News -October IC 62

Delegates Sent by Metropolitan PHILIP to Syria in September

(The following story is a recap of a report written by Fr. Patrick Reardon of his recent trip to Syria. IC understands that there are many perspectives on what is happening in Syria and that the situation there is fluid and facts are hard to acertain. This story is offered as one alternative perspective on what is  being primarily portrayed in the media.)

Father Patrick Reardon, pastor of All Saints' Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, reported on his participation with a delegation sent by Metropolitan PHILIP to Syria, which occurred September 13-18.

The express purpose of the dele-gation was to make inquiries regarding the political climate in Syria, specifically in regard to the status and condition of Syrian Christians. They therefore met with President Assad, local bishops, Michel Kilo of the opposition Intellectual Party, seven sheiks of northeast Syria and the Grand Mufti, the spiritual leader of the Sunni majority in Syria. The party also took advantage of other oppor-tunities to visit local cultural and religious sites.

The delegation consisted of six priests from the Antiochian Archdiocese, two Protestant pastors, and three others. Despite the expressed concerns from people in his parish regarding his personal safety, Fr. Patrick felt as a seasoned international traveler that the fears were based on “irresponsible hysteria” contained in American media reports and were likely overwrought and exaggerated. Fr. Patrick’s actual ex-perience as part of the delegation to Syria confirmed his belief. “During our whole time in Syria,” writes Father Patrick in his informal report, “I saw not a single armed policeman, nor—except for the guard at the Defense Ministry—a single soldier. I saw only one military vehicle…near the defense ministry.”

The delegates spent 90 minutes meeting with President Assad. Fr. Patrick made introductory remarks expressing their purpose to express the “concern of American Christians for the well-being of Syria”.  Having heard sincere praise for Assad from an abbess and others in previous days, Fr. Patrick and the dele-gates found the President to be “cordial and personable…a man of obvious culture, refinement, modesty, and gentility.”

In response to their inquiry, President Assad discussed the primary problem of widespread poverty as being a central factor motivating protests. He went further to discuss the infiltration of peaceful protest groups by right-wing agitators, including the Muslim Brother-hood, who were in part responsible for the sudden eruption of violence. Moreover, he admitted that the military’s reaction which led to the deaths and torture of some demonstrators, was too strong, and that further torture by some military personnel was contrary to his own policies and motivated by revenge rather than state policy.President Assad also addressed his concern regarding the Western media, whom he felt portrayed the early weeks of the uprising in an unfair and distorted way, which prompted the government to extricate Western reporters from Syria. He made it clear in response to a direct question from Fr. Patrick Reardon that contrary to Western reports, no aircraft had been used against demonstrators, and that no shots were fired from the tanks Syrian soldiers used to cover when under attack. (Opposition party member Michel Kilo later confirmed this claim.)  Assad also spoke about the need for reform and his own intention to start with educational and election reforms. Lastly, he addressed the status of Syrian Christians and spoke of them as a “moderating influence.” He said, “There can be no democracy in Syria without Christians. A completely Muslim country would not have the counterbalance of influence necessary for democracy.”

The delegation also met with two Syrian bishops at the cathedral office of the Antiochian Patriarchate. Having visited the sites of demonstration, the two bishops also expressed their deep concern about the portrayal by the Western media of the situation in Syria, its distortions, and how “local uprisings” had been “blown completely out of proportion” in America and Europe. They also expressed respect and positivity in regard to President Assad.

Delegates also had the opportunity to meet with outspoken opposition figures, such as Michel Kilo, who acknowledged the claim by Assad that the peaceful demonstrators had been infiltrated and “hi-jacked” by extremists who were seeking other agendas. Moreover, he agreed with Assad that there was need for reform, and said that if the President were successful in his efforts, he would vote for him.Fr. Patrick and the group also met with sheiks who sought them out, and lastly, with the Grand Mufti, who ex-pressed a deep belief in the dignity of humanity and a hatred of violence. He also said that he saw nothing to support the exaggerated reports in Western media regarding the uprisings, at which he had been present.

The group also had a chance to visit the house of St. Ananias—the first bishop of Damascus—and the National Arche-ology Museum, as well as to spend time in prayer at the tomb of St. Thecla in the village of Maalula. They also visited a monastery is Saydnaya.

Fr. Patrick Reardon pointed out that the delegates were not allowed to visit the “hot spots,” but that overall they saw no sign of revolution in Syria. He reported that Christians are “safe and happy” and are free to worship without oppression.  Moreover, he also expressed disdain for imbalanced media coverage of Syria in the United States, and that his impression is that Syria is not in any immediate danger from an internal revolution.

IC Orthodox Christian Charities Supports the Emergency Needs of Somali Refugees

As more than ten million men, women and children face hunger and life-threatening health consequences from the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) is responding with aid to relieve victims of the worst food shortage crisis in the world today. Working in cooperation with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Develop-ment and Inter Church Aid Commission (EOC-DICAC) and partner agency International Medical Corps (IMC), IOCC is delivering financial support to help alleviate the emergency needs of Somali refugees in southern camps of Ethiopia. The initial IOCC relief will support healthcare responders assessing the immediate and basic health, nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene needs of the refugees, and support their efforts to provide emergency assistance such as distribution of food and water, therapeutic feeding programs for the severely malnourished, construction of latrines, and coordination of other hygiene activities to prevent spread of disease in such overcrowded conditions.

Deputy Country Representative for IOCC Ethiopia, Seifu Tirfie, says that years of working with EOC-DICAC to improve health standards through the development of clean water sources and improved agricultural techniques to withstand drought allows IOCC unique access to provide swift and targeted relief. "Our extended grass roots network and excellent relationship with the government gives us a very good opportunity to deliver prompt and relevant assistance to people facing the serious threat of starvation, particularly women and children." Tirfie adds that IOCC and it relief partners will be closely monitoring the situation and assessing additional needs.

The devastating drought conditions in the Horn of Africa following no rain for the past two seasons has dried up farmland and pastures, leaving failed crops and dying livestock. The people of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have been hardest hit by the drought-induced food shortage, but according to UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, those living in Somalia have suffered the added burden of skyrocketing food prices and civil war. UNHCR estimates that an average of nearly 1,700 Somalis, mostly women and malnourished children, arrive every day at the Dollo Ado refugee camp in southeastern Ethiopia after walking barefoot for days in search of food and water. Of the children that don't succumb along the way and make it to the extremely overcrowded refugee center, some are so malnourished that they die before medical workers can intervene.

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Jerusalem church leaders advocate negotiations on Palestinian state

Jerusalem, 16 September (ENInews)—Church leaders in Jerusalem said they support a negotiated solution to the question of a Palestinian state in the Middle East."Negotiations are the best way to resolve all outstanding problems between [Israel and the Palestinians]," they said in the statement before next week's scheduled address by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who will ask for recognition of an independent Palestinian state when he addresses the United Nations next week.If taken to the Security Council, his bid is expected not to pass because of an expected U.S. veto, but if taken to the General Assembly, Palestinian status in the U.N. could be elevated from its current status of Observer Entity to that of Observer State, the same status as the Vatican.

Israel and the U.S. say that a Palestinian state should only be established through joint negotiations, maintaining that any unilateral action such as the declaration of a Palestinian state in the U.N. would lead to violence.
"We call upon decision makers and people of good will, to do their utmost to achieve the long awaited justice, peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians," said the church leaders. They also said, "Palestinians and Israelis should exercise restraint, whatever the outcome of the vote at the United Nations."The eleven representatives of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches said Israelis and Palestinians "must live each in their own independent state with peace and justice, respecting human rights according to international law." The current situation is "the most appropriate time" to resume diplomatic efforts, they said. [ENI: By Judith Sudilovsky]

Orthodox leaders smooth path to proposed summit meeting

The patriarchs of three ancient Orthodox Christian churches met from 1-2 September in Istanbul to discuss the situation of Christian minorities in the Middle East, and perhaps an even more prickly topic—the move toward a historic pan-Orthodox council—removing major stumbling blocks to what would be the first such gathering in centuries.

The pan-Orthodox council is regarded with great interest by the world's Orthodox churches, many of which are in unstable regions following revolutions in the Middle East, or in countries facing a third decade of economic and social transition following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

"The patriarchs, and of course the Archbishop of Cyprus, they all expressed the readiness to proceed to the pan-Orthodox council that is forthcoming, and they said to me that they support the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch to this direction," said Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Proussa, former chief secretary of the Synodical Office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, also known as the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The meeting, called a synaxis, was hosted by Patriarch Bartholemew of Constantinople and attended by Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria, Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, and Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus. Patriarch Igantius of Antioch was represented by a bishop.Representatives of 14 Orthodox churches met in Chambesy, Switzerland last February to try to establish a consensus towards a pan-Orthodox council, but became mired in disputes about diptychs, the order of commemoration of the churches, and procedures for autocephaly, or the granting of independence to a church. After Chambesy, Patriarch Bartholomew sent a letter to church leaders asking how they wanted to proceed.

This time, Elpidophoros, said, "the answer of almost all the Orthodox churches was that we can proceed to the pan-Orthodox council without having agreed on these two issues of diptychs and the autocephaly," he said in an interview with ENInews.

Last month, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations, toured the Middle East and met with the patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. He discussed the importance to Moscow, which is the world's largest Orthodox Church, of the Istanbul meeting and its potential for influencing the move towards a pan-Orthodox council.At the Istanbul meeting, the leaders discussed the threats to Christians in the Middle East in the wake of recent upheavals. "According to the report of the Patriarchs and the Archbishop of Cyprus, the behavior of these revolutionaries towards the Christian minorities is very hostile and aggressive, and this makes the Christian leaders, and of course the patriarchs, very much concerned about the future," said Elpidophoros. [ENI: By Sophia Kishkovsky]

Coptic Christians and Persecution One Year After Revolution

Thousands of Coptic Christians gathered at the largest Coptic church in Cairo on October 10, the day after 26 Christians were killed and nearly 300 injured in a flare of military violence against protestors. Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria declared three days of mourning for those who had died due to violence that occurred in what was reported to have been a peaceful demonstration that ended near Tahrir Square.

“[The demonstrators] were completely unnarmed,” said Pope Shenouda in his weekly homily, “according to the teachings of their non-violent religion. They walked for a long way from Shubra to Maspero in an open manner. If they had weapons they would have been seen.”

Violence flared outside the state TV building as Coptic Christians peacefully marched from the Shubra districts in protest against a house of worship in Edfu that had been attacked in the previous week. A group of men claimed the building did not have the appropriate permits, and set in on fire. Witnesses also reported that several of the homes of Coptic Christians as well as businesses were set aflame in Edfu.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011