Wolfishness towards the parish: the practical project of the leaders of the Antiochian Orthodox Church
Tueday October 18, 2022 (Arabic Version )
The official church, i.e., the church as institutions, leaders, and people in positions of responsibility, seems to live in a state of denial of the reality of women and men in the parishes, and continues business as usual comfortable with the privileges, money, and donations it receives on the back of the believers’ tragedies (e.g., wars). The official church is also comfortable with the absolute authority it has over the management of its affairs without accountability or oversight in our countries (e.g., Lebanon, Syria, Iraq). Finally, it is comfortable with the benefits it gains from the services provided by the state, derived from the harmony of their shared interests: money and power. The “shepherd” is comfortable, while the flock is under attack by a thousand wolf and wolf: the wolf of civil authority that robs the people and provides leaders with known and unknown services, the wolf of economic authority that most leaders do not feel its long sharp tusks, and the wolf of some leaders themselves, which is our topic today.
We have reached a time where we fear that belonging to the church leadership is becoming a refuge to anyone who wants protection from legal prosecution in a society that provide quasi-total immunity to religious figures. When faced with unlawful acts done by one off its official figures, the official position of the church over the years was to shield the “ruling” priestly group against any prosecution, which is practically transforming the leaders into an outlaw group. For that end the gospel is misused: the words of the Gospel are vaguely chewed to suggest that no leader should be held accountable for any act, because the “logic” of the Church (we are told) is not the logic of the world, and “mercy” is the Church priority. In this way, leadership uses the right written in the Gospel to justify the wrong. As we know, mercy in the Gospel means that the opportunity is always and forever open for a human being to change their ways, to turn away from error in order to live a life of love, in harmony with God-Love. Mercy in the Church never meant the absence of questioning, accountability, or discounting confrontation of falsehood and lies with truth “that sets us free”; it was never meant to squash the people’s rights, or to marginalize the victim and the oppressed. In fact, official leaders have long preached, as they should, that the interpretation of the Bible’s verses should not be carried out in a fragmentary manner, but rather in the light of the entire book. However, every time we face wrongdoings committed by one of the leaders, they do just the opposite: they stress “mercy” and forget the exploited and oppressed who Jesus called “my least brethren”, those whose defense and service was considered by Jesus as a criterion for entering His kingdom. Where does the official church positions itself in face of Jesus’s “least brethren”? Where is the work of ecclesiastical leadership that repeats hollow, general, and misleading words about “mercy” while it does not care about the flock?
A few weeks ago, a website [Orthodoxy in Dialogue] leaked a letter sent by Ms. Helen Ditko to the Antiochian Orthodox Diocese's email, addressed to [now “retired”!] Archbishop Joseph Zehlaoui. In the letter, Ms. Dikto explains that she had been in an intimate relationship with Zehlaoui for 17 years (2000-2017), which practically ended her marriage and lead to her divorce in 2004. She explains how secrecy caused her great psychological harm, and clarifies that she is sending the letter for to future generations.
IN her letter, Ms. Ditko recounted how the bishop's groomed her; how he informed her during a spiritual retreat that he "loves her in a special way", and how their relationship started a few months later and continued for years. She recounted that her husband's eventually discovered their relationship and filed a church complaint that remained without consequences due to the authority of Bishop Zehlaoui. Then she points out with wisdom that leaders do not have, that the Church is not a place for secrets, and that thanks to her participation in a program called VIRTUS that combats sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that she came to understand what she has gone through, to understand that Archbishop Zehlaoui is a "very cunning and predatory" person who took advantage of the state of the postpartum depression she was experiencing. In her letter, Ms Ditko notes that she believed that Archbishop Zehlaoui had many relationships with other women, and that she was shocked that he tried to call her again in the spring of 2022, leaving an audio message, and she finally asks him not to contact her again.
People's personal relationships do not concern us, but there is more here than the bishop's personal life, the issue is that the Ms. Ditko worked for him as a secretary. So, it becomes necessary to investigate if Bishop Zehlaoui used his authority as an employer, and his spiritual authority as a bishop, to exploit his employee, and about the circumstances that governed that relationship, especially that Ms. Ditko mentions in her letter that she was going through depressing which put her in an vulnerable situation, and Ms. Ditko accuses the bishop of being a “predator” and the term is used to describe people who make continuous attempts to abuse their powers, or position, to sexually exploit others. Ms. Ditko also mentions her belief in the existence of other women. Did the bishop use his position for harassment? Did he use his spiritual position to exploit Mrs. Ditko and other women? Is there any “predatory” behavior? We do not know today, and we suspect that none of the leaders asked themself the question. How can such situations be avoided in the future? How can people be protected? As usual, none of the leaders, care.
The Patriarch published a message in which he said that he will follow up the matter and report on the appropriate steps with “transparency”. The Church administrators in North America announced that they had hired a law firm to conduct an “independent” investigation. “Transparency” appeared yesterday in the leaked “independent” confidential investigators’ report. In the report, the law firm concludes with shameless disdain, that after meeting only a few people and interviewing Ms. Ditko, it found that the issue is no more than accusations without evidence, of the type “he said” and “she said”; which suggests that the investigators concluded that the matter was baseless, even though they acknowledge that they had not completed the investigation! The report indicates that there has been another report, dated back to 2005, and that does not appear to have reached any conclusions. Finally, the investigators advise that the report be kept confidential because it could be used by Ms. Ditko, and possibly other employees, to file a claim of workplace harassment, and they warn that the California legislature is considering a law that may allow lawsuits to be filed by past employees for workplace harassment.
What about the law firm's investigation with the bishop? It is absent. The report states that the bishop was not interviewed because the law firm has been asked to stop the investigation due to the bishop’s resignation! Case closed! The “outstanding” law firm did not complete the investigation but concluded that the issue is just gossip.
Most likely the people who asked the firm to investigate asked it to stop the investigation. Everything suggests that the people who hired the law firm wanted it to reach what it had reached: burying the issue with all “transparency”, in an attempt to increase “mercy” towards the leaders and wolfishness towards the parish.
Christo El Morr
Tuesday October 4th, 2022 (Arabic version)
Whenever one reads Kirill, the Patriarch of Russia, declaring that whoever defends his country and dies in the war “his sins are erased,” years after an official spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church declared that Russia’s war in Syria is a “holy war”, one wonders what this rhetoric reach in the event of a third world war.
Historically, since Emperor Constantine entered Christianity, the Church has not called on Christians to leave the military or public life. The general basis remained that “all human beings are the children of God” because of the “paternity” of God the Creator, and that every killing is evil, and it is also a killing that occurs between family members. The position is that although the aggravation of evil may require a war, and consequently murder, murder in itself remains evil and does not become good merely by having to do it; that is, killing is sometimes a necessary evil. For this reason, the Byzantine Orthodox Church subjected those returning from war to a path of repentance because they had to kill in war.
For this reason, Orthodoxy did not know in its theology such expressions as “holy war”. There is nothing in the Bible, nor in the history of the Orthodox Church, that can be relied upon to justify a holy war, no matter how necessary and defensive that war, so much more if it was not? The only holy one is God whom Christianity sees as love, and therefore there is no holiness outside love represented by Jesus Christ, who died freely defending his principles and a witness to the truth, and for that he was killed and did not kill in a situation similar to what was mentioned in the Qur’an “If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you” (Al-Ma’idah). Therefore, the official position of the Orthodox Church remains that only those killed for the sake of faith are called martyrs. As for forgiveness, it is a process that takes place on the basis of a path of return from “sin” (the word literally means missing the aim), a return to the path and aim of love.
But Patriarch Kirill, in his attempt to support his people and his country's political and military position, went as far as distributing a kind of indulgences. In an unfortunate past, some Popes used to give a certification for the forgiveness of sins in exchange for a donation of money, and today Patriarch Kirill asks for more, asking for human life as a sacrifice on the altar of civil authority in exchange for a fake indulgence. He goes beyond some of the popes of the past, using human life as a price for a key to heaven that he devised to serve the civil authority, and thus he turns against his role, as his role is to bear witness to the word of the Gospel, even if it is in conflict with the civil authority, in order to maintain the independence of the faith realm from the political realm so that the latter does not to become a servant in the court of the state and its interests.
On the other hand, we have the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, serving what agrees with the court of the United States of America. In 2019, he hastily agreed unilaterally, and in violation of ecclesiastical laws, to create an ecclesiastical entity in Ukraine separated from the Moscow Church, that is, to split the Russian Church into two churches each in a country. The United States was pushing for secession and publicly supporting it through the person of the US Secretary of State at the time, Pompeo, who was the first US Secretary of State to visit during his term the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In flagrant violation of Orthodox theology, the Ecumenical Patriarch has appointed himself as the head of the entire Orthodox world, violating ecclesiastical laws that do not accept the declaration of the independence of a new church (autocephaly) without the approval of all churches. This is while the newly installed Ukrainian Patriarch of the Church of Ukraine is deeply involved in the game of Ukrainian nationalism and hatred.
The two Ecumenical and Russian Churches are quarreling over the leadership of the Orthodox world, and the two Churches are immersed in the worship of their Greek and Russian nationalisms, declaring that their liturgical languages are “holy.” The two patriarchs are working to employ God in the service of death and war. The two patriarchs are involved in employing the Church to serve the courts of political and military authority. American empire on the one hand and Russian nationalism on the other. Both use countries like ours as pawns for their interests, and they are reconciled with the apartheid regime in occupied Palestine, support it, and are comfortable with it. And while our countries are weakening, the patriarchs of the East continue in a gloomy repetition of dull discourses devoid of life, and they follow a shameful silence about the oppression and exploitation of our political authorities, normalizing with injustice and normalized by it, in return for enjoying ecclesiastical authority and preoccupation with “major” tasks such as placing the obedient bishop in the appropriate place for religious authorities, protecting politicians and corrupt people of power, including metropolitans, priests, and monks, continuing a barbaric religious-political dance over the remains of nations and people. All this takes place in a church whose only master died in the nakedness of the poor and the marginalized outside the walls of power, lived in the service of the poor, and taught that authority is service not domination, and that those who are called children of God are the peacemakers.