“May the Lord remember your archpriesthood in His kingdom: Meditations on the Third Anniversary of the Abduction of the Two Syrian Bishops”
Delivered at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology Chapel,Vespers Service, April 21, 2016.
by Timothy G. Patitsas, Ph.D., Asst. Prof. of Ethics
At around 2 p.m. on April 22nd in the Year of Our Lord 2,013 - two Christian hierarchs from the same city met at the Bab El-Hawa border crossing on their way from Turkey into Syria.
One was Bishop Youhanna of Aleppo, an archpastor of the Syrian Jacobite Church, an ancient non-Chalcedonian Christian community of 5 million members worldwide. The gray Kia Sorrento the two bishops would travel in belonged to His Grace Bishop Youhanna; their driver was his deacon.
The other hierarch was the Metropolitan of Aleppo and Iskenderun, Boulos, i.e., Paulos (I shall refer to him as Paul, to highlight his connection to St. Paul, born not far from his hometown).
Metropolitan Paul was the younger brother of the then newly- enthroned Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, His Beatitude John the Tenth. Born and raised in Syria, His Eminence Paul spoke many languages fluently. In fact, His Eminence had graduated with Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctoral degrees from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki – the same university where our own M.Div. seniors study every summer.
During his student years in Salonica, Metropolitan Paul often resided at various monasteries on the Holy Mountain Athos. Once he became a hierarch, he was active in international church work and was a friend of, for example, our own visiting Prof. Chrysostomos Stamoulis. On this particular occasion Metropolitan Paul was returning from such a mission of reconciliation, and had asked his friend the Syrian bishop Youhanna to help him return to their City of Aleppo.
Danger was a part of the lives of these two bishops in the context of the Syrian crisis, but as evidenced by their warm friendship with each other, they were men who were accustomed to living with religious pluralism. Indeed, they were able to show love and respect for all no matter what a person’s belief.
20 kilometers past the border crossing, the bishops were stopped by soldiers whose affiliation could be described as “early Free Syrian Army,” but they were allowed to pass without incident.
2 kilometers on, at 3:45 p.m., the Sorrento was suddenly intercepted by eight armed bandits who were neither Syrians nor even Arabs. Most likely, they were religiously-motivated fighters from other parts of the world determined to make some ugly mark upon the many-sided Syrian conflict. The two hierarchs were kidnapped, their driver brutally murdered, and a fourth companion released.
The many accounts as to what happened next all come down to two possibilities.
In one version, the two holy men were martyred almost immediately, as their captors were motivated not by the possibility of ransom, but by religious hatred. In fact, it is alleged, the fighters of the Free Syrian Army at the first checkpoint had sold the bishops to these fighters, had made a transaction in which they notified the religious fanatics of the passage of Christian bishops in return for the promise of cash. Soon after this, however, the brigade of warriors that had abducted the bishops was itself disbanded by order of its foreign sponsors, because its practices were becoming too brutal. This first version of the events surrounding their capture would explain the total silence around their fate, the lack of demands for ransom payment, and the failure of anyone to even take the awful credit for their possible martyrdom.
In a second version, the bishops have since their abduction been moved frequently and their release is still possible. Reports and sightings are still periodically received, and they may indeed still be alive. In an exceptionally fluid battlespace such as the Syrian conflict now is, it is difficult to know with any certainty which version is correct.
In fact, one of the reasons we gather in fervent prayer and remembrance tonight – whether we do so here at our Seminary’s Holy Cross Chapel, or in Haworth, New Jersey at the St. Gabriel Syrian Church where His Eminence our Archbishop Demetrios is now meeting with leaders of the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Syrian Jacobite church, or, whether prayer is being offered in the churches of Syria itself – one of the reasons we pray is simply that those many of us who love and cry out for these missing hierarchs might gain some clarity. We ardently wish that these two bishops who devoted themselves to God be released, or if this is not possible, at least properly buried and mourned.
Certainly there is someone who can resolve the mystery of where and how the bishops are – although in the deadly setting of the Syrian civil war, many of the direct eyewitnesses of these events will themselves now have passed on from this world, and are now facing either judgment or reward from the Almighty God for their roles in the treatment of these captive men of God.
Let us, however, contemplate a second, deeper, mystery present in what happened three years ago after the Bishops had passed through Bab al-Hawa – a name which means, “the gate of the winds” - for present in these events is in fact a kind of ultimate mystery: The suffering or outright martyrdom of an archpriest is more than a tragedy, more than a sorrow, an injustice, and a shocking outrage.
St. Ignatius of Antioch himself told us that “where the bishop is, there is the Church,” and also, “where the Bishop is, there is Christ.” And so when we see a bishop proceeding blamelessly and voluntarily to his own crucifixion, we behold not a mystery in the sense of a puzzle, but a mystery in the sense of a sacrament. We see not a cause of confusion, but we see that event which alone can illumine the confusion caused by all suffering and by death itself. “For the Light came into the world, and the darkness could not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
The martyrdom of an Archpriest is, after the Crucifixion of our true High Priest, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the most cosmic of events, it is an ultimate event. It is a further and fresh revelation of the primordial love that saved the world, that once created the world, of the very same love that will at the very end of time judge all of us who together constitute this world.
In the martyric death of an Archpriest we see a paragonic example of a human being willingly proceeding from the image of God placed in all of us, to the fiery vibrant likeness of the Crucified and Resurrected Son of God. And we see the victorious self-emptying love of God that called this world out of non-being at the beginning of time itself.
The sight of Archpriests being persecuted or even martyred is not to be a cause for dismay among the faithful, but a proud boast and the renewal of that hope which conquers sin within us.
For now it is our reaction to the disappearance and possible martyrdom of these two hierarchs that reveals something about each of us –the state of our salvation; the state of our creation – whether we are real or not; and, that reveals something of how we shall fare at the Last Judgment.
If we are unmoved by these events, then we must ask ourselves whether we are really alive at all – so closely is life linked to eros for the crucified and resurrected Lord.
If we are unwilling to offer a prayer for their consolation and release, then we must ask whether anything remains of our earlier faith in the crucified and resurrected Lord.
And if we are not troubled by the uncertainty regarding their fate enough to pressure our leaders for action, then what could possibly stir us before the Day of the Just Judgment upon our own apathy, and our lukewarm states.
In particular we pray that someday His Eminence Metropolitan Paul, if he is still in the body, will not only be released in good health, but will come here to our chapel to celebrate a Divine Liturgy, so that we might pray for him, as the Syrian Jacobites will then pray for His Grace Bishop Youhanna at a future liturgy,
“May the Lord remember your archpriesthood in His kingdom.”
This is a prayer that will surely be answered.