Interview with the patriarch of Antioch Grégoire III Laham
We are the Church of Islam
Islam is our milieu, the context in which we live and with which we are historically associated. We have lived 1,400 years in the middle of them. We understand Islam from the inside. When I hear a verse of the Koran, it’s not something foreign to me. It’s an expression of the civilization to which I belong
Interview with the patriarch of Antioch Grégoire III Laham by Gianni Valente
Grégoire III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melchites since November 2000, certainly doesn’t lack the energetic impetuosity that is the distinguishing feature of many patriarchs and bishops of the Church to which he belongs. The kind shown by his predecessor Maximos IV Saigh, who set the Vatican II Council alight with his invective against “papolatry” on behalf of the “Eastern cause” within the Catholic Church. The words of Grégoire III at the Synod of bishops on the Eucharist, especially during the hour of free discussion, did not pass unremarked.
Grégoire III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melchites
Your speech to the Synod was exceptional. You spoke on behalf of the «Church of the Arabs».
GRÉGOIRE III LAHAM: The Melchite bishop Edelby, who was a leading figure at the Vatican II Council, would always repeat: we are Arabs not Moslems, Eastern not Orthodox, Catholics not Latins. I add: we are the Church of Islam.
That’s the same expression you used in your speech. Did you want to scandalize someone?
GRÉGOIRE III: Islam is our milieu, the context in which we live and with which we are historically associated. We have lived 1,400 years in the middle of them. We understand Islam from the inside. When I hear a verse of the Koran, it’s not something foreign to me. It’s an expression of the civilization to which I belong.
Why did you bring it up at a Synod on the Eucharist?
GRÉGOIRE III: According to me, after 11 September, there is a plot to eliminate all the Christian minorities from the Arabic world.
GRÉGOIRE III: Our simple existence ruins the equations whereby Arabs can’t be other than Moslems, and Christians but be westerners.
And who is that supposed to worry?
GRÉGOIRE III: If the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Orthodox, the Latin Catholics leave, if the Middle East is cleansed of all the Arabic Christians, the Moslem Arab world and a so-called Christian Western world will be left face to face. It will be easier to provoke a clash and justify it with religion. That is why I wrote a letter in July to all the Arab rulers, to explain how important it is that this small presence, 15 million Arab Christian scattered among 260 million Moslems, not be swept away.
But the attacks and the harassment of the Christians come from Islamic fundamentalists.
GRÉGOIRE III: The war in Iraq and the situation in the Holy Land are mortal blows for the Christians in the Middle East. Willing or unwilling, we end up being branded as a fifth column of the West. But the strength of fundamentalism lies in the weakness of the so-called Christian West. Fundamentalism is a sickness that gets loose and takes root because of the void of the Western modernity, that uses Christianity only as ideological cover. If Islam were really faced by a true Christianity, welcoming, limpid, strong, capable of giving witness, if the West were indeed animated by Christian spiritual strength, the relationship with Islam would be one of interaction, of dialogue, fair co-existence.
In short, according to you Islam is not the new empire of evil.
GRÉGOIRE III: In what is happening in the Middle East, beginning with Iraq, many things remain obscure. There are forces at work seeking to sink us all in the apocalypse. Pope Benedict did well in Cologne when he said that Christians and Moslems must be together in the face of these violent groups that conceive and program terrorism to poison our relations.
Let’s return to the Synod. When Cardinal Scola said that priestly celibacy has a theological basis, you retorted.
GRÉGOIRE III: Priestly celibacy has an extraordinary spiritual value that nobody puts in doubt. It expresses a perfect giving to the Lord and has produced formidable fruits in the East as in the West. I’ll say more: I’m not persuaded by the argument of those who are asking for its abolition on the pretext of the scarcity of priests. Even in the East, with married priests, we are suffering from the same shortage of clergy. That said, I continue to believe that the ecclesiastical celibacy is a question of discipline and not of dogma.
But do you think that the hypothesis of ordaining married men as priests in the Latin Church should also be taken into consideration?
GRÉGOIRE III: According to me all the time necessary should be taken to weigh the pros and cons. But the question can’t be set aside a priori. And consideration should be given to a new possibility of service in the Church, avoiding measuring the figure of the married priest by the yardstick of the celibate priest, and without bringing in the shortage of vocations. This way of doing has given fruit in the East. One needs to look whether there is any benefit in proposing it today in the West.
Cardinal Husar has proposed devoting the next Synod to the Eastern Catholic Churches. Do you agree?
The dispute on the Sacrament, Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Museums
GRÉGOIRE III: It would be a good opportunity for dealing from a new perspective with many important matters, such as child communion, or the primacy itself. And for checking whether our traditions can represent a wealth of solutions for the Latin Church also.
GRÉGOIRE III: For example, some people in the West also would like the local Churches to be more involved in the choice of bishops. It could be checked whether in our traditional practices there are elements adaptable to the socio-cultural structure of the Latin Church.
But the Eastern Churches themselves are sometimes troubled as regards the nominations of bishops.
GRÉGOIRE III: For a hundred and fifty years we have elected our bishops without interferences from Rome, though nobody has ever denied Rome the right to intervene, and to us the right to apply to Rome. Simply, Rome doesn’t intervene de facto. For all that time we have elected good bishops. I don’t understand why we can’t do it now.
And when did all this change?
GRÉGOIRE III: The practice was changed by Vatican II. It’s very strange. It’s strange that after Vatican II, instead of there being more freedom and autonomy for the Eastern Churches, the space has narrowed.
You once said: «With all respect for the Petrine office, the patriarchal office is equal to it».
GRÉGOIRE III: Really I always say: I am cum Petro but not sub Petro. If I were sub Petro, I would be in submission, and I couldn’t have a true frank, sincere, strong and free communion with the Pope. When you embrace a friend, you are not “below”. You embrace him from the same height, if not it wouldn’t be a true embrace. Unita manent, united things last.
But do you mean to say that the link with the Church of Rome is a bit tight on you?
GRÉGOIRE III: On the contrary! The papacy, since John XXIII, is the most open authority in the world. In no other Church is there such openness and such democratic praxis as in the Church of Rome. But then there are those who want to appear as the super-Catholics, and they then insist and always only on the sub Petro and sub Roma. And so, according to me, they contradict the true sense of the papacy itself, its office to confirm the brethren in the faith. We have suffered for our communion with Rome. For a hundred and fifty years we have said mass in the catacombs, in Damascus, because we were forbidden do it in public because of our communion with the bishop of Rome. We’re more Roman than the Romans! That’s why we want to benefit from this communion as from a treasure, a gift, a help for our faith. As Saint John says, our faith is our sole victory.