesus Christ is both God and man. For this reason, everything that goes out from God to man is divine and human in the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, God and man. The Holy Bible, then, contains human words, but these human words bear the divine presence, just as the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, which He took from the Virgin Mary, bore His divine presence. God was present in it and they were one and the same. Thus the word of God is a human word and a divine word at the same time.

The same thing can be said with regard to icons. In itself, an icon of course has colors. And of course there are shapes and lines. When we draw something, we place its name over the drawing. If there is an image of someone-- anyone at all-- without a name over it, then we do not regard it as an icon and we in no way venerate it. Then, when we are venerating an icon, in practice we regard the veneration as being directed toward the person depicted in the icon. We have here, for example, Saint Barbara. When we prostrate before Saint Barbara, we are not prostrating to the wall, but before the saint who is in heaven and who is present through the icon that we drew of her on the wall. In the same way, we kiss the Holy Bible. When we kiss the Holy Bible, we are kissing God, who was pleased to give us Himself through these human words. So our veneration is not of colors. It is not of wood. Rather, it is of the one who is depicted on the wood. So we venerate God and His saints in human shapes and human expressions. The Church has held fast to venerating icons because venerating icons is based on the incarnation of God. The icon indicates that the Son of God-- the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity-- became incarnate indeed. He became human in every sense of the word. He became perceptible. God became perceptible in His body. God in the body ate, drank and suffered. So this is something that surpasses human understanding. One cannot understand something like this. But one is allowed to accept this through faith, through this trust that God indeed became incarnate, indeed became perceptible. He who is imperceptible gives us Himself  in a perceptible image in the icon. And He gives Himself in an auditory manner through human words. He gives us Himself through the worship that we perform: through the incense, through the motions, through the words... The priest, for example, is flesh and blood like any human. At some point, this body will become dust. But the Lord God was pleased at the raising of the priest's hand and at his making the sign of the cross in a particular way, to indicate the name of the Lord Jesus. In this way, in practice, he gives the blessing of Christ, who is unseen, in a visible manner. For this reason, people bow, receive a blessing and make a prostration, knowing that this priest is a man like other men. But this man was chosen by the Church, a hand was placed upon him, and God's grace was brought down upon him, that he might become a servant of the Lord God. The priest, when he vests and serves according to the order established by the Holy Church, is not, in practice, the one who is performing the divine service. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is invisible, is the one performing it through him, who is visible, for the life and sanctification of the faithful. In the same way, we prepare the Eucharist. We prepare the bread, the wine and the water, and we sanctify them. In other words, the Lord God, who is invisible, is pleased to rest, by the Holy Spirit, in the bread and wine. They become, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christ's body and blood. This is what we partake of when we partake of the mysteries. When we partake of them, we taste bread and wine, but this bread bears Christ as His body. That is, we receive God who is pleased to give us Himself under the sign of the bread. This is what the Lord Jesus did at the Last Supper. When He was with His disciples, He took a loaf of bread and gave it to the disciples, saying, "Take, eat, this is My body." And He took the cup-- the cup of wine at that time-- and said to them, "Drink of it all of you, this is My blood." For this reason, we do what the Lord Jesus Christ did at the Last Supper. Then, by the Lord's Holy Spirit, this bread and wine become Christ's body and blood whenever we gather together to participate in the Divine Liturgy. I cannot explain it, but I accept it. You cannot explain it. You must only accept with faith. This is a truth that surpasses the human intellect. It surpasses human understanding. But it is a certain truth in every sense of the word.

