Crusader Cistercian Church, now Orthodox Church

Crusader Cistercian Church, now Orthodox Church
Balamand University near Tripoli

Friday, January 21, 2011

Leaving the NEST in Beirut, Friday 21 January 2011

Dear gentle reader, 

After 114 days (16 weeks +), my 4 months in Beirut have come to an end. Tonight I'll take a taxi to the Beirut airport for the trip home to Chicago.

I depart from Beirut at a critical moment in Lebanon's recent history. In recent days, the cabinet of the national government dissolved itself. Negotiations to form a new cabinet are going slowly. The whole country awaits the publication of the findings of the International Tribunal Lebanon regarding who assassinated Prime Minister Harari & his body guards in March, 2005.

Meanwhile theological education and church life goes on as usual at NEST. Christians in this region are toughened by surviving years of civil war and persecution in places like Iraq. 

I hope you have enjoyed reading & seeing the pictures in 'Nesting in Beirut.' If you are interested in more information about studying or visiting the Near East School of Theology, please go to their website at Or send me an email message at my office:


Robert Cathey

Balamand University - from Cistercian Monastery to Eastern Orthodox University

On Saturday 8 January, 2011, Dean Sabra's 'Contemporary Eastern Churches' class made our last field trip up the coast of Lebanon to Balamand University. It overlooks Tripoli. On this site the Cistercians founded a monastery during the Crusades in the 1100s A.D. It includes the only original Cistercian Church in the world, with the only Cistercian bell tower.

It was abandoned in 1250 when the Muslims recaptured the region, then renewed 300 years later as a Greek Orthodox monastery when the Ottomans gave it to the Orthodox to become the main church in this region. Monks came from Tripoli, Aleppo and Palestine to reestablish the monastery in the Orthodox tradition. It was abandoned again in the 1950s. In the late 20th century, the site had become a shelter for goats, but was extensively renovated. 

The monastery was a center of learning, translating Greek texts into Arabic, copying, editing, engaging in exegesis, and writing commentaries on the Patristics (early Christian writers). 1,200 manuscripts are in the archives of the monastery. It is also rich icons.

Our guide was Professor Nicolas Abu Mrad, a Professor of Old Testament in the theological faculty. We met with Dean (Auxilary Bishop) Ghattas Hazin of the theological faculty (nephew of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in this region). After visiting the monastery, we traveled to the Convent of Our Lady of Kattoun to visit with Sister Lucy and see the renovation of beautiful ancient mosaics in the convent church. 

The weather was wet & chilly but the hospitality was generous. Dean Hazin reminded us that as Protestants, the Orthodox (like the Roman Catholics) don't fully recognize us as a Church (for we don't have the continuity of apostolic succession), but the Orthodox have ecumenical relations with the Protestants through the Middle East Council of Churches and friendships & scholarly organizations.

The renovated monastery was one of the most impressive Christian sites in our five field trips. Wet talked with Prof. Mrad about the iconography and the fact that much of Orthodox liturgy is based on the Old Testament, although the Orthodox usually read only from the New Testament in their services of the Lord's Day today.

At Our Lady of Kattoun Convent, we saw some very old and venerated icons that were stolen during the Lebanese civil war, and then returned to the Convent by the thieves. In the Orthodox tradition, convents and monasteries serve as centers of spiritual direction, for retreats, and pastoral care. Laity usually do not turn to their local priest for these functions, but go on retreats to the monasteries and convents for spiritual renewal. 

Some of our students were impressed with the simply faith of Sister Lucy who was a participant in the Orthodox Youth Movement of the mid-20th century that renewed the Orthodox tradition in the Middle East.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Armenian Catholicossate of Cilicia, Antelias

On December 8, 2009, Dean Sabra's 'Contemporary Eastern Churches' class took a field trip to the headquarters of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Lebanon. We visited with Bishop Nareg Alemezian who is responsible for ecumenical & inter-religious affairs for the Catholicossate. 

