Felix Corley talks to a Catholic leader whose flock straddles the divide between East and West
The Damascus-based Melkite Patriarch, Gregory Laham, is unequivocal in his condemnation of the suicide attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11. "Our head of the Church in the Middle East, and I myself, strongly condemned the attacks — attacks not only on the United States, but on many of our people involved in business there," he told The Catholic Herald in an interview on a brief pastoral visit to London.
"On the other hand", he added, "we made clear the attacks were not just acts of terror. We have not just to condemn, but to take the opportunity to think why such a big building as the Twin Towers was attacked. This was something very sophisticated.
"This was, for us, an opportune moment to look at the reason for the attack and the S entiment
against the United States, the injustice in Palestine and the discrimination against the Palestinians. There is a direct link between the attacks and the injustice, without undermining the ugly character of the attacks." With some 700,000 Melkite Greek Catholics throughout the Middle East and some 1.3 million in north and south America, Patriarch Gregory's flock straddles the divide between the Middle East and the Western world. The attacks could well have left the two parts of his flock on opposing sides.
He recounts that, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Christian leaders from the Middle East met in Lebanon to discuss the crisis. The seven Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs issued a very interesting and balanced statement condemning the attacks and calling upon world society to look around and seek more unity in today's world.
In his own statement, Patriarch Gregory went further, calling for changes within the Arab world. "I called on the Arab states to make a coalition between themselves to
see what they could do for prosperity, jobs, liberty, dignity and human rights." He told the Arab leaders that it was time to hear the voice of the streets, the voice of frustration. It was time for those in the streets to be given dignity and a chance in life.
He also had a word for the churches. "It was a time for us as Christians to examine our consciences, to see what we can do," he said.
Nor did he shy away from addressing govenunents in the West. "You are secular societies", he told them, "but you are regarded as Christians by Arab Muslims. See what you are doing now! Even as politicians you have to act according to Gospel values. If you don't act wisely it will be dangerous for us. We are an overwhelming minority — only 15 million Christians in an Arab world of 250 million."
The 67year-old Patriarch Gregory, who is known in full as Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem, is relieved that there have been no attacks on his community, though below the surface resentment
and suspicion lurk. Government statements were balanced, he says, and included the position of Christians, calling for feelings not to be raised against one or another group among the population.
"Muslim leaders, especially in Lebanon and Syria, were very balanced in their statements and sermons, declaring that Muslims and Christians are one people and calling on everyone not to speak of a crusade or war between Christians and Muslims. Thank the Lord, this is a very positive position."
He admits that some sheikhs in a number of mosques spoke differently, though he believes such sentiments were not widespread.
"The positive statements from Muslim leaders were the fruit of a long period of dialogue, in which I personally was involved as patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem for 26 years. Twenty years ago, the Encounter Centre was founded there by Christians and Muslims. Normally such centres are founded by Christians who invite Muslims along later. This was founded jointly — a unique case. Such dialogue is also strong in Lebanon and Jordan", he
adds. However, a further test came at the end of September, when US and allied forces began thenmilitary response against targets in Afghanistan.
"Thank the Lord, the situation remained the same even after attacks on Afghanistan began," he said. He noted,
however, that some people feared that this could change if raids on Afghanistan continued and civilians there suffered. "There is a feeling on the street, but nothing has happened like in Indonesia and Nigeria", he reports, referring to the recent murders and
violent attacks on Christians by Muslims in parts of these two states where Islamists are active.
Muslim Arabs are more tolerant than Muslim nonArabs, he argues, "because we are there and are of the same culture, and we've worked hard to build relations. The Greek Catholic Church is, in a very special way, leading the way to dialogue with Islam. There is a feeling in the Church that we have this responsibility. My predecessor, Patriarch Maximos Hakim, felt this very strongly."
Renewed clashes between Palestinians and Israelis also trouble the patriarch. "We are all involved in the Intifada", he notes, in a reference to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. "We are all part of it."
He believes that only a lasting and just peace will end the bitter hostility. "Peace is, as we say in Arabic, the best weapon. To achieve peace the real needs of Palestinian society have to be accepted." Among such needs, he mentions the right to a Palestinian state, control over the holy places of Jerusalem, and even such a basic right as the right to water.
Patriarch Gregory, who was elected in November last year to take over from the ailing Maximos (who died in June of this year), was in London to visit the one Melkite parish in Britain. The 700-strong St John Chrysostom parish, led by the Oxford-based Fr Shafig AbouZayd, meets for the liturgy in St Bannabas church in London's Pimlico Road.
Patriarch Gregory believes the current international tensions make it even more urgent for the Christian churches in the Middle East to work more closely together as a witness to Muslims.
One element of this is to bring the Orthodox and Catholic Churches of Antioch to celebrate Easter on the same date.
The Orthodox have adopted the Gregorian calendar for all feasts, except for Easter, which is still calculated according to the Julian calendar, while the Greek Catholics have, since 1852, used the Gregorian calendar for all feasts.
Patriarch Gregory said that Pope John Paul's visit to Syria in May was a unique experi
ence in ecumenical, inter-religious and personal terms.
"I welcomed the Holy Father into the patriarchal cathedral in Damascus for a meeting with youth. I announced that we are celebrating Easter at the start of the third millennium and that we want to celebrate together for ever.
"There was strong applause. Even the television people filming the event stopped to applaud.
"1 had a huge and long hug from the Holy Father. I can never forget it. I saw in that gesture that this is the will of the people." Patriarch Gregory's proposal is for the Greek Catholics to move Easter back to the Julian calendar. "This will bring greater communion between the people. Unity of the people is more important than academic dialogue. It is not just about conferences. It is more effective if people celebrate the feasts together."
He believes it is also a powerful sign. "It is a very important for the Muslims. They don't know much about doctrine, but if we celebrate together they see we are one."
Church unity is also taking another visible sign, with the consecration, in the Syrian town of Aleppo, of a joint church for the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics.
"This is the first such joint church in the Middle Ea.st. It is a new experience. When a new residential area was built, the Syrian government gave a plot of land for a mosque and a plot for a church. By a resolution of the government, all water and electricity will be free."
This year Greek Catholic and Orthodox bishops and clergy went on a joint retreat.
While the two Churches are working so closely together, Patriarch Gregory believes it is only the question of the role of the Pope that divides them. "Orthodox sacraments are our sacraments. There are more and more steps to full communion, but there is no problem for us to remain faithful to Rome — that will not be touched."