Home > Archives > 08/09 - 2010 > A small flock. Not a “minority”
from issue no. 08/09 - 2010

A small flock. Not a “minority”

Interview with Grégoire III by Gianni Valente

Grégoire III Laham has been Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites since 2000. And what he says about the situation of the Arab Christian communities in the Middle East is always original and often unsettling, as against the usual cliches.

Grégoire III, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek Melkites <BR>[© Massimo Quattrucci]

Grégoire III, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek Melkites
[© Massimo Quattrucci]

The Catholic Church is devoting a Synod to the Christians in the Middle East. How do you see things from Damascus?
GRÉGOIRE III LAHAM: Things have not changed here in recent times. A useful way of representing our situation from the legal point of view remains the presidential decree approved by parliament in 2006 which regulates marriage law and other matters affecting the rights of the individual. That law has established that on those points Catholics follow their own rules of law, which in fact are taken from the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Church, becoming law in terms of civil law. And then there is freedom of worship; we can have processions and public celebrations, catechism for children and young people even in State schools; there are Christian ministers and parliamentarians. But in the Vatican there are some who say that we should focus our discussions with Islam on the issue of religious freedom, understood as freedom to convert to another faith...
Relevant suggestions?
It’s not forbidden in Syria to convert to Christianity. It happens. Those who become Christian are in no danger, if not because of some fanatic relative. Only that a Syrian converted to Christianity cannot record the change in his identity document. On this point we must be clear and recognize things for what they are. The Arab countries can’t for now adopt this concept of freedom of conscience. And insisting on that seems fruitless for the time being, it doesn’t take account of the context and mindset. In our countries there is an interpenetration of religion and the politics of the State.
Yet the government has recently banned the full veil for teachers in schools and universities.
It is a ruling that follows on the French line. Personally I consider it positive. It’s a way of showing that fundamentalism won’t manage to enter public institutions in Syria. In principle, not even the nuns who teach may wear their veil. In most cases, they are tolerated. But if someone has something to say against it, then they take it off. There’s no problem.
How do you deal with marriages between people of differing religions?
One has to be cautious about these things. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim she can remain Christian, but the children cannot be baptized, and she cannot inherit. We often encounter social pressures and problematic situations that are best avoided, as far as one can.
In Syria there are still more than a million Iraqi refugees. Including many Christians.
The effects triggered by the Western military intervention have been devastating for a Christianity thousands of years old. I truly hope that the situation does not occur again in any other country in the East. Because the only real guarantee for the Christian presence in these countries is peace. In the opposite case, every crisis is the occasion of a new wave of emigration. The problem is not religion, it is not Islam. If there is peace, the Christian presence can continue. If there is no peace, it goes away. It’s inevitable.
Always an obstacle in the way to a regional peace is the situation in the Holy Land. How do you see the resumption of peace talks?
The problem is the settlements. If there were no settlements in the Palestinian territories, there would be peace tomorrow. One can see that someone is afraid of peace. There’s the population problem in the middle. The Arab presence in Galilee is seen as a threat, population growth is not stopping. So this state of tension continues.
As you see it, where should one start for a realistic description of the condition of Christians in the Middle East?
I have suggested not using the term “minority” to speak of the Christians in the Middle East. The word minority gives the idea of something that is alien, foreign, something that sets itself and is defined dialectically against a majority. We are a small flock. “Fear not, little flock”, Jesus told his disciples. We have become a small entity, but we are from here. There are many reasons for concern, but the words of Jesus mean that our future does not belong to fear. One can’t think of living here as a minority group always in tension with the environment in which we live.
The catchphrase “reciprocity” often comes up. In your opinion, should the point be insisted on?
In my opinion the aim should be to be citizens with the same rights as the others in the country where you live, without discrimination. But I’m not persuaded by reciprocity understood as a quid pro quo between religions. In the Gospel there is no such criterion. Equal treatment is not a matter to be bargained for among religious groups, but has to do with equality before the State. Political institutions should be required to guarantee civil coexistence among all citizens without discrimination before the law.
Therefore there should be no bartering: I give you the mosque in Europe if you give me a church in predominantly Muslim countries.
In our countries we have many churches... that’s not the problem.
The heads of the Christian churches – the patriarchs, bishops, the Apostolic See itself – ask Christians in the Middle East not to emigrate. Do these appeals work? And what is the thinking behind them?
It’s an important thing for the whole Church and for Christians throughout the world that there are also Christians in this part of the world. Because Jesus was born and raised in this land and the message of His Resurrection started to spread here. We have a responsibility to all Christians throughout the world, including the one taken on today in relations with Islam. This is a fact. And if the Christians here feel this universal perspective in their ordinary lives, they can be helped to overcome the difficulties and live in peace in the places where God has put them.
Is it a matter of gritting their teeth and enduring? If people believe that life will be better elsewhere, it will be hard to stop them going.
No one can feel forced. And the worst thing is precisely that of conceiving the situation of Christians in the Middle East as that of isolated militants, always in combat with the environment in which they live. This idea makes everything difficult and is exhausting, in the long run. Whereas, if one abandons the schematism that defines everything in dialectical terms – majority versus minority, Christians versus Muslims, and so on – it can only do good. So one’s membership of the Christian community can be rid of much artificial exasperation. We want to live here not because we’re “forced” by the fact of being Christian, but because we were born here. We are citizens of this country, and we want to share in its development, along with all other citizens, so that we no longer need to look elsewhere for better conditions of life.
To live here “a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and dignity”...
I know those words well. It’s what St Paul wrote to Timothy. We Easterners repeat them to the Lord, every time we celebrate the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português