There are over 7 million Armenian Orthodox Christians worldwide with 3 million in the independent nation of Armenia (formerly part of the USSR). Over populations include:

Lebanon: 150,000
Syria: 75,000
Israel & Occupied Palestinian Territories: 15,000
Iraq: before US invasion: 25 - 30,000, now down to 10,000
Iran: 150,000 (the largest non-Muslim population group in Iran)
Turkey: 80-85,000
USA: 1,500,000 with largest group in California
Europe: 1,000,000
Canada: 100,00
S. America: 150,000

The Armenian Orthodox Church or Apostolic Church is part of the family of Oriental Orthodox churches. The trace their roots to St. Gregory the Illuminator. Their apostolic origins go back to  2 of Jesus' disciples: Thaddeus and Bartholomew who, they claim, preached in Armenia in the first century CE. In Iran there were monasteries founded in the names of both Apostles. Today 90% of all persons of Armenian descent are Armenian Orthodox, 5% are Armenian Catholics, and 5% are Evangelical Armenians (including both some faculty and students at NEST). 

The Church has four hierarchical centers: two catholicossates and two patriarchs (one in Jerusalem and one in Istanbul, Turkey). The title of 'patriarch' covers a local jurisdiction and is an honorary title. 

Turkey once was home to a very large Armenian community that was massacred and exiled from many dioceses. These Armenians relocated to the country now called Armenia, to Lebanon, and other nations. There is a Catholicossate in Armenia (close to the city of Yeribin <sp?>) and the one we visited in Beirut. From the tenth century CE to 1915, there was a Catholicossate in Turkey whose surviving members were relocated to Lebanon, Cyprus, and Aleppo, Syria after the genocide. 

The Near East Relief Foundation (a Protestant mission) opened its buildings to begin an Armenian orphanage after the genocide, and eventually gave these buildings to refound the Catholicossate of Cilicia in Beirut. There the Armenian Orthodox Church opened a seminary (which moved higher up on Mount Lebanon in the 1970s or '80s). They opened a publishing house that still is housed here. This Catholicossate on property originally purchased by Protestants became the administrative center of the global Armenian diaspora. 

There are 13 worldwide dioceses under the direction of the Catholicossate in Beirut. It fulfills spiritual, cultural, educational, & social needs and provides political support to Armenians in many lands. For Armenians, the church is both the spiritual and cultural home of their global community. It is the center of social, educational, and ecclesial life. People participate in church activities every day of the week through schools and community centers. The Catholicossate holds annual gatherings of Armenian intellectuals, is a pedagogical center for Sunday and parochial schools, distributes monthly publications, & hosts a website. They run a boarding school in Byblos, Lebanon that began as Bird's Nest Armenian orphanage.  

A brotherhood of 45 Armenian celibate clergy (including 15 monks and five bishops) live at the center and the Catholicos serves as their abbot. Their polity is more democratic than authoritarian (so the Catholicos doesn't have the authority of the Pope). Decisions are made in a horizontal rather than hierarchical structure with lay participation in decision-making. Their church councils are constituted 70% laity and 30% clergy. Youth, women and men are included in the delegates of their general assembly. Their executive committee is made up of 11 lay people who control administration and finances, and 11 celibate clergy over religious and spiritual life.

Their church used to have active monasteries in the classical mode but this is no longer the case. Monks are now located in their administrative centers in Beirut, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Armenia. Their daily prayers begin at 5 AM, and later they celebrate the Eucharist in a service open to lay participation from the neighborhood. Their Church recognizes 7 sacraments. 

Their Church is a bridge-building institution between Christians around the world and between Christians and Muslims. They are an ecumenically open and accommodating Church. They are members of the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches. They welcome any person baptized with water in a historical church in the triune Name (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) into their services. If such persons join their Church, they are not rebaptized. 

We toured the many buildings of the Catholicossate which include a beautiful sanctuary, a grim memorial (including skeletal remains) to the victims of the Armenian genocide in Turkey during WWI, a beautiful museum of liturgical artifacts and manuscripts that were rescued from Turkey and brought to Lebanon, and other meeting space.

