Keynote Address by His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
at the Conference of World Mission and Evangelism
March 13, 2018, in Arusha – TANZANIA
Your Excellencies, Reverend Clergy, dear brothers and sisters,
We would like to thank the moderator and director of the Conference of World Mission and Evangelism for inviting us to participate in this Mission Conference in Arusha, Tanzania. Also, we would like to thank our host, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT), particularly the presiding bishop Dr. Frederick Shoo for their hospitality.
I am happy and honored to be with all of you. This is my second time that I participate in the Conference of World Mission and Evangelism. The first time, which was also my first major involvement with the World Council of Churches, was at St. Antonio, USA in 1989. I was then a steward and here please allow me to greet all the stewards attending this conference and ask you all to give them a round of applause.
Mission of the Church
The mission of the Church is the salvation of the souls. Therefore, the universal Church constantly seeks to spread the gospel of Christ among all the nations, in order for the world “to know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3: 10), so they may believe in Him as the Savior and Redeemer. The Church offers a haven for those who seek to grow spiritually and to better understand the purpose of life beyond the material existence.
In Christianity, “God is Love” (I John 4:8); therefore, Christians’ mission is to spread the culture of love among all those who are around them. It is the love for God, reflected in the love of the neighbor.
Since love is a relationship, the mission of the Church is to correctly build these relationships. Every believer is invited to strengthen his or her relation with God, Who initiated this relationship through his act of sublime love by dying on the cross for our sake. It is therefore, our call as Christians to show our love to God by obeying His commandments and carrying the cross of witnessing to Christ in our daily lives.
Likewise, Christians are called to love their neighbor, without personal profit of any sort. It is the love based on self-sacrifice, emptying one’s self, and giving unconditionally in accordance with our Lord Jesus’ words to His disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13) This kind of sacrificial love is shown through the service rendered to the other, especially to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned. (cf. Matthew 25:35-36) Our Lord affirms that “whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant” (Matthew 20: 26). He Himself gave us an example of this serving ministry by washing the feet of His disciples though He is the Lord and Master (cf. John 13: 1-5). Thus, we understand the mission of the Church to be that of ministering to the world in order to sanctify it.
In today’s world, people seem to be focused on themselves; it is easy to be drawn to self-centrism and egoism. However, nurturing one’s basic spiritual needs should not lead to narcissism or self-righteousness. It is rather a healthy way to seek spiritual growth “until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. (Ephesians 4: 13) We are then called ‘disciples of Christ’.
Discipleship and Persecution
School students, innocently in their beautiful minds, always dream to be like their teachers; that is to be good disciples who would reach what they think is ‘full knowledge’ that their teachers possess.
In Christianity, we are called to be true disciples of Christ. We see in our Lord’s teachings a model to follow. Therefore, in good faith and with strong conviction, we aspire to imitate the Lord. As Christians, we know that discipleship is a responsibility great enough to consume other worldly desires. It is the way we embrace the cross of our Lord and cast off the pursuit of what is vain in the world. Discipleship is to dedicate one’s self entirely for Christ.
In the gospel of St. John, we read the following words of the Lord: “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (John 15: 20). These words show the great cost of discipleship. With witnessing to the Lord both in word and in deed, comes persecution and tribulation.
Christianity is not welcomed in the world because it puts people out of their comfort zone. It challenges their worldly philosophical convictions with the simplicity of faith “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight”. (I Corinthians 3:19). During the early era of martyrdom the pagan world was astonished by the joy of Christians being lead to their death. The non-Christian will never understand power of the Cross “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1: 18) The Cross is an invitation to walk the narrow path which is an unchartered territory by the majority. It is to let go of the love of material things and to hold to spiritual rewards promised in the world to come. Therefore, Christians face rejection in their societies. Severe forms of rejection lead to persecution where hatred is expressed in different forms of violence with the desire to exterminate. Christians throughout the world are victims of persecution; large numbers of Christian communities in all continents face persecution on a daily basis. It comes in different forms and varies greatly: it can be the lack of freedom to believe, or actively killing innocent children or families while they are peacefully worshipping the Lord.
In the Middle East, in our own homeland, members of the Syriac Orthodox Church faced many tribulations and genocides throughout the centuries. Some 100 years ago, a massive genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire aiming at eliminating Christianity from the land of its birthplace. More than half a million Syriac speaking people were massacred in the most horrible ways, together with the Armenians, Greeks and other religious minorities. Today, we continue to suffer persecution at the hands of terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al-Nusra and others, who are targeting Christian congregations and completely destroyed many of our churches and other institutions.
