Bishop serving from exile

by rev. Ynte de Groot

Mor Eustatios Matta Roham Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese Jazirah and the Euphrates (northeastern Syria) has moved out of his country. For several months he serves his Archdiocese from Vienna. It was no longer safe for him in Syria. I visited him on 16 and 17 July.





The bishop is no stranger to my parish “De Fontein” in Groningen (Nether-lands). He visited us in 2005 and in May last year. I've known him since my study leave in 1999 and we have maintained a friendly contact since. We agreed in the monastery of the Franciscans in the heart of Vienna. Bishop Matta lives there in a small apartment with a tiny little bedroom, a shower and a hallway that serves as an office. He can have dinner with the brothers in the refectory. It is very hot in Vienna and we talk for two days, walking through the streets of the city.





"The warring parties in Syria do everything to get groups of the population on their side. Representatives of the Ba'ath party (the party of President Assad) urged me to tell my people to arm themselves. Ostensibly for their own safety, to be able to defend themselves against the rebels. The Ba'ath party would take care of weapons. Of course it was to involve Christians in the struggle and to use them as an extension of the regime. Thereto I refused to cooperate. I do not want my people to get involved in battle. But impartiality is not accepted in Syria. Not by the regime and not by the opposition. "



Previously the Christians in Aleppo were demanded in a statement from Islamic clerics to turn themselves against the regime and work with the "Free Syrian Army". The churches, through their bishops, refused to choose party. In a statement they condemned all violence and all attempts to provide weapons to Church buildings. In April, the Syrian and Greek Orthodox bishops of Aleppo were kidnapped. It is not clear by whom and whether they are still alive. By an Islamic battle group that wants to exert pressure so the Christians to fight with them? By one of the secret services of the regime? That is also possible, for shortly before his abduction one of the bishops was on the BBC radio critical of the regime.



Against this background Bishop Matta was cautious that he would be kidnapped as well “The decision to leave the country I took after an armed man penetrated my residency in Hassakeh and threatened me for five hours. He wanted to find out if I maintained ties with the insurgents. " Not everyone understands his departure. I tell him that, when Queen Wilhelmina after the German invasion of 1940 left the Netherlands, there was criticism. "King Leopold of Belgium continued during the occupation. That was afterwards not appreciated by everybody " he responds. "If I would be kidnapped there would be a high ransom to pay and my people are not rich. If I were to be killed would leave my diocese a widow." he adds.

"The last time, I could hardly go out. My diocese is very vast and sparsely populated. Travel without heavily armed escort would not be safe and we want no weapons. From Vienna I can at least do something. Lately communication via the phone is possible again. I call a lot with my priests and help them as much as possible. With advice and compassion, but also by raising money for the poor and for them. This is necessary, because they have no fixed income, but are paid for the services in which is married and baptized. Due to the uncertain times there are very little marriages and little children are born and baptized. So the priest are left without income. "


Divided opinions

The two days that we are together I meet different people of the Syrian Orthodox community in Vienna. They originate from Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Many live and work here for years. Their opinions on the conflict in Syria vary widely. Some see behind everything that happens one of the many secret services of the regime. "Even the terror groups have been infiltrated by the regime. The regime frames the conflict as a struggle between a secular, pluralist state against fanatical Muslims. In fact, it is a violent dictatorship, who wants to stay in power at any price”, says one. Another sees in the events an attempt of fanatical Islamists to drive all Christians from the Middle East "The insurgents are terrorists. They make no secret that they want to expel or murder Christians and other minorities (Alawites, Druze and Shiites). They are almost exclusively Sunitische Muslims, whop pursue an ethnic cleansing. "



Also about the future the expectations vary. One expects a speedy victory of the army, another is pessimistic about the fight "The regime cannot win, but will never give up. Assad will fight on until the country has been destroyed."

And the bishop? He sees only one possible outcome. "The country should be formed into autonomous areas, where all religions, sects and ethnic groups can enjoy their freedom and style of life. At best, there remains a secular area where Christians can live." For now he is more or less fixed in Austria. Through his membership of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, he can freely travel through Europe, but with his Syrian passport is traveling outside surrounded with procedures and formalities. His return to Syria is related to peace returning to Syria. For now he's planning to go to Southeastern Turkey in October to visit refugees from his diocese.