We discussed Turkey today with Bishop Alemezian, and how the Armenian Orthodox Church continues to survive in the Middle East and globally. His commitment to ecumenical and inter-religious work which began when he was a priest in Vancouver, Canada, was outstanding.  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bekah Valley & Baalbek Excursion

On Sunday 21 November, 4 Americans from NEST traveled by car to the Bekah Valley to visit 2 wineries, the Roman temple ruins at Baalbek, a cedars preserve in the Chouf Mountains, and the heart of the Druze community in Lebanon.

Our driver was Jad Bauckhan, a semi-retired medical technician who now works as a guide. He drove us from Beirut to the Bekah Valley (Lebanon's agricultural region) to first visit Chateau Ksara, the oldest winery in Lebanon and the Middle East. 

Established in the 19th century by Jesuit priests, Chateau Ksara is built over a series of underground Roman tunnels where the wine is aged in casks. Now owned by four business partners, the winery remained open and in production during all the years of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1989). 

We next traveled to Baalbek, an enormous temple complex built to impress the inhabitants of the eastern Roman empire. As the name suggests, the original temple on this site was dedicated to Baal, and there is some evidence that human sacrifice may have occurred here before the coming of the Romans. Using a massive army of slaves (about 125,000) and a building project spanning hundreds of years, the Romans built a temple complex here larger than the Parthenon in Rome and the Pantheon in Athens. The ruins still contain massive temple columns and pillars. Baalbek is located in the southern part of the Bekah Valley where many residents are Shia Muslims & the so-called Party of God (Hizbullah) originated in the late 20th century. As we came out of the ruins, vendors were selling Hizbullah T-shirts and camel rides.

Our next stop were the vineyards of Chateau Kefraya in an area largely populated by Orthodox Christians. We had a wonderful al fresco lunch where families had gathered after services of worship. 

Then Jad drove us up winding roads with hair pin turns into the Chouf mountains to look across a ridge almost into northern Israel. After we reached the peaks, we drove down to a cedar preserve forest that happened to be above a cloud bank that afternoon. After we hiked a bit in the preserve, we rode down into the heart of the Druze country and visited a very old Maronite church in a village where Jad has his second apartment.

It was dark by the time we returned to Hamra in Beirut. This trip was my favorite excursion during my four months in Lebanon for we experienced the variety and beauty of Lebanon's typography and multiple communities of faith and culture all in one beautiful fall day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

With Father Elie Azzi & the Maronites in Qannoubine Valley, Lebanon

On the first Saturday in November (6th), Dean George Sabra’s ‘Contemporary Eastern Churches’ class boarded a small bus at NEST early in the a.m. that drove us up into the northern range of Mount Lebanon. Along the way we picked up Fr. Elie Azzi, a Maronite priest and historian of his tradition, Lebanon’s largest Christian church and one of its oldest indigenous Christian institutions.

Fr. Azzi was our guide to the Qadisha Valley, also called the “Valley of the Saints.’ Carved into the sheer rock faces of the mountain he would led us down are a series of tiny monasteries and churches that once housed the patriarchs, monks, and many members of the Maronite Christian community when they sought a separate space from their Muslim overlords.

The Maronites (their name does not refer to Mary the mother of Jesus but to Saint Maroon, died 410 CE) are one of the most distinctive Christian churches in the Middle East. Their cultural and theological heritage is Syriac and Antiochene, yet their Christology is Chalcedonian; they are a patriarchal and monastic church that places a high value on asceticism as the truest form of the Christian life; they have acknowledged the primacy of the Pope in Rome since the time of the Crusades; they are grounded in Lebanon as their physical and spiritual home (although many Maronite Christians live in the Lebanese Diaspora). The Maronites have achieved a distinctive balance between both eastern and western Christianity. Their patriarch and monks live their ascetic lives very close to the laity, creating strong bonds of solidarity between laity and clergy. 

