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May 11, 2015

The Fathers of the Church and Islam (5 of 5)

St. Maximus the Greek

The second example is of Saint Maximus of Vatopaidi (1470-1556), also known as Saint Maximus the Greek. Saint Maximus, a monk of Vatopaidi Monastery, was sent from Mount Athos to Russia, following the request of the Russian ruler Vasili Ivanovich, in order to translate and interpret the Psalms. Eventually he translated lives of the saints, canons and patristic works from the Greek to the Russian language, because he was a keen scholar, and he also made corrections to liturgical books. Among other things he also dealt with Islam, because it was needed in Russia and he also wanted to shake off the accusation that he had suspicious relations with the Ambassador of Turkey in Moscow.

Saint Maximus the Greek's oppositional views on Islam were recorded in three anti-heretical discourses, in which he included the views of the Fathers and writers who lived in the Christian Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantium.

The first discourse is titled "A Discourse of Defamation Against the Sorceries Invented by the Vile Dog Muhammad." The second discourse is titled "Second Discourse on this Issue to the Pious Against the God-fighting Dog Muhammad, With Some Reference to the End of this World." The third discourse bears the title "A Christian Response Against the Slanders of the Hagarenes of our Orthodox Christian Faith."

I will present the beginning of the first discourse which sets the tone for his entire dealing with this issue: "According to the measure of our living faith and as much as we are assisted by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we have already defamed the treachery of the Jews, the impiety of the Greeks, and the heresy of the Latins; but if we leave out the defamation of the diversities of the God-hated impieties of the Hagarenes and the demonic sorceries, then no one will praise us, but rather everyone will condemn us for our extreme indifference and lack of divine zeal for the Orthodox faith. Therefore, having invoked the infinite grace of the divine and worshipful Comforter (the Holy Spirit), let us begin with the help of God to speak in defense of the immaculate, God-loving and only salvific faith."

Saint Maximus of Vatopaidi makes a poignant comparison between Christ and Muhammad. He insists on the freedom and complete absence of any compulsion granted by Christ to people, in contrast to the violence and devastation promised by Muhammad to those who accept his preaching. Speaking of God, as He was preached by Christ, he characterizes Him as philanthropic, generous, agreeable and just, Who does not want the death of sinners, but their return to life, not forcing anyone, and not ordering anyone to kill whomever. Conversely, Muhammad is the forerunner of the Antichrist and the dwelling-place of the devil. He writes: "From his rough response, as well as his many other actions, it is shown that this villain [Muhammad] was not sent by God - because the all-good God does not force anyone - but from the God-fighting devil who hates mankind, the eternal bane of all those who follow him. From the beginning the devil was a murderer of man (Jn. 8:44), and like a torturer he rejoices when human blood is spilled; because he is our irreconcilable enemy and by all means he, the obscene one, reinforces and attracts everyone together with him to the gehenna of fire."

Of course, as has been observed, during the time of the Turkish occupation, there was not a serious dialogue between Christianity and Islam. Some texts were written in a few copies and others in dialogue form, but none of these documents were published, and in reality there was "no theological dialogue on the Holy Trinity or the prophethood of Muhammad." Even the sermons of the preachers were careful and not directed against the religion of the oppressor, but they were mainly interested in the catechism of the Orthodox faith, to prevent Islamization. The foremost Islamic-Christian dialogue during the period of the Turkish occupation took place between the confessors and martyrs who confessed their faith and defamed Islam and Muhammad, before their judges after being questioned. Thus, "the texts of martyrologies are the only texts from Turkish rule in which we encounter a theological Islamic-Christian dialogue."

Speaking of the dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Islam during the period of the Turkish occupation, we cannot forget that during this period the Orthodox Church was in a dire position, the Islamic Nation was in a position of authority, and so the dialogue was uneven. There are some modern left-wing writers who condemn the attitude of the Church during the Turkish occupation, supposedly that it did not resist the brutality of the Islamic State. Unfortunately, they express such views because they speak and write under secure circumstances, without taking seriously into account the circumstances of that time.

What the Church suffered during this period is shown by contemporary events. Today jihadists create panic throughout the world with their terrorist actions, terrorizing nations that have a strong police force, army, and generally everything that is necessary for the establishment and functioning of the state. Despite this there are fears. So the question is how could the Church have resisted the powerful Islamic State with the meager means at its disposal.

However, the Orthodox Church vigorously resisted during the Turkish occupation in order to rescue the enslaved Romans, primarily spilling its blood. In every corner of the earth there are Neomartyrs who sacrificed themselves, were slaughtered, hung and beheaded, because Muslims wanted them to change their faith. When one reads the New Martyrology of Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, they will understand this reality. They will also understand how the Church lived and survived, as well as the preaching and martyrdom of Saint Kosmas the Aitolos.

Nonetheless, the Fathers of the Church and the ecclesiastical writers made a critique of Islam, according to the circumstances and the political and social events of the time. They never reconciled with them, because they understood the anthropocentrism of their religion, their mythic beliefs, but also their hatred of people of other religions.

Patriarch John of Antioch

3. The Current Reality in the Middle East

In our days Islam has spread throughout the world, and all nations have poblems with their positions as they are recorded in the Koran, and as they are applied by the radical Islamists.

Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that within Islam there are people who are distinguished by humanistic ideals, love for others and peace, just as there are Christians who despite the teachings of Christ are possessed with bloodthirsty passions. I have met Muslims who respect people and they interpret jihad as a war against the evil that is within them, even against their own rulers who abuse their power. Also, in Islam from the 13th century onward there developed a mystical movement, called Sufism, that was influenced by Greek philosophy and the Orthodox hesychastic tradition. In this regard are represented the mystical writings of Rumi and the order of dervishes.

That there are many trends also within Islam can be seen with what is happening in the Middle East. There are Muslims who live with the Orthodox Romans in peace, and there are fanatic Muslims who seek to eliminate the entire Christian element of the Middle East, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

I have come to know this region by my repeated visits, although no one can know exactly what is happening in this region, because various geopolitical games are being played. Of course, the theoretical teachings of every religion plays a role, but what also plays a role are the interests of the large nations who aspire to prevail in these areas. Despite the religious differences, geopolitical interests incite religions to wars and military conflicts.

Recently Patriarch John of Antioch came to Greece, who is a personal friend of mine, because when I taught at Balamand Theological School in North Lebanon, he was Professor and Dean of the Theological School, and there developed strong ties between our fraternal friendship. He expressed his views on this issue, namely that for centuries Christians and Muslims lived in peace in the Middle East, and that there would be no Middle East without the Christian population.

In an interview he presented two interesting thoughts that express the problems that exist in those areas.

His first thought was that jihadists are a foreign spirit in the Middle East. The journalist Maria Antoniadou told the Patriarch: "When two years ago executives from the Patriarchate of Antioch declared that jihadists have no relation to the tradition of Islam in the Middle East, many were troubled when they heard this position." The Patriarch responded: "It is a foreign spirit. There was no such spirit in either Syria or Lebanon. The phenomenon unfortunately came from outside and certain major powers have liability. This extremist phenomenon, which has reached the point of killing each other in the name of God, never before existed. Who accepts it? No one. Not even Muslims accept it."

The second thought was that for many years Christians and Muslims lived together. The journalist asked him: "Do the Muslims also have problems?", meaning by this if the jihadists caused other Muslims problems. The Patriarch responded: "Everyone does. Syria has them, Lebanon has them. All residents, all locals: Christians and Muslims. And we as a Patriarchate, you should know, always say that we originated there, we were born there. Our fathers and grandfathers were from there. We were there before Islam, with Islam and after Islam and we have the best relationship with local Muslims. And we always say we have a common history and our future is common for us all, and whatever happens with one person will happen with us all. This is why we emphasize that we all belong to the same country. Each Christian and each Muslim has rights. And you know, in Syria, Christian feasts such as Pascha and Christmas, are official holidays. These people (the jihadists) are fanatics, a foreign body. We at the Patriarchate tell the truth. It is expedient. When something happens to an Israeli soldier, there is a world-wide uprising, but when there are other victims, then there is silence."

I would like to complete my speech with the request that we pray for the Christians in the Middle East, because for various reasons there is a "Christian cleansing", if I could use such terms, in imitation of the term "ethnic cleansing". In the same interview the Patriarch of Antioch was asked by the journalist: "What do you wish for, how do you see the future of Christians here on out?" He responded: "We always have hope. We are upright and strong despite the trials. We do not want repeated what happened in Iraq, where Christians are slowly disappearing, having gone from half a million Christians to what is today 300,000 Christians who live there."

Let us glorify God for the freedom we have, though external, and let us pray for those who are struggling to survive and are often called to confess and suffer martyrdom.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Οἱ Πατέρες τῆς Ἐκκλησίας καί τό Ἰσλάμ", February - March 2015. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.