John Bekkos: Apology

August 9, 2014

I know that I have neglected this blog for a long time: for that, I apologize. There are many reasons for this neglect, perhaps the main one being that my work as a teacher takes precedence. But I thought I would present readers of this blog with a translation I completed recently of a short work titled Apology, by John Bekkos. It was written during the mid to late 1270’s, perhaps circa 1276-77, and, as it takes the form of a public address, it may actually have been a sermon Bekkos delivered, whether publicly or, as some think, before a select audience of Constantinopolitan churchmen. In it, Bekkos rebuts the accusation that he means to add the Filioque to the Greek text of the Creed (though this was, in fact, what the popes who succeeded Gregory X were pressuring him to do, with increasing vehemence as the decade of the 1270’s wore on), and he defends his policy of détente with the West by appealing to the example of the Fathers of the Church, in whose steps he claims he is following. It is curious, and perhaps worth noting, that, in this work, Bekkos compares reconciliation with the West with the policy St. Basil directed in the late fourth century towards reconciling moderate Pneumatomachians, who, while acknowledging the Spirit’s divine attributes, were uneasy about applying to the Spirit the term “God”; the comparison cannot be seen as very flattering towards the Westerners.

Italicized numbers in brackets within the translation refer to pagination of the Greek text as given in Hugo Lämmer’s Scriptorum Graeciae Orthodoxae Bibliotheca Selecta (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, 1864). Lämmer republishes the text that was edited by Leo Allatius and originally published by him in 1659; that text is also to be found in Migne, Patrologia Graeca vol. 141, cols. 1009C-1020B. In one place, towards the end of this work, I have corrected a mistake in Allatius’s text by checking it against the earliest manuscript (Laurentianus plut. VIII.26).

I would only add that this translation, like all other materials on this blog, is copyrighted; if people want to quote from it, that is fine, but those who do so ought to cite their source and acknowledge the translator. I have had the unpleasant experience of finding my own translations quoted verbatim, without attribution, in at least one published academic book; those who do this should know that they risk legal action.


Apology

That an acceptance of the union of the Churches does not lead to the destruction of our traditions, but to peace in Christ, because the Churches agree in their understanding of doctrine.

[426] 1. “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.”[1] Today I call upon heaven and earth to hear my words. And how shall I succeed in uttering a voice that should make the ends of the earth resound? And if I fail to come by such a voice, how may I satisfy that desire which [427] has led me today to summon heaven and earth to hear my words? But he who chose the fishermen, and who so strengthened them in their weakness that “their sound went forth into all the earth, and their words were heard to the ends of the inhabited world,”[2] shall strengthen my weakness by the overflowing abundance of his power, and shall prepare the hearts of all who may hear an echo of my discourse, making them open to receiving the truth. For if he is a God of truth, one who rejoices in being called “the truth” (for David also teaches me to address him as “truth”[3]), he will cause our words to be communicated to the Christians throughout the inhabited world. And he will do this, because the promoter of lies has spread the nets of his slander against us upon the whole territory of those who are called by Christ’s name, not confining himself to specific peoples and towns, but ensnaring even those who dwell in caves and in mountains.

2. But what is the slander, and how do we make a defense of ourselves as to those things in which we have been slandered? Come and hear, all you nations; give ear, all you inhabitants of the world.[4] [428] All of you certainly know, and none of you is unaware, how the longstanding hatred between the Churches of Christ, between, I mean, the elder Rome and our new Rome, turned back again into the good estate of that ancient peace, by the favor of Christ the prince of peace, who reunites and links those things that were sundered. But you also know how Satan, who forever eyes the good with malice, who substitutes his own hatred in place of Christ’s peace, who, again, is always plotting and warring against those who belong to Christ, was tireless in whipping up multitudes to oppose the peace; and, although he failed to find a way to circumvent the good of the peace itself, out of all evil stratagems he discovered one worthy of his wickedness. And the stratagem is this: he causes a rumor to sound in the hearings of all, a rumor concerning the addition made by the Romans to the Creed, alleging that the bishop of Constantinople has been co-opted by the Church of Rome to persuade the Church of the Greeks to read this Creed with the same addition. And, once this rumor had taken wing, and had flown with unchecked force throughout the world, it filled everyone’s hearing with the slander against us.

