Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Interview with Patriarch Theophilos from 2011

Although it's from 2011, it's still an interesting read and gives a bit of an insight into Patriarch Theophilos' worldview. The entire interview can be read in the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture here.

What is your opinion about the ongoing negotiations of a taxation agreement between the Israeli government and the Vatican, which could mean that church institutions would have to pay income, property and municipal taxes? Does this Orthodox Church feel sidelined knowing that if an agreement is reached, it will set a precedent for the other churches?

The situation with the Vatican negotiations is far more complex. The Greek Orthodox Church is not sidelined because the legal status of the patriarchate differs from the Vatican’s. It is the only church institution with Jordanian law. The patriarchate is a local institution. The Vatican is a spiritual and political entity, so its representatives cannot speak on behalf of the local Christians here.

[The Patriarchate's refusal to follow the Jordanian laws regulating it will be the subject of a future post].

Speaking of heritage, there have been accusations by some local Arab Orthodox residents that the Greeks have maintained cultural dominance and that Arabs have not been promoted to certain official positions in the church to the same degree as the Greeks have. Is this true?

There is a bigger question here. The name of the patriarchate and all Eastern Orthodox Christians locally here is “Rum.” This is how they are recognized and identified by the Muslim Arabs and Palestinians, in general. It is a matter of cultural identity or identity crisis that many people have difficulties understanding the meaning of “Rum.” The West has also brought them confusion about their identity, which could be remedied with education and [an] understanding [of] history. And you have to refer back to your roots. You cannot disregard the Byzantine presence that was here. The stones are talking — everything is talking. I have prepared an academic study which gives a very thorough and complete analysis of the meaning of “Rum” and what it means to be a member of that church.


There are many videos online of infighting that takes place between the Greeks and Armenians in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They seem shameful, and it is hard to understand how such clashes occur in holy places. How would you explain the dynamic here to an observer?

I understand your question, but people try to limit those religious conflicts and fights to certain events that have taken place between Franciscans, between Greeks and Armenians, Armenians and Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians, and so on. But, in fact, we must think a bit deeper and ask ourselves what the entire conflict is about between Palestinian Muslims and Jewish Israelis. Is it not about religion? It is about religion. What is the importance of Jerusalem, politically speaking? Is Jerusalem important for military or strategic purposes? It is purely religious, nothing else. The conflict here is religious. When you see clashes in Jerusalem, especially over the Temple Mount and al-Haram al-Sharif, what is it all about? Is it not about religious areas? So they focus on a particular point in the Holy Sepulcher; that makes sense; it is natural. But they cannot focus on the broader picture of what is going on here in the Holy Land.

Now, there is another thing that we should not forget; we have to take into consideration our human predicament. Actually, all the fights and clashes in the past were in the name of God. The Crusades, what were they all about? Were they not in the name of God? And there are so many others. Today, it is not called “in the name of God,” but in this game, in one way or another, religion is involved.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Jordanian Laity Declare Patriarch Theophilos "Anaxios!" at Theophany Eve Liturgy

In Ain Areek, Palestine earlier this month, even the choir declared the patriarch's unworthiness:

In Khalda, Jordan:
and in Abdali, Jordan:
and in Marj al-Hamam, Jordan:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Met Georges Khodr: The Grace of Suffering

Arabic original here.

The Grace of Suffering

Our condition with the Lord is that we are tormented and the Lord is always healing. It is not for us to wonder why we are in pain, why we exist in suffering. Divine revelation does not answer this question. It does not say why we are subjected to suffering, suffering of the body, suffering of the spirit, suffering of the conscience. The Holy Sciptures are content to take notice of this and to start out on this basis to reveal to us how we can escape from this suffering or how we can bear it and transform it into a creative force, a means of drawing near to God, so that we can make it into a ladder by which we climb up to heaven.

In the Bible, we have promises of healing and salvation from sin. We have a promise of joy and a revelation of eternal life that comes when we accept God's mystery and obey Him in all the misfortunes that we taste in the world, whether in the spirit or the body. When we are in such a condition, like the torment of the ten lepers that the Gospel mentions to us today, we should say "Lord have mercy".

Here we observe that the men sought mercy from Christ, which is more comprehensive than just healing. When we ask for healing, most of us ask for healing of the body, and this is good. Physical suffering throws us into a vague state, as though we were alone on a mountaintop, where the freshness of the air makes breathing difficult and arduous. In the physical weakness of our members, all our questions fall away. All the knowledge and understanding that we have stored away ceases. It passes away and becomes nothing. And so we hold on, in emptiness, impotence and poverty. Suddenly, we are seized by the insignificance of everything that hinders us from striving toward our purpose. Weakness and sickness wipe away everything superficial in us. We are inwardly purified when we are baptized with tears of suffering. The Lord always visits us there, while we are dry  on the inside, truly thirsting for living water and reaching out for Him in what we know, deeply and seriously.

