Damascus, Syria, Apr 7, 2015 / 11:48 am
Citing St. Paul's conversion on the Road to Damascus, an Eastern Catholic patriarch's Easter message repeated a call for peace and urged Christians to bear the Gospel of Life amid Syria's ongoing civil war.
"God grant that the day of reconciliation, salvation and mutual embrace may come! Then indeed there will be a great feast for the whole of Syria, a feast of resurrection and life," said Gregorios III, Melkite Patriarch of Antioch in his Easter Letter for 2015.
"How greatly we shall rejoice at the great feast, when joy will enter the hearts of all the fighters in Syria and they will discard their weapons and walk all together in the light of resurrection and life."
The patriarch encouraged Christians to be "agents of life, prosperity and progress."
"Let us be agents to build up the culture of life and not be instruments of death, war and destruction. That is the meaning of life: that is its beauty," he said in his message, provided to CNA by the pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.
The patriarch, who heads the Damascus-based Melkite Catholic Church, spoke more than four years after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. The conflict has witnessed brutal fighting between President Bashar Assad and rebel groups. Assad has faced accusations of human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons, while rebel factions include the Al-Qaida ally the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State group.
In early February, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the conflict has killed over 210,000 people, almost half of them civilians. The group added that the real death toll is likely much higher.
At least 10 million Syrians, close to half the country's population, have been displaced from their homes. About 4 million of these people are refugees in other countries.
Patriarch Gregorios called for the rejection of "murderous, terrorist, destructive, chaotic groups." He had a special message for combatants:
"Join the two hundred thousand Christians who are celebrating the Feast of the Resurrection and life, love, solidarity, forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, and universal fraternity."
"The call to reconciliation means embracing one another and being reconciled. Since the first month of the crisis in Syria, we have not stopped proclaiming that appeal. Today again, we call for there to be a mutual embrace and reconciliation," he said.
He appealed to "all of Syria's sons and daughters," whatever their affiliations and rites, including opposition groups.
"From suffering Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and our East, especially Jerusalem, the city of Resurrection, we launch this appeal to the whole world."
The patriarch urged Christians not to forget that they are "the children of the Resurrection" and that the road to Damascus is where the Risen Christ appeared to Saul, "the persecutor who came to Damascus with the intention of destroying the new Church that had been born."
He was intending to "kill, slaughter, abduct and take captive, when he saw Christ himself, risen from the dead, who appeared to him saying, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'"
Saul then went to Damascus "as mild as a lamb" and was baptized, becoming the apostle Paul who would "announce the good news of the resurrection and life, which is Jesus Christ."
Patriarch Gregorios praised efforts to work for peace and encouraged everyone in the West and the East to "dismiss any idea that this conflict is over religion." He said it seemed to him that the Islamic State group "has nothing whatever to do with religion."
"ISIS is rather an instrument which takes on, very foolishly and insolently, the outward aspect and show of a religious movement. However, in reality they show Islam in a most hideous, deceitful and fraudulent guise."
He also rejected depictions of the conflict as merely a Shia-Sunni conflict, saying the conflict has become "a tool and a cover for proxy war in our region and at the cost of all its citizens."
"I say with great certainty and with great pain that religion has become a tool; human beings have been instrumentalized and commodified. Religious conflict has become marketable. Killing the innocent has become a commodity and instrument and slaughtering Christians has become a tool."
He lamented that many Christian parishioners and other citizens have "fallen as martyrs and victims of savage warfare."
He cited three events that have "destroyed our morale" and "caused fear to well up in our hearts": the expelling of Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain; the slaughter of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS in Libya; and the expulsions, killings, and kidnappings that have targeted Assyrians in 35 villages along the Khabur River in northern Syria.
"We offer our heartfelt condolences to all those who are grieving. We shall remain always trusting in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, who has destroyed death," he said.
These events have caused emigration due to "fear and lack of security." Nonetheless, Patriarch Gregorios exhorted Christians to trust in God.
"(I)n the face of all that we are seeing, in front of the scenes of death and violence, terrorism, killing, throat-cuttings, beheadings, burning of bodies and severing limbs, let us strengthen our faith in life, in the risen Christ who has conquered death and bestowed life and calls us all to be children of the Resurrection and life, to be bearers of the Gospel of life."
He exhorted Christians to "work for success and the conquest of death by life, enmity by love, and hatred and revenge by forgiveness and reconciliation."
The risen Jesus Christ, he said, is "causing joy and gladness to well up in our hearts through his love so that our hearts will be full of joy and consolation."
"We feel that Jesus has been our companion on the way of our sufferings and tragedy during the past four years, but we did not know that it was he who was accompanying us along the road and protecting us despite the shells and mortars that were falling on us," said Patriarch Gregorios.