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Ecumenism: Voices of the Middle East
Interview with
H.H. Mor Ignatius Zakkâ I Iwâs Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
President of World Council of Churches and Honorary President of the MECC
His outlook on the ecumenical movement and its significance
 His Holiness Mar Ignatious Zakkâ I Iwâs

Q. How do you assess the present state of the ecumenical movement, internationally and in the Middle East? 

A. The ecumenical movement is a blessing which has manifested itself in the Holy Church through individuals inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Church's counselor who reminds it of all the teachings of the Lord Jesus. We are very optimistic that the ecumenical movement will succeed. It will continue to succeed wherever it exists, in all arenas, in all dimensions and at all levels. 

 In the Middle East we see our council the Middle East Council of Churches to be rare among councils in the world. It gathers together all the churches at one round table. In most councils of churches, for instance, we will not find the Catholic family a member. From the beginning of the '90s, this family has been a vital and effective member of the MECC.

 For this reason we have great confidence that this council, that has played such an important role in Christian rapprochement, will carry on in this significant role, keeping the wheel of ecumenical progress rolling forward. 

Our Syrian Orthodox church is also a member of the World Council of Churches. We should work to see that great ecumenical body flourish as well. And we try to play a role in the world through our firm faith in what our forefathers bequeathed to us: a liberal doctrine, a rich heritage, and a holy language the Syro-Aramaic language which the Lord Jesus spoke. 

 Here I would like to affirm that ecumenism is not new to our church. Ever since the fifth century when the church divided, our fathers have addressed themselves to this matter. They believed that the restoration of communion among the churches and their cooperation in matters ecclesiastical and pastoral were necessary for maintaining the true Christian life of the Holy Church. 

It is worth noting that our church has been an active member of the World Council of Churches since 1960. In 1975, when I was a bishop, I was elected a member of the WCC's central committee at the Nairobi General Assembly. In 1998 I was elected one of the WCC's presidents of this council by the Harare General Assembly.

 We believe in the benefit of the ecumenical movement. For that reason, from the time I took office as Patriarch, I have energized and encouraged the ecumenical work in our church which our predecessor of blessed memory, Yaqoub III, began. We have included the area of "ecumenics" in the theological curriculum of our seminary. And we have directed our clergy and laity to get involved ecumenically locally, regionally and internationally.

Q. In Your Holiness's view, what is the best way to achieve Christian unity?

A. The best way to achieve Christian unity is to exhibit the grace of Christian love. Without it we cannot call ourselves the disciples of the Christ who said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35) And the only way to exhibit the grace of love is to apply the Golden Rule which the Lord Jesus gave to us: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you." (Matthew 7:12) 

 Q. In Your Holiness's view, what are the obstacles on the road to unity?

 A. All that stands against love. In the past some of us thought that lack of unanimity on theological issues stood as the instrumental obstacle on the path of this unity. After leaders of the MECC, the WCC and other councils' churches had convened seminars, meetings and dialogues, it became clear in the theological meetings that the theological disagreements which divided the churches from eachother were disagreements on the way we chose to express the one belief verbally. They were not disagreements in substance. In the end, they do not pose an insurmountable obstacle to achieving rapprochement between churches, especially given the fact that all these churches adhere to one Nicene Creed. We thank God that, as representatives of churches, we have sat around a table and had dialogue in a Christian spirit. In that we have found that what unites and gathers us together is immeasurably greater than that which separates us. 

 Q. Is unity really necessary? 

 A. In this there is no doubt: Unity is a necessity to enliven and strengthen witness to Christ in this world. Some of our faithful fathers have taught that division in the Church is a grave sin; unity, therefore, is a heavenly grace 

Q. What are the steps which Your Holiness has taken on the path of unity? 

 A. In the context of our relations with the Orthodox and Catholic churches, we have historical positions. Among these is our having signed a common declaration with Pope John Paul II in 1984 which has great ecumenical significance. In 1991 we also signed a very important statement with His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatios IV Hazîm of Antioch. 

 In the most recent Orthodox meeting which was convened at the Monastery of St. Ephraim the Syrian in the Convent of Sadnâyâ which we attended along with His Beatitude Ignatios Hazîm, we affirmed that the stimulating work and intensive studies which the theologians of our churches have carried forward have gone a long way toward reconciling perspectives between the two Orthodox families. We have high hopes that eucharistic barriers between us will be lifted, and that the holy synods will agree to restoring communion between all Orthodox churches of the two families.

 We also direct your attention to the recent meeting between the patriarchs of the Oriental Orthodox churches which are members of the MECC convened in the Monastery of Anbâ Bishoy in Egypt. It has opened a new chapter in relations between us as an Oriental Orthodox church family and between us and the other Christian churches. The joint declaration which was released on March 11, 1998, said that we would have a common stand on questions of vital interest to our churches within the MECC, the World Council and all other ecumenical organizations. This means that future occasions of dialogue will be enriched. A similar meeting of the heads of the three Orthodox churches the Syrian, the Coptic and the Armenian was convened in the monastery of St. Ephraim the Syrian in the Convent of Sadnâyâ. After agreement had been reached on theological matters, the joint commission on dialogue energetically discussed pastoral and liturgical matters.

 Finally, we must point to the progress achieved by all the churches of the two Orthodox families, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Catholic and Evangelical churches and international Christian groups. This gives us great confidence in what the Church has achieved through all the magnificent occasions of ecumenical dialogue.

 Q. What is Your Holiness's hope for the future? 

 A. Before responding to this question, I want to point to the spirit of love and conciliation between the various religions and confessions in this country of Syria. Then I note that we look forward to greater cooperation between all the churches. We are fully prepared to do what we can in the cause of prospering ecumenical endeavor. Here we point to the theme of the 8th General Assembly of the WCC: "Turn to God, Rejoice in Hope." This slogan touches upon our presence, and bears with it a program for the future of our churches and their role in the ecumenical movement.

H.H Mor Ignatious Zakkâ I Iwâs patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East is Honorary President of the MECC. At the recent 8th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, he was also elected a president of that ecumenical body. This interview was conducted by Mrs. Mahât Farah al-Khoury

Source: MECC NEWS REPORT - Vol. 11 Winter / Spring 1999
Photo: Suryoyo Online Library

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Updated: 13.03.2000