“The Church is close to people”

Reprinted from Frankfurter Neue Presse:

From the embattled Syrian capital, Damascus, Patriarch Gregorios III Laham came to Saint George’s College. He gave an interview to this newspaper in the new seminary.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) is on the rampage in the Middle East; countless folk are fleeing. Will there be any Christians left there in the future?

GREGORIOS III LAHAM: Yes, certainly. We Christians must remain there, even though we are only a small flock. We should never forget that the Church began with just twelve Apostles. The fact that, although Christians have been in the minority in the Middle East since the thirteenth century they are still there, I take to be a special grace. At the moment the situation is of course very difficult. There is the danger that more and more Christians will go away.

How threatened are Christians in Syria and Damascus these days?

GREGORIOS: All people are in a state of war. That means that you cannot tell the difference between Muslims and Christians. The bombs are falling on everyone. IS and various rebel groups are even fighting against other Muslims.

Is a normal parish life with church services still possible at all today?

GREGORIOS: Yes, where there are still Christians and churches, life goes on despite the war. In Damascus we have gone on celebrating our services, and youth and women’s confraternities are meeting as usual. Feast-days are celebrated too, but perhaps with less pomp than in peacetime.

How many Christians live in Syria at the moment, and how strong is the flow of refugees?

GREGORIOS: Before the crisis, there were about two million Christians of all denominations in Syria. Now I estimate that there are some four hundred and fifty thousand Christians currently fleeing, inside and outside the country.

You have often stressed that Christians in the Middle East should not leave. How do you motivate them to stay?

GREGORIOS: I always say: Christ was born in the Middle East and the first Christians had their place here. Benedict XVI said that the Middle East could not be understood without reference to Christianity. Christians translated texts – for example, on philosophy, medicine or mathematics – from Greek. In that way they laid the foundation for Arab and Islamic culture.

Syria was always considered a country where Muslims’ and Christians’ living together worked well. Has anything in that been changed by the war?

GREGORIOS: Living together is, by and large, thriving, although there is no organisation that is devoted to interfaith dialogue. But there are also border zones, into which IS, with its ideology, has infiltrated.

What kind of support are you getting from Rome and the Church around the world?

GREGORIOS: I am grateful to the Churches and international organisations, which are very deeply involved. The Vatican and individual dioceses support us, as does Caritas international, charities and smaller groups. The Church is close to people who are in need. The help is considerable, but of course, never enough.

On what is the financial aid spent?

GREGORIOS: It is spent on food and medicines, relief supplies such as blankets and camp-beds, and on schools. Reconstruction of destroyed houses and churches only plays a role whenever people who have fled come back.

In the Middle East people are risking their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ, while in Germany that faith seems to be evaporating. What impression do you have of the Churches in Germany?

GREGORIOS: Churches in Germany do have dwindling membership numbers, but also special tasks: the faithful must encounter Muslim refugees. And they must show their Christian identity more strongly, not in the sense of confrontation, but in the sense of a brotherly togetherness. If there is a vacuum on the side of Christianity, Muslims will fill it with their own faith.

What can Christians in Germany learn from Eastern Christians?

GREGORIOS: We are certainly rather more religious and adhere more firmly to our tradition and rites. Among us, religion plays a greater role in everyday life.

If you, as Patriarch of Damascus, could have one wish granted – what would it be?

GREGORIOS: My wish is for all Christian Churches of all denominations to campaign with unified voice for peace in the Middle East. Peace there is indeed crucial for the future of the whole world. The Church’s task is to be a peacemaker – even in the dialogue with Islam.

© 2015 Frankfurter Neue Presse