Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh: The Acceptable Year of the Lord

Arabic original here.

The Acceptable Year of the Lord

New Year's Day, according to the Orthodox Church, does not fall on the first of January, but rather on the first of September. The Church has her own calendar that contains the seasons, feasts and celebrations along with the rites, prayers and fasts connected with them. The purpose of this calendar is to help people to reach holiness by reminding them daily of the importance of spiritual struggle in order to arrive at "life in the continuous presence of God".

On this occasion, the Church chooses to read a text from the Gospel of Saint Luke, where Christ says at the beginning of His ministry, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19).

These verses contain the "agenda" that Christ came into the world to realize. After Jesus revealed His identity, that He is "the Lord's Christ", anointed with the Holy Spirit who rests within Him, he announced that love and free service are the path to salvation. Jesus did not call for ignoring the world and its tragedies for the sake of an individual spiritual life based on worship alone. Rather, He called for commitment to the concerns of the tormented, outcasts, the persecuted, the oppressed, the poor and the destitute...

Christianity, then, is not like some people mistakenly think, a mere "spiritual" message that does not concern the affairs of people and the world. It is a call to make our present world into a better world, a world governed by divine values, first among them love, mercy, peace and justice. On the other hand, it does not ignore the importance of spiritual struggle for the sake of this better world.

How will our coming year be a year acceptable to the Lord? How will the days and nights that we amass be acceptable? Christianity says that God, the Creator of time and space, became fully man in order to make man into a god by grace, not substance. On the other hand, those humans who desire to heed this divine call should strive to sanctify their life by consecrating their time to anticipating God's good things to come and living them in their present moment. Holiness is not complete without uniting the spiritual life with the active life incarnate in daily reality.

Christianity does not believe in luck, fate or chance. It is people who make their own luck, not psychics, prognosticators or fortune-tellers... It is in people's own hands and their own power to make their year acceptable to the Lord, since no one determines their fate besides God. Those whose fate is God will not be ashamed and will not be disappointed. God will not be people's fate if they do not do God's work. And the start of the road is repentance.

"See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:15-16). Yes, the days are evil and we must be vigilant lest we be led along by their logic, the logic of this world. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) says that the time falling between Christ's becoming man and His second coming at the end is the time in which God causes the fruits of history-- that is, the saints-- to ripen. How can we turn our coming evil days into a year acceptable to the Lord? This is our hope.

Monday, December 30, 2013

al-Qaeda's Plans for Syria's Christians

Arabic original here.

ISIS Requires Syria’s Christians to Live according to the Decrees of Islamic Law and will Take Over Churches Built after Islam

by Paula Astih

After the decline of the Free Syrian Army’s influence to its lowest level since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis more than two and a half years ago and the domination of Islamists, specifically Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the majority of the regions under the influence of the Syrian opposition, these groups effectively began to apply Islamic law through shari’a courts. The latest announcement made by ISIS in this regard is its requiring women in some areas of Aleppo and its outskirts to wear the hijab required by shari’a, “if not, the woman and her guardian will be subjected to a trial according to shari’a.”

Despite the recent announcement by Jabhat al-Nusra through its leader Muhammad al-Julani that they do not declare individuals and groups to be infidels, but rather, just like ISIS, it is planning for the Syria of the future governed by Islamic law, this has placed more than a question mark over the fate of the approximately one million and a half Syrian Christians, a large proportion of whom remain in their regions while the rest are eager to return as soon as possible.

As for the Islamists’ relationship with Christians, Abu Abdallah, an ISIS field commander currently in Aleppo, spoke with el-Nashra, denying that the Christians are their enemies. He said, “We do not attack anyone unless they attack us. We have previously taken over Christian regions in Syria and Iraq and we did not harm anyone unless it was proven to us that they did harm to or killed Muslims. Islam did not make the People of the Book a target for Muslims that we might treat them with enmity unless they oppress us, like America and the Zionists did in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abu Abdallah stressed that ISIS has no intention to expel Christians from Syria, pointing out that they did not do this in Iraq and will not do this now in Syria, “However, they must live according to the decrees of Islamic law as it pertains to the People of the Book. Namely, God forbade the building of churches after Islam and so we will not permit churches to be built nor crosses to be erected. Those who want to practice their religion, let them practice it at home and take their freedom in this.”

As to the fate of churches in Syria, he indicated that “We will do no harm to those built before Islam, but any church, monastery or the like that was built after Islam entered Syria, we will turn it into something that the worshippers of God will benefit from.”

“Christians in the Syria of the future will be citizens like everyone else,” Abu Abdallah says, while emphasizing at the same time that they will play no political role. “No one will govern Syria other than its emir and caliph who will be chosen by the Muslims. There will be no political parties and no forms of western pseudo-democracy. We will govern according to God’s Book and the tradition of His Prophet.”

Abu Abdallah did not deny that ISIS has attacked Christian places of worship, on account of their being “churches and crosses that were built and erected after Islam entered into Syria and spread there. This is why we changed them into headquarters that the worshipers of God will benefit from, such as the Church of the Armenian Martyrs in Raqqa, which was built after Islam and which the Christians never had a right to.”

Abu Abdallah stated that ISIS had nothing to do with the abduction of the nuns of Maaloula, pointing out that it does not have units in that region and denying any knowledge of their fate.

ISIS is making a specific effort to take over villages and regions along the border and some of its units are currently found in a number of such locations, especially those adjacent to the border with Turkey in Raqqa, the outskirts of Deir ez-Zor, some neighborhoods of Aleppo such as Bustan el-Qasr, in the northern and western outskirts of Aleppo, in the northern outskirts of Lattakia, and some of the villages around Dera and the outskirts of Damascus. They are likewise concentrated in the Idlib countryside, in the cities of Sarmada, Dana, and Hazano.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh: The Herods of Syria

Arabic original here.

The Herods of Syria

The event of Christ's birth is tied to the tragic event of the killing of "fourteen thousand children" at the orders of Herod, the king of Judea. Herod could not bear for someone to be born who would threaten his authority and speak the truth in his presence. He committed the massacre of thousands of children in order to insure the continuation of his rule and his power over people.

The child-killer Herod is still alive and well. He has not died. From the dawn of history until today, how many Herods have ruled, tyrannized, been exalted, then feel and slept under the ground?

Even so, he has not died. He has worn various garbs and and put on various clothes. He has spoken all the languages of the world. He has taken the colors of every race and nation. He is white, black, yellow and red. He might be a man at one time and a woman at another time.

He takes different forms from one generation to another and he has no lack of grooming in this age. In all situations there are those who laud and applaud him and grant him obedience and loyalty, pledging him to be the ruler of themselves and their tribe.

Herod might be wrapped in the garb of secularism, socialism, nationalism or any other ideology... He might put on the mantle of religious leaders and hide behind religious or sectarian slogans. But he remains the Herod who does not see his glory remain and grow as quickly as the number of victims piled up in mass graves.

"Herod, who seeks the young child's life, is dead." With these words, the angel brought the good news to Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The angel brings good tidings of the dead of King Herod who ordered the destruction of all the children of Bethlehem under the age of two so that Christ might perish among those babies. The angel appears to Joseph in a dream and asks him to return with the baby Jesus from the land of Egypt to the land of Palestine, after the one who was seeking to kill Him died. The death is wonderful news brought by the angel, the angel of good tidings, to Joseph.

Yes, news of Herod's death was joyous news that brought good tidings to many, among them Joseph and Mary. We are not sinning if we rejoice and and glad with them. Death is true, as people say. There must come the day when a person dies and goes from this world to the next. But Herod's death did not prevent Christ's crucifixion and killing. Herod is not a closed-off and isolated individual. One Herod grows and sprouts another Herod, and on and on until time ends and God inherits the earth and everything upon it.