So this is our life in Christ. For this reason, icons are very important and we kiss them and make prostrations in front of them. But this kiss that we press upon the icon is directed at the one depicted in the icon. That is, when we kiss an icon of the Lord and Our Lady, we are kissing the Lord and Our Lady, not just the wood. The wood must be there because we have bodies, because we are of this world, and we can only express what is imperceptible through what is perceptible. God is imperceptible in Himself. God is spirit. Nevertheless, He became perceptible when He became incarnate, in order to give Himself to us in a way befitting us. For this reason, these perceptible things that we use in the Church in order for the faithful to be sanctified through them bear God's presence. Thus we must honor with perfect honor these perceptible things that bear God's imperceptible presence. That is, we must consider the Lord Jesus Christ to be present here and now with us. When I give you a blessing, I am not giving it to you from myself. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who is giving it to you through me. I become a sort of human instrument in a sense. Through me, you receive the presence of God who surpasses apprehension and transcends time. In other words, it is the same thing that happened two thousand years ago and still happens now. The difference is that at that time, the Lord Jesus Christ lived among the disciples in the body. Then He ascended into heaven and sent us the Lord's Holy Spirit, so that we may persist in the work He did, by the power of the Lord's Holy Spirit, by regarding God as present-- yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever-- as He is active in our life in every sense of the word. And so the icon is a creed: "I believe in one God, the Father almighty..." Then we say: "And in the Lord Jesus Christ," who became incarnate from the Virgin. So the icon points to God having become incarnate and to man's having been granted to enter into a connection with God through the icon, through the word, through incense, through every perceptible, human thing. Man has become capable of talking with God in his human language. When one says, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy," he does not only speak words, but also directs words to the Lord God. He says to Him, "Have mercy on me, O God!" Now, as I am addressing you, am I speaking words without any purpose, or am I speaking in order to enter into a connection with you? Words connect people. It is language that ties people to each other. In the same way, when I use words, images, or anything perceptible as an instrument for bearing God, I am entering into a connection with God. I talk with God, just as you speak with God. Each of us is granted to speak with God, to enter into a relationship with God, into a connection with God, through perceptible, material things. We are human and need these things. Can I address you if I do not speak to you? If I do not lift my voice? If I do not transform this speech that is in my mind into words and sound so that it will reach you, so that there will be a link between my mind and your minds, between my heart and your hearts, between my presence and your presence, and then so God's presence will be in me and in you? All of this makes the icon something absolutely fundamental for expressing the nature of the Christian faith. If this was not so, then Christians at that time would not have sacrificed so many martyrs and struggled to keep icons. Without icons, they seem to say that God did not become incarnate. But God did become incarnate. God became man. God became perceptible. He gave us Himself. At every Divine Liturgy, we sense God's presence. We receive Him in a living form, in a perceptible form, in a human form. But at the same time, He is God and He was pleased to give us Himself in this way. For this reason, we receive and we give thanks and rejoice. We hold fast to the faith of the Church and to what our holy fathers have taught us.

The epistle says something very clear: "The man of heresy-- that is, turn from someone who teaches contrary to the teaching of the Church after having been warned time and again, knowing that he has gone astray-- and he is in sin, having condemned himself in himself." So we turn away from the man of heresy if he clings to his heresy, if he clings to his teaching that is strange to the teaching of the Church. For this reason, we the faithful must hold fast to what what the Church teaches us. There is no question of changing words. Indeed, there is a divine presence in these words. Therefore, let us preserve everything we have received from our holy fathers, transmit it to our children, and continue to transmit it with perfect trust.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan-- Douma, Lebanon
October 15, 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Free to Download: Irfan Shahid's Books on Byzantium and the Arabs

Dumbarton Oaks has made free for download all of Irfan Shahid's works on Byzantium and the Arabs, an extremely valuable resource documenting Byzantine-Arab relations and Christianity among the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period.

The Arabs played an important role in Roman-controlled Oriens in the four centuries or so that elapsed from the Settlement of Pompey in 64 B.C. to the reign of Diocletian, A.D. 284–305. In Rome and the Arabs Irfan Shahîd explores this extensive but poorly known role and traces the phases of the Arab-Roman relationship, especially in the climactic third century, which witnessed the rise of many powerful Roman Arabs such as the Empresses of the Severan Dynasty, Emperor Philip, and the two rulers of Palmyra, Odenathus and Zenobia. Philip the Arab, the author argues, was the first Christian Roman emperor and Abgar the Great (ca. 200 A.D.) was the first Near Eastern ruler to adopt Christianity. In addition to political and military matters, the author also discusses Arab cultural contributions, pointing out the role of the Hellenized and Romanized Arabs in the urbanization of the region and in the progress of Christianity, particularly in Edessa under the Arab Abgarids. 

