Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Fr George Massouh: When will Christianity Disappear in our Country?

Arabic original here.

When will Christianity Disappear in our Country?

Is Christianity doomed to disappear in our country? This is a question that I have dealt with previously in several articles, but we return to it today from the perspective of how Christians view themselves and their witness in today's world. We will not repeat what we have said about what the economic recession, the growth of extremist Islam, and the establishment of the State of Israel have contributed to the dwindling numbers of Christians. Instead we will point out some phenomena that have recently arisen in Christians' behavior and attitude toward current events.

The primary phenomenon from which all the other phenomena stem is Christians' neglect of what is essential in Christianity and contentment with what is inessential in it. By 'essential' we do not mean the fundamental dogmatic questions that distinguish Christians from others or those that distinguish Christians from each other according to their various affiliations. Rather, we mean the essence of the moral and life teachings of Jesus Christ.

If we want to characterize Christianity in brief, we would say that it is the imitation of Jesus Christ in daily life and concern for humanity in general and the needy in particular. Love comes at the essence of this essence and Christ Himself made it His only charge for His disciples. Indeed, He made it the only proof of their Christianity, so if they lose it, they cease to belong to Him, and so cease belonging to Christianity. "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

For Christians to depart from this essence in their moral attitudes for political, patriotic, economic or sectarian reasons is absolutely the most disturbing phenomenon. Christians will either physically or spiritually disappear. What does it mean for Christians to remain if they do not imitate Christ and only make the Gospel their measure when it suits them? "By this all will know that you are My disciples." So are Christians known by their behavior or only by their names and their family names? Can we not say that Christianity has disappeared from our country, despite the fact that there remain Christians who are not pleased with life as Christ wants it to be? Does a Christian remain a Christian if he says that the Gospel is not for him right now?

What we are currently witnessing causes us to affirm that the loss of the moral essence among Christians is the most effective factor for the disappearance of Christianity. Here are some phenomena that provide examples of the moral aberrations that provoke fear for the future of Christianity in our country:
When Christians applaud unjust regimes with the excuse that they protect them from a greater danger, as though Christ chose between a lesser and a greater evil. The lesser and the greater evil are both evil!

When the "rights of Christians" become more important than the "rights of man".

When the "rights of Christians" become more important than Christ's rights. Christ's rights are none other than that the poor be embraced, that the hungry be fed, that the sick be helped, that the stranger be sheltered... As for the "rights of Christians", this doesn't mean anything but the rights of the rich or of those who are in a position to become wealthy, from the rank of "general manager" on up.

When Christians support a policy of discriminating among the people of God, violating the basic principles of Jesus Christ's teachings.

When belonging to the Church is replaced by sectarian affiliation.

When Christ's tomb becomes more important than the people of Palestine remaining in their homeland.

When erecting a cross or enormous statues on mountaintops becomes more important than investing the Church's endowments in supporting people to remain in their country against incentives to emigrate.

When some people imagine regaining the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, while at the very same time neglect to support those who stand firm in their villages, so that what happened to the people of Constantinople will not happen to them!

Yes, Christianity is doomed to disappear in our country if  we ignore this moral essence of the teachings of Jesus Christ. "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). Where do we stand in terms of these words?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: If You Want to Be Perfect

Arabic original here.

If You Want to Be Perfect

The rich young man who came to Jesus started to speak saying, "Good teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus does not want this man to call Him "good teacher" because He realized that the young man who was speaking to Him thought that Jesus was merely human and not divine, so he was flattering Him by calling Him "good", just as we address each other with titles so that everyone will accept us and we can benefit from people's kindness. Jesus rejects every form of affectation and excessive flattery and so He answers the young man, "If you want to enter the kingdom, then keep the commandments." The commandments are obedience to God and through obedience man enters the kingdom.

Then we hear the man say to the Lord, "All this I have kept from my youth, so what do I still lack?" We understand from this that the man is advanced in spiritual life and perfect in his morals, as it appears. Despite his holding fast to the law, he was able to ask the Teacher, "What am I still missing?", as though he felt that there was something beyond the Law of Moses or loftier than it. Then the Lord answered him with a strange word, "If you want to be perfect, then go sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow Me." The question confronting us today is, are we called to leave our homes and go about homeless in the streets in order to follow the Teacher? What do these words of Jesus mean for us today?

"If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have and come, follow Me." There is wealth that hinders people from following Christ, that is a barrier between people and Christ. Great wealth may be a burden and a seductive temptation such that people perish in it. When we treat the issue of marriage, the man sometimes complains about his wife, "She has everything, what does she want?" The man thinks that his life-partner is content with money, that she is assured by money, and that money solves everything. This isn't true. No matter how much it is piled up, money doesn't give mercy and compassion and it often reduces mercy, compassion and friendship. Naturally, there are people among us who think that they can buy the world and sell it with their money. This isn't true, even at the level of business. Business is first of all a personal relationship and is based first of all on mutual good treatment.

Then we hear the Lord say in a powerful and quiet way, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." The camel is a camel and the eye of a needle is an eye of a needle, as we know. It is as though the Lord made the kingdom of God impossible for rich people! Indeed, He says that piled-up wealth is contrary to justice and justice requires the distribution of the wealth of the rich to those who do not possess anything and that food not be wasted when thousands of people do not have enough to eat.

