George Khodr: The Poet Bishop

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In 1952 Khodr earned a degree in theology from St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, the city that taught him a lot about art and history.

By: Joanna Azar

Published Friday, August 31, 2012

George Khodr, the metropolitan bishop of the archdiocese of Mount Lebanon of the Orthodox Antiochian church since 1970, was born in Tripoli. It was from there that he set out to explore the worlds of theology and philosophy. He embraced dialogue, turning it into a lifestyle and a way towards engagement.

His deep understanding of religion and theology gave him something akin to a poet’s conception of God and existence. As such, his writing in al-Nahar newspaper is characterized by a unique poetic tone that intertwines spiritual metaphors with the modernity of language. Khodr was a friend of contemporary modernist poets like Onsi al-Hajj, Adonis and Yusuf al-Khal.

Philosopher, bishop and writer are labels that Metropolitan Khodr believes do not contradict each other. “I am not a philosopher in the academic sense,” he says, adding: “It can be said that I am a writer since I have been writing for 60 years, and it might be said that I am a thinker with a philosophical tinge in general and a theological one in particular. And in my life, I am a bishop.”

Khodr, born in 1923, remembers Tripoli as a big village with a relatively small population of no more than 70,000 people. He remembers the inner streets of the old city where he lived for a while and continued to visit often. A lover of the study of history, he lived through the history of his city in his imagination.

He cannot forget that on 11 November 1943, when he was only 20 years old, he was almost killed while taking part in a peaceful protest by school and college students on a street that goes from Tripoli’s al-Tal down to al-Minai. A French tank made its way through the ranks of the protesters, killing 11 young men.

He says of the incident: “That’s when I turned my back on the colonial lie that we had learned at French schools. But I kept the French culture.” He says that he learned a lot of Christian teachings from the French monks at his school – Collège des Frères – watching their daily dealings and the ethical way in which they treated the students without discrimination.

He was always against injustice and an ally of the poor. He studied law, the “profession that champions justice” earning a degree from St. Joseph University in 1944. He trained as a lawyer and practised law for a short period of time before leaving to France in 1947 to complete his studies.

In 1952 he earned a degree in theology from St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, the city that taught him a lot about art and history. He was intrigued by a culture based on respect for the human being and was influenced by a “society removed from sectarianism and favoritism in a country where everyone is under the rule of law.” This is what, Bishop Khodr believes, “saves life and human dignity.”

Also in 1952, he was ordained a priest at St. George el-Harf Monastery (Deir el-Harf) in the Mount Lebanon Governorate.

The bishop speaks about his upbringing in a home where he was raised on faith and religious commitment. What led him to become a cleric was the Orthodox Youth Movement which he co-founded. After giving much of himself to this movement, he said to himself “this church must have theologians and scholars.” After he studied theology, he felt that theological knowledge is not enough, there must be people who “serve God.” So he chose priesthood.

Khodr was the first to call for reestablishing male monasticism. Had he not considered “God is all of existence,” he would not have succeeded along with his friends in their mission.

His weapon? The power of love which constitutes the cornerstone of Christianity. He says: “To be a priest means to have command and to command only love. Church life is an act of love from the priest to the people and vice versa, the rest is organizing that relationship.”

What distinguished his work as a metropolitan of the archdiocese of Mount Lebanon? First, “spreading the word.” Khodr spread the word in Lisan al-Hal then an-Nahar as well as in a number of European magazines. More importantly he says: “I did not ordain priests who are half ignorant. I built tens of churches, especially after some of them were destroyed during the civil war.”

The bishop, according to Khodr, does not tend to the people of his church only. He sees himself a bishop of the Orthodox, Maronites, Muslims and Druze. He serves as much as he can and considers himself spiritually responsible for all the people.

This brought Bishop Khodr to talk about Muslim-Christian dialogue over 40 years ago. He had actually taught prominent figures in Islam as part of Arab Culture at the Lebanese University in the mid 60s.

Khodr discovered that each group knows how to explain its religion to the other. An enlightened Christian reveals Christian ideology just as an enlightened Muslim reveals Muslim ideology. “We took long strides in this dialogue and a belief emerged that these two groups must get to know each other and come together. Dialogue is intellectual engagement and discussion of the other’s ideology. This dialogue can carry on to the extent that the other group becomes responsive.”

But the bishop was shocked lately by a return to sectarianism. The solution lies according to Khodr in secularism. “As a bishop, I win under secularism,” he says explaining that adopting secularism would expel self-interested people and opportunists from the church. “This will be accomplished but it needs time. Salvation from the current crisis will come about and peace will reign in the East.”

For him Lebanon represents a formula for coexistence but the country needs purity “whereby the state is honest, serves as a protector of its citizens and is not sectarian. We should have a state that battles injustice, theft and waste... These conditions have not existed so far.” But that does not stop the bishop from dreaming of a day when a civil law that treats all Lebanese as equal is adopted, sectarianism is abolished and faith remains.

How does he spend his day? He prays before breakfast then gets ready to receive guests and fellow citizens to discuss issues and problems they face. Work at the diocesan offices is divided among assistants and advisors as well as people from outside the diocesan headquarters that he consults. In the afternoon, he attends events and funerals. And in the evening he reads, especially books about history, political theory and theology.

What does Jerusalem mean to him? The city for which he wrote the book Jerusalem means for him Palestine and the Palestinian people who lived there for hundreds of years and were later dispossessed. He wishes that Jerusalem would be home for Muslims, Christians and Jews together. “I cannot accept this international injustice against the Palestinian people. My dream is for these three religions to co-exist in real love and this is possible if countries find a solution for Jerusalem.”

The bishop is not afraid for the fate of Christians in the East. He does not fear a repetition of what happened to them in Iraq. “Co-existence in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine is very strong.” He talks about a history when Christians faced death emphasizing that “the danger of death gives courage and a witness to the truth.”

When we ask him about God he says: “I wish this year that my repentance would be complete before I meet God. I fear the confrontation because I know the beauty of God and His insistence that we should be pure.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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