On this day, when the Church commemorates the great saint of Damascus, John, we would like to acquaint our readers with a remarkable hierarch of the Antiochian Church, the Syrian bishop Qais (Sadiq) of Erzurum. Bishop Qais talks with Pravoslavie.ru correspondent Fares Nofal, an Orthodox Syrian living in Ukraine.
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From November 28-30, vicar of the Patriarch of Antioch Bishop Qais (Sadiq) visited the city of Odessa. On His Eminence’s last day in the city, I had an opportunity to talk with this outstanding hierarch of Antioch about earthly war, higher peace, and the fate of Arab Christianity.
—Your Eminence, you are an eye-witness observer of what is happening today in the holy lands in the Near East—the cradle of Christ and Christianity. But before we begin, could you tell our readers a little about yourself?
—First I would like to give thanks to God that He has allowed me to be with you in these holy, blessed lands—lands that have given us so many teachers and instructors. The very people and the Russian Orthodox Church have always supported us both prayerfully and materially—and Christian Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan remember the Russian help given them in the days of the Ottoman occupation. But today also, Christians—Russians and Ukrainians—do not forget to pray for us, giving us their fraternal love, fighting for our Christian presence in the Arab countries.
I became bishop about a year ago with the title, “Bishop of Erzurum”. Erzurum is a toponym that can today be found on the political map of Turkey. Like many other historical dioceses of Antioch, this metropolitinate witnessed the mass extermination of faithful Arab Christians and Armenians. Judge for yourself: according to various accounts, in 1917 in the city of Erzurum there lived about 25-30 thousand Orthodox Christians, while by 1925 the number of local Christians was reduced to zero. They were all the victims of a cruel Turkish massacre; and, unfortunately, both Ottoman ambitions and Ottoman political methods are still just as brutally cruel today.
Besides my obedience as vicar—assistant to His Beatitude Patriarch John X—I by God’s mercy fulfill the duty of director of the Orthodox Center for ecumenical research, which we founded in Oman twenty years ago. The Center’s slogan—“Service and witness”—reflects its essentially missionary aims: we strive to raise the level of religious education of our Arabic parishioners, living under the oppression of circumstances in the Jerusalem Church. Alas, many of the faithful justly complain that Jerusalem is completely in the hands of Greeks, who themselves prefer the pursuit of their own aims, which we don’t understand, over mission and service to the Arab people. I also serve our Romanian flock, which has grown quite significantly over recent years. Today in Bucharest alone there are around 150 Orthodox Arab families, with over fifty families scattered around the country.
Earlier, under the reposed Patriarch Ignatius IV, as a teacher of canon law and Liturgical theology in Balamand University, I fulfilled the responsibility of advisor to the supreme ecclesiastical court of the Antiochian Church and head of the Antiochian department of external Church affairs. This experience turned out to be quite useful later, when I represented Jordan in the UNESCO and UNICEF ethics committees, and the Antiochian Church in over ninety-two countries of the world where the sons and daughters of the Arab East live as permanent residents.
—Yesterday, Sunday, was a day filled with events for you—you met with the bishop of Odessa, Metropolitan Agathangel, and prayed for the first time with the local Orthodox Arab community. What were your first impressions? How do you see the future for the Orthodox Arabs of this city?
—His Eminence Agathangel received us very warmly. We talked for a long time on themes that concern us—in part, we touched upon the question of the past and future relationships of our sister Churches; and his words simply attached me to this blessed land! In the morning, when we were at the Liturgy in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, I couldn’t help but notice the endless amount of children and teenagers approaching the Chalice; after all, you’ll hardly find this in the European churches… In this I see the main proof that fervent faith is still alive in these good-hearted, pious people, the hope of which, after years of oppression and persecution, is preserved in its children—the future members of the living Church.
As for our flocks, I came here only in order to hear their wishes, their voices (and thanks are due separately to Metropolitan Niphon [Saykali], the representative of the Antiochian Patriarch to the Moscow Patriarch, who supported and strengthened me in my desire to come here). Alas, many of them do not understand the liturgical Church Slavonic language of the Russian Church, and I am glad that they have the opportunity to pray here in their native language; this keeps them together, gives them the needed comfort that comes from a trusting communication with their Creator. Unfortunately I had very little time to really talk with them; but tomorrow or the day after tomorrow I will make a report to His Beatitude Onuphry about their needs and cares, which I hope will be the first step towards the ordering of their Church life here, in Kiev and Odessa.
—As we know, the whole of the Orthodox Church has decisively judged the first fruits of “Arab Spring”; and now five years have passed since the beginning of the so-called “Syrian revolution”. How do Antiochian Christians view the results of this “revolution”? What is the general essence of their daily struggle?
—"Arab spring” is, in my view, not a revolution but more of an “Arab autumn”, which destroyed our civilization. And it is obvious that running things behind the scenes of the “autumn” are entirely non-Arab hands. I hoped that the micro-revolutions would happen in the Arab countries and direct them to specific, positive changes. But what we see in, for example, Syria, is not a micro-revolution, but a genuine game of blood, controlled from a distance.