In Syria today there is not one Herod, but rather many Herods who consider it permissible to commit massacres, killings, beheadings and forced expulsions. All the Herods of the world have come together against Syria, like hungry vultures circling over corpses. The Herods are Syrian, Arab and foreign. Or, you could say the Draculas of this age, satisfied only by more Syrian blood.

When will those who seek to kill the child die? This is not merely a question. It is an ardent prayer that we raise up on the feast of the Nativity of Christ, the King of Peace. When will they die? A question as a prayer from the heart bearing hope, as we are the children of hope, that there will be an end to the shedding of the blood of innocents. Your Nativity, O Christ, fills us with gladness, joy and delight. But it is also our right to be glad, rejoice and delight when when we hear that one of the Herods has died, and how much more so if it were all of them!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Met. Ephrem Kyriakos' Christmas Messages

Arabic and French originals here.

"The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom should I be afraid?"

Beloved brothers in Christ! We must be in communication during these days of Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord and God Jesus Christ in the flesh, the child in the manger of animals who is our God before the ages. How wondrous this absolute humility: How can the Master of All, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, of rational and irrational beings, who cares for each one totally and personally, how can He come in this humble form? And why?!

The angel of the Lord said to Joseph, ", do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife... she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21). Here is liberation, not from wars and enemies, but from something far more important-- liberation from sins.

Indeed, Christ is "the light that shines in darkness", in the darkness of the evils of this world, in the darkness of our sins and He alone is the one who can save us. We Christians have lost much of this enlightenment because luxurious living and chasing after material wealth has darkened our hearts and minds. Our Lord came to us in poor, simple garb, bearing His passion and His cross from His childhood. Thus in the Church we repeat every Sunday, "Through the cross joy has come into the world. And so, "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice" as the Apostle Paul expressed it in his Epistle to the Philippians 4:4.

True joy does not come from amusement and the pleasures of the world, nor even from modern technology. It comes from a broken and humble heart that God will not despise: love above everything. Love requires humility. It requires feeling others' suffering. That is, the rejection of the blatant selfish individualism of our days. Crucified love never fails!

Christ came as savior for each person in the world. He came representing all  truth, all goodness and all beauty, whether it appeared among the ancient civilizations and philosophers, in or own day or in the future. One of the Western saints, Francis of Assisi, said, "He took the last place so well that no one can take it away from Him, not in the past, the present or the future."

Beloved, I pray for all of you in the Holy Spirit. I pray to the Lord Jesus in these bright days of Nativity, so that the veil may be lifted from our minds and hearts, so that we may not lose hope. Cling to Him in prayer, in reading the Gospel, in going to church, which is the Mother of all of us. Let anxiety, fear and despair recede from us, and give way to hope, renewed faith and love for all people without exception. I wish for you with all my heart a glorious Nativity and a blessed New Year.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, Koura and Their Dependencies

A second message, to the Lebanese people, Arabic original here.

Christ is born as a small child in a manger of beasts. This reminds us of when the Bible says, "If you do not go back and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." This divine commandment is directed at us on the occasion of the Feast of the Nativity. In our world today, rushing after modernity, after luxury, after technology, the One newly-born as a child reminds us of the necessity of returning to simplicity, indeed to the innocence of children... simplicity of life, despite all the seductive advertising. This helps us to return to God and brings us closer to each other.

And how much more so if we combine simplicity with innocence. At that point we turn away from evil and intrigue. How many evil plans are being prepared in secret?

Along with all this, what does the present feast inspire in us? There is no doubt that Christ was born in an environment of poverty and destitution, in a manger designed for animals. Is this a point of shame? The shame of the cross? Or is it a point of pride, mercy and surpassing love? It is a reminder that we must think of our brothers the poor. In helping the needy, mercy meets love, great meets small, rich meets poor. Are not destitution and extreme poverty cause for taking up arms and demanding the right to live and a revolution against society? In a more profound sense, the necessary charity for the poor includes the need for God, who graces humankind with His abundant good things freely and without discrimination. In reality, the person who looks out for his needy brother is receiving much more from him and is consoled much more than the latter rejoices at the free gift. All of this is not limited to money, but includes supporting the sick and the elderly and addressing every social and psychological problem-- and how many are the misfortunes of people today!

Our appeal today, on the occasion of the birth of this wondrous Child, is that each of us returns to simplicity, to the weak, to mercy and love. Similar to the popular saying, in the end, nothing is right except for that which is true, so God created us naked and who are we to be proud? He created us as brothers in humanity, so why do we disagree? The Devil alone is the one who sows disagreements among us, we who are children of a single nation. Let us expand our minds and our hearts, imitating God our Creator who embraces every person, has mercy on him and loves him without regard to his color, sect, religion or sex.

Let us not forget that true joy is in the Lord. We acquire it in prayer, not in eating and drinking not in amusement and dancing and not in wine and prosperity. May God give us enlightenment of mind and heart, so that we may realize this eternal truth and then we may have a glorious, peaceful feast.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

As-Safir on the History of the Persecution of Middle Eastern Christians

Arabic original here.

Christian Decline in the Middle East: A Historical View

by Saqr Abu Fakhr

There is a civilizational, humanitarian, political and historical crisis looming over the Arab Middle East. This crisis is exemplified by the fact that the land of early Christianity, historic Syria, and the country of Christ, Palestine, if the situation continues as it is, within fifty years will be without Christians, aside from a few scattered groups here or there or some monks in their monasteries as witnesses to the bright history of this holy land.

In Bethlehem, where Christ was born, in Nazareth where his mother Mary was born, or in Jerusalem, which witnessed the path of his Passion, Christians have almost been wiped out. In Syria, the land of early Christianity, the first churches, the first monasticism and the place where the Good News came to the Apostle Paul, the emigration of Christians is tragically accelerating. The destruction of their neighborhoods, churches, monasteries and their historic cities such as Maaloula, Seidnaya, Barad and Sadad, the abduction of their bishops, the imposition of the veil on their women, the forcible conversion of some of them to Islam: all this is compelling them to flee from Syria. In Iraq, the Christians have almost become museum objects like the Mandeans: around 600,000 Christians have emigrated over the past ten years alone, that is, between 2003 and 2013.

The displacement of Christians from the countries of Christians in the Arab Middle East represents the annihilation of the constituent parts of diversity and civilization in this region and a rapid march toward intellectual, religious and social desertification. This is especially the case, given that these countries stretching from Iraq to coastal Syria-- or, from Mesopotamia to historical Syria-- witnessed the initial spread and appearance of Christianity. In [now Turkish-]occupied Antioch, Jesus' followers were first called "Christians." In Damascus, Saul of Tarsus became Paul. In this country, Tatian, Justin Martyr, Bardaisan, John Chrysostom, Nestorius-- the principle figures of Christianity's golden age-- all appeared. To the north of Aleppo, as well as Damascus, Hawran and Palestine, stretching in both directions to Mardin and Antioch, Christianity spread in force and became the national religion of the population of historical Syria, both Eastern Aramaic (Assyrian) and Western Aramaic (Suryani). Thus the population of this country rushed to adopt Christianity because they were adopting a religion that they knew, whose symbols they know and in which they recognized themselves. Christianity is the inheritor of the mystery religions and beliefs of the ancient Fertile Crescent, which provided the greatest spiritual ammunition that humankind has ever known: the doctrine of salvation based on death and resurrection in a never-ending process.

The Downward Trend

Up until the Turkish conquest of Greater Syria, Egypt and Iraq in the years 1516-1517, the number of Christians in these lands was around 16 million (Iraq: 9 million; Syria: four million; Egypt: two and a half million). In the statistics for 2010, which are approximate, the number of Christians in this area does not surpass twelve million (Syria: 2 million; Iraq: 1 million; Egypt: 8 million; Palestine and Jordan: 360 thousand; Lebanon: 1.3 million). Had the Christians in these countries followed natural patterns of population growth, today they would number at least 100 million. Among the factors behind this decline is the conversion of many Christians to Islam on account of persecution, compulsion and increasing doctrinal assimilation, as well as persistent emigration to the West starting in the first half of the 19th century.

