Address of Patriarch Gregorios III at Christian-Muslim Congress

"It Is Up to Us to Safeguard Righteous Religious, Spiritual and Humane Values"

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JERUSALEM, JAN. 22, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address Patriarch Gregorios III Laham of Antioch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church delivered Dec. 15 at the 1st International Congress of the Christian-Muslim Brotherhood, held in Damascus, Syria, as a follow-up meeting to the October Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops.



* * *

Dear brothers and sisters, 

Greetings to you all! I particularly want to thank Muslim brothers, especially the muftis, ulemas, imams and preachers who have come from all Syrian regions, for being here. Special greetings to the university students here present! 

Greetings and thanks also go to their Excellencies the Ministers of the Awqaf, the muftis and imams who have come from different Arab countries, as well as different countries’ ambassadors to Syria. To them I dedicate this talk about the Synod for the Middle East, which was an Eastern Christian event, an historic event being the first of its kind.

I thank Their Holinesses and Their Beatitudes the Patriarchs and their representatives, as well as His Excellency the representative of the Holy Father, His Excellency the Apostolic Nuncio in Damascus, Their Excellencies the Metropolitans and Bishops who have come from Arab countries and Europe, especially Eastern Europe (Russia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey). I greet them all, together with the priests, monks and nuns and all the faithful from our Churches who have come from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt.

A beautiful saying of His Holiness John Paul II, who so loved our Arab countries and visited them, comes to mind, a phrase from his last Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2005, and I quote: "Can an individual find complete fulfilment without taking account of his social nature, that is, his being ‘with’ and ‘for’ others?"

Our Lord is described thus in the Gospel: "Lo, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son and they shall call his name Emmanuel; which being interpreted is, God with us." (Matthew 1: 23) God is with and for us, for as Saint Irenaeus says, "the glory of God is living man 2." This is the faith of all Christians. They repeat it every time they say the Creed: "I believe in one God, Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of God… who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man… " On the basis of this spiritual conviction, I named this congress, "The Synod for the Middle East and Arab countries." That was with the aim of highlighting the relationship between the Synod and Arab countries as well as between the Synod and the Muslim world. 

A simple calculation shows us the following state of affairs: the Middle East is made up of Arab countries, together with Turkey and Iran. The majority of its population is Muslim; 350 million inhabitants, of whom there are 15 million Arab Christians. So, the Synod for the Middle East is a Synod for Arab countries, for Arabs, a Synod for Arab Christians in symbiosis with their Arab society. It is a Synod for the "Church of the Arabs" and "Church of Islam," that is, the Church existing in a Muslim setting. Lastly it is a Synod for Christians and Muslims living together in the Arab East!

This was an important event, of a unique kind. Thanks are due to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI who called for this Synod to be held as the most important synodal event since the Second Vatican Council brought the Eastern Churches to prominence!

In this Synod, the platform was given to Eastern Churches: there were patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, priests, monks and nuns, and lay faithful too. 

It is evident that in this Synod, the causes of the Middle East and the Christian presence in the Muslim Arab East took first place. That is why I addressed to Their Majesties, Their Highnesses and Excellencies, the Kings, Emirs and Presidents of Arab countries, a letter explaining to them the topic and goal of the Synod – the situation of Christians in Arab countries. And I ended by telling them that the only guarantee of the Christian presence in the Arab East is that of their Muslim brothers. 

Indeed, the Arab world, the presence of Christians in the Arab world, Christian Arab identity and the challenges that face the Christian presence in this Arab world were the subject of different speeches, discussions and recommendations.

After this, I addressed a second letter to Arab leaders in which I set out the most important issues discussed by the Synod that concerned our Arab world.

Extracts from the Letter addressed to Kings and Presidents of Arab countries after the Synod in Rome:

I had the honour of addressing a letter to you (dated 18/06/2010) on the subject of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops entitled The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.

At the end of this Synod, it is my pleasure to communicate the following reflections to you in this letter:

The Arabic language was an official language of the Synod alongside other languages. A resolution requested that it be adopted again in the Vatican’s Roman Dicasteries. It is a gift due to the concern of the Arab Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops for the Arab world! Indeed it is the language of our culture, faith and societies. It is the great common denominator among Arab countries. This represents a great achievement! 

The Arab Middle East, together with Turkey and Iran, was the most important topic before the Synod. 

To speak more precisely, the following themes were the special subject of the Synod: living together, life together, citizenship, modernity, faithful laity, human rights, including those of women, religious freedom of worship and conscience, the construction of churches and places of worship, especially in Saudi Arabia, respect for others and their beliefs, plurality, diversity, rejection of fanaticism, violence, negative fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism, exploitation of others, especially weaker folk and minorities… 

Featuring in all the discussions of all members of Synod (about 200 persons), was especially Islamic-Christian dialogue in all its dimensions and modalities, significance and urgent necessity, and the support to be brought to its development and animation by all Christians and Muslims. 

