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Patriarch Ignatius Hazeem IV,
Patriarch of Antioch for the Syrian Orthodox Church.

18-sep-03, morning

This morning we visit the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church. We sit at one end of a large and ornate reception hall. The Patriarch speaks excellent English, he has been to America "many times", but he speaks very softly. He proves to be a very subtle thinker. As usual, coffee is served.

The Patriarch: America seems to be using force. He says that the U.S. is "not necessarily like Nazi Germany" -- we still have our freedoms. He's sure that Americans don't really perceive themselves as superhuman. (A very elegant way of expressing criticism: 'I'm sure the U.S. isn't really as evil as it seems...') He wishes that we would "wage war not in superiority of arms but in good deeds."

Christians here know how to co-exist happily with Muslims. The colonial period introduced some divisiveness. Syria is different from Egypt; here we're free to co-exist. Persian, Greek, and Islamic cultures all intersect here -- "we are a place of meetings". It is multicultural: "we don't need to be trained to conduct dialogue". Jews didn't leave because of persecution. [Although I have heard differently elsewhere. I haven't found any information on this topic that I fully trust.] Christians are free to observe the Sabbath, and shops usually have signs "closed on Sunday" or "closed on Friday". Christmas is a national holiday. Churches get their gas and electricity for free, just like the mosques. "We are being together; I don't even call it a dialogue."

Everyone in Syria thinks that America is a Christian country. Syria is not secular in the same way we are; every citizen is identified as belonging to a religious community.

The Patriarch recounts the time he met the U.S. Ambassador walking alone near the church. The Patriarch asked "why are you walking alone?" The ambassador answered "because I can't do this at home." This story illustrates the safety here; there is virtually no violent crime. Women can walk anywhere in Damascus any time of night and be safe. The police are not even armed.

The Patriarch does say that "things could be better", particularly citing the single-party system. But he is optimistic, and states that "change in the area must come from Syria and Lebanon". (He states that Syrians view Lebanon as a part of their country. We'll hear this many times in Syria.) "We are happy. Not very happy -- we can wish for better -- but we are happy."

He talks more about relations between the Christian denominations. He says that the churches have a "gentlemen's agreement" not to call for unity -- that they prefer the diversity. However, they are currently having problems with Protestant evangelicals who seek to re-introduce divisiveness.

The Patriarch discusses the Palestine issue. He regrets that Christianity seems to have no place in Israel/Palestine. Christians and Muslims here all pay a price for the Palestine issue, but Christians have no voice in resolving it. Christians are oppressed in Israel. (He says that there is a limit of 5,000 on the Christian population of Jerusalem. I find this hard to believe but won't dismiss it.) He states that Palestine is a political issue, not a religious one. If it were a religious issue, Christianity would not be ignored, as Jerusalem is as sacred to Christians as it is to Jews and Muslims.

"My religion", he says, "is very concrete." There is a very strong historical sense here, a sense of being bound to place. He also talks of "the oppression of hope." This part of the world is very religious; God is mentioned in almost every phrase here, by both Christians and Muslims: "God willing", "thank god", etc.

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