The rich person is not only the one who possesses a lot of money. The Arabic word for "rich" [ghani] means "someone who does not need" [yastaghni]. The rich person is one who does not need God, who replaces God with money, beauty, intelligence, culture, influence, authority, glory... If a person becomes attached to any of these things, they prevent him from entering the kingdom. The kingdom of God is entered by the humble who need their Lord and consider Him to be everything.

If we strip ourselves of the love of money, of every pretense, and of attachment to any visible thing, if we strip ourselves of all this, we find ourselves empty of everything and ready to receive God into our hearts. When we need God's presence in us and have empties ourselves of everything apart from Him, at that point we become perfect in Him. "The nations know that the Lord sanctifies us and perfects us" (Ezekiel 37:28). Then we attain God's perfection.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Marriage

Arabic original here.

The Holy Mystery of Marriage

The Christian family is a little church. The marriage bond is a holy bond, not merely a sexual relationship. Hence the importance of educating the family, both parents and children, and raising them spiritually and educationally.

Marital preparation before the marriage has become an urgent matter, as has follow-up after the marriage and keeping up with couples in their daily life under the pressure of the challenges imposed upon us by our time.

Thus there is a need for committed and spiritually and culturally mature pastors who are capable of giving proper guidance.

Among the pressing factors of our time:

1) Social media, which has made it much easier for people to get to know each other, though this is not always with proper intent. For this reason, social media has caused many marital conflicts which have sometimes led to divorce. Additionally, this media has opened the way for long-distance marriage, which is something unacceptable.

2) The economic crisis, consumerism, the woman's having to work.

3) The influence of customs of the diaspora and a lack of dedication to our Eastern Christian heritage and tradition.

4) Hastiness, in many cases, in the matter of the engagement.

5) The absence of marital pastoral care before and after the marriage.

6) Mixed marriage, which very often leads to inherent disagreements.

Where is the treatment for all this? We have said that we need pastors with ample appropriate training to accompany the spouses before and after marriage. There is an important proposal to establish a committee, association or network, which can itself be a committee specialized in marital preparation, whose task is to exchange experiences and emerging studies and which has a common program with other dioceses under the supervision of the Holy Synod. Its members must have training from the following fields: law, medicine, spirituality, sociology, culture, and psychology...

Beloved, marital fidelity is not easy in this "wicked and corrupt generation." Faithfulness comes first of all from commitment to Christian principles and dedication to the practice of the Church. We must avoid bad or tempting cohabitations.

Without prayer, without a god, no marriage can have any sanctity.

Children are always the victims of divorce and their psychological health is inevitably affected. The good leaven that the spouses taste is not at the beginning of their marriage but at the end of their life, if they have guarded their faithfulness to the last breath.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Met Georges Khodr on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Arabic original here.

Forgive Your Companion as I have Forgiven You

This Sunday is the midpoint between the Feast of the Transfiguration and the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. In the transfiguration, we were promised that we will shine with the light of the Gospel just as Christ shined on the mountain. In the cross, Christ will be victorious and forgive us. But in order for us to be transfigured and forgiven, we must love as the parable from the Gospel has taught us.

The Lord told us this parable about a king who was owed ten thousand talents by his servant. This is equal to hundreds of millions in modern currency. That is, it is a very large debt. It is as though the Gospel means that the king is God Himself and that we owe Him an immeasurable sum. We owe Him first of all life and we owe Him something even more important than life, the redemption worked by Christ on the cross, eternal life, and forgiveness of sins when we repent of them.

God, as the servant said, takes His time. That is, He does not punish a person if the person asks for respite, if he realizes his sin and wants to correct it. The Lord desires all His children, even if they are sinners, because He loves all His children. "For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). People of various sorts, of various believes and various behavior enjoy the same good things that God gives to His beloved ones in various ways. God is a master who treats us according to love.

The servant whose great debt was forgiven held a trivial debt, a hundred dinars, from another servant. Three thousand dinars equals one talent. He started beating him, almost killing him, and put him in jail.

The lesson that Jesus draws from this story is that if you want mercy from your Lord, you must in turn be merciful to people. If you love, your heart grows larger, so that you will be large-hearted with people and have mercy on them.

Why must our hearts grow larger and why must we show mercy? Because people are alone. Every person is alone. Every person is wretched. Not matter how happy we are, in the end we live in isolation and nothing but God can bring us out of our isolation. Everything we have comes to an end: family, livelihood, wealth. God alone is a friend. Every person wants to be visited by another, for the face of another to turn to him, for a neighbor to look out for him, but the one who truly looks out for us is God.

How do we see the Lord? We do not see God's face, but we hear His word and we feel His grace. God looks out for us through others and He is one of the people that we visit. If they visit us, we feel that God has visited us. If they love us, we know that God has loved us. Others want us to love them in hard times, and therefore we console each other and rejoice with one another. Sometimes this might be out of hypocrisy and flattery our out of habit, but a person wants true, sincere feeling.

