Letter of His Beatitude
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
For the Feast of the Nativity 2013
my brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod
and all the faithful clergy and laity
of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
Rejoice, Mary, who hast shown the Lord Christ, Lover of mankind!
This greeting to the Virgin Mary is a theological, existential, human, divine, excellent, unique and miraculous expression, a wonderful way of expressing the divine Incarnation and the most sublime meanings of the Feast of the Nativity that we celebrate every year! Year after year, we discover these meanings that surpass or rather raise and divinise the human.
In this regard we should like to recall the well-known theological, patristic and liturgical statement,[note Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 54:3] “God became man, so that man might become god,” as our liturgical prayers remind us. Adam wanted (or desired) to be god, but his hope was disappointed. God became man and realized the first dream of man in Paradise, when the serpent suggested to Eve and him, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
So the dream is realised through the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary who showed forth God, Lover of mankind.
Christmas is in fact both a Christological and Marian feast. In this greeting, sung during the Akathist (Ikos 9), that most beautiful hymn to Mary, we find the summary of Christmas. The Incarnation is the sign of God’s love for humanity, since the basic, universal single attribute of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, our Lord God, Saviour and Redeemer, is that God loves mankind.
We find a parallel to this Marian greeting in Saint John the Evangelist: God is charity, God is love. We read in his Gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3: 16) Jesus said as much when he said that he was the Good Shepherd and that he had come “that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10: 10)
Love is the highest meaning of Christmas
The deep meanings of Christmas appear in the farewell discourse of Jesus before his passion, death and resurrection. We may regard this discourse to the disciples as the summary of the Christian faith, Christmas and the economy of salvation.
First, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Saint John presents this gesture, saying, “Knowing that the hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end… Jesus riseth from supper… and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” (John 13 : 1, 4-5).
The foot-washing is primarily a gesture of love rather than a gesture of humility. That is why Jesus said to his disciples, “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet,” (John 13: 14) I remember that I wrote in my diary, immediately after my patriarchal election, 29 November 2000, that I wanted to begin my patriarchate by washing the feet of my brother bishops, but those I consulted advised me against it.
After the foot-washing and Judas’ exit from the room, Jesus formulated his last or rather New Testament to his disciples, which sums up his own incarnation, birth and teachings: “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13 : 34-35)
Jesus shows his love to his disciples by reassuring them, “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John 14: 2-3) The disciples of Jesus became his children, which is why he speaks to them like a father, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” (John 14: 18) He again confirms and repeats it, declaring his love for his disciples: “He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” (John 14: 21)
In his farewell discourse, Jesus reassures his disciples by affirming once more his love for them: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14: 23)
In chapter 15 of Saint John, we again find expressions of Jesus’ love for his disciples, when he reaffirms his unity with them and the importance of their unity with him, through the parable of the vine and its branches. “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. ” (John 15: 9-10) Again, he reminds them of his testament, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15: 12-14) Similarly, “Henceforth I call you not servants, but I have called you friends.” (John 15: 15) Again, “These things I command you, that ye love one another.” (John 15: 17)
So Jesus continues his remarkable last discourse to his disciples in a brotherly and fatherly manner at the same time, like a friend, brother, loving father. He declares the Father’s love for them, “And I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loveth you, because you have loved me.” (John 16: 26-27) So many statements of the love of God who loves mankind!
At the end of his discourse, the philanthropic words of Jesus turn into a final, fervent prayer, in which he pours out his soul to his disciples in very tender, loving, touching emotions, as he is fearful for them on account of persecutions and suffering in the world. It concludes with this request to the Father, confirming his love for them, “I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 26)
Pastoral care in the Church is love
The Gospel of Saint John the Beloved, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is the Gospel of love and ends with Jesus the Lover of Mankind asking Peter to state his love for him, before entrusting to him the mission of feeding his flock: the care of the Church. That is the test that Peter has to undergo as the prelude to being entrusted with the pastoral staff, “So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?’ – ‘Yea, Lord,’ he replied, ‘thou knowest that I love thee.’ He saith unto him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He saith to him again the second time, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?’ – He saith unto him, ‘Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.’ He saith unto him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ He saith to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?’ Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, ‘Lovest thou me?’ And he said unto him, ‘Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee.’ Jesus saith unto him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” (John 21: 15-17)
So it can be clearly seen that Christianity is founded first and last on the love of God who loves mankind. The Church is founded on love of mankind, love of neighbour, love of all people, for they are all children of God and human offspring. Pastoral care, service and all aspects of the Church’s ministry are based on love, since the divine incarnation, Christmas, is the love of Jesus, the God who loves mankind.
