Keynote Address of His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
at the General Assembly – Conference of European Churches
June 1st, 2018, in Novi Sad – SERBIA
“You shall be my witnesses” – Witness, Justice, Hospitality.
Your Eminences, Graces, Excellencies,
Reverend Fathers, dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
We thank God, our Heavenly Father, for the opportunity to participate in this General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches. We also thank the leadership of the Conference for inviting us to this blessed gathering of the churches of Europe. We wish to convey to you all the prayers and the best wishes of our faithful people in the Middle East. We are happy to be with you all and we truly appreciate the opportunity given to us to share with you a few thoughts on hospitality, when Europe – especially the churches – have provided great hospitality to millions of workers and refugees in the last several decades, particularly those who fled war torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in Asia and Africa.
Jesus the Stranger
Through His incarnation, Jesus reveals to us the nature of God Who is hospitable and kind to the stranger. God’s hospitality emanates from His divine essence as love. And because “God is love” (I John 4: 8), He is also hospitable and kind to all. He expects His disciples to be the same, to love all and to be kind to all.
In Matthew 25, when talking about the last judgment, the Lord says: “For I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25: 35). He clearly identifies Himself with the needy, thus He becomes the stranger and the foreigner that we should take care of. He says: “assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25: 40).
On another occasion in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ presents Himself as a stranger.
On the way to Emmaus, Jesus appears to two of His disciples: Cleopas and according to the Church tradition Luke, and He says to them: “what kind of conversation is this that you have with each other as you walk and are sad” (Luke 24: 17) then Cleopas answers Him saying: Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem? And they go on informing Him the things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, His death, and the news spread by the women that He was alive. Jesus then started explaining to them all the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning His death and resurrection. The two disciples were still unable to recognize Him. It was only during their generous hospitality offered to Him that their eyes were opened; they insisted that He stay with them that night and made Him sit at the table. When He took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, then their eyes were opened and they knew Him.
In this event, Jesus appears as a stranger to the disciples. They take Him in and offer Him hospitality. And during that act of hospitality, Jesus reveals Himself through the breaking of the bread. The church makes the link between the Eucharist and the revelation of the person of Jesus. However, we can also talk about the spiritual dimension of this relationship and that is through our act of hospitality to the stranger, we are made aware of the presence of our Lord.
This theme of Jesus being the stranger is picked up by several Church Fathers. In one of his beautiful sermons on admonition and penitence, St. Aphrem the Syrian writes the following:
ܥܰܠ ܡܶܣܟܺܢܳܐ ܠܓܰܘ ܒܰܝܬܳܟ܆ ܥܰܠ ܐܰܠܳܗܳܐ ܠܓܰܘ ܒܰܝܬܳܟ.
ܫܪܳܐ ܐܰܠܳܗܳܐ ܒܓܰܘ ܥܽܘܡܪܳܟ.
ܕܰܐܢܺܝܚܬܳܝܗ̱ܝ ܡܶܢ ܛܽܘܪ̈ܳܦܰܘܗܝ܆ ܡܶܢ ܛܽܘܪ̈ܳܦܶܐ ܦܳܪܶܩ ܠܳܟ.
ܐܰܫܺܝܓܬ ܪ̈ܶܓܠܶܐ ܕܰܐܟܣ̈ܢܳܝܶܐ܆ ܨܳܐܬܳܐ ܐܰܫܝܓ ܐܢ̱ܬ ܕܰܚܛܳܗ̈ܰܝܟ.
ܦܳܬܽܘܪܳܐ ܐܰܬܩܶܢܬ ܩܽܘܕܡܰܘܗ̱ܝ܆ ܚܙܺܝ ܠܰܐܠܳܗܳܐ ܟܰܕ ܐܳܟܶܠ.
ܘܳܐܦ ܠܰܡܫܺܝܚܳܐ ܟܰܕ ܫܳܬܶܐ܆ ܘܰܠܪܽܘܚ ܩܽܘܕܫܳܐ ܕܡܶܬܬܢܺܝܚܳܐ.
