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October 1 2013 09:30 | Clemenza Hall, ABI

The Suffering of Peoples and Paths to Peace



Armash Nalbandian


Armenian Primate of Damascus, Syria
Dear brothers and sisters. 
  
I am deeply honored and extremely happy to be with you here today. 
 
Christianity in Syria is very ancient. In fact, one of the earliest Christian communities ever to be established after the resurrection of Jesus Christ was in Damascus. During the Byzantine era, Damascus was the city of enlightenment for Christians and many Christians prospered through learning and openness. The fact remains that the Christians of Syria have been living on these lands long before Islam and Muslims came to be. 
Throughout many eras of history, Christians have co-existed fairly peacefully with followers of the other religions of the Middle East (principally Islam and Judaism). Even after the rapid expansion of Islam from the 7th century (AD) onwards, many Christians chose not to convert to Islam and instead maintain their pre-existing beliefs. As "People of the Book", Christians in the region are accorded certain rights by theoretical Islamic law (Shari'ah) to practice their religion free from interference or persecution.
In Syria, Islam is not the state religion. The country is secular, which ensures equality for members of other religions. Christians can buy land and build churches. Clerics are exempt from military service and schools provide Christian and Muslim religious instruction. Unlike other Arab countries, Syria represses Muslim fundamentalism. Emigration is a serious problem for the Christian churches; at least many Christians have left Syria since the sixties of last century.
In Syria, Christians formed just under 15% of the population (about 1.2 million people) under the 1960 census, but no newer census has been taken. Current estimates (for there are no reliable statistics) put them at about 8 to 10% of the population (1,500,000 to 1,7000,000), due to lower rates of birth and higher rates of emigration than their Muslim compatriots.
 
For me it is difficult, or allow me to say, it is impossible to speak about or for Syria. 
We, the Christians in Syria do not and should not consider ourselves an outsider community from the Syrian society. So the Christians are not living in a ghetto, on the other hand, we are not a group from outside. 
Also we can not only talk about the problems, conflicts, misunderstandings, that take place in the Middle East, and in particular in Syria, and consider them as simply things of the Middle Eastern countries. 
Today everybody does that. Today everybody does know Syria, even the cities like Daraa, Homs, Hama, …. even villages like Tal Kalakh, Jisr Al Shoughour ….. and… surprisingly some districts in a city like Bab Ul AAmer in Homs …. etc. They knowledge is only from the news. They might know Syria geographically, politically … But only we do know and do understand Syria as a homeland of us.
Further we can not only talk about the problems, conflicts, misunderstandings, that take place in Syria, and consider them as simply things of Syria. We are not new in this country. Our Churches exist in these countries which have been the cradle of Christianity. We are the living guardians of our Christian origin. These lands have been blessed by the presence of Christ himself and by the first generation of Christians. This is a historical fact.
 
Faced with the tide of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, the Christians of the Middle East and especially of Syria should reflect more deeply on their role and mission. Revenge is not a good response. Tolerance is not enough. Neither is the ghetto a solution. The real solution is for Christians to become aware of the role that is theirs in this Arab World with its Muslim majority, of the mission that they have to fulfill, on the social, cultural, political, religious and other levels – the role that they have had, and carried out for the last 1400 years, of living together with Islam, especially in the Arab World.
The presence of the Christians in the Middle East is very important. If it came to it that the Arab World were to be void of the Christians presence, there would ensue the disappearance of living together and the radicalization of the Arab World, by then exclusively Muslim, over against the Western (European and American) world, called “Christian” (though in fact rather secular). Any occasion would then do as a pretext for a conflict to break out between Muslims and Christians, between Islam and Christianity, the West (including Europe) and the Arab world (then equivalent to the land of Islam).
That is why we must do everything to preserve the Christian Presence in Syria and in the Middle East, a presence of sincere witness and service, based on the role of partners that Christians have had in the history of the region, and that they must still have today in Arab society. We see this as our call and our responsibility.
 
Every day we witness our Christian faith, when we are forced to clarify the spirit of the message of the Gospel, the message of love, peace, tolerance, justice, the spirit and the strengthen of dialog. A very healthy, vivid and good ecumenical relationship exists among the churches of various confessions in Syria. Interreligious dialogue needs to find a common path with our Muslim brothers and sisters and needs to accept and respect, that Islam also contains the principals of love, peace, solidarity and the witness of a merciful God, the almighty Creator.
Christians of Syria were never a closed community or came newly to live in this land; rather, they are the indigetans of this land since Christianity, and shared their fellow brothers who chose the Islam faith in building this country. Moreover, Christians of Syria could be known for their integrity and honesty. They had helped in building this country and been at the most prestigious positions. We do have our notes and differences, viewing our political issues, but to be solved through real democracy and not through jeopardizing our country’s safety and sovereignty.
 
For example, when the new constitution was rewritten, and allowed other political parties to be established and recognized; this constitution had stated clearly that Syrians are one! Without looking into which sect or religion they belong. But then the issue of the presidency (being a Muslim), made us unhappy. Though we didn’t take it as a reason to fight, rather we accepted it and postponed the discussion, until later when our homeland had passed the crisis.
 
The situation here in Syria is well known and you can follow the news on TV or in media. But something is very important that you will not be informed via media, is that we are strong even if we are living in bad conditions. There are some places safer than other places, but we live in bad economical circumstances. Also we are suffering many human, social problems among the families because of robberies, kidnappings, shelling, killings, unemployment etc. The kidnapping of our two beloved brothers H. E. Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim and H. E. Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi of Aleppo had affected the Syrian Christians, for they are messengers of peace and struggling for the good of all human beings.
 
But on the other hand the churches are doing their best and continuing their services, prayers and also support and comfort the faithful. We did procure possibilities and did organize donations and fundraisings (and still doing, because we still need support), so that we can offer humanitarian, medical, educational and financial help and support to our faithful.
 
Even I sound very optimistic, but, yes, I do recognize that we live in a very difficult situation and in war. I am sure that we can do our best and help people, because we choose the word of God as a beacon for us in this dark time, which enlightens and guides us. The word of God says “In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage – I have conquered the world” (John 16, 33). 
 
We are aware of the difficulties we are going through but we do know that we have your solidarity with our church and we feel assured that you are keeping us in your prayers. We are hopeful that the will of peace of Syrian people will overcome all these problems and we will have love harmony and safety. 
We are very hopeful that the Holy Spirit will guide us to new opportunities in finding new ways for ecumincal and interreligious dialogue, cooperation and witness of the message of the Gospel.
 
 
So I will summarize my intervention in 4 very important points, that should not be forgotten:
 
1. Syria is Christian Holy Land and the Christianity belongs to Syria.
2. We live in a vivid and healthy ecumenical and interreligious relationship.
3. We the Christian are inseparable part of Syria, and,
4. We are not Christians IN Syria. We are SYRIAN CHRISTIANS.
 
Before I finish my intervention allow me to address to you (the western sister churches) with 3 requests or 3 demands, that you can do for us in ecumenical spirit:
 
1. We, as Christians in these countries, do expect a clear attitude from our sister churches in the West. We can only expect from the churches in the West to raise their voice or put efforts against the politicians and those who intend to use religion to justify the war of economical and political interests. The moral authority of the church has its own weight and value on the international political decisions. One of the causes for the problems is oftentimes the plan of western or international politics, when it ignores the existence of Christians in Syria (the holy land), and when they name our country as terrorist country or society.
 
2. You as representative of various churches must witness about the Christian origin and Christian life of Syria in your churches and communities. Be our ambassadors and advocates in your churches. Use every event … speak to everyone …. do mention Syria in your sermons as a holy land and the Christian presence in Syria. So that everyone can understand that Syria is not a Islamic country and Islam doesn’t mean automatically terrorism. They are Christians living in Syria too.
 
3. THE PRAYER. We speak and discus oftentimes about ways and communiqués or efforts done by politicians and other regional and international institutions … But let us not forget the power of the prayer. Please pray for us and be sure that we are also praying for you and for the peace in the world. Everyone is trying to solve the Syrian crisis in many ways, even with weapons, but only we can understand the most powerful way to have the peace in Syria: it is the PRAYER. That’s why I thank God for your prayers for us.
 
I am absolutely sure, that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church and our service within the Church of Jesus Christ. So I am the flock, the small flock, but I am not frightened of the current challenges.
 
May God bless our efforts in joining together for a better and a peaceful harmonious life in witnessing the faith of the Gospel.
 
May our Lord Jesus Christ who suffered and was crucified and resurrected for the salvation of the entire world bring peace upon Syria and the entire region.
 

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