God’s love in the Epistles of Saints John and Paul
Evangelist Saint John the Beloved explained in his three Epistles the centrality of love, which is the meaning of the divine incarnation, the attributes, names and essence of God, by saying, “God is love.” (1 John 4: 8 and 16)
The First Epistle of Saint John may be considered as an explanation of the teaching of Jesus, Lord and Lover of mankind. It is completely filled with love and its expressions, conditions, importance and centrality. It is the new commandment, as in the teaching of Jesus.
Saint John ventures to write, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen.” (1 John 4: 20) The word “love” and the verb “to love” are repeated fifty times in this Epistle.
That is the theology of Christianity and the Church, as we find in a hymn from the Feast of the Dormition of Saint John the Theologian (26 September): “O wonder surpassing our understanding, matter of concern for scholars: he who was full of love was also filled with theology, since with fame, honour and renown he has become the foundation of our pure faith.” (Great Vespers)
I shall not talk here in detail about Saint Paul’s teaching on love. In his Epistles, the word “love” and the verb “to love” recur almost seventy times. We are all, as men and women, filled with spiritual joy when we read the hymn to love, (charity), at the end of which we find, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Corinthians 13: 13)
I discussed in depth the theme of love-charity in my Paschal Letter 2006, entitled, “Charity is Resurrection.”
Today, meditating on the mystery of Christmas, Jesus’ incarnation, life, teachings, parables and miracles, I discover once more that Christianity can be summed up as love, that divine and human attribute: God, Lover of mankind, Philanthropos, loves humans.
The appearance of God is the appearance of the love of God who loves mankind. The appearance of Jesus, in his Nativity, is the appearance of the love of God who loves mankind.
“The grace of God hath appeared”
This verse from the Epistle of Saint Paul to Titus (Titus 2: 11) is relevant to the great feast that we celebrate on 6 January, which is called Theophany (Divine Appearing, manifestation) of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. This feast is called, in popular speech, Divine Appearance, or Feast of the Baptism. It was formerly the Nativity Feast in the Eastern Church of the first centuries (and is still today in the Armenian Orthodox Church). That was the Jesus’ Appearance in the world, first through the Nativity, then the Adoration of the Magi, then the Baptism in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist, with the Theophany (manifestation), during the Baptism, of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as the troparion of the feast proclaims, “When thou, O Lord, wast baptised in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” We also sing, “On this day of Theophany, the universe saw thy glory, O Lord, because thou wast manifest and shone thy light upon us. Thou didst come and reveal thyself, O inaccessible Light.”
That is clearly expressed in the troparia of Vespers of the Feast: “O thou who didst create the world, thou didst appear in the world to enlighten those who were sitting in darkness. O Lord, Lover of mankind, glory to thee!” And: “Thou didst deign to show thyself, in the vastness of thy love, to sinners and publicans. For whom then should thy light shine, if not for those who are in darkness? O God our Saviour, glory to thee!”
Christians exchange good wishes for the feast, saying, “Christ appeared in the Jordan.” It is also symbolised in house-blessings on the feast-day: “Christ has appeared: through his appearance he has sanctified the universe.”
Are we aware of the meaning of Christ’s appearance in our life, and of the great challenge which is imposed on us in our conduct, behaviour and responsibility to the world and society? Our liturgical chants invite us to that: “God renews his creation when in being born
for us, his creatures, he revealed himself.” (Ikos 13 of the Akathist)
Saint Paul tells us (Colossians 3: 4-5 and 9-10): “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon earth: fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry… Ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.”
In his Epistle to Titus, he also says, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world.” (Titus 2: 11-12)
And again, “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared … he saved us.” (Titus 3: 4-5)
So God appears to humans to divinise them, raise them and make them shine. On the other hand, man-Adam hides in Paradise from the face of God. “And the Lord God called unto Adam and said unto him, ‘Where art thou?’ And he said, ‘I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’” (Genesis 3: 9-10)
Nudity is privation of grace, privation of the presence of God, Lover of mankind, in the life of human beings. Man distances himself from God, does without God, makes himself independent of God, turns on his own axis, shrivels up into his modern ICT, becomes a world independent of God and his neighbour…
How impressed we are when we see a great person, a superior, king, pope or president of the republic, deigning to mix with people, dressing simply rather than as befits his dignity or responsibility… We are glad and take it as a sign of special love.
Well, that great King is Jesus Christ, Lover of Mankind, born in the cave in Bethlehem, but who is still God before the ages, God the Lover of Mankind, Philanthropos…
The incarnation is God’s approach to man. Christmas is God, Lover of mankind, drawing close to people, though man tries to distance himself from God, not wanting God to intervene in his life, behaviour and destiny.
The Feast of the Nativity comes round each year to make us recall that great event: the appearance of God, Friend of mankind, who loves his creatures, human beings.
