News -Winter 2012

WCC Executive Committee: message to Syrian churches

The members of the World Council of Churches Executive Committee have sent a pastoral message to the churches in Syria extending solidarity as they face enormous challenges due to the ongoing violence in the country.

The message comes at a time when the situation in Syria continues to deter-iorate. The situation was discussed in a meeting at WCC headquarters in Geneva in late December, in which some twenty Syrian church leaders from various Christian traditions in Syria participated.

The message was crafted by the Executive Committee during their meetings last week from 14 to 18 February in Bossey, Switzerland. In the message they expressed hope for an end to violence and a national dialogue to emerge from the conflict, based on peace with justice, recognition of human rights and human dignity and the need to live together in mutual respect.

The message strongly supported a joint letter from the three heads of churches in Syria, sent out to congre-gations in the country in December, in which they condemned the use of all violence while encouraging their mem-bers not to fear and not to lose hope.

It also called on WCC member churches to “engage in concrete actions of solidarity” during this time of diffi-culties, and, quoting the WCC consti-tution, “as a fellowship of churches we are to express the common concern of the churches in the service of human need, the breaking down of barriers between people and the promotion of one human family in justice and peace.”

Syrian Christians Support Assad

After Russia and China had vetoed a United Nations Security Council reso-lution condemning the actions of the Syrian regime, some Christians inside the country celebrated. One man from the western Syrian town of Qatana called his relatives to congratulate them on the result of the vote. A bar frequented by Christians and Alawites in Damascus offered two-for-one happy hour drinks.

But in Christian homes around the country the prevailing sentiment is one of relief rather than delight—they link the Assad regime’s survival to their own. “Without Russia we are doomed,” said a Christian woman from Damascus. “Look what has happened in Iraq,” said the woman. “Assad in power means that won’t happen here.” Brushing off the latest violence, another Christian woman, said “The problems here are nearly over.”

As a fellow minority, Christians have long supported the Alawite regime in order to ensure protection and rights for themselves. Thousands of Christians are part of the regime’s security apparatus and employed in high-ranking govern-ment and military positions. Aware that some day the masses might rise up against the regime, Syria’s previous president, Hafez al-Assad, sought to consolidate power among the minorities, people he knew would unite when tested.

Furthermore, ties between Syria’s Christians and Alawites are not restricted to the spheres of politics and security. Alawites are seen by some Christians as being less Islamic in that many do not fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Many young Alawites frequent nightclubs and few wear the Islamic headscarf.

In the town of Qatana, 22 miles west of Damascus, a small Christian commun-ity is supportive of the army’s current operation to surround the town.  “They will keep us safe from the gangs and the extremists. We need them here,” said one resident reached by phone.

When a single shell smashed through the wall of a convent in the Christian town of Saidnaya last week, Christians took to Facebook to show how they were being targeted because of their religion. No group has claimed responsibility for firing the shell, which did not explode, though fighting between elements of the Free Syrian Army and regular forces have been taking place nearby.

The regime has repeatedly publicized its support for the country’s minorities and portrayed itself as fighting Islamic extremists. Priests regularly appear on state television praying with leading Sunni and Shia clerics. Regime-backed gangs have reportedly been shooting into the air around Christian neighbor-hoods since the early days of the revolt  in order, many believe, to drive them into the hands of the authorities.

A woman in the Christian quarter of Damascus blames international TV net-works for the “crisis,” not the regime’s violent crackdown. “Al Jazeera is causing all this trouble…. They are telling lies. Look around you–there are no problems here.” Others believe Qatar and Saudi Arabia are working to take control of Syria, pushed by the US and Israel.

“I think Russia will put pressure on Assad,” said an Orthodox Christian lawyer in Damascus. “I think they will tell him: ‘Hold elections or we will stop supporting you.’ It is not in Russia’s interest to keep supporting the Syrian regime’s crackdown. They’re being criticized internationally and I don’t think they’ll stand for that much longer.”

Priest Shot Dead in Syria

The funeral of Rev. Fr. Basilios Nassar took place on January 26 at the Church of Saint George in Hama, Syria a day after he was shot to death in the street while attempting to assist another man. Reports indicate that the thirty-year old priest received a phone call while at the Metropolis that a parishioner had been wounded. Nassar was struck by bullets when he went out to attend to the man. He was dragged from the street by a third man but died shortly before he was able to receive medical care. The source of the fatal gunshots remains unclear. The shooting occurred on the second day of intense fighting in the area.

American Bishops Protest State Decision

A recent decision made by the United States Department of Health and Human Services that requires religious insti-tutions such as hospitals, schools, and other affiliated organizations to provide full coverage for contraceptives was the subject of protest by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States, Canada, and Mexico in early February. The decision made by the DHHS requires that full coverage for contraception—including “morning after” pills that could induce abortions—be paid for through insurance coverage by institutions that view contraception or abortion as morally egregious and a violation of religious convictions. The Assembly of Orthodox Bishops joined the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as numerous other organizations, in voicing protest and concern regarding the decision.

The Assembly urged Orthodox laity to contact their Congressional represent-atives in order to “voice their concern in the face of this threat to the sanctity of the Church’s conscience.”

Opponents to the decision claim its definition of  “religious institution” is too narrow and does not include large net-works of social service organizations that are ministries or extensions of churches, synagogues, mosques. Catholic Charities, which employs seventy thousand people, and the University of Notre Dame, two examples, would not be exempt. They would be subject to fines totaling millions for violations of the mandate.

The decision has ignited a fight be-tween the Right, who accuse the Obama administration of an attack on Religion, and the Left, who claim to be defending full and equal access to medical care. The Obama administration is seeking compromise, but opponents are not yet satisfied and continue to demand more.

Alexander Schmorell Canonized in ROCOR Church in Munich

Alexander Schmorell
Alexander Schmorell

Alexander Schmorell, co-founder of the White Rose organization, which dis-tributed literature criticizing Hitler and advocating passive resistance to the Nazis, and his collaborators were executed in 1943 after little more than a year distributing pamphlets opposing the regime. Schmorell was recognized as a Saint in services at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Munich, Germany on February 4th and 5th, 2012. Though all the members of the White Rose were Christians, Schmorell, now known as St. Alexander Schmorell the New Martyr and Passion-Bearer, was the only Orthodox. Though not targeted for their Christian witness, their clandestine, anti-Fascist work was inspired and informed by their shared Christian faith. Born in Orenburg, Russia in 1917, he lived in Munich, the home of his German father, for most of his life. He is the first new Martyr canonically recognized by the reunited ROCOR and Moscow Patriarchate.

Russian Cleric Proposes War Readiness

Speaking on matters beyond the realm of the spiritual, a top Orthodox Church cleric said Russia must play a greater role in responding to ongoing global events that could deteriorate into a world war.

“There are many processes occurring in the world in which Russia should play a much more active role,” Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-placed cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church, said in an interview with the Svobodnaya Pressa (‘Free Press’) publishing house. “The economic and social contradictions that have cropped up in the world are so powerful that they are sure to blow up into serious military operations.”

Chaplin said Russia’s military must remain “combat ready” to prevent the outbreak of military incidents on or around its territory.

“In order to ensure that these military operations not unfold on our territory or in the vicinity of our borders, we need to keep our armed forces combat ready,” Chaplin said. Russia must actively participate in settling all situations that may lead to a war, be it the Middle East or Central Asia, where the situation is also tense, he added.

“By all accounts, we will not manage to escape a big war,” Chaplin warned, while adding that civilization’s current trajectory “may lead to the annihilation of cities.”

Forgiveness Sunday Not Best Day To Rally Against Enemies

The opposition has disagreed with the opinion of the head of the Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who said that Forgiveness Sunday will not be the best day for holding massive demonstrations in Moscow.

“As regards the Sunday, it would be interesting to hear Mr. Chaplin, were it a pro-Putin rally,” one of the leaders of the non-registered People’s Freedom Party Boris Nemtsov told Interfax on. The opposition is planning to hold a flash mob called Big White Circle on the Garden Ring in Moscow on Sunday. Yet another flash mob in the form of a street party will be held on the same day by Left Front on Revolution Square.

“This is first and foremost a day of forgiveness. If demonstrators forgive all those divided from them by grievances and frictions, it will be the best thing to happen on Forgiveness Sunday,” he told a press conference in Moscow on Friday.

Russian Spring?

Thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters donned white ribbons and held hands along downtown Moscow’s 10-mile ring highway on Sunday, demonstrating the resilience of the protest movement and the continued dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin a week before he is to be on the ballot in a crucial presidential election.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012