In a Friday meeting between Pope Francis and Mar Gewargis III, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, the two leaders joined their voices in solidarity with persecuted Christians in seeking a political solution to bring peace to the Middle East, thus stopping the exodus of Christians from the region.
In a brief speech, Francis said the two churches share in “the great suffering resulting from the tragic situation endured by so many of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, who are victims of violence and frequently forced to leave the lands in which they have always lived.”
“They tread the via crucis in the footsteps of Christ and, though belonging to different communities, they are forging fraternal relationships among one another and thus becoming, for us, witnesses of unity,” he said.
Pointing to the current meeting with the joint committee for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East currently happening at the Vatican, the pope said the ongoing dialogue the committee fosters “shows that practical and disciplinary differences are not always an obstacle to unity, and that certain differences in theological expression can be considered complementary rather than conflicting.”
He closed praying that the work of the committee, which is beginning a third phase dedicated to the study of ecclesiology, would help them to advance on the journey toward unity, particularly toward a shared Eucharist.
Some steps toward a shared Eucharist between the Catholic and Assyrian churches have already been taken. In 2001, the Vatican made a landmark decision approving inter-communion between the two churches in certain circumstances.
At the time, the decision was hailed by the late scholar Jesuit Father Robert Taft as “the most remarkable Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II,” in part because it represented official Catholic approval for a longstanding Eucharistic consecration rite that doesn’t involve the ‘institution narrative’ of the synoptic Gospels, which Catholic tradition always has regarded as essential.
Friday’s meeting between Francis and Gewargis marks the second time the two have had a formal meeting at the Vatican, though they were both present for an ecumenical prayer encounter held in Bari in July.
After a brief private conversation that lasted less than 15 minutes, the two exchanged gifts and speeches before heading to the Vatican’s Redemptoris Mater chapel, where they prayed together in English, Italian and Aramaic for unity and for Christians who are suffering and persecuted, particularly in the Middle East.
Francis gave Gewargis a bronze sculpture of an olive branch, while on his part, Gewargis gave the pope a stone with a cut-out of a cross typical in the Assyrian Church, and a place to put a tealight candle for prayer.
In his speech, Gewargis, who is in Rome for the joint committee meeting, said his presence at the Vatican is a sign of the shared dedication between the Catholic and Assyrian churches to promoting religious freedom throughout the world “as one of the most essential of human rights which perpetually sustains the dignity of the human person.”
Lamenting the many Christians who have been persecuted and killed in recent years, he said the long decades of war, violence, religious hostility and sectarianism “has had immeasurable and, sadly, irreversible effects on the ancient Christian communities of the East.”
Not only have millions of Christians fled the Middle East in recent years due to violent extremism and political instability, an entire generation of children have grown up believing that war and conflict are the norm.
These children, Gewargis said, “no longer have the experience of peace and justice in their lives. Rather, they have grown up with the understanding that war and religious violence is not only a normal part of daily human life, but indeed a dictate of religion. In addition, countless others among women, men and the elderly have been scarred and violated in their own way.”
In the Middle East, the most vulnerable continue to endure suffering and exploitation, he said, but cautioned that the greatest fault in the crisis “is that the human heart and soul have been damaged and altered beyond repair,” with goodness and hospitality now replaced with suffering and intolerance.
He asked for the prayer and intercession of the martyrs to help obtain peace and justice in the region.
In their eight-point joint statement, the two said the longstanding dialogue between their churches is proof “that a diversity of customs and disciplines is in no way an obstacle to unity, and that certain differences in theological expressions are often complementary rather than conflicting.”
However, they acknowledged that while they are still walking toward unity, they already share the suffering of Christians persecuted in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
“For decades now, the Middle East has been an epicenter of violence where entire populations endure grievous trials every day. Hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children suffer immensely from violent conflicts that nothing can justify,” they said, noting the violence has led to a mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
“Without distinction of rite or confession, they suffer for professing the name of Christ,” they said, and voiced gratitude to the Christians who endure suffering and persecution, thanking them for their faith and witness to Christ.
Just as Christ shed his blood out of love, bringing reconciliation and unity, the blood of modern martyrs, “members of various Churches but united by their shared suffering, is the seed of Christian unity,” they said.
Francis and Gewargis expressed their joint desire to support these people and to help alleviate their pain, however, they also stressed the importance of the Christian presence in the Middle East, saying it “is not possible to imagine the Middle East without Christians,” on both religious and historic grounds.
The leaders said Christians will only be able to stay in the region if peace is achieved and urged the international community to implement a political solution to the many conflicts lacerating the area, protecting the rights and duties of all citizens.
“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, is a fundamental principle for the establishment and preservation of a stable and productive coexistence among the peoples and communities of the Middle East,” they said.
“Christians do not want to be considered a ‘protected minority’ or a tolerated group, but full citizens whose rights are guaranteed and defended, together with those of all other citizens.”
The leaders closed their statement saying interreligious dialogue, rooted in charity, truth and openness, “is also the best antidote to extremism, which is a threat to the followers of every religion.”