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Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman heads the Eparchy of Latakia in the north of Syria, a region that so far has been spared the violence of the country’s civil war, which may come as a surprise to many in the West who imagine the entire country to be in the grip of violence. The territory is home to Alawite Muslims, who run the country, and who continue to live peacefully beside a Christian population of some 45,000.
Latakia and neighboring towns are a haven for Syrians fleeing the fighting, Muslims as well as Christians, the latter having fled Damascus, Aleppo and Homs (which is part of the Latakia Eparchy) in great numbers, the majority of them currently stranded in Lebanon.
Bishop Sleman is on a visit to the US to rally support for his local community, not only to help him cope with the needs of the internally displaced—whose status, unlike that of ugees, make them ineligible for UN aid—but to give local Christians a chance to sustain a livelihood through farming. He is aiming to buy livestock and machinery for agricultural production, such as cheese-making.
”If Christians cannot make a living here, they will leave, and most of those who leave—particularly for the West—do not return,“ the prelate said, adding that “their enduring presence here and throughout the Middle East is vital for the well-being of Muslim society,“ serving as an indispensable antidote to fanaticism and extremism.
Also high on the bishop’s wishlist is the establishment of a residence for young women attending school and college in Latakia, a haven that will ensure parents of the safety of their daughters, whose education is critical to the future of Syria. The bishop spoke with Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity, on Oct. 17, during a stop in New York.
After two years of fighting and so much bloodshed, what is your vision of a formula to establish peace in Syria? What is your message for the American audience?
Bishop Sleman: Great effort must be made to establish a dialogue between the regime and moderate elements of the opposition. The world’s big players must get involved in earnest and put real pressure on the various parties to come to the negotiating table: America and its allies—France, all the Europeans, Israel; and Russia, which must call on Iran and its allies. But there has been no real leadership up to this point. The big challenge is religious fanaticism. This is a very difficult issue, of course.
The problem of so many media is that they don’t really grasp real picture of the situation. The Arab spring has been depicted as this clear push for liberty and democracy—but the
actual results in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, for example, are proving otherwise. In many respects, the West is poorly informed, including its Churches, despite good intentions.
Right now, in Syria, the story needs to be told that moderate rebels and Islamists have begun fighting each other. The world’s major powers must intervene—now—to stop Syria
from tumbling into utter chaos. I am very worried about the situation. Nonetheless, I continue to have hope—call it a foolish hope, if you will. But with God everything is possible.
One of the enormous stakes is the ability of Christians to remain in the lands of the birth of their faith.
We need the solidarity of people and governments in the West to ensure the ongoing presence of Christians in Syria and throughout the Middle East. We cannot allow the land
to be without Christians, because the Christian presence helps Muslims to be moderate. That is what John Paul II said about Lebanon: “it is more than a country, it is a message [of the coexistence of Muslims and Christians].“ The environment of Islam benefits from the engagement of the Christian faith, which ensures, of course, also our own openness with regard to the Muslim world. That is what I want to tell American Christians and Catholics. To be able to really live out my faith I stress two principal pillars—God, who is absolute in heaven, and man, whose value is absolute on earth. In touching the one, you touch the other. Any kind of religious fanaticism is a breach of this fundamental respect for God and man. That is the message of the Christian witness, its presence in the Muslim
world, which Christians in the West make possible through both prayer, and material support.
However, I don’t believe that we should rely on a constant supply of money—only while the fighting continues. Eventually, local Christians must find ways to become self- sufficient and thus be able to stay. We must find ways to prevent them from becoming refugees themselves! The local Church is seeking to play a crucial role in this regard.
In Syria, and elsewhere in the region, Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side for centuries.
I cannot and will not speak separately of Christians and Muslims. We have lived together in Syria for 1400 years. Why can we not manage to live together any more? That is the big
question. We Christians want to stay and moderate Muslims want the same thing. Why do Jihadists and fundamentalist Muslims come to Syria, and elsewhere, to insist that this coexistence is no longer possible? We should not split up countries and regions along religious lines. This is a great risk: a country with a single religion becomes extremist, provoking war. Religion must not be used as a pretext for violence.
So there is nothing in Islam that is fundamentally incompatible with regard to tolerance of Christians?
Indeed. Again, we have lived together for 1400 years. Now, Saudi Arabia is a different matter. Countries that are 100 percent Islamic are a different story; there, Muslims have not been forced to find ways to live together with Christians, have not been pushed to arrive at an openness. But in Syria, Lebanon, in Jordan, and so forth, we have lived together for the longest time. In those countries it is hard to imagine Muslims living without Christians or vice versa.
There are occasional reports of Muslims coming to the aid of their Christian neigbors.
It happens the other way around as well. For example, Sunni families fled Aleppo and came to my iocese. Religious sisters came to their aid, and where told by their guests;
“we are busy killing you, but you are giving us food to eat. We will not forget you.“ That was the first time these Muslims had met Christians and they discovered that these believers were not what they expected. We cannot let such experiences not bear fruit. This is extraordinary. We can live together. When Christians and Muslims live together in a particular region, it is not Christians who close up but Muslims who open up. It is
ignorance that makes us afraid of the “other.“
Our religion is one of mission—it is not a religion that closes in on itself. We cannot accept the logic of uniformity; we stand for openness; that is the genius of Christianity.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more
than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org
Dear brothers and sisters,
Please see below the Holy Father’s appeal for peace in Syria. Let us join with
him in fasting and prayer.
+ Gregory J. Mansour
VATICAN CITY, September 01, 2013 (Zenit.org) – Here is a Vatican translation of the Pope’s address this morning, given before and after praying the midday Angelus with the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Hello!
Today, dear brothers and sisters, I wish to add my voice to the cry which rises up with increasing anguish from every part of the world, from every people, from the heart of each person, from the one great family which is humanity: it is the cry for peace! It is a cry which declares with force: we want a peaceful world, we want to be men and women of peace, and we want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out! War never again! Never again war! Peace is a precious gift, which must be promoted and protected.There are so many conflicts in this world which cause me great suffering and worry, but in these days my heart is deeply wounded in particular by what is happening in Syria and anguished by the dramatic developments which are looming.
I appeal strongly for peace, an appeal which arises from deep within me. How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in that martyred country, especially among civilians and the unarmed! I think of many children who will not see the light of the future! With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons: I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable! Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.
With all my strength, I ask each party in this conflict to listen to the voice of their own conscience, not to close themselves in solely on their own interests, but rather to look at each other as brothers and decisively and courageously to follow the path of encounter and negotiation, and so overcome blind conflict. With similar vigour I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people.
May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries. May humanitarian workers, charged with the task of alleviating the sufferings of these people, be granted access so as to provide the necessary aid.
What can we do to make peace in the world? As Pope John said, it pertains to each individual to establish new relationships in human society under the mastery and guidance of justice and love (cf. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, [11 April 1963]: AAS 55, , 301-302).
All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to every Christian of other confessions, as well as to followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs all of humanity!
I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.
May the plea for peace rise up and touch the heart of everyone so that they may lay down their weapons and let themselves be led by the desire for peace.
To this end, brothers and sisters, I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on 7 September next, the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world, and I also invite each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.
On 7 September, in Saint Peter’s Square, here, from 19:00 until 24:00, we will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace! I ask all the local churches, in addition to fasting, that they gather to pray for this intention.
Let us ask Mary to help us to respond to violence, to conflict and to war, with the power of dialogue, reconciliation and love. She is our mother: may she help us to find peace; all of us are her children! Help us, Mary, to overcome this most difficult moment and to dedicate ourselves each day to building in every situation an authentic culture of encounter and peace. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We must do all we can to encourage our US Representatives to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Here below is my letter. Please join me, and all the bishops, in this effort
Dear New York Member of the House of Representatives
First, I write to thank you for your steadfast support of a careful social policy for the United States of America, which you and I both love. I also ask in this same vein that you support comprehensive immigration reform legislation so much needed by so many people hidden in our society.
We, the United States Catholic Bishops and faithful alike support legislation that brings the undocumented out of the shadows through a path to citizenship and also promotes family unity. We also support measures that help “secure” our border, as long as such measures respect human rights and human life. Specifically, we support the following elements in any bill:
- A path to citizenship which is fair, accessible, and achievable;
- The reunification of families – husbands, wife, and children – in an expedited manner;
- A future-flow worker program that allows low-skilled immigrant workers to enter the United States safely and legally to work.
- The restoration of due process protections for immigrants, so they have their day in court; and
- Policies which address the root causes of migration, such as economic inequities and persecution.
Our immigration system needs repair in all these aspects. I ask you to please redouble your good efforts with your colleagues to pass comprehensive immigration legislation which is both fair and humane.
+Gregory John Mansour
When his disciples came back after their first attempts at ministry; Jesus said to them:
“I watched Satan fall from the heavens” (Luke 10:18)
The power of Satan, who wreaks havoc in the hearts of God’s children, is now distinguished by the coming of Christ, the true King, and the coming of the kingdom!
We are too sophisticated to think in those terms. We think that the power of the evil one hardly exists for us, or we think only of the movie, the Exorcist, when we think of possession.
But how can we explain drug and alcohol addiction, porn or sex addiction, human trafficking and the sex trade?
What about compulsive behavior, or high pitched anger, hatred and murder, so much so that it can lead some to kill without any regret or repentance ? (The recent beheadings in Syria or England).
What about a low pitched depression such that paralyzes us, or leads to intractable fights between those of us who are un-reconciled and un-reconcilable, especially family members, spouses or friends?
What about political parties that consume their members with their own ideologies so much so that they completely consume their own members and condemn anyone opposed to them?
What about abortion and euthanasia clothed by society in positive terms as someone’s inalienable right and as something good?
These and many more personal, family and society problems are epidemic today! In the terms of our ancestors, many of us, even society as a whole, are possessed, and Satan is still reigning in the heavens!
But today, we are afraid to look at these harsh realities, and name them as evil. Don’t depress me, enough already! We are afraid to even talk about this. Even our Maronite Church, afraid of scaring people, has abbreviated the magnificent and ancient exorcism prayers of the Baptismal ceremony from five to one paragraph.
Brothers, sisters, we must have the courage to look carefully at the evils of our days, at the work of the evil one, who deceives us and deceives society as a whole, and sows enmity and division among us, and who attempts to distance us from a deeper union with God and more joyful communion with one another. We must see this as a power that can consume us if we are not careful.
The problem is that we are fainthearted. We get discouraged easily, we get disillusioned. We see the negative about ourselves and others and we are afraid of doing what is right. Small divisions become so large that they affect our family, our friends, our Church. We develop habits that lead us away from God and others; we sometimes feel that there is no hope, nothing we can do, nothing even God can do!
We must be careful. This is not from God! This may be from the “snake in the grass” but it is not from God.
Let us look at the original exorcism prayers in the Baptism ceremony to regain our confidence. Notice the sole reliance on God, who loves us and sent us the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to keep us safe from all harm:
I exorcise you, wicked demons and unclean spirits, and all the armies of the enemy, in the fearsome name + of God, who creates and provides for all, who sits on the chariot of crystal, and is served by thousands of thousands and before whom stand myriads of myriads.
Enshrined in this exorcism is not a fear of the evil one or a feeling of helplessness; but rather an awe, wonder, and confidence in the power of God, who is greater than any other powers of this world. We see that evil is defeated by God, who loves and frees us to follow him if we trust in his shepherd’s care in the midst of all the evil of our days.
I exorcise you, in the great and fearsome name of “I am who I am”, + the mighty God and Lord of the armies, who spoke to Moses from the bush and came down to Sinai, with the sound of trumpets.
I exorcise you, in the wonderful, ever-reigning name, of God almighty, + who became man and vanquished your dominion, who humbled himself by his own will, embraced death on the wooden cross, and redeemed Adam and his children from the slavery of sin.
I exorcise you, to depart from this creature, betrothed to the living God, + to disperse and leave alone this servant of God, who came to be a dwelling place in the Holy Spirit. Behold, the Shepherd runs toward his lamb! When he sees the ravening wolf, he will destroy it, like the cloud at the approach of the wind. And I sign and seal this lamb against the army of the devils. In the name of the +Father, and of the +Son, and of the +Holy Spirit.
We must not be afraid to see “Satan fall from the heavens” and we must pray: thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” In this way, we his modern day disciples may go into the world to live and welcome his kingdom and we too can rejoice that there is no power in the world greater than the power of Christ and his kingdom.
Please also see our plea in The Maronite Voice for financial support. May God bless Syria.
On Monday, April 22, 2013, we were taken by surprise at the news that our brothers Bishop Paul (Yazigi) of Aleppo and Alexandretta and Bishop John (Ibrahim), Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, had been kidnapped on their way back to Aleppo after accomplishing a humanitarian mission. We deeply regret what happened as we regret all similar acts targeting civilians, regardless of their belonging, and therefore we address to the local and international communities the following declaration:
- The Christians living here are an essential part of the land. They suffer the pain every person suffers; they work as messengers of peace to stop the perpetration of injustice against the oppressed. They follow the teaching of the Gospel that says love is at the basis of human relations. The official positions expressed by the spiritual leaders of the various churches highlight these beliefs, and the mission fulfilled by the two kidnapped bishops is further proof of this orientation.
- The Christians in this part of the East are deeply saddened by what their country is going through, namely the violence that is dividing the sons of the same country and endangering civilians who conduct their lives in peace. Kidnapping is a terrible expression of this violence, and it is to be condemned without hesitation as it threatens the lives of unarmed individuals. We appeal to the kidnappers to respect the life of the two kidnapped brothers, and we call on everyone to put an end to all the acts that allow or create confessional and sectarian schisms among the sons of the same country.
- We understand the preoccupation of the Christians following this event. We call on them to be patient, to adhere to the teachings of their faith, and to rely on God whose strength lies also in our weakness. We believe that to remain in our land, and to do all that is possible to make it a land of love and coexistence, is a powerful tool in its defense. We are also aware that all citizens from all confessions are suffering the same pain due to the violence, and we pray that the Lord may strengthen them and console them in their difficulties. Together with them we raise our voices and reject all sorts of violence that tears our country and makes our hearts bleed.
- In this painful situation, we call on the world to work to end the Syrian crisis, so that it may go back to being a garden of love, security and peaceful coexistence. Political strife should not be resolved at the expense of the men and women of this region.
- We also call all the churches in the world to stand fast in the face of what is happening and provide a witness to the power of love in this world. It is necessary to take steps that attest to the fact that they reject the violence to which the populations of these lands are being subjected today.
- We take the opportunity to call on our brothers of all Islamic confessions to work together, ones with another, to demonstrate that we refuse to consider man as a product that can be bought or sold, a shield to be used in war, a political or financial good of exchange.
- We address the kidnappers and tell them that those whom they kidnapped are messengers of peace in this world, as witnessed by their religious and social missions. We appeal to them to deal with this painful episode peacefully, as violence is useful only to the enemies of our nation.
- Finally, we pray the Lord in these blessed feasts that this tragedy may end, that peace may prevail in the hearts of all, and so that the country may enjoy the peace and prosperity it deserves.
Syria plunges into the third anniversary of a crisis that tears the
country since March 15, 2011, and still with no result.
1) A COUNTRY THAT FLOWS:
The scene is very painful, we talk about a very heavy toll: 80,000 dead; 850,000 students without schools, four million refugees, and economic destruction estimated at $ 260 billion not to mention the flight of the capitals, the closing of the factories and the devaluation of the local currency:
The value of the American Dollar increased from 45 Syrian Pounds in 2011 to 121 Syrian Pounds at this time, one can imagine the impact on inflation and the collapse of purchasing power. Military and officials are the last ones who continue to receive a salary at the end of the month. Others live in poverty and in shortage of everything. The family is dispersed at 5a.m., to queue in front of the bakery, grocery store, gas station, and sometimes under fire and bombing.. What anguish!!!
2) GENERATOR OF VIOLENCE:
The biggest nightmare is the abduction of people for ransoms … The “sharpshooter” is the bugbear who kills to block roads and routes between neighborhoods and cities, and woe to anyone who dares to pass. We cannot count the number of victims, death becomes the daily bread. Undertakers are the only ones hiring.
This socio-economic fragility is a breeding ground empowering the war and feeding the violence… Thus prolonging the fighting and shrinking the chances of peace.
3) PASTORAL DISCOURAGMENT:
This continued situation of insecurity weakens significantly the pastoral life. The murder of two priests and the kidnaping of four others plant the fear in the heart of a clergyman who moves less and no longer wears his clerical garb … The number of faithful is declining continuously. A parish which had 30 baptisms in 2011, records only three baptisms in 2012. How to fight to maintain the morale and stay on the road? … It takes a lot of your prayers with us to the Good Shepherd for these devoted servants…
What would the Church be without priests?
4) A DIALOG TO DECODE:
The Syrian people express little and mastered the language of silence, a difficult language that needs to be decoded permanently … one must guess … A smile does not necessarily express joy or satisfactions … Sufferings are repressed for fear of being misinterpreted … The same speech echoed by all does not necessarily mean personal opinion, words can mean the opposite … In my seventh year in Damascus, I am still a novice and unable to easily grasp the merits of ideas. Often I’m wrong and I wipe unexpected failures even amongst colleagues … I still have a lot to learn about this beloved flock, that the Lord has entrusted me.
5) A GOOD SAMARITAN:
This discreet and not very talkative people, bathes in the misery and seeks a “Good Samaritan” who is silent and heals without asking questions, who takes action without trying to study and understand a complex situation… The heavy bleeding of a sick, injured, abandoned and lonely person is waiting for this outstretched hand and charitable heart that does not include religious and political affiliations, and does not poses too many questions. The small discreet and silent local church is the reflecting image of her followers, and cannot live her testimony except in the vocation of the Good Samaritan.
A church that is present, reaching out to different brothers in need and suffering, regardless of their color and religion. This silent and free charity is the only evangelical philosophy that can build the future Syria. The future of Eastern Christians is based on that biblical challenge … Given the intensity of the violence and “every man for himself”
Do we have the time to assume that duty? “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road…?” Luke 24: 32. To win this bet, our eyes turn towards the empty tomb…
+ Samir NASSAR
Maronite Archbishop of Damascus
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
What a surprise! What a joy! The Holy Spirit knows how to help guide us, and never leave us orphans. The past few weeks the Church has shined brightly, even with age old ceremonies, she knows how to live her calling with love and serenity, and how to carefully and respectfully choose a leader in the footsteps of Saint Peter.
The popes that I remember, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis, are all so very different in personality, in leadership style and in thinking, yet they are all the same in that they are all faithful and obedient to Christ and His Church. What an inspiration to all of us. We can truly be ourselves, yet at the same time, be faithful.
It was a particular joy for me to see Pope Francis with his hands at his side looking out at the 150,000 plus people in Saint Peter’s Square. All I could imagine was that here was a man that realized he does not have to impress anyone, all he needs to do is to be faithful to his calling and obedient to the Holy Spirit. This in itself is enough to inspire all of us. Let us pray for Pope Francis, the Universal Church, and the world that we too be truly ourselves, and at the same time faithful and obedient to our heavenlycall.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+Gregory John Mansour
Dear Friends of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish Faiths,
The civil war in Syria has sadly cast this beautiful country under a shadow in front of the eyes of the world. So many good people suffer and they ask for help. We wish we could do more, but one of the ways we can help is to pray. Religious leaders and faithful from various Christian, Islamic, and Jewish traditions share a common calling: we all pray. Because we do pray, we can also be peace makers, and can come together, beyond our differences and pray.
For this reason and more, we cordially invite you to join Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon (corner of Remsen and Henry Streets) at 109 Remsen Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 on Tuesday evening, April 2, 2013, from 7:30 to 8:30 PM for a special prayer service for Syria and peace in the Middle East. There will be no speeches or political statements.
A light reception will follow in the Cathedral Hall. Parking is available on the street around the Cathedral or at Manhattan Boro Parking Garage, 40 Clinton Street (between Pierpont Street and Clark Street). The Cathedral is a block and a half from there.
I hope you can join us for the evening prayer and for light refreshments.
+ Gregory J. Mansour
Bishop of the Eparchy Saint Maron, and
Secretary of CAMECT
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I awoke this morning, as all of you did, to the surprise news of the Holy Father’s renunciation of the Petrine Ministry in the Church, to which he was elected by the College of Cardinals eight years ago. I cannot think of the Church without him at the helm. Nor could I have thought eight years ago of the Church without Blessed John Paul II. We live in Christian hope.
Pope Benedict spoke of the Church as a ship, and the one who serves at the helm, the Pope, serves in Peter, the fisherman’s, place. He needs strength of soul and body to do so. Moreover, the Pope said, even though there is suffering and prayer associated with the Petrine ministry, in the modern day a Pope needs much strength to carry the Church’s mission well. Pope Benedict examined his conscience many times, and he said he came to a certainty that this is his time to “let go”. This is bold, loving and wise.
Notice that the Pope does not “resign”. Patriarchs and Bishops resign, because they send in their resignation to the Pope. But the Pope “lets go”, he used the word “renounce”, which is the word we also embrace during Lent, to renounce whatever does not lead us or those we serve to be closer to God. What an act of humility and love for the Church!
The Holy Father asked all of us once again to entrust the Church to the True Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and he asked the Blessed Mother to intercede for the Church’s Cardinal electors, so that by the Holy Spirit they may elect a worthy successor. The Holy Father asked God and us to forgive his shortcomings, and pledged to live the rest of his life in devoted service to the church through prayer.
Wow, what a witness to faith in God, and in his Church! The Holy Father’s talk to the Cardinals, a beautiful talk given in Latin, so we know that this was quite freely and soberly thought and prayed out, can be read here. I hope everyone will read it.
May God bless Pope Benedict the man, the Christian, the Bishop, the Pope, and the faithful “Servant of the Servants of God”, and bless the Church, the ship of Peter, as she continues to live and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Much has been said about the recent “compromise” to the HHS mandate. Here is a superb reflection by Archbishop Charles Chaput. It is well worth reading.
+ Gregory Mansour
|Eparchy of Saint Maron
109 Remsen Street
Brooklyn NY 1201