Monday, February 25, 2019

2nd Meeting of the Dialogue beteween the Russian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches

Russian original here.

Dialogue with the Syriac Orthodox Church

The second meeting of the commission for dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church was held on February 8-22, 2019 at the administrative residence of the patriarchs of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Atchaneh, Lebanon.

On the part of the Moscow Patriarchate, the commission includes: Bishop Flavian of Chevepovets and Belozersky, co-chairman; Hegumen Arseny (Sokulov), representative of the Patriarch of Moscow All Rus to the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East; Hegumen Stefan (Igumnov), secretary of the Department of External Church Relations for Inter-Christian relations; and DECR staff members S.G. Alferov and E.A. Bakhtin. On the part of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the meeting was attended by: the patriarchal vicar in charge of the complex of the administrative residence in Atchaneh, Archbishop Chrysostomos Michael Chemoun, acting co-chairman of the commission; Archimandrite Jack Yacoub, head of the Patriarchal Department of Youth Affairs; Archimandrite Roger Yousef Akhrass, head of the Department of Syriac Studies; Deacon Imad Suryani, a staff member of the Patriarchal Secretariat; and Shadi Sarwe, executive director of the St Ephrem charitable foundation.

At the beginning of the meeting, Archbishop Chrysostomos asked Bishop Flavian to convey His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II's congratulations  to His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus on the occasion of his recently-celebrated tenth anniversary as primate.

Then the parties summarized the implementation of the agreements concluded at the commission's first meeting and identified a program of further cooperation to be submitted for the hierarchy's approval.

The commission's priority remains coordinating the cooperation on the implementation of projects to support the suffering Christians of Syria, among whom many thousands make up the flock of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The commission noted with satisfaction the successful implementation of a number of projects in this domain in 2018. Among them are the organization of a visit by a delegation from the Working Group on Assistance to the Syrian Population of the Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations under the President of the Russian Federation to Syria and Lebanon, the distribution of the largest consignment by volume of food aid in February of last year, the Russian Orthodox Church's initiation of a medical rehabilitation program for disabled children who suffered during the hostilities in Syria, and the holding of a meeting of the heads and high representatives of the religious communities of Syria and Russia during the visit of the chairman of the DECR of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion to Damascus; His Holiness Ignatius Ephrem II participated in this meeting. The parties discussed plans to continue cooperation in this domain, including with the participation of the St Ephrem Charitable Foundation, which oversees the humanitarian projects of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Another relevant area of collaboration is continuing the development of ties in the academic domain. The importance of the participation of the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hegumen Arseny (Sokolov) in the symposium organized by the Department of Syriac Studies on the person of Severus of Antioch (Atchaneh, May 25, 2018) was noted. This year, the participation of delegates from Syria in academic and theological conferences organized by higher educational institutions of the Moscow Patriarchate is also expected. Concrete agreements have been reached about starting a student exchange program. In the future, there are plans to develop direct cooperation at the level of theological schools, in particular between the educational institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church and and the St Ephrem Patriarchal Seminary in Saydnaya as well as Antioch Syrian University, which was opened in Damascus in November, 2018 and trains not only future clergy, but also laypeople specializing in the humanities, natural sciences and technical disciplines.

The commission considered it relevant to facilitate contacts between the relevant structures responsible for the development of youth ministry, including exchanges of delegations and joint participation in thematic events, including in the territory of dioceses in the diaspora.

The sides discussed prospects for interaction between representatives of monasticism as well as of continuing to develop pilgrimage projects, noting the positive experience of organizing visits to Russia of pilgrims from the Syriac Orthodox Church in January and July, 2018, organized by the DECR of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The commission recognized the need to maintain the existing level of interaction in the domain of media, including the the provision of mutual informational support in the context of the challenges that the Moscow Patriarchate and the Syriac Orthodox Church are facing today. The Syrian party highly appreciated the initiative of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus to hold consultations with the primates of the churches of the East and West and to adopt a joint statement during the worsening of the situation in Syria in April, 2018. Another significant manifestation of this interaction was the circulation by the DECR during those very days of the text of the joint statement by His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II, and His Beatitude Melkite Patriarch Yusuf I Absi.