The fourth century, the century of Constantine, witnessed the foundation and rise of a new relationship between the Roman Empire and the Arabs. The warrior Arab groups in Oriens became foederati, allies of Byzantium, the Christian Roman empire, and so they remained until the Arab conquests. In Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, Irfan Shahîd elucidates the birth of the new federate existence and the rise of its institutional forms and examines the various constituents of federate cultural life: the phylarchate, the episcopate, the beginnings of an Arab Church, an Arabic liturgy, and the earliest attested composition of Arabic poetry. He discusses the participation of the Arab foederati in Byzantium’s wars with her neighbors—the Persians and the Goths—during which those Arab allies, most notably the Tanūkhids, contributed to the welfare of the imperium and the ecclesia. The Arab federate horse galloped for Byzantium as far as Ctesiphon, Constantinople, and possibly Najrân in Arabia Felix. In the reign of Valens, the foederati appeared as the defenders of Nicene Orthodoxy: their soldiers fought for it; their stern and uncompromising saint, Moses, championed it; and their heroic and romantic queen, Mavia, negotiated for it.
Just as the Tanūkhids rose and fell as the principal Arab foederati of Byzantium in the fourth century, so too in the fifth did the Salīḥids. The century, practically terra incognita in the history of Arab-Byzantine relations, is explored by Irfan Shahîd, who recovers from the sources the political, military, ecclesiastical, and cultural history of the Arab foederati in Oriens and the Arabian Peninsula during this period. Unlike their predecessors or successors, the foederati of the fifth century lived in perfect harmony with Byzantium. Federate-imperial relations were smooth: the Arab horse reached as far as Pentapolis in the West and possibly took part in Leo’s expedition against the Vandals. They were staunchly orthodox and participated in two ecumenical councils, Ephesus and Chalcedon, where their voice was audible. But their more enduring contributions were cultural, and may be associated with Dāwūd (David), the Salīḥid king; Petrus, the bishop of the Parembole; and possibly also Elias, patriarch of Jerusalem (494–516), a Roman Arab. The federate culture gave impetus to the rise of the Arabic script, Arabic poetry, and a simple form of an Arabic liturgy—the foundation for cultural achievements in subsequent centuries.
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 1, part 1, Political and Military History is devoted to the main Arabian tribes that federates of the Byzantine Roman Empire. In the early sixth century Constantinople shifted its Arab alliance from the Salahids to the Kindites and especially the Ghassanids, who came to dominate Arab-Byzantine relations through the reign of Heraclius. Arranged chronologically, this study, the first in-depth account of the Ghassanids since the nineteenth century, draws widely from original sources in Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. Irfan Shahîd traces in detail the vicissitudes of the relationship between the Romans and the Ghassanids, and argues for the latter’s extensive role in the defense of the Byzantine Empire in its east.
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 1 part 2, Ecclesiastical History provides a chronologically ordered account of the involvement of the Ghassanids in ecclesiastical affairs in the eastern region of the Byzantine Empire. Tracing the role of Arab tribes both inside and outside the Roman limes, Irfan Shahîd documents how the Ghassanids in particular came to establish and develop a distinct non-Chalcedonian church hierarchy, all the while remaining allies of the Chalcedonian emperors. Ghassanid phylarchs such as Mundir emerge not merely as loyal foederati but devout Christians. Shahîd extensively and critically analyzes the Greek, Syriac, and Arabic sources, including many obscure or unfamiliar texts to illuminate the religious landscape of the Arabs of the sixth century.

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 2, part 1, Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography, and Frontier Studies is a topical study of the military, religious, and civil structures of the Ghassanids. Irfan Shahîd’s detailed study of Arab buildings of the sixth century illuminates how Byzantine provincial art and architecture were adopted and adapted by the federate Arabs for their own use. As monuments of Christian architecture, these federate structures constitute the missing link in the development of Arab architecture in the region between the earlier pagan (Nabataean and Palmyrene) and later Muslim (Umayyad). Drawing from literary and material evidence, Shahîd argues that the Gassanids were not nomadic, as traditionally believed, but thoroughly sedentary both in their roots and in the late Roman frontier zone they inherited. The third of four volumes dedicated to the sixth century, this book extensively depends upon the previous two volumes (volume 1, part 1, Political and Military History; volume 1, part 2, Ecclesiastical History).
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 2, part 1, Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography, and Frontier Studies is a topical study of the military, religious, and civil structures of the Ghassanids. Irfan Shahîd’s detailed study of Arab buildings of the sixth century illuminates how Byzantine provincial art and architecture were adopted and adapted by the federate Arabs for their own use. As monuments of Christian architecture, these federate structures constitute the missing link in the development of Arab architecture in the region between the earlier pagan (Nabataean and Palmyrene) and later Muslim (Umayyad). Drawing from literary and material evidence, Shahîd argues that the Gassanids were not nomadic, as traditionally believed, but thoroughly sedentary both in their roots and in the late Roman frontier zone they inherited. The third of four volumes dedicated to the sixth century, this book extensively depends upon the previous two volumes (volume 1, part 1, Political and Military History; volume 1, part 2, Ecclesiastical History).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: The Hegemony of Obscurantist Thinking

Arabic original here.

