Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate – 26/10/17
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 opening assembly of the “Christianity in the Middle East: Challenges and the Future” Conference on October 20, 2017, in Berlin
Your Holinesses, Eminences, Graces,
Very Reverend Fathers,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We praise our Heavenly Father for having given us to opportunity to meet brothers and sisters in Christ. Who have shown their concern for God’s people who are going through difficult trials and tribulations. May His Holy name be praised for ever.
Now we wish to express our gratitude to the leadership of the Evangelical Church in Germany for organizing thus important conference on the Christmas of the Middle East. For the last few years, we have been trying to tell our story to the world, especially to our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith.
Very often, our cries were falling on deaf ears. Sometimes, we were openly accused of supporting this regime or that. No doubt Germany is a good place to discuss the plight and the future of the Christians of the Middle East. Not only because of its history of destruction and division during the Second World War, but also because of its generosity in receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees during the last few years, including some Christians who fled the war-torn zones and others who are seeking better living conditions.
While we fully understand and appreciate the kindness and generosity of the German people trying to help others, we are also aware of the importance of these refugees for the labor market of Germany and of the political dimension of this humanitarian issue used to the maximum by regional countries in the Middle East.
Germany has also helped some of our communities by directly supporting relief and development programs initiated by churches through the German NGO help which is partially funded by the Ministry of International Cooperation here in Berlin. We often proposed the German model of working directly with the local Churches to other European countries because it offers a good and efficient way of utilizing these funds to have a maximum impact on the lives of the people intended to help. Unlike huge international relief organizations, a very small percentage goes to expenses and also because Christians do not go to refugee camps where the international organizations are mainly active.
However “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4). Christians in the Middle East need more than monetary help to survive in the land of their ancestors. They need to be treated on the basis of their citizenship not religion. They can survive when they live with dignity in a society where they can practice their faith freely and be respected as human beings and full citizens and not as dhimmis who should pay jiziah tax in order to be allowed to live. Hence, we fail to understand the attempt of the western world trying to overthrow secular regimes and replace them with religious ones in our part of the world.
Our history with Islam is a complex one. We had many decades and centuries of peaceful coexistence, but we also suffered painful and horrible waves of persecution.
With the rise of Islam, the Christians in the Middle East played an important role in advancing the sciences and transmitting all sorts of knowledge by translating major books from Greek to Arabic through Syriac. In this way, Syriac Christians allowed muslims to have access to the accumulated knowledge in the West.
Christians helped organize life in the prosperous Islamic world of the middle ages, in all aspects: social, scientific, legal, medical, economic, political, etc… Christianity thus became a vital component for the culture of Middle Eastern countries, culturally interacting with Muslims, resulting in a spirit of moderation for the majority of Muslims.
Despite the fact that Christians never took sides in any ethnic or confessional conflicts among the Muslims, they ended up paying the highest price because they are peace-loving people who are commanded to love their enemies, reject violence and embrace peace at all times.
Christians became minor ties in numbers in their own historical homelands because of forceful conversions and as a result of imposition of heavy taxes on them. The great persecution of Christians in the former Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century stands out as the first act of genocide which wiped out more than 2 million Christians: Armenians, Syriacs, and Greeks. They were killed because they refused to deny Christ. Others were forced to leave their villages and become refugees. Nonetheless, all this was done within the lands of our historical homeland. In this regard, we highly appreciate the historical decision of the German Bundestag recognizing the Genocide of the Armenians and Sayfo, the Syriac Genocide.
Today, Christians in the Middle East are going through difficult times and great hardships, not unlike those faced by their grandparents a couple of generations ago. Over one hundred thousand Christians from the villages and towns of the Nineveh Plain remain refugees in the Kurdish Region of Iraq even after more than a year of liberating their villages. Many of these people have either left for the countries in the west or are on their way to do so. Ancient Churches and monasteries, schools and other church institutions have been attacked and destroyed in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. Several clergymen and thousands of believers have fallen martyrs refusing to give up their faith. Our two Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji are in captivity since April 22, 2013. We have no information about their whereabouts or conditions. We have been appealing to political and religious leaders to help release them, but so far without success.
Why is their suffering and plight not of interest to the world? They were not kidnapped as two mere individuals, but as two church leaders knowing that their abduction will cause a great fear for Christians and make them leave the country.
Islamic fanaticism used by and sometimes encouraged and funded by regional countries and international powers resulted in the migration of a great number of Christians from the Middle East. The recent killing of a Coptic Orthodox priest, the killing of priests in Mosul and Baghdad a few years ago, are nothing but messages of hatred and hostility toward Christians to force them to leave their homeland.
All these adverse elements and hostile environment did not make Christians abandon their faith or deny their Lord, for “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). They remain committed to their gospel values and the teachings of Christ and of the Church. They also wish to remain in the lands of their ancestors where they constitute the indigenous people of that part of the world.
