Friday, March 30, 2012

Christians in Homs: More Links

Christians left in Homs speak of an 'atmosphere of fear'



The scale of violence has reached an unrivalled peak in Homs, where the number of Christians left in the ancient city has fallen below 1,000.

As a major government offensive against Baba Amr and other rebel-held areas of Homs got under way in early February, many Christians left because of the intensity of the fighting.

One priest from the district of Hamidiya, who fled to Lebanon seven weeks ago, said friends who remained in the city had spoken of a growing "atmosphere of fear". "Some Christians who tried to escape a week ago were stopped from leaving by the rebels and were instead forced to go to a mosque to act as shields," he said. "They thought that, because Christians support Assad, the government would not attack them."
Church leaders have accused Muslim neighbours of turning on the Christians.

"The people we are helping are very afraid," Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo said. "The Christians don't know what their future will hold. They are afraid they will not get their homes back."

Christians in Syria struggle amid violent clashes 


An interview with Issam Bishara, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association's (CNEWA) regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.  Excerpt:

 Have Christians been specifically targeted by Assad and his government forces?

No. On the contrary, the regime is still providing protection to the Christian communities in almost all places where the regime is still controlling the ground. But the problem occurred especially in Homs after the protestors and the Islamic groups had controlled a part of the city (Bab Amro Quarter) where around 200 Christians were killed. The other concern is related to terrorism, which can target anyone and any place and especially Christian military officers and their communities.

On Feb. 24-25, the ancient St. Virgin Mary Church was damaged in the fighting in Homs. Can you tell us more about that?
St. Mary Church of the Holy Belt is located in the downtown of Homs, or what is so-called "the Old City," and is considered the siege of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Homs. The majority of churches and Archbishoprics of other confessions are also concentrated in the same surrounding (Hamidiya , Boustan el Diwan, etc.), and this quarter was subject to military confrontations between the militias and the government forces, and most of the time militiamen were using the churches and the Christians as shields to protect themselves from shelling. It is also important to mention that some icons inside the churches were damaged on purpose by the militias.

If the Assad regime does eventually fall, who will fill the void and assume leadership of Syria? How will this change in government affect Christians in Syria?
Taking into consideration the demographic composition of the Syrian population where Muslim Sunnites make up more than 80 percent of the Syrian population and the general trend of all Arab Spring movements where the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis were the only organized political forces capable and ready to fill the void and seize the power in a democratic way, we strongly believe that the same pattern will continue in Syria as well.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Met. Ephrem's Sermon for the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, 2012

This sermon was given on March 11, 2012 in Afsadiq. The Arabic original can be found here.

Today we are in the second Sunday of the Fast. Every Sunday, the Church offers us a word from the Gospel for the salvation of our souls. This story of the healing of the paralytic is precisely focused on the healing of souls. We believe that the human being is one, body and soul. Today, as you know, people are mostly concerned about their body, the health of the body, to the point that when someone meets someone else, they automatically say, "How's your health?" But people do not pay attention to the fact that the health of the soul is more valuable than the health of the body. The Gospel always focuses on what is profound. That is, it wants to heal the human person from his depths, from his roots, and this is what doctors are discovering, more and more--

When the soul is healthy, the body is healthy. What makes the soul ill? What makes our soul sorrowful? What makes our soul today anxious and fearful, especially us Christians?

Our holy fathers say: This goes back to the weakness of our faith, because we do not rely enough on God who created us. People today, and in particular Christians, believe that they "manufacture" their life themselves, with the mind. They do not rely on the grace of God which is the source of life, the source of the mind, the source of the body. All the intellectual faculties that are within us,  science, philosophy, comes from our Creator. This is our faith and this is why in the Gospel today, when Lord Jesus sees the paralytic he says to him, "Your sins are forgiven." Those present are surprised-- how is it that Christ does not heal the body first, but rather is concerned with the soul?!

What does this mean? For us this means that that which brings us death, that which sorrows us, that which causes us frustration, what we call today "depression" which ails the world, is sin, our lusts, the evil things that we do in our life. If we do not remove it, if we do not treat it, we ultimately resort to psychologists, to psychiatric medicines. But let us be concerned with our souls before everything else. For this reason, we right-believing Orthodox must live an upright life. One who lives an upright life remains healthy in soul and body and has long life.

I will not add anything else to what the Gospel says, but I will say that today we remember this woman who lived a virtuous life, as we know, and that she was a daughter of the Church, prayerful, close to God. She lived in quiet and calm and raised an honorable family. The Church asks us to pray for the repose of her soul, as you have come to do. This is something very important in the Church, that we remember our loved ones and our departed. This does much to bring rest to their souls. So we ask God to strengthen us and to have mercy on our departed. Amen.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula

From the Palestinian newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, published in London. Saturday/Sunday March 24/25, front page.

The Mufti of Saudi Arabia Calls for the Destruction of Churches in the Arabian Peninsula... And the Christians are Upset

The president of the Council of Senior Scholars and president of the Standing Committee for Scholarly and Fatwa Research, the general Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh, issued a fatwa that it is obligatory to destroy all churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

The sheikh, who represents the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, ruled that the Arabian Peninsula submits only to the religion of Islam and that the existence of churches in some countries of the region is an admission of the truth of these religions.

The sheikh's latest fatwas came in the context of a response to a Kuwaiti civil society organization that proposed for the new Kuwaiti constitution that was approved by parliament last week, a new article that would forbid the building of new churches, a matter that provoked a wave of discontent among Christian minorities who live in the Arabian Peninsula, especially Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti "Revival of Islamic Heritage Society" is close to Wahhabi ideology. It addressed a question to sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh about "the soundness according to the shari'a of calls made by members of the Kuwaiti parliament for the banning or destruction of churches."

The Saudi Mufti's response was that, "Kuwait is a part of the Peninsula. The Arabian Peninsula must destroy all the churches that are in it, because permitting these churches is permitting a religion other than Islam. The Prophet, peace be upon him, commanded us and said, 'there cannot be two religions in the Arabian Peninsula'. Building them is not permitted in principle because this peninsula must be empty of all such things."