The Hegemony of Obscurantist Thinking

When religious thinkers treat various issues in their writings, they often resort to arbitrary comparisons between religions that are without scholarly or methodological value. They likewise fall into the trap of confusing modern concepts and their insistence on these concepts being rooted in their sacred texts. They do not hesitate to say that all contemporary concepts were described in their sacred texts before the European Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Recently I read a dossier by one of the monthly Arabic journals containing "studies" on the topic of secularism. My attention was drawn to an article by one of the "great Arab thinkers" named Hasan Hanafi, entitled "The Basis of Secularism is in the Noble Qur'an and its Roots are in the Ancient Heritage."This article was illogical, unsystematic and lacked the scholarly foundation demanded of undergraduates (and so how much more should it be required of one of the "intellectual points of reference"!).

There is a deficiency among some thinkers, which is beginning from an inappropriate starting-point. If the rubric for his thinking is "the basis of secularism is in the Qur'an..." then why does he start out with a fierce attack against Christianity as, "the obscurantist, mythological religion, the religion of sin and salvation, of surrounding rational man with a sin he did not commit, the sin of Adam, a salvation he did not work for, and faith in Christ." Does he, for example, want Christians not to believe in Christ? Is he an intellectual or a religious missionary?

On the other hand, Mr Hasan Hanafi says of Islam, "Since Islam is the last of the religions, it contains within itself all the secular values: reason, science, human rights and democratic governance." What is even more surprising is that he said, "If secularism means the centrality of man in the universe, defense of his freedom of will, and the establishment of a free, socialist, democratic society, then these goals spring forth from Islam, since man is God's vicegerent on earth."

Hasan Hanafi does not turn to philosophy, sociology and the other human sciences in order to support his opinion with evidence and logical proofs. Rather, he turns to the Qur'an as the only point of reference to defend his perspective. Hasan Hanafi permits himself to judge Christianity to be an "obscurantist, mythological" religion, while Islam is "the religion of reason." But he quickly falls into a contradiction since he resorts to obscurantist, irrational discourse in order to support his point of view. Or what should we call using Qur'anic verses in a "scholarly study" that does not treat questions of Islamic jurisprudence in worship and ethics, but rather philosophical and intellectual issues with no connection to the Qur'an.

Then we come to the non-obscurantist reality so that perhaps Hasan Hanafi might come to his senses and open his eyes to reality. Theoretical talk is nice. Indeed, it is magnificent. But the reality that refutes the theory makes theoretical discourse sterile and worthless. Where are the intellect, science, human rights and democratic governance in most of our Arab-Islamic countries? The obscurantist mentality dominates an overwhelming majority of our peoples. We are absent from the competition to produce science on the global level. "Human rights" are constantly violated. Democracy is despised by our peoples who are subservient to their rulers.

We're not going to defend Christianity against Islam and we're not going to enter into useless debates and senseless discussions. We understand secularism on the basis of "the separation of the state and religion," which is the only concept that Hanafi did not treat in his "study". The fundamental reason for this lies in confusing scholarly discourse with religious discourse. The beginning of true intellectual activity is separating scholarly discourse and religious discourse.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Fathers

Arabic original here.

The Fathers

Today we celebrate the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which defined the veneration of icons. The icons highlight for us people who have become new in Christ. We observe that an icon displays a saint as someone not of flesh and blood. He transcends worldly, bodily existence in order to be seated at in the ranks of light in the heavens, from which he looks down upon us as a new person. Our fathers' every concern is that we become new creatures who have no relation to flesh and blood or to an environment or past time, as though we were created today.

The Apostle Paul said, "You do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). Each of us comes from a man and a woman. This is the beginning, but we do not stop at that point. After our mothers give birth to us as slaves, we go on to the freedom of Christ. Every person strives to be a Christian. A Christian is a project. He is baptized so that he may strive over the course of his life to become a Christian. But he does not reach perfection, even in eternal life, because in heaven we become perfect together. Together we become a glorious Church for Christ. Christ casts upon us a garment of light and we become creatures of light through this garment that is cast upon us.

But what happens to us on earth after we have become the project of a person in baptism? There come people in the Church who renew us in Christ Jesus. They have been renewed. They have become free. Every link between them and this body, between them and the selfishness of this world, its domination and its slavery has been broken. They are no longer indebted to any of their lusts or people's lusts. The Holy Spirit now moves them and they are no longer moved by the prejudice of village, town, sect or party. The Holy Spirit blows in them and heaven moves them. The heavenly person is treated as ignoble, a stranger, rejected and despised because he is a reminder to the people of the earth that they are called to become heavenly as they move upon the earth.

The people of heaven, the great believers, are hated by the people of the earth. The people of the earth, who are still tied to dust, to the aims of this world, to the deceit of lust, hate heaven and have no communion with the children of light.

