Christians in the lands of the Koran
With Jesus in the midst of Islam
«I always say with much love to the Jews: you like me are called to the faith in Jesus.As also the Muslims. Jesus truly calls everyone. And His is not a new religion against those before or after. He is something else. Another thing». An interview with Grégoire III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites
Interview with Paul Hinder by Gianni Valente
Few listen to the arguments and the reasons of the Arab Christians. Few take as their starting point a look at what is happening in the Middle Eastern powder keg.
Which is why it may be useful to listen to His Beatitude Grégoire III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites since 2000.
GRÉGOIRE III LAHAM: Jesus told us not to be afraid. And we are always on the point of being afraid. But a pastor must encourage his people. We cannot fall into panic. In Iraq there is a terrible situation of crime, revenge and terror. What is happening to others is happening to the Christians. Here in Syria a million and a half Iraqi refugees have arrived, and the Christians are a small minority of them. It means that everybody is running away from there. I know that some in the West are playing on these things. But it doesn’t seem to me useful to the Christians here to attempt to isolate their suffering from those of the others.
The war has also brought persecution, the Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly has said.
GRÉGOIRE III: Every approach to the problems here that does not start out from solidly political criteria rebounds on us. That happened in Iraq. The Americans arrived almost with the declared attempt of a new crusade, to change the face of the Middle East. Now in Lebanon I hear even the soldiers of the UNIFIL being branded as “crusaders”. And the Christians always get associated with these western strategies. In the letter of last Christmas I wrote: “Dear Muslims, we cannot bear that there be some among you who describe us as allies of the “crusaders”. We live, we work, we fight with you. We are constructing with you the future of these nations”.
In certain analyses the Middle East is described tout court as a place of persecution of the Christians.
GRÉGOIRE III: Here in Syria the government treats the churches as it treats the mosques. We are exempt from the payment of electricity and other utilities. Last year, a presidential decree approved by Parliament established that the Catholics may follow their own legal rules on issues that involve individual rights like those of marriage and inheritance. In practice they have taken the Canon Law of the Eastern Churches and passed it over into the civil law. Once or twice a year I go with my vicar general to meet president Assad and his collaborators. He decided to lunch with all the patriarchs and heads of the Churches for Easter. We speak about politics, including relations between East and the West. And then ministers, parliamentarians, sheiks come to visit us.
Syria is supposed to be a rogue state. But when Christians are in flight in the Middle East they often flee to Damascus.
GRÉGOIRE III: Here there is the best situation in all the Middle East for us. We pray that it remain so. There is always the danger that all this may get destabilized, maybe by those who want to force things so as to create a new power situation in the area.
Is there also in Syria an increase in religious fundamentalism among the people?
GRÉGOIRE III: There is the fundamentalist contagion that is recorded all over the world, not only in the Middle East. Here in Syria the government is strong and tries to stem it. For example, there is a lot of work in civics training done with youngsters. And also the catechism and religious instruction, including ours, are subject to checks by the Ministries of Education and Culture. A watch is kept to ensure that they are inspired by mutual respect and coexistence, without instigation to hatred and contempt for other religions. Our text has been in force for more than forty years, a mixed commission of priests and university professors from the various Churches under the supervision of the Ministry of Education reviewed it in 2002. I’m very proud of it.
What criteria should, according to you, inspire the attitude of Christians and the way they look on Muslim believers?
GRÉGOIRE III: They have told us at times in the Vatican that we Eastern Christians must work with Islam to encourage human rights, the emancipation of women, the defense of life, freedom of worship. But what does it mean? We have a unique, specific relationship with Islam, that it is not the one you have in Europe with the Muslim minorities. I always say: we are the Church of Islam.
The expression appeals to you. You often use it.
GRÉGOIRE III: The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram has also said that it’s the best formula for describing the common situation of the Christians in the Arab countries and in the Middle East. Islam is the context in which we live and with which we have historic sodality. We have lived 1,400 years in the midst of them. We understand Islam from the inside. When I hear a verse of the Koran, for me it is an expression of the civilization to which I belong. And it is our task to witness to Christ in the world of Islam. We have a unique responsibility. We can’t respond as Cain does, when the Lord asks him where Abel is.
The ancient church of the monastery of Mar Sarkis, in the keeping of the Melkite monks of Christ the Redeemer, in the Christian village of Maalula, Syria
GRÉGOIRE III: But one can make the most of every human contact. Showing a Church that loves them. Making the most of all possible affinities and sympathies. The Vatican departments can come out with document after document. But then it’s up to us to witness to Christ to our Muslim brothers in daily life.
Can you give some concrete examples?
GRÉGOIRE III: Once, at the end of Ramadan, the Great Mufti of Damascus Ahmed Kaftaro invited me to preach from the pulpit of the mosque. Also when I was in Jerusalem it happened many times that I was received in the mosque, after Palestinian demonstrations. Being the Church of Islam also means this.
Meanwhile, in the West, the voices of those who claim that violence is an element rooted in the very nature of Islam are getting louder.
