Speech of His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
at opening assembly of the International Meeting for Peace
“Bridges of Peace. Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”
October 14, 2018, in Bologna – ITALY
“‘Peace, peace to him who is far off and to him
who is near,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 57: 19)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, allow me to thank the community of Sant’Egidio, particularly its founder Prof. Andrea Riccardi and its president Prof. Marco Impagliazzo for inviting me to participate in this International Meeting for Peace, held in this beautiful city of Bologna, and to reflect together on peace and dialogue between different religions and cultures. I bring you the greetings of people of Syria, Muslims and Christians who have been suffering for peace on the straight street where St. Paul walked and the Umayyad Mosque where the head of St. John the Baptist rests in peace.
Sant’Egidio has chosen for this year’s International Meeting for Peace, a theme that highlights the responsibility of each one of us to build bridges of peace; bridges that link all of us humans together, in one world. The building of bridges of peace is not a choice for us to make, but rather a necessity to engage in for the sake of our future together and the safe future of our human race and our world. Bridges of peace that strengthen the unity among all the people of God which He created in His own likeness. Bridges that stand strong against division and hatred. Bridges that can empower all against terrorism and fanaticism, accept diversity and encourage co-existence. Bridges that connect East and West, North and South, and go beyond gender, race, or religion to reach the more sublime goal common to all, which is the wellbeing of all of God’s creation at the center of which we stand as caretakers and spokespersons who will be required to give an account, not only of their own lives and deeds, but also of their stewardships of God’s creation, that is our entire world.
Peace that Surpasses All Understanding
St. Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, reminds us that Christ Himself “is our peace, Who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation” (Ephesians 2: 14).
As good Christians, we are compelled to, not only embrace the culture of love and peace-building, but also to spread it around us. In fact, we are specifically called to be makers of peace, “Blessed are the makers of peace, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5: 9). The peace which we are called to build does not come from personal interests, nor as a result of international treaties or agreements among governments; rather, it is a result of our relationship with the Lord. It is that kind of peace which, as St. Paul in his epistle to Philippians calls it: “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4: 7). It is a form of peace that is so difficult for human mind to conceive which, like true love, expects nothing in return.
Our Lord Jesus Christ makes this distinction between worldly peace and heavenly peace very clear: in the Gospel according to St. John (chapter 14), our Lord Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful.” (John 14:27 ASV)
The Peace Within
True peace, therefore, starts from within our hearts, removing from them fear and filling them with everlasting joy that no man can take away (ref. John 16: 22). Let us not forget how the early martyrs of the church were lead to martyrdom with peace in their hearts and joy radiating from their faces. Nor can we forget the 21 Coptic martyrs slain for their faith on the Mediterranean shores of Libya while the holy name of Jesus was on their lips.
In today’s world, many are facing spiritual emptiness which is reflected in their inability to be at peace, even with their own self. However, inner peace for every Christian is overwhelming and can be reached when he or she contemplates the teachings of love that are preached in the Gospel and applies them to his or her life.
Peace with God
Inner peace is the result of a true Christian way of life, applied to all aspects of our lives, on a daily basis. Furthermore, it is the total submission to the Lord’s will and to His teachings, and leads to 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)
Inner peace is the result of a total reconciliation with God and the fruit of a healthy relationship with Him. A relationship that is nourished and strengthened by the support of entire community of faith.
Peace with the Other
Love cannot be genuine if it is not understood as the love of God reflected in our love of the neighbor or the other. In the same manner, true peace is that which comes from our submission to God and is reflected in our relationship with the other. It is a vertical relationship with God manifested in a horizontal way with fellow humans. True peace is achieved when we go beyond the self and reach out to our fellow humans trying to bring them peace. Only then, the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “‘Peace, peace to him who is far off and to him who is near,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 57: 19) shall come to fulfillment. When there is peace to him who is far and to him who is near, then the whole world will be in peace.
Can there be peace in our broken world, with so many wars and conflicts raging in so many places? How can we all and each one of us be a bridge builder for peace? Yes we can, when we all have inner peace from above filling our hearts and share that peace with others and, together, build a bridge for peace in our world where fear, hatred, xenophobia, violence and wars disappear and kindness, love, care for the other and, above all, peace prevail.