[429] 3. That, then, is the slander. But our apology in response to it, on behalf of which we are summoning a world-wide hearing, will not be composed of plausible arguments of the sort used by those who attempt to win their case by showing off their expertise in employing human wisdom; but for demonstrating the truth it will make use of the things that were done and enacted by the luminaries and teachers of the Church; looking towards those things, as to a pattern, we came across those arguments which have been the occasion for the slander that everywhere resounds against us. For being ourselves simple, and wearing the simplicity of Christ as a coat, we shall make our apology with all plainness, once we have prepared the impartial judgment of the hearers to know and to assess, whether it is in line with the pattern handed down to the Church from the fathers that we advocate for the Church of Rome as regards the addition made by the Romans to the Creed or, instead, we are acting out of some privately adopted opinion and, as those who slander us say, with disrespect towards the fathers’ customs and institutions.

In the first place, then, we find that the most great Athanasius – that extraordinary man, the sun of the ecclesiastical firmament, whose word is unconquerable, [430] whose manner is inimitable – when in his days no minor scandal had broken out between these very same Churches which are the subject of our present discourse, brought about a reconciliation between them no otherwise than by acting as an advocate for the Roman Church (since the Easterners had judged those belonging to that Church to be their adversaries). And what was his advocacy? Let him be present here himself, and by the words expressed by his own tongue let him announce to us what it was. For in his Tome to the Antiochenes he speaks thus:

“For as to those whom some were blaming for speaking of three hypostases, on the ground that the phrase is unscriptural and therefore suspicious, we thought it right indeed to require nothing beyond the confession of Nicaea; but on account of the contention we made enquiry of them, whether they meant, like the Arian madmen, hypostases foreign and strange, and alien in essence from one another, … or whether, like other heretics, they meant three Beginnings and three Gods.”[5]

And after the interpretation brought forward by them of the words, in an orthodox sense, he adds:

“Having accepted then those men’s [431] interpretation and defense of their language, we made enquiry of those blamed by them for speaking of one hypostasis, whether they use the expression in the sense of Sabellius, to the negation of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”[6]

Then in his discourse he inserts also the apology these people made in response to this, and, in what follows, divinely adjuring [us] by the harmony of conception in the interchangeability of the words, he says:

“Well, thereupon they who had been blamed for saying there were three hypostases agreed with the others, while those who had spoken of one hypostasis also confessed the doctrine of the former as interpreted by them.”[7]

And going forward, he adds to those things already said:

“Those things then being thus confessed, we exhort you not hastily to condemn those who so confess and so explain the phrases they use, nor reject them, but rather to accept them as they desire peace and defend themselves, while you check and rebuke, as of suspicious views, those who refuse so to confess and to explain their language. But while you refuse toleration to the latter, counsel the others also who explain and [432] hold aright, not to enquire further into each other’s opinions, nor to fight about words to no useful purpose, but to agree in the mind of piety. For they who are not thus minded, but only stir up strife with petty phrases, … do nothing except ‘give their neighbor turbid confusion to drink,’ like men who grudge peace and who love schisms.”[8]

And again:

“Irreligiousness is utterly forbidden, though it be attempted to disguise it with artful expressions and plausible sophisms; but religiousness is confessed by all to be lawful, even though presented in strange phrases, provided only they are used with a religious view, and a wish to make them the expression of religious thoughts.”[9]

And again, after some other things:

“Therefore if they … make an excuse that the terms are strange, let them consider the sense in which the Council so wrote…, that, even if the expressions are not in so many words in the Scriptures, yet, as was said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures, and expressing it, they convey it to those who have their hearing unimpaired for religious doctrine.”[10]

These, then, [433] are the echoing sounds that reverberate from Athanasius’s thunderous tongue. But, for our part, because we observed that that shining light of the inhabited earth effected a reconciliation of the Churches in his own days, using such acts of economy and such reasonings, and because we deemed it a great thing to walk in his footsteps and be illuminated, as by a guiding light, by those things which he effected for the edification of the Church, whose cornerstone and linking keystone is Christ God, we gave ourselves to the reconciliation with the Roman Church, despising empty logomachy and contentions over terms as utterly useless, given that we understood the Church of Rome to be in agreement with us in its conception of orthodoxy; we cast such logomachy away, so that we might not hear ourselves being called those who “stir up strife with petty phrases,” and who “give their neighbor turbid confusion to drink, like those who grudge peace and who stir up schisms.”