The series of feasts and readings from Old and New Testaments are all a prelude to the Christmas Feast. The events of the incarnation follow one another up to February 2. January 6 is the Feast of Theophany, feast of the beginning of the public life of Jesus. The whole life of Christ shows God’s love for mankind: his teachings, parables and miracles are all signs of his love for people.
It should be noted that the title most often ascribed to Christ in liturgical texts of the Byzantine Greek rite is “Lover of mankind.”
Christians show Christ
Jesus’ appearance is important, but today, your appearance as a Christian and your whole human and Christian identity show Jesus.
Your appearance as a Christian in your Christian life, society, politics, work, relations with each man or woman, in the absolute, without any discrimination according to religion, ethnicity, gender, ought to be an appearance of God, Lover of mankind.
Hence we can understand the importance of involvement in social affairs, particularly those relating to the poor, disadvantaged and marginalised. This is an important role from the Christian and human perspective.
Gandhi said, “I love your Christ, but I hate your Christianity.” For his part, Saint Paul wrote, “For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.” (Romans 2: 24; cf. Ezekiel 36: 20-22)
I once received a text message praising the kiss of peace between bishops and patriarch at the end of the work of the Holy Synod, “I liked your rite, your Liturgy and your Church because that act beautifully demonstrated your mutual love.”
The appearance of God, Lover of mankind, is realised, from the Christian perspective, in Church history, saints’ lives, holy icons, the beauty of churches, love for the poor and the beauty of Gospel teachings – all of which can be seen as the manifold appearances of Christ, Lover of mankind.
Today, a creeping secularism wishes to see faith confined inside homes and within church walls, without any presence or influence in society. Such secularism should be resolutely rejected as contrary to the teaching of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who told us, “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick: and it giveth light to all that are in the house.” (Matthew 5: 15) He also tells us: “Let your light so shine before men…” (Matthew 5 : 16)
The title of the Encyclical Letter from Pope Francis, which continues in the same direction as the thought of Benedict XVI, is The Light of Faith. Yet the appearance of Jesus is today threatened by secularism, which has become the current religion.
Saint Paul tells us: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.” (Romans 8: 19)
This creature is our Arab world. Jesus appears and is transfigured in this world through us, our presence, life, behaviour and Christian manners, our feasts, traditions and places of pilgrimage.
The appearance of God as Love means the appearance of God, Lover of mankind, and our love for one another
How do Christ’s disciples show God, Lover of mankind? They make him appear through love. Hence Jesus’ saying, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13: 35) There are very many other verses that speak of the relationship through love between Jesus’ appearance and that of Jesus’ disciples.
Hence Tertullian’s words about the first Christians and the sign that distinguished them from others, or rather, that made them appear to others, “See how they love one another.”[note Tertullian Apologeticum 39:7]
When Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the Jews who had come to console his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were astonished and said, “Behold how he loved him!” (John 11: 36)
So the children of God Love appear through love. Jesus made love into their charter for life, conduct in society, commitment to social causes, service, devotion, zeal, generosity and membership.
The serving Church appears through love, charitable works and welfare projects.
This was the case with the first Christian community. Everything was held in common among them. They were all of one heart and mind. That was the ostensible theme of the Synod for the Middle East: Communion and Witness. It was good that the texts relating to the life of the early Church became the starting point of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation that followed.
Today, we need to understand the Church’s role and that of the Church’s children in the light of this human and divine theological vision.
That is how the Church has appeared in our Arab world: it has appeared through its love, service, institutions and projects.
The appearance of Christ and Christians in the Arab world
This world is our predominantly Muslim Arab world. It needs the appearance of Christ through us. Thus we read in the Qur’an, “You are [standing] on nothing until you uphold the Torah, the Gospel, and what has been revealed to you from your Lord.” (Surat Al-Mā’idah 5: 68)
This Muslim Arab world needs us. Let us not deprive our world of our existence, presence and witness, through failing to behave like Christians (who show Christ and give evidence of the beauty of the teachings of Jesus’ Gospel) or through our absence, lack of influence, diminishing numbers and emigration.
Around Nablus, in Palestine, there were once 53 Christian villages. At present, there remain only churches and cemeteries, but no more Christians, just empty houses and fields…
The Christian presence in our region is the real manifestation of Christ God, Lover of mankind. It is a rightful presence and duty, mission, role and service.