In the world we live in, the largest number of victims of religious persecution and wars are Christians. For the last 2000 years, Christians have offered millions of martyrs. Today, this phenomenon continues in several countries and in all regions of the world.
Christians of the Middle East, in particular, have been paying a heavy price for their faith and witness. In the last few years and since the beginning of so-called Arab Spring, Christians of Iraq and Syria, the indigenous people of the region, have left the land of their forefathers at an alarming rate, driven away by fear of the unknown. They have faced a horrible ethno-religious cleansing at the hands of groups of terrorists who were killing people and destroying places of worship as well as ancient monuments, in the name of God and religion. We have seen many churches, monasteries and other institutions destroyed. Many clergy have either been kidnapped or martyred. Many were expelled from their homes and towns, children lost their parents, youth lost their dreams and saw their aspirations being destroyed.
Even after five and a half years of their abduction while on a peace mission, we still have no news about the fate of the two orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo Boulos Yaziji and Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim. The world seems unable or unwilling to help with their cause. There must be someone somewhere who knows something about them, but we do not see any serious efforts made in this regard.
Christians of the city of Mosul in Iraq are still unable to go back to their homes; many residents of the towns and the villages of the Nineveh Plain are still unwilling to go back to their homes for fear of being attacked again because of the lack of security.
More than 80% of the Christians of Iraq have left the country and around 50% of the Christians of Syria have also left their country. There is a real fear that one day we may not find Christians in that region!! That would be catastrophic, not only for Ancient Christians of the Middle East, but also for our Muslim brothers and sisters.
“The Middle East without Christians”, as His Holiness Pope Francis said during our encounter in Bari last July, “would not be the Middle East”.
There is no doubt that the great majority of the people of the world of different religions and cultures wish to live side by side in peace and harmony.
However, national interests and international politics, using sometimes religious differences and encouraging religious and ethnic fanaticism, destroy the bridges of peace which have been built among people of different religions and cultures over thousands of years.
These same politics have also caused a great harm to our environment. Through their race to exploit the resources of our earth in a greedy and irresponsible way, they have inflicted irreparable damage to our planet resulting in global warming, climate change and many so-called natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and other calamities, causing the death and displacement of millions of people.
Destruction and War in the Name of Peace!
What is more alarming is that, nowadays, wars and conflicts are encouraged and fought in the name of freedom, democracy, justice and peace!!
I believe that all these noble values are being misused to achieve other goals such as selling of arms, advancing the interests of certain companies and private groups as well as controlling the natural resources of smaller and weaker countries.
There is a great need to reclaim and remember God’s teaching concerning the dignity of human beings and their centrality in God’s creation and in His divine plan for their salvation and redemption. This is a challenge for all governments and political parties.
Can Bridges for Peace be Built?
We believe that God created this world to be in harmony and peace; humans thus should be promoters and makers of peace. This should be reflected in our families, societies and nations, and altogether, as a global family, we may work together to build bridges of peace and bring harmony back to our world.
Therefore, building bridges of peace should be a common goal for all of us in order to prepare a better future for generations to come. We have to learn from our long experience throughout history – a shameful history stained with wars, genocides, religious and ethnic cleansings and many other evils.
Tools for Building Bridges of Peace
In our quest to be builders of bridges for peace, we need to agree on certain principals and endorsers. Please, allow me to share with you some points in this regard:
- Respect for every human being regardless of religion and race: God created us all equal because He loves us all, and no one should have the right to decide who is ‘less human’ than the other, and who deserves to live or die.
- Freedom of religion should be guaranteed for all human beings. God is the One Who examines the hearts of people, and He is the One Who decides whether to accept or reject our acts of worship.
- The principle of equal citizenship should be upheld in our society. For this, a separation between private religious lives of each individual and public affairs of a nation as a whole should be clearly defined.
- Knowledge about ‘the other’ is of paramount importance because it ensures peaceful co-existence. Ignorance of the other creates fear, fear creates isolation, and isolation leads to distrust and eventually violence.
- Dialogue on different levels is greatly needed to build trust among people of different faiths, especially among the youth. Such dialogues should focus on points of convergence and highlight common principles which contribute to the enhancement and betterment of the human life.
Without peace, there will be no future for humanity.
Let us all be architects of peace and build bridges of peace.
May God bless this world of us with peace and harmony.
Thank you for listening.