A person is in hard times not only when he has lost a loved one. He may be having psychological difficulty, so if we see the signs of ennui and irritability on our relative or neighbor, then we should visit him. This is particularly necessary in family life. We must be merciful toward people so that the Lord will have mercy on us.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Met Saba (Esber): Meditations on the Transfiguration

Arabic original here.

Meditations on the Feast of the Transfiguration

The Feast of the Transfiguration is the feast of glory. It is the feast of glorification, of man's glorification by his return to how he was in paradise, before the fall of Adam and Eve. Indeed, it is the return to the perfection of glory that they would have attained had they not fallen.

If man was created to live for some number of years on earth and then to do, what is the meaning of his life? He was created for divine glory. He was created to put on this glory.

Knowledge of glory is the deepest and most deeply-rooted need in man's heart. It is his need that is constantly attached to his nature. Even children long for glory, even if it is without knowledge, as when they want to stand out. Adults find in it a motive for excelling and for great deeds or, if they are wicked, a motive for evil deeds.

Man cannot be satisfied with his situation and accept it. He constantly longs for something better. Man is better than his situation, even if he doesn't know this. Within him is a beauty that he covers with ugliness. But he senses this beauty and feels it in special cases. He strives for it by seeking glory but, far from God, he continues to long for it, no matter what glories he achieves.

There is glory and then there is glory: the glory of the world and the glory of the kingdom, the glory of man and the glory of God, momentary glory and eternal glory, outward glory and inner glory, glory established upon the cross and glory established on the crucifixion of others, glory that comes through the cross and glory that rejects the cross. Do you know what kind of glory you desire?

The glory that God has promised us is to "partake in the inheritance of the saints" (Colossians 1:12). It is the glory of holiness, which God has made possible for us through the cross. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18) and "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17). Therefore Moses and Elijah spoke with Him "of His exit which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31).

The word "exit", in Greek "exodos", indicates His death. Christ's death is intimately tied to the glory of the transfiguration because Christ is glorified in His death (cf. John 12:23). In the annual liturgical cycle, the Feast of the Transfiguration comes forty days before the Feast of the Cross, demonstrating the connection that exists between Christ's glory and the cross. The word "exodos" reveals that Christ's passion is the realization of the Passover of the Old Testament and the true exodus from slavery to salvation.

The unveiling of this divine glory likewise confirms that Christ's imminent death is not something forced on Him by outside powers, but rather a free offering of love, because no soldier would have been able to resist such a glory, when Jesus was arrested, had Christ not remained silent (cf. Matthew 26:53). We chant in the kontakion for the feast, "Your disciples, insofar as they were able, beheld Your glory, so that when they should see You crucified, they would remember that Your suffering was voluntary."

The account of the event of the transfiguration is preceded by the Lord's speaking to His disciples about His impending passion and of the value of self-denial for salvation. The account begins with the words, "After this discussion..." This is an indication of the connection between the cross and the resurrection. The event of the transfiguration was an anticipatory revelation of Christ's glory in order to strengthen the disciples who saw Him and make firm their faith in their teacher and His being the Messiah. The Gospel recounts that the Lord took His chief disciples, Peter, James and John, so that they might see this glory of His.

The troparion for the feast says, "When You were transfigured on the mountain O Christ God, You revealed Your glory to the disciples as much as they were able." This confirms that the disciples saw to the degree that they were able to see. The Holy Spirit had not rested upon them yet.

This glory is attained by one who has passed through the glory of the cross. That is, one who has been freed of the hateful ego and from self-love. Rejecting the cross causes a person to seek glory in self-affirmation, and so his glory then remains a worldly glory destined to fail. It does not give him the fullness and satisfaction that he seeks. This is evident in his dissatisfaction with any profit that he gains and in his constant striving for more of what he already has.

"For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things" (Philippians 3:18-19). "The things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18). We do not limit the word "eternal" to the life after death as it also includes earthly life too.

Earthly glory is by definition passing, a mirage in the life to come, and a cause for perdition. But the promised glory, the glory of man's transfiguration in God's light is the perfection of the image with the divine likeness, is the lasting and original glory, the reason for the creation of man. If this glory, the purpose, does not exist, then what justifies human life? And what makes people bear their personal suffering and the suffering of others? And what gives them the capability to continue with the painstaking effort of life? Life without this divine purpose becomes a heedless passing between strangers who uselessly go along their way, life "from the belly to the grave." History becomes merely a succession of vain mirages. Life, the life of every person, is a short series of events with no justification for its past, no meaning to its present, and no possible end to its suffering. Mention of human suffering and the torments of humanity becomes something unbearable and impossible to bear.

But we know that this is not the case. God declares this in His having also become human. He will show His disciples the transformation that will happen to mankind in His kingdom of heaven, when they too will enter into glory. "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it... For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works" (Matthew 16:25, 27; cf. Luke 9:24, 26) and also, "But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:27), "till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). 

