Monday 3 November 2014

"We will be the salt and the light of the Arab World"

This is a full transcript, in English, of my interview with Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, of the Melkite Church. His Beatitude speaks of the situation of Christians in the Middle East but also about particularities of the Eastern Catholic Churches, such as ordination of married men outside of the ancestral territories of the Patriarchates, etc. The news report can be seen here, in Portuguese, but is accompanied by a video which is in English, subtitled in Portuguese. The interview was conducted in English, some of the Patriarch's answers were edited for clarity, but always respecting his meaning. 

Transcrição integral, no inglês original, da entrevista ao Patriarca Gregório III, da Igreja Melquita. A notícia encontra-se aqui. 

You are in Portugal to speak about the situation of the Christians in Iraq and Syria. What will you be telling your audiences?
First, we are very thankful that you are so aware in Portugal and elsewhere about this situation, especially of the Christians as part of society in Syria. We are especially thankful to Aid to the Church in Need.

The events in Iraq in June, with the expulsion of about 120.000 Christians, and also some Yezidis from Mosul and Nineveh, were a shock for the whole Middle East. It had a great impact in Syria, because the Syrians were more optimistic, the situation was better, the government was doing well, the army was having more successes, but with this shock of Iraq the people were disappointed, skeptical, pessimistic, and more and more people are leaving today, because they are afraid that something similar will happen to them. 

Currently the main places of fear are near the border with Turkey, near Aleppo, in the North... Aleppo is a real prison, it has been for months. Several times without water, without electricity, and sometimes without food. But they are very courageous, and very united, the bishops and the people, but many left, especially the rich people who could help others. And many factories have been destroyed...

Damascus is less dangerous, it is the capital. We hear bombs and planes attacking, but more from the government against these mercenaries and bandits and groups. There are about 2000 groups working in Syria, fighting in Syria, against the government.

People say it is a civil war, but I can't say it is a civil war. Civil war means different factions of the country fighting each other. Here you have a government and mercenaries and groups from inside, from outside, fighting, attacking, kidnapping, and so on. It is not a civil war, it is not even a real revolution. It is a crisis, which is bigger because of the influence and invasion of other groups from outside. 

Daily we hear that people from Holland, Britain, Germany, are going to Syria. It is against human and natural law to go from Holland to fight against me in Syria, or to destroy my house. It's not like the first or the second world wars, not even like the war in Lebanon, there it was a real civil war, here it is all militias, militias, militias. 

The chaos is the biggest danger today. You don't know. Every place is safe in Syria and every place is dangerous.

Here in the West we see Christians being persecuted. Many people want to help. But what can they do?
First of all, really, if we had a consensus with the Arab world and Europe, to stop the war, this is the best help, because even with the huge humanitarian help by international organizations, the churches, Catholic and others, in spite of that, we can't cope with all the needs of our people. 

Daily we have more people needing help. For example, in my Patriarchate in Damascus we started a small community for about 300 families. Now we have 8000, and everyday more and more.

Children are dying, there are no schools, little food, now the winter, medicine, operations, handicapped people, kidnapped people and ransoms. Daily we have huge numbers and different sorts of tragedies and needs.

We have had lots of help, from the Vatican, Aid to the Church in Need, the Holy Father, Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Cor Unum, Ouvre d'Orient, Caritas, they are helping a lot, as well as our international friends. It is a lot of help, but we are not able to cope with the needs of the people. 

The second is really to stop the traffic of weapons. Pope Francis said that the biggest problem today is weapon trafficking... In Europe there are economic problems, and the weapons business and the war are ways of improving the economy in Europe and America.

For me, as a priest, as a bishop – very independent, very free, and with no tension or influences – we don't need these wars in the Middle East to change. We can change without that. The Islamic world was changing already before ISIS and so on, in general you could see development in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, without these wars and crises... we don't need it.

It is really an awful war and Europe is responsible for that, with the USA and with Russia. All together. I am sure that if one day the interests of Russia and America coincide we will have peace. As long as they don't realize how to do that, we will continue to have war. It is not ISIS... sure they have influence, but the real problem is somewhere else.

Assad warned that a change of regime would open the doors to radical Islam. Is the regime vital to coexistence?
The situation in Syria, the conditions of life together, coexistence, freedom of religion and of worship, churches, schools, development of industry and so on, is not only the result of the regime or the Ba'ath party. 

The party did a lot for the development of the country, but this coexistence, this freedom, is not a result of this party, which was founded by a Christian. It is an ancient tradition. In the time of the Ottomans, the best place to live, for Christians, was Syria and Lebanon, called Sham. These were countries where Christians could live. 

When you go out to other Arab countries, like the Emirates, the Gulf states, it is another Arabic Islamic situation. But the place where Christians used to live in security, in freedom and coexistence, cordiality, together, flourishing and respected, are these countries. So I wonder, what can these movements bring us more? I don't know. 