4. Come therefore, you hearers of my words, judge impartially before the Trinity itself, before every heavenly power, if those people who charge us with advocating for the Ro- [434] man Church, as though it were the greatest of accusations, cast their votes against us justly, given that that Church, as far as the meaning goes, confesses [the faith] in a most orthodox manner; for, although they are accused of thinking there are two origins and two causes in the blessed Trinity, they dispel that accusation insofar as they revere and confess one origin and one cause. Athanasius served as advocate for the Roman Church, although he had no pattern for his advocacy, and although, in advocating, he looked towards no other paradigm; and he did this when the Italians seemed to have erred with respect to the weightiest of matters. For their confession of “one hypostasis” in the Trinity presented a suspicion of Sabellianism. And, as for us, we are charged with transgressing the ordinances of the fathers, although we follow the teacher Athanasius as his disciple, and direct our actions by looking towards his, as to a paradigm and archetype.

Now I suppose no further arguments will be required of me to demonstrate that we did not act in error by advocating for the Roman Church, overlooking the lack of agreement in words, and grasping hold of the agreement in meaning, for the sake of the God- [435] beloved and legitimate good of peace. But if, on account of the gospel faith in what is said by two or three witnesses,[11] I be required to produce yet other advocates among orthodoxy’s teachers, advocates who indeed did not go so far as to change the opposing side into that for which they made advocacy, but advocates who directed the whole point of their own position towards the peace of both parties, as imitators of Christ the prince of peace who joins and unites things separated – both Basil, great in divine things, will here be presented, and Gregory who rightly bears the name Theologian will show his agreement with the things that are said. As for Basil, then, great in divine things, he eagerly strives to reconcile those who do not say that the Spirit is God with those who, in explicit language, proclaim him to be God and consubstantial with the Father and the Son. And Gregory also, pursuing the same path of reconciliation between these parties, adds to the things that Basil says. For he says that he would not reject the Jewish people if they wished to be united with us but sought, for awhile, to use the term “Anointed” rather than “Christ.”[12] [436] But neither did Athanasius, great in divine things, when advocating for those who said “one hypostasis,” advocate for them to the point that those who taught three hypostases should have adopted the confession of the others; nor did Basil the Great, when he was seeking a reconciliation between those who unequivocally confessed the Spirit to be God and those who did not say that he is God, hoping to effect a peace agreement by exhibiting the equality in other terms, so serve as advocate for those who did not call the Spirit God that he changed those who do call him God into adopting that other persuasion; but neither did he who is called the Theologian, when accepting, as far as it was up to him, the people of the Jews if they decided to be united with us but chose the word “Anointed” instead of “Christ,” so advocate for this word “Anointed” as though meaning to persuade those who did not yet say this to start employing this term. And therefore, when we advocate for the Church of Rome, we do not[13] advocate for them to this point, that those who from the beginning and up till now have read in the Symbol of Faith that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father should change this and start saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. [437] But just as those lights of the world showed their own zeal as advocates for peace by looking towards the harmony of meaning, so we too, as disciples following those teachers, make our whole advocacy for peace and reconciliation with the Church of Rome in this way, favoring not the word, but the concept. But as for those people who are eager to accuse, and are quick to slander all things, let them accuse, let them slander. There is a God who will judge. It is he, the ultimate arbiter, to whom we shall have to render account, both for our words and for our actions. But if we have spoken thus in making our present apology, it is so that those who are preaching nothing sound against us may place no stumbling-block in the way of the souls of simpler folk, who have been summoned by my discourse to give it a hearing. For, as stated at the outset of this present apologetic speech, we made our self-defense, not with plausible arguments of the sort used by those who attempt to win their case by showing off their human wisdom; but, in demonstration of the truth, we exhibited the things done and accomplished of old by the lights and teachers of the Church. [438] As for you, if, after receiving this apology of ours, you still require other witnesses beside the divine witness himself, may you not give heed to those who have readied their tongues for slander; but may you become discerning seekers of the truth, and may you hold to the peace of the Churches, knowing that a great reward is laid up for those who support it in the day of recompense from Christ, the prince of peace.