The meeting's participants noted the importance of the intensifying of contacts in 2018 between the Russian Orthodox Church and the community of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Iraq, whose representative, Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf of Mosul, Kirkuk and the Kurdish Autonomous Region, visited Moscow last November as part of the delegation of the Council of Christian Leaders of Iraq. Before that, in March, Hieromonk Stefan (Igumnov) visited Iraq on the instructions of Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk and also met with the leadership and representatives of the local Syriac Orthodox communities.

At the end of the meeting, a joint memorandum was adopted.

During their stay in Lebanon, the delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate visited the Monastery of the Dormition at Balamand, belonging to the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the theological institute there where, with the blessing of His Beatitude Patriarch John X, it was received by Metropolitan Ephrem of Tripoli. Bishop Flavian asked him to convey the cordial greetings of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus to His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Great Antioch and All the East and told about the dialogue with the Syriac Orthodox Church. For his part, Metropolitan Ephrem noted that at Balamand Monastery they still cherish the memory of the visit there by the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church during his visit to the Patriarchate of Antioch in November, 2011. The two parties also exchanged views about a number of current issues of bilateral and inter-Orthodox collaboration.

The program of the commission's meeting included visits to holy places and historical and cultural sights of Lebanon, including the Cathedral of the Great-Martyr and Victory-Bearer George of the Beirut Archdiocese of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox monasteries of Sayyidat al-Nouriyeh and the Prophet Elijah, and the city of Byblos.

The next meeting of the commission will be held in Russia in the summer of 2020.


Agreement on the formation of the commission was reached by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus and His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II during the primate of the Syriac Orthodox Church's visit to Russia on November 9-13, 2015. In pursuance of this decision, a meeting of the joint working group for the preparation of the dialogue was held on May 11, 2017 in Washington.

On July 29, 2017, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church approved the composition of the commission on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate; in October of that year, the Synod of the Syriac Orthodox Church adopted a similar decision. The commission's first meeting took place on December 7-10, 2017 in the city of Cerepovets (Volga oblast).

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Jad Ganem: The Foot-Soldiers of Hellenism

Arabic original here.

The Foot-Soldiers of Hellenism

In a statement attributed to a representative of the abbots of the monasteries of Mount Athos taking part in a meeting of the governing council of the Holy Mountain a few days ago that was published on the Greek church news website Romfea, it is said that "Hellenism and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have the Primacy in Orthodoxy," that, as Athonite monks they will "remain on the side of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and [...] will not tolerate its humiliation," that "What is important is to maintain the unity of the Holy Monasteries and to send in every direction a clear message that no one will be allowed ‘to instrumentalize’ Mount Athos. Because Mount Athos concerns everyone," that they "want to preserve the peace and unity of the Church. However, as Athonites, we do not accept Hellenism and the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be humiliated by anyone," that "the Holy Community has wisdom and experience so that Mount Athos will not be turned into a tool and a lever of pressure for purposes other than in the general interest," and that "in all national struggles monks preceded to protect Mount Athos, not to put it in the front. Friars martyred protecting the Garden of the Virgin Mary! So, are we going to do the opposite today?" Given that no one has issued a disavowal of these words that many people are sharing and circulating on social media on account of their surprise at their content-- including the head of the newly-created Ukrainian church and eminent metropolitans of the Ecumenical Patriarchate-- we must calmly examine the content of these words which can be summarized as follows:

