Meeting with Syriac Orthodox leaders on Friday, Pope Francis decried the continuing martyrdom of Middle East Christians, and gave special mention to two Christian bishops kidnapped in Syria two years ago. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of unity in the Church and the instrument of the building up of the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of peace and of justice,” the Pope said June 19. “Let us ask the Lord, too, for the grace of always being ready to forgive and of being workers of reconciliation and peace. This is what animates the witness of the martyrs.” The Roman Pontiff encouraged prayers for the victims of violence in the Middle East. He particularly mentioned Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul Yazigi, two archbishops of Aleppo, Syria who were kidnapped together in 2013. The Pope’s comments came during a meeting with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch, who was accompanied by a delegation of his Church. The Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which rejected the Council of Chalcedon held in 451. The Church has about 1.2 million members around the world, and its patriarchate is now based in Damascus. The Roman Pontiff told Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem that the Syrian Church has been “a Church of martyrs from the beginning.” He lamented that the Syriac Orthodox Church, with other Christian communities and other minorities, continues to endure “the terrible sufferings caused by war, violence, and persecutions.” “So much suffering! So many innocent victims. In the face of all this, it seems that the powers of this world are incapable of finding solutions,” the Pope said. He added: “in this moment of harsh trial and of sorrow, let us strengthen ever more the bonds of friendship and fraternity between the Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Let us hasten our steps along the common path, keeping our gaze fixed on the day when we will be able to celebrate our belonging to the one Church of Christ around the same altar of Sacrifice and of praise.” “Let us exchange the treasures of our traditions as spiritual gifts, because that which unites us is much greater than that which divides us.” The tradition of papal meetings with Syriac Orthodox leaders dates back to 1971 when Blessed Paul VI met with then-Patriarch Ignatius Jacob III. Pope Francis said that at that encounter, both leaders “consciously began what we can call a ‘holy pilgrimage’ toward full communion between our Churches.” Bl. Paul VI and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch signed a common declaration of faith that laid a “dynamic foundation” for the journey to unity, Pope Francis said. He cited Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Magnesians, in which the Church Father prayed for unity among Christians. He also prayed a Syrian prayer that asks for God’s sanctification and prays that Mary’s prayers be “strength for our souls.”
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