Back in my patriarchate in Damascus, I thank the Lord for the trip I made across Europe, in which I was able to visit Berlin, Paris, London, Strasbourg, the Vatican and Rome.
I have pleasure in providing an outline of the main topics I shared with you during my visit in March.
1. Personal initiative as Patriarch
My pilgrimage of peace was a message for peace, reconciliation, conciliation, security, stability, dialogue, calm, wisdom, the discourse of reason and acceptance of others.
My pilgrimage of peace was a completely private initiative, the result of a personal decision. I represent only myself and no-one else. I was not asked to take this step.
I was representing myself and our Church.
So this was a peace pilgrimage based on my position as Patriarch, who is pater et caput – no empty titles, but the expression and translation of my representative position as churchman, Syrian national and person with the conviction of responsibility to his country and Church, persuaded of his solidarity with all his fellow-citizens, not only of Syria, but all Arab countries.
I am responsible before God and my conscience, to my people, the Christian faithful and our Muslim fellow-citizens. The faithful come to me and other bishops and priests every day. We are responsible for all these faithful (350 000 Melkite Greek Catholics out of 2 million Christians in Syria and 800 000 Melkite Greek Catholics in all Arab countries altogether). Our faithful seek my help.
We are witnessing the start of chaos as the events drag on.
If things continue as they are doing, if chaos continues to reign, where will Muslim and Christian Syrians go? Muslim and Christian Syrians are alike in great danger.
2. The initiative explores the role of Christians in the Muslim-majority Arab world
I made this pilgrimage, as an Arab Christian, historically, geographically, culturally, religiously and organically linked to the Arab world which is both mine and loved by God.
I came to you as a Christian, not so much to plead the Christian case, as to plead that of the divided Muslim Arab world.
My mission was not an expression of fear for the future of Christians in the Middle East, but rather to explain to our European brothers and sisters the role of Christians in the Muslim-majority Arab world in the current situation.
We should be promoting changes to this Arab world, our world, and also helping our brothers and sisters to that purpose!
I think it’s time, not to be asking for privileges and rights, but to be citizens of this Arab world, to which we have given much and are ready to give more. It’s time to show our solidarity with our Arab world.
I suggest and ask that the Arab world listen attentively and positively to the slogans of the demonstrators in the major Arab capitals, and to make them into “a Modern Arab Human Rights Charter.” That is what Arab Christians should be tackling with their fellow-citizens! That is what Europe should be asking from Arab leaders, and not simply calling for their downfall… That is what the rest of the world is expecting from the Arab world’s Christians and Muslims!
Fear has nothing to do with the future of Christians and Muslim-Christian relations today! We are not afraid! We call upon our faithful to be unafraid! We are not a target or quarry, for we represent no competition or threat to anyone! We are instead a valuable asset for everyone!
Different Muslim denominations are rather afraid of one another, as there is a bloody history between them, due to very deep religious and long-standing political conflicts!
That is why we ask our brothers in Europe, the Church, the Pope, States, don’t talk of Christian fear! Call for dialogue, living together, solidarity…
Help us and help all citizens! Our destiny, like our past history, is the same, and our future will be a common future and shared destiny!
As Christians, we are not fanatics for any regime. Neither are we the hostages of any regime. We have learnt to live with all successive regimes in Arab countries, despite their vicissitudes.
My mission today and that of the Churches in the current situation can be described by the words of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, “[Jesus] is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us.” (Ephesians 2: 14)
3. Making the case for the threefold objective: peace, living together and Christian presence in the Middle East
I cannot live my faith and cannot carry out my pastoral duties, without our Muslim-Christian context.
Without peace, Christian presence is threatened and living together compromised. To bring about peace, means helping seriously and effectively to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby helping to solve half the problems of the Arab world. Europe ought to have an independent, creative, bold and clear policy on this matter and recognize the Palestinian State alongside Israel. We could list the wars and crises from 1948 to the present that have caused waves of emigration adversely affecting peace, living together and Christian presence in the Middle East.
That is why I have come to make the case, not just for Christians, but for our Muslim-majority Arab world, which is more threatened than ever, because of the very serious fractures that have become apparent over the last two years, especially in Syria because of the structures affecting the threefold values of peace, living together and Christian presence.
4. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel: bound together
I have not come to defend Syria as such, by itself. Still less am I defending President Bashar or his regime.
I am talking about countries linked geographically, historically, socially, culturally, politically and militarily, with regard to security, borders and commerce: namely, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Israel.
These Arab countries front onto the Arabs’ and Europeans’ Mediterranean, or Mare Nostrum.
They are the privileged place for contact with Europe through the perspectives of culture, civilisation, partial democracy, openness, English and French languages, freedom of religion and worship and the personal statute for Christians and various other minorities.
They are the closest partners for Europe at every level and I would like to emphasise that these countries are a reservoir for Christians and culture in the Middle East, where Christians have had and still have a very interactive presence alongside Muslims and where living together with Muslims is a daily reality.
These countries represent the future for enlightened democratic tendencies; faithful lay secularism and the heartland of Muslim-Christian dialogue (see our Liqaa Centre, opened 10 May 2011 in Lebanon.)
That is why I believe it to be of the utmost importance, urgency and necessity for these countries, linked as they are among themselves and with the West, to be able to maintain their security, unity and tranquillity. Crises should be avoided as far as possible.
I am here on this tour to make the case especially for these countries, the values that they represent, and for the hopes of a real Spring-time capable of shining on these countries whose centre Syria is.
5. Reflection on the situation in Syria and region
The great danger for all of us and for Christians in Syria in particular, is that this revolution may become a war of attrition, with Syria becoming hostage to international politics, and so falling victim to or becoming prisoner of economic, regional and international geopolitical interests.
In that case humane and democratic values would be lost, despite all the slogans that have been ringing out in 2011 and 2012 in many squares in Arab capitals.
Meanwhile the economic situation is deteriorating. Unemployment is increasing. There is widespread poverty! Jobs are fewer. Many people, especially our own faithful working in the Gulf, are losing their jobs just because they are Syrian.
At present, and especially over the last two months, problems have been getting more serious. These have not to do just with the big demonstrations, but with kidnappings, robberies, thefts, loss of personal security, safety at home, at school or on the street. People are afraid to go out or send their children to school.
So Syria has fallen into this very dangerous circle of violence.
6. Appeal to European countries
My round-trip was a mission aimed at gathering advice, guidance and measures designed to help stop the violence and the factors that increase violence and harden opposing sides. Where can countries, organisations and persons be found, capable of calming minds and bringing all parties to dialogue?
Syria must get out of the circle of violence! Syria can escape the cycle of violence and blood!
Syria, after eleven months of perturbation and revolution cannot stay as it was before March 2011.
All Syrians should buckle down to the task: change, give a response to the demands for modernisation… Things have already been begun. The new constitution was promulgated in February, 2012. I myself provided a long list of changes to be envisaged or further developed.
United, together Syrians can lead the process of change. The new constitution is a very important step in that direction. All parties must be encouraged to move forward together.
With great trust, I am asking the countries of Europe to work towards obtaining a cease-fire and all-party dialogue, in order to facilitate progress towards a better future for all. I’m expecting this from the countries and the episcopal conferences I visited.
7. Role of Christians
As a Christian and a Patriarch, I cannot and do not wish to abandon hope. We Christians of Syria were historically given the name, from the early centuries, of children of the Resurrection.
In the world there is at work hidden evil (mysterium iniquitatis). But we believe in the victory of the Mystery of the Resurrection (mysterium resurrectionis).
I’d like to emphasise, as I told Pope Benedict, the role of Christians in the Middle East, the role of the Pope, of the Episcopal Conferences, of Vatican diplomacy, the role of local churches in the Middle East and especially in Syria.
Christians cannot be either neutral or negative, but must be active in the service of the Arab world’s unity. That unity is its salvation.
The foundations of hope for a real Arab Spring depend on inter-Muslim and Muslim-Christian unity.
There is a real need of dialogue for peace in Syria and in the Middle East, since only dialogue guarantees coexistence and knowing how to live together in this rapidly changing and very challenging region.
The role of Christians is to be peace-makers and bridge-builders for genuine dialogue among the Arab world’s sons and daughters for a better future.
Thank you to Church and State leaders whom I met for the welcome you gave me. Thank you for your attention and the follow-up that will be given to this paper that I intend as an alarm call and cry for help, with great sincerity and objectivity, and especially friendship to you.
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and Jerusalem
For the Melkite Greek Catholic Church