On his own part, the liberal Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad commented on the fatwa saying, "what if they treated us like this and destroyed our mosques in America and Europe? Would we condemn them?" Al-Hamad added, "How much need we have of a new religious and political discourse in this country, a religious discourse that respects the beliefs of others and a political discourse that accepts differences in society." He warned, "after the events at King Khalid University, this is a dangerous indication that large fires begin with a spark and the wise man is the one who tries to put out the spark before the fire breaks out by searching for its causes."

On Friday, the Austrian Council of Bishops strongly condemned the call made by the general mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the president of the Council of Senior Scholars, Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh.

In the press release that was issued at the end of the meeting in Tainach, southern Austria, they said, "For us as bishops, declarations of this type are absolutely unacceptable and incomprehensible, when at the same time there are a number of initiatives for dialogue between religions in the Arabian Peninsula."

The Austrian bishops said that declarations of this type not only threaten Christians in the Arabian Peninsula, but also throughout the world. The press release added that, "In a situation like the one we are passing through today, when the Arab revolutions are leading to disturbances  throughout the region, declarations of this type do not help people."

The Austrian news agency announced that on Friday the German bishops, represented by Bishop Robert Zollitsch, also condemned the call for destroying churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

Last October, Austria and Saudi Arabia opened a center for dialogue between religions in Vienna. There had been criticism of this plan in Austria because it came at the initiative and with funding from Saudi Arabia, which is governed by the extremist Wahhabi ideology. For his part, the Apostolic Nuncio in Kuwait expressed "great shock" at the declarations by the general mufti of Saudi Arabia Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh of the obligation to destroy all churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

From the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas. Arabic text can be found here.

 Thirty Churches Serve Three Million Christians in the Gulf

The approximate number of residents in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council has reached almost 46,800,000 people, of them are 13 million immigrants, of whom 20% are Christian. This means that there are around three million Christians. They are spread across six countries , the greatest number being found in Saudi Arabia, in which there are no churches or any other non-Islamic places of worship.

The Christians of the Gulf are a mixture of Arabs, Asians, and Europeans and this total does not include Hindus, Buddhists, or Sikhs. It only includes Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestans, with Copts in the majority.

In general, the Christian communities enjoy freedom of worship in this countries, in churches specific to each sect.The exception is Saudi Arabia, which prohibits this activity even if there have been media leaks over the past four years about negotiations between the Kingdom and the Vatican in order to permit the building of a Catholic, given that there are almost 900 thousand Catholics living and working in Saudi Arabia.

In the past decade, some of the capitals of gulf countries have witnessed the building of a number of new churches, reflecting in practice the dialogue of religions and freedom of worship, translating into deeds language of a common life.

The Christians living in these countries practice their rituals at Christmas in freedom, within the churches that were recently built and which were subsidized by the majority of countries in the region with land. It is easy for a visitor to the Sheraton Towers in Kuwait or Abu Dhabi or Hayy Abu Hamour in Doha to see crowds of people going to the churches that stand in the heart of commercial centers.

The churches are prohibited from undertaking missionary activities or from distributing printed materials for the sake of propagating Christianity. This is a point of understanding and agreement with those overseeing the direction of the churches.

The number of Christian citizens native to the Gulf is limited to a few hundred, most of whom are in Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, on account of the length of time that they have been present in this capitals. Kuwait is distinguished in this regard because it has the first Kuwaiti citizen who is a Christian clergyman, Fr. Emmanuel Gharib, pastor of the evangelical church there.

The majority of constitutions in the region grant freedom of worship and the right of religions to practice their rituals within their currently enforced laws.

The sound of church-bells is still faint, and you do not hear them in the cities of the Gulf as you do in other Arab cities like Beirut, Cairo, Aleppo, and Baghdad, for example. Perhaps this is because of the special characteristic of these gatherings and their lack of having adopted this type of demonstration.

Here follows a report on the state of churches and Christians in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Christians in Kuwait

According to the call by Member of Parliament Osama Munawar for the destruction of existing churches, then his retraction of this and his clarification after the uproar that was arose around it, he intended with his words to express his disagreement with building of new churches, on the basis of his religious and shari'a commitments. This opens a thorny issue in which there is much ill will and many misconceptions. It led the pastor of the Catholic church, Fr. Camillo Ballin, to address public opinion and Muslims, saying "You have nothing to fear from us. We are partners in life. We respect your laws and your traditions," asking the government to build a new church for the Catholics, whose number has reached 350 thousand people.

The building of new churches in Kuwait has been met with  militant and prejudiced reactions, while, according to standard procedures, a representative of the ministry of endowments and Islamic affairs in the first week of February of this year requested from the municipality to inform him of the number of churches in Kuwait and their geographic distribution in order to know how their grounds that were specified for each church are being used and if there are grounds designated for churches that are not being used.

Two years ago, in April 2010, Fr. Andrew Thompson of the British embassy released the book "The Christian Church in Kuwait: Religious Freedoms in the Gulf". In it, he shows that Kuwait has created a working model for a shared religious society. It includes the story of Christians in Kuwait and a discussion of the religious freedom that they enjoy, even though many British believe that since Kuwait is an Islamic country, it has no religious freedom!  He said that religious freedom in Kuwait is a living example of religious freedom in the Gulf and that Christians are an essential part of the society. He mentions that the first church in Kuwait was built in 1931 by the American Missionary Council and it was given the name the "National Evangelical Church" and was later known as the "Church of Christ". It became a member of the Middle East Council of Churches and in 1999 the Rev. Emmanuel Gharib was made the pastor of the church as the first Kuwaiti Christian clergyman.  In 1948 a church was built in the city of al-Ahmadi and it was named "Our Lady of the Arabian Peninsula".