ܣܒܰܥ ܥܰܠ ܦܳܬܽܘܪܳܟ ܘܶܐܬܬܢܺܝܚ܆ ܡܫܺܝܚܳܐ ܡܳܪܳܟ ܣܰܒܰܥܬܳܝܗ̱ܝ.
ܡܛܰܝܰܒ ܕܢܶܗܘܶܐ ܦܳܪܽܘܥܳܟ܆ ܩܕܳܡ ܥܺܝܪ̈ܶܐ ܘܰܒܢܰܝ̈ܢܳܫܳܐ.
ܡܰܘܕܶܐ ܕܬܰܪܣܺܝܬ݁ ܟܰܦܢܽܘܬܶܗ܆ ܘܰܡܩܰܒܶܠ ܐܳܦ ܛܰܝܒܽܘܬܶܗ܆
ܕܰܐܫܩܺܝܬ݁ ܘܣܰܒܰܥܬ݁ ܨܰܗܝܽܘܬܶܗ.
Has a poor man entered into your house? God has entered into your house; God dwells in your abode. He, whom you have refreshed from his troubles, from troubles will deliver you. Have you washed the feet of the stranger? You have washed away the filth of your sins. Have you prepared a table before him? Behold God eating [at it], and Christ likewise drinking [at it], and the Holy Spirit resting [on it]: Is the poor satisfied at your table and refreshed? You have satisfied Christ your Lord. He is ready to be your rewarder; in presence of angels and men He will confess that you have satisfied His hunger; He will give thanks unto you that you have given Him drink, and quenched His thirst. (Ephraim the Syriac, Sermon on Admonition and Penitence)
This identification of the Lord with the stranger is also affirmed in an old Byzantine hymn chanted during the Holy Week on the Great Saturday. In this hymn, Joseph of Arimathea pleads with Pontius Pilate for the body of Jesus saying: “
Give me this stranger who from infancy has been a stranger, a sojourner in the world
Give me this stranger, Whom His own race has hated and delivered onto death as a stranger.
Give me this stranger, who in a strange manner is a stranger to death
Give me this stranger who has received the poor as guests
Give me this stranger whom the Jews from envy estranged from this world
Give me this stranger that I may hide him in a tomb for as a stranger he has no place to lay His head.”
The Lord’s command to take the stranger in was taken very seriously by the holy apostles and church fathers. They even set special ministries for hosting strangers and taking care of their needs. This is also evident from some early practices of the church. For example, we know that, in the fourth century, in the city of Edessa, there was even a special cemetery for strangers and foreigners who died in the city. In his last will before his death in 373, St. Aphrem admonishes his disciples urging them to bury him not in a church nor in an adorned tomb, but rather among the strangers.
The Roots of Hospitality
Hospitality to strangers and foreigners is also highlighted in many books of the Old Testament.
The people of the Old Testament led a nomadic lifestyle on their way to the promised land. On their journey, they came into contact with the different peoples who were considered as foreigners to them. They had to deal with them on a daily basis. Therefore, the Holy Bible defined certain rules concerning relations with foreigners. For example, we read in Exodus 23: 9: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Even though the foreigner was considered as a threat to the people of God because of the fear that the foreigners will bring with them their deities, God commands His people to be just to the strangers and to provide them with all kinds of needs. Thus, He tells His people that “the same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12: 49).
Hospitality towards foreigners was highly regarded. It was widely spread and seen as a religious duty.
In the book of Genesis, Chapter 18, we come across a great example of hospitality: we see Abraham hosting the three angels (cf. Genesis 18: 1-5), begging them to visit him and accept his food. He washed their feet and offered them the best food to eat.
Abraham did not wait for them to reach him; he rushed to greet them and to invite them in. He did his best to make them feel comfortable and satiated. On leaving his tent, he accompanied them some distance to make sure that they found their way.
This detailed account is important because it shows the correct attitude one should have towards strangers. It shows the extent one should go to provide comfort and wellbeing for the guests and the way they should be treated. The way Abraham behaved towards these strangers is a reflection of the enthusiasm and motivation that one should have to serve their fellow humans with love and humility.
