The prayers and dialogues between the heads of the Eastern Churches and the Pope in the city of St Nicholas do not represent a “strategic summit” to mimic the meetings of political leaders but an opportunity to share a look of faith on the events of today’s martyrdom.
The Bishop of the Church of Rome, the one “who presides in charity” (Saint Ignatius of Antioch), summoned the Patriarchs and the heads of the Eastern Churches to Bari, inviting them to pray together for peace in that region.Almost everyone will come, from the Coptic Pope Tawadros to the Armenian Catholicos Aram I, from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to Metropolitan Hilarion, High Representative of the Patriarchate of Moscow. It will be an unprecedented event, never happened in history. But the occasion does not call for grandstand tones or triumphalism. The heads of the Churches, in some parts of the East, will talk about how they see the Christian presence thinning out in lands from where the proclamation of Christ has spread throughout the world, and where now Christianity seems to be on the verge of extinction.
The Bari meeting does not appear to be a strategic summit conceived to mimick the summit meetings of political leaders. It shouldn’t even be reduced to a parade of clerical jet-set. No “final document” will be drawn up. There will be no elaborate plans of resistance and counteroffensive. After the prayer, the the heads of the Churches will pray and dialogue behind closed doors, softening whatever limelight might there be. It will be an opportunity to speak and listen, and to help each other – above all – to look through the eyes of faith at what is happening in the Middle East.
What makes the meeting in Bari so precious is above all the presence of almost all the heads of the Churches who have lived through the convulsions of the Middle East over the last few decades. They do not represent a compact phalanx: among some of them there are differences which can’t be considered secondary in judging the facts and phenomena of the present time. In recent years many of them have suggested criteria and provided valuable details to grasp what is happening in the Middle East and to Christians in living in that area, yet they have almost always been ignored. Out of commonplaces and political operations that in the West continue to be sewn on the skin of Middle Eastern Christian communities.
Everybody is Suffering
The heads of the Churches present in the Middle East tend not to isolate the sufferings of Christians from those of the rest of the Middle Eastern peoples. “In recent years,” Chaldean Patriarch (and now Cardinal) Louis Raphael Sako said, “Christians have suffered injustice, violence and terrorism. But this also happened to their other Iraqi Muslim brothers, and to those of other religious faiths. There is no need to separate Christians from others, because in this way the sectarian mentality is nourished”. Those who hold in high regard the baptized killed in the Arab and Middle Eastern countries recognize that in recent times Coptic Christians in Egypt have been targeted massacres, along with murders, kidnappings, assaults and destruction of churches, deportations and mass escapes. But as the Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Raï reiterated, when there is chaos in the Middle East “Christians get caught in the middle, it always happens so. But we cannot speak of real and systematic persecution, let alone genocide… Christians are victims like everyone else, and the 12 million Syrians who have had to flee their homes are not Christians”. The atrocities perpetrated by the Jihadists have persecuted “more the Moslems than the Christians”. “It worries me”, once said Antoine Audo, Chaldean bishop of Aleppo and responsible for Caritas in Syria, “the use of cases of persecution as a propaganda tool to raise money. As Christians, we desire justice for all, and when Christians are persecuted, we report the stories. But let us not use the suffering of Christians to accuse others or to feed our own interests. These phenomena represent a real danger, even for the Churches of the Middle East”.
The “enemy” is not Islam
Even in recent years, with rare exceptions, those responsible for Christian communities in the Middle East have always avoided attributing to Islam the violence and abuses of which they were victims. Jihadist barbarity is a religious disease that has developed among Islamic communities. The power struggles, as Orthodox Syrian Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, who has his seat in Damascus, said, have used “also an aberrant religious ideology that claims to refer to the Koran. And it can do so because in Islam there is no authority structure with enough strength to provide an authentic interpretation of the Koran and to disavow these preachers of hatred with authority”. But the Christian leaders of the Middle East have never denied the common destiny that binds them to the major Islamic communities: “We – said Patriarch Raï – want to remain in our land, along with the Muslims, where we have lived together for 1400 years, and we want to remain in the name of the Gospel. We have created a culture together, a civilization together.
Suspicion over the wannabe “protectors”
The Eastern Christian communities repeat like a mantra that they are not a foreign body exported into those lands by other civilizations. They obstinately continue to reaffirm their character as Churches born from the preaching of the apostles and therefore their indelible autochthonous character, which in some cases – such as that of the Copts or Assyrians – in the early centuries of Christianity even exposed them to the abuse of power by soldiers and officials of the Byzantine Christian Empire. Middle Eastern Christians remain an uncomfortable presence for all those who want to divide the world along the ethnic-religious faults of real or presumed “clashes of civilizations”. For this reason, too, the Bari gathering does not deserve to be reduced to an expression of a political alliance between ecclesiastical apparatuses to make a “common front” against someone, and even less to think of it as an appeal to invoke geo-political protections and sponsorships from the outside.
In August 2016, the Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II publicly distanced himself from the demonstrations promoted in the USA by Coptic diaspora groups in protest against the sectarian violence suffered by the Coptic Christian communities in various areas of Egyptian territory. The Coptic Orthodox Pope disavowed the vast program of demonstration initiatives set forth especially in the United States under the banner of the “defense” of Christians in the Middle East, stating that: “We in Egypt know how to deal better with our problems and setbacks”. While the Maronite Patriarch recalled that also in the past the forms of “protectorate” exercised by Western powers against the Christians of the East “did more harm than good”, seeing that “the States do only their interests, and the Christians were identified as a foreign body, to be expelled. While we were born in our lands, and we were able to live even under the most dictatorial regimes”.
Martyrdom minus the propaganda of “persecution”
In Bari, some patriarchs and heads of the Eastern Churches will have the opportunity to propose anew the gaze of faith that they usually bear witness to in the face of the experiences of martyrdom lived by their communities. “Our martyrs, and the act of martyrdom in itself,” said Coptic Pope Tawadros in December 2016, celebrating the funeral of the massacre perpetrated in the church of Botrosiya, “unite us to Heaven and make our hearts rise to those who are already there, and from there intercede for us …”. “We bid farewell to our loved ones with a spirit of praise”, added the Primate of the Coptic Orthodox Church, “because we believe that there is no death for those who love God: they will be raised in joy to eternal life”.
For many Eastern Christians, possible martyrdom is not seen as an anomaly to be erased or as an incidental situation against which to mobilize, protest and raise one’s voice. Their very existence represents a ridge to the counterfeits that place the sufferings of the baptized under the stigma of fear, of revenge against any enemy. And it is precisely the objective factors of helplessness entrusted to grace, which characterize the experience of many Middle Eastern Christians, that make their communities a sign and a prefiguration of the proper and real condition of the faith and of the Church throughout history, beyond any victimisation and any pathetic clerical triumphalism.
For this reason – once said Aram I, Armenian Apostolic Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia – it is always convenient “to find Christian ways to express closeness to the Christians of the Middle East. We must avoid the two extremes. The extreme of those who frantically say that something must be done and go to the Middle East to protect Christians. And the opposite extreme, of immobility that becomes indifference. Everyone must see that Christians in the Middle East are not left alone. They are part of one Church of Christ, they are part of the one Body of Christ”.
Source: Vatican Insider