Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fr James Babcock Reviews Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans

This was published some months ago, but it only came to my attention today. For another, more scholarly review by Heleen Murre-van den Berg see here. For the original of Fr Babcock's review, see pp. 34 and 36 of the January 2017 issue of the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton's journal Sophia, here.

Book Review: Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans
by Archimandrite James Babcock

Admittedly I was both intrigued and suspicious when I saw the title and then the publisher of Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans: 1516-1831 by Constantin A. Panchenko. This book lifts the veil covering the hidden years of the Patriarchate of Antioch during Ottoman rule in Lebanon/Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt.

What seemed suspicious was the publisher: Holy Trinity Seminary Press, Jordanville, New York. This monastery is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, the most traditional (and anti-Catholic) part of the Russian Church. I suspected a possibly slanted report.

Yet as I began to read, I quickly discovered that this tale would be reported with an even and balanced hand. To a Melkite, the chapter of greatest interest was “The Catholic Unia,” covering the time of the unfortunate division of the Patriarchate of Antioch in 1724. The author’s impeccable research brings to life the events of those heady days and the regrettable and pretty much unnecessary hostility that arouse out of those events.

To quote the author, “It was a time of active economic and religious expansion of the Catholic world in the Levant [and] was one of the key periods in the history of the Christian East . . . leading to a dramatic rift in the Middle Eastern communities.” Panchenko chronicles the events and activities of the Roman (Latin) Catholic Church among the Melkites.

It should be noted that the term “Melkite” originally referred to all Orthodox Christians in the Middle East. In this sense “Melkite” and “Orthodox” are synonymous. After the division, the term “Melkite” was appropriated by the members of the Antiochian Patriarchate who entered into communion with the Church of Rome. This mixing of names can be a bit confusing as one reads the history of the events.

Panchenko paints a portrait of the sorry state of the Church of Antioch as well as the other Patriarchates (Jerusalem and Alexandria), which did vary from Church to Church, each Church’s circumstances being somewhat different. The bulk of the story, however, unfolds in the Patriarchate of Antioch, a Church already weakened by divisions in earlier centuries.

The history begins with the Arab conquest and the life of the Christians under the Umayyad Caliphate in the sixth century and the fading inertia of the Byzantine culture. In the early years, the culture of the Melkites continued as before; however, when the situation began to deteriorate, the Christians revolted, which resulted in harsher conditions for them. Collection of the jizya tax became more exacting and Christian civil servants were dismissed. A catastrophic earthquake added to the suffering. From the ninth to the eleventh century the Middle East entered into what some historians call “the dark ages.” During this time the “Arabization” of the
Melkites began to take place. Christian scholars began to write in Arabic, and Arabic began to creep into the celebration of the divine services, replacing the traditional Greek.

As the Islamic dynasties shifted from the Abbasid to the Fatimid, for a brief time Byzantine influence began to re-assert itself. This influence ended abruptly with the rise of the Caliph al-Hakim. Severe persecution broke out, resulting in the destruction of the churches and the hierarchy. In Egypt only one Melkite bishop survived.

Soon a new challenge arose for the Melkites—the Crusades. The balance of power shifted from Islamic to Western (Latin) Christianity. Antioch was captured and later Jerusalem. The Latins installed bishops and patriarchs who replaced the Melkite bishops.

With the defeat of the Crusader empire and the rise of the Ottoman empire, the fate of the Christians of the Middle East shifted again. The Ottomans did not try to change the traditional way of life of the population but instead established various means to control it. This resulted in the establishment of the Millet system, wherein each ethnic or religious group was given broad governing powers over its own people with the provision that the leaders pay the jizya, which kept increasing year after year.

Now the spiritual leaders of the church also became civil leaders. This also increased the role of the laity in the governance of the church. Geographical demographics also played a role in the development of the churches. Mount Lebanon became a Christian reserve during this time. Panchenko thoroughly examines the role of the shepherds and their flocks.