Nevertheless, Christians who were able to stay in their homeland remain committed to live peacefully with their neighbors and compatriots, with the desire to live with dignity and without any sort of religious or ethnic discrimination. Christians can be elements of stabilization and means of reconciliation among the different sides as they have been a source of enlightenment and education throughout the history.
In order to stay in our land, we need help in the following areas:
End of wars and all kind of violence
Equal citizenship for all
Respect for religious and ethnic identity
Support for reconciliation efforts among all components
Support for efforts to rebuild our lives as individuals and communities
Effort to rebuild churches and institutions
Our future is linked to the future of our Muslim neighbors
Strong governments able to protect the interest of all components
Inter religious initiatives specially among the young people.
The International Community bears a good part of the responsibility for the conflicts and wars in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. Some countries continue to stand on the wrong side in this war. Some international and regional powers are still supporting terrorist organizations with funds and arms.
A political solution for the conflicts in the Middle East ought to be the prime concern of the International Community, which should commit itself to promoting peace through negotiation and diplomacy, for the sake of ending the violence which has already caused so much harm. This can be reached by establishing permanent peace as soon as possible, with the promotion of moderate and secular systems of governance that can provide stability and secure freedom. In addition, the International Community should work to secure the return of refugees to their homes and lands where they can live in dignity and enjoy basic human rights.
Islamic nations are causing harm to Islam itself by simply observing ISIS and all terrorist organizations, yet doing nothing. Islamic leaders, both Sunni and Shiite ought to encourage moderate Islam, and educate Muslim scholars, and issue Fatwas that condemn the attacks on Christians and ethno-religious persecution. They should also support dialogue, openness, and diversity, accepting Christians as equal citizens with same duties and rights.
At the end, we should keep in mind that violence and religion do not go together; Christians are invaluable peacemakers without whom the Middle East would certainly fall into the hands of extremism and fundamentalism. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that Christians remain in their countries. And that religious fanaticism and terrorism of all kinds is dismantled in all its forms, especially getting rid of the ideologies that are the cause and the basis for terrorism.
Terrorism knows no borders, and it has already struck in the heart of Europe. We all should unite our efforts to make sure that it is defeated for the sake of the future generations of our human race.
Last week, in Budapest, the Minister of Human Capacities Mr. Zoltan Balog reminded us of the title of a lecture we delivered there last February:
“Will there Still be Christians in the Middle East?”
Then he raised an equally important question saying: “will there still be Christians in Europe.
I will add if there no more Christians in the Middle East will there be Christians in the world?
Sermon Delivered by His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II- Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church on October 7, 2014, t the Evangelical Church in Berlin – Germany.
Your Holinesses and Beatitudes,
Your Excellencies, your Graces,
Reverend priests and pastors,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Dearly beloved in Christ,
We gather here today in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to open our hearts and listen to His message for us at these times of confusion when we desperately need His guidance.
We wish to take this opportunity to thank the Evangelical Church in Germany for inviting us, Oriental Orthodox Churches, to discuss the present situation of Christians in the Middle East and to pray together in the context of this ecumenical prayer for the suffering people of God throughout the world.
During the last 3 days, during our meetings and discussions with politicians as well as church leaders here in Berlin, we have been able to tell our story. The story of people who followed the Lord Jesus Christ starting from the day of Pentecost. It was in Antioch that the believers in Christ were called Christians during the preaching of the Holy Apostles St Peter and St. Paul.
People who lived in the land of their ancestors for two thousand years as Christians and for many more millennia as the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, Iraq, Syria and that entire area, who took many great risks and withstood many persecutions and Genocides in their faithfulness to Christ and to His Gospel.
People who are going through great difficulties nowadays, struggling to be allowed to stay in their homeland with dignity and equality, paying a high price for that. Thousands of martyrs, hundreds of destroyed churches, monasteries, schools and other church institutions. The Abduction of the two Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo Boulos Yaziji and Mar Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim since 22nd of April 2013 has resulted in the migration of tens of thousands of Christians from the city of Aleppo. We kindly invite you all to pray for their safety and to do all you can for their immediate return.
In this regard, we wish to acknowledge with gratitude the courage of the German people and parliament for recognizing the horrendous atrocities committed against Christians in the former Ottoman Empire as acts of Genocide against Armenians, Syriacs, Greeks and other minorities.
Dear Brothers and Sisters
This gathering happens as the EKD celebrates the 500 jubilee of the reformation. We take this opportunity to offer our sincere prayers and best wishes to our evangelical brothers and sisters in Germany and elsewhere in the world. May the Lord who prayed for the unity of His disciples and His Church, guide us all to fulfill His divine will that all may be one.
It is also an occasion to deeply reflect on what happened some 5 centuries ago and how it impacted the Christian Church forever.
If we pose and critically examine the outcome of the reformation, we see that it has brought forth both positive and negative consequences to the Christian Church. The reformation has no doubt challenged the entire Christian world in the last five centuries to be more attentive to the word of God.
