The Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholics, Youssef Absi, was in Ottawa Oct. 26 as part of a Congress of Melkite Bishops from Countries of Immigration. He presided at Vespers at the Melkite parish of St. Peter and St. Paul. The Eparch of the Melkite Catholics in Canada, Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, is to his left. (CCN/D. Gyapong)
OTTAWA (CCN) — Melkite Greek Catholics both in the Middle East and in the West face pressures eroding their communities — but from different sources.
The Christians of the Middle East are experiencing the “suffering shared by the entire population” due to the continuing war in Syria, said the new head of the Melkite Greek Catholics, Patriarch Youssef Absi. Because Christians do not have an army, or arms to defend themselves, “they are affected the most.”
The patriarch of an estimate 2-3 million Melkite Catholics around the world was in Ottawa Oct. 26 as part of the ninth Congress of Bishops from the Countries of Immigration, including Canada, and bishops from countries as far-flung as Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico. Including the patriarch, 10 bishops attended the Congress.
The patriarch cannot be called only the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, said Melkite Catholic Eparch of Canada Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim. The borders of Antioch have now expanded, so “Antioch is both in the East and in the West.”
“I think we have some things to say in the West,” said the patriarch. “I am saddened by the decrease of the faith in the West.”
The Damascus-born patriarch’s visit to Canada was designed to help him learn about the challenges facing Melkite Catholics in the West, through meetings with Catholic leaders, Melkite clergy and youth, said Ibrahim.
The patriarch is well aware, however, of the immense difficulties facing Melkites in his native Syria.
“Christians are emigrating now,” said the patriarch, who was elected last June and divides his time between Lebanon and Damascus. “They are leaving the country and this fact is miserable for us.”
“What is most needed is to help us make peace in our country,” he said. “We can take care of the rest.”
Stopping the war is not just a matter of stopping ISIS and other similar groups, but for world powers to address “who is behind or supporting ISIS,” he said. The confrontation is not so much with these groups but those who are helping them.
If they stop supporting and helping to sustain ISIS and every other group, a “big part of our work is done,” the patriarch said.
The ongoing war, instability and destruction of livelihoods threatens to empty Syria of its ancient Christian populations, but the patriarch said perhaps the money being spent to settle refugees in the West could be better spent in the Middle East.
“With the money we could help them stay in their country, because we have a mission, a testimony to fulfil,” he said. This testimony has a great deal to do with the ability of differing religious groups to live side by side, in harmony with one another, as they did before the war.
“We have to think about the future,” said Patriarch Absi. “The essential point is what is the philosophy, the ideas that will lead Syria in the future.”
What will the future of Syria look like?” he asked. “Sooner or later the war will stop. After that, what will be the new face of Syria? We have to give a shape to the new Syria.”
“It’s not a question of a person or an individual, it’s a question of a homeland, a nation,” he said.
“What you are living now in this country, we lived it for centuries and centuries,” the patriarch said of Canada’s pluralism. “Why would you want us to give up what you are defending and living?”
If the pluralistic model of diverse groups living side by side “fails in Syria, it’s a bad indication for the whole world,” the patriarch warned. “It means the experience is threatened everywhere else.”
Without Christianity, the Middle East risks becoming increasingly “monochromatic” and “sectarian,” said Rev. Rami Wakim, the personal assistant to the patriarch. “We need to fight the idea of every sect living alone in the country.”
Melkite Catholics face a different set of challenges in the west, said Ibrahim. “It’s easier to keep people (in the churches) in the Middle East. Here we’re threatened by atheism and secularism that are less efficient in the Middle East.”
“If you’re born a Melkite, you’ll die a Melkite in the Middle East,” said Ibrahim. But in the West, if you’re born a Melkite there’s no guarantee you’ll even “die a Catholic.”
“There Christians are threatened by war, instability and lack of opportunity,” he said. “Here it’s archaic to have religion, to have faith, to say you believe in God.”
Children here are “persecuted by their peers in school if they have faith,” he said. “Especially if the church they are coming from has different liturgy, spirituality and different traditions such as icons instead of statues, and oriental music instead of western music.”
Sometimes children are afraid to mention what kinds of food they eat, he said. “It takes courage to be ourselves and to teach our children to be ourselves, to keep the colours and flavors of our traditions.”
The patriarch also helped celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour in Montreal, he said. This church has existed continuously since 1892, and was the home of all the Eastern Catholics, the Maronites, Syriacs, Chaldeans and Armenians initially. “We are not guests in Canada,” said Ibrahim. “We are an essential part” of the country’s fabric, with a “successful history.”