Because of the darkness that prevails over this world, God raised up in the Church fathers capable of generating children of God the Father. There are those who break off people's tie to flesh and blood in order to established a new tie between them and the Lord. God establishes for Himself a family in the Church, which is not the human family made up of a man, a woman and children. I do not mean by this all who are affiliated with Christ by baptism. Rather, I mean those who have become conscious anew that they are a member of Christ's body, a part of Christ.

The time has come for us to know that we were born and are born in Christ's Church and in her we become new people because we follow Jesus and we have been made brothers of the Lord and children of God.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Met Saba (Esber): Lord, Do not Rebuke Us Harshly

Arabic original here.

Lord, Do not Rebuke Us Harshly


Perhaps the most difficult thing in Your Gospel is that you leave the wheat among the tares until the final judgment. You have made us understand that Your Church on earth is not a collection of saints so much as a group of strugglers who seek holiness.

They may not attain it. They may only see it from afar. Many times, they may not ever see it.

You wanted Your Church to be a group of seekers of truth. You are the Truth and in you it is seen. We are amazed that it is persecuted and contested until the end of the age.

Our struggles and our sins which we attach to You cause us to imagine that we are defending You and Your body on earth.

The reality, however, says: we are for this one or that one of Your servants more than we are for You.

You have also taught us that holiness is only given when it is truly sought on the narrow way.

Thus we have learned that we must be hard on ourselves and not on others and that we must require truth and uprightness of ourselves before anything else.

Then You offered Your life so that truth, purity and sacrifice might have the highest place in Your creation. Your sacrifice was a real translation of Your words.

And because You effaced Your person with Your word, Your whole life was a condescension.

You only went up twice.

The first time was so that the enormous crowd could hear Your teaching, when You went up the mountain to give them the new Law.

The second time was upon the cross. On the hill of Golgotha, You let them raise You as a martyr, to embrace the world with Your hands stretched out to it.

Your being lifted up like this was the apex of condescension, because it led you to the tomb, in a cave of earth.

By this ultimate condescension of Yours, You rose again and caused life to dawn, that light of which You said in Your Gospel, that you came in order to give to us, that we may have its fullness.

But we often act in the opposite way to You.

We love to show off and puff ourselves up, for people to see us as leaders more than as servants and fathers!

We want followers, even if we lead them to perdition!

Because we are small, we make ourselves big not through You but through them in order to feel that we are doing something, that we are influential, that we have status.

If Your children, in their love for us, only know us from the outside, what excuse is this for us when we know ourselves and we know how much stupidity, meanness and filth there is within us?

Did You not teach us, Master, how we should go down in order for You to raise us up?

Do You not direct us towards knowledge of the high station that is fitting for Your people and Your servants?

Is it not enough for us to be at Your feet?

Is not all fullness in our listening to You as Mary did, and she attained the good portion that is not taken from her?

Amidst our intoxication with ourselves and our ego, we often forget You, O Master, and we replace You with our followers.

We are occupied with the demon that dwells in us and we follow his whispers, so we no longer see You or hear You. In this way he leads us to false glory, to our doing what we believe to be the truth, when it is really only our own transgressions.

We no longer distinguish, O Master, between our whims and our zeal for Your house.

My Lord, do not let the turmoil drive us to acting against Your Gospel.

Have pity on us and our hardness of heart. Pour out Your abundant mercy upon us.

You have given us a terrible responsibility because You were pleased for Your Holy Spirit to be in vessels of clay, we who are quick to shatter.

How do we keep our vessels uncracked, when it is very easy to slip and imagine that we are Your followers who have been charged with reforming Your Church, when the world is very seductive?

My Lord, how many times have we been tempted to act against Your Gospel in order to best serve Your Church?

And how many times have we violated Your Gospel when we sanctified a means to an end?

And how many times have we betrayed You when we used You as an instrument for our own interests and desires?

Teach us, my Lord, that we are not better than You because no servant is better than his master.

Help us to accept Your example, the example of the servant who is oppressed and does not oppress.

Strengthen our steps so that You may be our first love.

Make us listen to You move than we talk about You, so that we may distinguish well between Your will and our passions.

Master, over history you have often taught us that You permit outward and inward persecution when we evade the truth and stray from the straight path.

Do not rebuke us harshly, my Lord, because we almost cannot bear it.

Preserve for us a remnant that bears witness to You, to the fullness of the life that You desire, and to the joy that Your angels have proclaimed since You honored our earth with Your visitation.

My Christ, the people of Your Church have grown weary on account of us. Forgive us and lead us to the straight path.

We desire You, my Lord. Do not let us distract ourselves from You with the things that pertain to You.