Catholic-Orthodox delegation's Middle East visit is 'tangible' fruit of Pope Francis meeting Patriarch Kirill

"What is most important for many Christians in the Middle East is having their bishops stay with them."

By Oliver Maksan  

NEW YORK (April 20, 2016)—Last week’s visit of a joint Orthodox-Catholic delegation to Lebanon and Syria was a “tangible reaction” to the common declaration of Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill—made in Cuba last February, when the two leaders met—in support of persecuted Christians in the region, according to an aid official who was part of the mission.

Peter Humeniuk, Russia expert for international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) gave an account of the trip on which he joined 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 Andrzej Halemba, Middle East expert for ACN, which sponsored the fact-finding mission.

Members of the delegation meet with local Christians in Syri

Mr. Humeniuk said: “In their declaration 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.”

In the Middle East, the meeting of the two Church leaders, the official continued, 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 include the documentation of the holy sites in Syria that were destroyed during the fighting, as well as the recording of testimonies about the martyrdom of Syrian Christians.

Mr Humeniuk emphasized: “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.”

Besides Beirut and Damascus, the delegation visited Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley at the border between Syria and Lebanon, where a large number of Syrian refugees have found shelter.

Members of the delegation meet with local Christians in Syria; ACN photo

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