The final stage of the persecution of Christians began in the Turkish state that made Constantinople into an Islamic city called Istanbul, after its having been the capital of Christianity throughout its history. Then a policy of Turkification was implemented that led to the flight of thousands of Assyrians to Iraq and thousands of Suryanis to Syria. During this period, the Turks, with the cooperation of some Kurdish groups, conducted systematic murder against the Christians. Among the many victims of this were the famous Chaldean scholar Addai Scher who was killed in 1915 and the bishop Binyamin Shemoun who was assassinated in 1918. Distinguished in the field of massacres was the Hamidiye Corps, which especially targeted Armenians, in addition to Suryanis and Asssyrians. I am not speculating if I state that the beginning of the flight of Christians came at the hands of the Turks.

The Turkish Massacres: The Basis for Displacement

Starting in the first half of the 19th century, during the conflict with the Persians, the Turks allied with certain Kurdish tribes. In 1842, they granted them an emirate in the heart of Syriac Cizre, the emirate of Bohtan. In this context, the Kurds launched fierce assaults againt Christians and Yezidis under the leadership of their emir, Bedr Khan, who exterminated thousands of Assyrians in the region of Tur Abdin and Hakkari. Christian areas were gradually subjected to the migration of Kurdish and Turkoman tribes. In 1895, Christians were subjected to numerous massacres in Diyarbakir, Urfa, Mardin, Nusaybin, Meyafarkin, Tur Abdin and Viranshahr. Assyrians were practically eradicated from Tur Abdin, Mardin, Diyarbakir and Hakkari in Turkey and Urmia in Iran. It is well-known that of the Christians of the region of Mardin, who numbered around 200 thousand at the end of the 19th century only around 3000 now remain. There were 700 monks in the monasteries of Tur Abdin alone and now only two remain. The Syriac city of Mardin was captured by Turkey and given over to Kurdish groups that expelled its Arab and Syriac population. They fled to Syria, settling in the town of Amuda and elsewhere. It is well-known that of the millions of Christians within Turkey in the 19th century, at the end of the 20th century only around 150 thousand remained. In this regard, let us not forget the extermination of Armenians, especially during the massacres of April 24, 1915, leading to the flight of many to Aleppo, Deir el-Zor and Iraq.


As for Iraq, the Chaldeans, Suryanis and Assyrians in Iraq, who are considered to be one people, repeated massacres, such as the Simele massacre on August 7, 1933, when around 3000 Assyrians were killed, led to the emigration of most Assyrians to Syria and from there to Lebanon, then Sweden, Canada, Australia, as did the massacre of Souriyya in 1969.

Only a few of the Christians of the Nineveh Plain remain after after the repeated attacks against them by Salafist Islamic groups and organized and unorganized Kurdish groups. There was ethnic cleansing of Christians from the Baghdad neighborhoods of Dora, Mehdi, and Bi'a. Of the approximately 150 thousand Chaldeans and Assyrians who were living in Northern Iraq in 1991, today only some 20 thousand remain at the highest estimate. Until 1978, the number of Christians in Iraq was around 1.5 million and today, after the occupation of 2003, only around 600 thousand remain, most living in the Mosul Plain. During that period, more than 1000 Christians were killed, around 200 were abducted-- including 40 women-- and 60 churches were destroyed in Mosul, Baghdad and other regions. In addition to all of this, they lost their historic cities such as Erbil, Zakho, Dohuk, Kirkuk, and Mosul. These originally Christian cities have been gradually Kurdicized and Islamized.


"Syria" is a Syriac name and even today most place-names in Syria (as well as, naturally, Lebanon) are Syriac. Maaloula, Seidnaya, Jabadin and Bakha'a still speak Aramaic, even though many of their residents are Muslims. At the beginning of the 20th century Christians made up around 20% of the population in Syria. In 1956, they were around 15%. At the beginning of the 21st century, there were between 8-10%. Here the decline in numbers is accelerating, due to the war raging in Syria and the persistent crimes of the Salafist groups. In Raqqa, for example, there were around 600 Christian families before 2012. Their number has been reduced to 50 families after the rebels seized control, and perhaps the city has been completely emptied of Christians since then. Christians made up 30% of the population of Hassake, 65% of the population of Wadi al-Nasara and 25% of Aleppo. However, these figures will slip away into the archives if the brutal killings continue. Suryanis began to emigrate from Syria after the Amuda massacre of August 9, 1937. This massacre, carried out by the Kurd Saeed Agha, emptied the city of its Suryani population. In 1941, the Suryanis of Malikiya were subjected to a vicious assault. Even though it failed, fear, anxiety and the immigration of Kurds from Turkey led to Malikiya, Darbasiya and Amuda becoming completely Kurdish. The historically Christian city of Nusaybin had a similar fate after its Christian population left when it was annexed to Turkey. They crossed the border into Syria and settled in Qamishly, which is only a few meters from Nusaybin. Thus Nusaybin became Kurdish and Qamishly became a Suryani Christian city. Things soon changed, however, with the immigration of Kurds beginning in 1926 following the failure of Saeed Ali Naqshbandi in his rebellion against the Turkish authorities at that time.

Clinging to the Land

Despite all that has happened, Christians in the Arab Middle East and Egypt have clung to their homelands and have only emigrated from them in times of distress or for economic reasons or in search of better prospects and conditions. They endured Turkish persecution and strove for freedom, equality and justice. Within the Arab world they created literature, poetry, thought and culture that continues to nourish those living in these countries plagued with killing, blood, demagogues and takfirism.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Met. Ephrem Kyriakos' Eulogy for Costi Bendaly

Arabic original here.

Who can talk about the life of this man?

Who can talk about Costi Bendaly?

This pedagogue in the fullest sense of the word, this teacher, indeed, this father. Many talk about the royal priesthood but few live it. He was a priest par excellence. Why? Because he was sincere. His faith was his life. He prayed, he researched, he combined heart and mind. He spoke about children because he sympathized with them. He talked about the youth because he lived among them. But how did he know all this? How was he able to produce this enormous legacy that he left?

I will tell you how: He received God's abundant graces because he acquired the virtue of humility.

All bear witness to how he behaved during the Civil War and know how he was eager to remain in his country in difficult times. Many know how he would do pastoral work in his parish. He is the one who established the program for contributions in the parish. He is the one who encouraged evening activities and Bible study meetings. He was faithful to his Lord until the end, focused on study, focused on action, striving among his people.

Where are those who call for coexistence? Take this man as a model. Follow his example in the practice of true dogma. Take up his approach as the way to save the nation.

The Book of Hebrews talks about true faith among the prophets, saints and martyrs. It says of Moses:

"By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward." (Hebrews 11:24-26)

Yes, this man, a doctor in pedagogy and psychology, could have gone to Europe and America and taken the highest positions. He could have acquired riches and abundant possessions. But he preferred to live poor and humble among his people. He preferred to bear his reproach-- that is, bear his cross, as the Fathers explain it. Everything he did in silence. He avoided banquets. He refused celebrations in his honor or even symposia. Look at his many books. Listen to his sayings. In gatherings, he preferred to hear others' opinions before expressing his own opinion. He preferred to hear the voice of others because he longed for God's voice. Indeed, he longed for obedience to His holy words. He loved to participate with others. He loved others more than himself and he avoided the love of appearances.

Beloved, hear. People, look and perceive how much we were nourished by this man who departed from us in the Christmas season, the season of Christ's coming in the flesh with crushing humility. Where are you going now Costi? Are you meeting the beloved Metropolitan Boulos? Are you meeting the ascetic Marcel? Are you meeting all those beloved brothers, great and small, departed loyal members of the Youth Movement, with whom you fought the good fight all your life?

