The voice of Syria and its martyr city, Aleppo, symbol of a war now in its eighth year, will resonate at the meeting of Saturday 7 July in Bari , where Pope Francis will be joined by Heads of Churches and Christian Communities of the Middle East to pray and reflect on the tragic situation in that region, where, according to the Pontiff, “many of our brothers and sisters in the faith continue to suffer.” The percentage of Christians in the Middle East has dropped dramatically over the past century: while they represented 20% of the population of the Middle East before the First World War, now they are only 4%. The Greek-Melkite Patriarch, Youssef Absi, unable to attend the meeting in Bari, wished to be represented by his brother in faith, the Archbishop of Aleppo, Msgr. Jean-Clement Jeanbart. SIR contacted him upon his journey to Italy.
“The Patriarch asked me to go to Bari – he said with a broken voice-. I thank the Divine Providence for this gift that gives me the opportunity to share the tragic, personal experience of war, trying to help, with our communities, all those persecuted and in need of assistance. We have had our martyrs, many dead and wounded. Our traditions, our culture, have been wiped out. We were stripped of everything, which caused deep suffering. Now we are following a slow path of reconstruction, of human and social recovery, that involves housing, healthcare and employment programs for the Christian population. As bishops and Fathers whom the Lord entrusted a flock, we have the primary responsibility of our sons and daughters, opening our doors even to the stranger.”
How did the faithful receive the news of your presence in Bari with Pope Francis?
The faithful welcomed the news with great joy; they hope that the meeting in Bari will bring to the fore the wealth of faith of these lands, the power of Christian witness that prevails over daily difficulties. They are asking for support to remain in their homeland.
The Middle East needs its Christian peoples, today more than ever before.
What is the spirit characterizing your participation in this ecumenical meeting?
I will bear witness to the sacredness and beauty of the Syrian Church, beloved by God, that managed to overcome countless difficulties throughout its thousand-year-long history. The tragic events of the past years of war now risk emptying the Country of the Christian presence. It’s a major concern for all of us shepherds, not only those in Syria.
The voice of Christians in the Middle East must continue proclaiming the Gospel, justice, tolerance and respect for all. We have to pass down the heritage of the Apostles. They were the first to bless these lands.
What will be the prayer intention of the meeting?
I will call upon the world to pray for this founding Church. The severance of the roots of this Holy Land, that start from Bethlehem, from the Golgotha and from the Holy Sepulchre, reaching out to every world Country, would also severe the roots of world Churches. Christians gathered and manifested themselves with the Pentecost.
I will pray that Christians may be helped to remain in their lands, that they shall not leave.
Assistance programs are needed to enable them to continue living in the places where they were born. The emigration of Christians risks stripping the Middle East of its original inhabitants. I shall also pray for Europe…
In Europe there are Governments that are trying to erase the memory of Christianity, removing its signs, such as the Cross.
How can the Cross be prevented from speaking to mankind?
If we are stripped of our roots we will no longer know who we are and where we came from. Europe must remember that its roots extend to Jerusalem. This is a bond that needs to be cherished and preserved. It’s a heritage that deserves being enhanced.
Have your faithful entrusted you with a special prayer for the upcoming meeting?
Their prayer, which is also my prayer, is that the Lord may inspire us and gives us the freedom and the beauty of justice and of rights, the force of the truth proclaimed against all forms of injustice committed today in the Middle East, from Palestine to Syria, from Iraq to Yemen. Also Aleppo will join Bari’s prayers the prayer for peace in the Middle East and in Syria.