Last night my husband and I had a rare opportunity to hear from Bishop Elias Toumeh, a Syrian bishop. The following is an account Cliff wrote while it was still fresh in our hearts and minds. This piece is long form so I encourage you to sit down and not try to read through it to quickly. Thank you for reading – for the opportunity to share!
Chasing the Bishop: An Evening with a Syrian Christian by Cliff Gardner
Marilyn and I had the privilege of attending a talk on March 28th entitled “Christians in Syria at the Crossroads” at Hellenic College & Holy Cross Greek School of Theology in Brookline, MA. The speaker was Bishop Elias Toumeh, a Greek Orthodox Syrian Christian who resides in the area of Wadi al-Nasara (Valley of Christians) near the Syrian city of Homs.
We were anxious to hear his talk and to learn more from someone on the ground experiencing the current crisis in Syria. We were also a bit hesitant about what he would say about the Syrian Christian support for the Assad regime in Damascus, and possible vitriolic rhetoric about Muslims.
We arrived to the lobby of the Maliotis Center to find a sea of Arab-American Christians from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, mingling with the students of Hellenic College and Holy Cross, including our youngest son, Jonathan. Like anyone who has lived in another culture our ears perked up when we heard the familiar cadence of Arabic being spoken. I quickly spotted “the Syrian bishop” by his black robe, long beard and icon chain pendant. He was speaking to some of the Arab-Americans. I wanted to introduce myself and was about to make verbal contact after a smiling nod, but he was ushered quickly through the closed door into the auditorium. I turned to Marilyn and whispered, “I almost got to the Bishop!”
We continued to mingle with guests and greeted an old acquaintance and began to talk about the ongoing tragic situation in Syria and that it had not only effected Christians, but all Syrians.
In typical Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fashion our 7:00pm talk began around 7:30pm. We entered into the auditorium to find a large screen with a PowerPoint presentation with a large photo of the Syrian city of Ma’lula, where they still speak the ancient language of Aramaic. Bishop Elias was introduced by Fr. Luke Veronis, who stated that they had wanted to create an all-day consultation on Christians in Syria. They were going to arrange for some expert in the U.S. to speak when someone said, “Why don’t we invite a Syrian to speak?” How novel.
Bishop Elias stepped up to the podium and in a gentle but authoritative voice welcomed the audience in English and Arabic. We were all pleased. He proceeded to provide the backdrop of the current three-year long Syrian crisis. Here is a synopsis of some of his statements and stories (Note-as much as possible I have tried to use his words with mine in brackets):
- Christianity was born in Palestine and Syria. Christians were first called Christians in Syria (Antioch). St. Paul became a Christian in Syria (on the road to Damascus). Christianity was the faith of Syria before the introduction of Islam.
- Syria is a country of great ethnic and religious diversity. There are 23 million Syrians. 10% of Syria is Christian, including a variety of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants. There are also Muslims who are Sunni, Shi’a, and Alawite. There are also Jews. There are Arabs, Kurds, Jews, and Turkoman.
- Syria has experienced three years of fighting and conflict that has affected all citizens. Here are photos of damaged churches. (He then proceeded to click through slides of damaged churches, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Protestant Evangelical and Catholic. We all held our breath at the carnage we saw. And then he clicked on the next slide entitled: On the other hand: 1,400 mosques have been destroyed. We still couldn’t take that in.)
- I live in a predominately Christian area of Syria but there are Sunni and Alawite villages around me. One day I heard of an angry crowd gathering in the town square of the Sunni village and I decided to go and try to make peace. I drove with three other Christian men who had warned me of the danger. We drove to the town square and were surrounded by the Sunni crowds. The Muslim shaykh came out and greeted us and took us into the building and we talked about the need for our communities to live in peaceful co-existence. At the end of our talk the shaykh asked his two children, aged ten and six to come and kiss my hand. He said, “Bishop Elias, you are not just a bishop for the Christians, but you are also the bishop of the Muslims.”