If there is an alternative, what is it? Who can bring me, as a Christian, as a Muslim, as Druze, as Shiite, more than I have now in terms of living together, peaceful coexistence of churches and mosques, living together in different quarters, with Christian business men having more Muslim employees than Christians... It is wonderful. I like to tell the Western countries, we live together better than in some countries in Europe. 

Many Christians were taken up by the pan-Arab nationalist movements in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Has that dream died?
Well, it is in great danger. Not because of Islamism, these movements are instruments for something else. For me the biggest danger and the biggest problem and cause of this instability in the Middle East is the failure by Europe and the Arab world to solve the conflict between Palestine and Israel.

Iraqi Christian refugees in Erbil
I served for 26 years as bishop in Jerusalem, before becoming Patriarch. I can tell you that all the problems in these countries are related to the problem in Israel and Palestine. As long as there is no solution it means this conflict will be an excuse for many countries, including Arab countries, to dominate their people, not to do what they have to do, and not to liberate and give freedom and development. They spend a lot of money on weapons, but for nothing. The greatest interest is for Israel. 

Security for Israel? I am ok with that. But also security for Palestinians. The security of Israel is more in the hands of the Palestinians than in the hands of Europe and America, because as we say in Arabic, your neighbor is more important than your own house.

The Holy Father Pope Francis, when he came to Jordan in May, said there are two keys to peace in the Middle East and the world. First, a real political and diplomatic, comprehensive, consensus solution for the crisis in Syria.

Second, justice for Palestine. These two things have to be considered in all policies. But they are not considered.

The European Union is 50 years old. I told them, look, you have 50 years of peaceful coexistence. Please help Arabs, don't divide Arabs. Help us to be united. It is better humanity, for development, for young generations and also for peace for you. 

If we solve the Palestinian Israeli conflict we will have less aggressive Islam in Europe. We will have better Islam in Europe, they can be better integrated, there will be more understanding and more dialogue. The danger for you is bigger than the danger for us. Islam in Europe will be more dangerous than in our lands, because we have a long experience of living together, we will be successful, we will live after this crisis. So for the sake of Europe and the Islamic presence in Europe, you need to help solve the problem.

Holland is now willing to recognize the State of Palestine. I asked the Holy Father, when I was with him on the 20th of October in Rome, I said please, be the first state, not the last, to recognize Palestine and you will help Christians and Muslims alike, and Jews also. 

The salvation, the security of the Jews are in our hands and not in the hands others. 

There has been more and more talk of creating a safe-haven for Christians in the Middle East, do you think the time has come for this?
Never! Never. Never. It was maybe a temptation in the past centuries, but no more. 

When Israel defined itself as a Jewish state, there were no protests, which is a pity. I am ok with the existence of Israel, but Jewish state? What for? Where am I as a Christian, or as a Druze, as a Palestinan Muslim... What is the difference between a Jewish state and Shari'a? Jewish state means the law of the Jewish religion. 

After the creation of a Jewish state some want to have an Alawite state, a shiite state, a Druze state, a Kurdish state, and so on and so on, what is the future? Nothing. 

We can't live separated! We have a history of living together. I told my people, we will not have our state, we will be in all states and being, in these states, salt and light. This is the future. Christians cannot live alone. We don't have a ghetto spirit. We have to avoid the ghetto spirit. To be put in a corner, or like a resort to save animals or plants... We are the cradle of Christianity, the birthplace of Christianity, we don't need a state.

I wrote a letter to my people and I quoted the letter to Diognetus, which is well known. I told my people, this is the answer to you. Already in the second century this was it.

The Holy Father said, in Evangeli Gaudium, that people think that the problems of today are worse and more difficult than the problems in the first century. It is not true, it is the opposite! For 300 years we had no rights, it was pagan, now we have churches, schools, congregations, we have processions, we have everything. We were able to overcome then, why not today? We have to give hope to our people, because the danger is so big, they are leaving. They are in great fear.

As pastors we have to be very strong and near to our people. We thank the Lord that all patriarchs and bishops are very near to their people.

Christian leaders have always been against the creation of armed militias for the Christian communities, but since the purge of Mosul and other Christian areas, many have defended the legitimacy of an armed response. What is your opinion?
We are not able be armed and we don't like to be armed. 

I said in 2012, in a letter, we were not asked to be armed, in Syria, we are not asking to be armed and we don't like to be armed. Now, it is different to say that in some places we need to have self defense possibility. Not to attack, not militia. Militia is not for Christians. Lebanon used that approach and it was a very, very bad experience. We don't need that, we are different. The Arabic world needs us like this, and not like militias.

