We stand at the crossroads of history in the Middle East as well as elsewhere in the global village of the 21st century.
One issue that stands out is the future of Christianity in the Middle East, the place of our ancestral roots.
There is an assault on many fronts in Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, Beirut and every Apostolic center from Alexandria to Istanbul (Formerly Constantinople), where Christianity has been relegated to a minority status.
Christians are facing extinction in these ancient cities by the official policies of government and other external forces. The mass exodus of Christians selling their property and leaving behind their homes is a dangerous omen for the future of Christians in that region.
The percentage of Christians in Jerusalem is diminishing daily. I was upset when His Holiness visited the Holy City and celebrated mass in the Church of the Resurrection (Sepulcher) in Latin with some Arabic thrown in by a priest of 90 years of age and barely audible.
There should have been an Orthodox Liturgy in this, their own Church and in Arabic to reflect the indigenous character of Christianity.
The West looks at Jerusalem as a city of bones and relics. There is a gap between Apostolic Christianity and the Now. We have become an archeological Disneyland in the city of our Lord’s death and Resurrection.
Israel refuses recognition of the Patriarch, destroys ancient Churches and monasteries and convents and the Western Church remains silent.
When His Holiness visited Jerusalem what prevented him from gathering together the leaders of all the Churches in the Holy City and make a proclamation for unity? And a common plea for the preservation of Christianity on the soil from which it sprang!
On another note:
Western Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists plague Eastern Christians. Both extremists bode negative omens for Christians in that region.
One persists in dividing the Christians of the land and often are tools for Zionist propaganda regarding the restoration of Israel and the Second Coming.
The others are squeezing the breath from the lungs of their co-religionists. And the way is to mix politics and faith; the state and Islam: As a reaction to the lopsided Middle East policies of the United States.
Christians have no identifiable country except the Kingdom of God.
Which takes me to my next point. Educated Christians are being seduced by the secularism of the West and are adopting their relativistic values. Morality is at its lowest point in the major cities. There is a crisis of faith.
Christianity in its evolution in the near East is increasingly marginalized being used for political identification, rituals and divorce. e.g. the role of the tay-fee.
What did the West do for us in the Middle East? I dare say, they imported Western culture and subtle imperialistic impulses to Eastern Christians. The divisions created since the Crusades and onward have resulted in the fragmentation of the Lebanon and elsewhere. Divide and conquer those barbarians was their slogan and unfortunately many of us fell under the spell of “the white boy”.
Its little wonder Pope John Paul II apologized several weeks ago to the Ecumenical Patriarch for the injustices inflicted on the Orthodox Church during the Crusades.
Which takes me to my next point. We are children of Antioch! The Late Elias IV stated to us years ago “you are Antioch and Antioch is you”.
All of us emanate from the spring of Antioch. This is the source of our spirituality and life.
If Christianity is to survive from being either a relic or a remnant, there must be unity. We were divided from the outside and by outsiders who had an agenda.
It was said long ago that Christian unity would begin in Antioch between the Orthodox and Melkites.
Many years ago Metropolitan Antony Bashir was approached by legates from John XXIII during Vatican II with a proposal. They told him: your Eminence; it is little things that divide us, why don’t you join us? He replied, if there are only little things that divide us, then why don’t you join us, the Ancient Church of Antioch.
Many before me during idealistic days of ecumenism proffered that Christian unity would begin in the East, the Mother Church of Western Christianity.
I believe that the first step towards reunification beginning with the Eastern Churches should be a common date for Easter. And a reassessment of the issue of authority. Rome or the East…
I believe there must be an ongoing Non-combatant and loving dialogue between all the hierarchs and laity of the Orthodox Church, the Melkites, the Maronites, Syrian Orthodox and Catholics etc. All the indigenous members of the Christian family need to be in constant and joyful communication on religious and educational and social and even economic issues and furthermore, the future destiny of their country. The prophetic voice, such as Metropolitan Elias Audi of Beirut needs a camaraderie of others to join in a common witness for the future in that land. (If Lebanon did not exist-it would have had to be created-where Christians and Muslims co-exist in peace.)
It is time that we no longer compete with each other over educational and social programs and begin having a coordinated approach to poverty, orphans and schooling, for example. This should and must be changed. We are one, with different rites; we need to break the chains of indifference with our love.
Also, Christians must lovingly dialogue with moderates in the Islamic camps to raise awareness that each needs the other in humanizing the way of life in this region. Each has gifts to give the other.
Metropolitan PHILIP Saliba has shown the way with what he has done with Christian Muslim Religious Leaders in America. Several weeks ago I met with Sheikh Nabil Abbas and we shared so much together on the fact we need one another: Faith is inclusive not exclusive.
There are some questions that go unanswered:
Does the West know that the most ancient Syriac libraries and monasteries and Churches are in Iraq?
Has any Western Christian raised their fist in protest over the desecration of these ancient shrines?
Bombs and bullets. The human factor and the spiritual lives of thousands are buried beneath the rubble of this latest folly.
Our silence is deafening. We need to overcome our complex that we are not powerful enough to speak out.
Mutual isolationism is simply not the answer nor the solution!
What is called for is bold and courageous men and women who are willing to build a sane society where each one coexists in harmony. We stand at the threshold of history and the clarion call for a new vision is beckoning us.
It seems to me that the first step in our own community begins with a humble approach to one another and the various ecclesial leaders. The laity play and can play an important role in bringing the Churches together. Humility is the touchstone of all progress towards healing the historic rifts that have held us hostage for years.
Dag Hammerskold, former UN chief once said; “The road to Holiness necessarily passes through the word of action”.
Let us act before it’s too late.