The Lord comes and attends to us in our oneness. He stands at a distance. He passes by us, as the text of the Gospel says. He does not impose Himself, but rather waits for us. He addresses us in our own language. If we accept dialogue, if we learn how to respond and say, "have mercy on me," even if He appears to us as a stranger, even if we do not know His name, He enters into dialogue with us and eliminates the rattling of our passions. He extinguishes the flame of their darts and transforms the roar of our thoughts into a spring welling up within us so that we may be revived, casting off of us every worry so that we can remain Christ's.

Where do we stand when we are afflicted, after having fallen into evil, after darkness sweeps our souls? What prayer do we pray? Do we trust that God Himself will come down to us if we pray? Do we know that God wants us to serve Him, to enter into dialogue with us?

Of course, God is able to respond in any case and He does respond whether or not we ask because He knows what we need. Nevertheless, the Lord prefers to speak to us so that we will be trained in His friendship. He seeks this familiarity with us, the familiarity of children with their father. This is what we ask of Him in the divine liturgy before we recite the Lord's Prayer, when we say, "And make us worthy, O Lord, to dare to call upon You as Father."

God wants to be among us, to be live among us, so that we know we have risen up to the rank of divinity and so that we know that God has gone down to the ranks of humanity. If God comes to our souls as they are, as we are accustomed to their being-- in their meanness and in their filthiness-- if God comes to these souls, then He is their Healer.

The ultimate temptation of suffering is for us to become attached to our suffering, for us to close the windows on ourselves entirely and be suffocated inwardly. Our hearts wither, our minds fall silent, our consciences languish, and so we die spiritually. Man does not suffocate only in his lungs. He suffocates when he refuses to open the windows when he feels that he cannot breathe, because if he opens the windows of his heart to heaven, then the Lord will come to him and speak with him and dialogue is breathing and recovery.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Group calls for Orthodox church reform over alleged Israel land sales

Read the entire article here.
Group calls for Orthodox church reform over alleged Israel land sales

by Alex Shams

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Christmas is a time for holiday cheer in Bethlehem, as thousands from across Palestine and around the world converge to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in the hilltop West Bank city.

Onlookers at the Orthodox Christmas parade on Jan. 6 this year, however, were surprised to find protesters awaiting the traditional visit of the Patriarch to Nativity Church, and six youths were even arrested after chanting slogans against him in Manger Square.

For those participating in the rally, it was the visit of Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos III -- not their protests -- that had ruined Christmas.

"I came here to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, in my way as an Arab Orthodox (Christian)," Jalal Barham, a member of the Follow-up Committee of the Arab Orthodox High Council in Beit Sahour told Ma’an at a protest greeting the church leader at Bethlehem's Catholic Action Circle.

"My celebration would not be complete if it did not include expressing my opposition to the illegitimate (Patriarch)."

The protest was part of a growing campaign in Palestine and Jordan loosely organized under the slogan: "Gheyr Mostaheq/Anaksios," meaning "illegitimate" in Arabic and Greek respectively.

Supporters of the campaign accuse the Patriarchate -- reportedly the second-largest landowner in Jerusalem -- of selling off large amounts of land to Israeli authorities through long-term leases.

They have brought forth documents purporting to show that parts of Jewish-only settlements in the Jerusalem area have been built atop these lands, and in the past few years a number of scandals have erupted as details emerged of sales in West Jerusalem neighborhoods as well.

Angered at what they say is the Orthodox Church's increasing collaboration with the Israeli occupation, dozens have joined the grassroots movement aimed at creating change by disrupting the Patriarch's public appearances.

"He is illegitimate in entering the Nativity Church, where Jesus was born and from which the message of Christ emerged," Barham told Ma'an. "We announce in all truthfulness that Theophilos is illegitimate unless he returns to the teachings of Jesus in defending this Holy Land and not selling it off to the Israelis."

The campaign has stirred strong emotions among the 200,000-strong Orthodox faithful in the Holy Land -- including Palestine and Jordan, which are both part of the Patriarch's realm -- raising larger questions of identity and resistance for a community struggling to survive in the face of an occupation stretching back nearly 70 years.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Fr Georges Massouh: The Season of False Prophets

Arabic original here.

The Season of False Prophets

What do the coming days have in store for us? What will our luck and our fortune be? What is our destiny in the coming year? Most people ask these questions and take different approaches to searching for answers that please-- for some-- their hopes and dreams-- and that-- for others-- satisfy their lust and greed.

