What Pope Francis calls the ‘ecumenism of martyrdom’ brought leaders of the various Churches of the Middle East together in Italy last week to discuss the threat to the Christian presence, which is vital not just for their communities but for the region as a whole
Bari, the capital of Italy’s southern region, Apulia, on the Adriatic coast, is a unique bridge between East and West thanks to St Nicholas, whose relics are venerated in the basilica in the old town. Even in these times of new polarisation between the West and Russia, between Rome and Moscow, Russian pilgrims come to pray at the tomb of a beloved saint who was Bishop of Myra (Demre in modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century.
It was fitting, therefore, that a gathering in Bari last week brought together more than 30 leaders of Christian Churches in the Middle East to reflect on the future in territories where Christianity has flourished for centuries but where it is now threatened with extinction. The meeting, “Christians in the Middle East: what future?”, was hosted by the Archdiocese of Bari-Bitonto and organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Catholic movement that has been engaged in conflict resolution and interfaith and ecumenical dialogue for decades.
Among the participants were patriarchs such as Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch; Gregorios III Laham, Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East; Ignace Youssif III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch; and Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, the most populous Church in the region.
Other Churches, including the Greek Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria, and the Church of Cyprus, were represented by high-ranking Metropolitan bishops. Even the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow was represented. And 100 years after the Armenian genocide, the Armenian Church was represented by delegates from the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin and the Great House of Cilicia; other Catholic Churches, such as the Maronites and Chaldeans, were represented by high-level bishops.
Given their sometimes deep divisions, the sight of all those church representatives together was something of a miracle. To make one positive point about the terrible difficulties many Christians in the East are facing, it is the suffering and anguish of their believers that has brought those church leaders closer together. It is “an ecumenism of martyrdom”, as Pope Francis has said repeatedly.
During the conferences, prayers and testimonies, the plight of many ordinary Christians, chased from the cities and villages where they have lived for centuries, was raised. Several times, the names of the missing bishops of Aleppo, the Syriac Orthodox Mor Gregorios Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Paul Yazigi, kidnapped two years ago, as well as the name of the abducted Italian Jesuit missionary, Paolo Dall’Oglio, were mentioned to applause.
“We see a change within the Christian world, towards more collaborative behaviour,” acknowledged Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom. “Interchurch relations are no longer [just] about theological discussions or mere ecumenical dialogue; they are about advocating for people who are suffering, doing so with a common interest and a common heart. As Churches, more than ever, we stand together for human dignity and against persecution and marginalisation.”
The threatened elimination of the Christian presence in the Middle East is also a tragedy for the Muslim world, as Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, reminded the conference. In his view, the very presence of Christian minorities has been “a dam against the totalitarian impulses of the Muslim world”. While 60 years ago, Christians still were 20 per cent of the population of the Middle East, they are less than 6 per cent now, and their numbers continue to fall rapidly.
“This suicide of pluralism will have an expensive price for Muslims themselves, and especially for those Islamic minorities considered heterodox [by the overwhelming Sunni Muslim majority] – the Shiites, women, secularists and globalised youth,” he warned, and he called on Christian leaders to speak to Muslim leaders as much as possible.
“They have to know that the war has gone too far. The hatred between Shiites and Sunnis and the divisions within Sunni Islam disfigures the face of Islam. They cannot hold the world hostage by their divisions. They need to know that their reputation is falling: many are afraid of Islam, fearing its destructive capacity,” said Professor Riccardi.
The conference also made a strong appeal for Christian leaders not to be paralysed by fear. “We should not become complacent in our victimhood,” said Tarek Mitri, a Greek Orthodox Lebanese intellectual and former government minister. “We should not be just victims, we are also actors. Christians should think more creatively and, in spite of their plight, should be forward-looking. Because we are living in times of change.”
Dr Mitri recalled how, during the past century, Christians in the Middle East had been at the forefront of attempts to change society for the better and to infuse values in public life, for instance, in the time of al-Nahda, the Arab awakening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, saying: “We cannot dismiss a full century of Christian vocation of serving the entire community.”
Several times, Western countries were criticised for their short-sighted approach to events. Bishop Nunzio Galantino, secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, criticised Europe’s “egoistic” failure to face up to what he called a “Christian holocaust” on its eastern borders and spoke of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which he described as a “Mare Monstrum”.
The strongest appeal came from Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni, who said Western governments should work more with Arab leaders, such as King Abdullah of Jordan, in order to find political solutions to defeat Islamic State, “which is neither Islamic, nor a state”.
He addressed European leaders in surprisingly strong words: “Europe, have the courage to move beyond your limited horizons, your prejudice and egoism, which has become an incapacity to build the future. Have the courage of the truth to lead in providing the response of the international community, which has to re-establish the primacy of respect for the rights of minorities as a precondition of peaceful coexistence and development.”
There was a clear consensus that the future of oriental Christians is in the East. But, it was also accepted that people could not be expected to become martyrs. In the short term, considering the chaotic situation in Iraq, Professor Riccardi advocated the building of protected “safe havens” for Christian and other refugees, as he already had proposed before the fall of Mosul and the Nineveh plain. Then, some Christian leaders rejected the idea for fear of being confined to a ghetto within Iraqi society, but there seemed to be more unanimity today.
For Syria, the Italian historian and former minister advocated the expansion of “truce zones”, especially for the martyred city of Aleppo. His “Save Aleppo” proposal of last year has been endorsed by the United Nations, but its implementation requires more commitment on the part of the international community; it especially needs the involvement of Russia, “which in the Middle East is part of the solution”.
But in the longer term, the status of Christian communities cannot be that of protected minorities, as it was in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. The aim has to be to build full citizenship for Christians, as pointed out by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Foreign Minister: “It has to be underlined that Christians do not want simply to be tolerated, but want to be considered full citizens in those lands where they have been present since the beginning of Christianity, long before the arrival of Islam. It is important that this concept of citizenship is promoted more and more as a point of reference for social life, guaranteeing the rights of all, including those of the minorities, with appropriated juridical means.”
Jan De Volder is a Belgian historian and journalist.