The largest ever conference dedicated to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East was held in Athens October 19-20, 2015, entitled "Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Co-existence in the Middle East." Delegates from fifty countries gathered, including primates of local Orthodox Churches, representatives of Catholic and Protestant communities, Muslim leaders, governmental officials, and representatives of international organizations and the academic community.
Among the participants were His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, their Beatitudes Patriarchs Theodoros of Alexandria and All Africa, John of Antioch and All the East, Theophilos of Jerusalem and All Palestine, and their Beatitudes Archbishops Chrysostom of New Justiniana and All Cyprus, Jeronymos of Athens and All Greece, and Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania. The Russian Orthodox Church was represented by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate department for external church relations (DECR).
Below are the addresses to the conference of three Orthodox hierarchs:
* * *
Address of His Beatitude Theophilos, Patriarch of Jeruslaem and All Palestine
We are encouraged by the fact that the Government of Greece plans to open a centre in Athens that will serve as an Observer of the state of affairs in the Middle East. This office will follow closely the situation, especially of Christians in our region, document the problems and violations that occur, find effective ways of making the true situation known more broadly around the world, and so make more possible international relief for those who are persecuted and suffering.
This is an important development. We are deeply appreciative to the Greek Government and to the Foreign Ministry for this initiative, and welcome it.
It is urgent that we find practical solutions and practical help without delay to bring real aid and assistance directly to those who are displaced and afflicted. For the numbers of people who are moving around our region are staggering, and now Europe is feeling the immediate impact of the reality that countless people believe they have no future in their homes in the Middle East. The countries of the region cannot continue to bear the pressure of so much migration.
We face an uncertain future, but this must not delay action. Of the many concerns that face us in the Middle East, at the top of our priority is the enduring integrity of our multi-cultural, multiethnic, and multi-religious landscape. We have long asserted, and continue to assert, that a vital and strong Christian presence is, and has always been, essential to the integrity and to the flourishing of the region. We have no other option than to remain steadfast and carry on our mission.
We are experiencing the reality that enormous segments of the population of a number of countries are now displaced, especially from Syria. The pressure on countries who are hosting the displaced is now unbearable at every level, especially in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. For those who are displaced, it is now practically impossible to get in or out of Jordan, for example, and among them are many Christians who are being persecuted by radical religious groups. But there are also many other religious and ethnic groups among the displaced, including Muslims, who are also being violently persecuted.
While the governments of the region and the international community search for ways to bring about peace and reconciliation in the region, in the meantime others, including the local religious leadership, have a responsibility to take action to help those in need.
Therefore we wish to make these clear suggestions to this conference, and beyond this conference, to others who have it in their power to assist in bringing aid and relief.
We are of course concerned most particularly with the children and youth among the displaced, as they are especially vulnerable. So we need not only food, but also education for the new populations of the displaced, along with the infrastructure to support them, including teachers and other staff. We also see the importance of extended school days and after-school programs to ensure that the youth of the displaced communities are occupied in worthwhile activity, and as a consequence, less susceptible to abuse, human trafficking, and recruitment into terrorist organizations.
In addition to this, there is a great need for accommodation – for housing projects. The so-called refugee camps are full, and in any case these camps are not suitable even for short-term residence. A strategy is needed to secure the kind of accommodation that is appropriate, especially for families. Once again, we acknowledge that secure homes contribute to the general health and well-being of persons and families, and also to their stability in a community.
There is an immediate need for health clinics, as well as centers that deliver practical help in the form of job-training and other concrete steps to assist the displaced to be able to work and be otherwise usefully occupied. There are too many who are now in a cycle of chronic unemployment, with no hope for the future of their children. Many, of course are suffering from health problems either as a result of being the victims of war and violence, or as a result of the difficulties of migration, and these problems must be addressed simply from a humanitarian point of view.
As you can understand from this brief presentation, the way forward is not complicated to conceive, but it can be very difficult to implement. We say this from our own experience. Our office in Amman is completely dedicated to assisting those who have been settled in the camps, and we have been building partnerships with others in this mission whose contribution, though small and symbolic, has a great moral impact. And so we encourage people to hope.
We who make the Middle East our home strive every day to find solutions to these challenges, and this is why we need the help of the international community as never before. In this regard, we are asking for partners who will work with us, who know the situation and the population intimately, who have generations of experience and who have the ability to deliver aid directly to those most in need.
From time immemorial, the population of the Middle East has been one in which civilization has thrived, in which peoples of many faiths, cultures, traditions, and ethnicities have met, and in which peoples of many faiths, cultures, traditions, and ethnicities have lived side by side, often in close and intimate interaction. This is the true Middle East, and once again we take this opportunity to thank all of you for the efforts you are making on behalf of all in our region – and to remind you of the words of Saint Paul who said, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
May God bless this conference, and may God bring peace, through our humble efforts and cooperation, to the Middle East and all our peoples.
Source: Jersualem Patriarchate
* * *
Address of His Eminence Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana, Durres and All Albania
However, the human desire for world peace remains apprehensive. Thus, every effort to study and confront the complexity of this problem is a valuable contribution. Therefore wholehearted congratulations are merited to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic, to its Head, His Excellency the Foreign Minister Professor Nikolaos Kotzias, and his distinguished colleagues, for taking the initiative to organize this International Conference. With great pleasure we welcome the opening of its proceedings and we wish for fruitful success.
1. It is my personal belief that the cultivation of a healthy religious conscience constitutes the stable foundation for peaceful coexistence, and not religious indifference. In the monotheistic religions that dominate the Middle East the following are found: a) a search for inner peace b) the curbing of aggression, c) principles that facilitate peaceful co-existence within each particular social group, d) peaceful relations with the supreme Reality, with a Personal God, e) the desire to maintain peace with all humankind. Christians particularly perceive God as a God of peace and request his intervention.
All of us who have a responsibility within the religious communities in our region must cultivate a peaceful theology and anthropology, drawing on the richness of our religious principles and the best pages of our traditions. Particularly we are called to condemn all forms of violence. Stressing the duty of every person to respect the religious freedom of our fellow human beings. Violence in the name of religion defiles the essence of religion. And every crime in the name of religion is a crime against religion itself. No one has the right to use the oil of religion, to strengthen the fire of armed conflict. Religion is a divine gift, which calms hearts, heals wounds and brings individuals and peoples closer together.
2. Peace is directly related to justice. An unjust world cannot be peaceful. A clear rule, which is already highlighted in the Old Testament, is that: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21.3). In our century, peace and justice have adopted another synonym: development. Poverty remains the worst type of violence. When people are deprived of their basic needs for survival, it is not strange for them to turn to other directions and adopt extreme religious beliefs to achieve a just society.
Obviously, there exists a general responsibility of the great powers for the crises in the Middle East: promoting decisions for violent changes of leadership and regimes; the supplying of weapons; apathy to collateral damage; and the millions of innocent victims and huge waves of refugees; pollution of the environment and destruction of rare monuments of culture.
It is time for everyone to shake off their lethargy and take effective action in order to cease the military conflicts and terrible bloodshed.
The efforts for peace and security need to combine forces to care about social justice and to develop the world’s poorest communities. It would be a tragic political error if, due to negligence or arrogance, these powers were to allow it to develop into a new multiform proletariat, able to abuse the spiritual “atomic energy” of a concrete religious tradition.
3. Finally the opposite of peace is not exactly war, but egotism: individual, collective, national, and racial. It enlists the various forms of violence, which in numerous ways kills peaceful coexistence. It initiates and fuels large and smaller conflicts and it constantly renews hate.
The antidote to egocentrism is not generic advice or various laws and state suppression mechanisms, but rather the strengthening of love in society. A multidimensional effective love that is not limited by borders, prejudice, or discrimination of any kind. Here there is also enormous potential for the contribution of a healthy religious conscience. This, even under conditions of long-standing conflicts, grants the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The power of love, after all, is one that can defeat the love of power, which constantly destroys peace. The inexhaustible source of love remains the truth, which in the most simple and shocking way the evangelist John expressed: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 Jn. 4:16).
I wish wholeheartedly, through the presentations, discussions and general deliberation of our Conference, that we might draw valuable material for a fuller, deeper understanding of our theme and that we might be able to continue more enthusiastically to be peace workers. The unceasing struggle for peace, justice and solidarity is the most essential and valuable contribution that we can offer for the survival and the cultural development of the Middle East.