Needless to say, first of all, that knowledge of the future is exclusively one of the properties of God alone and He has no partner in this knowledge. People act like polytheists without knowing it when they believe astrologers, fortune-tellers, seers and prognosticators... How can the faithful believe in people who are not prophets or sent by God and the facts have proven their claims and predictions to be lies? How can they believe in false prophets?

They clever and the stupid, the learned and the illiterate are all the same before a cup of coffee in which someone is reading their fortune. They are all the same in front of a screen that brainwashes them with the predictions made by those who are expert in deluding people into believing the correctness and accuracy of their words. They are all the same before games of chance, believing that the random distribution of playing cards or a ball settling on a certain number will reveal their future and their destiny.

People search for their fate through various twisted means, not knowing that they must personally contribute to determining this fate and the behavior by which it is realized. It is only the lazy, the idle and those who have resigned themselves from any initiative who passively wait for what the future holds for them. Must we remain inactive before talk of civil strife, war, murder and forced expulsion? Or can we do something to uproot strife and replace it with peace? How do we go from a state of inaction to a state of action?

The Holy Apostle Paul says, "See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:15-19).

It is good for people to celebrate the holidays and to enjoy parties, gifts and spending time with friends and family. However, before all else the holiday is an occasion for repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is an occasion for starting a new life. Yes, the days are evil and we do not need to prove this, since we are living in a hell in which there does not seem to be any choice. Do we surrender to our fate or is there something we can do to stop this descent into the abyss?

At the beginning of His mission, Christ the Lord said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19). If it is not possible for us to stop the slaughter, killing and violence, it is possible for us to consecrate ourselves to serving our brothers: the poor, the brokenhearted, the despairing, the sick, the marginalized and the orphans... and more.

The poor are our destiny. They are the gateway to our salvation.  They are the Church and the mosque. They are the prophets, the saints and the righteous. They are the qibla and the mihrab. Astrologers are not the ones who determine our fate. Our fate is imposed upon us by our repentance, our return to God, our prayer, our fasting and our choice to be new people in the image and likeness of God--- not in words, but in reality, no matter how painful. This is our destiny. This is our cross and we will bear it until God inherits the earth and those upon it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Al-Safir Interviews Archimandrite Christophoros

Arabic original here.

Archimandrite Christophoros to al-Safir: Our Goal is to Set the Church's Path Aright

by Rania al-Jafari

Six months passed between the promotion of Archimandrite Christophoros Hanna Atallah by Patriarch Theophilos to the position of spiritual director of the Greek Orthodox patriarchal schools in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories and his punishment of being cut off from the Church and expelled from the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher.

According to a statement issued by the Patriarchate, the punishment comes as a result of Christophoros' violations of the canons in force in the "Mother of Churches", including rejecting successive decisions of the Church to transfer the location of his activities.

Al-Safir met with Archimandrite Christophoros and tried to shed some light on aspects of an ancient struggle that is being renewed between the Greek administration of the Church of Jerusalem and the people of the Arab Orthodox flock.

What is the extent of your relationship with the Orthodox Church?
I was born in Jerusalem, but I am from the town of Jaffna in Ramallah. I returned to Jerusalem when I was nine years old in order to study in the school for clergy. When I finished my theological studies, I came to Jordan in 1989. I started studying sociology, psychology and law and since that time I have been continuously serving in Jordan.

What does the decision to cut you off from the Church of Jerusalem, after a lifetime of service?
Expelling me from my church means expelling me from my country. In order for me to preserve my priesthood, I must emigrate to another church in Greece, Cyprus or another country. I do not want to emigrate. I have no other choice but to confront this decision and I will remain here.

This is the reason why the Orthodox people took the decision to disobey the patriarch?
The people took this decision, but we the clergy are still examining the ecclesial steps that we will take. This is why we need support from all institutions and patriotic parties in our battle, because it is a battle for existence.

What are the consequences of regarding Theophilos as "not worthy"?
This is simply a popular demand that the name of the patriarch not be commemorated during prayers. When the patriarch's name is commemorated, those praying will cry out "not worthy... not worthy", which may lead us to a step-- which has not yet come-- regarding the priests, for them to refuse to commemorate the patriarch's name at prayer. This step, if it occurs, would mean that the Patriarchate is going through an ecclesiastical crisis requiring everyone to stop and listen to the demands of the Orthodox people.