We have to convince our people not to take up arms. We have to see other solutions. So I am asking the whole world, why, after years and centuries, are we always solving problems with war? Why not think of something else? In the XXI century the states are only thinking of more and more weapons. The church has to change minds in the states and not to see everything in terms of weapons and militias. This is not the answer, not for the future.

We had 1400 years with Islam without weapons, why not continue without weapons?

But many middle Eastern Christians reject the idea that they are Arabs, and claim to be Assyrians, how do you react to that?
Who is Arab? Where is the pure Arabic blood? Many Muslims were Christians, Assyrians, Greek Catholic, and so on. Many admit this, that they were Christians. Until the XIII century the majority of the Middle East was Christian. How did they become Muslim? Over time.

Being Arabic is something difficult to define. There are different linguistic or geographic groups. It is a mixture of different groups. You can't differentiate. I am Greek Catholic, because of the Greek language, but I am Syrian, just like the Assyrians, because it was the invasion of the Greek language and all the Middle East was speaking Greek in the cities. Even the founders of the Syriac church did not speak Syriac. They are called Syriac Fathers, but they spoke Greek. 

So the difference between Arabs and non-Arabs, Assyrians, Syrians, Chaldeans... The same country has different languages, or similar languages.

What is Assyrian? Assyrian, Syrian, Chaldean, Hebrew, Cananean, Philistines... These people are closer to each other than Europeans, because our languages are closer to each other than European. 

I am happy that we have many rites. Coptic, Syrian, Armenian... We have more pluralism than Europe. I say keep your tradition! Think in Arabic, but think also in Coptic, Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Assyrian, Chaldean... How beautiful!

Before the war we had one million Iraqis and they were singing and praying in our churches in Chaldean, it was so beautiful to hear them! In Maaloula Muslims speak Aramaic, just like the Christians. So this distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs... We are in the Arab World. We are Kurds, Druze, Shiite, Christian…

The "arabity" is a Christian trait. We brought that. Some people say, keep your Christians to keep your "arabity", because if there are no more Christians in the Middle East, only Muslims, they will call themselves Muslims, not Arabs. Even though the Koran is in Arabic, they will say we are Muslim. Arabic is the language, but the nation is Islam. 

So in order to keep a real Arab world, an Arab spring, even, we have to keep Christians there. Not only are we interested in staying, you are interested in us staying. This is a real mission.

That is why I said in my letter to other Christians, it is not the time to be only afraid. There are reasons to be afraid, but it is also time to see where is our mission? I like to tell Christians in Europe, never speak of our presence without speaking about our role and our mission. A presence without a role is nothing, a role without a presence is nothing, therefore we have to think about the Christian presence and the Christian role, and in the very beautiful words of Saint John Paul II, the essence of the human being is to be with and for. I am with the Arab World, but I am for the Arab World, that they may have life, and life in abundance. 

How wonderful is this mission? The essence is to be with, but also for. That is the whole sense of this awareness of the world about Christians, not for themselves, to be present, but to be more, to bring the light of the Gospel, the joy of the Gospel, the values of the Gospel in the world. 

There are many different Christian churches in the Middle East, each with its own Patriarch, liturgy, traditions, language… The feeling is that Christians do not speak as one community and with one voice. Is this a problem, and how can it be overcome?
Because of dogmas, sometimes we have some problems. But for the pastoral, for the social presence, for the works and so on, we are one, especially today. We thank the Lord that we have a wonderful set of Patriarchs today, very united, and we had, since June of this year, many meetings together, all Patriarchs, not just Catholics. We went together to Arbil, to visit the refugees of our brothers, the Iraqis, Yezidis, Christians and Muslims. And we went together to Washington where we had a meeting with Obama, for 40 minutes, all together, and we have many declarations, thank the Lord, with one voice. We are very grateful for that and we want the World to hear our voice. One of the means to realize peace in the Middle East is to hear the voice of the churches. 

We don't have interests, no money, nothing, no militias, we are really, in favour of our countries, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon... We are not servants of a regime, no, no, no! We are strongly together, to bring peace.

I sent a letter to the Holy Father and also to the Bishop's conferences in the world. Giving a little paper and asking them, can we make a paper and give it to the Orthodox, the Anglicans, Lutherans and together having one paper for peace in the Middle East... This is a very beautiful and unique chance for the Church to be peacemaker, and that means real power for the Christians in the Middle East, good for dialog to continue in the Middle East and also in Europe. It is a great chance and I hope it will work. We were together with the Holy Father on the 21st and he said Yes, I hope they will do that, to have one document, one word of the whole world towards peace in the Middle East.