I don’t wish to be proud because I am from a people that doesn’t give itself airs. I don’t want to be more Arab than the Arabs. But I dare say that without us Christians there can be no Arabness. A big Muslim businessman (who shall be nameless) asserted, in a public meeting, that the Muslim Arab world needs the Christian presence to be Arab and Muslim, and for living together, democracy, social justice, openness to be realised…
I should like to mention here a text from the great Egyptian writer Muhammad Hassanein Heikal who, in 2002, speaking of the demographic and sociological changes in the Arab world, wrote:
“I have something to say about Eastern Christians: Christian emigration is noticed. We cannot turn our attention away from this phenomenon and neglect its reasons or causes, even if these reasons are psychological, and more to do with the prevailing atmosphere, than with reality. I think that the whole Arab scene will be different, from the human and civilizational perspective; it will surely be poorer, less rich, if this Christian emigration were to be ignored or neglected and become the subject of fears, however unjustified. What a loss if Eastern Christians feel, reasonably or unreasonably, that there is no future for them and their children in this East! Islam will remain alone and solitary in this East, where nothing assuages its loneliness except the Jewish presence, namely Israel.”
The correctness of this text was demonstrated by the conference which took place from 3-4 September 2013 in Amman on the initiative of H.M. King Abdullah II ibn Al-Hussein of Jordan, and which was chaired by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, on the topic of “The challenges facing Arab Christians.” Patriarchs and other Christian leaders presented reports on these challenges. It is up to us Christians to free ourselves from these challenges, in fellowship with Muslims. In that regard I made comprehensive survey, of which some extracts follow:
The challenges facing Arab Christians
- “The challenge for Christians is being citizens in the full sense of the word.
- The challenge for Christians is to believe in freedom, without restrictions imposed by their Muslim brothers on their worship and faith.
- The challenge for Christians is to secure the opportunity for study, work and employment and make a living alongside their Muslim brethren.
- The challenge for Christians is not to feel that they are second-class citizens because they are not Muslims.
- The challenge for Christians is that they would like to hear verses from the Holy Bible mentioned on the media with the same respect and appreciation as verses from the Qur’an.
- The challenge for Christians is to see the education curriculum at all levels reflect a spirit of religious freedom, equality and acceptance of others and respect for religion and belief; and to ensure that religious education is for all students without any discrimination, each according to his religion and belief.
- The challenge for Christians is to discover their role in Arab society, and feel they are partners in their homeland in all aspects of the partnership.
- The challenge for Christians is to work together in collaboration with Muslims for the development of their communities in genuine co-existence as true custodians of the above-mentioned values.
- The challenge for Christians to Muslims is to feel that their Muslim brethren’s security guarantees their own security and stability.
- The challenge for Christians comes from the division of the Arab world, which is the cause of tensions in our society between Christians and Muslims. Given a united Muslim Arab world, I would guarantee you that all my Christian spiritual children would go on living here and would not emigrate.
- The challenge for Christians is one of feeling excluded, marginalized …which stems from an experience of being shut in, withdrawn, not involved in political parties and not participating in political life … Give Christians a role, an opportunity, a position, share, employment … I would guarantee that we could solve the majority of the problems and challenges that Christians face.
- The challenge for Christians is to succeed in making Muslims feel that they are their partners at home and in all walks of life.
- The challenge for Christians is to participate in the renaissance of the Arab and Islamic nation. In particular that they have a tremendous potential to be partners for their Muslim brothers and sisters in the development of their community, country, home town or village and district. Christians have the potential of being a factor for cohesion, and neighbours and partners for their Muslim brethren in their homeland. Their fellow-citizens can benefit from these energies, which are available in our Christian schools, and our charitable, social, medical, cultural, educational, artistic and technical services, which are open to all, and benefit numerically more Muslims than Christians.
- The challenge for Christians today in the Arab world is to feel that the Arab and Muslim world needs them, values their presence, activities and services …
- The challenge for Christians today in the Arab world is to feel that the Church in the predominantly Muslim Middle East is the Church of the Arabs and Church of Islam; that it is a Church with the Arab world and for the Arab world, for its prosperity, progress and working to highlight the image of Islam through the reality of life at home and abroad.
- The Christian challenge is to feel that security for Christians depends on that of their Muslim brethren. Muslims must also feel that their own security is bound up with that of their Christian brethren. This has been a theme in all my talks, conferences and forums and in my congratulations for Eid al-Fitr for 2013 CE.
- The challenge for Christians in the Arab world, and the so-called Arab Spring, is for them to have a role in the evolution of the situation in the Arab world, and in resolving the crisis in every Arab country. It is not permissible to marginalize or exclude them, or forget or trample on their rights and identity. Christians are an integral part of the Arab world and its crises, problems and challenges, just as they are also part of the solution and building a better future for the rising generations. …
- One of the major challenges confronting the Arab Christian community is a divided, predominantly Muslim Arab world. Most dangerous is the split in the Islamic world and the growth of fundamentalist Islamic movements, movements in which there is no room for the other, other thought, other opinion…
- One of the major challenges for the Arab Christian community is the integration of religion, the state and society into one, paving the way for outrages to civil liberties and to equality and freedoms of all kinds.
