Gregorious III Laham has been patriarch of the Melkite Catholic Church since 2000. A native of Syria, his official title is Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem.
In opening the annual synod of the Melkite Church taking place in Lebanon the week of June 20, the Patriarch called for prayer and fasting on the feast of Corpus Christi, June 23, for the situation in Syria, especially for Syria’s Christians. A champion of dialogue, the Patriarch also called for the organization of a national conference bringing together political and religious leaders in Lebanon.
He spoke with Doreen Abi Raad from the patriarchal residence in Rabweh, Lebanon.
Shortly after the initial uprising in Syria, you wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama, “asking the West not to encourage revolutions unconditionally here and there in the Arab world.” What did you mean by that?
I also spoke about democracy. We can’t have a real democracy in the Arabic, mainly Islamic countries, a democracy — in the real sense — as in Europe and America. It is too, too early for us, I have to confess that.
As I had said in my letter [(to Obama]) and previous ones, you have to go straight to the main problem of all this difficult situation in the Arab world: mainly the Israel-Palestine conflict. Why not put your power, your arms, your influence and international power in helping, in pressing Israel and Palestine to make peace?
I am sure, if we have the solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict — a Palestinian state living together with an Israeli state — it would be the greatest help for the development of the Arab world and for the conviviality, the living together, of Christians and Muslims and for a real Christian-Muslim dialogue, not just in the Arab countries but also in Europe, with the increasing presence of Muslims.
Before this [(Israeli-Palestinian]) conflict, we were living better together, Muslims and Christians. We had no such movements in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, until 1970, more or less. There was not such a progress of fundamentalism or Islamism, and so on.
Now the Muslims are more aggressive. That is, in my opinion, caused mainly — mainly, not only — by this 62 years of conflict, Israel and Palestine. And after each new crisis, you have a new wave of emigration of Christians. An uncertain and unpeaceful situation in the country is for us a cause to emigrate.
I said in my letter: If you’d like to have more Christians in the Holy Land — I mean Holy Land in the wider sense: Palestine, Jordan, part of Lebanon and also Syria is part of the Holy Land — if you’d like to have Christians in the main cradle of Christianity in the Middle East, it is through peace.
If there is no peace, I am afraid there will be more and more aggressivity, more development of terrorism and fundamentalism.
Can you explain what it was like in Syria for Christians before the uprising and the violence the country is now experiencing?
Christians have a good, normal situation as citizens with all other citizens in a secular state, where everybody enjoys religious freedom. We have our churches, our ([religious)] communities, our Christian fraternities, our youth groups; we have our charitable institutions; we have our press, catechism — we have everything we need to live our faith.
And we have good relations with each other, as Christians. We have good relations with Muslims. We have good work, business, our Christians. We have a good situation.
My village in Syria, Darya, has a population of about 130,000. Christians total about 1,500. But we are living our own Christian life in this big group without any problems. It really is something beautiful.
Being patriarch for 10 years, I spend a considerable amount of time in Syria [(the patriarchal seat of the Melkite Church]), and I saw a huge development during this period: progress in agriculture, in schools, in universities — there are free universities, European universities. And free schools. It means another look on life for Syrians — the openness. All the schools have their own liberty, freedom to speak up, to study what they would like to study.
Also, it’s a real secular state. The governor of the central bank in Syria is a Christian. The general of the army is an Orthodox Christian.
In Syria there is a good-sized Christian presence — I don’t like to say a minority — of about 2 million. They have their presence. There’s been a good balance in Syria.
Now we are afraid of a disturbance of this balance, so that it can lead to anarchy, and then we fear the worst — especially for the little group of Christians, for the daily life, for the business, for our presence. And there’s a fear of emigration if the crisis continues.
What are the consequences of emigration?
The Christian presence in the Middle East is vital and unique. If we disappear, there is no more possibility of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Therefore, my appeal to European and American [(leaders]) is to please help to make peace. Help to make peace, then you will help to preserve the Christian presence. We don’t need your money; we don’t need your weapons. We need that you make peace. If you make peace, then we are happy; we can live together, and then it can be a real dialogue between Islam and Christianity.
If you’d like to have Christians in the Middle East, have peace. If you’d like to have dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Europe and the Middle East, make peace. If you’d like to stop the emigration of Christians, make peace. If you’d like to have a future for Jerusalem, the Holy Land, make peace. Without peace we’ll be in a continuous cycle of increasing of radicalism, of fundamentalism, of Islamism and of a struggle and shocks of civilization.
Regarding the “Al-Liqua” International Encounter Center you founded and established in Lebanon, can you tell us about its opening, under the theme “building bridges across a divided world”? (Located in Rabweh, about 12 miles from Beirut, the 86,200-square-foot building is part of a patriarchal complex that includes a school.)
The center represents the real vision of my life since I was a student. I can say that all my life I was helping to dialogue. When I was working in Jerusalem as vicar for the pPatriarch from 1974 to 2000, I was in the midst of a difficult situation between Palestinians and Israelis. I was always in contact with the Palestinians, but I was also very open in speaking with the Israeli people. I was always living in that atmosphere of dialogue, to make peace.
And we were able to found there an encounter center, with a group of professors, Muslims and Christians alike.
When I became Ppatriarch here, it was also my dream to do something as I had done in Palestine under those difficult circumstances, but also in an even wider scope. We visited the sultan of Oman, and I told him about our dream, my dream to have a center, a building where we can work in the spirit of dialogue, openness, of real meeting among people, helping to have more peace, more understanding, a wider approach of intellectual positions, a cultural meeting — whatever you can imagine under the word “meeting,” it was our dream.
I proposed my dream to the sultan of Oman, and he said “I will help you,” and we were able to build the whole building as a gift from the sultan of Oman.
Yes, but it’s not just a person It’s a Muslim state and a ([Catholic)] patriarchate, which is a unique realization of collaboration between a Muslim state and a Church for, let us say, a common program and project.
We will have a museum for the Melkite Church, a research center for the patriarchate, and we will have activities, congresses about heritage, about the history of relations between groups — Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus, also.
This project is more than just a building — it is an idea of how we can really dream together and also realize together projects for a better future for the human being and for the country.
So, this is a new look, a new view of possible collaboration with Christians and Muslims, with human beings, I prefer to say. The first founder of the meeting center is God, because in the Christian faith, the whole meaning of the Incarnation is that God liked to meet with human beings.
And it is also a sign of hope amid a very difficult situation since the beginning of this year — with the troubles, the revolution in Yemen, North Africa, and now in Syria.
Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.