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Published: Monday, 7/13/2009

Turmoil envelops Antiochian church

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

When Bishop Mark Maymon of Toledo attended a recent regional conference in Cincinnati for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, local police were on guard because of threats made by a member of the denomination's board of trustees.

The threats by e-mail from Walid Khalife of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., accused the bishop of being a "traitor," a "liar," and a "dictator," and said the bishop needed to be "taught a lesson."

Mr. Khalife also threatened and insulted other Antiochian clergy via e-mail, and Sgt. Keith Schoonover of the Sharonville, Ohio, Police Department, which provided the security at the conference July 1-5 in Cincinnati, said "the suspect has been contacted" by police in his hometown.

Bishop Mark, who was enthroned in 2005 as bishop of Toledo and the Midwest Diocese, said in an interview that the police and FBI were notified because "you don't know what's going on in a person's mind" and "you want to protect them from doing harm to themselves and you certainly want to protect the people who are coming together at the hotel."

The flurry of angry e-mails from Mr. Khalife, an archdiocese trustee, was one of the uglier manifestations of a controversy that has been causing turmoil, tension, and confusion in the venerable Christian de-nomination founded by Jesus' disciples Ss. Paul and Barnabas in Antioch in 42 A.D.

The bitter dispute centers on the role and authority of bishops, which in turn affects the self-rule status of the North American Archdiocese, obtained in 2003 after years of negotiation with Patriarch Ignatius IV and the Holy Synod in Damascus. Although self-governing, the archdiocese still reports to Damascus on matters of theology.

Since February, the fabric of the North American Antiochian Orthodox Church has been stretched at the seams over allegations of deception, power-mongering, and even forgery.

A longtime chancellor has resigned in protest, and some insiders are predicting that the upcoming national convention in Palm Desert, Calif., will turn into "Palm Desert Storm."

In the background, meanwhile, Bishop Demetri Khoury, the former Toledo bishop forced to retire after being convicted of sexual assault in 2004, has been quietly reinstated to active status and is listed in new church documents as a member of the board of trustees of the North American archdiocese.

The Antiochian archdiocese has 271 parishes and 450,000 members, including two Toledo-area parishes - St. George Antiochian Cathedral on Woodley Road and St. Elias Church in Sylvania. About 400 families belong to the two local churches.

At the helm of the archdiocese - and at the center of the storm - is Metropolitan Philip Saliba, a bold and visionary leader who has been in office since 1966.

The current controversy erupted in February, when the 78-year-old metropolitan - who also is an archbishop and comparable to the rank of cardinal in the Roman Catholic hierarchy - sent a letter to clergy and board members stating that the Holy Synod in Damascus had ruled that all bishops in North America were now auxiliary bishops and that "the bishop does not do anything contrary to the will of the metropolitan."

The statement, released in Arabic with an English translation by Metropolitan Philip, effectively demoted the six North American bishops to the rank of auxiliary, or assistant, bishops.

"It obviously created a good deal of controversy because some argued that it could have violated certain canons of the church," said Robert Koory of Troy, Mich., a chancellor of the archdiocese for 20 years and father of the Rev. Basil Koory, pastor of St. George Antiochian Cathedral in Toledo.

In April, Metropolitan Philip called the bishops to the archdiocese's headquarters in Englewood, N.J., and asked them to sign a resolution "affirming obedience to the decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch of Feb. 24, 2009."

Three bishops concurred, but Bishop Mark Maymon and Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita and the Diocese of Mid-America chose not to sign. Bishop Alexander Mufarrij of Montreal also refused to sign, penning a note instead: "This decision is already in effect and does not need my signature."

Bishop Mark said of the meeting: "There was some tension because of the things that had taken place with the February decision and some of the correspondence that came out afterwards. Tensions were building within the archdiocese and there were questions about our autonomy and the constitution."

In May, Mr. Koory and the archdiocese's other chancellor, Charles Ajalat of Glendale, Calif., issued an opinion saying the Feb. 24 statement was "invalid" and "inapplicable."

Among other points of contention, the chancellors said the Holy Synod in Damascus lacked a quorum when it voted Feb. 24 and that the decision could not apply to North America because "it would violate the irrevocable self-rule resolution."

Bishop Mark and Mr. Koory said self-rule requires bishops to have a vote in the archdiocese's synod.

If bishops are auxiliaries and "in complete obedience to the metropolitan," Bishop Mark said, "then you cannot have self-rule unless you have a synod with bishops that can really act freely."

Mr. Koory said he and Mr. Ajalat issed an opinion at the request of members of the board of trustees. Once he and Mr. Ajalat began reviewing documents, he said, "we really didn't have any disagreement - which is unusual for lawyers."

Metropolitan Philip, who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, clearly was displeased with the chancellor's opinion.