ENDNOTES

1) Deut 32:1; cf. Isa 1:2.
2) Ps 19:4.
3) Cf. Ps 31:5.
4) Cf. Joel 1:2.
5) Athanasius, Tomus ad Antiochenos 5, PG 26, 801A.
6) Athanasius, Tomus ad Antiochenos 6, PG 26, 801C.
7) Athanasius, Tomus ad Antiochenos, 6 PG 26, 801D.
8) Athanasius, Tomus ad Antiochenos 8, PG 26, 805 A-B; tr. NPNF ii.4, p. 485.
9) Athanasius, De Decretis 18; PG 25b, 448 B-C; tr. NPNF ii.4, p. 162.
10) Athanasius, De Decretis 21; PG 25b, 453 A-B; tr. NPNF ii.4, p. 164.
11) Cf. Mt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19.
12) See Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. 43.68; PG 36, 588C. Two sentences before this, Bekkos appears to summarize St. Gregory’s account, in this same Funeral Oration on Basil, of Basil’s attempts to reconcile the Pneumatomachians.
13) Reading οὐκ ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον συνηγοροῦμεν, from the text at Laurentianus plut. viii.26, fol.45. Published editions lack the word οὐκ.

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Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, prioress of the Monastery of St. James the Mangled in Qâra, Syria, gave a talk yesterday evening at St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cleveland, titled What is Really Happening in Syria Today? I made a point of attending, having first heard about Mother Agnes-Mariam and her work a couple of months ago. In September, in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus, she presented a report to the United Nations in Geneva, pointing out that some of the children who were shown as victims in the amateur videos that began circulating on the internet on the morning of the attack had been kidnapped by rebels two weeks earlier after a massacre by rebel forces in the town of Latakia; also, in different videos, purportedly filmed at different locations, the same dead children reappear. In brief, the children were cynically used as props. (A brief summary of the report, written by Mother Agnes-Mariam herself, along with a link to the PDF of the full report, will be found here.)

Most of Mother Agnes-Mariam’s talk yesterday centered upon the work of the organization she heads, Mussalaha (“Reconciliation”), described as “a popular movement in Syria that mediates disputes and organizes ceasefires between opposing forces.” It became clear to me, in hearing her speak, that her peace activism in Syria long preceded the incident in August that nearly brought about US airstrikes; in her talk, she described some of the more memorable incidents in which she and her organization had made a difference. She seems to have a rare ability to maintain communications with all the different sides in this war, not excluding the Al Nusra Front. (I should qualify that: she explicitly stated that the aim of her organization is to promote reconciliation among the various Syrian parties in this war; she does not negotiate with the foreign jihadists who have flocked to the country.) One of her most moving stories concerned a local meeting in (I think) Aleppo between opposing political forces; the meeting was full of mutual recriminations, and nothing was getting done. Then a man, attending the meeting, related the story of the kidnapping of his only son, named Fayyad, 20-years-old. He and his wife tried for months to secure his release. One day, he received a phone call; the voice asked, “would you like to see your son?” The father replied, “Of course, we are ready to do whatever you ask.” The voice replied that, okay, they would bring him. The father and mother were overjoyed, and anticipated meeting their son. Two days later a car drove by their house, very fast; when the parents opened the door, they found a bag containing the remains of their son Fayyad, who had been hacked into pieces. But the point of the story, as Mother Agnes-Mariam told it, was not the heinous crime as such. The man who told the story said to the warring factions that, although the death of his son was a crime without justification, a loss that had taken away his reason for living, and that, if there was anyone there who had good reason for wanting to seek revenge, it was him, he was, nevertheless, there and then, forgiving his enemies, and beseeching them all, for the good of Syria, to forgive each other. This man, as Mother Agnes-Mariam pointed out, was a Sunni Muslim. She said this, pointing out that this kind of reconciliation is open to all, and is the only way forward if Syria is to have a future.

