Arabic original here.
Unity Magazine: Your Beatitude, from the very first day of its establishment, the See of Antioch has been a place of constant sacrifices, of struggle and of trials. From the formation of the first Christian groups, the Christological controversies arose, followed by competition between theological schools, then the tribulations associated with the Islamic conquest in the Middle East. It seemed as though Antioch was living its last days, but the Lord took care of things and the Church withstood and continues until today, bearing witness to the true Christ among her millions of faithful who are not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world.
Today, as her head, how do you view the power of the work of the the Church of Antioch?
His Beatitude: The Church of Antioch is the Church of the Spirit par excellence. Moreover, it is the Church of the Spirit who does not sleep. In Antioch, faith boils with apostolic zeal. It is from this perspective that we read her history, with all its ups and downs. For there to be schools of theology and theological orientations in her and elsewhere, this is nothing other than a reflection of the freedom of the Spirit and the theology blazing within it. History may have born down upon Antioch and upon its church, but hardship creates men and it creates firm and unshakeable faith in the Lord. Many people in the world may live as Christians, but Antioch and Moscow, like others, have lived and continue to live a Christianity embodied in life. They live it as a movement of life and as the core of their human essence human , not as a purely theoretical faith. The Church of Antioch is trying, as much as it has been given by God to do so in these difficult circumstances, to be at the side of its displaced and afflicted people. It is trying to embody in word and deed the saying of its son, John Chrysostom, “The neighbor is the altar of God.” The best thing that this church is offering today is that it is at the side of the sorrowing and needy.
Unity Magazine: It is unfortunate that politics generally determine not only the fate of peoples but also the situation of religion in the world. You were elected patriarch at a historic and tragic time, when there suddenly arose a tense religious situation in the Middle East, with news arriving of mass persecution and the killing of thousands of the faithful and the destruction of Christian holy sites. What possible things must the Orthodox throughout the world do to help the people of your church in Syria and other countries in the region?
His Beatitude: There is no doubt that what is happening in the Middle East is a struggle between the logic of listening to moderation and the logic of extremism and extremist ideologies. We are not exaggerating if we say that the Middle East has known coexistence between all its constitutent elements. Let us go back only four years and remember how things were and how they have become now. There is a tragic situation, no doubt, however tragedy does not mean that we despair and surrendered to a fate that we do not want. There is persecution of Christians and of other voices of moderation. There is the destruction of the monuments of coexistence. We await from the world more than verbal solidarity, because we are fed up with the language of promises and want the language of deeds. The entire world is looking on at the tragedy of refugees, at the tragedy of starving people and instead of encouraging dialogue, we are seeing some of them continue a policy of economic sanctions that are smothering the Syrian people while the arms trade is wide open.
The entire world is looking on at the crisis of our brothers, Metropolitans Yuhanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi and it limits itself to solidarity or even silence. We are here in Russia first of all to make our pain at what is happening heard. Let us put this question to the entire world: where are our bishops?
Of course, we thank all those with good intentions and all the good people who are giving their money to help our people and we hope that everyone realizes that the primary aid to Christians lies politically in pushing to bring about peace in our first land and that the necessary material or moral aid to them and others and to all the sorrowing people in this world is the primary test of Christianity and of Orthodoxy in particular.
Unity Magazine: What are the challenges present in the global system that pose a threat to Christian civilization, especially those that exist in the Islamic world in whose environment your church lives? Is it sufficient for the people of your church to preserve the power of faith, spiritual struggle and humility in a society exploding with evil, as Christians are called agents of the West and of the United States? Is dialogue and mutual understanding between Eastern and Western civilizations possible in the present situation?
His Beatitude: The Christians in the Middle East support their own countries and they are native to them. They are not visitors or the remnants of campaigns. Let that be clear. The Christians have never been agents of anyone, but rather have been at the side of those who want the best for their countries and their nations.
The loadstar of the Orthodox has always been the good of their countries. Their orientation has never been factional or sectarian. It is their right to live in peace in the land of their forefathers and it is their right and obligation to defend it in the face of outsiders.
Unity Magazine: Damascus is not only the city of the Apostle Paul’s conversion. It is also the historical place of great ascetics and saints. What is the situation of the Christians in Damascus? What remains in the people’s conscience? What remains of the historical heritage of those times?
His Beatitude: The fate of Damascus is to always be the city of those who are guided along the true path. This is the meaning of the French proverb, “He has found the road to Damascus.” The situation of the Christians in Damascus is the situation of those who desire to live in security and peace. We know that the days are hard for us and for everyone. However, we must not forget that the ashes of tribulation cannot obscure the ray of light and the flash of truth. The historical truth is that in the bright days of its history, Syria has known coexistence among all its communities.
If one looks at history, let him be bee that Saint Basil the Great speaks of, selecting the best of the flowers. Let us constantly remember that four years of turmoil should not shake the image of peace and beauty in this Middle East that we love and whose peace we desire.
There remains in the consciousness of the people all the historical heritage of bygone times.
It remains that our Christian forefathers endured everything and we were nursed with faith in Christ along with our mother’s milk. In turn, we shall transmit this faith to our children and we shall transmit along with it our attachment to the land of Antioch, which first marked us with the name of Christ.
Unity Magazine: In 2016 there awaits an important event, the Pan-Orthodox Council in Istanbul. In your view, how has the world changed in the two thousand years since the necessity of holding a council such as this was declared in Jerusalem, and what do you regard as the most important thing among its decisions?
His Beatitude: It is good, indeed it is necessary for brothers to meet together, especially at the present time. And it is good, indeed it is an obligation for their meeting to transcend the level of formalities in order to truly touch upon the concerns of their churches and the concerns of their people. It is necessary for all of us to look to the base of the pyramid, to the people and their needs, before we go on to study the taxis of sees. The standard of the council’s success is in the good preparation for it and in removing the barriers that prevent brothers from sitting together. In all simplicity, we hope for a solution to the issue of Jerusalem’s assault on the Church of Antioch represented by the installment of an “archbishop” over Qatar, which geographically, ecclesiastically and canonically belongs to the Patriarchate of Antioch. We regret that the Patriarchate of Jerusalem has added insult to injury and causes all attempts at mediating a solution to hit a wall. We believe that the most important deliberations and decisions of this council will be those that examine the issue of the presence of Christians in the Middle East. Their deeply-rooted presence there is a bridge to the Islamic world and elsewhere and it is a necessity and a pillar for Orthodox Christian witness to Jesus Christ in His land and a bridge by which all may come together. We likewise look with interest at the issue of the diaspora, the Christian presence there and the ecclesiastical organization in the countries of the diaspora.
Unity Magazine: Are readers are interested in getting to know you better. How did you, a person passionate about music, choose the path of serving the Lord? What are the wishes and duties that you have set before your eyes? What are the priorities for you, as head of the ancient Church of Antioch?
His Beatitude: I grew up in Lattakia and was raised in the diocese that had been entrusted to my predecessor, Ignatius IV when he was metropolitan there. In 1979, I was ordained deacon by His Eminence Metropolitan John Mansour of Lattakia. I studied at Balamand and completed my theological education in Greece. I was elected bishop of el-Hosn in 1995 and metropolitan of Europe in 2008. The fathers of the Holy Synod of Antioch designated me as patriarch in December 2012. I remember that when I entered Damascus on December 20, 2012 I was given a candle in the Maryamiyya Cathedral. I was asked that day, “What is your program, Your Beatitude?” I responded simply, “To be like this candle. I melt away to the extent of my weaknesses so that the Church of Christ may lift up her people. I melt away in service as much as God has granted.
Unity Magazine: The editorial staff gives you their heartfelt congratulations, Your Beatitude, for your well-deserved award of the Patriarch Alexei II Prize from the International Foundation for the Unity of Orthodox Peoples for your prominent work to strengthen the unity of Orthodox peoples and to support Christian values in the life of society. How do you feel about this decision and what sentiments do you want to express to Moscow?
His Beatitude: I thank the organizers of this celebration. I regard this honor as being for the Church of Antioch and for the people of its lands who are suffering from terrorism and takfirism. I regard the medal placed on my chest as a testimony of esteem which I in turn will place on the chest of our kidnapped bishops Yuhanna and Paul. Their affair remains a mark of shame for those who falsely give lip-service to human rights. I regard it as a medal that I will place on the chest of every suffering person in this Middle East that longs for peace. Therefore I pray for peace in Syria and stability in Lebanon. It is true that my feelings are mixed with sadness over what is happening in the land of the Church of Antioch, but nevertheless, after the cross, resurrection.