Metropolitan PHILIP Saliba and Christian Orthodox Unity in America

By Richard H. Curtiss
Article taken from the July/August 1999 issue of

One of the most frequently asked questions of the editor of an America magazine about Middle East affairs is, "When are you going to write something about Metropolitan Philip Saliba?" This year, whenever I have answered, "We've already published two separate articles about him," the response was, "But when are you going to write about him yourself?"

I realized, finally, that there was something very special about this always cheerful and reassuring archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in North America, who was born in Abou Mizan, a village in the hills 15 miles east of Beirut and, by the time he was 35, had become the formally ordained leader of an American flock that now numbers some 500,000 people, half of them of Middle Eastern extraction and the other the other half converts of differing backgrounds, including other brands of Christian orthodoxy.

His admirers, whether other clerics or congregants scattered from Toronto to Los Angeles to Tampa to Boston, are possessive and proud of Metropolitan Philip. All whom I know seem to feel that he is their personal friend, and clearly want to acquaint others with his unique leadership abilities.

It was a lot easier to decide to see for myself what makes a particular spiritual leader so beloved by his followers that to arrange the logistics to do so. Whenever I found I was going to be in the greater New York area, he was going to be somewhere else. I wanted to see him in his own surroundings, either at his headquarters on Englewood, New Jersey, only a mile from the George Washington Bridge leading into Manhattan, or at the 300-acre former Presbyterian camp he purchased for his church in Western Pennsylvania and turned into a conference center and youth camp renamed Antiochian Village.

I certainly didn't want to try to sandwich an interview into one of his frequent visits to Washington, DC. These are crowded with officiating at church services, sessions with some of the large number of Antiochian Orthodox in the national capital area, and meetings with U.S. political leaders or visitors from the countries from which his flock or their ancestors originally migrated to North America. These are Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine/Israel, but by now Antiochian Christians are working in many other countries of the Middle East, particularly in the Arab countries of the Gulf. And for the archbishop, there also are courtesy calls to make and joint ceremonies to attend with the hierarchies of the affiliated Bulgarian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches in North America.

On the second unsuccessful try, when I suggested an interview on the evening of a day when he was flying back from California, his protective secretary, Kathy Meyer, who at the urging of her Antiochian pastor in San Francisco left a comfortable hotel job 34 years ago for what she thought might be a temporary stint to help set up the archbishop's office in New York, confided that she did not want to overschedule the Metropolitan because he had had a heart attack at 38 and had quadruple by-pass surgery four years later in 1972. Thinking of his crowded travel schedule, all I could reply was, "No wonder." Finally it was arranged that I would interview him after attending his keynote speech at a Palestinian Heritage Foundation dinner honoring Professor Edward Said, a world-renowned spokesman for the Palestinian people, a former member of the Palestinian National Council, and a Christian Orthodox congregant.

My visit to the New Jersey residence which serves both as the archbishop's home and North American headquarters for the Antiochian Christian Orthodox Church, proved to be a congenial introduction to Auxiliary Bishop Antoun Khouri, who shares the office and residence and who attended the Balamand seminary in northern Lebanon with Metropolitan Philip, Ms. Meyer, and her assistants, who keep the flow of visitors, calls and correspondence flowing at a pace that somehow seems both relaxed and efficient.

I already knew from the many, many times my magazine has quoted him, that Archbishop Saliba is a remarkably outspoken man. He alludes frankly to the problems of his own denomination, primarily because he plans to solve them. And he is equally frank in his assessments of U.S. presidents, all of whom he has met starting with President Eisenhower, and their Middle East policies. For him, obviously, politics do not stop at the water's edge. His parishioners are in the New World, but their church retains its direct lineal ties to Antioch, where the followers of Jesus first called themselves Christians, and its patriarchs, who have lived in Damascus since the 15th century, when Antioch was conquered by the Turks.

