For the leader of the worldwide Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, beset by worries over his congregation in the war-torn Middle East, it was a night of simple joy in the church’s North Jersey community. On Wednesday night, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East celebrated a service at St George Church in Little Falls NJ that drew hundreds of members of the ancient faith from across the region. Eager parishioners, who chanted and held cellphone cameras and video recorders high as he entered the chapel with a throng of clergy, greeted the patriarch… the church’s equivalent of a pope.
During the Vespers, or evening, service… said in English and Arabic… Patriarch Youhanna spoke for about 20 minutes about building unity between the church in the USA and abroad, as well as about peace in the Middle East, notably war-devastated Syria. He said through a translator, “We’re one church, we’re one community, and the distances don’t divide us, don’t separate us. We say to you, ‘We love you’”. According to its website, the Antiochian Orthodox church is the largest Arab Christian church in the world, with about 100,000 members in the USA and Canada. Parishioners hastily arranged the patriarch’s visit, scheduled only a week ago as part of a nearly two-week-long stay in the USA. On Saturday, the patriarch served at the enthronement of Metropolitan Joseph al-Zehlaoui, the new leader of the Englewood NJ-based American archdiocese, who also served with the patriarch at St George. Metropolitan Joseph said, “I’m ready to act, ready to serve you, be with you. I’ll live with you and die with you”.
Rev George Krevorkian, the archdiocese’s hierarchical assistant stated that the patriarch was to meet with national security advisers in the White House today and has a tentative meeting with the US Department of State on Friday to discuss the conflict in Syria, particularly the plight of Arab Christians. The patriarch’s brother, Bishop Boulos al-Yazigi of Aleppo, was one of two church hierarchs kidnapped by Islamic extremists about two years ago.
During his remarks, the patriarch, wearing black vestments and a gold crucifix, asked worshipers to pray for Syria and other Middle Eastern countries torn apart by violence, “We know our homeland is undergoing a very tough situation. We’re still hopeful, in spite of all the difficulty we face. We hope that in this Christmas season, this season will bring peace to the Middle East”. Patriarch Youhanna also spoke repeatedly about his pride in the Little Falls congregation for passing on its faith from generation to generation. St George began in the 1970s, but its original members worshiped for decades before that in Paterson NJ. He said, “We’re proud because, since your ancestors arrived in the USA 150 years ago, the first thing you decided to do was have a church in the community. We’re proud of you, because you carry in your hearts and chests this unshakable faith that holds forever”.
Rev Dimitri Darwich, pastor at St George, said the patriarch’s visit was an honour and a rare occasion for an Antiochian Orthodox church in America. There are two other Antiochian Orthodox churches in New Jersey, in Bergenfield and South Plainfield, but he noted that St George was the venue for the service because it has the largest congregation, with about 500 families. About 40 of those families are recent Syrian refugees whom the church supports with charity, help with immigration paperwork, and in finding jobs.
Darwich said that on Wednesday night, a crowd of about 300 filled the pews and balcony, far fewer than organisers originally anticipated, because a nor’easter dampened the plans of many nearby churches. However, the poor weather didn’t stop people from traveling from as far as Yonkers NY and Bethlehem PA for the special service. Cassia Robert, 17, and her 15-year-old brother, Joseph, called the patriarch’s visit a “grand” event unlike the services of their church in Allentown PA. Julia Kalyoussef, 58, of Clifton NJ, who grew up in Syria and is trying to help her sister immigrate to the USA, said it was important to hear from their leader in a time of crisis, saying, “We’re all looking to him to strengthen us in our beliefs”.
10 December 2014