A chapter on the role and importance of monasteries and monasticism adds depth to the understanding of the powerful influence they exerted on the life of the church. Here we begin to see the origins of how the division of the Patriarchate of Antioch began.

The author shows the origins of the struggles over the Holy Places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and the despicable fights that would break out between the monks and spiritual leaders. The chapter on foreign relations shows the beginning of the powerful influence of the Russian Church.

Finally, we arrive at the time of the division of the Patriarch of Antioch into Catholic and Orthodox jurisdictions. Many ugly events unfold and the reader begins to see that this is more of a power struggle, highly influenced by a desire for a more comfortable life which European culture could provide, than a dispute over any kind of ecclesiastical or theological differences.

A brief historical summary, maps, and photos are included. Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans: 1516-1831 is a must-read for all who love the Antiochian church and who lament its regrettable division. Knowledge brings understanding and wisdom, two elements required for the re-establishment and reunion of our church, Melkite and Orthodox.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: Prayer and Fasting

Arabic original here.

Prayer and Fasting

After the Church has entered us into the mystery of the Transfiguration and we have seen Christ's glory on the mountain, the divine word instructs us today that man is healed by prayer and fasting. Let us go past the healing of the young man afflicted with epilepsy and pay attention to Jesus' words after the disciples were unable to perform the miracle: "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move." By this He meant that if your faith has a mustard seed of warmth, then everything is possible. Impossible things are possible, since nothing is possible for God. But you go back to ingratitude and doubt.

The apostles whom the Lord accused had this ingratitude because they still had not witnessed His resurrection and had not received the Holy Spirit. They were prey to the dust that was in them. They were prey to the passions nestled in their souls. The Lord wanted them to look to God and to His power which was capable of transforming them into new people, as though they were the Lord Himself.

The Teacher wanted them to practice faith in two aspects: in the aspect of prayer first and then in the aspect of fasting. My intention is for us to arrive at the core meaning of these two words. The essence of the prayer that makes us capable of miracles is that by which we know ourselves to be capable of attaining God Himself. God has entered into discussion with us. He has entered into dialogue inasmuch as He has made Himself possible for us. If it is right to say it, He has condescended from His almighty power in order to make us capable of standing before Him and with Him, so that we in turn are creators and renewers of this nature, transformers of our own hearts and of the hearts of people.

Prayer is our being in contact with God such that He acts if we act and He speaks if we speak. When the Bible says that God answers, it is not because we are beggars but because we are sons. God responds because we ourselves in the house of the Father are able to change what must be changed. We are given authority over the house of God, which is the universe. God answers and saves us. When one has the sweetness of God, this sweetens everything. When one has God's kindness, this makes the world kind and it in turn becomes gentle.

As for fasting, its purpose is not only abstinence from food. The ultimate intent of what is called fasting here is chastity. Chastity is our abstaining from a lust that rules over us so that we may give God sovereignty within us. Fasting is our giving control over to God so that we do not speak out of whim, but rather we say what God says by our tongues and we express the grace that God has cast into our hearts. Through fasting, man becomes poor before God and knows himself to be be such. Because of this, if he is chaste he is capable of having his prayer heard.

God dialogues with those who are of Him. Those who have acquired God's grace come to be within God and speak to God from within Him. If we become a chaste, praying people, kind to others, loving them, if we want this then God makes us capable of being transfigured with Him on the mountain and of looking out over our life and the life of all people.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Mary

Arabic original here.


Mary is the Mother of God. She gives birth to Christ God into the world (the Third Ecumenical Council, Ephesus 431).

Mary was the house of God. She is the servant of the divine mystery, "the mystery hidden for ages and unknown to the angels."

Mary is both mother and virgin-- a virgin, that is, the bride of God, consecrated to Him and to no one else. "Rejoice, O bride unwedded." At the same time, she is our mother in giving spiritual love. "Behold, your mother," says the Lord Jesus upon the cross to the disciple John whom He loved (cf. John 19:26-27).