Well done, in everything you did, in everything you lived. You who were faithful to the Lord Jesus with a sincere faith, embodied in a worthy life. Enjoy now the joy of paradise, indeed, the joy of the kingdom.

You were faithful with little, so the Lord will raise you up over much. Enter into the joy of your Lord. Amen.

as-Safir on the Destruction of Chruches in Syria

Arabic original here. A partial list of churches in Syria that have been damaged or destroyed, compiled by the Greek Catholic Patriarchate, can be found here.

Syrian Christmas... And the Systemic Destruction of Civilization

By Ala' Halabi

Christian clergy do not believe that the terrible damage wrought by the Syrian crisis is limited to Christians alone. "Syrian society is being affected in all its constituent parts," says the head of the Evangelical church in Aleppo, Rev. Ibrahim Nasir, adding that "What is happening is not Syrian culture. It is an imported culture, behind which are interests seeking to destroy the edifice of Syria."

There are no exact figures for the damage caused by current events in Syria and how it has affected Christians in particular. However, unofficial estimates indicate that more than 30 churches have been destroyed or damaged in various areas of Syria since the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011, while the destruction of more than 1400 mosques, around 3000 schools, and 37 hospitals has been registered. Perhaps the most striking effect of the crisis, which is continuing today, is the emigration of Christians, who before the start of the events constituted around 10% of the population. With the ongoing emigration of Christians, it is difficult to make a clear or official estimate of what proportion of the emigration is due to acts of violence.

Sources following the case of Christians in Aleppo, for example, say that a third of the city's Christians are now outside Syria and another third of them have fled to other regions within Syria, while a third steadfastly remain in Aleppo. They state that, "the destination of those who left the country varies between Lebanon and some European countries," which, according to the source, "encouraged the emigration of Christians, which was met with rejection from Christian religious leaders within Syria, who are striving to keep the Christian element in Syria."

Most Christians have fled to safe districts within the cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the area of Wadi al-Nasara outside of Homs, as well as areas of coastal Syria. In light of the difficult humanitarian situation, their situation is like the situation of other Syrian refugees, with various Christian and charitable organizations attempting to provide them with the necessities for life.

"At the beginning of the acts of violence in Syria, Christians distanced themselves," says the observer, "except that with the increasing frequency of incidents and the increase of Wahhabi takfiri voices penetrating into Syria, Christians became a target for expulsion, murder, theft, and kidnapping. Their factories and homes were robbed (as happened in Aleppo), they were deprived of their sources of livelihood, and their monuments were looted and plundered." The source gives examples of this, "Christian monuments in the region of Jebel Siman have mostly been looted and some reports coming from there state that looted antiquities have been transported outside Syria via Turkey, where they were sold on the black market."

For his part, the abbot of the Monastery of Saint Peter in Marmarita, Father Walid Iskandafi, who is also the general episcopal vicar for the Greek Catholic diocese of Lattakia and Tartus, stresses that "the ongoing war in Syria has shown that it not only targets humans and humanity. It also destroys history, civilization, and heritage." He continues in his discussion with as-Safir, "There is no doubt that the first and last party to benefit from what is happening is Israel."

Among the monasteries and churches that have been severely damaged by the events is the Monastery of Seidnaya, which is considered the most famous monastery in Syria and was targeted by mortar fire at the beginning of 2012 and which is once more threatened by the approach of armed groups from the city of Seidnaya, which for a long time had been relatively safe. The city, outside Damascus, is witnessing waves of refugees with the intensification of the frequency of battles and their nearing the city.

While the damage suffered by the Monastery of Seidnaya was minor, the oldest church in the world was completely destroyed when the Church of Our Lady's Girdle, which is said to be the oldest church on the face of the earth as it was built in 59 AD, since it was burned and destroyed. Similarly, the Church of the Forty Martyrs in Homs, which is one of the oldest churches in that governate. The same applies to the Church of Saint Elias in Qusayr, which was also destroyed.

In Aleppo, the Arab Evangelical Church in Aleppo was destroyed when armed rebels filled it with explosives and detonated it. Likewise, the Armenian Church of Saint Kevork and the Bethlehem School attached to it were destroyed.

The head of the Evangelical Church in Aleppo, the Rev. Ibrahim Nasir says that five churches have been destroyed in the Old City of Aleppo. This was after terrorists entered the historic Jdeideh neighborhood. He adds that armed men also destroyed a church in of Meidan, before the Syrian Army was able to regain control over the neighborhood populated by Christians, mostly Armenians who were expelled when armed men stormed the neighborhood.

Neighborhoods in the Old City of Damascus, which is populated by Christians, have been targeted with mortar fire that has damaged some churches. The same is the case for Christian neighborhoods in Aleppo, which are also targeted by mortar fire.

With the approach of Christmas and New Year's, there appear to be no signs of joy or preparation for the holidays. Since last year, celebrations have been limited to prayers seeking mercy and an end to violence in Syria. Recently, there have also been prayers for those who have been kidnapped, most prominently bishops Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim, who were kidnapped by armed extremists outside Aleppo last April, as well as the nuns who were kidnapped from the Monastery of Saint Thekla in Maaloula, who were kidnapped after extremist factions stormed the historic town.

Salafi jihadist organizations in Syria see Christians as an enemy that should be fought and expelled. Sometimes they occupy churches and monasteries, destroying their symbols and turning them into bases for Salafi jihadist propaganda. This recently happened at the Armenian church in Raqqa, which was taken over by several extremist groups, most prominently Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, Rev. Ibrahim Nasir insists that Christians will remain in Syria, stressing that the Christian in Syria "is a Syrian first." He continues, "They think that Christians are a weak element in Syria. The Christians are an episode of a series called Syria and so they will not be able to end the Christian presence unless they end Syrian civilization, which is impossible for them."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Carol Saba: Enough with the Discourse of Protecting Middle Eastern Christians!

Arabic original here.

Enough with the Discourse of Protecting Middle Eastern Christians!

Seventy years have passed since independence, and there has been no bold critical review of the Christian experience of holding power in Lebanon and the regressive paths that led to its loss. Seventy years have passed, and there is no forward-looking and pioneering Christian vision that is distinct, bold, proactive and based on a sound reading of the dilemmas of Lebanon and the diversely-constituted Arab societies, the crisis of governance in them, and the requirements of political modernity for those being governed.

Seventy years have passed, and the deadly sectarian colors that struck the experiment of the Lebanese national pact and of promising secular constitutionalism in the Middle East are still firmly lodged in our minds. This Ottoman millet tendency that we inherited from times of intellectual slavery and insularity continues to colonize our historical self and to influence how we demarcate our values and choices.

An alliance of minorities here, an alliance of majorities there and what's more, the movement these days around the dilemma of protecting Middle Eastern Christianity, where verbal enthusiasm and political posturing is multiplying and proper, un-selfinterested approaches are diminishing. This movement does not constitute a critical awakening or a perceptive vision. Rather, it reveals the depth of Christian division and fragmentation and the inability of this Christian elite today to rise to a single, universal strategic reading that unites the Christians and rises above narrow political interests.