With Abraham, hospitality became a demonstration of faithfulness to God and a sign of love to strangers (philoxenia). Hence, hospitality is philanthropy practiced: it is the action taken to express our love for all humans, represented by the stranger who is alienated from his original home and found alone near us. It is our duty, therefore, to take care of him and tend to his needs.
St. Paul comments on Abraham’s hospitality by admonishing his readers saying: “do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13: 2) and in verse 16 of the same chapter, he continues to instruct the faithful to share their blessings with those who do not have, saying: “but do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased”.
Here, we should remember that the Lord’s life on earth and His public ministry depended mostly on acts of hospitality. Being a stranger to our nature and to our world, He became a refugee in this world. He did not find a home on the night of His birth in the flesh; so, His mother “wrapped Him in clothes and placed Him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2: 7). He also had to flee to Egypt with His mother where they were completely strangers. Even when He started preaching about the Kingdom of God among people, once again He found Himself as stranger among His own, and said: “but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8: 20). Even at His death, He was buried in someone else’s tomb. Likewise, every Christian should think of himself or herself as a stranger in this world. As our Lord Jesus said: “you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15: 19). Therefore, Christians are dwellers of this earth but they do not belong to this world; they are strangers to its logic and foreigners to its ways. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God and our Lord Jesus Christ affirms this, saying: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18: 36). Therefore, in this world, we are alienated from our spiritual homeland. This motivates us to be good ambassadors of our Lord, holding firm to our faith which drives us to give without limits and love unconditionally without judging others.
The Limits of Hospitality:
Love and charity should have no limitation: our Lord Jesus Christ taught us that “no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13). Nothing should stop Christians from loving their neighbors and serving them. Self-giving in the service of others is a sign of care and genuine love, following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ Who died on the cross for our sake, to deliver us from death.
Today, we live in a world where people become more self-centered; even a brother can be a stranger to his own brother. Egoism and personal interest guide people’s relations to one another towards alienation and estrangement. Our world is devastated by different kinds of wars caused by super powers trying to impose their will on smaller countries and fighting among themselves over the control of natural resources, as well as the rise of ethnic and religious extremism which is used to achieve political and economic gains. These conditions have made millions of peoples either internally displaced persons (IDP) or refugees in different countries. These victims pose both a threat to the stability of nations and regions and a challenge to our humanity, especially the Christians who are commanded to love and care for every needy person.
Churches in Europe are on the front run in dealing with immigrants and refugees. Millions of people have come to Europe to find safety and more prosperous living conditions. There is no doubt that churches and Christians in Europe have done a commendable work in welcoming the refugees and helping them stay irrespective of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. However, the generosity and hospitality of Europe towards refugees should make churches in Europe concerned about Europe’s religious and cultural identity and its values which are Christian values. This is especially important in light of the spread of secularism and atheism in the world.
The Hospitable Church in War Zones:
In the last several years, and in the context of the so-called Arab spring, countries of the Middle East have been going through wars which resulted in millions of refugees and internally displaced people. Christians and members of other religious minorities have been the subject of killings, expulsion, and forced migration, in what amounts to ethnic and religious cleansing. The UN and some countries have already classified these atrocities as a genocide against Christians and other minorities such as the Yezidis. The abduction of the two orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo Boulos Yaziji and Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim on 22 April 2013 caused great fear in the hearts of Christians in Syria and pushed many of them to leave their country. The number of Christians in Iraq has decreased to about 10% of what it used to be before 2003. And in Syria, more than 45% of Christians have left the country during the last 7 years. There is a real danger that Christianity may disappear in the place where it was born.
As churches, it is our duty to urge Christians to stay in the land of our forefathers; however, urging them alone is not enough. For them to stay, they need two important things: security and financial support.
The current conditions in the Middle East have altered the way the churches witness. The Church has always taken seriously its calling as the servant of the people; however, the great number of refugees and displaced people have put a heavy burden on all churches in the region. The Church historically depended on the generosity of its members in implementing its programs and projects; however, many of those generous members themselves are today in need of help. Our calling as Christians is not only to serve our own people by providing shelter, clothes and food for them, but also to try to help all those who need help regardless of their faith background.