On the trip up I sat with the Rev. Nabil Shehadi, Vicar of All Saints’ International Congregation ( and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Rev. Nabil’s family is Lebanese Presbyterian. He studied architecture and became a licensed architect in London, England for many years, some of which overlapped with the Lebanese civil war. During that time, he discovered the Church of England, studied theology, and became an Anglican priest. His congregation in Beirut is located very near the Mediterranean in the first Christian church rebuilt after the civil war.

Rev. Nabil is also the Alpha Advisor for Lebanon, a great proponent of the Alpha Program (founded in England) as a means of evangelization. Unlike many other countries in the Middle East, citizens of Lebanon are free to convert from their parents’ religion to another. And as Rev. Nabil explained to me in the words of another Christian leader in this region, some Christians have been thoroughly ‘sacramentalized’ but not ‘evangelized.’ As an Anglican by adult decision, he seeks to create opportunities for other Lebanese to learn about the Christian message in creative new ways.

After driving up extremely inclined mountain roads for several hours, our bus trip ended on the top of a peak with absolutely gorgeous views. (No pun intended…there were some very steep gorges.) Fr. Azzi, Dean Sabra and Mrs. Sabra (Lydia is a teacher of music at the International School on the American Univ. of Beirut campus) led us down a series of rocky, steep steps with scattered rock fragments on almost every step. I was glad I had taken a course in mountain climbing during college on our way down. Some in our group had brought hiking poles to steady themselves on the descent. We each carried most of the food and water we would have for the daylight hours.

One of the goals on our descent of the mountain was to visit the hermitage of Fr. Dario Escobar, a priest from Columbia who became a Maronite to pursue the ancient way of the Christian hermits who have inhabited Lebanon for more than 1500 years. When we finally reached the hermitage, Fr. Azzi led us into a tiny chapel where we could cool down from the descent and pray. He quietly explained to us that two years ago, Fr. Escobar had been photographed by someone who had put his picture up on Facebook. This led to an overwhelming number of people climbing down to the hermitage to visit (and then disturb) Fr. Escobar in his life of daily prayer and study. According to Fr. Azzi, Fr. Escobar had spoken to no one for two years. We quietly enjoyed the cool chapel and then moved further down the trail.

Some of us who had just seen the new film, The Social Network, were not surprised that the global reach of Facebook had even disturbed the life of a hermit for Christ in this remote part of Lebanon. The power of technology both intimately connects us to one another and alienates us from our souls all at the same time unless we share in a power greater than technique alone.

But Rev. Nabil and Christian, one of the NEST students from the Univ. of Göttingen, stayed behind to explore some more of the hermitage. Suddenly they realized someone else was with them…Fr. Dario. He spoke with them and shared some stories from his student days. After this encounter, Christian ran to catch up with the larger group to tell us he had been one of the first persons the hermit had spoken with after two years of retreat. Meanwhile Rev. Nabil who is an excellent hiker rounded up some members of our group that was now strung out along a steep mountain path.

Along the way, we stopped at another tiny church that commemorates the life of a Maronite young woman who impersonated a man in order to become a monk. None of her brother monks discovered her secret and she was allowed to join the order on the mountain. After some years a woman in a local village accused the ‘monk’ of having fathered her child. As an act of penance, the monk raised the child as ‘his’ own. When the monk finally died, her secret was discovered and she was remembered as a saint for holy life exemplified in the fact that she had cared for a child not her own just like a parent.

Some students in our group found this hagiography hard to believe. But in terms of historical gender studies, a woman who convincingly impersonates a man is not totally unique in history. (Some will remember the Barbara Streisand film of a few decades ago about a young Jewish woman who impersonates a man in order to enter Orthodox rabbinical studies.)

We stopped at another monastery and church for lunch, where we met some other hikers from different countries. Overall I was struck with how few hikers were on this mountain on a gorgeous fall day.

As we continued to hike down to a more flat, mountain path that ran along an icy stream where there were tiny cafes, Fr. Azzi would pause and show us in his binoculars tiny monasteries carved into the cliffs of the mountain. The medieval Maronites must have been excellent rock climbers or built wooden cranes with baskets to lower monks into these tiny spaces.