What is the number or the proportion of priests in Jordan and Palestine who are in solidarity with you?
To be honest, the great majority of priests believe in the necessity of radical reform in our Church and believe in the impossibility of our Church continuing as it is. However, there are impediments before us, including that the priests today are the product of a situation in the Church that wanted to choose weak priests so that they will permanently remain under the authority of the leadership. So these priests bear the onerous legacy of ignorance and simpleness, though at the same time dedication to service, in addition to financial dependence on the patriarch. Usually a priest feels that he lacks any support apart from the salary that come from the Patriarchate. It's as though we are confronted with total colonization!
On the other hand, there is a dangerous movement represented by Fr Gabriel Naddaf who seeks to tear Christians out from their Arab social fabric. We have information that four priests are supporting him in secret, promoting the idea that the Christians' roots are not Arab. Unfortunately, there are young Christians who have come to believe this and this corresponds with Zionist schemes saying that the Christians' roots are Aramaic, not Arab. So Christians living in Palestine today are experiencing a crisis of identity and existence... I ask why Fr Gabriel Naddaf is not cut off from the Church. He remains, while I am cut off!

What is the proportion of priests in Jordan and Palestine that stands with you in your movement?
95 percent of the priests of Jordan and Palestine are with us, but in secret. Openly, the proportion standing with us is around 20 percent and those against us are no more than 20 percent.

In Jerusalem, what is the position of the Arab bishops and religious leaders?
Sadly, they are troubled and displeased with the Church's policy, but claim to be incapable of doing anything about it.

We hear voices saying that what is happening in the Orthodox Church is only a concern for Christians.
My being cut off from the Church is not only a Christian matter. I believe that the Jordanian state is committing an error out of its concern for the person of the patriarch since it honors and respects him him because it wants to maintain a bond with the Church. However, I believe that the bond should be through protecting this institution and ensuring the existence of this component of the nation in accordance with canon law. Indeed, the patriarch's behavior needs to be monitored by the Jordanian state and by the body of the Church and this should not be considered an intervention into Christian affairs.

During your service, did you object to decisions that you felt to be unjust?
When I was the deputy of the bishop of Amman, they sent me out of the capital. Afterwards, I was named deputy to the head of the ecclesial court and in 2009, they dismissed me in a humiliating manner. I only learned about the decision for my dismissal through lawyers. Then, they made me patriarchal vicar in Northern Jordan without responsibilities. In 2013, I was stripped of all my duties and they placed me in Dibbeen Monastery, which they did not recognize as a monastery. The goal of the decision to promote me last June was to keep me away from the monastery. Finally, there was the decision to cut me off from the Church. Moreover, my salary from the Church was ended nine years ago.

Why this war against the Monastery of Dibbeen by Patriarch Theophilos?
Monasteries come within the system of reforming the Church. Successive Greek administrations have undertaken to dismantle the monasteries. Now we have no monasteries or monks. Arabs are stigmatized as wanting to marry and not wanting monasticism, but this is not true. In my experience, during my service thirty young people have taken up monasticism in Jordan under my guidance... If I had a monastery, there would be something more like a hundred monks. The monastery is the Church's lung and the place where monks are born.

The fear of Arabs becoming monks comes from the fear that they might reach the rank of patriarch. This summarizes the Greek-Arab conflict over administration, does it not?

We are not against the Greeks. We are against a policy of the Church and we are calling for reform. We have asked to open a channel with the Greek state to affirm to them that we are not against Greeks. Rather, we are against policies of the Church that could be practiced by any individual, whether Arab or Greek. In short, we want our Church to remain in harmoney with its patriotic Arab line, that members of the flock have a role in the Church, and that its endowments not be diverted to the Israeli enemy.

The the goal of the escalation the retraction of the decision to cut you off from the Church?
No, not at all. I cannot be the goal. Perhaps cutting me off is a trap so that we will be distracted from reforming the Church. I will use my meeting with you to put out this message: I am not the issue, rather I am just a part of it. I am being targeted because I have taken up the issue. Our true goal is ecclesial reform and setting the Church's path aright... As for me, I will return to the Church.

What are the main points of church reform that you are calling for?
Our Church has abandoned its local, national context. We are being persecuted. The flocks of our Church are being made ignorant so that they will leave the Church. It was our duty to offer proposals to the Church based on the Church's canons and to offer solutions. Among them is the re-establishment of the system of dioceses. Each geographical region must have a bishop possessing all competencies to build churches, monasteries and ecclesial and social institutions. He should be the head of the local church in such a way as to allow him to maintain its revival. This bishop should be a permanent member of the Holy Synod. This brings us to the second defect,  the Holy Synod which is no longer made up of diocesan bishops, but rather its members are appointed by the patriarch, who is given final say. The Orthodox Church should be administered by the Holy Synod, which is a clerical body but it represents the people and so, consequently, it is the clergy and people who govern. Let's imagine if the system of dioceses existed, then no bishop in the Holy Synod would dare to vote to sell or rent land to the Israeli enemy because the Orthodox people in Jordan and Palestine would not accept that.

