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Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Tablet - Bishop denounces Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch

The Tablet - Bishop denounces Syrian patriarch

A prominent French bishop has accused Gregory III Laham, the Damascus-based Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch, of scheming with President Bashar al-Assad to block a planned Vatican peace visit to Syria by Catholic prelates in 2012. The Vatican announced at the end of its October 2012 synod on the Middle East that a delegation of seven church leaders, including Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Jean-Louis Tauran of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, would fly from Rome to Damascus to express their solidarity with Syrians suffering in the civil war. Bishop Claude Dagens of Angoulême told Radio Notre Dame in Paris on 11 September that the patriarch promptly telephoned Assad, "of whom we know he is an ally politically and financially" and made an unspecified deal with him. The plan ran into difficulties and the Vatican announced a week later that the visit was postponed because of the "gravity of the situation" in Syria. Bishop Dagens denounced Assad as head of a criminal regime and said he backed planned military strikes against Syria. He also said the argument that Assad protected Christians from Islamist militants, one often echoed by Christians, was Syrian propaganda. The patriarch hit back in a letter to the Vatican, the French bishops' conference and the Académie Française, of which Dagens is a member. "You have no idea how much your defamatory words have hurt and endangered the Melkite community," he wrote. Meanwhile it has emerged that Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists set fire to statues and crosses inside churches in the northern city of Raqa and destroyed a cross on a church clock tower. The Syria Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday that terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carried out the attacks at the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation and the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs. At the latter church they destroyed a cross on its clock tower and replaced it with the ISIL flag, the news agency AFP reported. Most of Raqa fell to opponents of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in March. ISIL has imposed sharia on much of the local population.

In view of this outspoken attack by Bishop Dagens of Angouleme on a fellow Catholic bishop, let alone one of the highest dignity, integrity and reputation - a serious lapse in duty to episcopal fraternity and communion - the Society affirms its solidarity with His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios of Antioch and the efforts of the entire episcopate of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, in union with the Holy Father, to secure peace and reconciliation in Syria, as well as the freedom of the Melkite and all the Christian Churches in the region, and that of their Muslim fellow citizens too, from persecution by terrorists and oppression by the regime.

Here is Msgr Dagens' outburst in an interview on September 11 on Radio Notre Dame, in which he called for external intervention in Syria to bring down the Assad regime, which he describes as criminal, by force. In context, the implication of crime is associated with the Patriarch by Bishop Dagens, as will be seen below.

Here is Patriarch Gregorios' Letter of Complaint to Msgr Dagens of September 13, made public by the Patriarchate in Damascus once copies had been received by the President of the French Bishops' Conference, the Archbishop of Paris (as ordinary for Eastern Catholics in France), the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, and the Secretary General of the Academie Francaise of which Dagens is a prominent member.

Msgr Dagens has questioned the financial and political integrity of Patriarch Gregorios. He said,
J'étais au Synode de Rome en octobre 2012 et j'ai vu tant de fois l'illustre Patriarche Laham, chef des Grecs-Melkites à Damas, se lever. Et lorsqu'il fut décidé qu'une délégation du Vatican allait se rendre à Damas pour rencontrer des chrétiens de Syrie et rencontrer Bachar el-Assad, le téléphone a fonctionné: le cher Patriarche Laham s'est entendu avec Bachar el-Assad dont on sait qu'il est un allié, politiquement et financièrement.
(I was at the Synod [of Bishops Special Assembly on the Catholic Church in the Middle East] in Rome in October 2012 and I saw the illustrious Patriarch Laham get up on several  occasions. And when it was decided that a delegation from the Vatican was to go to Damascus to meet the Christians of Syria and meet Bashar al-Assad, he was on the telephone: the dear Patriarch Laham gets on well with Bashar al-Assad, of whom it is known that he is an ally, politically and financially.)
Jean-Marie Guenois, writing in Le Figaro on 19 September, observes:
De fait, le projet d'envoi d'une délégation en Syrie - pas moins de 7 cardinaux devaient officiellement prendre le chemin de Damas - annoncé le 16 octobre 2012 par le numéro 2 du Saint-Siège, le cardinal Bertone, avorta. Ce qui sonna comme une humiliation pour le Pape Benoît XVI qui cautionnait ce projet inédit. Et qui fit perdre la face à la diplomatie du Saint-Siège.
(In fact, the plan to send a delegation to Syria - it was intended that no fewer than 7 cardinals should make the journey to Damascus on an official basis - announced on the 16th October 2012 by the number 2 at the Holy See, Cardinal Bertone, was dropped. This represented a humiliation for Pope Benedict XVI, who supported the unpublicised plan. And it caused a loss of face for the Holy See's diplomacy.)
In other words, the delegation was nor stage-managed for the regime by the Patriarch, since it was encouraged by Pope Benedict, nor was it undermined by the Patriarch because he had been part of the Synod that called for it.

