Saturday, April 30, 2011

Melkite Patriarch speaks out on Syrian protests.

By way of this post by The Western Confucian, here is a newly-published interview with Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, the Damascus-based leader of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church. Speaking with Bernardo Cervellera of AsiaNews, the Melkite Patriarch offers a thoughtful perspective on the current crisis in Syria and what it could mean for the country's Christians. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Your Beatitude, as a Christian how do you view the situation in Syria?

The movements and revolts that are shaking Syria worry the Churches and Christians. Not so much for the present, but for the future, for what to expect. In the past, every revolt in the Middle East was followed by a large wave of Christian emigration to Europe, America or Australia. I fear that even now the same will happen, further emptying an already dwindling Christian community.

Some Muslim scholars also are concerned about a possible depletion of Christians in Syria and are demanding [that] their presence be defended and safeguarded.

Are there problems for the Christian communities?

So far, the riots have not been of a sectarian nature, they are not a Christian-Muslim conflict. Indeed, during demonstrations in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, young Muslims have offered to protect churches, providing security cordons around the buildings to prevent criminal acts.

In solidarity with those killed in clashes in recent weeks, Christians have celebrated the rites of Holy Week and Easter in a very sober manner, no processions, music or festivities, to correctly participate in the mourning of the population.

At the same time we are trying to play the role of mediators in conflicts that have emerged in Syrian society, so that tensions do not grow until the inevitable. I have personally sent letters to 15 European countries, the United States, and the Americas asking their governments to help improve the situation without [making] any "revolution" violent.

. . .

How would you explain the West’s exaltation of the Syrian protests and its harsh accusations of violations of human rights?

There are political problems and pressures to shake up the balance of power in the Middle East: the [Syrian] alliance with Iran, Israel’s concern... In all things that happen in the Middle East, there is always a link with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, war, emigration ... we have been in this situation for over 62 years. For this I sent the letter to European and American governments and I invited them to put pressure on their governments to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian problem as a priority: only in this way will there be less migration, less terrorism, less fundamentalism, less violence.

This is my mission and it is what I also emphasized in the Synod of Bishops last October and the pope appreciated it. Peace is also important for the future of Muslim-Christian dialogue in Syria and the world. If the crisis continues to force Christians to migrate, the Arab world will become exclusively Muslim, increasing the likelihood of a cultural conflict between the Arab-Islamic world and Western-Christian world.

The presence of Christians in the Middle East saves the Arab Middle East by not reducing it to pure Islam. If Syria is helped to overcome this situation of chaos to one of stability guaranteed by dialogue with the population, the future will be better for everyone.
To read the rest, click here. As I wrote on Tuesday, my major worry about the Syrian protests is with the effect that instability (or even 'regime change') could have upon the country's Christian community, one of the largest, most secure, and most vibrant in the Middle East. Like the Patriarch, I hope and pray that the current crisis may be resolved in a way that will not endanger the future well-being of Christians in Syria but will allow them to remain in their ancient homeland. AMDG.


At 5/01/2011 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's worth being careful with reporting from the Middle East, particularly in these days when in some quarters, "Muslim" is the new "Negro." Oftentimes a story happens to be true, and so is the exact opposite.

After the Iranian revolution, Iran's Jewish community sent a delegation to the Ayatollah Khomeini with the brief to inquire if they were going to have difficulties. Khomeini pointed to the Koran, which prescribes tolerance of Jews and Christians, and promised them that they wouldn't be harmed. About half of the community left Iran for other countries nevertheless - Tehran went from being a haven for nightclubs to being a far more somber city - ; the other half stuck around, and reported that the new climate was far more conducive to contemplative living, and were grateful for it. They were less keen on the war in which the Iraqi regime had embroiled their country. But never once did they allege that they were persecuted under Khomeini, that Muslim fundamentalist theocrat par excellence. The Zoroastrians were also treated well, but the Bahai's, apostates to the Shi'a clergy, were not as lucky.

Rumors of conspiracies are as integral to the Middle East as flies are to compost heaps. That said, there is the widespread belief that the sectarian strife in Iraq was very welcome, not to say deliberately instigated, in the well-known tradition of dividing one's enemies to conquer them.


