Speech of His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
at the 3rd Global Gathering – Global Christian Forum
April 25, 2018, in Bogota – COLOMBIA
Following Christ together in discrimination, persecution, martyrdom:
What does this mean for the global church today?
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ.
I wish to start by greeting you all with the paschal season’s greetings:
Christ is Risen,
After giving thanks to our Heavenly Father for having brought me safely here in Colombia in order to participate in this 3rd Global gathering of the Global Christian Forum, I would like to thank the Forum Committee and its secretary Rev. Larry Miller. I am extremely happy to be with you all and I truly appreciate the opportunity I am given to share with you a few words trying to highlight two sacred issues which are really inter-connected, namely the abduction of the two Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo and the suffering of the Church in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
I am indeed very happy to be in Colombia, a country that has just recently come out of civil war. We pray for peace in Colombia and for the prosperity of the Colombian people. I also wish to express my gratitude for the witness and ministry of the churches in Colombia. Yesterday, we were given a beautiful introduction to the life of all the churches here and I wish to bring to the attention of the participants that several Jurisdictions of the Orthodox Churches are also present and active in Colombia such as the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox and our own Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. As part of our Archdiocese of Central America with headquarters in Guatemala, here in Bogota, we have 3 congregations and 9 more in different parts of Colombia. It is our hope that these Orthodox Churches will be embraced by the local faith communities and ecumenical councils in Colombia.
On Sunday afternoon, I started my journey to Bogota from Aleppo. Some of you know that last Sunday, April 22nd, marked the fifth anniversary of the abduction of the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Boulos Yazijy and the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Mor Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim. We went to Aleppo to commemorate the anniversary. In Aleppo, we prayed with the clergy and faithful of both churches. We wept with them but also shared in their hope for an immediate return of their 2 shepherds.
These two men of God presented no threat to anyone. As disciples of Christ, called by Him to tend His sheep; they were fully dedicated to their mission. Their care and compassion went beyond their immediate flock. It was extended to the community at large regardless of their religious affiliation, which earned them the love and respect of the entire society in Aleppo.
Their abduction, we believe, was a clear message targeting the Christian population of Aleppo in particular and of Syria in General. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of this heinous act of terrorism and barbarism which amounts to a crime against humanity, have succeeded in their mission. Thousands of Christians have left Aleppo following the abduction of the 2 Archbishops and hundreds of thousands have left Syria since the beginning of this global war against Syria.
The abduction of Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji had a huge impact on the Christian community in Aleppo, in Syria and even in the entire Middle East. It constituted a threat to the Christians, rooted in their homeland in the countries of the Middle East. Their kidnapping reinforced the position of the terrorists whose ‘not-so-hidden’ message to Christians was: this land is not yours, leave or you will be killed.
However, even after five years of their abduction, the Christian community in Aleppo – although greatly reduced by numbers, remains steadfast in its faith in Christ.
I wish to express, on behalf of the entire Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, our appreciation and gratitude to the leadership of GCF for remembering Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and for giving thanks to the Lord for the participation and dedication of Metropolitan Ibrahim in the work of the GCF since its creation.
He was a firm believer in the Forum and its mission. After relinquishing many of his ecumenical commitments, Mor Gregorios remained involved in only 2 ecumenical initiatives one of which is the Forum. He saw in the Forum a real possibility to bring together Christians from all traditions of the Christian faith, something which could not be achieved through the WCC or other ecumenical bodies. He, therefore, held it very dear and near to his heart. I personally learnt a lot about the Forum from Mor Gregorios. I was at the Harare General Assembly of the WCC when the Forum was adopted by the WCC. At that assembly, I was elected to both the Central and the Executive Committees of the WCC, which meant I was able to actively join the discussion concerning the GCF evolvement. However, my knowledge concerning the GCF and its work was enriched and deepened through my frequent discussions with Mor Gregorios.
Now, I invite you to watch a 3 minute video about the 2 Archbishops.
The Persecuted Church
In the gospel of St. John, we read the following words of the Lord: “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (John 15: 20). These words show the great cost of following Christ. With witnessing to the Lord both in word and in deed, comes persecution and martyrdom.
Christianity is not welcomed in the world because it puts people out of their comfort zone. It challenges their worldly philosophical convictions with the simplicity of faith “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight”. (I Corinthians 3:19). During the early era of martyrdom, the pagan world was astonished by the joy of Christians being led to their death. The non-Christian will never understand the power of the Cross.
Christians throughout the world and throughout the centuries are victims of persecution. I come from a church, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, which faced many tribulations and genocides throughout the centuries. Some 100 years ago, a massive genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire aiming at eliminating Christianity from the land of its birthplace. More than half a million Syriac speaking people were massacred in the most horrible ways, together with the Armenians, Greeks and other religious minorities. Today, we continue to suffer persecution at the hands of terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al-Nusra and others, who are targeting Christian congregations and have completely destroyed many of our churches and other institutions. Because of our history of persecution and martyrdom, whenever I think of the marks of the church being One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic I immediately add to it ‘Persecuted’. The true church that is faithful to her Lord and Savior has to be a persecuted one. This is also how I understand John 15:20, just quoted above.