Here is a translation of the Patriarch's response to Msgr Dagens.
Your Excellency, and dear brother in the episcopate, 
You have made grave and public accusations about me on air on Radio Notre Dame. Doubtless you have no idea how your defamatory words have wounded - and put in danger - the Melkite community so cruelly put to the test for many years. 
What a contrast with the concern of Pope Francis and the spiritual solidarity of my brothers in the episcopate and of many private individual French people, which is so touching. 
Furthermore, many Eastern Christians are keen French speakers and they have been dealt a particularly sad blow by the attacks of an Academician such as yourself. 
Legitimate differences of opinion on geopolitics do not seem to me to justify the act of violently undermining episcopal fraternity and of shocking a whole Church by attacking its Patriarch. 
As loud as I can, and resolute in the face of all the difficulties and tragedies of these last two years, I have not ceased to call for dialogue and above all reconciliation, as the only basis for Syria's salvation - something for which I am ready to offer my life in sacrifice. 
Always available to you to speak more of these things, I assure you, Your Excellency, of my prayer for peace, ecclesial communion, yourself and your diocese.

Gregorios III 
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Here on his blog is the statement from Msgr Dagens, who complains of attacks on himself, while calling for "proportionate" armed engagement by the international community, with French involvement, in the Syrian conflict, from the safety of his throne in Angouleme, while Patriarch Gregorios is being shelled by rebels - as is the Orthodox Patriarch, and while the Syrian Orthodox and Antiochian Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo are held hostage in mortal danger, abducted on a mission of peace-making in the spring, and while ordinary people on all sides, Christian and Muslim alike, call for peace, he end to injustice, and the ejection of the Islamist terrorists from Syria.
Here is a translation of the statement on 18 September:
Following the discussion he took part in on Radio Notre Dame on Wednesday 11 September, and the letter received from Mgr (sic) Laham, Melkite Greek-Catholic patriarch of Damascus (sic), Msgr Dagens, bishop of Angouleme, is concerned to issue the following statement:
My answer to the Melkite Greek-Catholic Patriarch Gregorios Laham will be, if he is a man of good will, with all the means available to him: put a stop to the tide of resentful and violent messages that I have been receiving for a week, following the discussion I took part in on air on Radio Notre Dame,  when I had occasion to mention the following realities: 
  • The historical relations between France and Syria 
  • The stranglehold of Syria on Lebanon 
  • The dictatorial nature of the present regime in Syria 
  • The terrible acts of violence in the civil war, leaving thousands of people dead and wound, Muslims and Christians alike 
  • My concern for the hard pressed Christian populations and my wish that there will be not going back for them to dealing with dictatorial regimes in their present or in the future 
  • My commitment alongside Pope Francis is so that the strength of the peace of Christ, who endured the Passion, may be stronger than all the acts of violence and hatred in our history.
+ Claude DAGENS 
Bishop of Angouleme 
Member of the Académie française

This statement evidently refers to Patriarch Gregorios in a contemptuous way, without a proper and filial respect for the Successor of Peter at Antioch. It fails moreover to refer to the terrible accusations of criminal association with a regime he variously describes as criminal, bloody and lying, or of political and financial involvement with President Al-Assad. We have no hesitation in describing it a self-serving disgrace and call for Bishop Dagens to withdraw unreservedly his insinuations and to apologise to His Beatitude with repentance.

From our encounters with Patriarch Gregorios on his visits to London and through the Melkite community in the UK, we can say that the person Msgr Dagens has described is not the man we know. Msgr Dagens is a privileged and eminent public personality in a secular, democratic republic, where speech is free and the personal liberty, equality and safety of the citizen is guaranteed. In Syria these are luxuries to be dreamed of. The situation for all citizens is immensely complex there, and Christians are caught in the middle. We can attest to the tact and diplomacy that is needed at every turn, the massive efforts of persuasion and bridge-building, dispute-solving, and the tireless peace-making that characterise this good and brave man. He is an inspiration to joyfulness in the crucified and risen Christ for his faithful in this moment, not just of adversity, but of systematic efforts by armed terrorists and invades to wipe out the 2,000 year old Christian Church in the Holy Lands of its birth. We know this from first hand accounts from Orthodox, Melkite and Syrian Orthodox sources. In such circumstances, Patriarch Gregorios is a Christian leader who has not been afraid to make himself unpopular in articulating the cries, the plight and hopes of his people as well as those of the whole of Syrian society, Christian and Muslim alike united in hopes for peace, freedom, mutual respect and common life.

At this moment, the Melkite Catholic Church in Syria needs to hear from the Roman Catholic Church around the world nothing but unequivocal love, support and union in prayer.

Patriarch Gregorios will be visiting London on October 19 to raise awareness of the situation in Syria and call on redoubled efforts for peace and support to the people of Syria, not least his Melkite Church. See older posts on this website, recording the true extent of the damage caused by the jihadists, and see everywhere on line the pictures and films of the persecution and martyrdom. He is visiting as the guest of Aid to the Church in Need and will assist at the Mass at 1030 at Westminster Cathedral.


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