- Another challenge associated with the previous challenge is the concept of the nation. This can be understood in a way that eliminates the concept of a homeland for citizens in a plurality of groups of citizens, with a pluralistic fabric in a pluralistic society.
What a relief it is for me as a Christian to be talking with Muslims in the context of this dialogue about the challenges confronting the Christian faith.”
A shared responsibility
How to cope with these very varied challenges and respond to them is a joint Muslim-Christian responsibility.
But Christians are afraid of the galloping progress and expansion of extremist and fundamentalist movements and groups (Takfiriat), and Muslims are afraid of these same movements. All of us Christians and Muslims will be victims of this fear. That is what we Christians and Muslims have all come to know over these last two years in Syria, Egypt and Iraq.
If I, as an Arab Christian, whose (Ghassanid) Arab roots predate Islam, am not considered Arab, Muslims are not Arabs either, since we are all from the same stock, whether we are Muslim or Christian. Let us not forget either that many Muslims have descended from Christian forebears, at least in Syria. As a Christian, I can warn my Muslim brethren about conspiracies against Islam, sometimes coming from other Muslims. It is in the interest of the Muslim world itself to fight extremism, fundamentalism and Takfir. Let us unite, to make a common front against fundamentalism! Failing that, Christians will continue to emigrate and Muslims or rather extremist Islam, Muslim fundamentalists and takfiris will have caused it.
The Palestinian case
Furthermore, the fact of the non-resolution of the Palestinian problem and the failure of Arabs in this respect expose Islam and Muslims to more extremism, fundamentalism and drift.
That is the biggest reason for the emigration of Christians, and of Muslims too, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of the series of crises that have continued to be unleashed on Muslim and Christian Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere, since 1948.
We have clear evidence, supported by statistics, about the waves of emigration especially of Christians, but Muslims too, after each crisis.
The fact of the non-resolution of this conflict has resulted in Arab leaders “playing games” and commercialising the Palestinian cause; instead of developing their countries, they have subjugated their nations.
I say that because I have lived the experience of Palestinians in Palestine, as Patriarchal Vicar in Jerusalem for 26 years (1974-2000), and I continue to live it and it remains one of the priorities of my service and mission as Patriarch of Jerusalem, as well as of Antioch and Alexandria.
The fact of the non-resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the case of Palestine has numbed the Arab people, the Arab world and predominantly Muslim Arab countries, and this has had negative consequences for Islam and Muslims and has constituted an obstacle to Arab countries’ progress.
It has also been the cause of division in the Arab world and the non-realisation of real Arab unity and progress in these countries. That is why there is still a fairly high percentage of illiteracy, poverty and hunger. Likewise, we deplore those regimes which do not foster real human development, especially as far as women’s rights and academic and scientific progress are concerned, etc.
We all know that it is rare for an Arab statesman to avoid being accused of having betrayed the Palestinian cause. We also know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of the exacerbation of feelings of hatred and animosity that are breaking whole generations and loading them with feelings of vengeance and enmity. This conflict is like a cancer in the body of the Arab world.
Let us not forget the tragedy of Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Arab countries. Palestinian refugees have been abandoned in their camps, which have often become prisons, ghettos, military camps, or seats of corruption, in the hands of rival extremist parties fighting among themselves.
Arab countries are primarily responsible for all that. Yet it all results from the division and fragmentation of the Arab world and the priority given to the particular interests of each country, party, nation and especially Palestinian interests.
It has all had repercussions, especially on the Christian presence.
That is why we are speaking to our Muslim brethren, saying to them: If you wish Christians to stay with you, in their homelands, their countries, with their heritage, there are two conditions: namely, resolve the Palestinian problem and work with firm resolve for the development of genuine Islamic values, far from political, Salafist and other kinds of Islam. Muslims ought to protect their Islam from all those currents that damage Islam at the Arab, Islamic and global level, and which are, furthermore, the cause of the emigration of Arab Christians, depriving the Arab world and Christian East, cradle of Christianity, of their presence, role, and admirable mission in the service of the Arab and Muslim world down the centuries, since the birth of Christianity nearly two thousand years ago.
Christians’ role in the cradle of Christianity: showing Jesus, Lover of mankind
This God, Lover of mankind invites all men and women to his love and to show his love for humans through humans. It is up to Christian men and women to bring the love of this God, Lover of mankind, to their human brothers and sisters. The disciples of Christ, those who believe in him, are called to manifest him to the world, just as his pure Mother the Virgin Mary showed God, the Lover of mankind.
Mary, young woman of Nazareth, child of Palestine, daughter of this East, showed God, Lover of mankind, on our earth, in Bethlehem, in Nazareth and Palestine, in the Arab East.