Describing the pain of the current reality on the ground is one thing, but charting the features of the hoped-for land and the paths to reach it is something else. Despite the trials and tragedies, Christians continue to see themselves as a minority in need of protection, internal and external. The only protection that is to be found is in a constitution, the civil democratic state, and the protection of basic rights and freedoms equally for all. The problem with the minoritarian mindset is that it is a suicidal path, killing the minority first and then the nation. This is what happened to Christians in Lebanon and it overturned the plan of a civil state there, a state based on citizenship that embraces and protects all. There have been sectarian fragmentation and deadly policies from political Maronism to political Sunnism to political Shiism. The Christians have not yet learned from the deadly experiences in Lebanon that the minoritarian experience, whether holding power or not, is not the solution but the problem. Instead of us strengthening the nascent national value from the time of the national initiatives of the great Fakhreddine, we have strengthened the sectarian value and since independence we have dealt with the Lebanese state on the basis of holding on to authority in order to protect the minority. We held authority without strengthening and developing frameworks for Christian-Muslim partnership in order for us to gradually progress together, Muslims and Christians, within a state of citizenship from mutual distance to coexistence, to a single common life, from sectarian partnership to national partnership and true citizenship. Despite having lost power, today in a kind of political blindness we continue to speak as Christians and insulate ourselves sectarianly, instead of speaking in national terms and putting the breaks on sectarianism, so that we may be the national bridge that helps all to cross over to the state, rather than being a factor for the development of the Sunni-Shii confrontation that is killing everyone.

Today has many similarities with the end of the 19th century. A flaccid Arab regime resembles the flaccidity of the Ottoman sick man before his fall. Sectarianism is rampant in all parts of the Arab body. Christian fear after the painful events of 1860 and the search for foreign protection. Warring sectarian majorities and minorities. Interested great and regional powers lie in wait for the revolutions of the strategic Arab world, looking for local clients that can be used under different pretexts for a foothold and bases for extending their authority and influence and safeguarding their interests and permanent presence.

An elite minority of Lebanese and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, conscious and enlightened with the lights of the Arab Nahda, realize that the game of nations and interests is to decide to fuel sectarian strife in order to prevent the creation of a promising modern state based on law in the Arab world. They called for a Middle Eastern secularism that is open to religion and for a constitutional civil state that protects all equally in rights and responsibilities as the solution to the dilemmas of the ambiguous and negative relationship between religion and politics in the Arab world.

Today exactly like yesterday, everyone is fighting with everyone through local tools and the Arab citizen is the only one to pay the very high price for this. What is needed today is a bold vision that frees Christians from the sectarian, minoritarian approach and the shackles of the Ottoman millet system, that takes them off the path of sectarianism and places them on the path of citizenship. What is needed today is talk from Christians about national and pan-Arab challenges and what they require more than talk about Christian challenges and what they require.

More than any time in the past and despite the dangers and suffering that surround them, if Christians unite around the project of a civil state that embraces all, then they will continue to be the key figure in the Lebanese and Middle Eastern equation. Their most powerful weapon, whose importance, effectiveness  and power they have not realized, is that they are the guarantee of the "pact" for the diversity of these societies in the world today, where all political unilateralisms have fallen.

Religious extremism in the Arab world will not last. Religious and sectarian strife has no political prospect because in today's globalized world it cannot form an effective state capable of ensuring people a dignified life. The crisis in the societies of the Arab world is not today a crisis of minorities and majorities. It is not a crisis of religious conflict, even if on the surface it is religious in nature. Rather, it is a crisis of governance, a crisis of true democracy, a crisis of reproducing the universal modern state that protects all through law and preserves diversity in unity.

If they unite and use the weapon of the "pact", which is the opposite of political dependency, Christians alone are capable of overturning the Sunni-Shi'i confrontation and saving the Arab world from suicide. Will they rise to the challenge instead of weeping over ruins and searching for protection, so that Lebanon and the Arab world do not miss for a second time at the beginning of the 21st century like they did at the beginning of the 20th, the opportunity to enter into political modernity and the world of democratic values that respects man, his freedom, and the dignity of his life? Let us pray to the Lord!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

As-Safir on John X's First Year As Patriarch

Arabic original here.

Patriarch John X Yazigi... A Year of Challenges

by Ghassan Rifi

Today marks one year that Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East John X Yazigi has occupied the See of Antioch, after his election on December 17, 2012 at the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand, succeeding the departed patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim.

Perhaps the questions posed to him immediately after his election, about the fate of Christians in the Middle East in light of the threats to them and about what is happening in Syria and the possibility of moving the See of Antioch from Damascus to another place, confirmed beyond any doubt that John X had come at a difficult time in which the future of Christians would be determined in the wake of the revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring and that he must guide the ship of Middle Eastern Orthodoxy with wisdom, skill and care in order to spare it dangers that it cannot bear amidst the rough waters battering the region.

It was a year of challenges that were courageously tacked by the 158th patriarch of the Orthodox, who graduated from the Saint John of Damascus Institute of Theology and is of the school of Ignatius IV. From the moment of his election, he hurried to consecrate the principles and axioms of this school, in order to preserve the identity of the See of Antioch, its Middle Eastern affiliation and headquarters in Damascus and its constant aims of bearing the issue of Palestine and Jerusalem, defending the Christian presence and coexistence in peace with Muslims and all elements of this region.

Dramatic developments did not leave Yazigi space to take a retreat to carefully study all the files relating to the issues and concerns of the Orthodox or allow him to draw up a road map delineating how to deal with them. He suddenly found himself faced with high-caliber challenges, such as the abduction of his brother, Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi along with the Syriac Orthodox metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim in Aleppo.

Then came the expulsion of a large number of Christian villages in Syria, the destruction of many churches, the entry of Jabhat al-Nusra into Maaloula on two occasions and the attacks on the holy places there, in addition to the abduction of the nuns of the Monastery of Saint Thekla. Amidst all of this was the "intrusion" into Antiochian territory by Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, through the appointment of a bishop of Qatar, which depends on the See of Antioch, a canonical violation that Yazigi continues to work to address, on the grounds that any action that the churches of Jerusalem, Istanbul, or Alexandria wish to undertake in Antiochian territory requires the prior agreement of the Holy Synod, with Patriarch Yazigi at its head.

These and other challenges have not caused the head of the Antiochian Church to lose his inner peace. He has hastened to reject every form of undisciplined activity called for by some enthusiastic voices for resolving the issue of the bishops, as such activities bear not connection to the character and history of the Orthodox. Despite all the pressures that have been put upon him, he has worked to enforce this peace upon all his children, in order to calm their minds and encourage them to take the path of prayer as the only means to exit this crisis, leaving to himself and to a number of bishops in the diaspora the issue of remedies.

There is not any door that Yazigi has left unknocked and there is not any country with influence in Syria that he has not contacted and encouraged to make every possible effort to achieve the release of the two bishops and, more recently, the release of the nuns. Even if his efforts have so far not borne fruit, despair has not crept into his soul and he continues to make vigorous efforts to reach positive results.

These contacts have not distracted him from overseeing his flock in Syria. He has braved the risks numerous times and traveled to various Syrian towns and has worked to stay in communication with his children and to bring together displaced Christians with their fellow residents through mutually-supportive social activities. This is all in an attempt to bring tranquility to their souls and to preserve their presence in their and and within their churches. He has recently traveled to Syria in order to be in direct contact with the ongoing negotiations for the release of the nuns of the Monastery of Saint Thekla, cancelling a pastoral visit to the Gulf to examine his flock there. He likewise has not departed from his ecumenical mission, after the Tenth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches at its latest session last month elected him president for the Orthodox churches participating in the Council.

In a year of challenges, Yazigi fortifies himself with silence, according to the principle of "work together to meet your needs in secrecy," except for sermons and official statements that call for the principles of holding fast to the land, coexistence, peace, acceptance of the other, the rejection of extremism and the renunciation of violence in all its forms."

The Patriarch of Antioch has distanced himself and his community from entering into the volcano of the Syrian crisis and the conflict raging between its components. He has dealt with Syria as a nation that needs its children, from all communities, sects and religions. He rejects the logic of fighting that will not wind up being in anyone's interest  and he stresses the desire "for Syria to be in a state of peace where her children live as brothers in citizenship, in love and in devotion to their country."