At a meeting of the board of trustees in Ligonier, Pa., on May 29 and 30, the metropolitan lambasted the attorneys, saying, "I don't mind someone shooting me in the chest or face, but to be shot in the back, that is very low."

After about 45 minutes of nonstop grilling from the metropolitan, Mr. Koory stood up and said he had served as chancellor faithfully for 20 years and that when he was appointed, he swore to uphold the church's constitution.

"I said, 'I'll make it very easy for you. If you chastise me like that, I'll submit my resignation.' He said, 'I accept,' and I turned around and walked out," Mr. Koory said.

A few days later, on June 2, five of the six North American bishops traveled to Damascus to meet with Patriarch Ignatius IV, the 165th successor of the first bishop of Antioch, St. Peter.

Metropolitan Philip was not present, and the sixth North American bishop, Bishop Alexander, had met separately with Patriarch Ignatius a week earlier while in the Middle East on a previously scheduled trip.

"I met individually with the patriarch," Bishop Mark said. "He is fully informed and very knowledgeable about everything that is taking place in North America. His English is perfect. And he very much wanted to see this issue resolved."

He said Patriarch Ignatius "never used the term 'auxiliary' and he very much verified the language that we are not assistant bishops."

The patriarch has visited the Toledo area twice, in 1979 to bless the property where St. Elias Church was built and in 1985 for a conference.

Later that month, the Holy Synod convened in Damascus, after which the North American archdiocese's Web site posted three documents it said came from the patriarch, two in Arabic and one English, affirming Metropolitan Philip's version of the status of bishops - that they are "bishops who assist the metropolitan as his auxiliaries." (Two of those documents were recently removed from the archdiocese's site.)

The next day, Patriarch Ignatius had an update posted on his official Web site - the first new English posting in more than two years - with a document that contradicted Metropolitan Philip's version. The patriarch's Web site said his document was "the final official synodal decision issued from the Patriarchate on June 17th, 2009" and that the patriarchate "wishes all readers not to consider any other version."

Mr. Koory and Bishop Mark said the documents that had been posted on the North American archdiocese's Web site appeared to be forgeries. "I have no firsthand information, but I understand there is some evidence that the patriarch may have actually signed something that was not the document he intended to sign," Bishop Mark said.

Mr. Koory said "all the evidence points to two of the [metropolitan's] documents being forgeries" and that Patriarch Ignatius' next-day posting, saying that no other versions were to be considered, spoke volumes.

Last Thursday, Metropolitan Philip convened a telephone conference with his six bishops, seeking to hammer out a resolution on the status of bishops before the national convention opens July 19.

The resulting document states, in part, that "our bishops have the role of assistant to the metropolitan in the administration of our unified archdiocese," and lists the bishops' titles as bishops of a specific city - and, notably, not of a diocese - as well as "assistant to the metropolitan." The directive was approved by a two-thirds majority. One of the two bishops who voted against it was Bishop Mark.

"I wasn't particularly happy with the word 'assistant' because that is part of what the whole dispute was over, the idea that you're an assistant bishop and you're not fully a bishop," Bishop Mark said.

"My real heartfelt desire was that we could have come up with something that was perfectly clear, where no one could imply that it could mean something different. I have to be perfectly honest: I'm not happy with the verbiage. I'm a little concerned with how it could be turned."

He said he has been getting phone calls and e-mails from people concerned that the bishops have "caved in and betrayed the church."

Meanwhile, some Antiochian Orthodox parishioners are voicing concerns over the change in status of Bishop Demetri, the disgraced former bishop of Toledo. He was arrested in July, 2003, after grabbing a woman's breast in a casino near Traverse City, Mich., and later was convicted on a felony charge of criminal sexual conduct.

Metropolitan Philip ordered Bishop Demetri to undergo therapy for alcoholism, and the bishop later retired with restrictions barring him from ministry.

The 60-year-old bishop, who is a registered sex offender in Florida, was listed in December as an auxiliary bishop under Metropolitan Don Antonio Chedraoui of Mexico.

More recently, a financial report to be presented at the Palm Desert convention includes Bishop Demetri's name with the six archdiocesan bishops in a list of "officers and trustees."

"It's a very controversial issue," Bishop Mark said. "We all love him; we pray for him. Certainly we realize that the church offers forgiveness, but when somebody has done something very serious after they have entered into holy order, there is the idea that he is disqualified from continuing his ministry in any official capacity."

Bishop Demetri could not be reached for comment.

Bishop Mark said he will continue working and praying for peaceful resolutions. "I want peace in the church. We all want peace in the church. We all want unity. We want harmony. If we continue to work with the utmost integrity and honesty, then we'll have every assurance of peace being restored in the archdiocese."

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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