Today, who will show this God, Lover of mankind? Those Christians, who were called Christian for the first time in Antioch, then Damascus, Tyre and Sidon, in this Christian East, cradle of Christianity.
You, Christian, are the child of Mary, who showed God, Lover of mankind. Can you hide from the mission of your Mother, the sublime service of your Mother, her role and nobility, she who gave God, the Lover of mankind, to this Eastern world, and through it to the whole world?
Do you wish to or think you can hide from this Marian role which has become your role, because of your history, geography, Eastern tradition, language, saints, churches and monasteries?
Who, besides you, can fulfil this mission? If you do not buckle down to this task, no-one will be able to do it in your place.
That is the meaning of this year’s Christmas Letter, which can be summed up as follows: Mary showed God, Lover of mankind; today, who will show Christ, Lover of mankind, in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait and other countries of the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia and all the countries of this Arab homeland from which we come, we Arab Christians, the original inhabitants, prior to Islam, and with Islam for 1,434 [Islamic] years, but also with Jews and all the other inhabitants of this East, with all its various communities? Who will show Christ if not you as a Christian: you, young boy, and you, young girl, and you, Christian Member of Parliament, minister, doctor, politician, soldier, shop-keeper?
Who will ring the church bell? Who will be baptised in the village baptistery? On the heads of which couples will the wedding crowns be placed? Who will be anointed with holy chrism? Who will venerate the holy icons? Who will sing the hymns of the Nativity, the Resurrection and the feasts of the saints? At Pascha, who will sing, “Christ is risen” and reply, “Risen indeed”? Who will celebrate the feasts of Saint George, Saint Elias, Saint Thekla and Saint Barbara? Who will decorate the Christmas tree and light the lamps around the crib?
I am being both unsentimental and sentimental, but I am speaking the truth. My words are words of history, geography and logic.
My Christian brother, my Christian sister, without you, all that will vanish. Due to the crisis in Syria, more than thirty churches have been damaged or destroyed, bells no longer ring, prayers are no longer raised, there is no longer a priest, so there can be no Divine Liturgy, no children’s baptisms, no more preaching of the Word of God, no more wedding-blessing and no more crowning of young married couples, no more churching of mothers and new-borns, no more prayers for the sick, no more funerals for civilians or those fallen in battle, no more lamps lit with oil from our olive-trees, no more candles lit symbolising Jesus, the light that enlightens everyman who comes into this world! No more fragrant incense before the altar and icons, no more powerful cantors’ and choirs’ voices intoning hymns! No more joyful bell-peals heralding the Resurrection or accompanying the Palm Sunday procession, while white-clothed children clutching decorated candles are carried on the shoulders of a father or elder brother!
Without you Eastern Christians, no Muslim brother or sister will ever hear a church bell, cantor’s voice or village, monastery or convent choir. There will be no more processions, with the cross and icons of the Virgin and saints of our country, village, families, accompanied by those very popular hymns to the Virgin!
Who, apart from you and besides you, will say, “Christ is God”? Who will shout aloud, “Christ is risen”? Who will say, “Merry Christmas”? Who will sing the praises of the Virgin Mary (Akathist), celebrate the Paraclesis, say the Jesus prayer or visit the Marian sanctuaries? Who will wish Muslims, “Happy Feast” during their celebration in return for their good wishes during our feasts? Who will continue the living together of Christians, Muslims and Jews? Who will be the salt of this Arab land, the light of Christ in the East, the leaven for good in our societies?
Without you Eastern Christians, all that manifestation of Christ God, the Lover of mankind will disappear. Through you, Christ, the Lover of mankind will appear, but without you, he will not appear, and the East will forget his Gospel, teachings and miracles.
Christmas, with the Virgin Mary, was the first showing of Jesus, Lover of mankind. Christianity makes manifest Jesus, Lover of mankind. The real Christian is one who similarly manifests Christ, Lover of mankind.
We need Christians to be able to show and make manifest the Gospel’s values. We want Christians to show Christ in their life, behaviour, presence, witness, involvement, interaction in their society, political activity and service in the various sectors of life in their society.
The Church is the community of Christians who are faithful and able to show Christ, Lover of mankind. The Church’s identity is clear, pure, firm, constant and visible to everyone. The Church ought to be able to fulfil its mission and role towards everyone, without shame or fear. Our concern for the Christian presence in our region is based on these certainties and convictions.
Appeal: Stay here! Don’t emigrate!
For that reason, we exhort our faithful and call them to patience in these tribulations, especially in this tsunami of stifling, destructive, bloody and tragic crises of our Arab world, particularly in Syria, but also to different degrees in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.