The percentage of non-Christians benefiting from church relief and development projects is quite higher than that of Christians. We do that for two reasons: 1- is to be faithful to the nature of our Christian calling and 2- to invest in our future in order to be able to live together in harmony and peace.
In the summer of 2014, Christians of Iraq from the city Mosul and the villages of the plains of Nineveh were forced by terrorist groups to leave their houses. They found themselves without shelters on the streets of Erbil and other cities. Churches opened their doors and offered some of them a place to sleep while the great majority remained under tents and in camps for a long time. The churches became a saving arc, providing them with a roof to sleep under, hosting them when they were in desperate need for help. The churches also provided them with food and clothes since they had none when they were forced to leave their houses, leaving behind all their belongings and assets.
Today, we are helping those who desire to return to their villages to rebuild their houses. We are also trying to offer them the opportunity to work in projects that will allow them to provide for their families.
In Syria, when families from Homs arrived to Damascus with no money or food, they stayed at the patriarchate where they were accommodated in the halls and available spaces. Many churches did the same. This arrangement was naturally the only solution in response to a crisis. It was the measure to be taken out of love to those displaced people – irrespective of the religious affiliation – that faith can be seen in deeds. Many were forced to relocate and to settle in safer areas, fleeing zones of harsh conflicts and dangers. Here too, the Church implemented projects that offered them job opportunities or professional training in order to find work and support their families.
These two examples, we hope, serve to illustrate the important ministry the churches are engaged with during these difficult times in the Middle East.
Part of hospitality is to pray together in times of crisis. It is to share the pain of one another and to reflect our faith with our deeds. Hospitality is sometimes exemplified in the spreading of hope to a person feeling alienated and hopeless; sharing the hope that death and darkness shall not prevail, rather love and kindness unite us all and last forever. In this regard, I am happy to say that the crisis we go through has brought us – Christians of different denominations – much closer together by meeting each other, praying together and working together.
Refugees are faced mostly with maltreatment, discrimination, rejection and sometimes persecution. This increases their suffering after the difficulties and dangers they have gone through to reach their destinations. We are appalled by such acts and pray that the concerned authorities will take action to prevent such acts. We see that human trafficking also increased alarmingly lately as well as all sorts of abuse. We hear about the death of many immigrants or how they are killed by the smugglers before they reach their destination.
As part of our witness to the Lord, we are invited to host the refugees and help them integrate in the societies where they seek refuge. It is part of being a good host and caring for the needs of others. However, we invite the hosting churches to help our people preserve their Oriental Christian heritage. We are thankful for many churches and countries who are doing so; indeed, the hospitality of many sister churches in Europe allows our people to practice their faith freely; it encourages them to hold firmly to their cultural identity and to observe their customs.
Here we would like to kindly bring to your attention the very sensitive issue of proselytism. In the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, certain churches and groups based in the west are taking advantage of the needs of the people, especially those who belong to the historical churches whether orthodox, catholic or protestant, to make them join their churches and organizations. Meanwhile, our people who come to Europe are also targeted by some churches and groups trying to take them away from their mother church. I know this is not the policy nor the practice of the great majority of churches represented here, but I am bringing up this issue to raise awareness about it and to ask you to help us in this regard.
On the other hand, refugees are invited to integrate in the European societies; they need to reconcile the oriental traditions and values with the western mentality and customs. This may not be as easy as it looks; however, experience shows that the second and third generations of immigrants can prosper and be useful members of the society where they are welcomed and given the opportunity to grow and flourish.
The concept of hospitality nowadays became directly linked to emigration. The case of the refugees has been central in many European countries. For Christians, helping refugees should not become a problem; it is simply an opportunity to witness to Christ in a world that is desperately in need of a call to wake up from materialism and egoism towards helping others and giving abundantly.
“For I was a stranger and you invited Me in” (Matthew 25: 35): let us all invite the Lord into our lives and allow Him to work through us in helping our less fortunate brethren. Let us not be afraid from opening our hearts, churches and homes to the needy who seek refuge and survival. Let our minds be open to host the will to love one another the way our Lord loved us.
Thank you. May God bless all.