Fr. Bigul, pastor of the Coptic church says that there was a correspondence between Pope Cyrill VI and the emir Sheikh Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah on the topic of building a church for Copts in Kuwait and this is in effect what happened. They found a location behind the Sheraton Hotel and have recently moved to Beirut Street. The presence of Armenian Christians in Kuwait goes back to 1958 and their number has reached six thousand people. They have a church and a school that has existed for almost fifty years, going back to the occupation.  The Christian sects have what is known as a council of churches that includes the various denominations, from the Catholic, Coptic and Evangelical churches to the Greek Orthodox church and finally the Armenians. There are eight recognized churches in Kuwait, while other sources say that the number of churches is ten, while the council of churches in the capital serves around 450 thousand Christians and Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs are not permitted to build places of worship. This has been a source of complaints and condemnation coming from the American State Department which publishes an annual report about freedom of religion in the Middle East. They consider Kuwait to be suffering from a contradiction between the text of the constitution which grants "absolute freedom" of religious belief and the governments' placing restrictions on the freedom of religious practice. The report points to the existence of religious groups that are not recognized by the government that practice their rituals in unofficial places of worship, most often in private homes.

Churches in the Emirates

Censuses indicate that the number of Christians in the countries of the United Arab Emirates have reached 500 thousand Christians, centered mostly in Abu Dhabi, el-Ayn, Dubai, and Sharjah. In these Gulf countries there are hundreds of nationalities of immigrants who were not permitted to practice their religious rituals openly and the building of churches was not permitted. Starting in the middle of the 1990's, the government began to permit the building of churches and today their number has reached seven. However, the authorities forbid the circulation of evangelical literature outside places of worship, preventing missionary activity. Four churches have been built in the city of Abu Dhabi, in addition to a center for the Evangelical community and the Church of St. Mary in the city of el-Ayn. Catholics make up the majority of Christians, some 100 thousand, in addition to the Anglical, Protestant, and Coptic Orthodox denominations. In Dubai, there is the Church of St. Francis in Jebel Ali and in Sharjah the building of a Russian Orthodox church was completed in 2007 on a 1000 square meter plot of land donated by the emirate at the cost of 30 million dirhams. The Orthodox are represented by the communities from Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Sharjah also has the Church of St. Michael for Catholics, who number some 50 thousand.

Christians in Qatar

Qatar has finally caught up with its Gulf neighbors and has permitted the first Evangelical church in 2005 after the emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani granted a plot of land, whose value was 20 million American dollars. Around 70 thousand Catholics live in Qatar, while the Evangelical church has between 7 and 10 thousand members, who formerly used the English school in the capital Doha as their place of worship.The first Catholic church was opened in 2008 and it has no external signs of Christianity, such as a cross, bells, markings, or statues. It is called the "Church of the Rosary". Today in Doha and in the neighborhood of Abu Hamour there is a council that includes five churches of each denomination, Orthodox, Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic. This council serves around 200 thousand Christians out of 1,300,000 immigrants living in Qatar and approximately 500 thousand Qatari citizens.

The state of churches in Oman

The modern history of Christianity in the Sultanate goes back to 1893, when a group of Christians arrived in Masqat and bought a large building with a plot of land that they obtained as a gift from the Sultan. This group followed the American Reformed Church and came for missionary purposes. They then turned to providing medical services to and maintained their pastoral role for Christians. It should be mentioned that the Sultanate has around 500 Protestant Christians, while the Catholic church was founded in 1971, after it coming the Orthodox Church, the Syriac Orthodox church in Salala, and the church for the Copts in Masqat.

There is no precise account of the number of Christians in the Sultanate, which has a population of around three million people, of which 1,100,000 are immigrants, that is, no more than 29% of the population, while the number of Christians is between 200 and 300 thousand people, including Arabs, Asians, and Europeans. Omani census sources estimate that they make up 3% of the population.

Experts who follow the situation of Christians indicate that there are five groups for churches which in turn have established a council that includes all denominations, 26 in total. Oman has the distinction of being the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council in which there are temples for Sikhs and Hindus, while the Buddhist communty is working to build its own temple. According to the report of the American State Department on freedom of religion, there are places of worship for both Sikhs and Hindus.

The map of Christians in Bahrein

In Bahrain, according to reports, there is the oldest church in the Gulf region, which was built around 100 years ago. It was established by American Evangelical missionaries and is known as the National Evangelical (Protestant) Church, going back to 1906, according to the secretary of the church and its Arab society, Yousuf Haidar. He added that the number of Bahraini Christians includes around one thousand citizens bearing Bahraini nationality. The American mission has the post office box number 1 in the Kingdom, indicating its age. It is the first post office box in the history of Bahrain.

There are approximately four churches in Bahrain and there will be built a council of churches, as has been done in the Sultanate and in Qater, once the king of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa grants an appropriate plot of land and government permission is obtained. Among the known churches, there is Holy Heart Church, the Church of St. Christopher, and the Church of St. Mary. There are 30 officially registered churches, but they do not have buildings, including the Coptic church, which has yet to obtain its own church building.

As in the majority of countries of the Gulf, the churches are distributed among Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, and they practice their religious rituals with complete freedom. According to census reports, the number of Christians is over 250 thousand people out of 500 thousand immigrants and 700 thousand Bahreini citizens for a total of approximately 1,200,000 people.

It should be mentioned that the Shura Council includes two Bahraini Christian members, Ms. Elise Seman (of Iraqi origin) and Ms. Hala Ramzi Fayez (of Egyptian origin), whose father was one of the founders of the Ministry of Health in Bahrain.

Numbers and Churches

The number of Christians in Kuwait is over 450,000 people, according to the report of the American State Department. The Christian community includes the Roman Catholic Church, which has 300,000 members, the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has 70,000 members, the National Evangelical (Protestant) Church, which has 40,000 members, the Armenian Orthodox Church, which has 4,500 members, the Greek Orthodox Church, which has 3,500 members, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church which has 1,500 members. There are also other, unrecognized Christian groups including the Malankara Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church, the Seventh Day Adventists, but there are no reports for their numbers. There are also around 300,000 Hindus, 100,000 Buddhists, 10,000 Sikhs, and 400 Baha'is.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

More on Christians in Homs: Links

Over the past week, the dire situation of Christians in Homs and the human rights abuses perpetrated by the "Free Syrian Army" has started to receive more attention in English-language media. Here are some links.