At 5/01/2011 8:36 PM, Blogger Joe said...


I take the Patriarch's comments as quite measured and cautious - he says that the protests have not taken on religious overtones, but he also expresses reasonable concern (based on past experience) that any kind of prolonged political instability could spur further Christian emigration.

That Christians and other religious minorities would emigrate under such circumstances is understandable. Even if religious tolerance is promised, war and unrest will always lead people with the means to emigrate to do so. In that sense, Mideast Christians (who have often been economically successful and thus more mobile) are more likely to emigrate in the face of political turmoil even if sectarian strife isn't an issue.

As for the Khomeini example, I suppose that I have been sufficiently tainted by post-Enlightenment secularism to be wary of dhimmitude. Even if the Koran and other religious texts can be cited to support principles of tolerance, in most cases I would still prefer that the state would remain officially secular or at least that different religious groups be accorded a kind of parity that goes beyond mere tolerance.

Of course, I recognize cultural and other circumstances that would militate against this - in some situations, e.g. Lebanon, I can see a legitimate place for consociational arrangements that parcel out political power on the basis of religion or ethnicity. In such cases, however, the general principle is that no one group enjoys unquestioned dominance and that some degree of power-sharing is required; this is quite different from a situation where one religion is supreme yet promises to treat others well in a spirit of benign paternalism.

In general, Christians in the contemporary Middle East seem to have fared best under governments that were basically secular (Syria, pre-invasion Iraq) or consociational (Lebanon, a truly unique case). The record of Islamic theocracy in this regard has been mixed (perhaps there has been some measure of tolerance in Iran, but there has not been in Saudi Arabia). As for the 'Islamic democracy' that some U.S.-based academics have been shilling for in Iraq, I think my comments in earlier posts make my reservations about this notion clear.

To conclude, I'll simply repeat a line I've quoted before from an Egyptian Jesuit, Samir Khalil Samir, "What the Christians of the Middle East are asking is not only to be treated well, but to be recognized as citizens with equal rights, so that no religion has any privileges. This is our concept of secular society."

At 5/02/2011 12:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should correct myself; the "reporting" I was referring to was not that on the Patriarch's comments, but on the reports of "devout Muslims getting into politics being bad for Christians" mentioned in this post and a preceding one.

Reasonable people can agree to disagree on many topics, but to my mind there can be no serious debate that the facts of the matter on this topic are widely misrepresented and misunderstood.

Sadly, very, very, positive reports of tolerance, great respect, and even deep friendship for Christians in Muslim countries don't make it out of the Catholic press and into the secular press, even though they belie widely-held beliefs.

How often does one hear the story of a Bishop who says he finds it more rewarding to be a Bishop in an Arab, Muslim, country than in his native Europe?

Of a Sheikh, in whose country Islam was the state religion, who asked a Bishop that his clergy wear their habits everywhere so that people would know to respect them?

"We Fathers wear our religious habit in the city and other parts... without ever being disturbed or made objects of ridicule. I still remember the words that the Sheikh addressed to us on the occasion of a meeting with him: «I always want you Fathers to wear your religious habit so that everyone knows that you are men of God and all must respect you»."

How many Western heads of state would expect that everyone respect the clergy, assuming, of course, that it's deserved?

And if one looks carefully at Saudi Arabia, that American ally with a stark reputation for having no religious tolerance at all, one finds that the practice is closer to "don't ask don't tell" with many a wink and nod than to a rigorously enforced crusade against religious freedom, such as what was in Communist Albania.

When one deals with post-colonial societies, I believe that one is most effective when one leads by example, and explains the benefits and drawbacks of different possibilities as best one can, but that as soon as one comes to them with prescriptions, all sorts of reflexes kick in that tend to complicate things a great deal. They want the right to make their own mistakes.


At 5/02/2011 2:15 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Thanks for the links. I'm aware that Gulf States like the UAE have been relatively benign in their treatment of Christians, but the context there is entirely different from that of the other countries we've been considering.

For the most part, Christians in the Gulf States are migrant workers who have arrived in recent decades; by contrast, Christians have enjoyed a continuous presence in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even Iran for millennia - in some cases, since the dawn of Christianity.

