by Ryan Hunter
On Saturday, September 7, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) became the latest body of Orthodox bishops in North America to comment publicly on the perilous situation of Christians in the Middle East. Convened in Toronto, Canada’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, the bishops released this statement:
The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, having convened under the domes of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Toronto, Canada, within the holy presence of icons of the Most-Blessed Virgin, the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign” and the Myrrh-Bearing “Softener of Hardened Hearts,” observes with alarm the unfolding events in the Middle East, in our thoughts kissing the podvigi [spiritual feats] of the persecuted Christians and new martyrs who sprinkle their blood upon the earth of their nation, which since ancient times has glorified the name of Christ […]
Noting Christianity’s ancient presence in the region from the time of Christ Himself, the bishops noted that the city of Antioch (present-day Antakya in southern Turkey) was where the followers of Christ were first called Christians. They continued:
[…] It is known that it was specifically the members of the Great Church of Antioch, the ancient followers of Christ, who first became known as “Christians.” And now their pious descendants are in danger, enduring persecutions for the faith of their forefathers […]
Acutely aware of the worsening U.S.-Russian diplomatic situation and the possibility of American military strikes against the Assad regime, the bishops opposed such intervention and called upon all Russian Orthodox Christians to come together in common prayer for peace in Syria and throughout the Middle East:
[…] Anticipating armed intrusion into the boundaries of their country and condemning it, the Synod of Bishops calls upon all loyal children of the Russian Church Abroad to strengthened prayer for peace in Syria and the Near East, for all the persecuted and suffering for their faith in Christ, for the relatives of the victims who lay down their lives for God, the Church and their neighbor. […]
The bishops closed with a benediction for the peace of Christ to strengthen all those suffering for their faith in the Middle East amidst the ongoing Syrian civil war and escalating sectarian violence in post-Morsi Egypt:
[…] Standing in the presence of these miracle-working icons of the Mother of God and participating in the Church-wide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Toronto, we beseech the Most-Holy Mother of God that the “Lord grant strength to His people and bless His people with peace,” the peace of which Christ told the Apostles before His sufferings, the peace that He left for them. May this Divine peace, unearthly and eternal, reign in the hearts of the Christians of the Near East and strengthen them, and also inspire in us devotion and love in further carrying out our service, our duties and our life’s cross.
This statement from the bishops of the ROCOR (an autonomous jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate) is the most recent addition to a number of public exhortations offered by different Orthodox leaders in the United States. Their hope is to draw greater attention to the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, particularly the devastating impact that the civil war has had on Syria’s ancient Christian communities.
A cross-jurisdictional American Orthodox witness for peace
This past week, on Friday, September 6, Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America (under the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East) sent this open letter to President Obama urging him to “find a peaceful solution which relies on negotiation and not bombs”. Highlighting the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front’s recent attack on the ancient Christian village of Maaloula (which award-winning religion reporter Roberta Ahmanson incisively covered here), Metropolitan Philip asserted that the rebel terrorists who attacked the Aramaic-speaking village above Damascus did so with the support of the U.S. government.
Appealing to the President’s “humanity and compassion for people”, Metropolitan Philip urged President Obama to “halt consideration of any U.S. military action against the Syrian government. This would be a deadly and costly action, and nothing can be gained by it”. The Metropolitan’s urgent appeal to the President follows this pastoral letter which he sent to the clergy and faithful of the Antiochian Archdiocese on Tuesday, September 3, in which he exhorted them to contact their representatives in Congress to express their opposition to further U.S. military intervention in Syria.
Metropolitan Philip is hardly alone in his efforts to raise awareness of what he views as an ongoing effort by more radicalized Islamist elements within Syrian opposition groups, particularly the Al Nusra Front, to threaten the historic Christian presence in Syria. In this April 23 statement on their website alerting the public to the abduction of two prominent Syrian Christian bishops (Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo, brother of His Beatitude John X, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, and Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Archdiocese of Aleppo), the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America asked that “all Faithful to remember them in prayer and for a peaceful and safe resolution to this crisis”.
Other American jurisdictions, including the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and the non-Chalcedonian Northeast American Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, also reported on the abduction of the two beloved bishops. They join their voices to more prominent global movements for peace which transcend denominational or confessional barriers.
A growing ecumenical Christian movement for peace in Syria
His Holiness Pope Francis, the most prominent international Christian spiritual leader, has continued his regular peace appeals to his Twitter followers, and, notably, offered a 5-hour long prayer marathon for peace in Syria on St. Peter’s Square this past Saturday evening, September 7. Some 100,000 people belonging to many faiths and belief systems attended this Saturday vigil marked by prayer and fasting, while many also listened the following day as the Pope again appealed for peace.
On September 10, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, spiritual leader of the world’s largest local Orthodox Church, sent this public statement to President Obama in which he expressed his profound concern over the possibility of a U.S. military strike on Syrian territory. Appealing to the President to “lend [his] ear to the voices of religious leaders who unanimously oppose any military interference in the Syrian conflict and to make every effort for the soonest commencement of peace negotiations”, the Patriarch also expressed solidarity with the American people on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, noting that “We also regard as our own pain the pain and losses the American people suffered in the terrible terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.”
In Britain, the UK’s two leading Anglican and Roman Catholic prelates expressed their shared concern over the ongoing humanitarian crises in this rare joint statement offered by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols.
The personal stakes many American Orthodox have in an end to the Syrian civil war
While Orthodox Christianity remains a small minority faith in North America, it is the second largest global Christian faith besides Roman Catholicism. In the Middle East, most Christians follow the ancient Eastern rites, whether they are Byzantine (or Eastern) Orthodox, Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox (Syriacs, Copts and Armenians) or Eastern Catholics (Melkites or Maronites). In the wake of the growing presence of radicalized Islamist fighters among the ranks of certain segments of the Syrian opposition, it is these ancient Christian peoples who face the distinct possibility of generational displacement and permanent exile from their homelands.
When Metropolitan Philip referenced Al-Nusra Front’s attack on the ancient village of Maaloula in his open letter to President Obama, the weight of history in his words was palpable: this site, populated before the time of Christ, is a remnant of a bygone era in that its inhabitants still speak the ancient Aramaic language which Christ Himself would have used. Given the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in their village, the inhabitants of Maaloula, Christian and Muslim alike, presently face an uncertain future. So too, symbolically, does the endangered Aramaic language they have spoken for generations.
Yet most U.S. media sources, both printed and online, seem at best casually indifferent to what could well turn out to be not only a sectarian or religious tragedy, but a linguistic and anthropological one as well. As the IRD’s Bart Gingerich observes in his recent article here, with the exception of a few U.S. political leaders and journalists whose voices are all the more crucial given their rarity, our media and political leaders have been deafeningly silent when it comes to reporting on the circumstances of Syrian Christians and other religious minorities who face, at best, a tenuous future in the ancient land in which they have lived for many centuries.
As the humanitarian crises in Syria continue to develop with no foreseeable end in sight, American Orthodox hierarchs have noticed this silence on the part of many senior U.S. political leaders and media. They have determined to add their voices to those of other Christian faith leaders in a common, ecumenical effort opposing any further U.S. armed intervention in Syria’s civil war. It is my earnest hope that all those whose hearts yearn for peace, irrespective of their particular faith tradition or beliefs, will share and discuss these public statements offered by the spiritual leaders of my own faith tradition.