We appeal to them not to emigrate, to remain staunchly in their land, village or district, despite the difficulties that we all know. We share in the suffering of our brothers and sisters. We pray for the many victims, whose number is growing every day. We are bruised by the pain and suffering of the injured in our hospitals, and of those who have handicaps. We are expending every possible effort to alleviate this poignant pain of millions of our fellow-citizens, displaced and destabilised inside and outside Syria, and to obtain the release of the kidnapped, such as the Syriac Archbishop and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo and other priests and faithful, our fellow-citizens.
Yes, we want to preserve this strong, faithful, convinced, resistant, deep, open, interactive, conversant, active, influential, calm Christian presence at all costs, to be able to bear witness and show Christian values and real Christian vision in our predominantly Muslim world, and be present with and for this world, showing forth the compassionate Christ Jesus, Lover of mankind, who took flesh, was born and entered into our world to bring to humanity the Holy Gospel, the good news of faith, hope and charity. He came down to our earth “to gather together in one the children of God, who were scattered abroad” (John 11: 52) and “to destroy the wall of division (or enmity) by bringing peace,” (Ephesians 2: 14) love, forgiveness, justice and universal brotherhood. For all are created in the image and likeness of God, “that they might have life and might have it more abundantly.” (John 10: 10)
Christians capable of arming themselves with patience and carrying out this holy mission, are the ones who will resist and not emigrate and be able to bear the sufferings, pains and calamities, and even be ready to accept martyrdom in order to bring to their world the light of Christ, which enlightens everyone coming into the world. That is what we proclaim in our Lenten Presanctified Liturgy, “The light of Christ shines upon all men and women.”
We want these Christians! They bring the proclamation of the Gospel, the announcement of goodness and peace; they show, in their life and works, Christ God, Lover of mankind. It is they who maintain the Christian presence in the East.
I should like to launch this motto: Christian presence without commitment to Christian role and mission is senseless: but Christian mission without Christian presence is impossible!
Thus it is of very great importance and vital necessity always to link Christian presence to Christians’ role and mission.
- If we emigrate, who will show forth Jesus, Lover of mankind?
- If our churches and monasteries are closed, who will show forth Jesus, Lover of mankind?
- If our welfare institutes and our social works disappear, who will show Jesus, Lover of mankind and especially of the poor?
I am firmly against emigration, which is why I never stop trying to halt or reduce it by removing the obstacles that drive people to it.
All that, I say with great love for our brethren, taking into account their troubles, sufferings, fears and the ordeal of the present time, especially due to this tragic, deadly Syrian crisis. Despite that, I tell them, “Stay!” despite my feelings and the sufferings that I share with them.
I am drawing up a paper entitled, “The tragic and bloody diary of a Patriarch.” Indeed, I live from day to day, in Syria or elsewhere, day and night, at home or travelling, on the telephone, in meetings, conferences, talks, interviews, and contacts at different levels to collect aid; I live through all that, constantly, and in full and continual availability. I l live the crisis of Syria, my country, and the suffering of all my fellow-citizens of all Churches, denominations and tendencies together, and more especially of my Christian brothers and sisters.
Despite all that, I endlessly repeat to everyone, even my relatives, who have left my birth-town of Daraya (which is one of the places where Saint Paul is supposed to have met Jesus, on the road to Damascus), “Don’t emigrate, have patience, be strong, follow the example of your fellow-citizens and Muslim brethren! Listen to Jesus’ voice, not mine! Jesus tells us, ‘Fear not!’”
I am not forcing anyone to stay. I have contacted no consulate (contrary to what is said here and there) to prevent the granting of a visa to this or that country, but I preach, speak and advise, saying, “Stay here!” I’ve been applauded, but also criticised, for this stance.
I shall not change tack, because I want to stay here, to show Christ, Lover of mankind, today and tomorrow and I want you to stay too. You and I together want to stay here to show the Lord Jesus, Lover of mankind, now and in the future. We wish to stay to work together for a multicultural, open, free, decent and democratic society, of which we shall be the best builders.
Here is my three-point idea:
- We Christians and Muslims should remain together to build together the new Syria and new Arab world.
- We Christians and Muslims can remain together to build together the new Syria and the new Arab world.
- We Christians and Muslims want to remain together to build together the new Syria and the new Arab world.
That is my conviction which gives a meaning to my presence as a Christian pastor, Patriarch and Arab Christian citizen.
Rachel weeping for her children
Many tears accompanied the birth of Jesus, when King Herod committed the massacre of children under two in Bethlehem, (the Holy Innocents), in an attempt to kill the child Jesus, the Messiah, in his cradle.
