Fr. Georges Massouh: Holy War isn’t Holy

Notes on Arab Orthodoxy – November 2015

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is.” (Mark 13:32-33)

No one knows the hour when the end of times will come, when it will be. No one can prophecy about the end of times. The Gospel is clear and Christ even rules Himself out from having such knowledge. So how can a person claim that he will reveal the times and prophecy about the fall of nations, the rise of others, earthly Christian victories that we do not know from the One who says that His kingdom is not of this world?!

The occasion for these words is the rise of a certain apocalypticism among some Christians in historical Syria, especially after Russia’s entrance into the war in Syria, since some believe that this intervention is the beginning of the realization of the prophecy of Saint Paisios the Athonite and others believe that the president of Russia is the “faithful Orthodox leader” who has come to save the Christians from Islamic terrorism. 

Saint Paisios

In an article published in an-Nahar under the title “Paisios, the newest Orthodox saint… What did he prophecy about the Middle East?”, relying on the website of one of the Orthodox monasteries, it says that the most famous of Paisios’ prophecies is related to the Middle East and states that “the Russians will take Turkey and the Chinese will cross the Euphrates. Divine providence has informed me that many events will occur. The Russians will take Turkey and Turkey will be wiped off the map because a third of the Turks will become Christians, another third will die in war, and the last third will depart to Mesopotamia. The Middle East will become a theater for war in which Russia will play a great role. Much blood will be spilled. The Chinese will cross the Euphrates with an army numbering 200 million and they will advance to Jerusalem.”

The sign that these events are approaching will be “the destruction of the Mosque of Umar because its destruction will herald the beginning of the Jews’ work to rebuild the Temple of Solomon which was built in that very location. Many wars will break out between the Russians and the Europeans. Much blood will be spilled. Greece will not play a big role in this war. However, the Russians will give it Constantinople, not because they love Greece, but because they will not find a better solution. They will hand the city over to the Greek army even before it arrives there.”

Then Paisios prophecies about the Jews and says, “The Jews will increase in strength and the Europeans will help them, so arrogance will increase unimaginably. They will act with impunity and even try to rule Europe. They will try all kinds of tricks. But the resulting persecution will completely unite the Christians. This unity, however, will not be in the form desired by those who are attempting in various ways to unite the churches under a single religious leadership. The Christians will unite because the events that will be revealed will automatically divide the sheep from the goats. Then the prophecy shall be realized: ‘One sheepfold and one Shepherd.'”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized the sainthood of Paisios early this year, almost twenty years after his repose– this is an unusually short span of time by the Church’s standards. His widespread popularity among the faithful as a “prophet” and wise man was one of the most prominent factors in declaring his sainthood. The aforementioned article states that “the Monk Paisios, who lived on Mount Athos in Greece, became famous for his teachings, spiritual gifts and prophecies. Even before the declaration of his sainthood, the faithful regarded him as one of the greatest saints on Mount Athos in the 20th century. Over the years, thousands sought him out for his advice and prophecies and his fame spread beyond Greece to various parts of the world.”

The Russian intervention in Syria has awakened among some the religious feeling that Paisios’ prophecy has begun to be realized and that the president of Russia is none other than a divine instrument for returning the glory of Constantinople and returning the great city to Greek control. We have started to hear talk of a “holy war” taking place in Syria with this orientation, even though in reality it does not represent the official view of any church. In the icon of Saint George, Putin replaces the Greatmartyr and Obama or a terrorist takes the place of the dragon. We have started to see other images of the “believing president”, the “tsar”, and under his picture the troparion of the Feast of the Cross: “O Lord save thy people and bless thine inheritance. Grant victory to our faithful kings over the barbarians and by the power of thy cross preserve those who belong to it.”

It must be stated that the faithful are not bound to accept everything that the saints said during their lives. The faithful are only bound by what pertains to the faith and their salvation, that is, to their spiritual edification. Therefore, we have the right to doubt Paisius’ prophecy– not his personal sanctity and not the majority of his spiritual teachings– especially since many of his followers doubt the veracity of this prophecy attributed to him. Our support in this is that Christ Himself called for not calculating times and seasons. Everyone of every religion– whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim–and every sect or religious group– such as the Jehova’s Witnesses and the chiliasts– who has set a time has been met with failure.

