For two cardinals helping to organize Pope Francis' upcoming trip to Bari, the event is a chance to highlight not only the historic religious presence of Christianity in the Middle East, but also the social contribution the various rites and churches bring to the region.
“Christians are an essential element of balance” for the Middle East “not only for religious reasons, but also for political and social reasons,” Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said July 3.
Quoting Benedict XVI's 2012 apostolic exhortation on the Church in the Middle East, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, Koch said that “a Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians, would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians, together with other believers, are part of the distinctive identity of the region.”
However, he stressed that getting Christians to stay after having their lives uprooted and, in many cases, torn apart, will only happen “if peace is re-established.”
This peace largely depends on the political climate, he said, adding that “this is why, since the beginning of the crisis, the Catholic Church has tirelessly called for the restoration of peace, above all through the search for a political solution.”
Koch spoke to the press alongside Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, at a briefing on Pope Francis' July 7 trip to Bari for an ecumenical gathering aimed at promoting peace in the Middle East.
Located in the southern Italian region of Puglia, Bari is known as the “porta d’Oriente,” or the “Eastern Gate,” because of its connection to both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches through the relics of St. Nicholas.
The ecumenical gathering will include leaders of Eastern Catholic Churches and Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, as well as ecclesial communities.
Eastern Catholic Churches present will include the Coptic Catholic Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Maronite Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and the Armenian Catholic Church.
Among the Eastern Orthodox participating are Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who will attend on behalf of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
From the Oriental Orthodox Churches there are Tawadros II, Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria, as well as representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church.
There will also be representatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and from the Middle East Council of Churches.
Sandri said the gathering came about as the result of requests from several patriarchs and heads of Churches in the Middle East.
The trip, he said, is an illustration the pope's attention to the Eastern Catholic community in the Middle East and the well-being of Orthodox Churches in the region, and his relationship with heads of Orthodox Churches, as well as his concern for the Muslim community and for regional minorities.
Bari, Sandri said, will be “an appeal to prayer,” but also an appeal for unity in prayer, which is the only thing that “can change hearts.”
But in addition to joint prayers, participants will also have a collective discussion, which will be opened by Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and which will take place behind closed doors.
Sandri said there is no plan to release a joint statement after the meeting, but that some highlights might be provided.
Koch stressed the importance of interreligious dialogue for the peace process in the Middle East, and urged greater protection for minorities in the law.
“The primacy of law, including respect for religious freedom and equality before the law, based on the principle of citizenship regardless of ethnic origin or religion, has been repeatedly emphasized by the Catholic Church as a fundamental principle for the realization and for the maintenance of a peaceful and fruitful coexistence among the various communities of the Middle East,” he said.
Dialogue, he said, quoting a letter from Pope Francis to Christians in the Middle East, “is all the more necessary when the situation is more difficult.”
“There is no other path. Dialogue based on an attitude of openness, in truth and in love, is also the best antidote for the temptation of religious fundamentalism, which is a threat for believers of all religions.”