Like a lot of people, I have been much preoccupied over the past year by what is going on in Syria; in general, I see my own government’s policies there as shameful, duplicitous, and motivated more by calculations of geopolitics than by any genuine concern for the people in that country who are suffering and dying. It is easy to become cynical about what is going on, both in Washington and in Syria itself. It is easy to despair, or to be critical. Mother Agnes-Mariam is one courageous woman who, instead of despairing about the situation, is there on the ground actively doing something about it. She is certainly critical about lies that are told to perpetuate the war; yet the focus of her effort is not there, but on the process of reconciliation which is necessary if all the various parties are to live in peace. She is going to be in the United States for the next month, raising support for her ministry; if she plans to speak in your town, I would urge you to go and hear what she has to say.

The following article appeared today on the website Zenit.org.

Toronto, October 31, 2013 (Zenit.org)

Here is a statement from the North American Orthodox Catholic Theological Consultation on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The statement was issued Saturday at the group’s meeting in Mississauga, Ontario. The group meets every five years in Canada.

In 2011 we, the members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation[1] deplored the devastating losses in the Christian communities of the Middle East in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring.” Today the situation of many of the Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine has become catastrophic.

Together with the 2013 Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, we repudiate all violence and demand action by responsible authorities to end the kidnapping, torture, and killing of Christians and all civilians. We also appeal for the release of Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, both of Aleppo, Syria.

With regard to Syria in particular, together with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, we join Pope Francis in exhorting the international community “to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation… May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries.”

As the Canadian Council of Churches has stated, “We are concerned for the safety and security of all the people in the region, but in particular, the weak, vulnerable and powerless. The spread of sectarian violence puts all generations throughout the region at risk and is a menace to the hopes and dreams of the younger generations.”

With the Clergy-Laity Conference of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston, we “deplore the wanton destruction of Christian Churches, monasteries, convents, orphanages and hospitals throughout the Middle East….We call upon the leaders of our nation to protest these unspeakable acts of terror and to work unceasingly to bring to an end the heinous genocide of our brethren.”

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer (cf. 1 Cor. 12:26). As Orthodox and Catholic Christians, we therefore have the responsibility to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters. We call upon our communities to continue to pray for the Churches and for peace in this part of the world. We urge the leadership of our churches to continue to intervene vigorously in behalf of the Christians of the Middle East, who live in fear for their lives, their communities, and the very future of Christianity in the region.

Mississauga, Ontario
October 26, 2013

[1] The Orthodox members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation are appointed by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America and, on the Catholic side, by both the Canadian and United States Conferences of Catholic Bishops.

(October 31, 2013) © Innovative Media Inc.

Don’t curse Plato

September 18, 2013

From time to time I had heard about this story from the desert fathers, but it is only today that I came across the actual passage. It is found in a work by St. Anastasius of Sinai, a seventh-century abbot of the Monastery of St. Catherine, titled Interrogationes et responsiones de diversis capitibus a diversis propositae, that is, Questions and answers on various topics, asked by various people (PG 89, 311A-824C); the passage cited is found at col. 764 B-D.

Note that St. Anastasius, at the end of the passage, explicitly rejects the view, still popular among many, that hell is only temporary, or that there is a possibility for repentance there; he says that the story about Plato shouldn’t be taken to imply this, as Christ went down to Hades only once.

Why the scholar cursed Plato exceedingly, the author doesn’t inform us.

ΕΡΩΤΗΣΙΣ ΡΙΑ´.

QUESTION 111.

Τί οὖν; καὶ τοῖς Ἕλλησι τοῖς τελευτήσασι πρὸ τῆς Χριστοῦ παρουσίας, δεῖ εὔχεσθαι, καὶ μὴ ἀναθεματίζειν;

What then? Must one pray also for the pagans who died before Christ’s coming, and not anathematize them?

ΑΠΟΚΡΙΣΙΣ.

ANSWER.

Μηδαμῶς ἀναθεματίσῃς ἄνθρωπον πρὸ τῆς ἐπιδημίας Χριστοῦ τελευτήσαντα· καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ προσάπαξ καὶ μόνον ἐγένετο τὸ Χριστοῦ κήρυγμα. Προλαβὼν γὰρ Ἰωάννης ὁ πρόδρομος ἐκήρυξε κἀκεῖσε τὸν Χριστόν· καὶ ἄκουσον τοῦ ἁγίου Πέτρου λέγοντος περὶ Χριστοῦ, ὅτι «Πορευθεὶς, φησὶν, ἐκήρυξε καὶ τοῖς ἐν ᾅδῃ πνεύμασι τοῖς ποτε ἀπειθήσασι.» Καὶ νῦν φέρεται εἰς ἀρχαίας παραδόσεις, ὅτι τις σχολαστικὸς πολλὰ κατηράσατο τὸν Πλάτωνα τὸν φιλόσοφον. Φαίνεται οὖν αὐτῷ καθ’ ὕπνους ὁ Πλάτων λέγων· Ἄνθρωπε, παῦσαι τοῦ καταρᾶσθαί με, σεαυτὸν γὰρ βλάπτεις, ὅτι μὲν ἄνθρωπος ἁμαρτωλὸς γέγονα· οὐκ ἀρνοῦμαι. Πλὴν κατελθόντος τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ, ὄντως οὐδεὶς ἐπίστευσε πρὸ ἐμοῦ εἰς αὐτόν. Ταῦτα δὲ ἀκούων, μὴ νομίσῃς εἶναι πάντοτε ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ μετάνοιαν· ἅπαξ γὰρ καὶ μόνον τοῦτο γέγονεν, ὅτι Χριστὸς ἐν τοῖς καταχθονίοις κατελήλυθε, τοὺς ἀπ’ αἰῶνος κεκοιμημένους ἐπισκέψασθαι. By no means should you anathematize someone who died before the coming of Christ. Even in Hades the preaching of Christ came, one single time. For John the Forerunner, going there beforehand, preached Christ. And hear what St. Peter has to say about Christ: “Going forth,” he says, “he preached even to those in Hades, who were sometime disobedient” (cf. 1 Peter 3:19-20). Now then, it is found in old tradition that there was a scholar who cursed the philosopher Plato exceedingly. So, during his sleep, Plato appeared to him and said, “Man, stop cursing me, you are only harming yourself. That I was a sinful man, I do not deny. But when Christ came down to Hades, there was in fact no one who believed in him before I did.” But when you hear these things, do not assume that there always exists [a possibility for] repentance in Hades; for this happened only once, because Christ had descended to those beneath the earth, so that he might visit those who had fallen asleep from all ages.

A very important article, which I thought worth sharing. Source: mintpressnews.

Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack

Rebels and local residents in Ghouta accuse Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan of providing chemical weapons to an al-Qaida linked rebel group.

By |August 29, 2013
This article is a collaboration between Dale Gavlak reporting for Mint Press News (also of the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh. 

Mideast-Syria_Muha1-e1377263904358
This image provided by by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, purports to show several bodies being buried in a suburb of Damascus, Syria during a funeral on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, following allegations of a chemical weapons attack that reportedly killed 355 people. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network)

Ghouta, Syria — As the machinery for a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria gathers pace following last week’s chemical weapons attack, the U.S. and its allies may be targeting the wrong culprit.

Interviews with people in Damascus and Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital, where the humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders said at least 355 people had died last week from what it believed to be a neurotoxic agent, appear to indicate as much.

The U.S., Britain, and France as well as the Arab League have accused the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for carrying out the chemical weapons attack, which mainly targeted civilians. U.S. warships are stationed in the Mediterranean Sea to launch military strikes against Syria in punishment for carrying out a massive chemical weapons attack. The U.S. and others are not interested in examining any contrary evidence, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying Monday that Assad’s guilt was “a judgment … already clear to the world.”

However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.

“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.

Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”

Ghouta townspeople said the rebels were using mosques and private houses to sleep while storing their weapons in tunnels.

Abdel-Moneim said his son and the others died during the chemical weapons attack. That same day, the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al-Qaida, announced that it would similarly attack civilians in the Assad regime’s heartland of Latakia on Syria’s western coast, in purported retaliation.

“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”

“When Saudi Prince Bandar gives such weapons to people, he must give them to those who know how to handle and use them,” she warned. She, like other Syrians, do not want to use their full names for fear of retribution.

A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named ‘J’ agreed. “Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said.

“We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” ‘J’ said.

Doctors who treated the chemical weapons attack victims cautioned interviewers to be careful about asking questions regarding who, exactly, was responsible for the deadly assault.

The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders added that health workers aiding 3,600 patients also reported experiencing similar symptoms, including frothing at the mouth, respiratory distress, convulsions and blurry vision. The group has not been able to independently verify the information.

More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.

Saudi involvement

In a recent article for Business Insider, reporter Geoffrey Ingersoll highlighted Saudi Prince Bandar’s role in the two-and-a-half year Syrian civil war. Many observers believe Bandar, with his close ties to Washington, has been at the very heart of the push for war by the U.S. against Assad.

Ingersoll referred to an article in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph about secret Russian-Saudi talks alleging that Bandar offered Russian President Vladimir Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad.

“Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord,” Ingersoll wrote.

“I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” Bandar allegedly told the Russians.

“Along with Saudi officials, the U.S. allegedly gave the Saudi intelligence chief the thumbs up to conduct these talks with Russia, which comes as no surprise,” Ingersoll wrote.

“Bandar is American-educated, both military and collegiate, served as a highly influential Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., and the CIA totally loves this guy” he added.

According to U.K.’s Independent newspaper, it was Prince Bandar’s intelligence agency that first brought allegations of the use of sarin gas by the regime to the attention of Western allies in February.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the CIA realized Saudi Arabia was “serious” about toppling Assad when the Saudi king named Prince Bandar to lead the effort.

“They believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout,” it said.

Bandar has been advancing Saudi Arabia’s top foreign policy goal, WSJ reported, of defeating Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

To that aim, Bandar worked Washington to back a program to arm and train rebels out of a planned military base in Jordan.

The newspaper reports that he met with the “uneasy Jordanians about such a base”:

His meetings in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah sometimes ran to eight hours in a single sitting. “The king would joke: ‘Oh, Bandar’s coming again? Let’s clear two days for the meeting,'” said a person familiar with the meetings.

Jordan’s financial dependence on Saudi Arabia may have given the Saudis strong leverage. An operations center in Jordan started going online in the summer of 2012, including an airstrip and warehouses for arms. Saudi-procured AK-47s and ammunition arrived, WSJ reported, citing Arab officials.

Although Saudi Arabia has officially maintained that it supported more moderate rebels, the newspaper reported that “funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar.”

But rebels interviewed said Prince Bandar is referred to as “al-Habib” or “the lover” by al-Qaida militants fighting in Syria.

Peter Oborne, writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, has issued a word of caution about Washington’s rush to punish the Assad regime with so-called ‘limited’ strikes not meant to overthrow the Syrian leader but diminish his capacity to use chemical weapons:

Consider this: the only beneficiaries from the atrocity were the rebels, previously losing the war, who now have Britain and America ready to intervene on their side. While there seems to be little doubt that chemical weapons were used, there is doubt about who deployed them.

It is important to remember that Assad has been accused of using poison gas against civilians before. But on that occasion, Carla del Ponte, a U.N. commissioner on Syria, concluded that the rebels, not Assad, were probably responsible.

Some information in this article could not be independently verified. Mint Press News will continue to provide further information and updates.

Dale Gavlak is a Middle East correspondent for Mint Press News and the Associated Press. Gavlak has been stationed in Amman, Jordan for the Associated Press for over two decades. An expert in Middle Eastern Affairs, Gavlak currently covers the Levant region of the Middle East for AP, National Public Radio and Mint Press News, writing on topics including politics, social issues and economic trends. Dale holds a M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago. Contact Dale at dgavlak@mintpressnews.com

Yahya Ababneh is a Jordanian freelance journalist and is currently working on a master’s degree in journalism. He has covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Libya. His stories have appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere.

In memoriam …

June 17, 2013

My father, Edgar Nelson Gilbert, died this past Saturday (June 15th). He was 89 years old; my family had hoped to celebrate his 90th birthday next month. Until recently he was, or appeared to be, in reasonably good health (he still occasionally drove his car, an old Pontiac station wagon); but, three weeks ago, he passed out in the hall outside his apartment and, falling, hit his head. The doctors, thinking his fainting had to do with a new pacemaker, gave him blood thinners; that unfortunately aggravated the wound to his head; when a second CAT scan was taken a few days later, it showed massive internal bleeding. His ability to speak and see and move progressively deteriorated; towards the middle of last week, he got a fever, and stopped eating.

My father worked for nearly half a century in the Mathematics department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey; he retired in 1996. I was surprised to learn, earlier this year, that there is a Wikipedia article on him; today I learned that the article exists also in French. When I used to ask my Dad what he did for a living, he would tell me that he “invented theorems.” A lot of his work was in the field of Information Theory. As best I understand it, this has to do with the mathematical representation of the flow of information, and the quantification of such factors as “noise” — something evidently of great importance in the design of telephone equipment. I learned, fairly early on, not to discuss mathematics with my father. When, as a less-than-highly-motivated high school student facing homework assignments in trigonometry or calculus, I would occasionally approach him with mathematical questions (sometimes prompted by my mother, who thought that my father surely would be helpful in this regard), his explanations inevitably left me with a deeper sense of my own incapacity than I had had in the first place: he assumed that I possessed at least some basic understanding of fundamental mathematical concepts, whereas that was precisely what I was hoping to gain by going to him. It must have grieved him to have so inept a son. Fortunately, my relations with my father were not confined to such incidents.

I suppose many American males have fond memories of playing baseball or football with their fathers; my father did not care for baseball or football, and that is not how I remember him. But I have other fond memories. I can remember, from early childhood, my father, sitting in the evening on the piano bench in the living room, with a music stand in front of him, practicing the classical guitar — something by Bach, or Fernando Sor, or Tarrega, or some other melancholy, stately piece of music, while I lay on the floor and drew pictures. I also remember him sitting in the basement, in front of an array of ham radio equipment with glowing dials, tapping out Morse code. I remember the clocks and the old radios and cameras he used to collect, and his photographs of mushrooms and radio towers. I remember how, on his 50th birthday, my father set up a transmitter and broadcast, for a couple of hours, 1920’s jazz on an impromptu AM station, something that was technically illegal — though, as the signal could be picked up only within a radius of a few blocks, he fortunately was not arrested. I remember him walking home from the beach on Long Island, barefooted and soaked, after a long swim. I remember him, in more recent years, playing duets on recorders with my sister on Long Island on the front or back porch. I know that the house on Long Island is going to feel dreadfully empty this summer.

I remember my father also in difficult times: how the death of my mother left him utterly dazed and bewildered, after he had borne with her long, slow decline for a number of sad years. I remember him standing by the bed when I was in the hospital. My father was a very quiet, private man, who didn’t easily express his emotions — which meant that such emotions as he did express were invariably genuine.

May his memory be eternal.

Edgar and Mina Gilbert, 1983

Edgar and Mina Gilbert, 1983

A petition is being presented to President Obama that he do what he can to obtain the release of the two Syrian archbishops who were abducted last week, and to see to a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. I signed the appeal today; I urge readers of my blog to do likewise. The petition can be signed at the following link: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/appeal-president-obama-and-his-government-release-two-abducted-orthodox-christian-archbishops-syria/xNskxL1q

The text of the petition reads as follows:

An appeal to President Obama and his government for the release of two abducted Orthodox Christian Archbishops in Syria.

An appeal to President Obama and his government for the release of two Orthodox Christian Archbishops, namely Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Archbishop Youhanna Ibrahim, who were abducted by armed rebels on April 23, 2013 in the suburbs of Aleppo, Syria. The driver of the Archbishops was murdered and the Archbishops were forced by the rebels to go to an unknown location either in Syria or in Turkey.

We appeal to you beloved in Christ and peace loving people to sign this petition urgently asking the American administration to use all its influence for the release of these two Archbishops and to bring a peaceful settlement to this bloodletting Syrian conflict through a negotiated settlement.

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