These regional challenges have not deterred John X from following the internal situation in Lebanon. He has opened to doors of his patriarchal residence at Balamand to all Lebanese of all orientations and has been eager to communicate with the leaders of the Christian and Islamic sects in an attempt to create a shared plan of action to defend Lebanon from the conflicts that threaten its security and stability and the vacuum that threatens its form and its existence. Additionally, he has followed up on the rights of the Orthodox in the Lebanese state. With this aim, he has held more than one gathering of ministers and members of parliament from the Orthodox community in order to confirm that "political differences cannot reflect negatively on the Orthodox presence. They must be zealous for their community, which is a part of Lebanon."

Those following Yazigi's career tell as-Safir, "He is a man distinguished by his love for his church and he is working strenuously despite the difficulties and challenges that he has found himself in. However, this has not distracted him from thinking about what makes the Orthodox Church the bride of Christ and a witness to Him in a diverse society and how to make her a meeting-point and a tree were all can seek shelter in her shade, to establish man's peace for man. He extends his hand to all in his church, in his society, in the sister churches, and in the Islamic communities for the sake of cooperation in renouncing violence and spreading the idea of peace between peoples."

They add, "Before this historic juncture that Syria and the region as a whole are passing through and in light of the revolutions of the Arab Spring that until now have not produced stability and calm for the peoples, His Beatitude stands pondering a salvific course based on hope for oppressed peoples that seeks the peace that has been lost in a time of killings, kidnappings and forced disappearances that have affected unarmed clergy, peaceful nuns and orphans and does not distinguish between churches and mosques."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

As-Safir Interviews Met. Atallah Hanna

Arabic original, by Amjad Samhan, here.

 As the bitter cold paralyzed Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastia, Atallah Hanna, stood at the head of a Christian religious delegation inside the al-Aqsa Mosque. He cried out against the occupation, against its plans regarding the mosque, against its plans regarding the Islamic holy places. In the name of Palestine and her people he cried out, demanding that the world put a stop to the Israeli occupation and that justice be restored to his countrymen. As the bishop in council, you find him proudly stating, "I am a Palestinian Arab and I am proud that I am a Christian from the Middle East."

As-Safir met with the bishop when he was at the funeral for Nelson Mandela. His schedule was full and he had many events, all voluntary and national. His goal, as he explains it: "to strengthen the resolve of our people wherever they are found and to support the issues and rights of the Arab peoples, wherever they may be."

With his rationality and diplomacy, the bishop  repeats throughout the meeting: "Awareness, more awareness, rationality and dialogue are the way to solve our internal problems. Unity and resistance are the way to defeat the Israeli occupation."

as-Safir: How can the situation of the Christian community in Palestine be described?

Allow me to reject the form of the question. In my opinion, there are no sectarian communities in Palestine. The Christians here are not a sectarian community. They are an indispensable part of the indigenous Palestinian Arab people in its regional dimension and its national duties toward Palestine and the Arab countries.

as-Safir: But there are Christians in Palestine, some of whom say that they are a minority?

Such talk is never acceptable. I have lived here for 48 years and I have never acted on the basis of being a member of a minority, but rather on exactly the opposite basis-- my Muslim brothers here are always by our side, in our Arabness, in our nationalism, and in our Palestinianness.

as-Safir: What have Christians contributed to Palestine?

We, as Christians are a part of this people and this nation. We are proud to belong to Christianity, which first dawned in Palestine. We are proud of our Arabness, our Arab belonging, our Arab nationalism, and our belonging to a people that struggles, a people that has striven for decades to gain freedom. Believe me that I do not keep track of what Christians or Muslims have contributed. We in our country do not divide the martyrs into Christians or Muslims. All the martyrs are our martyrs. All those who struggle are ones who struggle for us. All of us have one goal, and it is to liberate Palestine.

as-Safir: Do Christians in Palestine suffer from any type of persecution?

If there is persecution, it is the practices of the Israeli occupation. Our history and our relations are complementary and participatory, and this is what sets us apart from other parts of the region. If incidents occur, they are isolated. Christians and Muslims here are brothers. These are not imaginary words. This is the truth.

As-Safir: What is your assessment of what is happening in the region, especially in Syria?

What is happening in Syria is not an natural to our people. Rather, it is the product of a discourse of extremism, a discourse of incitement, rejection and hatred. It is a discourse that has none of the characteristics of Islam, especially when we talk about those people who are doing beheadings and eating human livers. Here, in the name of Palestine, I proclaim our rejection of the killing in Syria, against our brothers. We speak out against those who promote sectarian strife and those who commit crimes in the name of religion, like what is happening in Maaloula. Those people are harming themselves and are harming us. Indeed, they are the enemies of religion. Half a million Christians have been displaced from Syria, and a million from Iraq. This is very sorrowing. We want Christians, wherever they are, to remain in their land because they are a part of the land and because we and the Muslims are brothers.

The meeting with Metropolitan Atallah, who was born in the village of Rama in Galillee in 1965, was characterized by great rationality. Amidst all that is happening and all that the Christians face, he becomes all the more rooted in his land and this makes him a beloved and universally respected figure among Christians and Muslims. However, the calm bishop was deeply pained by talk of Syria and the Arab blood that is being shed there disturbed his calm, as he has long believed that "Syrians and Palestinians are partners in suffering who face the same enemy."

Fr Georges Massouh Remembers Costi Bendaly

Arabic original here. More about Costi Bendaly's life and work can be read here.

Costi Bendaly... Heart and Mind Together

Costi Bendaly has departed. The theologian who did not possess a degree in theology, though he surpassed many who have attained advanced degrees in academic theology, has departed. If the prevalent saying in the Orthodox tradition is, "the true theologian is the one who prays," then,  taking Costi Bendali as an example, we can say, "the true theologian is the one who lives the Gospel, including prayer, imitating Christ Jesus in everything."

Costi Bendali put the heart and the mind together and made the harmony between them a rule for practicing the faith. He did not make an opposition between the "spiritual life" and the affairs of this world. He realized that Christ is in two natures, human and divine, and so he dedicated to each nature the duties and obligations that it requires. He did not fall into the temptation of giving importance to the spiritual life at the expense of ignoring the human condition. Nor did he fall into the temptation of giving importance to social service at the expense of ignoring the spiritual life. Bendaly showed us that the two are inseparable-- if one is absent then the other inevitably is as well.

In practice, there are two heresies among Christians that Bendaly was able to defeat. The first heresy is concern only for what pertains to God and the second is concern only for what pertains to man. These two heresies are relics of the two heresies that the Church combated in the fifth century, the heresy of Nestorianism that denies Christ's divine nature and the heresy of Monophysitism that denies the human nature in Christ. Christ is perfect God and perfect man and this means that the divine incarnation requires each Christian to be concerned with his fellow man and not to be content with prayer, fasting and worship by themselves.

The issue that Bendaly spent his life pursuing was the issue of humanity loved by God, humanity tormented on this earth. He was the model of the Christian intellectual engaged with people's issues. Justice was his his preoccupation and he published a reference book entitled Violent or Non-Violent Struggle? For the Realization of Justice. In it, he did not limit himself with reliance on Christian thought, but also looked to Mahatma Ghandi and adopted his teachings on this issue. He took up the issue of the conquered peoples in Palestine, Latin America and other countries that have witnessed revolutions against occupation and the social injustice practiced by dictatorial regimes. In this context, he despised sectarianism, which he considered to be a form of racism.

Costi Bendaly was a pioneer in using the social sciences, first and foremost psychology, in which he was a specialist, in a true Christian education that combats insularity, isolation and fear of the world, an education open to the age, taking into account the centrality of man in the universe, based on freedom and knowledge: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." He likewise took up the issue of sex, especially in his book Sex and Its Human Significance from a simultaneously Christian and psychological perspective. In this book, he called for sound sexual education that puts an end to the prevalent ignorance and erroneous ideas surrounding this subject.