The hospitality that rulers of the Gulf States have shown toward newly-arrived Christians is commendable, but Christians who have been in countries like Syria deserve to be treated with more than mere hospitality - the countries in which they and their ancestors were born belong to them as much as it does to the Muslim majority, and they deserve to be treated as full and equal citizens and not as a merely tolerated minority or as respected guests.

As for Saudi Arabia, I don't think the "don't ask, don't tell" analogy is particularly apt. The Apostolic Vicar of Arabia must necessarily exercise discretion and tact in speaking about the situation of Christians in Saudi Arabia, but his words still suggest that theirs is a difficult situation. I don't think the "church in the catacombs" model should be viewed so benignly - if you accept the analogy, you also have to admit that many martyrs are entombed in the catacombs.

I agree with your point about post-colonial societies, and I am not saying that we should try to force other countries to embrace Western ideals. Indeed, I have faulted the Bush administration for trying to impose a simplistic view of 'freedom' understood as majoritarian democracy on Iraq. I also fault the previous U.S. administration for having vilified the contemporary representatives of homegrown secular nationalism in the Middle East, and I fear that the current administration isn't doing much better in rushing to support the protesters without thinking much about what a push for a more open system might produce.

I suppose the critical point to be made here is that respect for self-determination doesn't mean conceding an inevitable political role for Islam. There is a secular political tradition in the Middle East, but we have tended in recent times either to ignore it or to assume that its time has past.

If the great mass of the public in Egypt and Syria and elsewhere are fed up with corruption and so on, I hope that they will at least be able to separate the misdeeds of more recent secular leaders from the positive political tradition that produced them. In other words, I hope they won't chop down the secular tree because it has produced a few bad apples.

At 5/02/2011 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Koczera,

After my many years in the Muslim world, I suppose I'll have to confess that I see the Muslim political movements as generally being very positive developments.

In Poland the devout Catholics in Solidarnosc served their country well in quite difficult times, as did those in a prelature of technocrats in Spain. By what right can one deny Muslims the legitimacy of similar yearnings?

Even secularists must admit that many of these Islamist groups are the only large grouping in their country that have endured persecution and have expected their members to lead moral lives. I think it's entirely understandable that people would want to be led by leaders they have good reason to believe are of good character rather than by movements in which the inevitable demagogues and opportunists have yet to out themselves. More than anything else, that these movements attracted idealists not out to advance their careers during the years in which their cadres were formed speaks for them. In Lebanon, a Catholic militia chose to caucus with Hizbollah, that Heart of Islamist Darkness, American terrorist-catchers and their myths notwithstanding.

As far as I know, Christian Arabs have not generally been treated as second-class citizens in their heartland; Tariq Aziz, the Ghalis, not to mention Lebanon's Maronites and others were at or just underneath the pinnacles of power. Like Arab Jews, Arab Christians have generally been part of their countries' upper class, which explains not a few of the resentments they had to bear.

Not long ago, Saudi Arabia was in many aspects a medieval country. Into the 1960s cities in Yemen had city walls and city gates which were locked every night like in medieval Europe. The first Saudi king kicked his conquest of his country in the 1920s off by climbing over a town's walls by night and beheading its governor. When American oil companies paid for their concessions in Saudi Arabia, they did so with gold coins, Maria-Theresia Taler, but only Taler that had been checked to see that they didn't bear the countenance of a woman.

In medieval Europe the principle of "cuius regio, eius religio" was seen as legitimate, and universally endorsed by the Catholic church; I myself won't fault the monarch of a country in which until quite recently educational levels were vastly below those of industrialized nations for forbidding well-educated foreigners, often with agendas and foreign financing from coming into his country and spreading alien ideas that were sure to bring upheaval and turmoil. Are the occasional flogging, and, yes, even beheading proof of Hitlerian Islamofascism (TM) or that third world is as third world does? If the Apostolic Vicar emphasizes that he must be discrete, there may also be heart-warming stories he doesn't deign to divulge.

