Damascus (AsiaNews) – "Peace and Love" are the words "with which I began" my patriarchate in 2000, and which I "reiterate" again today "with greater vigour. We have time but for love and seek peace,” Gregory III Laham told AsiaNews following his resignation as Melkite Patriarch.
“This is my heritage and I want to repeat this once more today, 8 May, in which the Eastern Church remembers Saint John the Evangelist who firmly reiterated that ‘God is love’.”
After 17 years, the prelate left the helm of one of the largest and wealthiest communities of the Eastern Church. This weekend, His Beatitude Gregory III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church presented his resignation to Pope Francis who accepted it of.
In a letter, the pontiff called the now patriarch-emeritus a "zealous servant of the People of God" and recognised his commitment to peace in war-torn Syria.
"I hope," said the prelate, "that I may now have more time to be at the service of others. As John Paul II said: be for others, whether they are Christians, Muslims or Jews. . . I am for you!"
Some sources within the community say that the former patriarch is a bit upset about the ways and timing for the end of his mandate. However, Gregory himself repeatedly stressed the communion with the pontiff and the desire for unity within the Church.
Under Church rules, the administration has now been entrusted to Mgr Jean-Clément Jeanbart, archbishop of Aleppo (Syria) and the senior bishop in terms of ordination of the Permanent Synod. The election of the new patriarch should take place at the next Special Synod, scheduled for June.
Recently, the patriarch and a group of “rebel” bishops found themselves entangled in a major dispute. Thanks also to the mediation of the apostolic nuncio in Syria Card Mario Zenari and his colleague in Lebanon, Mgr Gabriele Caccia, communion and reconciliation prevailed in the end between the parties.
"One of the most important assets is peace,” Mgr Laham said. “For this reason, I will now seek to be an apostle of peace and reconciliation in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen.”
“Above all I would like to do so in Syria and Palestine, the two key places upon which world peace depends, as Pope Francis himself said." What is more, now "I shall have more time to attend conferences, meetings, talks as well as visit parishes around the world."
Gregory III Laham was born on 15 December 1933 in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. He was elected patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites in November 2000 by the synod of his Church, receiving the "ecclesiastical communion" from Saint John Paul II.
During his 17 years as head of the Melkite community, the prelate has experienced in person the tragedies of his native land. On several occasions, he has spoken out against the acts of violence and crimes that have befallen his country, and has repeatedly called for peace and prayer.
"I love my people," he said, "and I feel like the father of all, bishops and my people. In recent years I have been able to start and see many projects in Jerusalem, across the Holy Land, in Egypt. I visited the countries of emigration, North and South America, and Europe. In addition, there is also the ecumenical journey with the patriarchs of different communities."
Among the many projects undertaken or still on the drawing board, he mentioned the construction of a church dedicated to Saint Paul in Damascus, whose first phase, he plans to bless on 13 June. Another is the construction of "a school and a hospital south of Damascus, as well as the setting up another facility in the poor neighbourhoods of the Syrian capital."
"Although I am no longer the patriarch, I shall continue to monitor these projects to ensure that they are carried out," he explained.
What saddened his patriarchate is the war in Syria, a bloody conflict that began in 2011 that has torn apart the country, with hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees.
"Today I met with Lebanon President Michel Aoun," he said. “We spoke about the future of Syria. Russia and the United States have to reach an agreement because no one can win the war on the ground. Success can only be achieved with an international consensus among the great powers, including the European Union, with a defeat of Daesh and with work on a better future for the nation and its people."
During his term of office, Gregory III Laham welcomed the Polish pontiff in Syria on 6 May 2001. John Paul II was the first pope in history to enter a Muslim place of worship – the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which, according to tradition, holds the burial place of Saint John the Baptist.
Following John Paul II’s death, Gregory III blessed the coffin at the pope’s funeral in Rome on 8 April 2005.
The Melkites (or Greek Catholics) are Christians who follow the Byzantine rite. They have been in communion with Rome since 1724, with their own clergy and spiritual leader.
The Church’s membership goes beyond the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine) to include Africa (mainly Egypt), North America, Brazil and France. (DS)