President Bashar al-Assad is a very educated man, who well understands the problems of his country. From the very onset of his presidency he strove to open Syria to the world; under his leadership a cultural and economic renaissance began in the country, and he was trying, as they say, to “change the system”. And it is perfectly natural that the process of a “change of system” takes more than twenty-four hours and even more than two or three years. But his labors where buried by the fruits of the London Colonial Conference of 1907, which had dismembered and weakened the Arab world already many years ago. Everything that is happening in the Near East today is the belated gift of the West to its satellites in the region.
And this “gift” destroyed our Christian heritage—our museums have been plundered, and our holy sites have been demolished. The Mongols, who seized the lands of the Caliphate, did whatever they wanted—but they did not touch its stones or spirit; but now the ISIS fighters, supported by the Wahabites of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, radicals in Turkey and American geopolitics, are putting great effort into wiping Eastern Christian culture from the face of the earth—of course, together with both its living and inanimate bearers. It is no surprise that the next target of these powers is Russia. The hirers of terror do not hide this fact: even Kissinger announced the “fall of European walls of peace” as an effective means of opposing the Russian presence… Migrants are coming to Europe from Turkey, and true Christian Syrians comprise only ten percent of the total number of refugees. The result is that everyone is making a living off of our blood, the blood of the true victims, and we are suffering more than everyone!
—You spoke of forced migration—the real tragedy of Arab culture. But Orthodox Russia went through something similar at the beginning of the twentieth century. The “philosophical steamships” again acquainted the West with Orthodoxy. What do you think—does today’s tragedy of Arab Orthodoxy have some chance of becoming the beginning of a new stage in its existence? Perhaps we should be prepared to see an Arabic Saint Serge in Europe?
—Of course, our history also reminds one of a sort of “philosophical steamship”. The second half of the nineteenth century, as we know, marked by a series of genocides in Lebanon and Damascus, motivated many Arab thinkers and artists to migrate to Egypt, and then to North and South America. This is how a whole trend in Arab literature arose—the so-called “literature of the diaspora”, created, in part, in Arabic publications in America, and in te “Arabic clubs” of Brazil and Argentina. And this literature is mostly Christian.
The twentieth century brought the East new wars, distancing ever further new philosophers and poets, theologians and musicians from their historical motherland. Many outstanding doctors, teachers, and professors in the West today are Arab Christian intelligentsia, forced to flee their own homes. We hope that these brothers of ours who have fallen victim to the Islamist’s blind force will not cast Christ out of the soil of their hearts and remain His faithful witnesses. Of course, this is our task: Who if not the Mother Church will gather her children in the countries of diaspora? We must remain apostles of love and truth and confess our Christianity, our Orthodoxy, without being shy. We cannot be a “minority”—we are all in ourselves the very pinch of salt that makes a large amount of food fit for the table.
—Several days ago, ISIS called Ukraine, right after Russia, it’s enemy. As we know, Russia has intervened in the political situation in the region, and some political critics, polemicists, and even clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church have opined that this was a serious mistake. On the other hand, Metropolitan Louka (al Khoury) after his recent prayer in the Mariamite Cathedral in Damascus supported Russian military aid in the struggle against Islamism. How might you evaluate the given situation? What is the role of Russian aide in the struggle of Syrian Christians?
—Of course, we must discern the difference between political and ecclesiastical relationships. As for the latter, the Russian Orthodox Church has never abandoned us: the abundant prayers of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples and their generous gifts have equally reached their mark. Thanks to this support we feel that we are not alone. And just last year the Romanian Orthodox Church also decided to help us, bringing a gift to Antioch of 500,000 euros for the needy. Nevertheless, there is no greater gift than the holy prayers for peace in the East raised in your homes and churches.
From the political point of view, everything is much simpler: every government has its own interests. The Church cannot support wars or lead them, but it is obligated to bless the defenders of its homeland. For us, as Christians, the homeland is the expanse of our witness of Christ. We know that Blessed Augustine blessed the soldiers who defended their city, saying, “Just as each of us has a mother whom we are called to protect, we must defend our common mother—the motherland.” It is our blessed obligation to stand up for our country. Syria has interests connected with Russia, and Russia has interests connected with Syria; but in the final analysis, the Syrian army is receiving help, and this is the army of truth, fighting against the murderers of our history, our thoughts. And this army will hold out.
—For several years now the world’s mass media has been painting a picture of the sufferings of the Christian East—and this of course corresponds to reality, for the Antiochian Church is beyond all doubt a suffering Church. But someone might unjustifiably consider it a dead, powerless Church. So that no one would doubt the authenticity of life in Orthodox Christianity of Syria and Iraq, could you tell us about the main events in the chronicles of the Antiochian Church that have happened over the past two or three years?
—It goes without saying that our Church is not dead—it is a Church of witness, a Church of martyrdom. Confessing the Crucified and Risen Christ, today it is walking His way of the Cross from Golgotha to His rising from the dead. We are proud that Antioch is still giving birth to martyrs, living eternally before the Throne of the Most High. They are the ones who manifest the genuine life of the Church. And who if not the faithful children of the Russian Church, piously preserving the holy relics of hundreds upon hundreds of its own martyrs, can understand and perceive this?
