Christian Presence, Peace and Living Together in the Middle East
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To all of you dear people, greetings from the East, birthplace of religions, especially in the Holy Land, of which Pope Saint John Paul II said, "The Holy Land is the home of all Christians, because it is the home of Jesus and Mary." It is the home of every man, as Psalm 86 (LXX) says of Jerusalem, "A man shall say, Sion is my mother."
God has established the heavenly Jerusalem as the home of all people. Therefore, the earthly Jerusalem must not be bound to a person or a people, for Jerusalem is the mother of us all. I consider Jerusalem, where I served as bishop for twenty-six years, as the capital of our faith, whether we are Jews, Christians or Muslims. That is its future and task. This is the future and mission of the Middle East and all its inhabitants - Jews, Christians, Muslims – who have been living together for thousands of years.
In October 2017 in Tiberias, I met a German group led by a Jewish tour guide and said to them, "Judaism will never suppress Christianity, nor Christianity suppress or exterminate Judaism. Neither will Islam destroy Judaism and Christianity. We have to share our faith fraternally. This is the future, the foundation of peace."
This is my word to you, dear friends. Thanks to my dear friend, Manfred Erdenberger, and to DINO for the invitation.
The Christian presence in the Middle East is the basis for living together and for peace, but this presence diminishes after every war and every crisis. Peace, in turn, is the prerequisite for the Christian presence.
The reason is the Arab-Israeli conflict. We know that wars and crises are the result of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. This also includes the fundamentalist movements and the turmoil in the Arab world.
Furthermore, it is the reason for the existence of hatred and hopelessness, especially among the youth. Emigration has its roots in this conflict. A common constructive attitude of the Arab states could bring peace to the Middle East. A corresponding attitude on the part of the United States, the Russian Federation and the European Union is indispensable for this.
Conversely, the attempt to fragment Arab states is destructive of peace and living together, and of the Christian presence. This is the case especially in recent years with the wars in Iraq, Syria and Palestine. We ask the world to refrain from this divide-and-rule policy.
This policy will destroy the hope of resolving the conflict. Christian emigration is mainly the result of this conflict. This emigration means losing the diversity of living together and dialogue at all levels.
Christian emigration means that the Arab world will become monochrome, monolithic! That means only Muslims in the Arab world confronting Judaism in Israel and Christian Europe. These are all elements of the clash of civilizations, the clash of Islam and Christianity.
"Loss of trust," says Vatican II, "is the cause of all conflicts and wars."
There is no trust between Europe and the Arab world, Christianity and Islam. Furthermore, in my personal opinion and in view of the many wars in the Middle East for seventy years, the desired new Arab world can only be brought about by resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict. And besides, there can be no new Arab world without Arab unity. This is quite contrary to the attempt to fragment the Arab states, e.g. into tribes, religious denominations, Christians, Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze and arrange these fragments into cantons. This means the destruction of the Arab world and the living together of Muslims among themselves, of Jews and Christians.
The declaration of Israel as the Jewish state also implies the destruction of society, implies war, hatred, etc.
Israel’s recent Nationality Law blocks the way to a solution of conflicts, to peace, to living together. All this, in turn, is the reason for the emigration of Christians.
Christians have a special role: in the Middle East they are bridge-builders between East and West, between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The goal is a Middle East without wars, without weapons, without hatred, without enmity. Thus, the Middle East, where Jews, Christians and Muslims have their birthplace, could be a school for the world, a salve for all war wounds. Thus, a unique mission would be fulfilled. Jesus’ mission is described as follows: "that he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad." (cf. John 11: 52)
This is what our Arab world needs! This is the hope for the young generation (sixty per cent of the Arab world are young!). We cannot continue to rear this generation in an atmosphere of hatred and enmity. In this respect, we Christians have a special, unique mission and task.
It is the mission of the small flock that tells us,
"Fear not, little flock!" (Luke 12: 32)
We thank our brothers and sisters from the West who are at our side, especially in Iraq and Syria.
The relief committee of our Patriarchate in Damascus was able to provide great assistance thanks to the help of many friends and organizations. In 2016 (during my time in office) there were about eight thousand families receiving monthly help from the Patriarchate. Our budget was forty to fifty thousand dollars a month. I was able to raise a total of about one and a half million dollars towards the outlay.
I arranged an extra programme for Ma’alula. We helped about five hundred families under the slogan, "One room for every family."
With pride and joy and gratitude, I can say that all bishops, priests, monks, nuns have been zealously committed to helping all the needy in Syria. Thanks to all those who have helped us provide this aid. God bless you!
The greatest help needed by Christians in the Middle East is for them to gain understanding, confidence, and strength to stay in the East, despite all difficulties, including martyrdom, and be there light, salt and leaven for their fellow human beings.
In the Arab world, they have been living as the small flock with Islam for more than fourteen hundred years. Christians there number about fifteen million and Muslims about four hundred million.
This task has become even more difficult in recent years because of the spread of fundamentalism as a result of the wars and with the appearance of ISIS.
We trust in Christ in this difficult task!
His last word to his apostles was:
"Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." (Matt. 28: 20)