The Synod members or Fathers dealt with the challenges that Christians have to cope with, which include: emigration, insecurity, economic, social and political crises, and the consecutive wars in the region. These challenges have increased, especially because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are the cause of many misfortunes and calamities in our societies. They have sown hatred and enmity among Christian and Muslim citizens locally, regionally and globally. Also resulting from them are fundamentalism and terrorism, represented in the media as though Muslim and Christian Arabs were born terrorists and fundamentalists! This might make people think that religion is the cause of terrorism, violence and fundamentalism, though religion is not to blame for all that. As a result of this state of affairs our whole society has become "abused," with these disasters mainly striking our young generations!

The Fathers and members of Synod sought remedies for these calamities: they found that the most efficacious remedy is principally Islamic-Christian dialogue. In the Arab world, it must be our daily bread. In any case that dialogue was the experience of our living together throughout our shared history of the last 1432 [Islamic] years, despite dark centuries, when problems, tensions and even massacres whose victims can be counted in thousands, caused loss of trust in living together, in others and their values… And in its place crept in hatred and enmity and the traditional virtues of pity, compassion, love and fellowship became stunted…

The Fathers and members of Synod stressed the need to overcome crises! We must continue the journey together. Furthermore they considered that the success of our singular and difficult experiment in living together is the guarantee of the success of dialogue between followers of different faiths. What is more, it became clear to all, as was remarked on and reported often in the press, that any failure and lack of success of our experience of living as Christians and Muslims together in the East will have a destructive effect on all possibilities for dialogue, and will be a bad harbinger of the fact that all dialogue among people, civilisations and religions in East and West, will be doomed to failure. 

So we shall have the following result: the East, symbol of plurality and dialogue becomes void of Christians. So the Arab East becomes Muslim without Christians. On the other hand, the West is considered Christian (even if only through baptism). This Christian West supports Israel, in its turn considered the enemy of Islam and Muslims. So the final, terrifying equation is this: the Christian West supports Israel and Jews, the enemies of Islam and Muslims! So Christian Europe is the enemy of Islam and Muslims! And that is precisely the great misfortune, the dark and terrifying future that awaits us! God grant it may not happen!

Peace was a basic topic of the Synod’s deliberations, speeches and proposals. For peace is both the greatest good and a lost possession! Peace is the great challenge! Peace is most desired by all sides! That is also why bringing it about is the responsibility of all: East and West, Arabs, Europeans and Americans. The Synod members strongly emphasised the role of the Vatican and the Pope or Popes, because of the global influence they exercise. The members of Synod, Patriarchs, Cardinals, and Bishops, emphasised their own responsibility to work for peace. Yet we think that peace is an Arab responsibility! We think that if Arab countries were united in fellowship and concord, and nobly, boldly and firmly decisive, they could impose on the Israelis, with the United States of America, and Europeans, a complete just and lasting peace. For this bold peace is the great jihad (struggle) and the great challenge, which can give an answer to all other challenges, issues, fears, apprehensions that afflict our Middle East. [End of the letter.]

Having said this, I am speaking with unshakeable faith and conviction to my Christian brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, to my Muslim brothers and sisters, and remembering words that our dear President Dr. Bashar al-Assad said, explaining the relational dimensions between people, "In Syria, we are united. We are a natural model for society, for humanity, and for interreligious relations. We ought not only to provide a model for relations between religions and citizenry, but also do this for a more noble and universal reality - humanity!"

God has created us in this holy land of the East. It was a Holy Land for Jews, before us, and subsequently for us and for Muslims. It is an important common spiritual heritage, which we do not value enough. This comprises the holiness of the land, of the Scriptures and many common religious values. This was described by the Second Vatican Council in its declaration, Nostra Aetate, dedicated to the Catholic Church’s relations with Jews and Muslims. 

The existence of these three religions in the region is unique, important and vital. This state of affairs has significance in the life of Christians, on the spiritual, national and cultural level… Christians must acknowledge this fact despite the circumstances; the multiplicity of nationalities and the different intellectual and religious trends.

We have to look for common Islamic-Christian values and make them the subject of studies, conferences, congresses and Muslim-Christian meetings. There should result from that a programme of joint academic and spiritual work for Christians and Muslims.

The Synod for the Middle East inspired in me the idea of an important project: holding a Synod for the Middle East in the Middle East, gathering Churches together: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.

Another idea came to my mind of organising a Muslim-Christian assembly in the Middle East, which would study all the topics touched on by the Roman Synod’s documents: the Instruction, the Instrumentum Laboris, the Lineamenta, then the discussions and speeches during the Synod; the recommendations and finally the Message to the People of God.