From Agenzia Fides, the news service of the Pontifical Mission Societies:

Abuse by the opposition forces, "ethnic cleansing" of Christians in Homs, where Jesuits remain

From the LA Times news blog:

Human Rights Watch alleges abuses by Syrian rebels

Church fears 'ethnic cleansing' of Christians in Homs, Syria

From Human Rights Watch:

Syria: Armed Opposition Groups Committing Abuses
An appeal from the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America
Please pray to  St. Elian of Homs to protect the Christians of his city!

Monday, March 19, 2012

More from NOCTOC on Orthodoxy in Lebanon

The visually beautiful, bilingual Cypriot blog NOCTOC often posts pictures and information about churches in Syria and Lebanon. Below is an index of the most recent posts about Orthodoxy there. Lots of pictures, so go take a look! Older posts from NOCTOC can be found here.

The lost descendants of Hellenism: The Antiochian Greeks

The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George in Beirut

Αμιούν: Το κέντρο των ελληνορθοδόξων χριστιανών του Λιβάνου

Anfeh: Α little Greece in Lebanon

The Greek Orthodox church of Our Lady of the Wind in the town of Anfeh, North Lebanon

Christians of Tyre (Sour) of Lebanon

The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the village of Bkeftine, Lebanon

The Greek Orthodox Christians of El- Mina in Tripoli, Lebanon, and their churches

The Greek Orthodox cathedral of Saint George in Tripoli, Lebanon

The Greek Orthodox church of Saint George in Batroun, Lebanon

The Greek Orthodox church of Our Lady of the Seas in the city of Batroun, Lebanon

The Greek Orthodox village of Gabriel in the district of Akkar in Northern Lebanon

Islamic terrorists attack the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saydnaya in Syria


Melkite Catholic Patriarch against Intervention in Syria

The entire article, in English, can be found here.


He also cautioned Western observers of the Syrian conflict against developing a distorted idea of what is happening in his country.

“We have much disinformation, misinformation and manipulation,” he noted. “In Damascus, I really live in peace, (with) schools, churches, businesses and so on. The suburbs are sometimes calm, sometimes not. And there are some times when it is very dangerous, other times when it is not.”

During the March 15 press conference at the Melkite headquarters in Rome, he indicated that some Western media outlets should scrutinize their sources more carefully.

“I have first-hand information,” he told reporters, contrasting this with “information from the television.”

“My best friend, a Maronite bishop named Paul Zayah, has a nephew who lives in Dubai. Walking in the street on his way to work, he hears behind him a person who picks up his cellphone and says, 'I'm in Homs now. I can see how the army of the regime is attacking the houses, women, mothers and children.'”

“That's 'news' from a 'primary source,' fresh from the town of 'Homs,' – but he was in Dubai,” the Melkite patriarch said. “And this goes on and on.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Christians expelled from Homs

From the Syrian secularist website al-Haqiqa. Arabic original here.
For more information about the Islamist makeup of the "Free Syrian Army" from a source generally sympathetic to the rebels, see here.
For an excellent analysis of the bias and misinformation about Syria in American media, see here.

Armed men from the Faruq Brigade have succeeded in expelling most of the Christians of Homs and have seized their homes by force.

Al-Haqiqa has learned from church sources in Homs that the city has been emptied of almost 90% of its Christians. It is expected that a complete "cleansing" of buildings owned by Christians will occur within a matter of days or weeks by armed men from the Wahhabi "Faruq Brigade." A source in the Orthodox metropolitan's office told al-Haqiqa that armed men from the Faruq Brigade went to the homes of the Christians, house by house, in the neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan el-Diwan, informing them that they must immediately leave their homes and the city of Homs. The source revealed that the lastest attempt to expel Christians by force of arms occured yesterday. It included Dr. Taleb Mashhour Gharibeh, professor of mathematics at Baath University in Homs, his brother the musician Marwan Mashhour Gharibeh (a musician in Sabah Fakhri's group), both of whom live in the Hamidiya neighborhood, their sister Marie Mashhour Gharibeh, who lives in the Bustan el-Diwan neighborhood, as well as their father and his wife the schoolteacher Maha Habou, who live in the new neighborhood el-Wa'ar. This wave of expulsions also included the residents of a six-story building in Hamidiya, whose residents include eighteen families, almost all of whom are from the village Uyoun el-Wadi.

The church sources said that the armed men informed the owners of the homes before they departed that if they did not leave immediately they would be shot and pictures of their corpses would be sent to al-Jazeera with the message that the government had killed them. The source emphasized that all those who were expelled "were not allowed to take any of their possessions with them, not even extra clothes. Immediately after they left their homes, the buildings were occupied by armed men who considered it 'war-booty from the Christians!'" 

It should be noted that the Faruq Brigade is operated by armed elements from al-Qaeda and various Wahhabi groups and it includes mercenaries from Libya and Iraq. Last month they destroyed two churches with rocket fire, burning one and severely damaging the other.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Met. Georges Khodr on the Principles of the Orthodox Youth Movement (III)

 From 1950. Part I here. Part II here. Arabic original here.

The Second Principle: "The Movement believes that religious and moral revival is based on following religious duties and on knowledge of the Church's teachings. For this reason, it strives to spread these teachings and to strengthen the Christian faith among the people."

The Complete Christian Life

The revival is not completed through imagination, nor not through individual, emotional religiosity, nor through following a dogma that we create according to our inclinations and temperaments. It is rather based on knowledge of the beliefs and teachings of the Church, keeping the commandments, and participation in the holy mysteries and the prayers. None of these things are an end in themselves, because the goal of the Christian life is union with God, but they are necessary conditions and means to achieving this goal.

The current Christian awakening has as its goal the complete Christian life, so the awakening will not be achieved if it does not follow the path that leads to this life-- the prayers, works of mercy, and the divine mysteries. The Orthodox movement that is our making our way toward the Holy Spirit and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon us, has no meaning and no existence except in the Church and with the Church. Without her and without the means of salvation that the Church grants, the current resurrection from the dead is not possible. Our effective salvation from religious non-existence is continuously approaching the holy mysteries such as repentance and the Eucharist. The return to the fullness of the Church is the return to the divine sacrifice and participation in it just as the apostles and fathers participated in it. Our departure from the mystery of the holy body and blood of the Lord and our being satisfied with partaking once a year was invented by us and is a restriction of the freedom of the faithful who long for the Lord. Preventing them from participating in holy communion except on certain days and times of the year is an explicit contradiction of the letter and spirit of the Gospel of the clear teachings of the Fathers and of the writings of great contemporary theologians. This departure is clear proof that many of us have effectively abandoned traditional Orthodoxy and in practice lost the universal Christian spirit. What we must do now is to belong to Orthodoxy once again and follow the path that Orthodoxy wants, not the one that we want.

The time has come for us to look closely at the Bible, to seek to understand it, to be familiar with it, and to take it on as nourishment for our souls and as the seed of eternal life.

The hour has come when we must live according to the eternal Orthodox tradition and to try out the depths of knowledge that has appeared throughout Christian history from the Evangelist John to Bulgakov. The time has come to return to spirituality, to the most glorious thing to be found in our religious inheritance-- I mean to the mystics like Ephrem the Syrian, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and Seraphim Sarovsky.

Witness and Mission

Through reviving religious sciences and adopting pure and untainted Christian knowledge that has been preserved in our Church from the beginning, the desired revival will come about. We cannot keep this knowledge to ourselves in pride, living alongside the spiritual agonies in which humanity is floundering. When we have acquired the truth, we must suffer for the sake of those who are lacking it. Our revival cannot be perfected except through suffering. After having suffered, we will spread the teachings to the people and transmit to others, “what we have heard from the beginning and have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, regarding the word of life.” The revival is occurring for its sake, with spirit, heart, and hand bearing witness to it and being martyrs for it it. This is because spreading the truth is not at all compatible with special privilege and because bearing witness has always been the beginning of every great work in history. The revival is based on seeking the truth from God in the Church and on us following it as is fitting, through the Gospel and through this mission to which we were called, taking upon ourselves everything that brings us closer to purity and love, and through bearing witness to the truth in word and deed, and every day suffering martyrdom for the sake of the light. Those who realize these truths reconcile Christianity within themselves and from them it radiates out to the people because they live it within their depths and from their depths they raise it up through their constant, living connection to Christ that is rooted within them, Him to whom “every knee on heaven and on earth shall bow.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Met. Ephrem's Sermon for Sunday of Orthodoxy, 2012

This sermon was given in Kfarhabou on March 4, 2012. The Arabic original can be found here.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Beloved, we have begun the struggle of Great and Holy Lent and today is the first Sunday of the fast. On this Sunday, which is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the Sunday of Icons, each one of us must know about Orthodoxy, why we are Orthodox and what this means in relation to our life. Why is our Church attached to holy icons, when other Christian sects and other religions do not have icons? We must be aware of our belief for our faith. This Sunday emphasizes faith. This is why you heard the Epistle talk about all the martyrs who suffered because of their faith. So what is the connection between faith, Orthodoxy, and icons?

We tried in the bulletin for today to give an idea of Orthodoxy and you will receive a beautiful icon that depicts the three angels who appeared to Abraham. A famous Russian painter named Rublev painted this icon which depicts three angelic persons who appeared to the patriarch Abraham and he received them in his house. This second icon is of Moses, to whom the Lord appeared in the bush that was burning but was not consumed. This bush still exists on Mount Sinai, which you can see if the Lord gives you the opportunity to visit the Monastery of St. Catharine.

The three angels symbolize the Holy Trinity, which is part of our belief and our faith as Orthodox. This sign which is use is very important, when we make the sign of the cross on our bodies with three fingers, meaning that we believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is something basic and entirely simple, that shows, as the Evangelist John says, that God is love! God is love. Our God is the God of Love. Our belief is that God did not remain in heaven, far from us. He became incarnate and came to us and became a human being.

First of all, how can one live love, if not for the love for which we are gathered today, in order to pray for our loved ones who have left us. We are connected to each other, through love and through our faith that God is love. There is no love without communion. Communion, whether it is in the family or in the Church or in any place in the world, is that man does not live alone and life is not individualistic. This is why the Church is a communion of love, just as we pray today in the Divine Liturgy. This is the meaning of the Trinity. This is why we are with our holy fathers in holding that God is one in three hypostases: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In short, this is the Orthodoxy that we celebrate today.

The second point is that God became incarnate and took human form. He took our form and lived like us. He suffered and wept. He rose from the dead and conquered death because of His love, even unto the cross. That he conquored death and suffering and was incarnate, this is our faith as Christians. This is what separates us from other religions, from Judaism and Islam and even from those heresies that do not believe in the incarnation, that Christ is God and man. This is who was crucified. He became incarnate, taking our form and lived like us because He loved us, even unto death. This is why we can make images of Him and make images of the saints and honor them. We do not worship the saints, not even the Virgin Mary! We only worship God, the Lord Jesus, but we honor the Virgin. We honor the saints because they were sanctified by God's grace. And so, our belief that we celebrate today is the belief in the divine incarnation that is symbolized by these icons which we honor because they bear the image of God and of His grace.

