His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Supreme Head of Universal Syriac Orthodox Church: You are in the World, but you are not of the World

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Text: Adrian Kranjčević

One of the most honourable guests and key speakers of the General Assembly of Conference of European churches His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II spoke at the Master Center and Hotel Park in Novi Sad. The event was organised and held from 31st of May to 6th June, His Holiness was invited to attend this representative religious gathering to witness and speak about recent persecutions and attacks on Christians in Syria and Iraq.

His Holiness is the person containing all the answers to the truth behind the terrible events which overhit the Middle East. Thrhoughout his numerous travels he meets with church leaders, presidents, prime ministers, diplomats and other representatives in trying to discuss the current situation in his country. Unfortunately, only two years earlier His Holiness was also victim of an assassination attempt by a terrorist suicide bomber, blowing himself up in short distance of the Patriarch. It took place on the occasion of the Memorial of the Armenian Christians, that where killed by Ottoman Turks during First World War. Fortunately, the State security of Syria and personal guards of His Holiness saved His life, but unfortunately three personal guards where killed during the attack.

  1. Your Holiness, I can not help but notice your radiant personality. Does this state of being affect the comfortably on your people in Syria? What do they tell you when you talk to them, especially children?

We have responsibility and people expect us to serve and lead them in this difficult time, to give them hope. Often we are hurt inside, crying or in pain, but when we meet people we have to give them the impression that there is still goodness in the World and that God will never leave Himself without witness. We have to be able to tell the children that they would have a future and would be able to grow up and live life as normal as possible, and to prepare them for their adulthood in the right way. The other thing is that when I am with people, especially kids I get positive energy and hope which makes me feel closer to them. I believe in the innocence of these children, and youngsters who are trying to live a better life . I believe that God will find ways for these people.

  1. Christians all over the World are going through many challenges today, especially in the Middle East. Do you see this as a sacrifice or blessing?

It is both actually. Persecution and other difficulties are part of the Christian way of living. Christ did not promise us joy and comfort in the World, rather, he promised us turbulations and persecutions. He said: „You will be persecuted for My name“. So it is very natural that Christianity is always the subject and the object of persecution and difficulties. A Christian should not expect otherwise. Not because we are bad people as Christians, but beacuse of our way of thinking and living is different then of the World and this is what the Lord talks about when He said: „You are in the World, but you are not of the World“. His ways are different and we as Christians have made the commitment to live faithfully to Gospel and to our faith. That means that we will be in clash with many people who do not agree with this principle or this way of living. Many people insult you and you insult them back, an eye for eye, an tooth for tooth… This is not the way of Jesus Christ. We see nowadays that the amount of problems facing Christians throughout the World can not be compared with what the church has done through back at the beginning. The number of people who are persecuted or martyred is such a high number that probably is even higher than apostolic phase. That is reality we live in because there is religious and ethnic extremism on the rise throughout the World and we are being persecuted because those who are persecuting us do not see us as fellow humans. They think of us first as Christians, the non believer who is not comforted to their faith. I am a human being before I am a Christian, a bishop, a clergy or a lay person. That is the problem that they do not see us in that way, but we as a Christians see everybody as brother and sister, as our neighbor.

  1. Jesus said: „Love your enemies…“ (Matthew 5,44; Luke 6,35) Can we fulfill this today when witnessing the terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and other terrible events?

Jesus’s teachings are not human teachings, they are divine. Yes! It is possible and it has been done throughout our Christian church where we always loved our enemies. Yes, it is not easy to do that. Yes, they hurt us…, but… we have to forgive. That is the basis of Christianity, the basis of our Lord Who came in flesh and became human being like us in everything except in sin, in order to forgive us and to give us back that dignity of being a children of God. If we are serious Christians we have to do that, even if we fail in doing it, we have to try to do it again and God will help us.

  1. There are many number of religious monuments that are ruined or gravely damaged in the Middle East. Is it possible to restore them and who can help and how?

It is not easy to restore them. We are doing our best in that matter, but for me it is more important now to restore the lives of people. To help people to regain their humanity and there lives. We will rebuilt our monuments, but so far we do not know who will help us with that. No one has offered, but they will be rebuilt because where is faith there is possibility to do everything. We do not believe that media is doing a good job in telling the people what is happening there and we do not believe that situation in the Middle East is well known here in the West. We want diplomats and politicians to try to see what is happening and they would come up with the ideas how to help us to spread the truth, but also those who are able to help us rebuild our lives, whether we are talking about a personal life, or a community life, which includes also the rebuilding of churches, monasteries, schools and sponsoring projects that will help people to find their job and take care of their families. This is all very welcome and we as Churches of the entire East can cooperate with this organisations, because the reality is that many churches and organisations are helping the refugees, but outside of Syria and Iraq, very few are working inside these countries. Therefore churches have many difficulties in solving the demands of the people and to respond to their crisis. We as Churches are here for hundreds of years. I think we can provide good partnership with this people and organisations to try to help the situation there.

  1. Syrian Ortodox Church is known for its dedication to ecumenical activities all over the world. What is in your opinion the current state of that matter and what has to be done in the future?

We are present in most of the World and for the last hundred and fifty years we are spread trhoughout, especially after the Saiffo-slaughter of Christians by the Ottoman Turks of 1915. In Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in East Syria. So our people spread throughout the World and we have churches that are established in beginning of the XX century in USA, Europe and India. Being in all these countries gives us the opportunity and obligation to have relationship within the neibouring and our local churches. We continue to be very active now and Syrian Orthodox Parish is opened also in Latin and Central America. So we have new opportunities, first of all to share our faith with the locals and to show them what we believe in and how we practise our faith that is very important and second to learn from those around us and to try to adopt certain things that will help us remain as a community faithful to our Lord and to our traditions and values.

RELATIONS WITH THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

How can you describe your personal relationship with „Santa Sede“ His Holiness Pope Francis I and what is his attitude toward the church leaders in the Middle East?

First of all I have great admiration to His Holiness Pope Francis and I see Him as the man of the people who is in touch with the reality and who is trying to make the church accesible, especially to the young and those who are marginalised. I find sometimes that my mind is very similar to His and also some of the activities that I do I later discovered that He is doing it also. He is a great man and I love Him and I can say that He is a good friend, also. We have met in several occasions and we will meet next month and I thank God for His ministry and His presence in this time in the life of the Christians and Christian church all over the World.

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