By Bilal Slaytin – September 2015 – notes on Arab Orthodoxy – Patriarchate of Antioch
The Bishop of Britain to as-Safir: The Christians of the Middle East will not Melt Away
In calm and confident language, the Bishop of Ireland and the British Isles Silouan Oner responds to as-Safir‘s questions in his first interview with the press following his consecration. He does not hesitate to say what he wants and he does not like secrecy or shying away from reality in his responses about issues that are sensitive for Christians, especially those that preoccupy public opinion, chief of which is the issue of Christian emigration from the Middle East.
The first bishop of the Diocese of Britain, newly created by a patriarchal decision, does not deny that the emigration of Christians from the Middle East played a fundamental role in Britain becoming independent from the Diocese of Europe. The number of parishes there has grown “and we must as a church do good by them, follow up on them, and be attentive to their spiritual needs,” says Oner. The new situation and the geographic breadth of the Diocese of Europe means that there are two new dioceses, Germany and Britain, alongside the Diocese of France, while Sweden remains a vicarate dependent on the Patriarchate in Damascus.
The decrease in the number of Christians in the Middle East saddens Oner, but he does not fear for their existence. He says, “They are decreasing but they will not melt away from the Middle East,” affirming that “they remain and remain and remain.” He then looks at the walls of the bishopric in Lattakia, which is 1400 years old and adds, “Christians will not disappear from the Middle East. Nothing overcomes the Church. She remains forever. Christianity is like the leaven that leavens the place. Christ is present and He will not allow the Christians to melt away.” The former vicar of the bishop in Lattakia responds to questions about the role of clergy in reducing emigration by saying that their hands are tied in the face of this thorny issue and they are incapable of preventing it. If they tell a person not to go, he might come back a few days later and blame them for the killing of his child in the war and if they tell him to go, then they are helping to reduce the number of Christians in the Middle East. Therefore they keep silent in response to the question of emigration, even as they hope that all will remain and no one will live.
Many in the Middle East see Bishop Oner as possessing an open mind, which will help him in his new responsibilities. He is going from a sentimental Christian community to a rationalist, materialist Christian community and this is the great gamble that awaits him from the moment of his arrival. He also sees the West as thinking in a different manner than the Middle East, recalling the events that happened centuries ago when the Eastern Church split from the Western Church, explaining that, “the West, in its mentality, was the cause of the schism.”
In Oner’s view, the Christian mentality in the Middle East is different from that in the West. At the same time, however, he believes that the Orthodox community to which he belongs exists in every corner of the world with one mindset and one creed and so he is going to pastor Orthodox of the same mindset. If they have westernized a little from the proper Orthodox mindset in his estimation, he will work to return them to authenticity. He puts an emphasis on the phrase “if they have westernized” as a large proportion of his diocese’s flock are Orthodox from a British background who joined the Antiochian Church during the time of the late Patriarch Hazim.
During the conversation, Oner stresses that “atheism is is the result of the Western mindset which relies only on the mind and excludes the heart, including that which has spread to a certain degree in the Middle East, where the Western mindset has started to invade the younger generations because of emigration and contact.” Taking pride in his Easternness, he adds, “Our problem in the Middle East is a lack of trust in what we possess and the ease with which we lap up what others possess and so become influenced by them, thinking that in doing so we have become civilized, instead of us civilizing the West with the Eastern mindset. Westerners do not feel God’s presence in their hearts and Easterners arrive at atheism when they estrange God from their hearts.”
However, the bishop who is heading to Europe goes back and says that the Church is one throughout the world and it cannot be limited in a place, referring to the call for the unity of the Church.
Oner dismisses the objection that he is creating a conflict between the mind and the heart in the human person, using himself as an example, as he holds a doctorate in engineering. He says, “Here I relied on the mind, but in my relationship with God, I combined mind and heart and I placed God in my heart,” adding that he “will carry with himself to Britain the love of God, the warmth of a relationship with Him, the mindset of the Antiochian fathers, chief among them John of Damascus, and he will convey the pain and suffering of the Middle East in order to be a witness to all those who are suffering.”
Throughout the conversation, Bishop Oner, who is proud of his Syrianness, speaks classical Arabic, but suddenly he switches to a spontaneous, colloquial Arabic when the conversation turns to Syria. He says, “I have great faith in her… Love will be victorious there.” He explains that he is departing Syria but that she will continue to live in him. He finds in his new responsibilities an opportunity to communicate with the West and to tell them that they erred in forming their opinions about Syria. He then expresses doubt that they will listen or that they will want to listen, particularly the politicians.
Oner continues to speak with emotion, saying, “I will speak of the suffering that the Middle East is experiencing, part of which could be stopped by a position or decision on the part of the West. I will give them an inside picture of what is happening in my country and I will not cease to speak about it. I will explain to them precisely that if they desire the good of Syria and of the Christians, then they must work to secure for them ways to remain and not help them to emigrate.”
The operator of the Orthodox website al-Manara, a clergyman steeped in Middle Eastern thought and known for tendency to make eye contact and touch when speaking, closes by saying, “we must not shy away from the generations that have become closely tied to technology,” and calls for investing in what he metaphorically refers to as a Pentecost in transmitting the word of the Gospel to the entire world. Working with technology is not a mistake. Rather, the mistake lies in avoiding it because that leads to avoiding the generations that are the extension of the Church.