The ascetic, mountain existence of the Maronites exemplifies the fiercely independent spirit of the Lebanese Christians, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. In the mountains the Maronites were safe from the armies of their Muslim rulers and escaped the taxes levied on Christian and Jewish citizens of Islamic empires. Christians were the majority population of Lebanon until sometime in the 1960s, and Lebanon emerged from the Ottoman Empire as a new Christian majority nation just after WWI. Seats in the Lebanese Parliament are still divided 50 / 50 between Christian and Muslim political representatives due in part to the Maronite heritage. Their church still owns about 23% of all properties in the nation. They also have a reputation as fierce soldiers and fighters in the complex political history of this cross roads of the ancient and modern Middle East.

As the sun was beginning to set, we boarded the bus for the long drive back to Beirut. Along the way we passed through tiny mountain villages where most inhabitants are still Maronites. When we asked Fr. Azzi for some good resources on the history of his Church, he said the best texts are in Arabic, French, Russian, and German. Most books on the Maronites in English are written for the busy tourist or pilgrim, not the student or scholar of Eastern Churches.
When I return to Chicago, the Maronites are another eastern Christian church I want to rediscover in my own city where the Diaspora of Christians from the Middle East continues.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Welcome to Damascus, Syria

On Saturday 30 October, three Americans living at NEST traveled to Damascus, Syria, a first-time trip for all of us. Karen & Gary Garbrielson, members of the ELCA from Colorado Springs, CO, lived for many years in Saudi Arabia when Gary worked for the Saudi airline. Gary speaks some Arabic and Karen enjoys shopping in souks (marketplaces with hundreds, in some cases thousands of tiny shops & vendors), so they are excellent traveling companions for an American on his first trip to Syria. Gary is working with NEST’s IT system as a volunteer from the ELCA this fall, and Karen is auditing courses at NEST.

NEST arranged for a Lebanese taxi driver from Hamra to take us up over the Mount Lebanon range through Lebanese and Syrian border crossings into Syria. The drive up over Mt. Lebanon early on a Saturday morning through the fog and mist gave us our first view of the beautiful breadbasket of Lebanon, the Bekah Valley.

When we crossed the border into Syria, Karen & Gary immediately were struck with how much Syria looks like Colorado: tall, steep mountains against a dry wilderness. Our Lebanese driver turned us over to a Syrian taxi driver who took us into the ancient / modern city of Damascus.  

The Greek Orthodox monastery where we stayed in Damasucs, St. Elias, was located in the former Christian & Jewish districts of the old city that was surrounded by walls and gates (called 'bab/s'). It is next door to the R. Catholic church that claims to be built on the site where Saul was unhorsed by the risen Jesus. There is a beautiful modernist chapel on the grounds of the church built in the 1950s that houses the traditional site that looks like a stone road over a very small grotto for prayer. 

On Saturday p.m., after lunch in a restaurant near our monastery with no tourists at all, we took a cab to the old souk (marketplace) to see the Umayyad mosque, one of the largest and most beautiful from the centuries of early Islam.

The souk of Damascus is enormous! Imagine on a Saturday p.m., more people than the Mall of America in Minneapolis with more than a thousand tiny shops that sell everything from ornate Qur'ans to exotic lingerie. It was absolutely packed with people doing weekend shopping. We found the Umayyad mosque and slipped inside and first saw Saladin's tomb (he was the Kurdish Muslim commander who defeated the Crusaders and re-established Muslim control over Jerusalem). 

The interior of the mosque was a huge courtyard surrounded by ornate walls with stonework, gold leaf, and several minarets. There were side door openings into halls for prayer. In the courtyard everyone had their shoes off, but families and groups came there to eat bag lunches, fly kites, take pictures, etc. It was a great civic space inside of a mosque and open to the sky. 

Milling around in the souk was tiring after our long cab drive early in the day, so we returned to the monastery before catching a cab to Bab Sharki, the city gate closest to our quarter. There we found by accident the R. Catholic church built over the traditional site of the home of Ananias, the Christian in Damascus who baptized Saul / Paul. We happened to arrive when Saturday evening mass was being celebrated in Arabic with both women and male priests leading the liturgy in a packed basement church that looked like it was cut out of the stone. 