  • The Holy Mountain stands with the Ecumenical Patriarch whether he is right or wrong, whether he is faithful to the mind of Orthodoxy or deviates from it, whether he is oppressor or oppressed and thus it declares its faith in the infallibility of the Patriarch of Constantinople.
  • The Holy Mountain believes that the Hellenic nationality is superior to other nationalities that exist in the Orthodox world and that the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a privileged position for members of this nationality alone.
  • The Holy Mountain believes that any difference in opinion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate or any rejection of unilateral decisions that it makes is a sort of humiliation for the Ecumenical Patriarch and for the nationality that he represents.
  • The Holy Mountain does not consider the crisis that Orthodoxy is currently going through to be an ecclesiastical crisis, but rather a nationalistic conflict and it states that it will fight it on this basis in order to protect the mountain.
  • The Holy Mountain believes that there are those who want to ensnare it and instrumentalize it in order to achieve an unspecified outside agenda and it will not permit this.
  • The Holy Mountain believes that there is a battle being waged against the Ecumenical Patriarch and Hellenism but it does not specify who is involved, the nature of the battle, its reasons, or the purposes intended behind it.
  • The Holy Mountain gives priority at the present moment to the unity of its monasteries. It desires to preserve the peace and unity of the Orthodox Church and for the Holy Mountain to remain the point of reference for all Orthodox, without explaining how it can harmonize realizing unity with its nationalistic and racist posturing.
Given the above, it has become clear that the Holy Mountain-- until a condemnation of what has been said is issued-- regards the Orthodox world being two worlds: Hellenic and non-Hellenic; and that any criticism, objection or questioning of decisions made by the Hellenic world is tantamount to a battle or a humiliation. It believes in the superiority of the Hellenic world over the other world and considers right belief to be wherever there is Hellenism, which has on Mount Athos its brave foot-soldiers.

These racist words, which fall under the ethnophyletism that the Church has condemned, are a sad reflection of mountains crumbling and so they must be read and understood well in Antioch, so that her children may know that they have no fixed destination apart from the Mount of the Transfiguration, by the light of whose Christ they may discern the lights scattered in the mountains and valleys.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Jad Ganem: An Answer Has Arrived

Arabic original here.

An Answer Has Arrived

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian issue, many people have been wondering about the position of the fathers of Mount Athos regarding the developments accompanying the "unification council", which reached their apex with the participation of a person that many leaders and theologians of the Orthodox Church consider to be a "layman-metropolitan" in divine services with His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Some optimists thought that the silence of the fathers of the Holy Mountain stemmed from their “lack of desire to participate in the sins of others”, while others thought that realism requires recognizing that the fathers of the Holy Mountain have no ability to confront the Ecumenical Patriarch or to reject what he is doing.

Some refused to discern the reality of the signs being sent by the fathers of the Holy Mountain, which implied the submission of those there to what the Ecumenical Patriarch is doing and which escalated in the following manner:

  • The preparatory visits made by Metropolitan Emmanuel of France to the Holy Mountain and other visits made by various politicians concerned with the Ukrainian dossier.
  • The silence of the fathers of the mountain after the decisions made by the Holy Synod of Constantinople about altering the territory of the Russian Church and the corresponding acceptance of schismatics into ecclesiastical communion with Constantinople.
  • The recruitment of one of the monks of the Holy Mountain to make a calligraphic copy of the tomos of autocephaly.
  • The participation of the Holy Mountain in the Fanar's delegation to the enthronement of the head of the newly-created church in Ukraine and the participation of these monks in the divine mysteries along with the schismatics.
  • Finally, the visit of one of the metropolitans of the newly-created church along with an ecclesiastical delegation to the mountain and his reception at a number of monasteries where he performed divine services and received a celebratory welcome.
Perhaps many did not understand the message encrypted in these events, which reflect a strategic approach aimed at preparing public opinion to adapt to the status quo and gradually accept it. But will those betting on the Holy Mountain being regarded as a fortress of preserving Orthodoxy continue in this position of theirs if the words attributed to one of the monks who participated in the meeting mountain's governing council held two days ago are true, given that he clearly and unambiguously stated that the governing council believes "that Hellenism and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have the Primacy in Orthodoxy", that as Athonite monks they will "remain on the side of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and [...] will not tolerate its humiliation" and that "What is important is to maintain the unity of the Holy Monasteries and to send in every direction a clear message that no one will be allowed ‘to instrumentalize’ Mount Athos. Because Mount Athos concerns everyone... We want to preserve the peace and unity of the Church. However, as Athonites, we do not accept Hellenism and the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be humiliated by anyone."