Costi Bendaly, a son of the Antiochian Church, a son of the Orthodox Youth Movement, a son of Mina in Tripoli, man, teacher, pedagogue, father, brother, fighter was a fisher of men. He heeded the call made by Christ to the Apostles: "I shall make you fishers of men." He left everything and followed Him... However, he who desires to be a fisher of men must first be content to be caught by Jesus, to be a fish in Jesus' net. Blessed are you, for Christ caught you from your harbor* to place you in His sea, where there is the water of life.

*Mina, Costi Bendaly's home neighborhood in Tripoli, literally means "Harbor".

Friday, December 13, 2013

As-Safir on the Negotiations for the Nuns' Release

Arabic original here.

The Nuns of Maaloula: A Race between Mediation Attempts and the Assault on Yabroud

by Muhammad Ballout

The nuns from Maaloula will soon be in Lebanon, the kidnappers' last refuge, if intermediaries and the channels open with them do not arrive at a quick solution, especially after the expansion of the Syrian Army's assault on Yabroud in the coming days with the launching of a second phase of the military operation in Qalamoun.

Twelve nuns, four of them Lebanese, the others Syria. Three channels for negotiations have alternatively tried to obtain the kidnappers' list of demands in order to speedily arrange an exchange. Optimism reigns over the negotiation process on account of the fact that the kidnappers immediately entered into a process of multilateral dialogue in order to reach a deal about the nuns. This is an important sign because it is the first time that Jabhat al-Nusra quickly seeks to reach a deal over the kidnapping victims it holds, while the fate of its previous kidnapping victims before there was any clarity or even any acceptance of in principle of negotiations by the kidnappers.

Within the channels that are negotiating or have attempted to negotiate, there is no representative of the Syrian government, which is content to meet demands or to monitor what is happening at a distance. There is a local channel led by a Syrian figure who has contributed in the past to negotiations for the release of hostages, there is a Qatari channel that started work two days ago, and there is the channel of the United Nations.

A source in the Free Syrian Army in Qalamoun says that an interlocutor for the Vatican is trying to open a fourth channel involving direct negotiations with the kidnappers and a generous financial offer in exchange for the nuns' release, but Jabhat al-Nusra is proposing conditions that, up to now, do not include any monetary conditions or ransom. Standing in the background, alongside the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra in Yabroud, are Mithqal Hamama and Ahmad al-Muqambar, local leaders in one of the brigades of the Free Syrian Army. They are attempting to obtain a portion of any exchange and monetary ransom as well as personal security guarantees.

Ahmad al-Muqambar is from the village of al-Mashrafeh (also called Falita), while Mithqal Hamama is from Bakha'a in the Qalamoun town of Sarkha. Hamama played a leading role in seizing the nuns of Maaloula and taking them out of the Monastery of Saint Thekla, which he stormed with a group of his fighters, who belong to Liwa Tahrir al-Sham. This brigade has 1200 fighters and is led by a deserter captain, Firas al-Bitar. Its units are especially active in Ghouta and Qalamoun, from which al-Bitar also hails.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which led the assault on Maaloula at the beginning of last week, seized the nuns after they were taken to the town of Sarkha, which is under the control of Mithqal Hamama, and transported them to Yabroud, which is under control of the Jabhat al-Nusra leader Malik al-Talli, a Syrian, and his deptuty, Hamdi Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, a Kuwaiti-Syrian, as his mother and wife are Syrian.

In recent hours, negotiations have set great store on the opening of an international channel for negotiations with Jabhat al-Nusra for the release of the nuns and four orphans who were in their care that Jabhat al-Nusra took with them from the Monastery of Saint Thekla to the village of Sarkha, before they were left with al-Talli and his deputy, who is conducting negotiations under the name Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti. Likewise, much has been made of the entrance of the Qataris as intermediaries after the visit to Doha by the visit of Lebanese Director of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim.

The United Nations attempted, through Mukhtar Lamani, the personal representative in Damascus of the Arab and international envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, to play a role in facilitating negotiations for the nuns' release. At the beginning Lamani spoke to the abbess of the monastery, Mother Pelagia, via Skype, however the attempt ran into Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti's insistance on the presence of the international diplomat in Yabroud to conduct negotiations face-to-face.

The United Nations refuses to allow any of its diplomats to go to meet with the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra in Yabroud for security and legal reasons, among them the inclusion of Jabhat al-Nusra on the list of terrorist organizations and the fact that Abu Azzam has not forward demands that can be clearly discussed. Lamani stipulated that his presence in Yabroud would be to receive the nuns, which caused Jabhat al-Nusra to put an end to negotiations and ended the United Nations channel.

Soon afterward, the local Syrian channel received demands in exchange for the nuns' release that included military and security aspects. It is obvious that the Syrian authorities will not agree to implement any of the military or security conditions proposed by Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, who is conducting the negotiations and up to now has not permitted any of the negotiators to speak directly with Malik al-Talli. Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti's conditions for the nuns' release ranged from shipments of flour and food to beseiged areas in Eastern Ghouta to lifting the seige from Moadamiyet al-Sham, demands that, according to one of the negotiators, they can go forward with.

All those who have negotiated with Abu Azzam agree that he put forward the demand for the release of one thousand women held in prison by the Syrian regime, although no one has received a list of the names of those whom he wants to exchange for the nuns, despite a week having passed since the start of negotiations. However, what is putting negotiations at an impasse is Jabhat al-Nusra's demand for a stop to the Syrian Army's operation in Qalamoun at the end of the list of military conditions dictated by Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti to his negotiating partners. Abu Azzam proposed the withdrawal of the army checkpoint at the entrance to Maaloula, the removal of army units from the strategic Monastery of the Cherubim overlooking  Saydnaya, and the removal of a Syrian Army unit stationed at a monastery in Qara. He demanded in general the removal of any Syrian Army presence from "Christian regions", as he said, in order to neutralize them from the conflict.

The negotiatiors give them impression that Jabhat al-Nusra's man in Yabroud does not have the final say and that he is acting as an intermediary, most likely receiving orders from a third party who determines the course and conditions of the negotiations, which have become more complicated in recent hours, after Jabhat al-Nusra threatened to send the nuns to Lebanon. The threat comes with the arrival  in Yabroud two days ago of Abu Hasan al-Arsali, one of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army in Arsal and one of the supervisors of supply operations out of Lebanese territory. It is not known whether this is directly related to the issue of the nuns or the threat to transport them to Lebanon.

The entry of the Qataris in the past few hours into mediation with the kidnappers seems encouraging, after the issue of the nuns had entered into a race with the military operation nearing Yabroud, about whose impact on negotiations there are conflicting expectations. One of the participants in the negotiations told as-Safir that the army's advance toward Yabroud will not leave Jabhat al-Nusra with many options and that protecting the nuns might become a burden for the kidnappers in the coming days.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh: The Neglected Human in Syria

Arabic original here.

The Neglected Human in Syria

Over the past two centuries, Christians in Syria have adopted secularist proposals for the revival of their nation and the establishment of a civil state, a state of citizenship governed by total equality, where religion and the state are completely separate. These proposals were manifested in the commitment of many Christians to nationalist or pan-nationalist parties, to the point that most of these parties were founded by Christians or had Christians among their founders. Christians in Syria, together with Muslims, contributed to the struggle against Ottoman tyranny, against the French mandate and against the Israeli rape of Palestine... At no point did they ever advance a sectarian, factional or divisive option... Indeed, they only opted for common grounds on which to build national cooperation with Muslims and other fellow Syrian citizens.

Christians in Syria are proud that over the course of history their country has been a refuge for the oppressed who fled to its cities, villages and deserts, which has made it multiracial, multicultural and multilingual, with diverse religions and denominations. The last to find safety there were the Armenian Christians who were targeted by racist Turkish massacres and who were welcomed by the people of Aleppo and all of Syria, Christian and Muslim, as honored guests then as fellow citizens with full citizenship.

