Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim with Pope John Paul II in Damascus, May 2001.

On John Paul II’s visit to Damascus: Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim speaks to The Daily Star

Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim recalls visiting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican a few years ago. At the time the pope said: “Today the first in the Second Church welcomes the first in the First Church.”

It was in Antioch, Hazim says, “that believers were first called Christians, and it was in Antioch that the First Church was established.”

The second was in Rome.

Recollecting the pope’s words at the Vatican, Hazim welcomed the pontiff at Damascus’ Mariamyyieh Cathedral this month with the slogan: “The bishop of the First Church welcomes the bishop of the Second Church.” Hazim is also adamant that it was he who invited Pope John Paul II to Syria. “Of course, the Catholics invited him too,” he admits, “but the initial invitation came from the First Church.”

Patriarch of Antioch and All The East since 1979, the 81-year-old Ignatius IV graduated from the American University of Beirut with a philosophy degree. The two professors who had the most profound influence on him, he recalls, were Charles Malek and Constantine Zureik.

“Dr. Zureik was as formidable as he was humanitarian,” he says. “At AUB, for a while it became politically incorrect to believe in anything that contradicted with Dr. Malek. We were enchanted by him during our first year. I’ll never forget how he taught us Plato’s Republic, in a romantic style, with such fluency.”

Two others who shared Hazim’s college memories were Ghassan Tueini and the late Raymond Karam.

“Raymond was an excellent Maronite who eventually went on to become a priest. Ghassan, however, took a completely different path. He was the only one of us three who didn’t accept a religious vocation.”

Hazim says he was never tempted by the aspirations of Tueini, or the policies of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

“I knew from the beginning that I’d be wearing this robe,” he said. “Wearing it means that my life would be devoted to it, and there would be no room for anything else.”

He was never a man of politics, he says. Unlike other religious men of the Eastern Christian church, who at certain times followed Nasserism or socialism, his only path was that of Christ. Hazim remained oblivious to the Arab nationalist movement, saying that all he ever cared about was the church ­ anything short of that, he says, would have been a neglect of his duties.

Hazim denies that John Paul II’s visit had been politicized. “And even if it were,” he says, “then so be it. It’s about time the world started seeing what the Israelis are doing in this region.”

In this regard, he sees the uproar aroused in Jewish and Western circles caused by President Bashar Assad’s speech welcoming the pope to Damascus ­ as part of “a massive Israeli propaganda campaign.”

According to Hazim, Assad’s remark that “they want to destroy all the objectives of monotheistic religions,” referred “to the Israelis in particular, and not the Jews.”

“We have no problem with the Jews,” he adds. “Right next door live Jews who work with us, and live with us in harmony.

But “we’ve had it with Israeli propaganda. When a Jewish tomb was destroyed they turned the world upside down in protest, and they have ransacked many a Christian and Muslim cemetery, and nobody hears about it.”

Hazim denies rumors that the pope had planned to apologize for the Crusades and to say an interfaith Muslim-Christian prayer at the Umayyad Mosque.

“There was no such plan,” he says. “A tour of the mosque, and a speech, were adequate. The pope was received, and he prayed before the tomb of St. John the Baptist.”

No one should have any doubts about the Christian community’s rights in Syria, Hazim concludes: “We’re citizens with full rights. If the government is bad ­ or good ­ this affects us as much as our Muslim brothers.”

The Daily Star, 18 May 2001