Why are there no seminaries in the Church of Jerusalem?
This is an important arena for reform. I presented to the patriarch a nine-page letter that included this request, but I did not receive any response. Knowing that the patriarchate will not pay for these schools, the flock in Jordan will take this matter into their own hands.

Al-Safir on the Return of Christians to Homs

Arabic original here.

Syria's Christians: Nativity, Golgotha and Resurrection... All at Once
by Wissam Abdallah

Putting up a Christmas tree with a small crèche beside it is something normal, but it is something exceptional in the Hamidiya neighborhood of the old city of Homs in a time of war and destruction, in a time when some residents are returning to their destroyed homes. To complete the image: a Golgotha of suffering experienced by the people and a Nativity and Resurrection of their will to live.

With the conclusion of the truce in the old city of Homs and the departure of armed groups from its neighborhoods, some residents have started to return to their homes and neighborhoods to contribute to the return of life as much as is possible.

As Christmas approaches, young people in the neighborhood of Hamidiya have started to celebrate in a way fitting the situation that the country is experiencing and in a way that confirms their presence and existence in their land.

A recital of Christmas songs was held at the Syriac Catholic church and a Christmas concert was held at the Umm al-Zunnar Church. Homs' director of endowments, Sheikh Issam al-Masri and the director of the Homs project of the Jesuit Commission for the Service of Refugees, Fr Ziyad Hilal and the coordinators of the Program for the Rehabilitation of Wells all took part in the blessing and rehabilitation of a number of water wells.

The flames of war have affected places of worship.  Fadi, from Hamidiya, spoke to al-Safir about this and says, "The area of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan has twelve churches of various denominations. These churches were damaged to varying degrees over the course of events. Some were completely destroyed, like the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, some were extensively damaged, like the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of Peace, the Church of the Holy Spirit, Umm al-Zunnar, and the Protestant church. Some were lightly damaged." Locals and Christian religious leaders are working together with official institutions and civil associations to rebuild homes and places of worship and to rebuild infrastructure such as electricity, telephones, water and sanitation, and to haul off the enormous amount of debris in the area.

Fadi explains the role played by Christian religious leaders in convincing the armed groups that were in Hamidiya and the old city of Homs as a whole, since they were accepted as dialogue partners by these groups. He says, "Today also they are contributing as much as possible to the special agreement in al-Waer. This does not mean that religious leaders from other communities have not contributed to these agreements. In their turn, they have put pressure on the armed groups and softened the government's demands in these settlements."

He adds, "In terms of the role of Christian religious leaders in bringing life back to the old city of Homs, it is true what is said about them, that they immediately started to provide water, supplies, meals and all the basic essentials of life in order to facilitate the return of residents to their homes. This continues even now."

Among ruined walls and burned-out rooms, residents are returning. Shops are opening and neighborhoods are being cleaned up. Around thirty thousand families are estimated to have fled Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, while the number having returned up to this point is no greater than 500 families. This is due to various reasons, the most important being that their period of displacement was very long.

A young man named Amjad who is among those returning to Homs spoke to al-Safir about this situation, saying, "Voluntary return is particular to families, each according to their circumstances and capabilities. However, I can confirm the return of a large proportion of those owning homes and means, at least to repair what was destroyed by the war and then to take up permanent residence in the coming period."

According to Fadi, "the decision to return requires an active economy in order to move their businesses back there again." He adds to these factors the inability of some to bear the costs of rebuilding their homes, especially those that have been seriously damaged. For his part, Amjad says that "the basis for this return is a sense of belonging to and love for this land and nation... Here are our homes... Here are our memories... Here are our churches. The armed groups forced us to leave at the start of the crisis."

As for Fadi, he believes that the situation of Christians in Syria is like that of all Syrians, who are attached to their land, their homes and their neighborhoods and that it is natural for them to return when circumstances allow. He adds, "I do not deny the high rate of refugees outside of Syria as a result of the crisis, but i believe that it is a temporary flight in order to wait for the security situation to stabilize in Syria as a whole."

Syria's Christians are among those who have chosen to remain and to continue life in their land and their institutions. They are contributing to the formulation of a new message at the threshold of Christmas, perhaps the beginning of a "theology of stone" to express the rootedness of their presence within Syrian society. It is a theology that is not based on religious dogma so much as a social engine that is not limited to Christians but includes all Syrians, so that each can contribute to building a bridge and forging a way to raise the nation up from its bitter wounds.