Nevertheless, as the Savior said, let the unbelieving “come and see”. Despite everything, regardless of the lack of elementary financing, the Antiochian Church continues to serve both Christians and Muslims of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq with its schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations. Many of these projects were given a second life personally by His Beatitude John X, who although in an extremely unenviable position (one need only remember the afflictions of the flock entrusted to him and his kidnapped younger brother Paul, the metropolitan of Aleppo), continues his service in hope, faith, and prayer. Thanks to him, a new Orthodox university will soon open its doors to the Arab world in Al-Khumaira—the second after Balamand University, which is educating today more than seventy students who have now received their first university degree. Through the efforts of many of the faithful, construction is being completed on the Patriarchal hospital of the Virgin Mary in Balamand. It is no less important for us to give Orthodox youths of Antioch another chance to establish themselves on their land, and therefore we are granting parcels of land near Beirut to families from Lebanon, with deferred pay and ready houses at cost. I hope that our Church will continue to serve its flock by strengthening its last ties with its Holy Motherland.
—News about the suspension of Eucharistic communion between Damascus and Jerusalem has shocked many Orthodox faithful around the world. What are the real roots of this conflict? What steps can each side take to resolve it?
—This is a very painful subject. In fact, the steps taken by the Jerusalem Church, which have trampled upon the very foundations of canon law, were absolutely unexpected for us. Firstly, this is a sign of deep rejection of the rights of a sister Church in its presence in the Persian Gulf countries; and secondly, it is a sign of the waning of love in the hearts of our brother hierarchs.
It all began, as usual, with politics. Wishing to “pay off its debt” before the world, the leaders of Qatar decided to demonstrate their openness to dialogue in general and religious dialogue in particular. Having given different confessions land to build churches, the Qatar authorities nevertheless did not forget their aversion to Arab clergy, who were forbidden to be present on the country’s territory on a permanent basis (I know this from my own as well as others’ experience). So, in the 1990s the question of an Orthodox presence in Qatar was decided by the director of the regional office of American intelligence services—earlier the U.S. ambassador to Oman, based upon his personal family history: his mother’s Greek identity was the reason he directed the authorities to the Jerusalem Patriarchate. It was the present Patriarch of the Holy City, then an archimandrite, who was sent to the American embassy, and it was under his direction that that very Orthodox church was built, and the cornerstone of which was placed by then Patriarch Theodore in circumvention of all existing norms of ecclesiastical law. Unlike the Jerusalem Church, absolutely all the other Churches—including the Russian Church—asked according to the prescribed order for permission from Patriarch Ignatius to build churches in for example the UAE. “Your presence on these lands is precious to our own presence on them.” That is how His Beatitude approved the Russian Church representatives’ request to build a church in Sharjah.
But the hierarchs of Jerusalem did not make any request. In 1999, in my presence, in Oman His Beatitude Ignatius asked Patriarch Theodore: “Your Holiness, when you go to visit your brother, you certainly knock at his door and ask his invitation. Why then did you not knock at our door?” No intelligible answer of course ever came. Nevertheless, we humbled ourselves before the completed fact—although the Orthodox Arabs of Qatar were, to put it mildly, not elated over the Greek-speaking priest sent to pastor them. But apparently this was not enough for Jerusalem. The death of Ignatius IV and the catastrophic condition in Syria and Iraq motivated the Jerusalem Church leaders (of course, with the encouragement of Qatar, which is interested in the politics of the region) to choose a bishop for this territory; and despite our plea not to allow such barbarianism, Jerusalem nevertheless consecrated a bishop with a corresponding title.
Here the following question can be justifiably asked: how can we talk about unity when our brothers are doing everything to trample upon this unity? The Russian and Antiochian Churches, alas, have had the same bitter experience: we have not forgotten about the Ecumenical Patriarch’s meddling in the business of the Ukrainian schism. In such cases we must remember if not our love, then at least canon law, which precisely regulates all similar procedures. I hope that on the threshold of the Pan-Orthodox Council, Jerusalem will forget about its Greek politics, that the Ecumenical Throne would fulfill its duty to put a stop to the current conflict, and the Russian and Romanian Orthodox Churches would say their own word—the word of truth—about the current situation.
—What would you like to say to our Russian and Ukrainian readers as a good pastor, faithful brother, and son of the Holy East?
—Your land is a holy land, which you yourselves have sanctified. You have won it yourselves. Your numberless martyrs are your great treasure. Your Church was crucified, and now you are witnessing its resurrection. Preserve your people, not the stones; it is the people who are the “temples of the Holy Spirit”, breathing life by their prostrations into the stone churches. You, the living members of the Church, can preserve your faith and pass it on to future, yet unborn posterity. And of course, do not forget that far away from these lands you have brothers who love you, who have never stopped loving you even when the communists were persecuting your saints. Today, with the help of your prayers and your love, we must overcome the same trials. Do not forget us.