The transfiguration, then, is a sample of man's natural state. It is the beauty of humanity restored, the beauty of original, undistorted creation. Many new this beauty, this glory and experienced it here on earth. The Prophet Moses knew it when his face shined and the Hebrews were not able to look upon him. Many enlightened persons knew it, those who in the purity of their life and their struggle were liberated from the corruption of their fallen nature and became temples for the indwelling of God, such as Saint Seraphim of Sarov and many others.

May God make us worthy to seek this glory. Amen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist

Arabic original here.

The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist

After years of work, Dr Elias Rachid Khalil and a team of researchers have published, at the initiative of Association of Alumni of Maronite Seminaries in Lebanon, an Encyclopedia of the Martyrs of the Churches in Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa (one volume, 1072pp.). This scholarly encyclopedia, which received the blessings of the heads of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the Middle East, is distinguished by something new in the history of the Church, which is that it has brought together the lives of the saints who are celebrated in each of the churches. As for the importance of this encyclopedia, the letter from His Beatitude Patriarch John X at the beginning of the book says it best: "We find in this new work a fundamental step towards greater acquaintance with our shared Middle Eastern heritage, a reminder of the history of the Church militant in our country and a confirmation of our united witness in this stormy time."

Below are selections from my study "The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist: The Witness of the Rum of Antioch" published in the encyclopedia.

The history of the Church celebrates the accounts of the holy martyrs who did not fear death but faced their tormentors with resolve and courage beyond description and did not flinch from declaring their firmness in faith in the Lord Jesus as Lord, God, Redeemer and Savior. The causes of their martyrdoms varies across circumstances, contexts, eras, regions and states. The first of them, Saint Stephen (cf. Acts 7), was killed by the Jews. Some were victims of the pagan Roman emperors, some were martyred under the Islamic caliphate, some were martyred in our present era under states based on the principle of "secularism", and some met their fate at the hands of other Christians who regarded them as heretics who must be punished with death.

Archimandrite Touma Bitar, who has the distinction of having published the Orthodox Synaxarion in Arabic, states that, "The first of those to forge the path to being honored in worship were the martyrs. The faithful honored them in the places where they had been tormented  or were martyred and buried. Their remains were kept with care as the most precious treasures, not necessarily because they had miraculous effects, but because they had fought the good fight, completed their struggle and kept the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). They offered their bodies as a holy living sacrifice pleasing to God (cf. Romans 12:1). They imitated the Lord's death (cf. Philippians 3:10). They bore the marks of the Lord Jesus on their bodies (Galatians 6:17). They are those who no longer live, but Christ lives in them (cf. Galatians 2:20).

It goes without saying that honoring the martyrs began at an early phase of the Church's history. In the account of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (d. 158), the author mentions the Christians' celebrating the first commemoration of his martyrdom. One of the witnesses recounts that Polycarp's killers refused to hand his body over to the Christians for burial and then burned it. But those who loved him collected his bones, which for them were "more precious than gold and silver." From this arose the holy tradition that continues to this day which requires churches to be built over the graves of martyrs or the placing of pieces of their relics in them. The Council of Carthage (397) ordered the destruction of churches that were not constructed over the graves of true martyrs, while the canon seven of the Seventh Ecumenical Council says, "Let the remains of holy martyrs be placed in the churches that were built without them and let him who consecrates a church without any remains of martyrs be deposed for his violating the traditions of the Church."

It is possible for us to say, then, that in Christianity, it is the martyr who celebrates the liturgy, offering his body as a living Eucharist in place of bread and wine. His body is transformed into the body of Christ. His body is transformed into the "Church" in every sense of this word. Did not the Holy Apostle Paul liken the Church to the "body of Christ"? Therefore we honor his relics because they have become a holy Eucharist. In the life of Saint Eubulus (d. 204), it confirms this prevailing belief, as the saint cries out in the face of his tormentor who asks him to offer sacrifices so that he could pardon him and he could stay alive, "Yes, I will offer a sacrifice. But I will offer myself up before Christ God and I do not have anything else to offer."

In this context, Metropolitan Georges Khodr says, "The early Christians performed the sacrifice over the bodies of martyrs because the martyrs are alive and the liturgy is new life... All this means that the martyr or the saint is alive with his Lord and contributes to giving us life." But with the spread of churches and the lack of relics of martyrs, the Church deemed it proper that "the remains of the saints and martyrs be places in the foundations of a new church and likewise the altar. There we make a small hole where we place these remains during the consecration of the church and then we cover the altar with a covering." Metropolitan Khodr closes his discussion of this topic by stating that "the relics of the saints are not merely bones. They are the body of someone in whom holiness has dwelt, the body of someone longing for the resurrection."

As for the necessary conditions for declaring the sainthood of a believer who is witnessed to be upright, it is not a matter of a formal decision being taken by the Orthodox Church after a process of investigations, examinations and interrogations. Rather, each local church may declare the "sainthood" or "glorification" of a new saint. This is because honoring the saints begins with the people who call upon them, honor them, and visit their tombs. Then the spiritual leadership recognizes the truth of this popular movement and declares the sainthood of the person in question. It is worth mentioning that the Orthodox Church does not require miracles as a measure of sainthood, but rather two things must be determined, as Metropolitan Georges Khodr says:

1) The one whose beatification is sought must be of upright belief if he wrote anything. Someone whose beliefs deviate cannot be declared a saint even if, according to his outward behavior, he was a good person.

