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The Church in the World
Pope Francis has called heads of the Oriental Catholic Churches in the Middle East to join him for a summit in Rome next month to discuss the “real possibilities for peace” in Syria, Iraq and the Holy Land.
As the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported last month in its 2011-2013 executive summary, Middle Eastern Christians are experiencing ever-increasing persecution. The Christian population of Iraq, which stood at 1.4 million 10 years ago, today stands at 300,000. Two million Syrians have fled the civil war there, a significant proportion of them Christians. Meanwhile, 200,000 Christians have fled Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The one-day meeting is to take place in Rome on 21 November. The Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, announced the special gathering last Saturday, with all the patriarchs and major archbishops of the Oriental Catholic Churches invited. They will already be in Rome for the congregation’s 19-21 November plenary assembly.
L’Osservatore Romano said the summit would be an opportunity to “raise a collegial prayer for Christians from those martyred countries” in the Middle East. It noted that Pope Benedict held a similar meeting with Eastern Church leaders in 2009. A report on Monday posted on the website of www.holylandreview.net said sources in the Roman Curia were “keen to point out that this will not be a special summit”, but merely “part of the plenary”. The article said the purpose was to help Pope Francis “learn more about the situation facing Christians in Syria, the Holy Land and the wider Middle East”.
Nonetheless, the meeting follows a number of initiatives the Pope has launched to concretely promote peace in the region, particularly in Syria. In a personal letter to leaders of the G8 early last month he urged Western nations to avoid the “futile pursuit” of military strikes as a response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. He also instructed the Vatican’s equivalent of Foreign Minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, to brief ambassadors to the Holy See on the Vatican’s position on Syria. Pope Francis punctuated the two diplomatic initiatives on 7 September by leading tens of thousands in St Peter’s Square in a prayer vigil for peace in the war-torn nation.
The Vatican says that since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, Catholic humanitarian organisations have distributed some US$72 million in aid to war victims and refugees. The Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which is coordinating the aid, announced the figure on 23 October. It said some 32 Catholic agencies had managed to channel assistance to 20 Syrian cities as well as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Cyprus and Egypt.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian corridor to save civilians living in or around the ancient Syrian town of Sadad, 80 miles northeast of Damascus, has been requested by Metropolitan Silwanos Boutros Alnemeh, of the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Homs and Hama. He has appealed to international humanitarian organisations on behalf of the civilian population of around 3,000 left behind after clashes between government forces and anti-government militias. They are mostly Orthodox Christians and Catholics. He has asked for assistance to enable “departure of the population safely in any direction, both towards the monastery of Al-Attieh, and in the direction of the city of Homs, where we could welcome them”.