Francis bringing walls down with the Orthodox for Middle East peace

Pope Francis with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Greece in April 2016

Francis bringing walls down with the Orthodox for Middle East peace

By Inés San Martín/ and Hannah Brockhaus/

With peace in the Middle East as the goal, Pope Francis on Saturday, June 7, will host an ecumenical prayer in the southern Italian city of Bari to be attended by the representatives of the Christian churches with a presence in the region, including the Russian Orthodox Church.

The pilgrimage to Bari, an ecumenical city par excellence due to the presence of the remains of St. Nicholas of Bari, venerated both by Catholics and Orthodox, has the motto of “Peace be upon you! Christians Together for the Middle East.”

“Pope Francis has always had gestures of friendship, welcoming, openness, of bringing walls down with the Oriental and Orthodox patriarchs,” said Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches.

“He’s been close to them also through the term he’s coined of an ‘ecumenism of blood’,” Sandri said at a press conference held in Rome on Tuesday, July 3. “There’s a long way still for the unity of the Church, but we are already united through these martyrs that Catholics and Orthodox share.”

Speaking about victims of terrorism and violence, Sandri said that they are not “chosen: everyone is affected.”

“When God’s name, peace, is desecrated, the victims are Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and people of other religions,” he said.

The scope of the event is for the Christian leaders to come together to pray for a region that, due to ongoing conflicts and persecution, is seeing the Christian population diminishing year after year.

“The Middle East, a land of origins, is one of the regions of the world where the situation of Christians is most precarious,” said Cardinal Kurt Koch of Switzerland, head of the Vatican’s office dedicated to promoting Christian Unity.
Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, the prelate noted that while Christians represented 20 percent of the population in the region before World War I, today they are only four percent in this “martyred region.”

As an example, in Iraq alone, the number of Christians has gone from 1.5 million in 2003 to an estimated 300,000 today.

According to Koch, Christians will only remain in the region if peace is restored, and this is one reason why the Catholic Church has always worked for peace, particularly a peace achieved through political solutions.

“It’s not possible to imagine a Middle East without Christians, not only for political reasons, but because they are essential for the equilibrium of the region,” Koch said.

Among the Christian leaders who answered Pope Francis’s call are the heads of Orthodox churches, Oriental Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, members of Catholic Oriental churches, a representative for the Lutheran Church, and one for the Middle East Council of Churches.

A majority of the 19 leaders attending are patriarchs or heads of churches. Only five are sending a representative, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch.
Despite signs of rapprochement in recent years, including a historic first meeting with the head of the Catholic Church, the intention of the prayer service and the importance of Bari as a pilgrimage site for his own faithful, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will not attend the gathering. However, he is sending his right-hand man, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, as his representative.

According to Sandri, the idea has been in the works for some time and comes from requests Francis received from the various churches or patriarchs from the Middle East.

Bari is considered a holy city for the Eastern European churches because of the basilica dedicated to Nicholas, known to many as the saint who gives gifts to children on Christmas. Children around the world call him Santa Claus.
This is not Francis’s first prayer initiative for peace in the Middle East.

The pontiff has also called on Christians from all over the world to join the initiative by praying from where they are.

Bari archbishop says papal visit will focus on ecumenism

Pope Francis’ visit to Bari will have a strong ecumenical focus, the city's archbishop has said.

The day of prayer and reflection will include leaders of Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the Middle East, and will have an “authentically ecumenical breath,” Archbishop Francesco Cacucci of Bari-Bitonto told Vatican News.

He said the day’s events will “combine the ecumenical vision of the Christian Churches and [give] particular attention to the Middle East, to invoke peace, but also to be close to our Christian brothers, who live in suffering.”

Fri, 07/06/2018 - 09:57
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