The fact that none of the great dreams for which the thinkers of the Nahda strove-- first among them the civil state-- is due to many causes, among them: the creation of Israel, dependence on dictatorship and single-party or single-personality states and using the suppression of freedoms as the means of authority and governance... This led to the appearance of extremist religious movements that adopted violence as a means of achieving their goals, the chief of which is the establishment of the religious state, according to their particular understanding of religion and religious law.

Today, in light of what is happening in Syria, factional voices are being raised in every religious community calling for the defense of those who belong to their own sect and ignoring the other elements of the Syrian people. Sunnis advocate for the Sunnis, Christians for the Christians, Shiites and Alawitess for the Alawites. Most of these voices do not desire truth and peace in Syria. Those who create divisions between one Syrian and another, those who regard the blood of one Syrian to be more precious than that of another Syrian, those who regard the stone of one place of worship to be more precious than the stone of another place of worship, those who regard one village to be more important than another village are the ones who are inciting further fragmentation and chaos.

Syrians who believe in the civil state and its importance, Muslims and Christians, must be careful to not slip into sectarian attitudes that deepen the rift and increase the gap between people with good intentions. Whether we like it or not, Syrians, Christian and Muslim, have a single fate tied to the fate of every Syrian citizen. The destruction is general and comprehensive and is not limited only to Christians, their villages and churches and it is not limited only to Muslims, their villages and mosques.

In closing we say and repeat for those who need to be reminded, that Christians in Syria do not live in an isolated island. Rather, along with their Muslim partners they make up a single fabric... The thing that harms the Christians most is to limit their demands to that which pertains only to their sects and their churches... Churches and mosques that are destroyed, we can build others, but the unique Syrian person who is killed by a bullet, who can bring him back? The human person, any human person, is holier than any place.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Update on the Dispute between Antioch and Jerusalem

Apologies for this being the translation of a translation. The below is based on the French here, translated from a report on Amen.gr here. The text of Patriarch Theophilos' letter to Patriarch John can be read, in Greek, here.

The Patriarchate of Jerusalem remains firm in its initial position regarding its ecclesial jurisdiction over Qatar but, according to some reports, it is proposing to the Patriarchate of Antioch-- which questions the Church of Jerusalem's rights over the diocese in question-- to form a special commission made up of scholars of canon law in order to study and document ecclesial jurisdiction in the region. The same sources mention that the Patriarchate of Antioch has already received a letter from the patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos, in which he responds to the arguments elaborated by the patriarch of Antioch, John, in his previous letter. Figures from the Church of Antioch in contact with the website Amen.gr call the Patriarchate of Jerusalem's expression of support for the Syrian people tried by the clashes of the Civil War a sign of brotherly love. Nevertheless, regarding the dispute that has arisen over Qater, they report that Jerusalem maintains its initial position and that its proposal to have the question discussed by a group of specialized scholars as part of the dialogue between the two churches has been reiterated. According to the same sources, the patriarch of Jerusalem, recalls in his letter his constant position regarding his canonical presence and pastoral activity in Qatar, as they were elaborated in a letter going back to March 2013. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem reiterates its disposition toward dialogue and negotiations that it showed in its willingness to participate in the four-way negotiations recently held in Athens under the auspices of Costas Tsiaras, at the time the Greek vice-minister of Foreign Affairs,  with the participation of representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. As far as the Church of Antioch's warning about it suspending communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem if it does not leave Qatar, the patriarch of Jerusalem stresses in his letter to patriarch John of Antioch that that such an act would shatter the unity of the sister Churches and of all Orthodoxy.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

an-Nahar on Syrian Christian Refugees

Arabic original here. Please consider giving to the International Orthodox Christian Charities fund for Syria. Listen to a recent report about their work here.

Christian Refugees from Syria Number Around 30 Thousand. Dimensions of the Maaloula Catastrophe Go Beyond the Displacement of Hundreds of Families

The small number of Syrian Christian refugees cannot be compared to the number of Muslim refugees. Christians make up no more than ten percent of the Syrian population, at the highest estimate, and they have gone from the regions that they left to other regions of Syria. Those who have reached Lebanon are a small group, no more than thirty thousand people. A significant proportion of them have possessed Lebanese passports and Lebanese identity cards for a long time. This is, for example, the situation of a significant number of the inhabitants of the town of Maaloula, the latest of the Christian towns to be emptied, after waves of expulsions that have affected Christians in the Jazira (al-Qamishly and its region), Homs, Aleppo and Raqqa.

The overwhelming majority of Syrian Christians have been displaced within Syria. Those of them who have emigrated have done so on the basis of preparations made before and during the war through contacts with relatives in Europe and North America. Among those reaching Lebanon, there are some who are attempting to join those who went ahead to the Scandinavian countries  and Canada, which they see as a paradise for refugees.

Syrian Christian refugees differ from their compatriots in that they do not come together in camps or in specific neighborhoods. The rich among them already had private homes in Lebanon and jobs inside and outside Syria. Some of them had obtained Lebanese nationality in the famous naturalization decree. The director of Caritas Lebanon, Fr Simon Faddoul, says that only a minority of them are seeking assistance.

Syrian Christian refugees are distributed in areas of the Northern Bekaa (al-Qa', Ras Baalbek and surrounding areas) and in Zahle, where there are a significant proportion of Syriacs staying with their Syriac cousins from Zahle. In Mount Lebanon, Syrian Christian refugees are found in Borj Hammoud and Sahel el-Metn, where Syrian Armenians are also residing with their Lebanese Armenian cousins. Syriacs live in in Sahel el-Metn and are centered in Bouchrieh and Ajaltoun. Some of them are distributed among the Syriac and Chaldean monasteries and this last group is in serious need of every type of support. They are being helped by church organizations, Caritas Lebanon, the Syriac League and other organizations that are active in dealing with the difficult humanitarian situation that requires the attention of state institutions. Fr Faddoul explains that Caritas offers assistance in a number of ways. There are several programs for food assistance and for contributing to paying rent, in addition to social and legal assistance. This is especially important, given that state security institutions insist on rigorously applying the law to Syrian Christian refugees but not to others, just as the law is applied rigorously in Christian areas without exceptions, unlike other areas.

In the past week, Fr Faddoul has signed an agreement with the Italian hospital Bambino Gesù (Christ Child) through the Pontifical Council Cor Unum in order to provide medical care for Lebanese and Syrian childen living in Lebanon. He envisions the plan beginning work in the city of Deir el-Ahmar and then expanding to several regions. There are mobil clinics operated in cooperation with Canadians in addition to the existing clinics, which are active every day to provide what is necessary.

The head of the Syriac League, Habib Afram, believes that the most important thing is for Syrian Christian families who have been displaced to not be swallowed up by emigration. He points to the high number of Iraqi Christians who have emigrated as proof of the immensity of the tragedy that Middle Eastern Christians are facing if things continue as they are.

However, the expulsion of around 400 Christian families from Maaloula is the worst blow to have affected the Greek Orthodox community in Syria, whose demographic presence had not been harmed much on account of the fact that the majority of its members are centered in regions far from the battle lines, such as the coastal region of Syria, Northwest Syria, Wadi al-Nasara and from there stretching down to areas bordering Northern Lebanon, which are mixed Alawite-Christian areas where the regime has maintained control. With the exception of Orthodox neighborhoods in Homs, they have not been displaced. However, dimensions of the Maaloula catastrophe go beyond the displacement and mass expulsion of Christians, to what Maaloula represents as an icon and symbol for Christians throughout the world. Afram repeats that Syrian Christians are "orphans, in the figurative sense of the word. The state does not help them because they do not reside in one place as a group. They receive no support from the Gulf or from Europe because of their religious affiliation."

As for Fr Faddoul, he believes that "the most important thing is to provide them with assistance and to keep it from being a matter of bidding and keeping personal accounts and selfish preference for this party or that. The tragedy is very great and the Lebanese know the meaning of displacement and wars."