BARI, ITALY – On Saturday, July 7, 2018, His Holiness Pope Francis along with 19 Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Church leaders converged and prayed for peace in the Middle East. “Peace be upon you, Christians together for the Middle East” was the theme of the ecumenical meeting that took place in Bari, a city known as the “Eastern gate” and a bridge between Eastern and Western Christianity.
The meeting at Bari consisted of two parts; a prayer with the faithful at the seafront of the city and a closed-door dialogue with the 19 Eastern Church leaders, that included HB Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, HB Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Mar Gewargis II; Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans and Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Prayers for peace for a troubled region
The prayer initiative in Bari echoes many prayers for peace that Pope Francis had called for since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church. In many appeals and messages over the years, he urged people to pray for peace in the troubled regions of the Middle East, which have for decades been implicated in wars and tragedies, and resulted in the falling of regimes and the displacement and suffering of peoples in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and the Holy Land.
In 2014, he invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his counterpart Shimon Peres to pray for peace, offering his home as place of encounter. Today at Bari, in his address at the conclusion of the Bari meeting, the Pope said “only a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians… will be able to lead to a stable and lasting peace, and guarantee the coexistence of two states for two peoples.”
Last May and in light of the “heartrending” situation in Gaza, the Pontiff “united himself spiritually” to a prayer vigil that took place in Jerusalem, “holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims”. Again today, he recalled this sacred identity of the city emphasizing on the respect of the status quo as requested by Christian communities of the Holy Land.
In Bari, the ecumenical meeting and prayer came to raise a recurring concern of the Church; the dramatic fall in the percentage of Christians in the Middle East. During a press conference in preparation of the meeting, Cardinal Kurt Koch said that Middle Eastern Christians “represented 20% of the population before the First World War, and now they make up only 4%.”
“The Middle East has been covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect,” said Pope Francis in his introductory address at the meeting. “There is 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.”
Islamic Christian Commission’s letter to Pope Francis and Eastern Church leaders
In a letter sent two days before the meeting in Bari, the Islamic Christian Commission in Support of Jerusalem and the Holy Sites asked Pope Francis and the Eastern Church leaders to take into consideration the cause of Jerusalem and what “the holy city and Christians endure as a result of all forms of judaization and restrictions by the Israeli occupation,” pointing out to a proposed Israeli legislation, which they say it aims at expropriating church property in Jerusalem and the decision to impose taxes on its properties.
Last June, concerns resurfaced when leaders of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate received information that Israeli “government officials are attempting to speedily advance the legislation of the controversial bill, which is intended to expropriate rights of churches in their lands,” saying that it “constitutes a systematic and unprecedented attack against the Christians of the Land and violates the most basic rights.”
The letter also lamented Christian emigration in the Palestinian society, where Christians nowadays comprise less than 1% of the population in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. “Most of Palestinian Christians emigrated to other countries for different reasons, which include the control of lands by the Israeli occupation and the poor economic situation,” said Mr. Hanna Issa, general secretary of the commission. “Should Christian emigration continues; it will leave the city of Christ without Christians.”
The commission concluded its letter by reminding that the holy city and its people need support in all walks of life, especially a financial one that allow its citizens to stand firm against any attempts of judaization.
Bari: “a window on the East that guards the relics of St. Nicholas”
The Pope’s choice to hold the prayer and meeting in Bari was not a coincidence. This Italian port city is a pilgrimage destination and the home of the basilica and relics of Saint Nicholas. “Bari, the city that conserves the relics of Saint Nicholas…is a symbolic place,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri. “The presence of the East in the West, a place of pilgrimage and a gateway for hope.”
Revered by Catholics and Orthodox Christians alike, the Archbishop of Myra was known as the Wonderworker because of his many miracles in the East and the West. In Palestine, Saint Nicholas is the patron and protector of the city of Beit Jala. According to tradition, the Saint was said to have lived there in a cave for a year, and thus an Orthodox Church was built in his honor.
Each year, his feast on December 19th gathers faithful from the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The people of Beit Jala attribute many miracles to him. In 1948, Patriach Giacomo Giuseppe Beltritti, Parish priest of Beit Jala at the time, was said to have seen St. Nicholas shielding the city from bombs, an event that prompted him to deliver this news to Rome. The Vatican then sent an icon of St. Nicholas to be placed at the Latin Church of the Annunciation in Beit Jala in honor of the Saint, protector of the city.
Saher Kawas Article photo: ©Vatican News