There is no need to interpret these immaculately clear words which answer many people's questions. Hellenism and its leader in the world-- the Ecumenical Patriarch-- are more important than Orthodoxy and every position contrary to their views is regarded by some Athonites as a humiliation, at the very least.
For those who have not yet understood, let us wait for the irenic letters that will soon descend upon Epiphany from Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Greece and Albania...This should not be surprising in a church where the truth, according to some, is linked to men and where men are not assessed according to their respect for the truth.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Nicolas Abou Mrad: First, Second, Third Rome... and the Cities of the World

The Arabic original is in the January issue of Majallat al-Nour, the official magazine of the Orthodox Youth Movement, available here.

First, Second, Third Rome... and the Cities of the World

I started writing this article before the synod of the Russian Church took the decision on October 15, 2018 to break Eucharistic communion with the Church of Constantinople in the context of the ongoing conflict over the autocephaly of the church in Ukraine, which is split into three parts on account of the vicissitudes of history and politics in decades past. My purpose here is not to treat this issue through the lens of "canon law" and the development of relations between the two aforementioned churches and their interaction in past centuries. The present debate is filled with presentations of canonical and historical points of view that draw from legislation formulated in the councils of the Church from the fourth century and various other documents. Indeed, they bring back historical situations belonging to this or that city or polity and their situation in contexts that for the most part have gone extinct and disappeared in bygone eras or have completely changed. What I want to point out in this article is the sad and painful aspect of this problematique, which is resorting to various arguments and sources to support this or that position, while ignoring the wisdom that the Apostle Paul glimpsed when he asked the Corinthians, "to shame them", as he said, "Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?" (1 Corinthians 6:5).

The Apostle mentioned this wisdom in an earlier passage, when he said to his addressees, "We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ!" (1 Corinthians 4:10), in the sense that this wisdom does not come to a person unless he is abiding "in Christ" and not in anything else, no matter what it may be. No one abides "in Christ" except through the Gospel which, if we accept it, then the the Apostle's word has begotten us by it "in Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:15), after we have necessarily died to our belonging to any other entity that we may have fashioned over the course of history and in our own time. From the context of the epistle, we learn that the expression "in Christ" is not theoretical, like a platonic idea. Rather, the Apostle means it as a reality, that requires those "born by the Gospel" to behave according to its content, "for the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20).

I mention this here because the literature of the present debate betrays a striking absence of scriptural teaching about the true meaning of belonging to Christ in favor of a language that unfortunately started to become dominant in ecclesiastical milieus when Christianity became a larger space in the life of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Fourth Century, when, whether we like it or not, ecclesiastical concerns and political considerations in their imperial extensions began to overlap, to the point that the Church inherited the administrative regulations and bombastic titles of an empire that disappeared, as others disappeared before and after it, and shall disappear until history comes to an end. From one who claims that there is a first Rome, then a second that succeeded it, then a third that took the place of the second to one who says claims that there is only one "new" Rome, which replaced the "old" one, you feel a struggle over power, authority and dominance, even if the latter has taken on what might be called a geographical reaching for one church or another's jurisdiction over a piece of land. No one can deny that in modern times Orthodoxy has been characterized by struggles over jurisdiction here or there in the world, especially in the countries to which Orthodox have immigrated from their original homelands. Struggles of this sort, colored by nationalism in their internecine conflict and exclusion, led to the hobbling of the general Orthodox council that was held on Crete in 2016 in the absence of a number of churches, including our Antiochian Church, as a result of what is called the "Qatar crisis" and the break it caused between Antioch and Jerusalem. This general council, which was expected to bear witness to the faith that the Orthodox Churches bear in their inheritance, before the challenges and vicissitudes of the present time, and to speak to man in our world today that is characterized by disintegration on every level, produced, as a result of these conflicts, documents destined to be quickly discarded into the darkness of oblivion, thus proving their desolation. The matter churches was exposed before themselves and before the world: their unfortunate immersion in a vortex of conflict over primacy, nationalisms, the meanings of expressions that have expired, bear no relation to the deposit of faith and are completely removed from the heart of the Gospel but have nevertheless become fixed in use, like the expressions "primus inter pares", "primus sine paribus" and others, about which much ink has been spilled in explanation, but which, in our present day, are of no benefit to the ordinary believer for living out his faith and his Christianity in daily life.