GRÉGOIRE III: They are travesties using as pretext a misreading of the Regensburg speech that the Pope himself has gainsaid. Even the quotation from Manuel Paleologos, that stirred up such violent reaction, was an extrapolation from the very long disputation between the emperor and the Muslim sage, that lasted for days. There was no intention in the Pope to offend Islam. And for that matter even the Gospel can be the object of malign and misleading manipulation. For example when Jesus says: «I come not to bring peace but the sword».
The western intellectuals who take the hard line with Islam go so far as to say that «our God is not their God...».
GRÉGOIRE III: With our Muslim brothers I would avoid inconclusive theological arguments attempting to establish whether we adore the same God or not. They seem to me the stuff of the theological academy. The mystery of God is so great, we can’t comprehend it. Before it we exclaim: how beautiful! But what do I comprehend of this beauty, what do I comprehend of God? When we profess the mystery of the Trinity, the beauty of this mystery may even move and surprise others. But then it’s not up to us to “demonstrate” this mystery. One is in danger of being reckless. So, better to keep to the indications of Vatican Council II: «The Church looks with respect also on the Muslims who worship the only God», who, although «they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, venerate him however as prophet; they honor his virgin mother, Mary, and sometimes also invoke her with devotion». For that matter, neither does Judaism recognize the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, Son of God.
At times the Churches of the East are presented as pockets of anti-Semitism.
GRÉGOIRE III: The very opposite is true. I always say with much love to the Jews: you like me are called to the faith in Jesus. As also the Muslims. Jesus truly calls everyone. And His is not a new religion against those before or after. He is another thing. Something else, as the English say.
As to relations with the Christian Orthodox, some years ago a return to full communion between your Church and the Orthodox patriarchy of Antioch was suggested, as a local experiment in reconciliation.
GRÉGOIRE III: We worked on that with too much euphoria perhaps, as if it could be achieved from one day to the next. Patriarch Maximos, my predecessor, was already old. A call came from Rome: continue your discussions, but don’t come to any definitive results in the theological sphere without agreement with the Holy See. Unfortunately our hierarchy took it as a stop sign. And now the thing has been shelved. But we do, however, have fraternal relations with the Orthodox, including shared clergy retreats.
What do you think are the prospects for the ongoing Catholic-Orthodox discussions on the subjects of collegiality and the primacy?
GRÉGOIRE III: The Orthodox Church cannot accept Roman ecclesiology as such. It must be understood that the ecclesiology developed in the Latin Church cannot be imposed on Eastern Christians. They can accept the primacy of the Pope as titular of the prima sedes and as last recourse. But not the praxis of centralism without real collegiality. If Rome wants to go ahead it should take up the formulas that Ratzinger set out in the ’seventies on relations with the Churches of the East.
On the Catholic side, even in terms of the dialogue with the Orthodox, the starting point is often the relationship between universal Church and local Church.
GRÉGOIRE III: The universal Church is not the sum of many local Churches. And it isn’t even an abstract concept. The Church of Christ exists concretely in a determined place. Pope Saint Clement headed his letter «From the Church of God, that dwells in Rome, to the Church of God, that dwells in Corinth». In no way did he write to the “local” Church of Corinth. Where there are the sacraments, the faith, the Creed, what’s lacking? There’s also the Pope, because the bishop or the parish priest who celebrates the Eucharist is in communion with the Pope. The Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic is present even in a little parish where the priest celebrates the mass in front of one or two faithful. It isn’t that there is “more” Church if all the bishops gather in a Council. A drop of seawater has all the elements of the rest of the water in the sea. Therefore every Church in a determined place has all the elements of the only Church of Christ.
The Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites Grégoire III
GRÉGOIRE III: The Eastern Catholic Churches become a problem above all because the Orthodox see the treatment they receive at times. They are defined as Churches sui iuris, but then it’s not acknowledged that the patriarch is head and father of his Church. Bishops are nominated for our communities of the diaspora, for example in the countries of America, and we have no voice in the decisions. Our bishops receive forms in which they are asked: under which Congregation do you come? Goodness knows what the Orthodox patriarchs and metropolitans would think of it: I, patriarch, I bishop, “come under” a Vatican office? What does it mean?
It is said of the Eastern Churches: too many curias, jealous of their prerogatives, and few believers, always fewer. Division displayed precisely where the Christian minorities should unite. What do you think of that objection?
GRÉGOIRE III: In Italy also there are tiny dioceses. And then there is an element here of tradition that should be respected. A community of Syro-Catholics or Orthodox faithful, however small, cannot be assimilated to the Greek-Orthodox, the Latins, the Chaldeans. Go and hear their liturgies, listen to their hymns... At Vatican II there were already people who pulled out the idea: let’s unite all the Christians of a country under a single rite and a single bishop or patriarch. In Lebanon the Maronite, in Syria the Melkite, in Egypt the Copt... But only those who look from a remove, with an accountant’s eye rather than a pastor’s, could think of leveling such rich and various traditions.
And to those who stigmatize your animosity to Rome, what do you answer?
GRÉGOIRE III: We are in Damascus. Here, since 1724 when we again entered into communion with the Bishop of Rome, we were outlawed for 120 years. The priests went to services with their vestments hidden in baskets, entered houses and celebrated in whispers. We suffered a lot to affirm our communion with the See of Rome. It is a sign of how much we care about it.