Bari (AsiaNews) – Peace for the Middle East, which has “been covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect. All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many”. It is the invocation that arises from Bari where, invited by Pope Francis, the Churches and Christian communities present in the region are united in prayer.
Where “there are the roots of our own souls”, “Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference. We want to give a voice to those who have none, to those who can only wipe away their tears. For the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches”.
Flanked by all the Catholic patriarchs – Copt of Alexandria, Syrian of Antioch, Antioch of the Maronites, Antioch of the Greek-Melkites, Nanilonia of the Chaldeans, Cilicia of the Armenians, and Latin of Jerusalem – there are the Orthodox in the uncommon formation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate alongside that of Moscow. Next to Bartholomew is in fact Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, “foreign minister” of the Moscow Patriarchate. And there is also Theodoros II, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and of all Africa, Archbishop Nektarios, representing Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Ignatius Aphrem II Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, Hovakim, bishop of the Armenian Church of Great Britain and Iceland representing Karekin II supreme patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians, Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia of the Armenians, Mar Gewargis III, Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.
For the Lutherans there is Sani Ibrahim Azar, bishop of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. And there is also a woman, Souraya Bechealany, general secretary ad interm of the Middle East Council of the Churches.
A meeting with the theme “Peace be with you! Christians together for the Middle East “began with the embrace of peace among the religious leaders present who, together, paid homage to St. Nicholas, in the basilica that preserves his relics, and lit the “single light” lamp, a sign of unity between Christians.
The Pope and the Patriarchs subsequently boarded buses and went to the “Rotonda” on the seafront of Bari where the prayer meeting took place with the participation of tens of thousands of people.
Francis said “We have come as pilgrims to Bari, this window open to the Near East, carrying in our hearts our Churches, our peoples and all those living in situations of great suffering. We are saying to them, “We are close to you”. I thank you from my heart, dear brothers, for coming here so generously and willingly. I am also profoundly grateful to all our hosts in this city of acceptance and encounter. The Mother of God sustains us as we journey together. Here in Bari she is venerated as Hodegetria: the one who shows us the way. Here lie the relics of Saint Nicholas, the Oriental Bishop whose veneration crosses seas and bridges boundaries between Churches. May Nicholas, the wonder-worker, intercede to heal the wounds that so many people bear within them. Here, as we contemplate the horizon and the sea, we feel drawn to live this day with minds and hearts turned towards the Middle East, the crossroads of civilizations and the cradle of the great monotheistic religions”.
“From the Middle East the Lord, the “sun from on high” (Lk 1:78), came forth to visit us. From there, the light of faith spread throughout the world. There ever-fresh streams of spirituality and monasticism have their source. There ancient and unique rites are preserved, together with an inestimable patrimony of sacred art and theology. There the heritage of our great Fathers in the faith lives on. This tradition is a treasure to be preserved to the utmost of our ability, for in the Middle East our very souls are rooted”.
“Yet this region so full of light, especially in recent years, has been covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect. All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many. The Middle East has become a land of people who leave their own lands behind. There is also the danger that the presence of our brothers and sisters in the faith will disappear, disfiguring the very face of the region. For a Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East”.
“This day begins with our prayer that God’s light may disperse the darkness of the world. We have already lit, before Saint Nicholas, the “one-flame lamp”, a symbol of the one Church. Today, as one, we want to kindle a flame of hope. May the lamps we will place be so many signs of a light that continues to shine forth in the dark. Christians are the light of the world (cf. Mt 5:14) not only when everything is bright around them, but also when, in dark moments of history, they refuse to be resigned to the encircling gloom but instead feed the wick of hope with the oil of prayer and love. For when we lift up our hands to heaven in prayer, and we stretch out our hands to our brothers and sisters without seeking our own advantage, then the fire of the Spirit, the Spirit of unity and of peace, is kindled and leaps into flame”.
“Let us pray as one, begging the Lord of heaven for that peace which the powerful of our world have not yet been able to find. From the waters of the Nile to the Jordan Valley and beyond, through the Orontes to the Tigris and the Euphrates, may the plea of the Psalm resound: “Peace be upon you!” (122:8). For all our suffering brothers and sisters, and for our friends of every people and creed, let us say again and again: Peace be upon you! With the Psalmist, let us offer this prayer in a special way for Jerusalem, the holy city beloved of God and wounded by men, for which the Lord continues to weep: Peace be upon you! Let there be peace! This is the cry of all those who are Abel today, a cry that rises up to God’s throne. For their sake, we have no right, in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference. We want to give a voice to those who have none, to those who can only wipe away their tears. For the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches. On behalf of the little ones, the simple ones, the wounded, and all those at whose side God stands, let us beg, “Let there be peace!” May the “God of all consolation” (2 Cor 1:3), who heals the broken-hearted and binds up every wound (cf. Ps 147:3), hear our prayer”.
Prayers and songs in Arabic and Greek followed Francis’ words. Then the Patriarch Bartholomew in Greek asked: “Lord Jesus Christ … inspire good things in the hearts of those who want war and pacify our hearts too, free us and all men from evil and selfish desires and sow in our and their hearts a spirit of justice, reconciliation and love for all our brothers “.
The Pope and patriarchs went on to light symbolic lamps (in the picture). All together, they returned to the Basilica of St. Nicholas for a closed door meeting to talk about the situation of Christians who were once 20% of the population of the Middle East before the First World War, and now are 4%.
The Catholic Church would like to assert the principle that all citizens are equal regardless of race or religion in the countries of the Middle East. A principal that in the West seems obvious – even if today someone calls it into question. Hence the equal rights for each person, including that of religious freedom. A principle the Catholic Church considers fundamental for peaceful coexistence. (FP)