Were you satisfied with the results of the Synod for Middle Eastern bishops?
It was really an act of providence. Just before the crisis in the Middle East we had this wonderful chance to join together, Catholic bishops, but also the Orthodox, who were represented, Muslims and Jews... It was providential of Benedict XVI to have this synod, giving a plan for the Christians to be strong and to remain at home. What we need today we have in this document, to remain in our places, and all problems we need to speak about are in this document. 

We are very, very happy, and it is providence that this happened just before the start of the Arab Spring and the troubles.

Two of the only things the synod fathers requested, permission to ordain married men in diaspora communities and direct authority over your communities, were denied...
In November last year we had a meeting with the Pope for 4 hours. All Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, and also the Archbishop-majors, and we spoke of these problems. One result is that today it is ok to ordain married men in America, and not only, in Europe, slowly, because we don't have these huge communities, but it is possible also.

This is official?
Yes, yes, official. With some indications to be discrete, because we have to go slowly, but it is ok. 

As for the authority of the Patriarchs outside, it is not so much as we wished. But it is up to us to organize ourselves. If we have more relations with the Latin Church in the countries where we have people, we can reach more with relations than with Canon Law, or with rules. And I think through the war now, and the crisis in the Middle East, I think there is more and more sensitivity towards us, and this is very important. 

Some Eastern Rite Catholics complain about the restrictions and say that they feel like second class catholics. Do you ever feel that way?
No. We had this experience of the synods and I attended many. There are feelings of family and respect. They are happy to hear us. We have more and more communication with them... I don't think that.

We do have better relations with the Cardinals and bishops outside the Curia. The Curia is very legalistic. We have better friendship with the Church outside the circle of the Roman Latin Church. It is different, you know, the Latins in Rome are one thing and the Latins outside Rome are something else. But it is the Church.

Pope Francis was the ordinary for the Greek-Catholic Communities in Argentina, do you expect a better understanding from him?
Well, this meeting in November last year, was a sign of that, and the same with the consistory on the 21st. He is always praying for Syria and for the Middle East.

We can't forget the prayer for Syria in September 7th last year. For 5 hours we were praying and we avoided the attack against Syria. The warships were on the coast with Syria. But there was no aggression, and Syria became a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it was a change.

I think he is very sensitive. In Argentina he was in touch with all communities, Catholic, Orthodox, and also Muslims and Jews. And he grew up in a very plural society and therefore he brought such a beautiful change and a new outlook for the Vatican. 

There is a tradition among Melkites of refusing to be made cardinals...
Yes, it is very rare. One Patriarch became Cardinal in the XIV or XVI century. But in the modern times, only Maximos IV, who was forced to accept as a sign of reverence. But for my predecessor Maximos V and for myself it is not a question. 

This is a Roman thing, not Oriental. We are more than cardinals, not by rank, but by jurisdiction. I am the Pope of my church. 

I like to say, jokingly, that as a Patriarch I am a big archbishop and a little Pope. In many things, unless there are problems, I can rule and serve my church without any reference to Rome. 

Respecting the tradition of the Eastern churches is a mission for us. Because we are the voice of the Orthodox inside all the jurisdiction and meetings of the Catholic Church. We are the presence of the absentee. If something is related to the Orthodox, we are there. We are immediately giving the point of view of the Orthodox and Eastern churches, and that is a big service that we provide.

Fifty years ago [Ecumenical Patriarch] Athenagoras met my predecessor Maximos IV. Maximos said to Athenagoras, “I was speaking always thinking of you”. And Athenegoras answered, “You were speaking on my behalf”. That is why we are so very faithful to our tradition, because it is the tradition of the Church. As John Paul II said in Orientale Lumen, a beautiful document, the Eastern Churches are churches, the same level as the Latin Church. It is not a special Church, it is the Church of God, the same, in the Middle East, in the Eastern as well as in the Western Church.

If somebody asked you if they should go and fight with the Kurds against the Islamic State, what would you respond?
Let us be ourselves and let Syria and Iraq solve the problems by ourselves. We used to be together for many years. Let the little people work together, and as I said, don't divide the Arab world. 

The people who fight are motivated by money and lack of sense of life. I don't think the jihadists coming from Britain, from Germany or Sweden are really willing to be jihadists or to be Muslim, they have no sense of life and they find adventure. 

Therefore I am really not afraid of them, and I would like to invite the European Union and the Western world to work for better Islamic united world, a united Arabic world, and you will have peace in your country. Peace in our countries is peace for Europe. We are one. We cannot forget the Mediterranean... it is our water. We need a good future for peace in our countries. No war! As Paul VI said. And let the little people work together.

You are interfering because you are powerful and you have weapons. You have to change your mind and do something else. Christianity is always a new look, the World today needs a new look. Not only wars and weapons and so on. We have to think of something new.

We had a bad experience of wars for centuries in the Middle East. The Gospel is a new look over the world. We hope that we can bring more light to our world.
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