Many Antiochian parishioners in the U.S. and Canada, like Metropolitan Saliba himself, have families in the Middle East, some of whom are living under military occupation in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and all of whom are adversely affected by the ongoing dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Clearly the archbishop's thoughts are never far from his afflicted co-religionists in the Middle East, and he aims to show his own followers in the U.S. how to alleviate those problems by financially supporting charitable and educational work overseas and politically supporting an even-handed U.S Middle East policy.

At the same time, he clearly has had his eyes on two other internal church problems. A short-range goal is the assumption by Arab clergy of the leadership position in the Christian Orthodox hierarchy in the Middle East now held by Greeks, whom he blames for selling church properties that have fallen into the hands of Israelis. A longer-range but top-priority goal is the unity of the Christian Orthodox churches in the United States.

Although none of these Orthodox churches are separated from each other in terms of doctrine or significant ritual, at present they are divided by the languages in which their services are conducted, because Christian Orthodoxy came to the New World with different ethnic groups. How strongly the Metropolitan believes in strength through unity is illustrated by the manner in which he led the two archbishoprics into which the Antiochian Orthodox believers were divided in the United States and Canada into unifying within 9 years of his consecration as archbishop and only 19 years after he first set foot in North America in 1956.

The story of the rapid rise of the son of a Lebanese stone cutter and traditional stone bridge builder began, according to the archbishop, in 1944 when, at age 13, he accompanied his father, Elias, to present a gift of fresh grapes from the family vineyard to the Antiochian Patriarch upon his arrival from Damascus at his summer residence at a nearby Lebanese monastery. During the visit father and son attended services at a nearby church where the priest asked the son, then named Abdullah (servant of God), who already taller than other boys his age and favored not only with good looks but also a beautiful speaking and singing voice, to read the epistle. Afterward, over coffee, the Patriarch complimented Abdullah on his voice and invited his father to enter the boy in the Balamand seminary in northern Lebanon to study to become a priest when it reopened after the war.

After three years at the Balamand seminary, where he received the equivalent of a high school education, Abdullah was accepted into an Orthodox school in Homs, Syria. There he spent his pocket money on books-biographies, fiction, poetry, and literature dealing with the Arab nationalism that was unleashed during World War II and by the deep frustration of the Arab defeat in Palestine.

When Abdullah was 19 the same Patriarch Alexander who had arranged for him to begin studying for the priesthood six years earlier called him to Damascus to be his personal secretary. There he was renamed Philip and ordained a deacon in the church at Dour es-Shouer, by his home village, while the Patriarch was at his nearby summer residence.

While carrying out his duties in Damascus, Philip also enrolled in Assiyah College there. It was at the end of three years as the Patriarch's secretary that Philip asked not to follow the usual career path by going to Greece or Russia to study theology, but instead to go to England to study literature. His request was rejected so he asked to return to Balamand to work as a teacher of Arabic and dean of students. After a year there, in which his reforming streak manifested itself in his dealings as intermediary between the students and the school hierarchy, he had saved enough money to travel to England to accept a one-year scholarship at the Kelham Theological School in Nottinghamshire.

After a year he transferred to the University of London for the study of 18th and 19th century English literature. There he had no scholarship, so he worked as a waiter to make ends meet. Despite his lack in funds, he liked beautiful, cosmopolitan London and during this period he went through a period of deep, personal introspection, seeking to reconcile himself to the seeming inability of the church which he had chosen to serve to guide the divided Arab people through the economic, social and political crises they faced in the post-war period.

This period of self-doubt as a lonely student in a foreign country has helped Philip to understand the later generations of bewildered or disillusioned students who have come to him for guidance. "As a matter of fact, I identify with them still," he told a biographer in 1991. "When people go through doubt and restlessness, I understand because I went through the same experience. These things do not worry me. What does worry me is indifference. There is nothing worse. As long as people are sincerely questioning, I don't mind at all if they come to me asking about the existence of God, about ritual, about the Church or our music. You don't like this? Fine. Let's talk about it."

Not long after he returned to Beirut in 1955, he met Archbishop Samuel David of Toledo, Ohio, who was one of the two archbishops in the then-divided Antiochian Church in North America. Archbishop David invited him and another young deacon to come to America. Philip accepted, but on condition that he be allowed to finish his theological education. He arrived in the United States in January 1956, and enrolled in the Greek Orthodox seminary in America, Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston.

At the end of his first semester Holy Cross changed its language of instruction from English to Greek. Philip and some of the other non-Greek students chose to transfer to St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York City, where English was the medium of instruction. The decision, however, cost him his sponsorship by Archbishop David and, astonishingly, brought on an interview with the FBI. A wealthy patroness of Holy Cross University, angry about his departure with the other "Syrian boys," spotted a poem by Philip published in an Arab-American newspaper, and called the FBI to charge that he "might be a communist." His first and only such detention ended after only three hours of questioning, but no one offered him carfare back to his apartment.

This was no laughing matter since he also had lost his job after only three days as a waiter in a French restaurant. Fortunately, after this low point in his life, he found a $50 a week summer job in a Boston factory and, in the fall, moved to Michigan. There he received a scholarship to Wayne State University, enrolled as a junior and was employed as a deacon at St. George's Antiochian Orthodox parish in Detroit.

He received his B.A. in history early in 1959 and became a parish priest in Cleveland. He soon was offered an appointment of bishop but instead, in 1964, he took a sabbatical year to complete a master's degree in divinity, which he felt he needed as preparation for the higher appointments in the church which are open only to unmarried clergy. He obtained the degree in June 1965, but not before he had started a church with some immigrant families, which endures to this day as St. Mary's Church in Yonkers, New York. He had been back at his church in Cleveland for only a few months when the archbishop of New York died and, in ensuing elections by 300 members of the clergy and laity from all over the United States, Father Philip Saliba received 260 votes as the first choice to succeed the archbishop. The top three names were submitted to the Patriarch in Damascus for the final selection.

In Damascus, the choice of the American communicants ran head-on into Cold War politics. There were Antiochian bishops under the influence of the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople and others under the influence of the Patriarch of Moscow. Few of either persuasion were enthusiastic about the young and innovative American parish priest who had declined to do his advanced studies in Greek and also had criticized Marxist doctrine and those who seemed captivated by communism.

On the other hand, a visiting delegation of American Antiochian clergy warned against rejection of the slate, promising that a new election in the U.S. would produce the same result. Finally, after four months of deliberation, Father Philip was chosen and ordained in traditional ceremonies in the Middle East.

When he returned to the U.S. Archbishop Saliba sought simultaneously to organize his new office, which had no staff, and to visit as many parishes as possible in the archdiocese. In his initial calls he was blunt, criticizing his church's inability to expand in North America for lack of strong missionary work, and opposing the use of foreign languages in Orthodox churches in North America.

"We feel that the sooner all the Orthodox churches in America start using English, the better our chances of achieving administrative unity will be," he said. In the same spirit the new metropolitan changed the title of the archdiocese from "Syrian Orthodox" to "Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America," reasoning that prospective converts would be delighted to be part of the original church of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Archbishop Saliba was equally outspoken about events in the Middle East. He rejected terrorism, by Israelis or Palestinians, out of hand. But he made it clear that Orthodox Christianity also rejects the doctrine of 20th century Zionism, supported by a segment of modern evangelical Protestantism, that the people of Israel are destined to return to the Holy Land. Instead it accepts the traditional Christian view that the Christian Church is the New Israel.

Metropolitan Philip is comfortable with explaining why this is so, and in supporting the contention of the Christians of the Middle East that there is no biblical justification for the suffering and displacement that the Zionists of Israel have inflicted upon them. One of Metropolitan Philip's most familiar comments is that "God is no longer in the real estate business." He also has said, "My plea is that modern Protestant theologians and students of Scripture take a critical and objective look at how the Church has interpreted the Bible throughout history."

An excellent authorized biography, Metropolitan Philip: His Life and Dreams, by Father Peter E. Gillquist, an Orthodox convert to the Antiochian church, outlines the church's stand on this matter, from both a theological and human rights viewpoint, clearly and convincingly in a chapter entitled, "Middle East Madness" (pp. 131-144).

Archbishop Saliba's strong convictions in this regard gave birth to his 1968 proposal for a Holy Land state in Jerusalem where Christians, Muslims and Jews live in peace under a democratic form of government, with the new state protected by the major powers. The proposal also called for an end to Arab belligerency and plans to destroy Israel, Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967, and return of refugees to their homes. The proposal received a strong endorsement from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Pope Paul IV.

In pursuit of his convictions, Metropolitan Philip visited President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office in January 1968, but the conversation deteriorated after Johnson erroneously stated that Arabs had started the 1967 war. The following day, during an appointment at the State Department to discuss the same topic, Metropolitan Philip suffered his first heart attack. Looking back, he says he realizes now that he was trying "to change history in a matter of two or three years. This heart attack was a reminder that it simply would not be so."

It was after his heart attack that he prevailed upon a friend of his youth, Father Antoun Khouri, to leave his parish and come to New York. That was also when Antiochian communicant Kathy Meyer arrived from San Francisco to help the church's national headquarters.

In the subsequent years Archbishop Saliba of New York and newly consecrated Archbishop Michael Shaheen of Toledo healed a split that had divided Antiochian Christians in America for 60 years, with Archbishop Michael becoming auxiliary to Metropolitan Philip. Archbishop Philip Saliba also raised funds in America to endow the seminary at Balamand, where he had studied and later worked, and launched a trust fund for Arab refugees and a number of other charitable activities overseas.

In the U.S. he encouraged birth of a women's movement, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Women of North America, and resided over the first and subsequent visits by patriarchs of Antioch to North America. He also increased the number of parishes in the U.S. from 65 when he became archbishop in 1966 to 220 at this writing.

Politically, Archbishop Saliba also discussed the Middle East with U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Of the former, whom he described as "extremely gracious and friendly to us," he says, "I feel Carter found the wrong solution to the Middle East crisis by isolating Egypt from the rest of the Arab world and asking only that nation to sign the Camp David Accord. That step, though admirable, has never worked."

Of President Reagan he says, "He was taken with prophecy, almost to the point of date setting, but was not much taken with the Middle East problem as such."

Metropolitan Philip's overseas travels took him to Russia, where his desire for Orthodox Christian unity was reinforced, and to the Middle East, where he met with Presidents Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Amin Gemayel of Lebanon.

A particularly heartening development for his long-term dream of Orthodox Christian unity was the accession to the Antiochian church of some unaffiliated non-ethnic parishes with some 2,000 congregants who called themselves collectively the Evangelical Orthodox Churches. He called this unexpected increase in his flock "the brightest chapter in my entire life."

In pursuit of this dream of unity he has called for the transfer to the New World of the Christian Orthodox ecumenical patriarch "who continues to live like a prisoner in Istanbul" in the interest of denominational unity. "Let us prevail on him to leave Turkey, come to America, and unite our various jurisdictions," Metropolitan Philip proposes. "We have unlimited opportunities in this free land, but if we do not move forward with faith and courage, our Church on this continent will remain an insignificant dot on the margin of history."

When asked by congregants if he is depressed over the lack of progress in this field despite his efforts, he answers, "I would be, were it not that our unity as Orthodox into one American jurisdiction is inevitable. History is clear in that, and certainly the Scriptures are clear. Therefore we will simply continue our work for unity until our shameful division is overcome."

He echoed a similar philosophical state of mind in an April 3rd talk when he said of current setbacks to Middle East peace and Arab unity: "I remain optimistic for one reason: history is not static; it is alive and dynamic. The last 50 years, in perspective, are but a brief moment in the vast span of Arab history. Furthermore, I believe that the Palestinians and the Arabs in general will emerge in the new millenium, picking up all the modern tools of science and technology to rebuild and rewrite the future for their posterity. Thus, beyond the long and dark night, there is a new dawn, a new day and a new history."

Whenever the "dark night" ends, it is certain that through his unremitting efforts to unify his people and integrate them into a much greater whole, Archbishop Philip Saliba will have contributed mightily toward making that new day dawn.

Posted on the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese
of North America website, July 16, 1999