We read in the Gospel passage for the Dormition (Luke 10:38-42), "Mary (the sister of Lazarus) sat at Jesus' feet and listened to His words... one thing is needful" (cf. Luke 10:39 and 42).

This is how the Virgin Mary was. When His mother and brothers came to Him and they said to Him, "Your mother and brothers want to see You," He replied, "My mother and brothers are those who listen to the word of God and do it" (Luke 8:21). There is listening and obedience.

In the Epistle for the Dormition (Philippians 2:5-11) it says, "He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8).

"Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Mary is the image of every pure person. The pure person is the one who only accepts into their heart God's seed, the divine word, not a corrupt human word.

They do not place anything within their soul alongside Christ-- not money, not station (that is, authority or vainglory), not the body (and the pleasure of the body). They worship only God. "You cannot worship two masters, God and money." Christ alone is the bridegroom of the soul. Mary is the bride of God.

Death is participation in the faulty human nature that we have all received. The Virgin received this fragile nature, but she remained impervious to willfully falling and so she was glorified and became a model for us.

Why does she have obedience to God? Because He is her Creator, the one who continuously glorifies our nature and our life. He is all of existence. Without Him I do not exist.

The Lord rewarded her at the end of her life, since she was transported to Him and glorified in the body above the angels, like Elijah.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: For How Long will the Emperor be Treated as a God?

Arabic original here.

For How Long will the Emperor be Treated as a God?

If Christianity were a religion that permitted taqiya, which is "outwardly pretending what one does not actually believe out of fear of oppression," then the Roman Empire during the first four centuries of Christianity would have accepted the Christians as good citizens and pardoned them and would not have undertaken persecutions against them.

There is no doubt that the Roman Empire of that time was not concerned with the Christians' dogma so much as with Christians' loyalty to the emperor. The sprawling Roman Empire permitted religious diversity on the condition that "No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed" (Cicero, De Legibus). According to the great legal thinker Cicero, the state had the right to recognize new religions or to refuse to permit their existence.

Why, then, was Christianity not recognized before the edict of the Emperor Constantine in 312, which granted the Christian religion the right to be active in the empire? There were multiple reasons, but most prominent explanation by far is that the chief reason for the persecution is the Roman state's response to the Christians' attitude toward the state and the incompatibility of its national and political conduct with Christian values...

The persecutions lasted for around two and a half centuries, from the year 64 (under the reign of Nero) to the year 311 (under the reign of Constantine), interspersed with periods of calm, during which there succeeded many emperors who continued the policy of persecutions, which had a political rather than religious character. In 235, the Emperor Maximian undertook to expel the heads of churches since he regarded them as responsible for "a religion that weakens the empire by dissuading those who belong to it from serving in the army." In 250, Decius was the first to organize persecution in every part of the empire, requiring every citizen to participate in offering sacrifices to the pagan gods.

The Roman state jealously protected honoring its gods since it saw these gods as the protectors of the empire against all its enemies. For this reason, honoring the pagan gods was not only a religious obligation, but also a civic obligation and this is what came into conflict with the strictly monotheistic faith of the Christians." The Christians did not accept to worship the Roman emperor and resisted it. They respected the emperor and obeyed him insofar as he was the high authority in the state, but they refused to recognize him as a god. The emperor, however, regarded the Christians' refusal to participate in the imperial consensus as though it were a rebellion against the empire itself, a betrayal of its principles, and an attack on the greatness of the Roman people.

There is no doubt that the Church's position regarding the state has changed from state to state and era to era. For example, service in the army has become permissible since worship of the emperor and the pagan gods has been permanently done away with. In reality, however, it is evident that the relationship of people in our countries to leaders still mimics to a great extent the relationship that existed between the peoples of the Roman Empire and their emperor who made himself into a god.

We find this mimicry in many expressions that are still current today. In ancient times it was said in justification of the persecutions that "Christianity weakens the empire," while today it is said that "this critical thinking discourages the national spirit" or "weakens the nation." In ancient times "the greatness of the Roman people" was evoked as a pretext for the imperial consensus, while today slogans are brandished in every country about "the greatness of such-and-such a people" as a pretext for national consensus....