In this context, I was struck, among what I read about the present conflict between Constantinople and Moscow, by a report from the official website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate about Patriarch Bartholomew's receiving the Patriarch of Moscow at the Phanar on August 31, 2018, right before the acceleration of the crisis between the two churches. The language of the report was dripping with royal expressions like "Chamber of the Throne", "Ecumenical Throne", "Patriarchal Office", in addition to its calling Constantinople-- which is now Istanbul, a city in Turkey-- "the Queen of Cities" and the Church of Constantinople, the "Mother Church". It does not refer to Patriarch Bartholomew by his name, by by his title "His All-Holiness", which is most likely in order to emphasize his position. It is my conviction that the reason for writing the report in this manner-- knowing full well that you can find the exact same news phrased in a different manner on the official website of the Church of Moscow-- in order to suggest that the Russian patriarch was in the presence of someone who had precedence over him "in honor and primacy".

On the other hand, it is striking in the speeches given by the two patriarchs that they affirm "dialogue" as the way to solve problems. In Patriarch Bartholomew's word of greeting, it is "the way God has shown us." Despite his attempt to give "dialogue" a meaning different from the one used by politicians to resolve their problems, Patriarch Kirill remained in the very same framework, stating that "dialogue" is the way to preserve "the unity of the Church". Despite the importance of dialogue as a means of rapprochement, what the Bible teaches about relationships between people is not dialogue which, as has been proven, has been of no use in solving the crisis, but love. Love is not an empty phrase. It is baptized, washed in the blood of Christ, by whose death God revealed His love for the world (John 3:16). It is this mark of distinction that distinguishes disciples of Christ from the world (cf. John 15:12-17). It is what gives every activity in the Church its meaning (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). This is what the martyred Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, realized when he made the foundation of unity in the Church "love", which he said is "the blood of Christ Himself" (Epistle to the Trallians 10). In love, the unity of the faith is realized (Epistle to the Magnesians 1) and in love "the believing have the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ" (Epistle to the Magnesians 5). If the bishop does not abide in love, Christ's love for the world, the faithful cannot submit to him as they submit to Christ (Epistle to the Magnesians 1).