Most of the patristic heritage goes so far as to say that all prophecies were realized in the coming of Christ the Lord and that prophecy continues in another form, whose standard is its veracity, as the Apostle Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith” (Romans 12:6). Something that is not in accord with the basic principles of Christian faith, then, is not a prophecy, especially that which is not in accord with the fundamental dogmas on which this faith is based, such as the Most Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection… For this reason, those who do not believe in Paisius’ prophecy remain Orthodox, since they believe in the fundamentals and the prophecy is a secondary matter! The Church, then, is not bound to accept all the sayings of the saints, whether ancient or modern, at the same level that it submits to the text of the Holy Bible. Of course, it bears repeating so that we will not be misunderstood: those things that the Church universally agrees upon, especially the Seven Ecumenical Councils, are indeed binding.

The Book of Revelation

Here we must turn to the Apocalypse of John, which some people turn to in order to affirm the truth of certain prophecies relating to the last day. Those who think that the book of the Apocalypse of John prophecies about the end of times are mistaken. Those who read it literally, as though it is a journalistic report about an event that has happened or as though they are watching a news report, are mistaken. The Apocalypse of John does not offer its readers an image of the end of the world, but rather it speaks in symbolic language about the Christians of its era who were suffering persecutions and thus about every similar era.

The concern of Revelation’s author was not to instruct his readers about the signs of the end of times, but rather to encourage them to stand firm in faith and not to apostasize before the Roman state and its rulers, who opposed the Christians, persecuted them, and subjected them to the most heinous tortures so that they would deny their faith and offer allegiance and worship to them and not to God. It is possible for us to say that Revelation is a great text in praise of bearing witness and martyrdom and lack of cowardice, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

The Book of Revelation was written at the end of the first Christian century, during the rule of the emperor Domitian, who gave himself the title “lord and god”. Worship and veneration of the emperor became the distinguishing signs of a good citizen and thus the only way once could practice certain professions or engage in commerce. Thus Christians found themselves before a bitter, uncompromising choice: either perform the obligatory worship of Caesar or reject this paganism and live accused of disobedience to the state and be prepared for martyrdom by lions’ teeth or beheading by the sword…

The Book of Revelation is a book of revolution against tyrannical authorities. Christians did not placate the emperors and oppressors, but rather faced them with firmness of faith and loyalty to the teachings of Christ the Lord and the exigencies of the Gospel. They did not practice dissimulation in order to preserve themselves, they had no exoteric and esoteric. They spoke the faith openly in the squares and streets and in the fields of martyrdom. They did not retreat from their convictions. They remained faithful to their Lord and Master to the last breath because they did not lose hope in the coming salvation.

The Book of Revelation is a revolutionary book because it did not hesitate to liken the authority in power to a beast and from likening the god-emperor to Satan. The Book of Revelation says, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666″ (Revelation 13:18) or, in some manuscripts, “616.” The Book of Revelation calls on its readers to uncover the hidden symbol behind 666 (or 616). If we calculate them according to the system where every letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numeric value, we find that 666 means “Nero Caesar”, while the number 616 according to the Greek system means “Caesar is god.”

The Book of Revelation is not a book that talks about the unseen or about times that have not yet come. It does not invite Christians to eternal life through laziness, cowardice and not taking a stand with regard to the persecutions that are happening in their world. It is not a book that calls them to fear, isolation and flight from facing reality. It is a book that calls them to the freedom that God planted in man to distinguish between the rest of creation. It calls them to defend this freedom even if the cost is exorbitant, even at the price of their lives. However, the book is also a book of hope, of hope in the Lord, not in the ruler or in authority or power. It is not right for Christians to ignore hope by taking refuge in fear and by tying their survival to the survival of a regime or a ruler. They did not seek refuge in Nero, Domitian or any of the other tyrants, but rather they took refuge in the Lord and they remained. Times of persecution did not put an end to them, nor shall they. The Book of Revelation is the book of “the new heaven and the new earth.”

Months ago, we wrote an article entitled “Gone is the Glory of Constantinople… But Christ Remains” (Lebanon Files, May 13, 2015), in which we said, “Gone is the glory of Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. Gone is the glory of Constantinople, the great capital of Orthodoxy. Gone is the glory of Cappadocia, Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Smyrna, Rusafa and Palmyra… but the glory of the Christians shall not end so long as they hold fast to faith in Jesus Christ and carry Him with them wherever they wander, wherever they are taken, wherever they settle. Jesus alone is their glory.” Now we say these same words and we pray that no one is killed in wars. Not in Syria, not in Lebanon, and not in Palestine… We pray that “a third of the Turks” will not be killed, nor of Greeks, for our glory is not in empire but in bearing true witness.

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