Orthodox leader calls for Iraq withdrawal
Oct. 29

By Bob Schwarz
Staff writer
The longtime North American leader of an Orthodox Christian church said Saturday that President Bush shouldn’t have invaded Iraq and should pull American troops out by next spring.
Metropolitan Philip Saliba, archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America the last 40 years, came to Charleston this weekend to proclaim St. George Orthodox Church a cathedral. Saliba will make the official proclamation at the morning service today at St. George, where he spoke with a reporter Saturday.
After growing up in a village in Lebanon, Saliba is one of 20 archbishops of the Antiochian (Lebanese-Syrian) strand of the Eastern Orthodox rite, that part of Christianity that broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century.
When the 20 Antiochian archbishops gather for a synod in Damascus every few years, Saliba goes back to Syria and the Middle East for a fresh look.
He doesn’t like what he sees.
“I want our president to play an active and evenhanded role in bringing peace to that area,” Saliba said. “Unfortunately, his policy has brought a disaster to our own country and the Middle East.”
Saliba said he opposed the invasion of Iraq from the outset.
“We have many voices against the war today,” he said. “Where were they when the war started? Where were all the pundits?”
Saliba said he was no defender of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but he didn’t see why Bush wanted to invade Iraq to replace him. “Under the dictatorship of Saddam, they had a semblance of order,” he said. “Now they have utter chaos.”
Saliba said the number of young Americans killed so far in Iraq is nearing 3,000, and the number of Iraqis killed since the invasion is 600,000.
(The latter figure is a point of contention. A Johns Hopkins University study recently pegged the Iraqi death toll at 600,000, while Bush put the figure at 30,000 last December, and Iraq’s Health Ministry has estimated 50,000 violent deaths through June.)
America’s leaders should pull American soldiers out within six months and stop the spilling of American and Iraqi blood, Saliba said.
Saliba came to America in his mid-20s, settling in Detroit and attending Wayne State University, where he graduated in 1958 with a major in history and a minor in English literature.
He became an Orthodox priest the next year, having begun his theological studies in 1953 in England. He became archbishop in 1966, presiding over a network consisting then of 65 parishes.
“I’m not a one-man show anymore,” he said. “Now I have six bishops who help me.”
The 112-year-old archdiocese extends from Miami to Alaska, from New York to Los Angeles and from Montreal to Beaumont, Texas. The number of parishes has grown to roughly 250. Saliba directly runs the Diocese of New York and Washington. His bishops run the other six dioceses.
He said he expects the various national strands of the Eastern Orthodox rite to someday unite.
“It’s inevitable, but when I don’t know,” he said. “My archdiocese has been totally committed to this. But we can’t do it by ourselves. We have to convince the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbians, Ukrainians, Romanians and others.”
Saliba, 75, has met with most U.S. presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, though Eisenhower was an ex-president by then. The exceptions are Presidents Nixon and Kennedy, who “died too soon,” he said.
When Saliba retires or finds the time, he wants to write a book titled, “My Meetings with Presidents of the United States,” he said.
He had glowing words for the members of the Charleston church.
St. George has contributed more than its share of businessmen, doctors and professionals to the community, Saliba said. “They made their marks on the sands of time. I, as their bishop, am proud of them.”
As of today, Bishop Thomas Joseph will preside over a five-state diocese that has one cathedral here and one in the Oakland district of Pittsburgh. Besides West Virginia, the diocese covers Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
To contact staff writer Bob Schwarz, use e-mail or call 348-1249.