We hope that the Lord will strengthen our faith and comfort us. Our loved ones have departed from us, but now they are in glory. Our faith comforts us. Our prayer comforts us. They have gone ahead of us to heaven and have been glorified. For this reason, today's Gospel reading, the Lord's words to Nathaniel, "You will see greater than this. You will see the angels of the Lord upon the Son of Man." Only God has come down from heaven and ascended, and we are called to behold this when we depart from this life. Glory to God forever, amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Met. Ephrem on St. John Cassian

The Feast of Saint Cassianus at the Monastery of Fervent Intercession, Wednesday February 29, 2012. The Arabic original can be found here.

Beloved, on this blessed evening we celebrate the commemoration of a great righteous saint, Saint Cassianus the Roman, and so we should mention something about this saint who is quite unknown in our country, even though he is considered one of the great saints who carved out a new tradition in the Church, since he set out from the east and evangelized in the west, following the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church. For this reason, he is considered an important source, who studied with the ascetic fathers of the fourth century who preceded him, especially those who followed the tradition of the father Saint Macarius the Great, who lived in Scetis in Egypt.

He began his monastic life in Palestine, in Bethlehem, where he started to go between Palestine and Egypt, following the tradition of the ancient fathers of the desert. After that, we know that because of historical circumstances he went to Constantinople, and from Constantinople, also because of historical circumstances, he went to Rome. In Constantinople, he became the disciple of Saint John Chrysostom, from whom he received the Orthodox tradition of Antioch. After the persecution of Saint John Chrysostom, he went to Rome in order to participate in his defense, since as you know Saint John Chrysostom was persecuted and exiled time and again. He had the occasion to spend many years in Rome and to transmit this tradition, the tradition of our eastern ascetic fathers, as well as that of our Antiochian Church and that of the Cappadocian fathers. From Rome, he went to France, which at that time was called Gaul, and he settled there in the city of Marseille and established a large monastery for nuns and was the first to transmit the eastern monastic tradition to the west.

Sain Cassianus wrote works in which he expressed the principle of traditional monasticism. Among his famous sayings is that the monk is the one who, as you know, tries to apply the Gospel in its entirety. He said that the monk must first of all distance himself from the pleasures of this world. That is, he should start off in this spirit, the spirit of abstinence. After abstaining from the temptations of this world, he attaches himself to a monastery or to a hermitage in order to struggle there in contstant prayer, in order combat his personal passions.  That is, there is a stage of distancing oneself from the world and a deeper stage in distancing oneself from personal selfishness, from passions and lusts. Then, one can fight these evil spirits, one can control one's passions, one can approach what is called passionlessness. God's grace is active within you and you become holy, glorifying God in your life. This is a quick glance at Saint Cassianus, who wrote many works. We hope to publish these works in our Arabic language. Among the most famous of his works, which sets forth the rules for monks to live by, is the Cenobitic Institutes.

On this blessed feast, which is also the name's day of the abbot of this monastery, Archimandrite Cassianus, we pray that we might receive the intercession of this great saint, that he might bless this monastery and its monks so that they may continue and grow and become and remain a beacon in this environment and in this country. We call for the continuation and the development of monasticism because, beloved, if Christians in the world today or if the world in general does not have this ascetic spirit, , this emptying of the ego and renunciation of all the pleasures of this world, the world cannot continue and grow in truth, and man cannot grow and be glorified and become holy. We ask God to give us this power, so that we can continue in this mission, to the glory of His holy name. Amen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Met. Georges Khodr on the Principles of the Orthodox Youth Movement (II)

From 1950. Part I here. Arabic original here.

The First Principle: "The Orthodox Youth Movement is a spiritual movement that calls all the children of the Orthodox Church to religious, moral, cultural, and social revival."

A Spiritual Movement

We say movement because we are not, nor shall we be, a sectarian "association" in the familiar sense, with a specific temporal concern. Nor do we constitute a frozen body, settled in its thought and activity. Rather, we are the orientation of all the community toward complete Christianity. The Movement is a spirit, and the current principles are nothing but a verbal expression of this moving from ignorance to knowledge and from sin to purity. Our zeal is a movement that is not divided and is not limited. It includes all existence and embraces every goal that aims for the unity of humanity to the God of love and makes all creation shine in the Church of Christ. Our awakening is a movement because it is drawn from the Church that is in motion, carrying our life and our heritage to all the world and bringing into the bosom of the Church all that has been churned up by history, so that it may be united in her and through her be raised up and made holy.

The Movement is a Comprehensive Organization

We are a youth movement that has been freed from the worship of all the idols that the history of human thought has presented to us. By its completely free will it has approached Christ because it has sensed that He alone solves all its problems. It has abandoned worldly pleasures because it has found its great pleasure in Christ. This awakening is an organization because it has separated those who are awake from blind reactions and has brought them to enlightened consciousness, indeed to true consciousness itself. It is a popular organization, truly connected to all the Orthodox people, which brings truth into the world. It is popular because it does not work in its ivory tower and does not navel-gave for the sake of sheer disconnected intellectual pleasure. Rather, its members meditate on religious truth and live it in order to bear the fruits of their interior struggle to all humanity, by means of organized teaching.

The movement permeates the Orthodox in order to renew them and imprint upon them its image. The movement is not a program for sectarian reform. Rather, all reform comes out of it and the children of the Church strive in vain to put together a program of reform if it is not preceded by a creative religious consciousness. The reforms that will treat the external state of the Church in the Middle East must occur in a state of Christian renewal, not along its margin, since within the work of renewal in the Church there is not one spiritual program and another material program, but rather there is one religious current that has spiritual and material manifestations.

The movement calls all the children of the Church to revival, because every Orthodox person-- youths, men, women, laypeople, clergy-- are responsible for it, because there is no reform except through common work among all of them. All of us are responsible because all of us are sinners. Someone who puts responsibility on another's neck is a haughty Pharisee. We must remember that we are not here in a court of justice, but in a workshop. One who judges another looks at the many wrongs in the near past, but the one who works looks to the realization of the Kingdom of God in the future.

We are all workers, but the youth are activists. This is because they are the pillars of the revival and because they are made to wake the dead who, if they hear in the graves the voice of their children, they arise to new life.