All these documents speak of the Christian presence in correlation with Muslim society. 

Here are some paragraphs from the final Nuntius directly to do with the subject of this congress:

I. The Church in the Middle East: communion and witness through history 

3.2. The second challenge comes from the outside, namely, political conditions, security in our countries and religious pluralism.

We have evaluated the social situation and the public security in all our countries in the Middle East. We have taken account of the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the whole region, especially on the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation: the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio-economic life and the thousands of refugees. We have reflected on the suffering and insecurity in which Israelis live. We have meditated on the situation of the holy city of Jerusalem. We are anxious about the unilateral initiatives that threaten its composition and risk to change its demographic balance. With all this in mind, we see that a just and lasting peace is the only salvation for everyone and for the good of the region and its peoples.
3.4. We have extensively treated relations between Christians and Muslims. All of us share a common citizenship in our countries. Here we want to affirm, according to our Christian vision, a fundamental principle which ought to govern our relations, namely, God wants us to be Christians in and for our Middle Eastern societies. This is God’s plan for us. This is our mission and vocation - to live as Christians and Muslims together. Our actions in this area will be guided by the commandment of love and by the power of the Spirit within us.

The second principle which governs our relations is the fact that we are an integral part of our societies. Our mission, based on our faith and our duty to our home countries, obliges us to contribute to the construction of our countries as fellow-citizens, Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

V. Co-operation and dialogue with our fellow-citizens, the Muslims 

9. We are united by the faith in one God and by the commandment that says: do good and avoid evil. The words of the Second Vatican Council on the relations with other religions offer the basis for the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Muslims, "The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living…; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men." (Nostra Aetate 3) 

We say to our Muslim fellow-citizens: we are brothers and sisters; God wishes us to be together, united by one faith in God and by the dual commandment of love of God and neighbour. Together we will construct our civil societies on the basis of citizenship, religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Together we will work for the promotion of justice, peace, the rights of persons and the values of life and of the family. The construction of our countries is our common responsibility. We wish to offer to the East and to the West a model of coexistence between different religions and of positive collaboration between different civilisations for the good of our countries and that of all humanity.

Since the appearance of Islam in the seventh century and to the present, we have lived together and we have collaborated in the creation of our common civilisation. As in the past and still existent today, some imbalances are present in our relations. Through dialogue we must avoid all imbalances and misunderstandings. Pope Benedict XVI tells us that our dialogue must not be a passing reality. It is rather a vital necessity on which our future depends (Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Representatives from the Muslim Communities, Cologne, 20 August 2005). Our duty then is to educate believers concerning interreligious dialogue, the acceptance of pluralism and mutual esteem.

VI. Our Participation in Public Life: An Appeal to the Governments and to the Political Leadership in Our Countries 

10. We appreciate the efforts which have been expended for the common good and the service to our societies. You are in our prayers and we ask God to guide your steps. We address you regarding the importance of equality among all citizens. Christians are original and authentic citizens who are loyal to their fatherland and assume their duties towards their country. It is natural that they should enjoy all the rights of citizenship, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom in education, teaching and the use of the mass media.
We appeal to you to redouble your efforts to establish a just and lasting peace throughout the region and to stop the arms race, which will lead to security and economic prosperity and stop the haemorrhage of emigration which empties our countries of its vital forces. Peace is a precious gift entrusted by God to human family, whose members are to be "peacemakers who will be called children of God." (Mt 5:9)

VII. Appeal to the International Community

11. The citizens of the countries of the Middle East call upon the international community, particularly the United Nations conscientiously to work to find a peaceful, just and definitive solution in the region, through the application of the Security Council’s resolutions and taking the necessary legal steps to put an end to the occupation of the different Arab territories.

The Palestinian people will thus have an independent and sovereign homeland where they can live with dignity and security. The State of Israel will be able to enjoy peace and security within their internationally recognized borders. The Holy City of Jerusalem will be able to acquire its proper status, which respects its particular character, its holiness and the religious patrimony of the three religions: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. We hope that the two-State-solution might become a reality and not a dream only.

Iraq will be able to put an end to the consequences of its deadly war and re-establish a secure way of life which will protect all its citizens with all their social structures, both religious and national.

Lebanon will be able to enjoy sovereignty over its entire territory, strengthen its national unity and carry on in its vocation to be the model of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, of dialogue between different cultures and religions, and of the promotion of basic public freedoms.

We condemn violence and terrorism from wherever it may proceed as well as all religious extremism. We condemn all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Christianism and Islamophobia and we call upon the religions to assume their responsibility to promote dialogue between cultures and civilisations in our region and in the entire world.

Dear brothers and sisters, friends,

We are called to academic and prophetic advances, in all sincerity, friendship and mutual respect: for the uninterrupted growth of fundamentalism and extremist movements are geared up and capable of leading the Eastern Arab world into disasters, of which young Christians and Muslims – who form 60% of the Arab population - will be the chief victims. 

