In Syria, can Christians, Muslims rekindle the 'Dialogue of Life?'

On April 22, 2013, along with a fellow prelate, Syrian Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim was kidnapped near the Turkish border. Since then, there has been very little information about the fate of Archbishop Ibrahim and Aleppo's Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, but their case is being pursued at the highest diplomatic and Church levels. The archbishops' family has high hopes for their safe return. In these reflections--written years before the start of the Syrian civil war--the archbishop meditates on the delicate, fragile nature of the "Dialogue of Life" that is nonetheless capable of creating bonds between Christians and Muslims.

By Archbishop Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim

The plurality of religions and faiths does not foment an inter-religious conflict due to the fact that the common denominator of its teachings, heritages and ethics affirms the oneness of God and the multiplicity and integrity of its people.

Whenever Christians and Muslims approach the sources of divine teaching, they may feel that their common heritage is part and parcel of the universal belief of the relationship between man (the weak) and the Creator (the mighty). Christians say we have one God and Muslim say there is no God but God.

From this understanding of our common heritages derived the concept of the “Dialogue of Life”—to which we owe our peaceful coexistence and the flourishing of our communities. However, even given the rich ethno-religious diversity of our communal tapestry, it is not at all like the concept of multiculturalism that is emerging in Western society.  

The “Dialogue of life” is a rather simple, spontaneous, and natural way of life—a sort of coexistence sustained by the values of solidarity, humanity, impartiality and accepting the other unconditionally. Some may argue that our “Dialogue of Life” draws on the principles outlined in the Geneva Convention. Not so, our “Dialogue” has its own unwritten codes, whose values far predate this relatively new Western concept of dialogue and coexistence.

Archbishop Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim

The “Dialogue of Life” is an inbuilt intuition: its values have been well tried and tested throughout the centuries of our coexistence, both in situations of peace and war, with and without the presence of media and UN observers. There is no need for awareness classes, training courses or fundraising campaigns.

The “Dialogue of Life” starts with the first steps of a toddler in the neighbourhood, and carries on at nursery and schools, so that in adulthood people are well equipped with the basic skill to coexist and keep this dialogue alive and functional. Understandably, such values are not a commodity and certainly, may not have a sell-by date. However, extremely sensitive to the fluctuations of security and law and order in our milieu. Therefore, they cannot be taken for granted, but need constant nurturing, maintenance and enhancements.

The “Dialogue of Life” reflects that we are all children of God, created in His image. We are all in the same boat, facing the same reduced circumstances. We often find ourselves peddling in shark-infested, uncharted territories. Understandably, it is not necessary that all are able to reciprocate But for us the principle of the survival of the fittest is not an option, and it cannot be spelled out who will come out on top. The “Dialogue of Life” hinges on accepting others and shuns religious or sectarian distinctions.

At this juncture of our history, when war has become a part of daily life, there never has been a greater need for this “Dialogue of Life.” It remains to be seen how waterproof our treasured “Dialogue of Life” and what the limits of effectiveness might be in such reduced and perilous circumstance—especially with so many outside factions coming into our country with the object of tempering with our way of life, upsetting our peaceful coexistence.

Let us hope and pray that the profound effects of civil war will not be so great as to prevent the recovery and survival of our “Dialogue of Life” and our civilized coexistence.

This is an excerpt from “Accepting the Other” (2006) by Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of Aleppo, Syria. It was translated from Arabic for Aid to the Church in Need.

ACN photo: Archbishop Ibrahim

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