Immense political tensions in the Middle East are putting stress on church leaders
The Synod of an Oriental Church has had to be postponed because the majority of bishops decided not to attend as they are at loggerheads with the patriarch, whose resignation they are calling for. Meanwhile, the patriarch in question is vowing not to give in “to illegal and misleading pressure.” Just as the Orthodox Churches in Crete are experiencing the difficulties of a Council that is attempting, centuries on, to find common ground among the various autocephalous patriarchates, a Byzantine-rite Church in communion with Rome is facing a sensational rift. The Patriarchate in question is that of the Arabic Melkite Church, which has its headquarters in Damascus and has faithful not only in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan but also among Arab Christians who emigrated to the US, Australia, France and Latin America.
Patriarch Gregory III Laham had convened the annual Synod for this week. It was supposed to take place in Aïn Trez, on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, where the Patriarchate is based during the summer. But a serious rift in the Melkite hierarchy came to light when only 10 out of 22 Synod bishops turned up for the meeting. The others do not seem intent on solving the conflict during the Synod, as Rome had suggested. The bishops who refused to attend had previously appealed to the Congregation for the Oriental Churches for the patriarch’s resignation.
Their criticisms center around the work of 85-year-old Gregory III Laham, who was elected Patriarch of Antioch and All the East in 2000, having been Patriarchal Exarch of Jerusalem for this Church which follows the Byzantine Rite and has been in communion with Rome since 1729.
Gregory III has dismissed criticisms against him – which have to do with the management of Church property – claiming they are “misleading” and calling for a “respectful, frank and transparent” debate “in the spirit of dialogue and charity,” to be held in a new Synod meeting which could take place in October. In a statement, however, he also pointed out that he considers boycotting as “an open act of ecclesiastical rebellion” and that calling for the patriarch’s unconditional resignation is “irresponsible conduct that is not of the Church and illegal and has caused a wave of anger, protests, doubts and confusion among faithful.”
The Melkite archbishop of Beirut, Cyrille Bustros, is leading the opposition against the patriarch. He was the one who asked Rome to intervene, speaking out on behalf of others about a state of unease that stretches across Syria and Lebanon’s other dioceses; but the Congregation replied that point 126 of the Code of the Oriental Churches states that a patriarchal see can only be considered vacant if the patriarch dies or spontaneously gives up his position (as was the case with Pierre Sfeir in 2011). It is also worth bearing in mind that the name of 77-year-old Bustros is not new to the Vatican news world: during the Synod for the Middle East in 2010, some of the statements he made at a press conference when he was Melkite Archbishop of Newark unleashed a media storm with the Jewish world over the issue of “moving on from” the idea of a “chosen people.”
The rift in the Melkite Church is linked to the difficult context of the Middle East today, which is marked by wars and immense political tensions that end up influencing the lives of Christian communities, making synodality harder in practice. Interestingly, just as the Melkite rift materialized, another Catholic Church using the Oriental rite, the Chaldean Church, was experiencing an entirely unexpected moment of unity with the general assembly called by Patriarch Luis Raphael Sako in Erbil, where most Iraqi Christians now live as refugees.
In recent months, Sako too has had to face the blow dealt by the departure of priests from Iraq to the US – where they join local Chaldean dioceses – without the patriarch’s consent. From the meeting with clergy in Erbil, the Chaldean patriarch sent out another appeal for unity, inviting them to “share the weight of the Church’s aspirations” and to encourage an “active and responsible participation in the Synod, which reinforces collegiality, fostering friendship and ties between us.”