We continuously pray for the return of the two abducted Archbishops of Aleppo, their Eminences Boulos Yaziji and Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim, who paid the price of their faithfulness and watchfulness over their flocks by sacrificing their own freedom.
Recently, we visited the Syrian city of Deir El Zor after it was liberated from the terrorist groups; the city had a small population of Christians from different denominations before it was attacked by the terrorists. When the terrorists entered the city, Christians were forced to abandon their city fearing for their lives seeking refuge in neighboring cities. During our visit, we met the only Christian man who stayed in the city for the entire time, deprived from the freedom to pray in the church or practice his Christian faith.
We were shocked to see the extent of destruction that took place in the city. The terrorist groups destroyed the city’s historical ‘suspended bridge’ and all the churches in the city. For the first time after more than 5 years, we were able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the city; we did that among the ruins of our Syriac Orthodox St. Mary Church there, with pages from old manuscripts and liturgical books under the rubble.
During that visit to Deir El Zor as a sign of our commitment to help people rebuild their lives, we opened a clinic which provides the poor with the medical assistance needed, serving 2 dozens Christians who have returned, but mostly thousands of Muslim brothers and sisters.
Despite this discouraging situation, we continue to preach forgiveness. We continue to be witnesses of Christ in this world because we have faith in His words: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
We also implemented many projects of relief and development throughout Syria and Iraq, in the most destroyed places.
In biblical old Damascus, death of civilians, including innocent children by mortars and missiles coming from the Eastern Ghouta has become a daily thing. A few meters from our residence in Bab Touma, an innocent child – Elias – was killed by a mortar over a month ago while both of his parents were severely injured. His family buried his remains without telling his mother, whose medical condition was so critical that they feared that she may not survive if she hears the sad news about her son. Facing the cruelty and beastly behavior of those who desire to inflict death and destruction, the Syriac Orthodox Church, as a witness of Christ, along with the other sister churches, is trying to offer hope to all the victims of such barbaric behavior. We are try to faithful to our call to be ‘ambassadors of Christ’, to witness to the gospel of peace and love. In this regard we are providing job opportunity for hundreds of our young people, as well as, organizing occupational training courses to help them secure a job. And as a sign of hope for a bright future for our people we are planning to open later this year, a private university called Antioch, in the town of Saydnaya in the countryside of Damascus. It will be open for all students, both Muslims and Christians.
This and other projects show our commitment to remain in our homeland and to carry on the mission of witnessing to Christ and embracing His Cross.
How Can We Continue to Embrace the Cross?
During this turmoil in the Middle East, a great number of Christians have left their countries. In Iraq, a mere ten percent of Christian remain in the country and in Syria more than forty percent have already left. In order to better understand the importance of Christian witness and stop the exodus of Christians from our part of the world, we wish to make the following points:
- Our presence is a necessity not only for Christianity to continue in the land where it was born, but also for the people of the area. Christians have always been an essential element of reconciliation and bridge building among different ethnic and religious components of the region.
- We need to bring hope to our people that they still have a future in their homeland by tending to their needs, both in terms of security and financial help. For that, all churches in Syria have been actively engaged in relief efforts as well as in developmental projects to create job opportunities for our people.
- Interreligious dialogue on the academic level alone is not sufficient; we need to initiate joint activities such as workshops, seminars and camps among Muslim and Christian young people.
- Christians can survive only under secular governments where they could be treated based on the principle of citizenship with equal rights and obligations.
- We need the support of our brothers and sisters throughout the world in 2 main areas: i) in terms of advocacy and ii) development.
Let me here express my gratitude for all our sister churches and Christian organization which continue to offer their prayers on our behalf and try to help us with our needs. The solidarity of these brothers and sisters means a lot to us. However, we are also pained by the uninformed position of some sister churches and organization concerning what we are going through. It seems that they have chosen to listen to only one side of the story. I wish that these brothers and sisters would consult with us before taking such positions or issuing one-sided and sometimes politicized statements
Mission in the Church has evolved: from witnessing in word to witnessing in deeds and blood. The Church today is faithfully embracing the Cross of Christ, and follows Him to the Calvary trusting that, from death, life is given in Him.