It goes without saying that emperor-worship is still practiced in most of our countries. The two-faced emperor-- his first face is apparent and only for show and the second, real one is hidden in the background-- is infallible. He is infallible, as are all who follow his orders. His is infallible along with his entourage, his companions and his courtiers. Worshiping him is necessary, required for obtaining a testimony of good citizenship. Not worshiping him is treason, an apostasy incurring execution and death.

Do the Christians of our time practice taqiya in dealing with the emperor? Do they, out of taqiya, stay silent about his actions even if they go against the teachings of the Gospel? The early Christians, as we have seen, rejected the principle of taqiya and preferred to speak the word of truth over anything else, doubtlessly paying dearly. We must also pay heed to the fact that there is a price to taqiya that must one day be paid. So let the price be paid instead for the sake of the truth of the Gospel and not upon the altar of the emperor who makes himself into a god.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nour al-Sharq interviews Carol Saba

Arabic original here.

The lawyer Carol Saba, an expert in the affairs of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, told the program Waqfa wa-Mawqif, "Christians, especially the Orthodox, must regain their national role and establish a partnership of life and citizenship."

He spoke to Léa Adel Mehmari.

Commenting on the gathering of Eastern Catholic patriarchs, the lawyer Carol Saba, an expert in the affairs of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and a close advisor to Patriarch John X, observed that, "The crisis of Middle Eastern Christianity is a crisis of decline whose roots go back to the start of the transformations in the Arab Middle East in the early twentieth century. Where once the Christians formed the core of the thinkers and engines of the Arab Nahda that heralded a promising future for the Arab world, today they have arrived at a crisis of decline that gradually grew over the course of the twentieth century alongside the rise of the crisis of the state and the crisis of governance in Arab societies. The Christian role gradually receded on account of the rise of various political radicalisms in the Arab world, from a concern for an active Christian 'presence' in Arab societies to a concern for preserving 'existence' and abdicating from every national role to the point of decline, insularity and seeking protection."

Carol Saba's spoke during his appearance on the program Waqfa wa-Mawqif and said, "Despite this path of regression and its consequences of frustration and emigration, there remain the writings of Christian thinkers like Georges Khodr, Youakim Moubarac, Gregoire Haddad and others to point to the necessity of arriving at Arab systems of governance based on the civil state which separates religion from the state without separating it from society, so that it can be a society that embraces an active Christian presence in the Middle East."

According to his analysis of the current situation of growing sectarianism in our Arab societies and the repercussions of the rise of religious radicalism, Christians, especially the Orthodox, must "regain their national role and the initiative and break into public affairs with enlightened ideas in order to overcome the state of rampant sectarianism and to partnership of life and partnership of citizenship that makes everyone equal in terms of rights and responsibilities and which protects by law all elements of our Arab societies. Only the civil state that allows everyone to preserve their specificities can prevent the emigration and hemorrhaging of Middle Eastern Christians and make Christians secure here in their land, as they are one of the historical elements of this region."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Light of the Transfiguration

Arabic original here.

The Light of the Transfiguration

The Lord took Peter, James and John to a high mountain, perhaps Mount Tabor in Galilee or perhaps Mount Hermon (Jebel al-Sheikh). There He showed them what they could not really realize. He showed them His glory, a glory that He possessed and that was in Him, but which had been veiled, which He had veiled deliberately. Jesus did not want to overwhelm humankind with His glory, so He hid it in order to act among us as one of us and so that we may arrive at His glory at the end of our pilgrimage on earth.

If we see the cross, there His glory is made manifest to us and if we witness the resurrection, then His glory shines in us. Before this, it was necessary for Him to be veiled, but He nevertheless wanted to make clear to His disciples that He is the true appearance of God, that He is the only-begotten Son. So He brought Elijah and Moses from heaven, from their rest, to reveal to humankind that the Law of Moses has gone extinct and Judaism has ended. If the glory of Christ has shown forth, then the glory of Moses may be proud. And if His light has been made manifest, then His light grants us to understand the prophecies represented by Elijah.