Today, many tears are flowing throughout our Arab world, sadly, especially in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Thus is fulfilled among our families and mothers the saying of Prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentations and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” (Jeremiah 31: 15; Matthew 2: 18)
I started preparing this Christmas Letter last July. However, I added this passage following on from the spiralling violence, day after day, which reached its peak on 21 August last, one of the bloodiest, saddest, blackest days, when a hellish fight took place in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in which over 1,400 persons were killed. Furthermore, between 15 and 30 August, some 130 shells fell in various places in Damascus, especially in the Old City, between Bab Touma (Saint Thomas’ Gate) and Bab Sharqi (the Eastern Gate). In that district, where is the well-known historic Roman Street mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, the Via Recta, there are about a hundred Christian places or sites: Patriarchates, churches, monasteries, schools, orphanages, social and welfare institutes, Saint Vincent of Paul conference centres, old people’s homes and homes for the handicapped, pastoral centres for young people, confraternity headquarters, etc.
My soul was profoundly sad. I wept on that day over the tragic fate of my country and repeated this verse about Rachel’s tears.
Tragic and bloody events have taken place elsewhere in the Middle East: in Iraq, constantly; in Beirut, especially its southern suburbs, and in Tripoli and Sidon; in Egypt, where blood has flowed in torrents and nearly one hundred churches have been destroyed, set ablaze or looted; and likewise mosques, private and public social institutes, schools, shopping centres, homes…
These tragic events have had serious repercussions on very many of our eparchies and parishes, mainly for churches and schools, in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. In Syria, some churches have been set on fire, destroyed or damaged. I should mention especially Ma’alula, an historically important place of Christian Syria, but also Homs, Raqqa, Hassakeh, Yabrud, Christian Valley, and other regions of the country. Syria has never experienced such a tragedy!
Today, we are all like Rachel, who wept in mourning. As once, two thousand years ago, children have been massacred, the victims of war and conflicts. Other children are displaced, wandering with or without their parents. One statistic gave the figure of two million traumatised children, affected by psychological illnesses.
Yes, Rachel does not stop weeping for her children. Mother Syria weeps for her children. Every family weeps for its children, its victims, those who have been kidnapped, disappeared, wounded, handicapped. The victims are children of Syria, its men, young people, women, old people, priests, bishops…
I dedicate this Christmas Letter to suffering, bloodied, sad, patient, struggling, faithful, hopeful, noble, honest, great Mother Syria, trusting in the mercy and Providence of God. I have meditated on it, drafted and written it in tears, prayer, hope, trust and abandonment to God’s will. I pray for the return of love, hope, security, calm, peace, solidarity and mutual mercy, in all regions of Syria and all our dear Arab countries.
Christmas Good Wishes
I am writing this letter with a heavy heart, and tearful eyes. I am speaking to my brother bishops, to my sons the priests and monks, to my daughters the nuns, to deacons and all the faithful of our Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal Church in the Arab world and countries of the expansion, our dear friends and generous benefactors.
This Christmas Letter is the third since the beginning of the crisis and the war in Syria.
On Great and Holy Friday this year I wrote a letter to the Holy Father, Francis, about the Cross. I told him that we had been carrying the cross for two and a half years and that we needed his help in bearing this cross with us.
And that is what happened! From that time onwards, the Pope has ceaselessly repeated appeals for “beloved” Syria. When the crisis reached its peak, on 8 August last, the Pope launched his wonderful appeal in support of Syria, “No strike on Syria!” with his appeal for fasting and prayer in Syria and throughout the world.
The whole world rallied to the Pope.
But the town of Ma’alula fell during the same period, Ma’alula, which has represented the heritage, tradition and Christian presence for nearly two thousand years. Syria came into the consciousness of the world through three ways:
- The threat of an attack on Syria;
- The fall of Ma’alula;
- The call to fasting and prayer from beloved Pope Francis.
The miracle happened. The scene changed. The storm fell quiet. Then I remembered the storm that fell on the Lake of Tiberias. Jesus intervened and calmed the tempest. (Matthew 8 : 23-27; Mark 4 : 35-41; Luke 8: 22-25). Pope Francis intervened and calmed the storm. All Churches and the whole world unanimously joined in the Pope’s appeal on the way of peace, for the building of a better world.
On 18 September last I was invited by the World Council of Churches to a meeting in Geneva about the situation in Syria. In my speech, I emphasised the following points:
- No to weapons! No to violence! No to war!
- Yes to peace, reconciliation and dialogue.
- Call to go to Geneva 2.
- Work to continue Muslim-Christian living together in the Middle East.
That is the promising future, the true vision that enables the flame of hope not to be extinguished in our hearts, in Syria, the Middle East and the whole world, as Pope Francis wished.
It is to that that I am calling you. And as Pope Francis showed solidarity with us in bearing Syria’s cross, I call upon all of you to bear this cross with us, to help us reach the Resurrection dawn. Thanks to all those who have been alongside us to alleviate the suffering around us.
To everyone, I wish a holy Christmas Feast and a New Year of peace, security, stability and prosperity.
Happy New Year!
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem