By Fr. Touma Bitar
They cannot ask us to be their followers merely because they have inherited apostolic succession. We must follow the good and distance ourselves from evil successors of the apostles.” – St Irenaeus of Lyon
The See of Jerusalem Submissiveness that Kills
“Do you love me, Peter? Feed my lambs…” The Lord said this to Peter three times. The idea is that Peter is disavowing his denial of the Lord three times though his love for Him. That is, through feeding His sheep. He wept bitterly, with regret and repentance, and God accepts those who repent. But not feeding His lambs is a denial of Him and ungratefulness towards Him that fall under woe. Woe to anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble! Woe to those who feed themselves but do not feed the sheep!
The lambs of the See of Jerusalem do not have anyone who feeds them! Why? Because they are Arab! Any revival there to rise beyond the level of spiritual impoverishment and ignorance is forbidden!
They are only allowed to move between misery and ignorance, between forced spiritual illiteracy and rituals. This is more reassuring! They have no share in anything more than a few crumbs! Forever treated with suspicion! Neglected and marginalized! Accused of revolting against the See of Jerusalem! Between the hammer of military occupation and the anvil of ecclesiastical occupation, a process is underway to marginalize them, to incapacitate them, to stifle their impetus, to enslave them in their own church, to exclude them from every meaningful decision, whether in their own land or elsewhere!
One of the faithful from Amman came to do a retreat with us. He relayed to us news of the latest chapter in the tragedy of his oppressed church and Christ’s rejected flock there. Some of the Arab clergy, out of zeal for the House of god, are working for revival among the Arab Orthodox! This is something natural! In northern Jordan, some renewal has appeared, and people are rejoicing at the return of life of the Church! There is a monastery in Dibbeen named after the Life-Giving Spring. It is about 12 kilometers to the north of Amman. It is as though it was born via caesarian section– prehaps because it is for women. The people are thirsting for the spring of the Spirit, starving for the word of life. But as soon as there appeared someone to give the Arab Orthodox streams of the water of eternal life and to break for them the bread of heaven, the instrument of the intruders who hold power over the See of Jerusalem acted in order to put a stop to the risk of revival that was appearing on the horizon, to cast out those who were bringing it about, and to extinguish the flame of the Spirit there! Those responsible for what is regarded as weaving a “suspicious conspiracy” for revival are being driven out and are being replaced with those who will effectively ensure that the Church will be as dessicated as possible among the Arab Orthodox and that nothing will reach the point of revival.
Demonstrations have been held protesting the behavior of those in charge of the See of Jerusalem in front of various church and civil establishments. But is appears that no one wants to listen!
What fault is it for the Orthodox there that they are Arabs? Is it not the case that in Christ there is neither Arab nor Greek, but rather Christ is all in all? It is natural that there are Arabs, Greeks and Slavs in the Church. A person cannot step out of his own skin. We praise God, each in his own language, land and culture, just those upon whom the Holy Spirit descended did in the Book of Acts. However, for the Church to become a vehicle and a support for nationalism and racism, this is unbelief! This is regressing back to the paganism of the ancient gentiles! Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s! If Christ is not the one who brings us together, then nothing brings us together! If we are not prepared to drive every thought toward obeying Christ, then we have no part in Him! At that point, we set up idols next to Him in our faith! At that point, we have come to resemble the words of the One who said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.” At that point, we kill Christ in ourselves and in others, while claiming that we are offering worship to God!
Unfortunately, those who watch over the See of Jerusalem watch more over dust and stones– and themselves– while the people are something closer to slaves to them! They hide behind canons while violating their spirit! They trade in power and money! In what way are they any different from the high priests of Israel who conspired against the Lord and gave Him over to the gentiles to be killed?! Are the lambs of Jerusalem not being given over to be slaughtered with negligence? They aggrandize themselves with their robes, their crosiers their titles and their grandiloquent speeches, while the flock is forced to lap at their feet! They traffick in Christ and His sheep, without any feeling for faith or belief! Perhaps some of them submit to the status quo there, feeling pain for the situation of Arab Orthodox, but they do not lift a finger! The issue is not in their hands. This is what the patriarch and his crowd wants! Do not these words of the Lord apply to them, “My house is called a house of prayer and you have made it into a den of thieves”?!
No, we are not supporting the Arab Orthodox in Jerusalem because they are Arab. Nor are we supporting them because we want to Arabize authority and the Holy Places there! The Lord did not die for the sake of soil and stone but for flesh and blood! They are first and foremost our brothers in faith! “You are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells within you”! Our protest is not over authority that has been robbed from us or over Arab culture that is insulted. It is not over political confiscation, even if we reject injustice! Our protest is churchly: it is over the disregard, indeed the abandonment of care for Christ sheep, the abandonment of preaching the Gospel of Salvation! “Feed my lambs,” no matter what the flock’s cultural identity might be!
The insensitivity and indifference in the Orthodox world toward what is going on in the See of Jerusalem staggering. No one is taking action to motivate those who are indifferent. It is as though this were something that does not concern us! The simplest of our Holy Fathers’ teachings is that right belief, wherever it may be, concerns us and concerns us directly! A bishop, for example, is a bishop of of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in every place, not only in that part that he is bishop over! Naturally, no one should intervene in the manner in which a bishop conducts the affairs of his diocese, so long as those affairs are governed according to right belief and the canons of the Church. However, as soon as a bishop strays from the Orthodox faith and the canons of the Church, every Orthodox bishop in every place should not only be concerned with the infraction in order to correct it, but it is demanded to do this– and here I stress the word “demanded.”
Treating issues in terms of what is regarded as “church politics”, as though they are separate from virtue and excellence, is unbelief and treachery! The sees considered to be “Greek” turn a blind eye to the spiritual massacre that is occurring in the See of Jerusalem in order to close ranks amongst themselves, as though they were a worldly political party! They themselves individually know that what is going on in the See of Jerusalem is unacceptable and they will say this in their closed meetings, but they will not admit it openly! In practice, they prefer the bond of their racism to the bond of Christ’s Church! What kind of behavior is this? Is it not hypocrisy? Are we entrusted with our nationalism and our racism or are we entrusted with Christ’s Church?! The state of insensitivity to this issue is horrible and terrifying! And this is not limited to the Greek sphere. Unfortunately, it goes beyond that to every sphere: Slavic, Antiochian and others! How many of Christ’s churches in every place are oppressed on account of the nationalism, racism, politics, tribalism, of groups and leaders within the Church! They are not so much concerned with pastoring the Church as they are with who extends his authority, in the name of Orthodoxy (!), over what and over whom and who makes material and symbolic gains by wielding authority over the Church in this place or that!
The worst examples of exploiting the Church, the pastoral care of the faithful and the preaching of the Gospel in this context is the situation in the diaspora– and not only the dioceses in North America! We have discarded all ecclesiology so that the so-called “Mother Churches” can keep their hands on the Church there! We use sin as an excuse and we don’t even care! They say that they are waiting for the future Orthodox ecumenical council? This will not be able to bring about a solution because it is in an atmosphere of asking who will take control over what, at the expense of the believers. Everyone, unfortunately, treats the diaspora like their milk-cow! Our last concern is the Church! Our concern is with what belongs to us!
For this reason, no good can be hoped to come from any solution, in the foreseeable future, that comes from outside those who are suffering! Our visitor asked me, “What is it possible for us, the Arab Orthodox flock in the See of Jerusalem, to do?” I told him: If you are waiting for a solution to come to you from the outside, then you are mistaken, because nothing is going to come! Those among you who are zealous for Christ in love, righteousness and humility should take their fate and the fate of their church into their own hands! Demand, as you have demanded! Warn, as you have warned! Then, finally, if those in charge of the See of Jerusalem do not pay attention to your demands after one, two, three times, then let them be for you like the pagan and the publican! They are the ones who are fallen and you are the ones who are demanding justice, if you know that you are keeping yourselves loyal to the Lord God! If they insist on their blindness, let them hang in the pit of their sins, but as for yourselves, make the light of Christ your point of reference and walk towards Him! If they hold on to their endowments, leave them and leave the endowments to them! Your Christ is enough endowment for you, His Spirit enough inheritance and His love enough soil!
The same should be said for all the churches that or oppressed or in the diaspora. Those who take up Christ are in the right, while unfortunately no one in this evil time gives them what belongs to Christ in them or is zealous for them in the Spirit. The Church, whether in Antioch, Russia, the Balkans or any other place has never received what is hers except forcibly. They have never been recognized or accepted as sister churches except after a separation. This is the sickness of authority!
The churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria and the diaspora in general– not to speak of others– must know and behave according to what it helpful in Christ! Anyone who supports you also does good for himself. Resist anyone who resists you and tries to bind you to flimsy pillars belonging to this world, and pay him no heed. In truth, however, he might return to his senses because God is with you and the Spirit of the Lord is supporting you! We were not born in Christ in order to be servile, nor for any worldly gain! You know the truth, and the truth will set you free! “I am your inheritance,” says the Lord.
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite
July 13, 2014