2) He must have great virtues and have no crime attributed to him.

When talking about Christian witness, we must recall the centrality of the cross in spurring Christians to bear witness to the truth and to keep themselves from bearing false witness. The cross is the essence and epitome of Christ's teachings. Christian behavior cannot be sound without accepting the cross as the sole standard for life in the world and the sole path to the perfection to which are called those who believe in the crucified and risen one. Therefore, the cross is not merely a banner that we raise here and there. It is a way of life and an imitation of the life of Christ the Lord from its alpha to its omega.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fr James Babcock Reviews Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans

This was published some months ago, but it only came to my attention today. For another, more scholarly review by Heleen Murre-van den Berg see here. For the original of Fr Babcock's review, see pp. 34 and 36 of the January 2017 issue of the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton's journal Sophia, here.

Book Review: Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans
by Archimandrite James Babcock

Admittedly I was both intrigued and suspicious when I saw the title and then the publisher of Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans: 1516-1831 by Constantin A. Panchenko. This book lifts the veil covering the hidden years of the Patriarchate of Antioch during Ottoman rule in Lebanon/Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt.

What seemed suspicious was the publisher: Holy Trinity Seminary Press, Jordanville, New York. This monastery is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, the most traditional (and anti-Catholic) part of the Russian Church. I suspected a possibly slanted report.

Yet as I began to read, I quickly discovered that this tale would be reported with an even and balanced hand. To a Melkite, the chapter of greatest interest was “The Catholic Unia,” covering the time of the unfortunate division of the Patriarchate of Antioch in 1724. The author’s impeccable research brings to life the events of those heady days and the regrettable and pretty much unnecessary hostility that arouse out of those events.

To quote the author, “It was a time of active economic and religious expansion of the Catholic world in the Levant [and] was one of the key periods in the history of the Christian East . . . leading to a dramatic rift in the Middle Eastern communities.” Panchenko chronicles the events and activities of the Roman (Latin) Catholic Church among the Melkites.

It should be noted that the term “Melkite” originally referred to all Orthodox Christians in the Middle East. In this sense “Melkite” and “Orthodox” are synonymous. After the division, the term “Melkite” was appropriated by the members of the Antiochian Patriarchate who entered into communion with the Church of Rome. This mixing of names can be a bit confusing as one reads the history of the events.

Panchenko paints a portrait of the sorry state of the Church of Antioch as well as the other Patriarchates (Jerusalem and Alexandria), which did vary from Church to Church, each Church’s circumstances being somewhat different. The bulk of the story, however, unfolds in the Patriarchate of Antioch, a Church already weakened by divisions in earlier centuries.

The history begins with the Arab conquest and the life of the Christians under the Umayyad Caliphate in the sixth century and the fading inertia of the Byzantine culture. In the early years, the culture of the Melkites continued as before; however, when the situation began to deteriorate, the Christians revolted, which resulted in harsher conditions for them. Collection of the jizya tax became more exacting and Christian civil servants were dismissed. A catastrophic earthquake added to the suffering. From the ninth to the eleventh century the Middle East entered into what some historians call “the dark ages.” During this time the “Arabization” of the
Melkites began to take place. Christian scholars began to write in Arabic, and Arabic began to creep into the celebration of the divine services, replacing the traditional Greek.

As the Islamic dynasties shifted from the Abbasid to the Fatimid, for a brief time Byzantine influence began to re-assert itself. This influence ended abruptly with the rise of the Caliph al-Hakim. Severe persecution broke out, resulting in the destruction of the churches and the hierarchy. In Egypt only one Melkite bishop survived.

Soon a new challenge arose for the Melkites—the Crusades. The balance of power shifted from Islamic to Western (Latin) Christianity. Antioch was captured and later Jerusalem. The Latins installed bishops and patriarchs who replaced the Melkite bishops.

With the defeat of the Crusader empire and the rise of the Ottoman empire, the fate of the Christians of the Middle East shifted again. The Ottomans did not try to change the traditional way of life of the population but instead established various means to control it. This resulted in the establishment of the Millet system, wherein each ethnic or religious group was given broad governing powers over its own people with the provision that the leaders pay the jizya, which kept increasing year after year.

Now the spiritual leaders of the church also became civil leaders. This also increased the role of the laity in the governance of the church. Geographical demographics also played a role in the development of the churches. Mount Lebanon became a Christian reserve during this time. Panchenko thoroughly examines the role of the shepherds and their flocks.

A chapter on the role and importance of monasteries and monasticism adds depth to the understanding of the powerful influence they exerted on the life of the church. Here we begin to see the origins of how the division of the Patriarchate of Antioch began.

The author shows the origins of the struggles over the Holy Places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and the despicable fights that would break out between the monks and spiritual leaders. The chapter on foreign relations shows the beginning of the powerful influence of the Russian Church.

Finally, we arrive at the time of the division of the Patriarch of Antioch into Catholic and Orthodox jurisdictions. Many ugly events unfold and the reader begins to see that this is more of a power struggle, highly influenced by a desire for a more comfortable life which European culture could provide, than a dispute over any kind of ecclesiastical or theological differences.

