His Eminence, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Basilios (Mansour) was born in Mzairaa, Syria, in 1962, he holds a Bachelor of Theology from the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology, Balamand, and a PhD in Theology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. As a priest, he served the parish of St. Andrew in Lattakia. He was ordained a Bishop in 1995 and became the Metropolitan of Akkar’s Vicar in Safita and the Bishop of Tartous and Safita. He was elected a Metropolitan in the year 2008.
Your Eminence, you participated in the second synod in Athens on tolerance and religious and cultural pluralism in the Middle East. As a representative of the Middle East, essentially, since you are from the Patriarchate of Antioch, how important is this dialogue between religions, for peace and tolerance in the Middle East?
First of all I’d like to thank the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the deputy Minister and Greece in general for inviting me to participate in this summit for the dialogue between religions and groups in the Middle East. On this issue, first of all, I always remember the years of Hellenism in the Middle East, which united the thoughts of the eastern countries in the region. There was no unity in the East in the past, before Alexander the Great. Nomads and kingdoms existed and everything was separate. Hellenism came with Alexander the Great and the Greeks and they united everything. With education and the culture they spread. In the Middle East there was always dialogue between the people on various levels. It was dialogue between the regular people, it was very good, and people lived peacefully. We know from our villages, cities and neighbourhoods that life was very quiet. In villages, for example, where Muslims lived, they went to churches, and we participated in the Muslim festivals without any hindrance. This peace amongst ordinary people is shaken when a religious leader expresses a political view on issues, or when a diplomat or politician wants to do something to show off, sowing fanaticism in people, in order to show that he loves them more. In reality, his love is for himself. Such issues caused us much trouble in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era or when the French were there, it created such problems between the people. Divide and conquer. And now with the oil and natural gas production, everyone wants a piece of the wealth. Countries are growing. As I said yesterday, we thought Syria would be the second France in ten years. This is what we thought. But what happened is that the major powers fight in someone else’s territory. And the problem is worse with fanaticism. They sent and train people to be fanatics, telling them they are superior in religious terms, children of God, better than others, and they will be sent to paradise with beautiful women, children, and so on. And they believed this and came to the Middle East, supposedly to bring Democracy and peace, and give rights to the people. Nobody asked us about these things. We in the Middle East are old and we know how to discuss with each other without the need for the US, Russia, Turkey or Tehran to come and show us how to debate. We, nevertheless, thank the powers that saved the country. If Russians and Putin had not intervened, we would be in the streets of Greece now or in some camp. When the expansion of evil stopped and it (the enemy) began to retreat, it gradually disappeared. However, now dialogue is necessary and we need this summit and others like it. We need summits like this. The minds of the people have been infected, there is hatred that did not exist at such a level in the past. Now, people see their homes being taken away. How will they get them back? So, education and justice are necessary, both for the states and their leaders as well as for citizens. Leaders, too, are sometimes tied with the thinking of their people.
What is more to blame? The fact that politics got mixed into religion or the other way around?
Both. They both created this problem.
Does this perhaps show that there is some ambiguity in the spirituality of religions?
In Islam there is no clear thinking. Everything is unclear, because in Islam you can speak about love and about hostility; you can speak about life and death, about brotherhood and also say that solidarity is just for Muslims. Islam will tell you it teaches this side, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t teach the opposite side too. Unfortunately, we hear a lot of nice words even from the person who kills. They say, “we kill for good”. Excuses, based on the Koran. So, both sides are to blame, including us Christians because we are not honest with Muslims. We don’t tell them clearly that they have the ideas of nomads. They have some very good ideas, and some other bad ones. They have enlightening ideas for man, but on the other hand, it puts man among slaves or the abandoned. We are to blame too. Sometimes, the truth must be told even if it hurts. After pain, comes relief.
I know that you’ve done significant work in your region, in Syria’s Akkar and in Lebanon. Can you tell us about your goals?
First of all, thank God I am a servant to these people down there in the Middle East; as the Religious Affairs Minister of the UAE said, we are the root of the Middle East. My province has two parts; 70% is in Syria and 30% is in Lebanon. However, the importance of the Lebanese part is great because that is where the Metropolis is based. This situation is from the Ottoman Empire. When the region was split into small states, we did not divide the Metropoles. This is an advantage; it doesn’t cause any problems to us. At the beginning I was an assistance of the bishop in the region, to the late Pavlos of Arcadia. I always listened to the needs of the people, what they want; without telling them “I’ll do this or the other”. I’ve crosschecked the ideas and the needs of the people and saw what they are mostly in need of. For example, they needed churches, we built churches. They needed rooms, we built rooms. They needed homes, we build homes, even stadiums for football, basketball, volleyball, etc. We did everything so that they don’t complain “we don’t have something our children need”. Even in Lebanon – praise the Lord – we implement projects. Some ask me, “why do you do so much work”? I tell them that God gives me the fire inside to do all this work, affirming that we will not leave the Middle East. I’ve been saying this for five (5) years. People as “why are you building, others will take what you build”. I said, “no, God pushes us to do this work to tell you that you will stay here and use them”. And Muslims are happy too about these works. The biggest school established by the Metropolitan of Arcadia, the late Pavlos, has more than 40% of Muslim pupils. We have so good relations and (strong) friendship with the Sheikh and Mufti. We often eat together, they invite us to their homes. Our relations are very good. These relations saved the region from fanaticism. Because we are very close to the Arsal area in Lebanon where there is fighting and Sunnis there are a majority, 65%. It is a region that is Muslim. But the calm dialogue between the people I mentioned has saved the region from ISIS, etc.
Have you had refugees flowing in? Did your area become a safe haven for refugees and how did you manage the situation?
The area is very safe. There were some skirmishes in the Syrian part, in the valley of Christians. These weren’t between Christians and Muslims but between the State and fanatics. All refugees from various areas (Damascus, Aleppo, etc.), came to this area, which is a holiday area full of green, water, etc. Wherever there are Christians, the places become holiday areas. These people don’t steal, they don’t attack others, they do nothing bad, and they love others. From the beginning, I met with the three assistant bishops and told them we will stop building projects and use the money to help refugees. Until the Patriarchate, the UN and the Red Cross wake up, they will be with us and we must assume responsibility. Thank God, we overcame this first stage, and we continue to help with the power that we have, as much as we can. Christians did not come to Lebanon, because everyone went to the Syrian part. But Muslims came to Lebanon. Many of them. More than 300.000. We helped there in a way but immediately, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. sent help. They even came from Syrian areas that were not under siege, where there was no violence. But they came to get help. And one person told another, inviting friends and relatives over to come and get help. The Lebanese became jealous because the refugees were given money. We opened the churches to the Jacobites, the Armenians and every refugee could come and use our churches. This doesn’t mean we participate in prayer together. No. We open the church and this group can pray together.
Finally, I’d like to know what your wish for the Middle East region is.
I wish it could return to how it was before 2011. We really had great growth in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, everywhere. And I wish the hostile, this religious hostile spirit and fanaticism that has come to our countries from S. Arabia and Qatar, ends. I wish God saves the people and gives them his blessing and peace…/IBNA