That underlines the vital and capital importance for the future of opening ourselves to each other, Christians to Muslims and Muslims to Christians. This openness will define the dynamics of our Arab world’s evolution in respect of: 

*The concept of state and of religion and their interaction

*Modernity

*Rights of man and woman

*Freedom of worship and of conscience

*The idea of "better religion"

We, Christians and Muslims, must reach joint positions about the danger of the growth of various fundamentalist concepts, whether Christian, Muslim (or Jewish). It is up to us to safeguard righteous religious, spiritual and humane values, and especially the values of human dignity and freedom.

That is what will guarantee a better future for our societies and for all our Arab countries together. I dare say that the evolution of our Arab Christian and Muslim society conditions the success of all the efforts that the Churches are making in the pastoral, cultural, social and economic fields; for young people; and for halting emigration. This evolution, linked to the promotion of values mentioned above, is a joint responsibility for Christians and Muslims.

The realisation of our objectives will be proportionate to our efforts, carried out together, for adopting these values and putting them into practice.

On all that our future, our existence, our presence, our communion, our witness and the future of our Arab society depend.

I will also venture to say that, internally, the success of all our pastoral, apostolic, catechetical, academic, pedagogical, clerical and monastic activity depends on the evolution of the common Muslim-Christian journey.

In other words, the religious development of our society depends on the religious evolution of our Christian society which is dependent upon the religious evolution of Muslim society. And the preservation of our Christian values depends largely on the evolution of Muslim society. 

That was all highlighted throughout the course of the Synod, whose recommendations must be applied in our Churches, in collaboration with our Muslim fellow-citizens. Since people are the product of their social environment, the different components of that environment were invited to take part in this Synod, including Muslims and a rabbi.

There should not be forgotten the existence of a major obstacle lying in the way of this journey and evolution: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace must be made in the Arab region: peace that will have a great influence of the evolution of the above-mentioned values and will halt Arab Christian emigration.

Allow me to add an intuition which, over days, has become a certainty for me:

*I believe that it is most important to examine in depth the ideology behind the religious fundamentalism, terrorism and increasing violence perpetrated here and there against Christians.

*Genuine Islam is foreign to that ideology.

*That ideology is the biggest danger to Islam. It can destroy that religion showing a hideous image of it.

*There is a big danger to the Arab world with its Muslim majority, tending to show Arabs in general and Muslims in particular as fundamentalist terrorists and assassins. This makes it permissible to refuse any legitimate claim, especially coming from Palestinians. That explains the refusal of the international community to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recognize an independent Palestinian State.

*Another component of this danger is the increasing harassment of Christians; the prohibition which is made, in some countries, against their building churches; the denial of freedom of conscience, most recently in Egypt and Iraq. 

*All those things are so many aces in the hands of Israel for establishing a State exclusively for Jews. The argument put forward by Israel in that regard is as follows, "See how Muslims treat Christians and other minorities! How could we live with them in this country? And if we allowed the creation of a Palestinian State, it too would become an Islamic, fundamentalist, terrorist State."

*It is in the aim and intention of Israel, as an exclusively Jewish State, of creating in the Middle East a dust of confessional statelets: Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Kurd.

That is the dreadful danger menacing the Arab world and Islam and even Christianity.

I conclude with the closing section of my letter to Arab Kings, Emirs and Presidents:

In our preceding letter (18 June 2010), we spoke to you as follows: "You are the guarantee of the Christian presence in the Middle East!" You are indeed our warranty! We said it again in the Synod, a prominent platform for the Arab cause, as we faced the media from all over the world! ...

Today at the Synod’s end, we say to you, dear, most esteemed friends: you are the guarantee of the success of the Synod held in Rome. You are the warranty of the decisions, proposals and hopes of this Synod being followed up and put into action in our Arab countries!
The sessions of the Synod were preceded by prayers according to the different liturgical rites and languages of our Eastern Churches, whose main language is Arabic. 
We shall continue our prayers, in our churches and monasteries for peace, for all our fellow-citizens and for you personally! You have care for the sons and daughters of our parishes! Care for our many churches, monasteries, institutions, which are at the service of our Arab countries that we love and for which we have laboured and will continue to give our all in the service of their prosperity and development, with the Blessing of God and through your vigilance!

We are praying to Almighty and Merciful God, for our Arab homelands, and for Christians and Muslims to remain together and together be salt, light and the leaven of faith, hope and love!

We put our hope in God, for the Synod to be the beginning of a Arab national way of faith and dialogue, common to Christians and Muslims, for a better future for all of us, in Syria, our dear country, and in all our dear Arab countries.

Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
of Alexandria and of Jerusalem