A brief historical summary, maps, and photos are included. Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans: 1516-1831 is a must-read for all who love the Antiochian church and who lament its regrettable division. Knowledge brings understanding and wisdom, two elements required for the re-establishment and reunion of our church, Melkite and Orthodox.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: Prayer and Fasting

Arabic original here.

Prayer and Fasting

After the Church has entered us into the mystery of the Transfiguration and we have seen Christ's glory on the mountain, the divine word instructs us today that man is healed by prayer and fasting. Let us go past the healing of the young man afflicted with epilepsy and pay attention to Jesus' words after the disciples were unable to perform the miracle: "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move." By this He meant that if your faith has a mustard seed of warmth, then everything is possible. Impossible things are possible, since nothing is possible for God. But you go back to ingratitude and doubt.

The apostles whom the Lord accused had this ingratitude because they still had not witnessed His resurrection and had not received the Holy Spirit. They were prey to the dust that was in them. They were prey to the passions nestled in their souls. The Lord wanted them to look to God and to His power which was capable of transforming them into new people, as though they were the Lord Himself.

The Teacher wanted them to practice faith in two aspects: in the aspect of prayer first and then in the aspect of fasting. My intention is for us to arrive at the core meaning of these two words. The essence of the prayer that makes us capable of miracles is that by which we know ourselves to be capable of attaining God Himself. God has entered into discussion with us. He has entered into dialogue inasmuch as He has made Himself possible for us. If it is right to say it, He has condescended from His almighty power in order to make us capable of standing before Him and with Him, so that we in turn are creators and renewers of this nature, transformers of our own hearts and of the hearts of people.

Prayer is our being in contact with God such that He acts if we act and He speaks if we speak. When the Bible says that God answers, it is not because we are beggars but because we are sons. God responds because we ourselves in the house of the Father are able to change what must be changed. We are given authority over the house of God, which is the universe. God answers and saves us. When one has the sweetness of God, this sweetens everything. When one has God's kindness, this makes the world kind and it in turn becomes gentle.

As for fasting, its purpose is not only abstinence from food. The ultimate intent of what is called fasting here is chastity. Chastity is our abstaining from a lust that rules over us so that we may give God sovereignty within us. Fasting is our giving control over to God so that we do not speak out of whim, but rather we say what God says by our tongues and we express the grace that God has cast into our hearts. Through fasting, man becomes poor before God and knows himself to be be such. Because of this, if he is chaste he is capable of having his prayer heard.

God dialogues with those who are of Him. Those who have acquired God's grace come to be within God and speak to God from within Him. If we become a chaste, praying people, kind to others, loving them, if we want this then God makes us capable of being transfigured with Him on the mountain and of looking out over our life and the life of all people.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Mary

Arabic original here.


Mary is the Mother of God. She gives birth to Christ God into the world (the Third Ecumenical Council, Ephesus 431).

Mary was the house of God. She is the servant of the divine mystery, "the mystery hidden for ages and unknown to the angels."

Mary is both mother and virgin-- a virgin, that is, the bride of God, consecrated to Him and to no one else. "Rejoice, O bride unwedded." At the same time, she is our mother in giving spiritual love. "Behold, your mother," says the Lord Jesus upon the cross to the disciple John whom He loved (cf. John 19:26-27).

We read in the Gospel passage for the Dormition (Luke 10:38-42), "Mary (the sister of Lazarus) sat at Jesus' feet and listened to His words... one thing is needful" (cf. Luke 10:39 and 42).

This is how the Virgin Mary was. When His mother and brothers came to Him and they said to Him, "Your mother and brothers want to see You," He replied, "My mother and brothers are those who listen to the word of God and do it" (Luke 8:21). There is listening and obedience.

In the Epistle for the Dormition (Philippians 2:5-11) it says, "He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8).

"Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Mary is the image of every pure person. The pure person is the one who only accepts into their heart God's seed, the divine word, not a corrupt human word.

They do not place anything within their soul alongside Christ-- not money, not station (that is, authority or vainglory), not the body (and the pleasure of the body). They worship only God. "You cannot worship two masters, God and money." Christ alone is the bridegroom of the soul. Mary is the bride of God.

Death is participation in the faulty human nature that we have all received. The Virgin received this fragile nature, but she remained impervious to willfully falling and so she was glorified and became a model for us.

Why does she have obedience to God? Because He is her Creator, the one who continuously glorifies our nature and our life. He is all of existence. Without Him I do not exist.

The Lord rewarded her at the end of her life, since she was transported to Him and glorified in the body above the angels, like Elijah.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: For How Long will the Emperor be Treated as a God?

Arabic original here.

For How Long will the Emperor be Treated as a God?

If Christianity were a religion that permitted taqiya, which is "outwardly pretending what one does not actually believe out of fear of oppression," then the Roman Empire during the first four centuries of Christianity would have accepted the Christians as good citizens and pardoned them and would not have undertaken persecutions against them.