Afterwards we had dinner at the 'St. Paul Cafe' that is beside Ananias' home. There we sampled a very tasty Syrian beer, a surprise for us in the Muslim-majority nation of Syria. (As someone in Beirut said to me: ‘Allah has many commandments, but we don’t follow them all;’ a wise saying for understanding daily life in Beirut, Damascus, & Jerusalem.)

On Saturday p.m., my friends discovered that their Anglican friend's congregation we were planning to attend on Sunday a.m. only has worship on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday is a regular business day in Damascus. So on Sunday a.m. we took a cab to the Syrian National Museum which has room after room of archaeological objects from multiple civilizations. There I saw the original objects of many ancient civilizations that are displayed in introductions to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. We had lunch in the garden of the museum, then returned to the souk to try to find some gifts.

The citadel of Damascus was closed for renovations but we had dinner in a cafe overlooking the citadel and the old souk. 

On Saturday and Sunday evening we checked out Syrian TV. Lots of soap operas in Arabic (produced in Egypt?) and a number of stations devoted to music videos produced in the Middle East by various musicians mixed with N. American music videos. The FMTV channel seemed quite daring in what they were broadcasting in conservative Syria. The formula for doing music videos seems to have transplanted itself easily in the Middle East and N. Africa. I wonder if Iran allows people to watch this Middle Eastern channel!

On Sunday we learned about the invasion of a Greek Catholic church in Baghdad. Two priests and lay members inside the church were killed by Iraqi insurgents that were protesting an incident of conflict in Egypt between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Christians in the Middle East follow these stories very closely & are deeply moved because there is a very long history of sudden uprisings, massacres, and violent incidents against Christians in multiple nations in this region. (One student at NEST knew both of the priests who were murdered.)

The ride back on Monday through the mountains of Syria and Lebanon was spectacular, but we felt we had barely scratched the surface of old & modern Damascus. The border crossings from Syria to Lebanon involved our Lebanese driver giving various tips and gratuities to government employees to get us through all the checkpoints. Syria has a hidden exit fee they charge even to persons with all the right visas, so we paid that and moved on. 

When we returned to Beirut things were warm, sunny, and much more humid than dry, cool Damascus. I look forward to visiting Aleppo soon, Syria's most populous city that has its largest Christian community. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Meeting Bishop George Saliba, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop, Mt. Lebanon Church, Sabtiyyeh

On Saturday October 23, our NEST class with Dean George Sabra on 'Contemporary Eastern Churches' traveled by bus to a neighborhood in Sabtiyyeh on Mount Lebanon just outside Beirut to meet with Bishop George Saliba of the Syriac Orthodox Church. This was meeting none of us will soon forget, especially the U.S. citizens among us!

Bishop Saliba arrived by car just as our bus parked outside one of the Syriac Orthodox churches on Mt. Lebanon. His warm smile, joyful spirit, wonderful sense of humor, and ever present cell phone were immediately endearing. He conducted us inside just as a Lebanese Scout unit of young teens, boys and girls, was assembling on the church grounds.

We were led into a cool room with AC surrounded by pictures of Syriac Orthodox monasteries in  Turkey, Iraq, & other Middle Eastern countries. The walls were lined with bookcases containing many volumes. A Syriac Orthodox Deacon attended the Bishop and other members of the Bishop's staff served us hot tea with sugar, pistachio cookies from Damascus, and Arabic coffee with more sugar. Each of us was given a copy of 'The Lord's Prayer in Syriac-Aramaic: The Spoken Language of Our Lord Jesus Christ,' a copy of the ancient & modern Syriac-Aramaic Alphabet, & 2 beautiful brochures on the recently constructed & sanctified 'Beth Suryoye - Mor Gabriel Church' in Kesrwan, Mount Lebanon.

