Presence and Witness

Middle East from Space

Speech of H. B. Patriarch Gregorios III

During the Synod of Bishops:

Special Assembly for the Middle East

Rome October 10-24, 2010

Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate
of Antioch and All the East
of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

Presence and Witness

In most of our countries, the Antiochian Church, with all its five denominations (Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Maronite) is a privileged ecclesiastical place for living together with Islam and for Islam, in the Arab world and for the Arab world. It is a privileged place for bringing to fruition our Christian presence and putting it to work.

More important than this historical and geographical reality is learning to discover, if possible, the true role of Christians in the Patriarchate of Antioch, in Islamic-Christian history, geography, culture and civilization. By all possible means, we must learn to see its history, geography and civilization in the light of salvation.

Of course, the Chaldean, Assyrian, Coptic (Orthodox and Catholic) and Latin Churches, as well as, to a certain extent, the Armenian Churches (Apostolic and Catholic), also have a role in this regard.

Our common great concern is always this: how to conserve the Christian presence, one of witness and service, in our predominantly Muslim Arab world? How can we avoid, or at least slow down Christian emigration? That emigration means gradually losing plurality and diversity in the Arab world, and the loss of great possibilities for Islamic-Christian dialogue, which is a human and faith dialogue, as well as being a dialogue of daily interaction of societies, cultures and consciences.

The living together that we have experienced and that we wish to continue is threatened by emigration, the most significant and dangerous cause of which lies in the crises which all originate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the injustice arising from that. In the same way, extremism, fundamentalism, violence and terrorist ideology, as well as the lack of equality before the law and in employment and the limited possibilities for taking up different positions of responsibility in political life, are products of this conflict.

Those things make Christians in most of our countries feel troubled, fearing an unknown future in a society that is in the majority Muslim. Often they are stigmatized by epithets such as fifth columnists, crusaders, impious (kuffar), and collaborators with the West and with Israel. Those and many other such things ought to be the subject of study in the Muslim Arab world. Those problems should be treated with a great deal of objectivity and Christians and Muslims together should identify the real wound underlying the haemorrhage of Christian emigration.

We have the duty of continuing the way of living together of past centuries. Therefore, our Muslim brethren must not call us “dhimmis” (protected people); they have to consider us full citizens, just as they are. We have the same rights and duties as they do. We have to build up our countries together and work together for a better future.

Living together implies reciprocal charity, trust and respect, dignity, shared responsibility and solidarity. The great challenge, for Christians and Muslims, is that of finding out how we can live out our faith in the world of globalisation and how we can transmit faith as a precious and holy inheritance to new generations, to young Christians and Muslims, who are all exposed to the same dangers in today’s world.

On this subject, the Council of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, meeting at Bzoummar (Lebanon) for their sixteenth congress, underlined in their final message, of 20 October 2006:

  1. Our presence in the East is the expression of the will of God, obliging us to be faithful to Christ, involved in witnessing to his love, putting into action the teachings of the Holy Gospel and fulfilling the duty of service to the societies in which we live. However insurmountable the difficulties, we nevertheless detect radiant signs of hope in the spiritual, cultural, social and national wealth which adorns with the jewels of its liturgical, theological and spiritual heritage, well-ordered in conformity with the Alexandrian, Syriac and Maronite Antiochian, Melkite Greek, Chaldean, Armenian and Latin traditions, the Church of Christ that is both one and diverse …
  2. Christianity, being an essential component of the regional culture, enriching the latter by its traditions (cf. A new hope for Lebanon, 1) it follows that the Church calls for a presence and a mission. So it becomes imperative to set up an exchange of ideas with the faithful of other religions about spiritual, moral, social and cultural values with a view to promoting social justice, equality and freedom and laying the foundations of peace. (Conciliar decree Nostra Aetate regarding the relationship of the Church with non-Christian religions, 2 and 3)
  3. Our Christian faith implies being incarnate and lived out in a mission springing from the heart of our faithfulness to Christ, our union with him and our determination to imitate him and take him for our model, which supposes, to begin with on our part, preserving our existence and presence in our land, in a spirit of fellowship, mutual help and shared responsibility. The economic and social crisis requires Church and State, all competent authorities and all people of good will, to take an initiative designed to develop economic life and instigate development projects that would provide job opportunities to young people and help them put down roots in their native land, fulfil their potential and give families the possibility of earning a decent, respectable living in their own country.
  4. As for the mission, it begins, in fact, by preserving living together in the face of the growing conflict of cultures and religions. It is a living witness of the possibility of co-existence in peace and creative complementarity in the heart of difference. For religions, in their essence, are a factor for gathering and not division, since the essence of each is worshipping God and respecting his creatures. Eastern Christians are Eastern in their belonging and citizenship and in fact are profoundly involved in their respective countries’ cause.” 1

Indeed, we must mutually encourage each other to remain in our countries, convince each other not to shirk our responsibilities, not to leave the land of our social, political, national and ethnic life, not to allow ourselves to retreat into ghettos, not to emigrate either inside or outside our countries. We ought to resist fear in the face of acts of terrorism and religious discrimination inspired by fundamentalist groups.

For an effective interaction with our societies and the different trends, currents and directions that can be found there, there have to be Christians who are open, present, witnessing in their society, involved in social, political and economic life, participating fully in the life of their country, taking as their starting points, firstly, citizenship and secondly, their faith and Gospel values.

What can most help the Christians of our countries to resist in the face of all difficulties and not to emigrate is the faith-based conviction, that remaining in these countries where Christianity was born and where God has planted them, is in itself an apostolate, vocation and mission. The context of this mission is the Church, a Church which has been Arab culturally and ethnically for centuries, “the Church of the Arabs” according to the expression of the late Father Jean Corbon, but also, in a certain sense, “the Church of Islam,” because it is Emmanuel Church, God with us and for us, with and for others. Those others, are our Muslim fellow-citizens, in the predominantly Muslim Arab society, in which Christians are responsible for bearing the message, proclamation and values of the Gospel, so that the Church can be present and serving in that same society.

Gregorios III

Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Translation from French: V. Chamberlain

Index of the Documents Concerning the Council for the Middle East