We are all workers, but women have special responsibilities, because first of all Christian education in the family depends on them and because they will play a special role in the new civilization and in awaking religious feelings in that age.

The Interior Spiritual Crisis

We call for religious revival because the Church is only served by people spiritually. The crisis that we are going through is spiritual at its base. The attempts at reform that have for decades appeared within the Antiochian Church have all failed because they did not realize this basic truth. Those who are satisfied with external reform without asking for the involvement of peoples' spirits do not know where to turn to. We have seen many people in every place form associations for temporary purposes that end with the end of their goals because they are not based on intellectual principles and spiritual factors. How can can the community's crisis be solved by one who does not think about the solution to his own crisis? How can one reform who does not feel the enormousness of his responsibilities? And how can one feel the necessity of any work if he has not been built up spiritually? So how can one solve the crisis if he himself does not participate in its solution, but rather remains content with contributing his money and influence? How can one treat the illness if he thinks it is in someone else and is unable to humble himself a little in order to see it in himself? Some have wanted activity and they have used screaming, disorder, enmity, ungratefulness, and desperation. The issue requires peace, faith, hope, and love.

They have only looked at Orthodoxy from two perspectives: administration and finances, even though these two things are as far as can be from the matter at hand. They say that the Church is in need of administration and organization and we say that this is true but that will not be completed except through one's participation inwardly. The time has come for people to prepare the path that they have not followed, in an atmosphere of love and holiness. We say to those who see material organization as a prerequisite for spiritual work: follow the religious path so that your enlivened spirit will work within the unorganized community and your radiant spirit, robed in the light of the righteousness, covered with the holiness of truth, is what will change destruction into construction and weakness into power. The Spirit cannot be the product of organization. Organization is always the result of the Spirit which announces Itself, whether or not the means abound, because the Spirit blows where It wishes and creates what It wishes in whatever situation It wishes and because a person filled with the Spirit cannot remain with his hands tied, far from work. Rather, the Spirit in whom he lives and whom he contemplates is that which presses him on and sets his mind in motion and leads him to useful work and organization.

This Spirit creates the moral revival through which we face the evil hidden within ourselves. We have no salvation if we first of all do not realize that evil is within us apart from external circumstances and that it leaks into the outside from within us. The revival that we desire begins through combating sin within the children of the Church because the sin that is within me and within every person prevents our awakening and our being enlightened by the truth. The ignorance of hate and the materialism of many and the laziness of all of us is nothing other than a result of the evil that is well-established within us. Whatever our sinful hands have handled, whether they have extended it to us from without or from within, we cannot allow it to overcome us, as the evil that lives in our hearts has overcome us. The first task that every person must undertake is to purify his being of its stains. The sole enemy of the Church whose danger we must sense and which we must be militant in uprooting. There's nothing truer than the words of the Apostle, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

This new mentality will logically lead to a renewal of all the forces coming out of humanity, whether they are cultural or social.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Patriarch Ignatius Speaks against Intervention in Syria

This was published in the Syrian newspaper al-Watan  on Thursday, March 1. The Arabic original can be found here.

During his speech before the Jordanian [student] delegation, Patriarch Hazim focused on "the life shared by the Syrian people and their solidarity." He said, "The Crisis that Syria is going through does not distinguish between Christian and Muslim... the consequences of foreign intervention in our internal affairs will effect Muslims and Christians equally because the target is the Syrian people and their national unity." He added, "The terrorist bombings that a number of regions of Syria have witnessed do not distinguish between a Christian citizen and a Muslim citizen. The blood of both is mixed together."

After emphasizing "the national unity lived by Syria, which is rarely seen in the world," he said, "We spread national solidarity to other countries. Syria  has become a model of of this unity that unites her different sons. Our country has been based on cultural and civic pluralism since the early days of both Christianity and Islam. The Muslims and Christians of Syria will continually remain under the shelter of brotherhood, harmony, and love, just as they have all through history. They were born and raised together and they shall remain together."

Hazim likewise praised the religious freedom enjoyed by the Christians in Syria, "We worship in complete freedom and churches are spread throughout all regions."

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East condemned "the media campaign" against Syria, "There are more than eight hundred malicious and tendentious media channels around the world that spread misleading reports about Syria. Expertise, technology, funding, and facilities are mobilized for them in order to spread the poison  of divisive sectarian and separatist ideologies in Syria and the region."

He likewise noted the "path of reform and renewal that is being followed by the Syrian people under the leadership of President Bashar al-Asad," stating that, "Syrian citizens feel that they receive the full attention of the state and government."


Met. Georges Khodr on the Principles of the Orthodox Youth Movement (I)

March 16 will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Orthodox Youth Movement of the Patriarchate of Antioch. This week, I will post in installments a translation of an explanation of the Movement's principles written by the future Metropolitan Georges Khodr in 1950. Today, the introduction. The original can be found here.

An Explanation of the Principles of the Movement


Towards Renewal

Orthodox Christians are in need of renewal. Our life has become stagnant and we have become estranged from Jesus' message, lost in the shadows, not seeing God and not feeling His impact on existence, such that the hearts of some have started to long for the springs of religious life to burst open within the Church, which we hope will flow upon us in abundance, so that every person will be quenched and death will cease.

People look at the Church from outside and it appears to them as a worn-out building, that only has to go extinct and collapse in the consciousness of the time. The number of those who look at only the exterior of the Church and despair has multiplied, but the faithful hope for salvation from the cornerstone of the Church. The edifice must be raised, because the foundation is still standing and because humankind, who have become estranged from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, will return to her. Here today she begins, through the youth, to build herself up upon the cornerstone, so that she may construct an eternal building.

The Basis of Reform

Some people who care about what they call "sectarian concerns" call for reform, but they do not understand the nature of the malady and they fail in treating it.

There are those who say that the Church is in need of wealth and political influence. This is the party among whom politics and commerce has overwhelmed religious thinking. They have a distorted understanding of Orthodoxy and remain outside the struggle between stagnation and life.