The Syriac Orthodox Church was presented in my textbooks in college and seminary as 'monophysite,' i.e., the eastern Church that accepted the Nicene Creed (325 CE) & the decrees of the fourth century church councils at Constantinople & Ephesus, but that did not accept the Creed of Chalcedon of 451 CE. In early Christendom among Latin & Greek-speaking Churches, the Syriac Orthodox Church was referred to as the 'Jacobites' or 'monophysites,' those who teach that 'God became man in Christ, united in one nature' (related to the Alexandrian-inspired christology emphasizing the union of two natures in Christ). They teach that Jesus Christ is one Person of two natures (divine & human). They refer to Mary primarily as theotokos (God-bearer in Greek) but also as 'the mother of God.' 

By contrast Pope Leo and the Latin & Greek 'fathers' at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 declared Christ was one Person in two natures (divine & human), the two natures remaining distinct after the union. The Latin & Greek-speaking Church of the old Eastern Roman empire persecuted the Syriac Orthodox Christians as heretics for rejecting the Creed of Chalcedon. Differences in language, culture, & political loyalties turned these subtle metaphysical & theological distinctions into slogans that divided Christians along religious-political lines in an age where there was no separation between religion and ruling regimes. 

The persecution of the Syriac Orthodox Christians (who continued to worship in the Syriac-Aramaic language common to Mary, Jesus & the early Jewish-Christian movement of disciples that founded a center for the Church & mission in Antioch) was so severe that when the rising Islamic empire conquered the eastern region of Christianity in the seventh century, the Syriac Orthodox Christians welcomed the new regime. 

Over the centuries Syriac Orthodox Christians evangelized India where their church continues to have relatively large concentrations of members, and they were most numerous in the region of modern Turkey & Iraq. Due to persecutions of their churches by Muslims & Kurds that began in the late Ottoman empire and around WWI and in the 1930s, Syriac Orthodox churches moved to Lebanon, Syria, and outside the Middle East. 

Bishop Saliba emphasized to us that in more recent times in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Syriac Orthodox Church had lived in peace. He said that Saddam Hussein was like a 'father' to their Church & other Christian minorities in Iraq. That all changed with the U.S. invasion of 2003. Since the U.S. toppled the prior Iraqi government, and allowed a new regime to form dominated by Shia Muslims (along with Sunni Muslims in the government), the Syriac Orthodox Christians were brutally treated and have left Iraq by the thousands. Neither the new regime in Baghdad nor the U.S. forces have prevented the violent persecution of thousands of Syriac Orthodox Christians. The Bishop said that western powers followed a similar pattern in the 1990s in Kosovo in former Yugoslavia which was once a center for eastern Orthodox Christians, but is now dominated by Muslims and western Christians.

The Bishop also expressed his frustration with U.S. foreign policy regarding the State of Israel and the Palestinians (thousands of whom still live in 12 refugee camps scattered around Lebanon). He said bluntly that U.S. foreign policy is a "slave of Zionism" when it comes to dealing with Israeli political leaders over negotiations on a future Palestinian State. Neither in former President Bill Clinton nor in current President Barack Obama did he find the toughness necessary to bring the Israelis to a viable peace settlement with the Palestinians.

At the same time he said that the two Palestinian factions, Fatah & Hamas, need to reconcile if they are to negotiate effectively with the Israelis and the American mediators.

Although the Bishop's words were blunt & might have offended some of us who are American citizens who support a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his personality and hospitality connected with everyone in our class. He said he was speaking about our leadership, not the American people as a people. He also had blunt words to say about western European powers & their involvement with the Ottoman empire in its closing days and in former Yugoslavia.

He also connected with our class made up of Christians from different nations due to his identification with persecuted Syriac Orthodox Christians in Turkey (along with Armenian Christians), in Iraq today, & other Christian minorities who suffer from second or third class citizenship in other contexts in this region.

One of my observations on preparation for ministry is that an individual may have an excellent education but lack the personality to connect with others effectively to communicate the Christian message. Bishop Saliba connected with us through his joyful and generous personality in such a way that we could hear his blunt words about U.S. foreign policy, about the current regime in Baghdad, and learn from his identification with suffering Christians in the Middle East.