For the last several decades, our area in the Middle East has witnessed horrible conflicts and wars which resulted in the exodus of a great number of Christians from Turkey, the Holy Land, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. For example, Iraq has lost more than 80% of its Christian population in the last 15 years.
For the last 7 years, Syria is going through a devastating war which destroyed most of the country, and led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of its people and the exodus of millions of them. The Christian population of Syria has decreased according to our estimation by more than 40% since the so-called Arab Spring ‘blossomed’ in our land.
I was installed, by the grace of God, the Patriarch of Antioch in May of 2014. In June of that year, I traveled to the Nineveh Plain in Iraq to visit the people of Mosul, who were forced out of their homes by ISIS. Only to go back some 2 months later to Arbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq to try to comfort this time the people of Mosul together with their hosts, the Christians of the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain, some 120 thousand Christians, mainly Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics and Chaldeans who, in one day, became refugees. I saw some of them sleeping on the bare concrete sidewalks in Ankawa, Arbil during the burning heat of August. Others were gathered in public parks and others were hosted inside churches and church facilities.
During that same year of 2014, I made a visit to the Syriac Town of Saddad, on the outskirts of the Syrian desert, to commemorate the one year anniversary of the martyrdom of 45 Syriac Christians at the hands of Al-Nusra group, an offshoot of the Qaeda which committed the 9/11 terrorist acts. Among the martyrs of Saddad were 7 members of the same family including grandparents and grandchildren who were killed and their bodies thrown into a well.
In 2015, I was about to depart to Albania for the Tirana Consultation of the Global Christian Forum, I had to cancel and go instead to the north eastern part of Syria to Al-Kamishli to try to comfort the Christians of Hassake because ISIS and other Muslim extremist groups started invading the city.
In 2016, as I was inaugurating a monument commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Syriac Genocide, Sayfo, a terrorist blew up himself some 40 meters from where we were gathered. 2 young people providing security for the event were killed.
Over the last years, the civilian population of Damascus was under constant threat because of the mortars and missiles thrown on us, especially on the Christian areas of Old Damascus, by groups classified by the super powers as “Moderate Opposition” . This threat ended just before Easter, earlier this month.
However, the vicious circle of violence seems to go on in our country. It is very clear that political and economic goals are to be achieved through military means at the expense of the innocent civilian people.
We were hopeful that the reclaiming of most of the Syrian geography by the Syrian army will give a chance for political settlement of the crisis in Syria. However, the attack carried out by the USA, UK and France has once again set our hope back. This unjust act of aggression based on unconfirmed reports of chemical attack carried out in Duma, a suburb of Damascus, is an indication of the low state of affairs our world has reached. While we condemn all kinds of violence committed by all sides, we expect the international community, especially the ‘big guys’, to respect the Charter to the UN and to abide by the international law.
In this regard, please allow me to share with you parts of the statement issued by the three patriarchs residing in Damascus – Syria on the aftermath of this attack:
“We raise our voices to affirm the following:
This brutal aggression is a clear violation of the international laws and the UN Charter, because it is an unjustified assault on a sovereign country, member of the UN.
The timing of this unjustified aggression against Syria, when the independent International Commission for Inquiry was about to start its work in Syria, undermines of the work of this commission.
This brutal aggression destroys the chances for a peaceful political solution and leads to escalation and more complications.
This unjust aggression encourages the terrorist organizations and gives them momentum to continue in their terrorism.
We call upon all churches in the countries that participated in the aggression, to fulfill their Christian duties, according to the teachings of the Gospel, and condemn this aggression and to call their governments to commit to the protection of international peace.”
While we truly appreciate the concerns and prayers of millions of Christians throughout the world, we have high expectations from our sisters and brothers in the faith. We ask you to be our voice in your communities, as the unbalanced media is suffocating our voices. We need your help in lifting the economic sanctions imposed on us unilaterally. These sanctions have a devastating impact on ordinary people not on governments.
As a member of the family of Christ which encompasses all Christians, kindly allow me to bring to your attention a very sensitive matter which is affecting us. Some of our sister Churches are making use of this painful situation in Syria and Iraq by practicing proselytism. They use food parcels and other humanitarian needs to make followers from among members of our churches which have followed Our Lord and suffered for their faith since the beginning of Christianity. I know that proselytism is not the policy nor the practice of many churches represented here; however, it is being practiced nowadays in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The suffering of our people at the hands of terrorist groups in the name of God and religion is unbearable. Of course, Muslims and Christians are suffering; however, what Christians and other minorities are subjected to is nothing less than religious and ethnic cleansing. The UN and some countries have rightly classified it as genocide. We are hoping to see justice served by bringing to accountability members of these terrorist organizations and those who support them in different ways.
This suffering of our people and many Christians throughout the world is a reminder to all of us that following Christ has led us with Him to Golgotha and eventually to the Cross. In other words, it is through the path of suffering Christians will continue to embrace the Cross of Christ because we know that our salvation and resurrection is through the Cross for Christ has given us victory over death and sin through His death on the Cross and His glorious Resurrection. We, therefore, say with St. Paul: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6: 14). We take pride in carrying the cross of Christ and witnessing to His Resurrection to the whole world.
We continue to be the “light of the world”, spreading knowledge where there is ignorance, and love where there is hatred. This is our mission; this is what we are called for.
Thank you for patience. May God bless all.