World Council of Churches

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Damascus report

01 May 1998

Orthodox Pre-Assembly meeting, Ma'arat Saydnaya, Syria, May 1998

The "Damascus Meeting" brought together delegates from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches to take stock together before the Harare assembly. After offering theological reflections on the assembly theme "Turn to God -- Rejoice in Hope", as well as the concept of "Jubilee," the report sets out the specific concerns being experienced by Orthodox churches during the time period immediately leading up to Harare. The Damascus report is also useful as an immediate follow-up to the Thessaloniki Statement: it bears a somewhat different tone, yet it gives explicit and implicit evidence that while the Oriental churches were not present at Thessaloniki, they share the same concerns expressed there.


Christ is Risen!

We give thanks to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the opportunity to come together in the Orthodox Pre-Assembly Meeting to prepare for the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

At the invitation of the World Council of Churches, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches sent representatives to this meeting, which also included a number of consultants and Orthodox staff members.

We met at the St Ephrem Theological Seminary in Saydnaya near Damascus, Syria, at the gracious invitation of His Holiness Ignatius Zakka I Iwas of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East. During our stay, we experienced the personal care and hospitality of His Holiness and the members of the Seminary staff who served under the guidance of Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of Aleppo.

By convening our meeting in the St Ephrem Theological Seminary, we had the valuable opportunity to experience the brotherhood and common ministry which is shared between His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

We attest to their strong desire to restore full communion between the two families of Orthodox Churches and their desire to provide a united witness in this region of the world. We recognize their strong commitment to Christian unity and their willingness to cooperate with their Muslim neighbours for the well-being of the society.

We were very honoured that our meeting was opened with presentations by Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim. In his welcoming address, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas recalled the involvement of his Patriarchate in the ecumenical movement and especially in the World Council of Churches and also took note of his own participation in ecumenical theological dialogues, including his participation as an observer at the Second Vatican Council. He affirmed that ecumenical work is not new to his Church and stated that bringing the churches together and promoting cooperation among them in ecclesial and pastoral matters are vital for the continuation of the Christian witness and life".

In his own address, Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim also affirmed the importance of the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches. In speaking about the Pre-Assembly meeting, the Patriarch said that he hoped that "we may arrive at a formula in which we can be with the World Council of Churches -- I say with the World Council -- very seriously and not just present a kind of re-reading of the past".

Our Pre-Assembly meeting took place at a time when many Orthodox are re-evaluating the ecumenical movement in general and the World Council of Churches in particular. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convened a meeting of representatives of the fifteen Eastern Orthodox Churches in Thessaloniki, Greece. This meeting was held in response to the request from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church of Serbia, and to the decision of the Church of Georgia to withdraw from the WCC. (The Church of Bulgaria has in the meantime also announced its intention to withdraw.) While affirming the involvement of the Eastern Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical movement, the Thessaloniki meeting made a number of recommendations to the churches regarding the Eighth Assembly of the WCC.

Through our discussions here in Damascus we were made aware of the fact that the relationship of the Orthodox to the World Council of Churches has become a matter of serious study. At the meeting of the Central Committee in September 1997, His Holiness Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Cilicia, Moderator of the Central Committee, devoted a substantial portion of his report to the issue of Orthodox involvement in the Council. This led to a commitment by the Central Committee and by the subsequent Executive Committee in February 1998 further to discuss Orthodox participation and concerns.

During the course of our meeting, we were also informed that Catholicos Aram I had written on 8 May 1998 to the heads of all the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the light of the recent meeting in Thessaloniki, Catholicos Aram I made a number of proposals to intensify as quickly as possible the discussion within the Council of Orthodox participation. Among the proposals, he suggested the immediate establishment of the Mixed Theological Commission proposed by the Thessaloniki meeting, to consist of Orthodox representatives and other representatives from member churches of the WCC. He proposes that this Commission meet in Geneva, Switzerland, on 22-24 June 1998.

Our discussions and deliberations took place in a spirit of Christian love, fellowship and mutual understanding, guided by prayer. In our daily prayers we experienced the rich liturgical traditions of our churches. We had the opportunity to participate in the Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Cross and in the chapel of St Ephrem Seminary. We were also blessed with the special opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Women's Monastery of the Mother of God of Saydnaya. There we were also deeply moved by their ministry and care for young girls.

We gathered in a region rich in Christian history and witness. It is the region where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). We always had before us the witness of St Peter and St Paul, of St Ignatius of Antioch, of St Thekla, of St Ephrem of Syria, of St John of Damascus, and many others. Together with them and the Most Holy Theotokos, we are united with the Risen Christ who dwells in our midst and calls us to share in the ministry of reconciliation.

Part I
Turn to God -- Rejoice in Hope
An Orthodox Approach to the Assembly Theme


Turning to God is turning to the source of our being and life -- the Triune mystery of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In joyful praise and thanksgiving, together with the whole creation, we affirm that we are created, sustained and redeemed by the infinite love of the Triune God. This is the ground of our hope for the future of our world and the well-being of all creation.

God's image and freedom

The Holy Scripture bears witness that created in God's own image, we are endowed with the divine gift of freedom. The Orthodox Tradition teaches us that this freedom is at the heart of humanity and is constitutive of the dignity of human persons everywhere and in every age.

It is, however, by the misuse of the same freedom that humanity turned to sin and alienated itself from the love of God. So turning to God means our return to the source of life in repentance and renewal of heart (Ps. 51:10). It is both an individual and corporate act, a process in which human persons and communities are called by God to enter freely and wholeheartedly throughout their life in the world.

Disease and healing

The Orthodox tradition places a particular emphasis on the healing dimension of God's call to us to return to him. Our sins are like a disease that eventually leads us to death and corruption. So Jesus Christ, the Incarnate One, has come as the compassionate physician to heal us and restore the integrity of our distorted humanity. Unlike a judge who condemns the guilty to isolation and death, our heavenly physician washes our wounds, anoints us with the balm of the Spirit and leads us back to communion and life with the Triune God. It is this divine therapeutic model of salvation that the Orthodox Church evokes in all her teaching on repentance, conversion and return to God.

Sin is the turning away from God, the breaking of the ontologically vital communion with our Creator. It is indifference to God's goodness. It is missing the mark. The Church distinguishes sin from the sinner with great discernment. In identifying what constitutes sin, the Orthodox Church relies on the teachings of Christ and his apostles as revealed to us in the Holy Scripture and as interpreted by the Tradition. Sin of any kind, as the expression of evil and death, is not justified by the Church under any circumstance. But the sinner, as the sick person whom God never ceases to love, is taken care of with great compassion under the pastoral care and discipline of the Church, with a view to his healing and salvation.

Repentance and communion

The patristic tradition never ceases to remind us of the scriptural witness of God's infinite compassion for us human beings. God's primordial call "Adam, where are you" is full of that tender love. Using the beautiful image of a mother hen that yearns to gather her chicks under her wings, Jesus reminds us of God's compassionate call to us to return to the Father. Orthodox spirituality is profoundly marked by the theme of metanoia, a complete turning around to God in faith, hope and love. Repentance in this sense is not a matter of some occasional feelings. The whole Christian life is conceived as a perpetual movement to God, the source of light and life.

Repentance is for restoring the broken communion between God and humanity, between human beings themselves and between humanity and the rest of God's creation. Every level is connected to the other. So any lack of communion at any level affects the whole.

The Orthodox Church never limits sin simply within the moral realm of an individual's conduct and inner spiritual life. While the Church pays particular attention to the inter-personal relationship of individuals ("loving one's brother who is seen", I Jn 4:20), she is equally concerned about the social and economic sins, sins generated by unjust human political structures, sins committed against the poor, the powerless, the little ones of this world and against the harmony of nature. So repentance is required personally and communally, politically and ecologically.

The mother Church constantly calls her children to repent and correct their ways personally and in the structures they erect in the material and spiritual realms of life. As the Apostle Paul teaches, the Church, the Bride of Christ, being constituted by God from among the peoples of this world, is to be presented as holy and glorious, without spot or wrinkle, before her Lord (Eph. 5:27). This is also the pilgrimage of the Church in history. The Church as the Body of Christ suffers in the world because of our sins, as Christ himself suffered on account of the sins of humanity.

As the living Body of Christ, the Church unites in her life the historical and eschatological realities, and as such is not to be identified with any merely human institution. Her calling is to follow Christ in his saving and self-emptying life for the sake of the world. As members of his Body we, as persons and communities, are to manifest this self-emptying and saving mission with utmost love, humility, repentance, and self-correction, but above all with the firm trust in the Holy Spirit of God who perfects everything that is and that is to come.

Growing into the stature of Christ

The liturgical year of the Church follows the saving events in the incarnate life of Christ. In order to lead us to sanctification and divinization, the Church has laid down a plan for the whole year on the basis of these events. Thus repentance and rejoicing, renewal and restoration are linked to the sacramental life and the eucharistic communion of the Church. Thus 50 days that precede the Feast of the Resurrection is a period of intense repentance. The Scripture readings and the prayers constantly exhort the faithful to seek justice, forgiveness and reconciliation in their life in the world so that they may genuinely rejoice in the paschal mystery of Christ. As the icon of the Kingdom of God, the Church, takes this period as a figure of her earthly existence and mission, not simply as a socio-political re-ordering of society to be accomplished on an ethical level, but as the gradual fulfilment of the eschatological Kingdom. The Church has to take along with her the whole creation to the resurrection experience of the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21). In this period of repentance and renewal, the image of God in us human beings is in the process of growing to the stature of Christ, the perfect image of the invisible God (Eph. 4:13; Col. 1:15).

The Christian "Jubilee"

It is in this context of growth, movement, renewal and transformation of our created world that the Orthodox look at the jubilee tradition of the Old Testament (Lev 25:10). The Jubilee year, as described in the book of Leviticus, was an inspiring socio-economic utopia which was probably never literally realized in the history of the Jewish people. However, we know that in announcing the Kingdom of God, Christ evoked certain elements of the Jubilee tradition like "the acceptable year of the Lord" (Lk. 4:19) and forgiveness of debts (Mt. 6:12, Lk 7:42). Announcing the gospel to the poor, liberating the captives and healing the sick thus became the concrete signs of ushering in the Kingdom of God. The Christian Church developed a spirituality over the centuries in order to respond spiritually and materially to these signs of the Kingdom and to follow up their ethical and eschatological implications.

The patristic tradition, however, seldom appealed to the Old Testament jubilee tradition in their understanding of the Church's social mission. It appealed directly to the philanthropy of God as manifested in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Saviour for the healing, reconciling and saving of the world.

Repentance and renewal in freedom, love and hope became the hallmark of true Christian spirituality. No human person or institution is excluded from this process. Since all human institutional structures are liable to be corrupted by sin, the renewal of our lives is necessary for the continuing renewal of institutional structures, in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.

Sunday and Pentecost

Easter Sunday and Pentecost, the day of the resurrection of Christ and the day of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostolic community, represent the foundational event of the Church. They corresponded only externally to the Jewish feasts of Sabbath and Jubilee. The weekly observance of Sabbath was replaced in the early Church by Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection of Christ. Sunday was also called the eighth day since, as the symbol of the victory of life over death, it broke in a spiritual sense the ever-repeating cycle of the 7-day week. It thus liberated the whole creation from its subjection to the vicious circle of sin and death and initiated us to the domain of the Spirit. The Pentecost, coming on the fiftieth day (seven times seven weeks) after the resurrection, became the Great Sunday, the day of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Announcing the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did, in the power of the Spirit, thus constitutes the core of Christian "jubilee". It is essentially the work of the Risen One and of the empowering Holy Spirit, the sanctifying and divinizing of the created order. We are called by God's grace to be participants in this mission. All Christian attitude to the created world and all Christian social action have their roots here.

Sunday of joy and hope

In today's secularized world Sunday has become a day for lazy rest or a holiday for the gratification of senses even in traditionally Christian societies. It has lost its capacity for spiritual refreshment because it has ceased to be a day of thanksgiving and joyful celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The emptying of Sunday of its spiritual content has made the weekly cycle to return to its monotony and boredom, signs of death in the secular civilization. Rediscovering the Sunday of resurrection as the weekly celebration of joy and hope is central to the Christian jubilee. Without paying sufficient attention to the radical newness of the resurrection experience and its continual spiritual appropriation in liturgy any attempt to revive the jubilee tradition of the Old Testament in our present world will remain only as a social project like any other. Contemporary political-economic ideologies that promise to create earthly paradise of justice and equality by ignoring the sacredness of time and space and the divine dignity of human persons have to be critically evaluated in the light of the "acceptable year of the Lord" announced by Christ.

Part II
Some Observations and Concerns

The ecumenical movement

The participants in the Pre-Assembly meeting reaffirmed the importance of Orthodox commitment to and involvement in the quest for Christian reconciliation and visible unity: we believe that this involvement is rooted in the salutary activity of our Lord and in the teachings of His Gospel. He is the one who has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). Faithful to her Lord, the Church has always sought to proclaim the apostolic faith and to reconcile those who are separated, for the sake of the salvation of all. Every form of division among Christians inhibits the preaching of the Gospel and weakens our witness in the world. Our tragic divisions often lead to divisions within the society. Our unity, on the other hand, strengthens the mission of all those who wish to heal and reconcile in the name of our Lord.

In order to be faithful to the Gospel and to serve the process of authentic reconciliation, Orthodox in some places have had to reassess their involvement in the ecumenical movement. There may be any number of reasons for this. In some places, the Orthodox have become the victims of proselytism. In other places, some ecumenical activities no longer have as their goal the restoration of Christian unity. In other places, Orthodox are deeply troubled by the crisis in values and the moral stances taken by certain Christian groups. To one degree or another, these and similar concerns have contributed to the erosion of the relationships between Orthodox and other Christians.

Because of our commitment to our Lord and the Gospel, we are deeply troubled by these developments, especially as we prepare for the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

Participation in the eighth assembly

We agreed that the Orthodox churches should all be represented by delegates at the Eight Assembly. Different opinions were heard on the degree of their participation. One opinion was that delegates should attend but as a rule not vote. (Among these, some felt that delegates should vote by abstention only.) Another emphasized the necessity to send delegates with a full mandate to vote. We would like to draw the attention of our churches and of the Mixed Commission to these different opinions.

The WCC and the process of change

We appreciate the CUV process as reflecting a careful and painstaking look at the WCC and the ecumenical movement. We have taken note of the proposed constitutional change wherein it is no longer "the Council" calling the churches, but the churches calling one another, through the Council, to unity.

Orthodox Churches have affirmed the WCC since its birth in 1948, and join in celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. At the same time, as the CUV process has shown, anniversaries are an opportunity for reflection and reconsideration. We have witnessed again during this meeting fundamental questions being raised with regard to Orthodox participation in the WCC at all levels of its life. These questions are aimed both at ourselves and at the structure of the Council. We affirm the need for change which would enable a more effective presence and witness, together with a more constructive and engaged participation from the Orthodox. In the desire to offer ways forward reference was made to several models, which had in common two broad areas of concern which we would commend to the Mixed Commission for their reflection.

ParticipationWhile numbers and majorities are not the most important factor in participation, they do have a significant bearing in the setting of priorities in the WCC. There is a perception that the fellowship between Orthodox and Protestants in the Council is weakening, and that the Orthodox are finding it more difficult to make a contribution to the Council's agenda. These two inter-related problems need to be taken into account in the consideration of all areas of the Council's life, from the staff to the governing bodies and their committees.

The CUV policy statement underlined that the WCC as a fellowship of churches poses to its member churches an "ecclesiological challenge", namely to clarify the meaning and the extent of the fellowship member churches experienced in the Council (3.4). Furthermore, the CUV statement strongly confirmed the relationships and the need for further partnership with churches outside WCC membership (4.11-12). Structural changes, tentatively proposed by representatives of some churches, could help the WCC and Orthodox churches to overcome any ecclesiological ambiguities and enable larger participation.

The above concerns were offered with the hopes that Orthodox witness and participation can be improved qualitatively, and also that more non-Orthodox churches which are not at present members of the WCC will be able to engage as fully as possible.

Common prayer

In the history of the modern ecumenical movement, Orthodox Christians have joined in prayer services with non-Orthodox on the basis that our prayer is for the sake of Christian unity, and that we are praying to the same Triune God. Yet the issue of common prayer has increasingly become a topic of discussion.

We take note of the absence in the Eighth Assembly programme of an official "Assembly Eucharist" and that local parishes of different communions will host eucharistic celebrations. This is an accurate reflection of the reality of the ecumenical situation today, in which there are a variety of approaches to the issue of eucharistic communion.

Non-eucharistic common prayer, however, has also become an increasing area of tension in Orthodox discussion. Two pastoral factors make common prayer more difficult now than ever before: the increased tension within our churches on this issue, and the changing character of what we experience as "ecumenical worship" in recent years and assemblies. In ecumenical worship services, there is a marked decrease in the sensitivity to the different traditions, their liturgical sensibilities and liturgical ethos.

Christian morality

As Christians we are concerned with many issues in the moral sphere. We also recognize that on many such issues Christians have not been able to come to a common mind. The WCC can be a useful forum to this end. We recognize for example the need for reflection and study on questions pertaining to marriage and family life, which would include topics such as abortion, human sexuality, drugs and urban crime.

Many of these issues, perhaps in particular those concerning sexual orientation and abortion are particularly contentious. The treatment of such issues under the banner of "human rights" has both positive and negative potential: on the one hand, it would affirm our common calling to treat all human persons with love and respect in view of their being created in the image of God. On the other hand, we would not want to be prevented, on the basis of "human rights", from stating that certain lifestyles and practices are not God-ordained.


Our Pre-Assembly meeting took place within the context of these significant developments in our churches, the ecumenical movement, and the WCC. Many of the issues and concerns, which have been raised by the Orthodox in recent years, were brought to bear upon our discussions of the Assembly, the Assembly theme, and the role of the Orthodox in the ecumenical movement.

We pray that common Christian reflection on these issues not further divide us, and we encourage the Mixed Commission to take up these issues in order to consider ways of approaching them in the future.

Christ is Risen!

To Him be glory, honour and worship together with the eternal Father and the life-giving Spirit, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.