The meeting in Bari and the future of Eastern Christians

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The Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari, where the meeting convened by the Pope on 7 July will take place

The meeting in Bari and the future of Eastern Christians

By Gianni Valente/ lastampa.it

The Pope summons all the Patriarchs and Heads of the Eastern Churches who are not in full communion with Rome. In the hope of moving towards unity, and in the sake of the suffering Christian communities of the Middle East.

The “Day of Reflection and Prayer” that will gather in Bari on July 7 Pope Francis together with the heads of the Churches and Christian communities scattered throughout the Middle East, was announced in rather modest tones and without any pomp. Yet, this is a “first” in the history of ecumenism. For the first time the Bishop of Rome, formerly “Patriarch of the West” - until Benedict XVI suppressed that ancient papal title in 2006 - convened a prayer meeting with all the Patriarchs and heads of the Eastern Churches, who at different times, starting from the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) are no longer in full communion with the Church of Rome.

In recent decades - starting from the Day of Prayer for Peace convened in Assisi on 27 October 1986 by Wojtyla - there have been numerous inter-religious gatherings at the Popes request to invoke the gift of peace together with Christian representatives and leaders of different religions. John Paul II himself summoned a Day of Prayer for Peace on 24 January 2002 in Assisi after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, while Benedict XVI always took part in the Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace in Assisi to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Wojtyla’s historic “event” of 1986. With all due respect to all these events, the day Pope Francis summoned in Bari has however a physiognomy of its own: the appeal is specifically limited to the heads of the Churches and of the Christian communities of the Middle East area.

The precedent that most seems to resemble the next meeting in Bari was the meeting that in March 1991, a few days after the end of the first Gulf War, brought together in Rome, around John Paul II, the representatives of the episcopates of the countries most involved in that conflict. But on that occasion, only Patriarchs and Bishops of the Catholic Churches of the East took part in the meeting, along with Western Catholic Bishops and Cardinals and senior prelates of the Roman Curia.

A suggestion from Assyrian Patriarch Gewargis
The lack of emphasis marking the announcement of the next meeting in Bari - a city defined as the “window on the East” in the briefing given on the subject by the director of the Vatican Press Office, Greg Burke - allows to perceive - by contrast - the path taken in the years of Francis’ pontificate, who insists on pointing to ecumenism as Christians “walking together” throughout history towards full communion.

In his desire to recognize the unity – that already exists and works among all Christians by virtue of baptism - the current Successor of Peter has always kept open a sort of fast lane for the Patriarchs and the heads of the Eastern Churches, showing particular concern especially for those who reside in Middle Eastern countries savaged by conflicts and sectarian violence. From Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, from Coptic Pope Tawadros to the Armenians Karekin and Aram, almost all heads of the Eastern Non-Catholic Churches have had more than one occasion to live meetings of communion with the Bishop of Rome.

In December 2016, during his visit to the Vatican, the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Gewargis III himself proposed to Pope Francis to convene a meeting of the Patriarchs and Heads of the Eastern Churches to “discuss the situation in the Middle East, pray together, seek solutions to the problems”. According to the Assyrian Patriarch - as Mar Gewargis himself had confided to Vatican Insider - precisely “the times we are living call us to also give this sign of unity”.

Christian unity within the events of history
Between the Church of Rome and the Churches of the East the way to recognize oneself as brothers and sisters is always kept within the horizon of a possible restoration of full sacramental communion. A hope that pushes to face and shorten the theological and doctrinal distances, but that is also nourished by the common concern for the suffering Middle Eastern Christian communities, and for the uncertain future of Christianity precisely in the lands where the Apostles preached.

The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East inevitably give the next meeting in Bari “geo-political” connotations of interest. In the choir, amid the Heads of the Eastern Churches’ at-times chaotic and contradictory public interventions, some critical voices have recently returned to prevail over the policies of Western powers. On 14 April the three Patriarchs resident in Damascus with the Antioch title - the Greek Orthodox Yohanna X, the Greek Melkite Youssef and the Syrian Orthodox Ignatius Aphrem II - signed a document together to condemn the “brutal aggression” carried out by the USA, France and the United Kingdom against Syria, “with the accusation that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons”.

Last December, the announced intention of the US Administration to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel produced several side effects including a widespread ecumenical recomposition of all the Christian communities present in the Middle East, with the representatives of all the Churches competing publicly to express their compact opposition to Trump’s decision.

It is not by chance that several high representatives of the Middle Eastern Churches - including the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs Theophilus of Jerusalem and Yohanna X of Antioch - were received by Vladimir Putin on 4 December last, together with all the heads of delegation of the Orthodox Churches who arrived in Moscow to participate in the celebrations scheduled for the hundredth anniversary of the restoration of the Patriarchate in the Russian Orthodox Church. On that occasion, in his speech, President Putin recalled that the contribution of the Russian military had allowed the Syrian army to “free even the areas of Syria most dear to Christians from terrorists”. And he added that the collaboration between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Catholic Church could have a “determining role” in encouraging the return of Christian refugees to their homes, in the regions liberated from the Jihadists’ control.

The geo-politics of the Middle Eastern conflicts are not, however, the only dimensions to keep in mind in order to face the problems and difficulties that afflict so many Christian communities in the Middle East. It is precisely the conflicts and historical turmoil of recent years, that have highlighted the treasures of faith scattered among Christians in the Middle East, but also the internal fragilities and weaknesses of many ecclesial apparatuses rooted in those lands. The next meeting in Bari could also provide an opportunity to address with apostolic courage all the factors that weaken “from within” the Christian presence in the Middle East. By leaving aside the illusion that to keep alive communities with a thousand years of history, it would be enough to raise funds in the West or provide external help from some powerful “protector of Christians”.

Sat, 04/28/2018 - 11:30
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