It is somewhat ironic that some Americans are back to viewing Arab secularists as the great hope for the Arab world. In the 1950s and 60s large parts of the Arab world were caught up in enthusiasm for secularist and socialist ideals prevalent in Europe. The leaders of these movements, Nasser, Ghadafi, Iraqi Ba'athists, believed, alas, that the Arab world's oil wealth should benefit the entire Arab world, in other words, higher oil prices. The Western world worked furiously to cultivate a less-threatening and rival ideology and despots which would stand in the path of Pan-Arab secularism. Now that Islamists, after decades of hard work, persecution, and sacrifice, seem poised to realize the aspirations of many, once again a movement is not good enough, and even -gasp- uncivilized.

When Francis of Assisi sallied forth to the Levant, he - at danger to his life - tried to convert Muslim leaders to Christianity and made deep friendships. He also did everything he could to convert the Crusaders to Christianity, to little avail.


At 5/03/2011 12:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...


I think it's entirely understandable that people would want to be led by leaders they have good reason to believe are of good character rather than by movements in which the inevitable demagogues and opportunists have yet to out themselves.

True enough. I would amplify that by noting that the desire for honesty and efficiency in government has also contributed to this - in Palestine, for example, Hamas has gained popular support in part because a lot of people are apparently fed up with corruption and mismanagement on the part of Fatah.

In Lebanon, a Catholic militia chose to caucus with Hizbollah, that Heart of Islamist Darkness, American terrorist-catchers and their myths notwithstanding.

Also true, though Lebanon is also a place where there have been no really 'good' political options for Christians seeking to maintain a tenuous sense of security.

It is somewhat ironic that some Americans are back to viewing Arab secularists as the great hope for the Arab world. . . . The leaders of these movements, Nasser, Ghadafi, Iraqi Ba'athists, believed, alas, that the Arab world's oil wealth should benefit the entire Arab world, in other words, higher oil prices.

I don't know if I'd still call them "the great hope," as said movements regettably seem to have substantially weakened (partly due to their own internal problems, I'll admit - corruption, etc.). Personally, I don't fault the Pan-Arabists for wanting national control over natural resources - my chief concern in all this has emphatically not been U.S. economic interests, but rather the interests of indigenous Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East (interests which have been largely ignored by U.S. policymakers, who often seem ignorant that Middle Eastern Christians even exist). It still seems to be the case that these communities have enjoyed the most freedom and security under secular governments.

I recognize the sincerity and good intentions of devout Muslims engaged in political reform movements. As the "Arab Spring" continues, my hope is that Arab Christians and Muslims can unite in embracing a pluralistic political vision which treats all citizens as equal regardless of religious belief. Let's wait and see whether these hopes come to fruition.

At 5/03/2011 1:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughts. If I appeared to impute that your arguments derive from greed, I apologize. I never thought so.


At 5/03/2011 10:46 AM, Blogger Joe said...


If I appeared to impute that your arguments derive from greed, I apologize. I never thought so.

I didn't think you were imputing greed as a motive, but I wasn't sure whether others who might read our exchange would have the same understanding. Thus, I thought it wouldn't hurt to make the basis of my concerns more explicit. Thank you for a worthwhile exchange on all of this!

At 5/20/2011 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Koczera,

I don't want to make a never-ending discussion of this topic, but I feel I ought add a thought.

I certainly have my opinions when the the criminal code regulates peoples' religious beliefs, and even more so when having unwelcome beliefs is a capital crime. I will, however, never forget the day I told a Brazilian coworker that I'd never want to live in Brazil as it is a country in which the police go around summarily executing street children, and he replied that there knew of no other way to deal with them. A quick google search will reveal that in Brazil, a historically Catholic country, the police do to this day dispatch vagrants more or less like termites are dealt with in the United States.

Christ didn't tell people that he had come to be a social worker, but he most definitely did set minimum expectations for Christians whose neighbors are in need. When Christian countries have such signal room for improvement, and a previous Supreme Pontiff found theologians who worked towards such improvements to be something close to an anathema, it seems to me that it would just be another blasphemy to harp on improvements others may wish to make.

I, myself, work towards making those improvements I can.


At 5/21/2011 10:41 AM, Blogger Joe said...


I agree that we (as in the West, including countries like Brazil) have a lot to answer for and that there are many areas in which Western nations fall far short of the mark and ought to do better. What I wouldn't want to see, though, is for things to get worse before they get better. My concern in the case of Egypt and Syria is that this could happen, at least as far as religious minorities are concerned.


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