There is no doubt that the Roman Empire of that time was not concerned with the Christians' dogma so much as with Christians' loyalty to the emperor. The sprawling Roman Empire permitted religious diversity on the condition that "No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed" (Cicero, De Legibus). According to the great legal thinker Cicero, the state had the right to recognize new religions or to refuse to permit their existence.

Why, then, was Christianity not recognized before the edict of the Emperor Constantine in 312, which granted the Christian religion the right to be active in the empire? There were multiple reasons, but most prominent explanation by far is that the chief reason for the persecution is the Roman state's response to the Christians' attitude toward the state and the incompatibility of its national and political conduct with Christian values...

The persecutions lasted for around two and a half centuries, from the year 64 (under the reign of Nero) to the year 311 (under the reign of Constantine), interspersed with periods of calm, during which there succeeded many emperors who continued the policy of persecutions, which had a political rather than religious character. In 235, the Emperor Maximian undertook to expel the heads of churches since he regarded them as responsible for "a religion that weakens the empire by dissuading those who belong to it from serving in the army." In 250, Decius was the first to organize persecution in every part of the empire, requiring every citizen to participate in offering sacrifices to the pagan gods.

The Roman state jealously protected honoring its gods since it saw these gods as the protectors of the empire against all its enemies. For this reason, honoring the pagan gods was not only a religious obligation, but also a civic obligation and this is what came into conflict with the strictly monotheistic faith of the Christians." The Christians did not accept to worship the Roman emperor and resisted it. They respected the emperor and obeyed him insofar as he was the high authority in the state, but they refused to recognize him as a god. The emperor, however, regarded the Christians' refusal to participate in the imperial consensus as though it were a rebellion against the empire itself, a betrayal of its principles, and an attack on the greatness of the Roman people.

There is no doubt that the Church's position regarding the state has changed from state to state and era to era. For example, service in the army has become permissible since worship of the emperor and the pagan gods has been permanently done away with. In reality, however, it is evident that the relationship of people in our countries to leaders still mimics to a great extent the relationship that existed between the peoples of the Roman Empire and their emperor who made himself into a god.

We find this mimicry in many expressions that are still current today. In ancient times it was said in justification of the persecutions that "Christianity weakens the empire," while today it is said that "this critical thinking discourages the national spirit" or "weakens the nation." In ancient times "the greatness of the Roman people" was evoked as a pretext for the imperial consensus, while today slogans are brandished in every country about "the greatness of such-and-such a people" as a pretext for national consensus....

It goes without saying that emperor-worship is still practiced in most of our countries. The two-faced emperor-- his first face is apparent and only for show and the second, real one is hidden in the background-- is infallible. He is infallible, as are all who follow his orders. His is infallible along with his entourage, his companions and his courtiers. Worshiping him is necessary, required for obtaining a testimony of good citizenship. Not worshiping him is treason, an apostasy incurring execution and death.

Do the Christians of our time practice taqiya in dealing with the emperor? Do they, out of taqiya, stay silent about his actions even if they go against the teachings of the Gospel? The early Christians, as we have seen, rejected the principle of taqiya and preferred to speak the word of truth over anything else, doubtlessly paying dearly. We must also pay heed to the fact that there is a price to taqiya that must one day be paid. So let the price be paid instead for the sake of the truth of the Gospel and not upon the altar of the emperor who makes himself into a god.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nour al-Sharq interviews Carol Saba

Arabic original here.

The lawyer Carol Saba, an expert in the affairs of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, told the program Waqfa wa-Mawqif, "Christians, especially the Orthodox, must regain their national role and establish a partnership of life and citizenship."

He spoke to Léa Adel Mehmari.

Commenting on the gathering of Eastern Catholic patriarchs, the lawyer Carol Saba, an expert in the affairs of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and a close advisor to Patriarch John X, observed that, "The crisis of Middle Eastern Christianity is a crisis of decline whose roots go back to the start of the transformations in the Arab Middle East in the early twentieth century. Where once the Christians formed the core of the thinkers and engines of the Arab Nahda that heralded a promising future for the Arab world, today they have arrived at a crisis of decline that gradually grew over the course of the twentieth century alongside the rise of the crisis of the state and the crisis of governance in Arab societies. The Christian role gradually receded on account of the rise of various political radicalisms in the Arab world, from a concern for an active Christian 'presence' in Arab societies to a concern for preserving 'existence' and abdicating from every national role to the point of decline, insularity and seeking protection."

Carol Saba's spoke during his appearance on the program Waqfa wa-Mawqif and said, "Despite this path of regression and its consequences of frustration and emigration, there remain the writings of Christian thinkers like Georges Khodr, Youakim Moubarac, Gregoire Haddad and others to point to the necessity of arriving at Arab systems of governance based on the civil state which separates religion from the state without separating it from society, so that it can be a society that embraces an active Christian presence in the Middle East."

According to his analysis of the current situation of growing sectarianism in our Arab societies and the repercussions of the rise of religious radicalism, Christians, especially the Orthodox, must "regain their national role and the initiative and break into public affairs with enlightened ideas in order to overcome the state of rampant sectarianism and to partnership of life and partnership of citizenship that makes everyone equal in terms of rights and responsibilities and which protects by law all elements of our Arab societies. Only the civil state that allows everyone to preserve their specificities can prevent the emigration and hemorrhaging of Middle Eastern Christians and make Christians secure here in their land, as they are one of the historical elements of this region."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Light of the Transfiguration

Arabic original here.