We, Christians, need to remind ourselves to be faithful to the Gospel and to the faith “delivered once to the saints” (Jude 1: 3). We need to walk in the footsteps of the apostles who were persecuted and died in defense of their faith in the resurrected Lord. The challenge is to overcome the tempting offerings of this world. It is to forget about the mentality of power and authority, and fight for what is right and true.
On the other hand, it has caused further divisions in the body of Christ, which obviously was not the intention of the early reformist.
In our context today, we want to highlight its impact on the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Oriental Orthodox Churches were not part of the western Christianity against which the first reformers protested. However, it affected us in a great way. The work of Protestant missionaries in the Middle East during the last two centuries has weakened the churches of the region and resulted in the establishment of new churches whose membership comes almost exclusively from Apostolic Churches since it was not easy to convert Muslims who can face death if they abandon their religion.
This trend continues today with the actions of newly created born-again groups who are targeting our people not only in the East, but also here in the west. They are taking advantage of the suffering of our people in the conflict areas in the Middle East and of the vulnerability of the refugees in the west in order to take them away from their churches and re-baptize them. Unfortunately, this kind of “proselytizing” is supported by some historical Protestant churches.
It saddens us to see such a misuse of the need of our faithful. We would prefer to see a true Christian spirit of cooperation and collaboration among our churches. We would like to see us cooperating together for the common benefit of the refugees, poor and needy, in accordance to our Lord’s teachings. In this way, we would be true followers of Christ, Who leads us in His way and according to His will.
Dear brothers and sisters.
Chapter 5 of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew says:
“and seeing the multitudes, He (Jesus) went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:”
As I was reading these verses from the Gospel, I could not help but compare in mind how Jesus preached His first sermon with how politicians and – to a certain degree – we, church leaders and preachers, prepare for our sermons and speeches.
I am always amazed at the extend politicians and people running for public offices can go in their promises during their election campaigns. First, they consult public relations firms who advise them on their looks, how they should sit or stand and so on, in order to leave a good impression on their audience. They want people to know how strong and eloquent they are. Then, they employ speech writers to help them write their speeches repeating certain key words and avoiding others in order to influence our minds and make us believe what they want us to believe. When it comes to the content of their speech, there we will find them giving a long list of promises. They tell us how they can solve all our problems, social, political, financial, unemployment, … you name it. They explain their strategies and develop their policies in a way that can be acceptable to the people, sometimes not without twisting the truth. They show their approaches to the current issues and future endeavors. And, of course, they parade their family members on the stage next to them to show us how committed they are to family life. There is no doubt that all these tactics help them in their campaigns.
This is true not only in today’s politics. It was the same during Jesus’ time too when Greek Philosophers and Roman senators were delivering their discourses employing logic, philosophy and arts in order to impress their audience and get their ideas through.
When we turn back to our Lord Jesus Christ, giving His first public sermon on the mountain to His disciples and to the crowds that followed Him, we find a totally different scenario. He is sitting there, on a rock, on the mountain, alone, without any member of His earthly family. Neither His mother, the Virgin Mary, nor anyone of His brothers, whom we believe, were Joseph’s sons from a different marriage, are mentioned. His brothers had, in fact, distanced themselves from Him calling Him a fool.
In His first sermon, He cares less about the external matters and focuses on the inner issues. Yes, He also spells out His plans and strategies for His spiritual rule and heavenly kingdom. He reveals His new understanding of things, offering a totally new approach to life. According to Him, our strength and might does not lie in how powerful we are, but how poor in the spirit. Meekness and humility ought to replace our arrogance and pride. Real hunger and thirst should be for righteousness and not for food and drink for if we seek first the Kingdom God and His righteousness, all these things shall be added to us (cf. Matthew 6:33). Instead of peace and protection, He promises us trials and persecution. Even when persecuted, we have to be peacemakers, according to Him.
In this sermon, Jesus turns things upside down and challenges beliefs and convictions held by people and codified many centuries earlier.
In the context of what we witness today in terms of persecution of Christians and their suffering, we are all called to challenge ourselves and to prove that we trust Him to the end, no matter how high the waves of this world are, for He is a faithful Lord Who promised to be with us until the end.
Let me conclude by sharing a few words from the commentary of St. Ephrem the Syrian, the fourth century Father of the Church, theologian and poet, on the Book of Diatesssaron, the four gospels in one narrative, compiled by second century Syriac scholar Tatianus:
Blessed are you when they will revile and persecute you for my sake. For my sake is to be understood with regard to all the beatitudes for what advantage would it be to the one poor in spirit, unless he believes. Or, to the one who mourns, if he does not do this for the sake of our Lord. Or, for the lowly, if it is not for the sake of our Lord that he makes himself lowly. Or, to the one who hungers and thirsts for justice, if it is not for the sake of the one who commanded that he do it. Or, to the one who is pure in his heart, if it is not for the sake of the fear of God that he becomes pure. For my sake therefore extends to all the beatitudes. For no acquisition of glory can be for any advantage unless acquired for the sake of our Lord. They will see your good deeds and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
God bless us all.