Perhaps this love is the wisdom mentioned by the Apostle Paul in the passages I cited above, which must distinguish those born in the Gospel so that they may be "in Christ" first and last, not in first, second or third, old or new Rome or in any other city of this world. The basis of the biblical narrative in the books of the New Testament, the exodus that God accomplished for the people from Egypt (the Book of Exodus) and from Babylon (the Book of Ezekiel), from the two most powerful and important cities in the ancient Middle East, which scholars say were the beginning of humans' urbanization after they had been migratory. In the Bible, these two cities symbolize man's hubris and the evil and injustice that "filled the earth" (Genesis 6:6) because of this hubris. From the first city built on earth, from "Ur of the Chaldeans" God ordered Abraham to go forth to a land that He wanted to be the location for the meeting of the peoples in peace, truth and mercy (cf. Genesis 12:1-3). That land is not a city or a civilization built by man, but that open place called "wilderness" that is free of human intervention, where God shepherds those who flock around Him to hear His word. In Ezekiel it is the city that comes down from heaven-- that is, not built by people-- whose name is "the Lord is there" (Ezekiel 48:35), symbolizing God's presence in His word, around which come the Twelve Tribes to hear His word and transmit it to the entire universe. We see this realized on the day of Pentecost, in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2), in the descent of the Holy Spirit who made the twelve apostles speak of the great things of God, with every nation on earth hearing and understanding them. Nationalisms are extinguished so that a group of "disciples" may be established, who will go out, in the Book of Acts, from every city, persecuted (Acts 8:1) and killed (Acts 6-7), to bear witness to the word of Christ who died on the cross, in the image of Stephen who was killed, like his Teacher, because he pointed out the injustice of the city of Jerusalem and its betrayal of the Lord. The way of the Bible is the way of constant exodus: from Ur, Babylon, Persia, Rome, Jerusalem and all the cities of the earth, so that believers may have no homeland except "in Christ."

When will the Orthodox churches arise from their stupor and break out of their imprisonment to history, free themselves from the fetters of empires, and set forth on this path of exodus, making their way not to nationalisms, primacies and archprimacies, titles, thrones, sees, honors and honorifics, but to the cross of Christ, to become truly united in the one head of the Church: Christ? When will they have enough courage to look at themselves critically and submit themselves to the test of God's word, to the test of love, not "dialogue"? When will they shake off formalities that have become an idol, which don't speak to anyone and which no on cares about? The person of today, like the person of every day and era, is confronted with the challenges of rampant evil on the earth. People are starving. They are being killed. People's dignity is violated. Their intellects are belittled. Their livelihood is denied. People are suffering from racial discrimination, from poverty, from marginalization, from exclusion. When will we bear witness to love to the point of blood? When will we be Chrysostoms and Basils? When will the Church return to God's deserts to tremble before the evils of this world? The time has come for the Orthodox Churches to be worthy of their inheritance and the earnest given them, that perhaps a wise man may emerge to render judgment between his brothers according to the love that is in Christ.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): The Civilization of the Flesh

Arabic original here.

The Civilization of the Flesh

The world today, and especially the West, is more and more inclined toward secular, worldly life.

This means that in its life it departs from the scope of God and is increasingly immersed in material affairs far removed from the Church and spiritual affairs. It is attached to the surface of things, the most important of which is the flesh. There is nothing more common than the greetings "How's your health?", "Your health is poor", "The important thing is health."

People are not content with just that, but they go and focus on physical elegance, concerning themselves with outward appearance and going to the gym, as though they have become worshipers of the body rather than God.

Members of the Church are not an exception to all this-- even priests, bishops, and the construction of churches where "the important thing is the stone, not the people."

All of this is contrary to the rules of religion and the true faith. Among us, one mostly strives after the pleasure of the flesh, the pleasure of food and drink. Life has come to be focused on health and wealth and not on pleasing God first.

The issue is deeper than the flesh. It pertains to man in his confronting life and death. The Book of Hebrews says, "'Here am I, and the children God has given me.' Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity... so that he might free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:13-15). Of course man has always striven for eternal life.

Today, after the coming of Christ who is risen from the dead, we have become immortal by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the grace of Christ God who has conquered death. Thus the importance of accompanying someone who is sick and approaching death.

It is not enough to comfort him physically and psychologically. We-- and especially the priest-- must prepare him to confront death.

How does a person prepare for death? Is it enough for the priest to pray? To anoint the sick person with holy oil and commune him? This is not enough!

It is necessary to help him to confess as a final repentance, in the hope of the forgiveness of sins and the Lord's mercy for all the wrongs he committed during his life.

+ Ephrem
Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies