Church in Middle East involved in the struggle
ROME – On Thursday November 21 at the Vatican, Pope Francis will preside over an important meeting on the situation of Christians of the Middle East, in the turbulent atmosphere affecting the region. This meeting is in the context of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Eastern Churches which assembles, from November 19-22, twelve Eastern Patriarchs and Archbishops. Christian emigration from the Middle East and the Legacy of Council Vatican II for Eastern Churches will be discussed.
A double suicide bombing – killing 24 people and wounding nearly 150 – near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, haunts the Lebanese press with the risk of a regional conflagration. This criminal act constitutes an unprecedented escalation in the context of the war in Syria, knowing that Iran is a main supporter of Bashar el Assad’s regime. It is in this very tense regional context that Eastern Churches’ Patriarchs and Archbishops will meet Pope Francis in Rome tomorrow morning to highlight the situation of their communities and “to reflect on the real possibilities of peace in Syria, the Holy Land and the Middle East”, as announced by Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches last October 26, in his opening speech of the 2013-2014 academic year of the Oriental Pontifical Institute. Earlier in the morning, at 0800 hrs, the Cardinal Prefect will celebrate, at St. Peter’s Basilica, a Mass for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land, Syria, Iraq, Egypt.
This encounter with the Pope takes place, at a time when all major figures of the Eastern Catholic Churches are gathered in Rome for the plenary session of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, which will finish with a press conference on November 22, at 1700 hrs. Among the Eastern prelates, we note the presence of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Msgr Fouad Twal; the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Butros Rai; the Syrian Patriarch, Antoine Audo, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo; the Syrian Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius Lahham III; the Iraqi Patriarch of Chaldeans, Louis Raphael I Sako; the Coptic Catholic Patriarch, Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak; and the Armenian Patriarch. This plenary meeting entitled “The Catholic Oriental Churches 50 years after Council Vatican II” invites Patriarchs to reflect on the “valuable heritage” of the Council, and more particularly on the decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum and the 1990 Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches, as well as on the Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen of John Paul II and the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente of Benedict XVI. These works should facilitate assessment on “the growing sensitivity of the Universal Church for Eastern Catholics, considering more particularly the emigration phenomenon”, at a time of war in Syria, instability in Iraq and in Lebanon, recent events in Egypt and the rise of Islamism, all of deep concern to the Christian minorities of the East.
The emigration of Eastern Christians is a source of serious concern for local Patriarchs. The Synod on the Middle East organized in Rome in October 2010 led to the “sixth final proposal of the Synod Fathers”, calling on Christians to hold on to their land and not yield to the temptation of selling their landed estates. Needless to recall here, the speech of Benedict XVI to the young Lebanese on September 15, 2012. The Pope urged them then not to “taste the bitter honey of emigration” , despite the difficulties, unemployment and instability. In the face of Islam, the Eastern Christian Catholic Communities attached to Rome and the Orthodox Churches happen to be in a harsh situation, on religious, security, social, and economic levels. Christians of the East are now estimated to number between 10 and 13 million. They represent 36% of Lebanese, 10% of Egyptians, 5,5% of Jordanians, 5% of Syrians, 1 to 2% of Iraqis, 2% of Israelis, 1.2% of Palestinians, according to Oeuvre d’Orient statistics.
Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius III Lahham, residing in Damascus, took advantage of his trip to the Vatican to launch an appeal: “I tell my children, stay in your country”. He further stated to Agence France-Presse that he urged European countries not to “encourage” Syrian Christians to emigrate. Iraqi Patriarch Sako also denounced, on Vatican Radio, issuing visas to Iraqi Christians by Western Embassies: “There is a whole strategy behind helping Christians to leave Iraq”, even in Northern areas where they are not threatened. According to him, “the Middle East will be void of Christians” at a time “their presence, their qualifications, and their openness are vital”. It should be noted that emigration takes place also within the region itself, which accounts yet more for their instability: they are tens of thousands of Syrian Christians crossing to Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, and these countries do not have the means, economically and health care, to handle these difficulties.
Peace in the Holy Land, priority for the region
Peace in the Middle East without doubt seems the only means to contain the emigration. This peace, as is often addressed by Patriarch Fouad Twal, passes through Jerusalem and the Holy Land and it places “the Israeli–Palestinian conflict at the heart of all problems of the Middle East, directly or indirectly”. The Greek Catholic Patriarch, Msgr Gregorius III Lahham, stated to “Aid to the Church in Need” that “at the end of the day, we need to have peace in the Holy Land. The Vatican has at all times committed itself in favor of the rights of Palestinians. But we now need a concerted diplomatic move by the Holy See and its Nuncios throughout the whole world. The resolution of the Palestinian conflict, together with the issue of Syria, is the key to peace in the region”. In the same context, following the suicide bombing yesterday in Lebanon, Vatican Radio seized the reaction of Cardinal Rai, Maronite Patriarch: “We strongly condemn this act of terrorism. Accordingly, we would like to add that the international community holds a share of responsibility. Geneva II Conference should however take place, in order to solve the Syrian conflict and the on-going struggle in Iraq, Egypt and more especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of this is the general context of the bitterness and turmoil, everywhere”.
The Heads of Churches expect therefore much from their meeting with the Pope, praying that the Holy See may carry on “its diplomatic action so that a peaceful solution could cover the whole Middle East, a long-time tormented and suffering”, said Cardinal Rai.
After the election of the Pope, several Patriarchs expressed the wish that Pope Francis would visit the region, himself having declared a Day of Prayer early in September for peace in Syria, closely followed by Churches opposed to any shape of foreign military intervention. Thursday’s meeting could also “pave the way before an eventual visit of the Holy Father to the Holy Land, taking stock of the diplomatic negotiations with the Israeli Government”, as suggested by Msgr Pascal Gollnisch, Director General of Oeuvre d’Orient. It is worth adding that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have invited the Holy Father to come to the Holy Land next year. The Latin Patriarchal Vicar in Jordan has also confirmed that Pope Francis could also travel to Jordan next Spring. For the time being, Sunday November 24, feast day of Christ the King, leaders of Oriental Churches will concelebrate alongside the Supreme Pontiff the concluding Mass of the Year of Faith, as a sign of fellowship with the Successor of Peter. A con-celebration re-echoing March 19, 2013, the beginning of the Pontificate of Pope Francis, which “will serve as a testimonial of their desire to live in deep fellowship with the Successor of Peter, the mission entrusted by the Council to their Churches: to witness extensively to Faith and to promote unity of Christians, especially Eastern”.