- I have learned in this crisis that a bishop is not a person who sits on thrones or is taken to fancy restaurants, but is to be a shepherd to his people.
- A few Christians have been martyred for their faith by Islamic extremists, but then the kidnappings started. In April 2013 two prominent Orthodox Bishops were entering into Syria through the town of Bab al-Hawa. Their driver was killed and they were kidnapped. Nobody knows their whereabouts. Thousands of people have been kidnapped; Christians and Muslims, and some have been used to trade for arms, food or other prisoners. (Bishop Elias told the story of a busload of men who had been kidnapped, including two Alawites, two Sunnis and four Christians. He was asked by the Christians to help mediate and also by the Alawites to mediate. They said that they only trusted the Bishop. So at midnight in a car by himself he drove alone followed by Alawite militia and he stopped when he encountered the Sunni militia and they traded prisoners.)
- The Christians of Syria have suffered alongside their neighbors. 30% of Syrian Christians have immigrated (fled) to other countries, 30% have been displaced within Syria and about 30% remain in their homes.
- When asked why so many Syrian Christians are still supporting the Assad regime he said, “As Orthodox Christians we believe that we are to honor and obey our government and that the army is obligated to protect us. When the government is dissolved and the army is no longer able to protect us then we will have to make other choices.”
- When asked if Syrian Christians should arm themselves he replied, “No private Christian should take up arms. If you take up arms it means that you have an enemy. We do not have human enemies. There are Syrian Christians who have taken up arms but we do not condone that. We are willing to be martyrs for our faith, but we will never tolerate a genocide.”
- The uprising in Syria began with public demonstrations that were suppressed by the government and the Free Syrian Army was formed. There are Christians in the government army and also in the FSA. But in recent times this war has included radical Muslim elements from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Turkey and funded by countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (Someone recently told me that Syrians refer to it as al-harb al-wakil “the war of special agents/interests.”)
- As Christians we are called to be peacemakers. We are to welcome all people fleeing the violence and destruction of their homes and loss of jobs. We are to take them in and provide for them. The humanitarian crisis is most vital as we see the needs of those created in the image of God. (He shared of the work he does with children who have been greatly affected by this culture of war. Some of the children in his town were exchanging their normal toys with plastic and even real guns. The hearts of children can and must be changed.)
- We should encourage all of our governments to put pressure so that the violence would stop and that a secular, democratic government should rule and that a New Syria could rise out of these ashes.
After Bishop Elias’ talk we had a Q&A session and he answered honestly and frankly to each inquiry. We were all still processing his talk and the photos we had seen when the meeting ended after a prayer.
Marilyn and I spoke to a few Syrians around us in the audience but we really wanted to speak to Bishop Elias in person. We weaved through the auditorium, trying to chase him down and were just about to greet him when he turned toward the aisle and greeted those around him, mostly Arab-Americans. We trailed up the aisle, again on the chase, and he was accosted by a sobbing elderly Syrian woman lamenting the woes of the Christians there. He comforted her with words and then she turned to us and continued in Arabic that she wasn’t crazy but so saddened by the deaths of Arab Christians. Her grief felt raw and real, a reminder that this is real people in real conflict. We continued in our pursuit of the bishop and entered the lobby and finally I caught up with him near the front exit door. I greeted him and thanked him for his informative and compassionate talk. He smiled and thanked me for coming and asked that we continue to pray for him and for the people of Syria. He apologized and said that a car was waiting for him to drive to New York City.
It is so important to hear these voices and to not just listen to our own particular political or religious media sources of the current crisis. As Christians we are called to be peacemakers and to reach out and help alleviate the suffering in the world, whether they are people of our own faith tradition or of another.
Bishop Elias Toumeh is currently the Orthodox Bishop of Pyrgou-Syria. He studied engineering in Syria, theology at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, Arabic & Islamic Studies in the Vatican, Rome and doctoral studies in theology and Islam at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.