Through His transfiguration, Jesus intimated to the apostles that prophecy had been fulfilled in Him, that His is the awaited one and so we are not in need of prophecy because everything the prophets said He said, since He demonstrated on the cross that God is love and He showed them this by His death.

As for Peter, when he saw this great scene, he said, "It is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Jesus did not accept this offer. He refused for them to remain on the mountain because the mountain of the transfiguration was a stage on the way to death. Death is important and even more important is the resurrection. For this reason the Lord said to Peter, "Peter, you do not know what you are saying. It is not permitted for you to seek glory like this in a cheap and effortless way."

Glory is only given to those who are prepared for death. The glory that people talk about and seek from each other is a cheap glory. Jesus did not come for such glory. He gave people another glory, a glory from their faith and from their love for the Father. He gave them a beloved glory.

The greatest of the great, the ones who enjoy their Lord's favor, the prominent ones in the kingdom are known by no one. They have no palaces. They make no show. People do not talk about these possessors of true glory. The poor are possessors of glory. The persecuted are possessors of glory. The ignorant who neither read nor write, if they belong to Christ are glorified. But those who claim to be cultured, who are merely puffed-up, do not inherit the glory of the kingdom. The clever person does not go up to heaven because he is clever but because he is humble and chaste, loving the Lord and loving the poor.

Jesus said to Peter, "I will give you glory from upon the cross. In blood, in death, in the death of martyrdom." Those who truly belong to Christ die as martyrs just as Peter died-- beaten without beating anyone, humiliated without humiliating anyone. Christ Jesus did not claim, did not make a show of glory. He died a death that He accepted in obedience to the Father.

God wants to be manifest in our life, for the face of every person to become shining like the sun, for Christ to be traced upon our faces, upon the face of each one of us because he lives according to the Gospel and becomes a christ.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Bishops, part 2

Arabic original here. Part one can be found in English here.

The Bishop (part 2)

The Bishop as Father and Servant:

We know that a person's temptations can be outlined in three things: money, authority and pleasure. The hope is constant that the bishop will not fall into the temptation of authority and become domineering, even if he carries the staff that is fitting for being a pastor. He must follow the advice of the Lord Jesus to His disciples when He told them:

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you... whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).

The bishop's authority is the authority of love. Fr Serge Boulgakov said, "When the bishop exercises authority, he acts with the Church and not over her because the latter constitutes a spiritual body for love."

The Bishop as the Image of Christ:

At the Divine Liturgy, only the bishop does not participate in the great entrance. He waits in the temple, in front of the royal doors and receives the offerings in order to offer them to God in the likeness of Christ offering to God the Father.

Likewise, when he looks out from the royal doors with the trikirion and dikirion, when he represents Christ in a wonderful, clear image, bearing the icon of the Trinity (the three candles) and the sign of Christ's two natures (the two candles), He is like Christ facing God the Father and says in his prayer, "O Lord, O Lord, look down from heaven and behold and visit this vineyard and perfect that which Your right hand has planted!"

Likewise, when the bishop stands at the throne, as at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy or at the prayer of Great Vespers before the blessing of the five loaves, he stands among his priests in the likeness of Christ among His apostles.

We recall here that the true head of the Church remains Christ. The bishop is only an image of Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:23).

The Virtues of the Bishop:

Some of these virtues appear in Paul's First Epistle to Timothy (3:1-8) where he says, for example: "A bishop then must be blameless... not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous...."

Saint Cyprian affirms the importance of humility for the bishop, "because Christ and the apostles were humble."

We will also mention that the bishop is an element of unity in his flock. This is manifest in the Eucharistic service. The antimension on the holy table is an important symbol of the unity of the diocese through the bishop who grants the antimension by signing it.

He is also a symbol of unity between the local church and the universal Church for the unity of faith and common participation in the holy mysteries. This Church is the body of Christ extending through the centuries.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies