From His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III
We had already expressed our good wishes for the beginning of the month of Ramadan, so today we are rejoicing with our Muslim brothers and sisters in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and all other Arab countries.
We are celebrating with them the Feast of the Fitr (at the end of the month of Ramadan), just as we have been living this month of Ramadan with them, fasting for a day alongside them and taking part in the different popular and media aspects of the feast, such as the meals (iftar) that mark the close of each day’s fast, one of which was held at the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate in Damascus.
Today, we extend to our brothers our very cordial good wishes. We would also like to express a spiritual thought to them, to help strengthen our sincere mutual relationship, on the national, religious, social, cultural, human and moral levels.
We extract this thought from our 2007 Christmas Letter, called, “The Word became flesh.” Indeed, we believe that the Word of God, in Christianity and in Islam, is of the greatest importance in promoting those conditions required for meeting and living together in mutual respect, echoing the Qur’anic verse, “Come to a common word.” (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)
In this letter, we wrote, on the subject of dialogue between Christians and Muslims:
There is the Word that we have in common, it is clear: let us maintain a dialogue of our beautiful faith, for the word that was given to me by God in my Christian faith is truly mine, but not only for me; it is for my society, for my fellow-men and I must bring it to them as a light of love and as a call to love, a sign of hope for the other person, that he may grow in his religion and beliefs and deepen them, not so that I may despise him or he may despise his own religion. It is of very great importance for people to love their religion and the Word of God for mankind, and know it in ever greater depth, preserving and defending it. But one must be open to the other person, to his convictions and faith. If not, we fall into relativism, which is the greatest enemy of faith.
Jesus calls us to preach that faith, saying, “Go ye into all the world” and “teach all nations.” And Saint Paul exhorts us, speaking to his disciple Timothy, saying, “Preach the word…in season, out of season.” (II Timothy 4:2)
There is no monopoly on the Word of God. It is just as much the other person’s as it is mine. Our Muslim world is afraid of our preaching, but does not cease preaching Islam. That is an unreasonable position. We require our Muslim fellow-citizens to acknowledge our freedom to bring the good news to others, with love and respect for their faith, but we do not require anyone else to embrace our faith. It is enough if people can find out about it and come to esteem and love it. Conversion is the work of God. Do not attempt to convert a friend, or loved one. God converts whom he will.
The Word of God is for me and its revelation is to me, but not to me alone. I must allow others to share in it. We must have, as we say in the Arabic proverb, bread and salt.
But it is not bread or salt that enables us to live together. What matters is rather how we can share together in the Word of God in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. How can we feed each other by the Word of God? How can the Word of God become an essential food? As we say in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily (epiousion) bread.” The Our Father is really a call to share together in the Word of God.
We thank God for the many, beautiful relationships between Christians and Muslims that occur especially in everyday living. However, I would like us to share together in the Word of God, since that is what unites us, draws us together and gives us strength, reinforcing our faith. Let us not be afraid to love the Word of God in our brothers and sisters. Let us not be afraid of verses from the Qur’an and let them not be afraid of verses from the Gospel or from the Torah. These are the Word of God for us all, every one according to his own calling. I would like to tell our Muslim brethren not to fear our faith. Let us all rather be afraid of using words of vengeance, criticism, pride and haughtiness. The Word of God does not despise anyone. It is not proud, boastful or puffed up. It does not engage in bad behaviour or enjoy retaliation. It does not rejoice in evil, but in good. It rejoices in love and believes all things. (cf. I Corinthians 13:4-7)
Let us love the Word of God, for the Word of God is for us all. Let us share these words, proclaiming them in song and loving them. Let these words of God be for our friendship, living together and mutual relationship. Instead of using empty, lying flatteries, let us nourish ourselves with earth’s most beautiful words and feed each other with these same heavenly words that God addresses to the children of men, for God is bountiful and bestows his life-giving words on us all. Let us not be afraid of the words of God, but rather let us fear the words of men. Let us so act that our human words be changed into words divine.
I propose founding a forum to be called “The Forum of the Word of God,” so that Christians and Muslims can meet together and together discuss and meditate upon the Word of God.
Our zeal for the Word of God should be a means of sanctification for us and for deepening our faith. We must not allow our zeal for the Word to become a weapon to exploit others, judging, persecuting and compelling them to embrace our faith, any more than we can allow the Word of God to become the cause of conflicts, disputes and confrontations between our faithful and those holding different religious convictions. Nor should it become an instrument of terrorism and a pretext for one group to claim superiority over another. The Word of God (not we ourselves) is the true judge between us and those who are not of our faith.
And why be afraid of having churches and mosques? If they were symbols of defiance, we would have cause to fear, but as signs of faith they may stimulate instead our hopes and expectations.
Why, in Saudi Arabia, are they afraid of allowing churches to be built and the Gospel to be preached? Why are they even afraid of Christians praying as a community? Surely those who are in the light need be afraid of nothing!
Let us not be afraid. The Prophet Muhammad was not afraid of a Christian or Jewish presence, but combated paganism. Today all of us Christians and Muslims are called to fight against today’s new paganisms: incredulity and unbelief.
I say to my Muslim brethren: don’t be afraid of our faith, but rather be afraid if we neglect our faith and indulge in unpleasant habits. To my fellow-Christians I say: don’t be afraid of the words of those Muslims who keep and preserve the Word of God.
Following the publication of this Christmas Letter, a Lebanese journalist published this assessment, “This letter is the expression of the cultural revolution that awaits the Arab world. It is the purest and most frank expression that Christians and Muslims alike could wish to hear of the basis for Islamic-Christian relations that will help us Christians and Muslims to continue our progress together along the way of the 1429 year old history of the Christian and Hegiraic eras.”
That is the meaning of the Qur’anic verse, “Come to a common word.” This verse is also the title of the letter of the 138 Ulemas, Shaykhs and Muslim intellectuals sent to his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
This common word is warranted to shrink the wound of emigration that saps our Arab countries and lowers the number of job opportunities and the climate for living together, progress, security, prosperity, dignity and honour.
Our Arab countries need this common word to meet the aspirations, wishes and prospects of the young generations; who make up sixty per cent of the three hundred million inhabitants of the mostly Muslim Arab world.
This common word is the warranty that will allow us to preserve our (Muslim and Christian) Arab world from fundamentalism, terrorism, violence, hatred and aggression.
This common word is at one and the same time the future of both Christians and Muslims.
We would like this Feast of the Fitr to give a new impetus towards dialogue, meeting, friendship, fellowship, mutual respect, acceptance of the other and progress together towards new horizons in our Arab Middle East, cradle of Christianity and Islam. This is the great challenge for us all. Are the children of a common cradle, in this common Middle East capable of continuing their progress together, for as long as God wills: he who is Love and who loves all his Christian and Muslim children?
The common word, in Christianity and Islam, has an extraordinary power; it is capable of helping us to love one another, to cooperate and to build together in fellowship a civilization of love, an authentically humane culture. If we Christians and Muslims love, love will spread through out the whole world.
Yet, if we live in hostility, the whole world will live in hostility too; if we hate each other, the world will be smothered in the hell of hatred. If we reject each other, the world will be torn apart and consumed by the fire of wars. As Fairouz sang about Jerusalem, the City of love, truth, faith life and the Resurrection, “When Jerusalem fell, love retreated and war reigned in the hearts of the whole cosmos.” The world would then be the homeland of war, rather than being the land of Love and peace.
However, it is up to us, through our fellowship and love, to build for the whole world a model of living together, dialogue and encounter.
Our countries were the cradle of religions. We are called, in this Arab world, to provide society with a blueprint for the finest kind of life in the fairest kind of setting.
These are then our good wishes! This is our common word, spoken to our Muslim brothers throughout the whole world.
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain