Antiochian Orthodox Church

Prayers for the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, even if #BringBackOurBishops didn't go viral

Once again, the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo ventured into the dangerous maze of checkpoints manned by competing forces along Syria's border with Turkey.

The goal, three years ago, was for Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church to help negotiate the release of two priests who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Then, west of Aleppo, a pack of unidentified armed men attacked.

The bishops' driver was killed in the gunfire. A fourth passenger escaped and then testified -- consistent with other reports -- that the kidnappers did not speak Arabic and appeared to from Chechnya.

The bishops simply vanished. According to a new World Council of Arameans report: "No one has ever claimed responsibility for the abduction, neither has there been a clear sign of life of the bishops since April 22, 2013." Later reports were "all based on unverified rumors, hearsay and false reports which often contradicted each other."

This kidnapping never inspired global news coverage. For some reason, tweeting out #BringBackOurBishops never caught on with hashtag activists inside the Washington Beltway or in Hollywood.

But millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians -- especially those with Syrian and Lebanese roots -- are still praying for the bishops of Aleppo. These prayers escalated with the three-year anniversary of the kidnappings and then, this week, with the sobering rites of Holy Week leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Pascha -- Easter ...

Memory eternal, for a quiet giant in American Orthodoxy

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.

Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees. 

"Preacher! I've broken all the Ten Commandments except one," he cried, "and the only reason I didn't break that one was that the man I shot didn't die!"

It didn't matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.

With his gentle smile and soft Alabama drawl, Walker -- who died on July 23 -- was a key figure in an unusual American story. The former Southern Baptist pastor and Campus Crusade evangelist was part of a circle of evangelical leaders that spent a decade reading church history before starting an Orthodox church for American converts. Then in 1987, the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba accepted more than 2,000 pastors and members of their Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

Ancient sacraments vs. paperwork for the modern state

Father Patrick Henry Reardon's note to his flock at All Saints Orthodox Church was short and simple -- yet a sign of how complicated life is becoming for traditional religious believers.

"Because the State of Illinois, through its legislature and governor's office, has now re-defined marriage, marriage licenses issued by agencies of the State of Illinois will no longer be required (or signed) for weddings here at All Saints in Chicago," he wrote, in the parish newsletter.

The key words were "or signed." The veteran priest was convinced that he faced a collision between an ancient sacrament and new political realities that define a civil contract. Reardon said he wasn't trying to "put my people in a tough spot," but to note that believers now face complications when they get married -- period.

The question priests must ask, when signing marriage licenses, is "whether or not you're acting on behalf of the state when you perform that rite. It's clear as hell to me that this is what a priest is doing," said Reardon, reached by telephone.

"Lay people don't face the sacramental question like a priest. They are trying to obtain the same civil contract and benefits as anyone else and they have to get that from the state. It's two different moral questions."

This is a timely question, as the U.S. Supreme Court nears a crossroads on same-sex marriage.

The death of an Orthodox visionary -- in America

When major religious leaders die, it's traditional that public figures -- secular and sacred -- release letters expressing sorrow and sending their condolences to the spiritual sheep who have suddenly found themselves without a shepherd. This is precisely what Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis did, acting as chairman of the assembly of America's Eastern Orthodox bishops, after he heard about the death of Metropolitan Philip Saliba -- the leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America for a half century. His letter was kind and gracious, but contained a hint of candor that spoke volumes.

"For more than 15 years I have had the opportunity and privilege to work closely with Metropolitan Philip," wrote Archbishop Demetrios, noting that the Antiochian leader served as vice-chairman of the assembly of bishops. Metropolitan Philip was a pastor to his people, but he also "passionately supported a common witness to our Orthodox faith in the world. It is well known that he spoke his mind openly on a number of important issues and would often challenge inactivity surrounding serious issues, which he felt Orthodoxy could address in unique and important ways."

That's one way to put it.

Metropolitan Philip -- who died March 19th -- was more than an advocate for Orthodox life and faith. He was more than a pragmatic strategist who helped his flock grow from 66 parishes to 275, while opening youth camps and a missions and evangelism office.

The Lebanese-born archbishop was also a fierce advocate of Orthodox unity in the United States, to whatever degree possible among Greeks, Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians and others. After living his adult life in this land, he made the controversial decision in the mid-1980s to embrace waves of evangelical converts (I am one of them). These converts affected all levels of his church including, as much as anywhere else, in seminaries and, thus, at Orthodox altars.

That was the backdrop to the symbolic moment when Archbishop Demetrios surprised Metropolitan Philip by asking him to make some off-the-cuff remarks at the 2004 Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Church in New York City.

"I reminded him that when I speak, I tell it like it is," said Philip, when I interviewed him for an "On Religion" column soon after that event.

Rather than speaking in Byzantine code, Metropolitan Philip bluntly addressed the delegates as Americans, not Greeks. He said he thought it was time to challenge ecclesiastical ties that continued to bind their churches in the new world to those in the old. Then he marched straight into a minefield, bringing greetings from the Antiochian Orthodox delegates who, a few days earlier, had unanimously approved what many Greeks have long desired -- a constitution granting them more control of their church in North America.

"I told them that if I could sum up this new constitution, I would begin with the words, 'We the people,' " he told me. "We cannot ignore this truth -- Americans are infested with freedom. We cannot ignore that our churches are in America and we are here to stay."

A press aide for the Greek archdiocese noted: "It would be accurate to say that he received an enthusiastic response."

Part of the problem was that Philip was intentionally calling to mind the 1994 gathering in Ligonier, Pa., when America's Orthodox bishops boldly declared: "We commit ourselves to avoiding the creation of parallel and competitive Orthodox parishes, missions, and mission programs. We commit ourselves to common efforts and programs to do mission, leaving behind piecemeal, independent, and spontaneous efforts … moving forward towards a concerted, formal, and united mission program in order to make a real impact on North America through Orthodox mission and evangelism."

That effort failed. Two decades later, Metropolitan Philip left instructions that he was to be buried at the Antiochian Village camp near Ligonier, where young people will visit his grave for generations to come.

"This faith was to remain the best kept secret in America because of our laziness, we Orthodox, because we have been busy taking care of our little ethnic ghettos," said Philip, during one of the first rites ushering an entire evangelical congregation into his archdiocese.

"It is time that we let this light shine. American needs the Orthodox faith. I said to the Evangelical Orthodox in these past Sundays, I said, 'Welcome home.'"

The evil the church already knows in Syria

For days, Christians with ties to Syria waited for news about the fighting in Maaloula, a village near Damascus that is famous for being one of three still in existence in which locals speak ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

International reports were sketchy and American media reports were all but nonexistent. Then the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group critical of President Bashar al-Assad and his government, reported that the village had fallen on Sept. 7th in an assault led by rebels with ties to al-Qaeda.

But no one was certain who controlled Maaloula. There were reports of continued street fighting between government troops and elements of the Free Syrian Army. Rebels kept lobbing shells at the village from surrounding mountains.

During the siege, an American bishop of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church -- based in Damascus for centuries -- was called by Metropolitan Saba Esper of southern Syria, who in turn had just reached Mother Belagia, abbess of the famous St. Thekla monastery in Maaloula.

The Syrians wanted to know: Was anyone paying attention to what was happening?

Syria and other lands in the Middle East are "where our spiritual roots are, the roots of all Christians," the location of biblical sites that are "not in Disney World or Never-Never Land," said Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan., in a Sunday sermon that was posted online.

"Our Savior walked there. The apostles walked there. ... These are not just places in books, brothers and sisters. These are holy places where Christians, your spiritual ancestors, and for many of you your physical ancestors, have lived Holy Orthodoxy for the past 2,000 years."

At the time of his conversation with Metropolitan Saba, he said, reports indicated that Maaloula's two famous monasteries were saved, but that two village churches, one Orthodox, the other Eastern-Rite Catholic, had been ransacked. The churches still existed -- kind of.

"On the inside, the icons, the holy books, everything had been desecrated. Not just ripped off the walls, but covered in urine," said Bishop Basil. Obviously, this must be seen as "real desecration -- by that wing of the Free Syrian Army."

Leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christianity -- which is my own church -- are not the only clerics in America and around the world worried about the plight of Christians and those in other minority religious groups in Syria. Global debates about President Barack Obama's plan for a limited strike against the Assad regime, in response to reports of nerve gas being used on civilians, have only added to the tension.

In Rome, Pope Francis issued an urgent appeal for peace and asked Catholics and other believers worldwide to fast and pray for nonviolent initiatives in the Middle East. He also wrote Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him to urge Obama and other G-20 leaders to oppose military intervention in Syria.

In his own vigil service for peace, the pope proclaimed: "Even today we continue this history of conflict between brothers. ... Even today, we let ourselves be guided by idols, by selfishness, by our own interests, and this attitude persists. We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death!"

Among Protestants, ethicists on both sides of the theological aisle have debated whether a threatened U.S. air strike against Syria could be justified under "just war theory." On the theological right, 62.5 percent of those contacted by the Evangelical Leaders Survey said they now oppose direct U.S. military intervention in Syria.

The Rev. Rick Warren of the giant Saddleback Church in Southern California simply tweeted a series of Bible verses, including this from Isaiah: "Rushing to do evil, ready to kill innocent people, they cause destruction, not knowing how to live in peace."

Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None," concluded Bishop Basil.

"So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."