There are those who look closely at the state of the Church, but they examine it with a bodily eye and seek the establishment of various institutions of the Church or of the community. However, their zeal does not go beyond making the demand, when they are not using destructive, negative criticism or not going beyond making superficial repairs.

It has not occurred to these people that the edifice is in need of profound, comprehensive, overall reform and that the our situation has stayed this way because those who are occupied with the affairs of the Church have not thought about treating the religious issue from the foundation, and so they have not entered into the heart of the question and have not dared to raise dangerous issues in a clear and decisive manner, even though the future of Orthodoxy in the Middle East depends on solving them.

In fact, if we want to understand the current state of Orthodoxy in order to prepare a worthy future for it, we must take a profound look at the essence of the Orthodox Church and make a thorough study of her principles. In this way we can prove that her current decline is not a result of her principles being corrupt, but rather a result of the corruption of our own morals. The Church forever suffers from her children and the Spirit is forever the great victim of history. Revival will come about through us if we are faithful to the Church.

Introducing Christians to Christianity

Our crisis is a crisis of religious thought in the entire world, and so if our goal is to treat the issue of the Church in our country, we must treat the crisis in which Christianity finds itself in the present world. It is nothing other than the separation of humanity and of civilization from God, a separation that was generated by modern materialism and all its manifestations in philosophy, art, morals, and social situations.

Global civilization has become distorted in its latest stage by being cut off from its Christian foundations. The basic dilemma in the world in which we exist is the dilemma of returning humankind, in our eternal essence shaped in the image and likeness of God, through returning humankind to the sources of life. We know that there is no end to the possibilities of renewal and of our returning to the Spirit and His freedom. The philosopher Berdayev was right when he said, "There can be no renewal within humanity except through Christianity." This is the dilemma that is raised by all religious consciousness. It is not enough to be a Christian just having it recorded on your identity card. This is a dilemma that we cannot be content to stand before in idle confusion. Rather, we must confront it in order to undertake the serious endeavor in modern history-- "introducing Christians to Christianity."

We strive to understand Christianity, to create a sound understanding of humanity, of existence and of ourselves through Christ. That we may spread this Christian understanding of existence, we pray and we partake together in Christ's holy mysteries so that our spiritual understanding may come as the result of common work in prayer and constant meditation on God's heavenly truth. At that point, our love for the children of God and the children of mankind will become a palpable social reality. At that point, our divinized intellect will produce a transfigured culture and history and God will become the One who is in us, all in all.

The Orthodox Youth Movement and Its Principles

For the sake of all this, our Movement, the Orthodox Youth Movement, was formed on the basis of the following six principles, which this study seeks to explain:

1. The Orthodox Youth Movement is a spiritual movement that calls all the children of the Orthodox Church to religious, moral, cultural, and social revival.

2. The Movement believes that religious and moral revival is based on following religious duties and on knowledge of the Church's teachings. For this reason, it strives to spread these teachings and to strengthen the Christian faith among the people.

3. The Movement strives to create an Orthodox culture animated by the spirit of the Church.

4. The Movement treats social issues through Christian principles.

5. The Movement rejects any sectarian prejudice, but it considers holding fast to Orthodox principles to be a basic condition for strengthening religious life and for creating bonds of brotherhood with the other Christian churches.

6. The movement is in contact with the international Orthodox current and follows the teachings of the universal Orthodox Church and her tradition, even as it contributes to her ecumenical development and humanitarian mission.

It must be mentioned that these exact principles were not expressed in the above form until a year and a half after the establishment of the Movement on March 16, 1942. These principles point to the basic plan in forming the Movement, without being absolutely comprehensive. This is because it is a living, Christian movement and it is not defined our comprehended by analogy to all living things, but rather one lives it and knows it from within. There is an understanding of the Movement that is not complete in the way the understanding of a secret is complete. Everything that has been or will be said about it, even all the works it undertakes, is but an incomplete, external expression of the source upon which we have drawn. For this reason, language does not lead to understanding our path. It is only a sign along a path that can only be ascertained through love. These pages are nothing but an attempt to put forward principles that were never codified or set in stone. They are one of many possible attempts to expound on the theological basis of the revival in Orthodoxy today.

Then also, some of the opinions that are put forward in this study should be attributed to the author and must be looked at as unofficial opinions, to which the consciousness of the Movement does not constrain its free laborers. This is especially true in the case of certain theories connected to what we have called Christian culture, the issue of society, and the unity of the Church, because our Movement believes in freedom and does not have any set teaching on the whole of Christianity and of our particular understanding of the spiritual revival and its means. However, each of us understands the revival according to his own spiritual formation and his particular intellectual fabric. Therefore, some of the opinions that I attribute to the Orthodox Movement express my own understanding of its spiritual reality and all adhere to it in this manner, as all who will come must adhere to it, because our Movement does not have any unified expression of principles, and for this reason I call on the reader to not interpret our Movement as a sect based on the text of this study, as one might interpret settled law. However, he will be faithful to the spirit of these lines if he is able to remain above them and to have the consciousness of the revival, about which I have written.

Attaining this consciousness requires arduous intellectual effort, striving against the self, and purification of the heart. Our Movement is a light that does not appear to someone except after toil, long vigil, prayer, suffering, and illumination. This is because they are a way of opening to the unseen world and an existential sense of it. Uncovering the unseen requires divinely being raised up and going down deeply, lifting the veil of time and place, a complete and painful stripping away of everything that hinders the soul from attachment to the heavenly, luminous truth.

This religious profundity is brought to many by this living group of people with whom I work, and I do not mean only the leaders of the Movement, but also those members who strive to bring quiet and to give calmness. In this publication, I am indebted to all of them and to some of the people whom God has placed along the path of my life who serve Him in spirit and in truth. These lines come out of the wonderful, holy retreats that brought us together before heaven and from those faces that have reflected their interior light.

Tripoli, September 1974 - Paris, 13 February, 1950