The Light of the Transfiguration

The Lord took Peter, James and John to a high mountain, perhaps Mount Tabor in Galilee or perhaps Mount Hermon (Jebel al-Sheikh). There He showed them what they could not really realize. He showed them His glory, a glory that He possessed and that was in Him, but which had been veiled, which He had veiled deliberately. Jesus did not want to overwhelm humankind with His glory, so He hid it in order to act among us as one of us and so that we may arrive at His glory at the end of our pilgrimage on earth.

If we see the cross, there His glory is made manifest to us and if we witness the resurrection, then His glory shines in us. Before this, it was necessary for Him to be veiled, but He nevertheless wanted to make clear to His disciples that He is the true appearance of God, that He is the only-begotten Son. So He brought Elijah and Moses from heaven, from their rest, to reveal to humankind that the Law of Moses has gone extinct and Judaism has ended. If the glory of Christ has shown forth, then the glory of Moses may be proud. And if His light has been made manifest, then His light grants us to understand the prophecies represented by Elijah.

Through His transfiguration, Jesus intimated to the apostles that prophecy had been fulfilled in Him, that His is the awaited one and so we are not in need of prophecy because everything the prophets said He said, since He demonstrated on the cross that God is love and He showed them this by His death.

As for Peter, when he saw this great scene, he said, "It is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Jesus did not accept this offer. He refused for them to remain on the mountain because the mountain of the transfiguration was a stage on the way to death. Death is important and even more important is the resurrection. For this reason the Lord said to Peter, "Peter, you do not know what you are saying. It is not permitted for you to seek glory like this in a cheap and effortless way."

Glory is only given to those who are prepared for death. The glory that people talk about and seek from each other is a cheap glory. Jesus did not come for such glory. He gave people another glory, a glory from their faith and from their love for the Father. He gave them a beloved glory.

The greatest of the great, the ones who enjoy their Lord's favor, the prominent ones in the kingdom are known by no one. They have no palaces. They make no show. People do not talk about these possessors of true glory. The poor are possessors of glory. The persecuted are possessors of glory. The ignorant who neither read nor write, if they belong to Christ are glorified. But those who claim to be cultured, who are merely puffed-up, do not inherit the glory of the kingdom. The clever person does not go up to heaven because he is clever but because he is humble and chaste, loving the Lord and loving the poor.

Jesus said to Peter, "I will give you glory from upon the cross. In blood, in death, in the death of martyrdom." Those who truly belong to Christ die as martyrs just as Peter died-- beaten without beating anyone, humiliated without humiliating anyone. Christ Jesus did not claim, did not make a show of glory. He died a death that He accepted in obedience to the Father.

God wants to be manifest in our life, for the face of every person to become shining like the sun, for Christ to be traced upon our faces, upon the face of each one of us because he lives according to the Gospel and becomes a christ.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Bishops, part 2

Arabic original here. Part one can be found in English here.

The Bishop (part 2)

The Bishop as Father and Servant:

We know that a person's temptations can be outlined in three things: money, authority and pleasure. The hope is constant that the bishop will not fall into the temptation of authority and become domineering, even if he carries the staff that is fitting for being a pastor. He must follow the advice of the Lord Jesus to His disciples when He told them:

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you... whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).

The bishop's authority is the authority of love. Fr Serge Boulgakov said, "When the bishop exercises authority, he acts with the Church and not over her because the latter constitutes a spiritual body for love."

The Bishop as the Image of Christ:

At the Divine Liturgy, only the bishop does not participate in the great entrance. He waits in the temple, in front of the royal doors and receives the offerings in order to offer them to God in the likeness of Christ offering to God the Father.

Likewise, when he looks out from the royal doors with the trikirion and dikirion, when he represents Christ in a wonderful, clear image, bearing the icon of the Trinity (the three candles) and the sign of Christ's two natures (the two candles), He is like Christ facing God the Father and says in his prayer, "O Lord, O Lord, look down from heaven and behold and visit this vineyard and perfect that which Your right hand has planted!"

Likewise, when the bishop stands at the throne, as at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy or at the prayer of Great Vespers before the blessing of the five loaves, he stands among his priests in the likeness of Christ among His apostles.

We recall here that the true head of the Church remains Christ. The bishop is only an image of Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:23).

The Virtues of the Bishop:

Some of these virtues appear in Paul's First Epistle to Timothy (3:1-8) where he says, for example: "A bishop then must be blameless... not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous...."

Saint Cyprian affirms the importance of humility for the bishop, "because Christ and the apostles were humble."

We will also mention that the bishop is an element of unity in his flock. This is manifest in the Eucharistic service. The antimension on the holy table is an important symbol of the unity of the diocese through the bishop who grants the antimension by signing it.

He is also a symbol of unity between the local church and the universal Church for the unity of faith and common participation in the holy mysteries. This Church is the body of Christ extending through the centuries.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies