Monday, September 15, 2014

In Defense of Christians: A Report on the Summit

By Fr. Chris Metropulos in Orthodox News

Sep 152014  0 Comment(s)  Tags: 
On September 8th, I made my way to Washington DC, together with a diverse group of archbishops, bishops, priest, theologians, laymen, and politicians, to attend the 1st Inaugural Summit of the “In Defense of Christians” Conference (IDC). This was the first time people of faith met to discuss the killing of thousands of Christians in the Middle East that has shocked the world. It was also a meeting, as many conference speakers noted, on the eve of President Obama’s much-anticipated address on a US foreign policy strategy to deal with ISIS, something very much on the minds of all who attended.
The OCN Team: Fr. Steve Zorzos (Board), Tony Alexiou (Blogger), Fr. Chris Metropulos (Exec. Director)
The OCN Team: Fr. Steve Zorzos (Board), Tony Alexiou (Blogger), Fr. Chris Metropulos (Exec. Director)
Unfortunately, the five Patriarchs of the original church of Christ were not in attendance, but other Patriarchs, Cardinals and Archbishops of the Armenian, Coptic, and Maronite Churches under the spiritual direction of The Roman Catholic Church were present. The newly elected Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America was present, representing His Beatitude Patriarch John X, who was unable to attend.
The Summit opened with a press conference at the National Press Club, with an impressive array of spiritual and secular leaders on the dais, including:
His Eminence, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches
His Eminence, Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros
Cardinal Raï, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
His Beatitude, Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
His Excellency Ibrahim Ibrahim, Bishop Emeritus of Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle
Dr. Robert George, Princeton Unversity McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Vice Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Nina Shea, Director, Center for Religious Freedom, Hudson Institute
Robert A. Destro, Professor of Law, The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law
Nermein Riad, Executive Director, Coptic Orphans
Professor Robert George spoke eloquently and from his heart, saying that it was an honor for us to be together as Christians, but that we are extremely saddened by the victimization of the Christians in the Middle East. He asked where is the voice of the American Christians in this catastrophe? It must become loud and frequent if something is to be done to stop this genocide, a word used quite often during the course of the Conference.
Cardinal Wuerl speaking at the Press Club
Cardinal Wuerl speaking at the Press Club
Cardinal Wuerl, whose Archdiocese of Washington hosted the conference, expressed his gratitude to the summit organizers and praised their efforts on behalf of those suffering, while also welcoming the distinguished hierarchs to the nation’s Capital. He said, “We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Middle East who suffer, and we are united in spirit with resolve and purpose to see this to a good ending for all. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being a voice. This is our first gift to those who suffer. Please don’t walk or look away now at this tragedy. Please be aware.”
His Eminence, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, brought special greetings and blessings from His Holiness Pope Francis. He stated that we are facing two main issues at this conference: (1) the killing and uprooting of the Christians by Jihadists and (2) the role of the local authorities in developing a solution to return the Christians to their rightful homes. Over 120,000 Christians have been evicted, their belongings destroyed, and their Churches desecrated.
The world has stood by for too long, the Cardinal stated, and the local governments are just too weak and unable to protect the Christians. He stated, however, that he felt things were about to change with a stepped up effort by the United States. It is now time, he said, to act to protect innocents using force that is required to regain a stable environment for parents and children to live in peace. We must respond as the most powerful nation in the world to this tragedy to save humanity. “What we are experiencing is 8th Century barbarianism with 20th century weapons, which is a lethal combination.”
Nina O’Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute also spoke at the Press Conference. She stated this is the worst example of violence in Iraq in the past five years. “It is now known that 91% of Americans feel the threat of ISIS now reaches all people for we are experiencing an impending cultural genocide.”
These introductory remarks were followed by questions and answers directed to the panel by the press. Yours truly posed a question to Andrew Doran, Executive Director of IDC. I asked,”What is the direction that you hope this conference will take, and what do you hope people will do after this event?” Andrew thanked me for the question and responded that there are three areas of direction that will be developed during the Conference, which will then be expanded upon. They are: (1)Advocacy for the Christians of the Middle East, including action, not just words; (2)Establishing a Unity of Purpose with our coming together for a common cause; (3)Raising awareness of the plight of the Christians of the Middle East.
John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft
One of the highlights of the Conference was the address by John Ashcroft. Without written notes, he delivered one of the post powerful and spiritually moving messages of the gathering, telling everyone he was not a theologian, nor had he studied theology. You could have fooled this listener! His message was riveting. He spoke about how God is the creator of diversity in people, and therefore, we do not have a right to compel people to believe as we want them to. In fact, that would be going against the free will He gave to His first creation, Adam and Eve. Our diversity doesn’t separate us, and our God-given creation binds us together in respect and love for the image He placed in all of us. Liberty of the person is sourced by God. Governments and social movements cannot dictate or force a life style. Our spirituality is not the stuff of an imposed nature; it is inspired by God. How can someone, in the present case a group like ISIS, feel that God didn’t get it right? How can they feel entitled to correct the situation by force? This is completely contrary to our nature and our creation.
His Eminence, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, gave an impassioned speech and did not tire once as he spoke of the beauty of God’s creation and the fact that no one has the right to deny basic freedom to anyone. He also shared a message from His Holiness Pope Francis.
His Holiness Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Great House Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church
His Holiness Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Great House Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church
His Beatitude, Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was forceful and inspired in his comments. He reflected on how the mere survival of Christianity in the Middle East through all of the turmoil is a miracle in itself. He spoke of the sayings of Christ, that we should all be one and that no one can stop this command and wish of God.
His Grace Archbishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
His Grace Archbishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria,  posed the thought that seven centuries of normal civilization was now at stake in the Middle East. The type of persecution we are seeing now has not been witnessed for centuries. The freedom we have represents privileges given to us by God that must now be protected by the world at large. Democracy as we have come to know, love, respect and yet sometimes challenge it, is a gift, but it is not for everyone. It cannot be imposed on others who may not be ready to receive it. His Grace finished with three ways to respond to the current challenge. 1. We can respond with our own Christianity, standing hand in hand together as a chain that cannot be broken. 2. We can stand in unity with those who are ethically and morally in agreement with us, even if they are not of our own beliefs. 3. We can begin a united effort for those in need. Do not allow anyone to be used as a bargaining chip.
Conference presentation on how to lobby Congress
Conference presentation on how to lobby Congress
Many of the delegates were anxious to visit their senators and representatives on the Hill, so Professor Destro took some time to outline how one can properly influence elected officials to gain votes for your cause.  He asked all to not retell the story of the atrocities of the Christians since the members have already been updated on the horrific situation. Rather, he encouraged the attendees to get to know their representatives and also their staff, and to ask them to vote the way that will bring about positive change in the Middle East and assist the persecuted Christians. One of the major themes that continued to surface throughout the summit was for the United Nations to fully engage itself in the conflict because of the number of nations being affected.
Numerous members of Congress came to address the Conference Attendees and spoke with passion and purpose. Approximately 17 came to speak, even though they were all preparing to listen to the decision of the President on what strategy he was going to employ in dealing with ISIS this evening.
As many of you are aware, Senator Ted Cruz’s speech was the source of great upset and controversy. A room full of approximately 800 people shouted him down and booed him off the stage.I was there when this happened, and I encourage you to read my full account of that event here. It would be difficult to understand what really happened without being there in person.
In two days of meetings, I only heard one mention of the two bishops who were kidnapped in Aleppo, Syria on April 22, 2013, and they were mentioned only by their titles, not by name. This to me was a huge disappointment. Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi, the brother of Patriarch John of Antioch, and the Syriac Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim have been missing now for more than one year. Please, everyone, keep them in your prayers.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Really Happened When Sen. Ted Cruz Addressed Persecuted Middle Eastern Christians

The IDC Summit for Middle Eastern Christians, held in Washington, D.C. this week, had many important moments. The most frustrating of these was the keynote address at the Gala Solidarity Dinner. The keynote was given by Senator Ted Cruz — or, should I say, he attempted to deliver one.
As someone who was there for the entire summit and gala dinner, let me share with you what I saw and heard.
As the senator came to the stage, he was greeted with warm applause. However, it was all downhill from there. Instead of speaking about Christian persecution, the topic which delegates traveled from around the world to address, the senator brought up the 1948 creation of the state of Israel and said that Israel was by far the best ally of every Christian.
This caused a strong negative response from the audience, whose families are in the Middle East, where Palestinian Christians have suffered greatly this past year in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The more Senator Cruz spoke about this issue, the louder the crowd of 800-plus dinner guests shouted: “Speak about the Christian persecution! That is why we came! We know of the Israeli difficulties, but this is not why we are here.” Others shouted, “We are not anti-Semitic. We are here to save the Christians.”
The good senator continued to speak into the uproar, and then made a final statement to the audience, “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you.”
If I had not been there myself, I would have a difficult time understanding what actually transpired. It was not just a band of a few politically motivated people who were trying to take advantage of the situation. Hundreds of gala attendees were shouting at the top of their lungs for the senator to change the subject or to leave — and he did the latter.
Now, I do not agree with the methods of those who shouted down a sitting United States Senator, calling on him to leave the stage. But I also do not understand why the good senator was not prepared to address such a distinguished body of clergy and lay people from around the world on the topic of Christian genocide, or why he spoke with such insensitivity.
Up to this point, the Summit had been a success. Remember: it was a diverse group of Christians coming together from many countries. The organizers deserve our utmost respect for a job well done. I pray it is only the first of many more such events.
My prayer, however, is that the people they invite to speak do their homework first.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.
Shaped by a life of service to Christ’s Church, Fr.…

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"The Fragile Promise of the Pan-Orthodox Council"

he announced 2016 council of Eastern Orthodox Churches is historical, but expectations should be modest
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrates an Orthodox liturgy for the feast of the Dormition of Mary at the Panagia Soumela Monastery near Trabzon, Turkey in August 2010. The Patriarch will preside over the Orthodox council to be held in Constantinople in 2016. (CNS photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters)
An Assembly (Synaxis) of the Primates of the local Orthodox Churches, meeting March 6-9, 2014 in Istanbul, has agreed to convene a Pan-Orthodox council. A “Communiqué of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches” released on March 9th stated that “the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church … will be convened and presided by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople in 2016.” This decision brings to the homestretch a long process of preparation that goes back as far as the 1920s, had an active phase in 1960s and 1970s, and then was rather quiet until very recently.
Historical context
The last Pan-Orthodox council of this scale was convened in Constantinople well over a thousand years ago, in 879-880, when Photius was reinstalled to the Patriarchal throne. That council dealt mostly with the issues of inter-Church relations and had wide representation of the Eastern Christian Churches, with over 380 bishops in attendance. Some Orthodox believe that the IV Council of Constantinople (its other name) was the eighth and last ecumenical council.
After Byzantium lost most of its territories, the councils of the same scale became impossible. Nevertheless, the Eastern Church continued exercising its synodality. Many Eastern bishops and even Patriarchs were unable or did not want to stay with their flocks on the occupied territories. They either preferred,or had no choice but to spend most of their time in safe Constantinople. The old institution of endemousa synodthat is, a gathering of all bishops who, by chance, found themselves in the capital—became a major instrument of the Church’s synodality. Not only the hierarchs under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, but also bishops and even Primates of other Patriarchates, participated in such councils, which managed ecclesial matters related not only to the Church of Constantinople but to the entire Eastern Church.
After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Orthodox Churches began discussing the possibility of convening a Pan-Orthodox council. In 1923, the Patriarchate of Constantinople called an inter-Orthodox assembly, which nevertheless did not consider itself a Pan-Orthodox council. There were several attempts to convene such a council in the interwar period, but they were also unsuccessful, mostly because the Russian Church was isolated and suffered from severe persecutions. The Orthodox Churches returned to this idea after World War II, and Vatican II especially inspired the Orthodox to accelerate the process of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox council. Pan-Orthodox consultations were instrumental in the preparation process, taking place at Rhodes in 1961, 1963, 1964, and in Geneva in 1968. These consultations were succeeded by the Pan-Orthodox commission and the Preconciliar consultations, which took place from the 1970s until the new millennium. Finally, the institution of the Synaxis (gathering) of the Primates of the Orthodox Church took the process of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox council to its final stage. The last Synaxis took place in Constantinople in 2008.
Many Primates who participated in the Synaxis were also active participants in the previous preparatory meetings. They clearly want to accomplish this important work, which has been a major focus of their lives, as well as the lives of their teachers and predecessors. If the council does take place, it will summarize the history of the Orthodox Church of the last century and will be the most important event in modern Orthodox history.
Risks, compromises, weaknesses
That the Pan-Orthodox council has been scheduled for 2016 is of great significance. The question remains, however, as to how effective it will be in addressing the issues that really matter for the Orthodox Church. There also remains also a real possibility that the council can and will be postponed. A postponement would take place if the tensions between local Orthodox churches become more intense, or something transpires within inter-Orthodox relations making council impossible. Simply put, the inter-Orthodox peace is still very fragile.
The participants in the Synaxis were obviously aware of these risks. In order to minimise them, they adopted a roadmap towards the council. An inter-Orthodox preparatory committee will be set up, which will work from September of this year to Easter Sunday of 2015 (April 12th). This committee will work on the documents that will be considered at the council, and on the details of its procedures. It will also quickly intervene if difficult issues arise in inter-Orthodox relations during the period before the council.
The Synaxis in Istanbul much time discussing the format of participation of the local Churches in the council. The agreement is that each Church will send 24 bishops plus the Primate of the Church, a number doubled from 12 bishops, plus the Primate, which was agreed in the midway. Because some Orthodox Churches (for instance, Cyprus, Poland, Czech Lands and Slovakia) do not have so many bishops, those Churches can send as many bishops as they have. The initial idea to allow these Churches to “borrow” bishops from other Churches was abandoned. The number of the participating bishops does not necessarily matter, because each Church will have only one vote. Only the autocephalous Churches (whose head bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop) will have right to vote. The autonomous churches (whose highest-ranking bishops are approved by the patriarch of an autocephalous Church) will be able to participate in the council only through their “mother” Churches. Decisions will be taken only if there is a consensus among the voting Churches. Finally, all the sessions will be presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople—a point listed first among the decisions of the Synaxis regarding the procedures of the council.
These decisions of the Synaxis are the result of compromises achieved through very tense negotiations. The main protagonists of the negotiations were the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow. Other Primates contributed mostly by suggesting solutions that would satisfy the two sides.
The Patriarch of Moscow initially suggested that all Orthodox bishops should take part in the council. Other Churches did not accept this proposal since it gave the Russian Orthodox Church, with its over 320 bishops, a distinct advantage. Instead, a limited number of bishops from each Church was accepted, which gave the Church of Constantinople with its allies an advantage over the Russian Church. To balance this decision, the Russian Church insisted on the procedure of consensus in taking decisions by the council. (Consensus means a right to veto for each Church and effectively neutralises the numerical majority of the Churches.)
This means that the compromise about the procedures significantly reduces the possibility of the council accepting any decision regarding burning issues. Only the council could have an authority to take such a decision, and yet it has been a prioriparalysed in addressing the issues that divide the Orthodox Churches in our days. This is one of the weakest points of the upcoming council.
Pressing, divisive issues
The most divisive issues on the Orthodox agenda relate to the relations between the local Churches. The models of these relations are constantly evolving, reflecting global political frameworks. Understandings of the fellowship of the Orthodox Churches changes constantly, and there is no agreement on it. Some Churches consider this fellowship in terms of an utilitarian cooperation of sovereign entities, which safeguard their territorial integrity and punish any intruder, including another local Church. This philosophy reflects the logic of international law and, particularly, the idea of sovereignty of the national states. Other Churches believe the pan-Orthodox fellowship should be regarded as a confederation (or even a federation) of local Churches, with an effective and not just ritualPrimus. The upcoming council could help in moving to an acceptance of a single philosophy of the Orthodox fellowship, although that is unlikely.
Two particular points of this philosophy were chosen decades ago for the agenda of the Pan-Orthodox council: the diptychs (the order) of the Churches, and the procedure of granting autocephaly (which means, literally, “self-headed”). Since it very unlikely the Churches could reach an agreement on both issues they were excluded from the agenda of the council. The issue of granting autocephaly has an immediate implication in Ukraine. The Synaxis dedicated a disappointingly laconic text to the situation in Ukraine:
We fervently pray for peaceful negotiation and prayerful reconciliation in the on-going crisis in Ukraine. We denounce the threats of violent occupation of sacred monasteries and churches, and pray for the return of our brothers presently outside of ecclesiastical communion into the Holy Church.
There is no mention of the bloodshed during the recent protests in Kiev and of the military aggression against Ukraine, where the majority of population is Orthodox. The laconism of the statement apparently reflects the deep tensions over Ukraine; the Primates of the Churches did not want to really touch on the Ukrainian issue, in order to save the council. Any meaningful discussion and message regarding the crisis in Ukraine would have probably destroyed the process of council's preparation.
However, the Synaxis did not completely avoid conflict. The Church of Antioch refused to sign the documents of the Synaxis because of its dispute with the Church of Jerusalem over a community in Qatar. The Patriarch of Antioch, John X, was not present at the Synaxis because of illness. However, he ordered his representatives to avoid signing the decisions of the Synaxis unless the problem of the parish in Qatar was solved. His ultimatum did not work, however, and so the signature of the Church of Antioch is absent.
There is no also a signature of the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. The Russian Church facilitated the recent election of Archbishop Rastislav, the new Primate of that Church. This election is not, however, recognised by the Church of Constantinople and the majority of other Orthodox Churches. Finally, the signature of the Orthodox Church in America is also absent. This Church was granted autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970, but that autocephaly is not recognised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the majority of other Orthodox Churches.
Implications for Catholic-Orthodox relations
The ecumenical relations of the Orthodox Church are among the most important articles on the agenda of the council. It will probably encourage the Orthodox Churches regarding engagements with other Churches, including the Catholic Church. However, it is unlikely that the council will touch on the issues at the core of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, especially the issue of primacy.
The position of the Orthodox Churches on the issue of primacy of the Bishop of Rome depends entirely on the consensus on primacy within the Orthodox Church. Yet there is no such a consensus on this issue; instead, there are two dominating interpretations. According to one of them, primus inter pares (“the first among equals”) is just an honorary title, a rudiment of the past, which does not imply any real authority of the first Church.Inter pares is accentuated in this interpretation, which was recently expressed in the document adopted by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church.
According to the other perspective, primacy is something real within the Orthodox Church, and it implies real authority and responsibility of the first Church. According to Metropolitan Elpidophoros of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who responded to the document of the Russian Orthodox Church, the first Church, in its primacy, has no equals among the other Churches.
The two interpretations of primacy seem to be irreconcilable. And it is very unlikely that the Pan-Orthodox council can accept a single Orthodox interpretation of Primacy. Without this, however, it will be difficult to proceed in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.
In conclusion, it seems that the current leaders of the Orthodox Churches are resolved to be etched in history as the fathers of a council, which in the Orthodox world will be regarded on the same scale with the ecumenical councils of the first millennium, (although, in the Orthodox tradition, only the following council can accept such a council as ecumenical). In contrast to the first ecumenical councils, however, this one will not touch on many of the dividing issues, which have been excluded from its agenda. This fact demonstrates the fragility of inter-Orthodox unity and cooperation. God performs miracles, however, and there is always a chance that the council will exceed its tentative agenda, and thus provide a more firm and viable framework of cooperation between the Churches.
About the Author
Fr. Cyril Hovorun

Fr. Cyril Hovorun is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), and currently a researcher at Yale University. From 2007 to 2009 he was Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and initiated the first attempts at dialogue with the non-recognized Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. He has participated in official Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, and is also a member of the St Irenaeus group, which constitutes an unofficial dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic theologians. From 2009 to 2012, he was the first deputy chairman of the Educational Committee of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is the author of Will, Action, and Freedom: Christological Controversies in the Seventh Century (Brill, 2008).

The Wisdom and Power of God: Homily for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 1:18-24
John 19: 6-35
           No matter what it might be, everyone trusts in something or in someone.  We bet our health, happiness, and even our lives on all kinds of people every day, ranging from our family members and friends to people we do not know, such as airline pilots and the workers who make our cars.  If we refused to trust anyone with our well-being, we simply could not live in society.
            At the very heart of our faith as Orthodox Christians stands our deep trust in a Person, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  By His Cross, our Savior has conquered sin and death and made it possible for us all to become participants in eternal life.  To believe in the power of His Cross is not simply to affirm that Christ died upon it or to be able to describe in words why it is important to our faith.  No, to believe and trust in Christ’s Cross is to bet our lives on His sacrificial offering.  It is to think, act, and speak from our hearts in ways that manifest our Lord’s way of holy, loving obedience. It is for the Cross to become the deep truth of our lives.  And even as no one forced or required the Savior to accept the Cross, no one forces us to take up our crosses or to follow on His path of selfless love.
            Whether in first-century Palestine or twenty-first century America, the way of the Cross is neither popular nor easy; it naturally attracts no one.  We should never forget that the Romans nailed people to crosses in order to make them die painful, slow deaths.  They publically humiliated and tortured them as a reminder to everyone else of what they would do to their enemies.  Who would be attracted to that?
            St. Paul recognized the offense of the Cross by calling it a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.  In other words, the Jews were hoping for a conventional political and military leader to conquer their earthly enemies, not One who would die a shameful death at the hands of the Romans.  For Gentiles, crucifixion was the most disgraceful way to die; consequently, it made no sense to worship someone who died like that.  But St. Paul experienced personally the new life that the crucified and risen Savior has brought to the world. He knew in his soul the power and wisdom of God that seems like foolishness and weakness to those who live and die by the false gods of this world.  He proclaimed One so strong and righteous that He overcame the very worst that corrupt political and religious leaders could do to Him.  St. Paul trusted this Lord and literally bet his life on Him by eventually dying as a martyr.
            Perhaps we have heard the story of Christ’s crucifixion so many times that we have lost our sense of shock and horror about the public torture and execution of the incarnate Son of God.  This was not only the death of an innocent human being, but the slaughter of the God-Man.  The One Who spoke the universe into existence became the Passover Lamb that takes away the sins of the world through His sacrifice.  The One Who is “Holy, Holy, Holy” accepted the very worst misery and punishment that fallen humanity could devise in order to save us. 
            Those who worship the false gods of power, wealth, and pleasure continue to view Him and His Cross as foolish and weak.   But those who like St. Paul have experienced in their souls the wisdom and power of God know better.  This is not the kind of knowledge that confirms that “two plus two equals four,” but the kind of knowledge that comes only from trust, love, and personal encounter.  True spiritual knowledge roots in the soul and is the stuff of experience, not abstract thoughts.  Even those who claim that power, wealth, and pleasure are the ultimate truths of life do so not because they are particularly intelligent, but because they love power, wealth, and pleasure.  They have given their lives to them and that is how they see the world. Likewise, there is no path to the knowledge of the power of the Cross without taking up our crosses, without serving Christ through lives of obedience and sacrificial love.   We must entrust ourselves to Him if we are to know Him and the power of His Cross.  
            To trust the Lord in this way is not simply to have religious thoughts and feelings.  Think of what it means really to trust another human being who is very close to you.   It is not simply about occasional words, thoughts, or even deeds, but an ongoing relationship that changes us, requires something of us daily, and opens our eyes to new dimensions of who this person is and of who we may become.  If we truly love someone, we sacrifice for them in meaningful ways on an ongoing basis.  So if you wonder why the Church calls us to pray, fast, forgive, repent, give to the needy, and lead pure and righteous lives, here is an important part of the answer.  It is through such practices, done with faith and humility, that we strengthen our relationship with Jesus Christ.  We know and experience the Lord by entrusting ourselves to Him through practical steps that we take every day in serving Him and our neighbors in Whom He is present.    

            In His crucifixion, Jesus Christ has made clear that He is no stranger even to our most horrible sufferings, pains, and fears.  Our salvation has appeared not in an imaginary world of perfect people with no problems, but in the same broken reality that we experience every day.  On this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us remember that the One worthy of our trust is He Who endured the full consequences of sin and death in order to bring us into His holiness and eternal life.  He did so purely out of love, even for those who killed Him.  Christ’s Cross manifests the love of God that has conquered even the tomb and Hades.  Therefore, let us trust Him with our lives and take up our crosses daily so that we will grow in our knowledge of the crucified Christ.  For as St. Paul put it, “the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 

Houston Town Hall Meeting Highlights Middle East Persecution

On Friday evening, September 5, 2014, The Orthodox Clergy Association of Southeast Texas held a Town Hall Meeting at St. George Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas (with rector The Rev. James Shadid), titled "The Silent Holocaust—The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East." The press release following the event reported that all of the Orthodox, Coptic and Syriac Christian communities in the area participated—approximately 300 persons, including 16 priests. Jurisdictions represented were the Greek Archdiocese (GOA), the Antiochian Archdiocese, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the Serbian Diocese of Midwestern America, and Coptic and Syriac Dioceses.
There were four speakers, including Hieromonk Bashar (al-Shamany) of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Originally from Mosul, the he spoke about the current situation in the Middle East. Father Bashar's family are currently among the thousands of scattered refugees. A question and answer period followed, and a large collection was taken for the IOCC's relief work in the Middle East.
At the conclusion of the Town Hall, all of the Orthodox clergy offered up the Trisagion Prayers for those who have died.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Ted Cruz and the most cynical, despicable political stunt of the year"

Aggressively supporting Israel is a political winner for conservatives. But when it comes at the expense of persecuted Christians who fear for their lives...
By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry | 6:08am ET

Berating a persecuted religious minority for your own political gain? Not a good look, senator. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Since the second half of the 20th century, some of my fellow Christians have been the most persecuted religious group in the world. They still are. You probably are surprised to hear this. That's because most of these persecuted Christians don't live in the West. They are, as the awful phrase has it, too foreign for the right and too Christian for the left.
In recent weeks and months, however, the West has heard about the plight of at least one set of these persecuted Christians: those in the Middle East. These communities, many of which date back to the very beginning of Christianity, are now facing outright extinction. And it's happening at the hands of ISIS, the West's Public Enemy No. 1.
It is in this context that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) indulged in what might be the most cynical and despicable political stunt of the year, which is certainly saying a lot.
A summit was held this week in Washington, D.C., in support of Middle East Christians, and Cruz was supposed to be a keynote speaker. However, right in the second paragraph of his speech, he began exalting Israel. After a while, the assembly started to boo and heckle him. Cruz said, "If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you," and left the podium.
Keep in mind that many Christians in the Middle East are ethnic Arabs who live under Israel's occupation of the West Bank, and therefore have negative feelings about Israel. Of course, there are also many Middle East Christians who are supporters of Israel (indeed, there are even Arab Christians who serve, with distinction, in the Israeli Defense Forces).
As the excellent coverage, transcript, and recording provided by The American Conservative's Jonathan Coppage shows, the audience in Washington applauded Cruz's first lines of support for Israel and the Jews. The crowd turned against him only when it became clear that he was launching into a rah-rah pro-Israel stump speech that had nothing to do with what they were doing there.
Now, I am no Ted Cruz antagonist. I am a supporter of the Tea Party — it's done, on the whole, a world of good for the Republican Party by reinvigorating it and strengthening it. I even supported Cruz's push to shut down the government to stop ObamaCare implementation. And I am also a full-throated supporter of Israel.
But let's be clear about what Cruz was doing in D.C.: using one of the world's most beleaguered minorities as a prop for his own self-aggrandizement.
Why would he do this? This is speculation, but perhaps Cruz, who is a Southern Baptist and whose father is a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, was subtly pandering to a segment of fundamentalist Christians who do not believe that Middle East Christians are "real" Christians. To a serious undercurrent of American Fundamentalism, the Catholic Church is the Antichrist that has been oppressing the "true" Church for millennia, and anything that looks vaguely Catholic, with ordained priests and ornate liturgies, is equally evil. Of course, this is hokum: Middle East Christians were Christians (with their priests and liturgies and incense and icons) for 1,800 years before the Fundamentalists invented their revisionist history.
This much, however, is absolutely clear: Cruz tarred and attacked one of the most powerless and beleaguered minorities in the world, solely for personal political gain. He was speaking truth to the powerless. He was strong against the weak.
In the end, what was most striking about Cruz's tirade was the last phrase: "If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you." Cruz was literally standing in a room with his fellow Christians. In the Bible, the idea of the fellowship of Christian believers is a very important one, and to break fellowship is to put oneself outside the community. What Cruz was saying was that agreeing to his views on Israel was more important as a badge of fellowship than believing in Jesus Christ.
There are many things Christians disagree about, but surely one of the things they should agree on is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is more important than anything, and certainly more important than any political cause, as good as that cause may be.

That is Christianity. Obviously, whatever Ted Cruz believes in, it's something different. And I hope that Christians who are registered to vote in America realize it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Patriarch John of Antioch: It is time for the world to recover from its misstep

Source: Notes on Arab Orthodoxy

Patriarch John X's Speech at the Groundbreaking for the Hospital in al-Hisn
This translation is unofficial. The speech was given on August 29, 2014.
Brothers and loved ones,
We gather together today at this medical institution, the Patriarchal Hospital of al-Hisn, to lay the cornerstone for the new expansion of the hospital. If anything, this shows the will to live that we and the people of this generous Valley have.
The will to live held by the Middle Eastern heart guarantees that light is planted in us and spread to the entire world: “Let us say to the world that we in this Middle East and in this land are deeply-rooted because we are children of light.”
The light does not know submission to the catacombs of darkness.
As we lay the cornerstone, let us say that this Valley and like it every corner of Syria pulses with the power of life. It pulses life into its surroundings, despite all the tragedies.
The Hospital of al-Hisn is a single name and a single expression for love that is incarnate in deeds.
It is a spot of light that does not claim perfection, which belongs to God alone.
It was founded by the al-Hisn league in the diaspora and is maintained by the Church. In doing so, she says to mankind that she is its primary locus of spiritual and bodily feeling.
The sciences, and at their head the medical sciences, aim to best preserve the body’s power to remain alive. They must be connected on the one hand to the soul through divine truth and on the other hand to this world, since the human being– body, soul and spirit– is the greatest harmonious arrangement of cells with distinct functions, integrated for producing harmonious movement, thought and sensation.
This is the human being, who is in the image of the Creator in love and in His likeness in character and in preserving the material world, that treasure over which God gave him authority in order to protect it and develop the good that is planted there, so that he might discover sublime perfection, abundant beauty, the best morals, and good and helpful thought, which, in its final dimension, is the utmost degree of illumination, purity and sanctity.
Some might wonder what the Church has to do with hospitals. The Church works in the Spirit and preaches morals and values. She works for spiritual healing more than for bodily, temporal healing.
However, we say that the Church in general and the Antiochian Church in particular is always and constantly called to be a comfort for both soul and body.
The Church is the Church of the incarnate Lord who was not satisfied with commandments engraved upon stones but rather came down Himself to engrave His love for us upon each of our hearts. He dwelt in this land, not far from where we are today. He approached our sicknesses, treated our pain and sympathized with our suffering.
The Church of Antioch is a church of souls and bodies because her Lord and Creator is the merciful one who came down from on high and healed the pain of those suffering, opened the eyes of the blind and swept hearts with His love.
He did not offer this love only spiritually and he did not save it for himself, but rather he poured it forth in healings and miracles.
This hospital is an outpost of love despite all the hardships. It is the glow of godly zeal that radiates from the giving of our children in the diaspora so as to say, “This Valley and this nation will not leave the hearts of their children even if the earth shook below them.” Here, from the heart of this Valley, we  send our apostolic blessing to her children in the diaspora who are always in our heart and our prayer.
Today we come together to complete the path of our predecessors and lay the cornerstone for new wings. Here I would like to express my profound gratitude to Mr Georges Makhoul, a son of this Valley where he grew up. Here his love permits me to say, he grew up in the shadow of Zuwaytina’s olive trees and the oil from her olives remained in his heart as an expression of an authenticity and love that have always been manifest in the most glorious forms, in fulfillment of the Lord’s words, “It is better to give than to receive.”
Your right hand has been blessed, Georges, and blessed is this family, which I have gotten to know and in which I am pleased to see that authenticity of faith mixed with love for people and the nation.
We place the cornerstone here as we recall the words of our late predecessor, Ignatius IV Hazim. In our recalling his words, we send the apostolic blessing to our people in Mhardeh, which now is paying the price of the cruelty of these days, the same price paid by this Valley and all parts of Syria as the world watches, Mhardeh of valor, which, through the help of God almighty and the work of our young people, shall remain not as a challenge to anyone, but as the jasmine perfume of Syria’s peace. We recall the words of that son of Mhardeh, Ignatius Hazim when he laid the foundation of Balamand University at a time when horrors were intensifying: “If the power of some people is to destroy, then our power is to build and to remain.”
Syria will be rebuilt through the help of benevolent people who come together in love for the nation.
Syria is faithfulness to God upon the neck of her children. She  has never known takfirism, terrorism, the kidnapping of priests, the murder of sheiks, and the imprisonment of bishops.
Syria will prevail through her children’s giving, according to the logic of reconciliation and the coming together of her children.
It is time for the world to recover from its misstep and honestly look at what is happening.
It is time for governments and international forums to deal with with innocent people who have fallen according to a logic of compassion and not a logic of interests.
We say all this with trust in God and certain hope that Syria will rise like the phoenix, despite all the horrors. Syria’s dawn approaches through the tenacity of her people and the steadfastness of her leaders, army and people.
I express my gratitude to His Eminence Nicholas Baalbaki for the labors he has undertaken for this edifice. In closing, I would like to thank all of you and wish success to the administrative and medical staff. I would like to thank the media, especially Syrian Arab Television and Noursat-Telelumière for transmitting this event.
Be with us, O Lord, in the service of Your human person. Strengthen this hospital by Your presence.
May Your blessed right hand work in it through the hands of its doctors and Your consolation in the smiles of its nurses.
Strengthen, O Lord, the hearts of its patients and anoint their souls and bodies with your healing power, for You are blessed unto ages of ages.