* * *
Address of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk
Today in the Middle East we are witnessing the unprecedented wholesale destruction of Christianity. The endless executions and kidnappings, the destruction of ancient holy sites and the expulsion of Christians from their homelands cannot but alarm the Christian Churches.
‘Before our eyes there is unfolding a genuine tragedy, the actual genocide of the Christian population in the lands from which the Good News spread throughout the world. The scale of the catastrophe, passed over in silence by the majority of the world’s media, has yet to be realized’, is how His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus characterized the situation when speaking before the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in February of this year. The Moscow Patriarchate, which has traditionally enjoyed close spiritual and social links with the Middle East, places a priority on this aspect of its external relations.
Christians have endured many trials throughout out their two thousand year history, but the events of recent years are unprecedented. In the twenty first century, at a time of humanity’s turbulent development after a series of bloody world wars, we are witnessing, with the silent connivance of world powers, the wholesale uprooting of Christianity and Christian cultures in the place where they came into being.
We know that Muslims and other religious communities also suffer from the activities of extremists; however, it is Christians who are the most defenseless before the face of an enemy that has horrified the whole world. They have become the prime target of terrorists for kidnappings, extortion and murder. At the same time terrorists carry out their criminal activities under the guise of religion.
I will quote some figures that characterize the scale of the calamity. In Iraq, for example, the number of Christians over the past twelve years has decreased by more than ten times; those who remain find themselves today in a catastrophic position, deprived of all property and all hope of a peaceful and prosperous future. Over the past year alone more than a hundred thousand Christians have left Iraq. It is impossible to calculate the damage that has been caused to ancient Christian churches and other historical monuments.
Mass executions take place in Libya of absolutely innocent Christians, a once stable country has been turned into an arena of tribal wars, to be a Christian there is extremely dangerous. Of one hundred thousand Christians there only a few thousand remain, and the threat to their lives continues.
Up until 2011 an inter-religious balance was maintained in Syria. Yet the extremists who have intervened in the country have spread genuine bloody terror to Christians. We still know nothing of the fate of Metropolitans Paul (Yazidji) of Aleppo and Gregory John (Ibrahim), kidnapped two and a half years ago. Almost two hundred Assyrians are held in captivity by ISIL, kidnapped in February of this year in the valley of the River Kabur. Three of them were recently executed by terrorists. The Christian quarters of Damascus and Aleppo are subject to endless gunfire.
At present more than a quarter of Christians have left Syria. And this figure continues to grow. People are fleeing from terror, from the horrors of war, from a hopeless future for themselves and their children. There is a real danger that the Middle East – the cradle of Christianity – will belong wholly to extremists.
Tragically, few western politicians have listened to the voices of Christian leaders who have called for, and continue to call for, an end to supplying militants with arms.
Irreparable damage has been caused to the ancient cultural heritage of the Middle East. The religious and cultural balance that has come into being over centuries has been destroyed. I have spoken many times with the religious and political leaders of Syria and Iraq. They have spoken of how great efforts are needed for even a partial restoration of the infrastructure and a return to normal life.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always and everywhere endeavoured to draw attention to the plight of Christians. Church representatives have invariably put this issue on the agenda with the political, public and religious leaders of both east and west. In conducting dialogue with Muslims, the Russian Orthodox Church accentuates the need to defend Christians from extremists. We support our brothers and sisters morally and materially as best we can. Much effort has been put into informing the population in both Russia and beyond her borders of the truth concerning the catastrophe that has unfolded.
We hope that the world can draw a lesson from the most wide-scale humanitarian tragedy of recent years. We call upon politicians, who bear responsibility for what is happening, to make all efforts to defend Christians and guarantee the return to their homes and to the lands of which they are native inhabitants.
I would like to remind you once more that the loss of the Christian presence in the Middle East will have irrevocable consequences. If no Christians remain, then the barrier which holds back the spread of radicalism will also be removed.
To conclude my presentation I would like once more to assure the Christians of the Middle East of our solidarity with you. The entire Church is filled with concern and prayer for those who suffer for the name of Christ, for, as St. Paul says, ‘we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones’ (Eph. 5: 30). We feel your pain for the trials that have befallen you, and treat with profound respect your courageous and firm stance for Christ’s Truth.
I hope that this conference will allow all of us not only to express our solidarity in relation to regulating the situation in the Middle East, but will also become a calling sign for those in whose hands the fate of the much-suffering biblical lands rests.