Syria/Russia: Syria trip of Catholic and Orthodox delegation is a “tangible reaction to the meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow”

Königstein, 13 Apr. 2016 – Peter Humeniuk, Russia expert for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has called the joint trip of an Orthodox and Catholic delegation to Lebanon and Syria a “tangible reaction” to the common declaration of Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Last week, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the Russian Federation, Archpriest Stefan (Igumnov), secretary for inter-Christian dialogue of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Dr. Andrzej Halemba, Middle East expert for Aid to the Church in Need, as well as Peter Humeniuk himself met there with representatives of the various Christian denominations to show “a sign of solidarity” and “to explore the possibilities for joint relief efforts,” Mr Humeniuk said.

When asked about what had prompted the trip, Mr Humeniuk said, “In their declaration both Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill were united in denouncing the persecution of Christians and the dramatic situation of the Christians in the Middle East. This was one of the reasons for their historic meeting this past February. The Catholic and the Russian Orthodox church in Russia have acted on the message of their leaders by taking steps to respond together to the suffering of Christians in the Middle East.”

He also said that the reaction to the meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow had been “very positive” in the Middle East and that it had “drawn a great deal of attention”. In the Middle East, the meeting of the two church leaders was “understood as being a strong signal that the Christian denominations needed to stand united to face the situation of suffering, war and persecution.” During the trip it was decided that concrete areas of cooperation between the various Christian churches in the Middle East would be the documentation of the holy sites in Syria that were destroyed during the war, in order to record the damage, as well as the collection of testimonies of the martyrdom of Syrian Christians to preserve them for posterity. A joint campaign on behalf of children was also considered. Mr Humeniuk described the trip of the Catholic and Orthodox delegation as a first step that would be “followed by others”.

Mr Humeniuk emphasised: “During the trip, time and again we were told that what is most important for many Christians in the Middle East is having their bishops stay with them and that they are more interested in the restoration of the destroyed church buildings, where parish life took place, than in the rebuilding of their own homes. The flock wants to gather around its shepherd. That impressed me deeply. It is clear that so many resources are necessary to rebuild the buildings that it will be impossible to procure them at short notice. However, plans are already being made for the future.”

Aid to the Church in Need organised this trip because the international Catholic pastoral charity is very active in the Middle East and has also been working for 25 years to establish a dialogue between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

Besides Beirut and Damascus, the delegation visited the Bekaa Valley at the border between Syria and Lebanon where a large number of Syrian refugees have found shelter. Several refugee families in Zahlé described their fate to the delegation. Maronite Patriarch Béchara Rai and Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Gabriele Caccia were among the church representatives with whom the delegation met in Lebanon. In Syria, since both patriarchs were currently travelling, the delegation met with one representative each of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. They further met Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch and All the East, the Apostolic Nuncio in Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari, as well as numerous other bishops.