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H.B. Patriarch Gregorios III’s invitation to a lunch hour meeting on 22 March 2011 about the impact on Arab countries of the Synod of Catholic Bishops’ Special Assembly for the Middle East was accepted by several ambassadors.
Participating were their Excellencies:
- Archbishop Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See;
- Dr. Maria Kunz, Ambassador of Austria;
- Mrs. Françoise Gustin, Ambassador of Belgium;
- Mr. Mark Bailey, Ambassador of Canada;
- Dr. Eric Chevallier, Ambassador of France;
- Dr. Andreas Reinicke, Ambassador of Germany;
- Mr. Achille Franco Luigi Amerio, Ambassador of Italy;
- Mr. Rolf Willy Hansen, Ambassador of Norway;
- Mr. Michał Murkociński, Ambassador of Poland;
- Mr. Niklas Kebbon, Ambassador of Sweden;
- Mr. Martin Aeschbacher, Ambassador of Switzerland;
as were Mrs. Sydma Aguiar Damasceno, First Secretary of the Brazilian Embassy
and Mr. José María Davó Cabra, Secretary of the Spanish Embassy.
The Patriarch opened the meeting with a presentation on the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Christian presence in Syria which goes back to the time of Saints Ananias and Paul, immediately after Pentecost, and which occasioned President Bashar al Assad’s remark that Syria is the cradle of Christianity, as the Church of Antioch was indeed the first after Jerusalem’s to receive the message of Jesus.
The Patriarch went on to explain the meaning of the three names of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church:
• Melkite was the name given by the opponents of the Council of Chalcedon (451) to the Byzantine Christians of the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, a name adopted and made official by Arabs from the time of Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem
• Greek (or Roman) since its original language was Greek, which gave way to Syriac and then Arabic; Greek is Rūm in Arabic, because the first members of the Church were subjects of the Roman Empire
• Catholic, due to being in communion with Rome from 1724 onwards.
Thanks to this triple title, the ecumenical role of the Church can be seen both on the religious level and with regard to relations with Arab countries.
Then the Patriarch illustrated this role during the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), on the topic of papal infallibility: Patriarch Gregorios II sought to put forward an Orthodox perspective on this new doctrine. At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), one of the main members of Council speaking on collegiality was Patriarch Maximos IV. Recently, the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops (October 2010) emphasised the relation of the region’s Christians with the Arab world. This Synodal Assembly could be said to have been for the Arab world and Islam in the Arab world.
As a member of that Assembly, Patriarch Gregorios III was very concerned to draw attention to this situation through writing two letters to Arab Heads of State before and after the sitting of the Synod, to explain its purpose and the propositions relating to Arab countries.
The Patriarch also gave a series of explanatory talks in Beirut, Saida and especially in Damascus, in the context of the International Congress held there on 15 December, 2010, organised in conjunction with the Syrian Ministry of the Awqaf (Islamic endowments), in order to show the impact of the Synodal Assembly on the Eastern Churches in Arab countries and with regard to the future of the Christian presence in the region.
Similarly, the Patriarch also wrote a letter to the Latin Cardinals, bishops and theologians who participated in the Synodal Assembly, and another to the Heads of State of several European and American countries, to tell them about the importance of the Christian presence and its preservation for the region and for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If this conflict is not resolved, there is great danger for this Christian presence, threatened by demographic (lower birth rate) and political factors, particularly as a result of tensions weighing on the small Christian communities: hence the importance of peace, especially for the countries of the Middle East and particularly for Syria, where all the country’s inhabitants really do live together.
It is important for European and American countries to put pressure on Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace.
Certain European and American Heads of State had replied positively to the Patriarch’s letter.
The Patriarch’s talk was followed by a discussion and exchange of views. The French Ambassador, H.E. Dr. Eric Chevallier, emphasised that the country’s Christians, and the Patriarch, through his influence, should make Syria’s importance better known, in the context of the current unrest; and he supported the wish, voiced by the Patriarch, for the international media not to adopt a hostile tone towards Syria but rather help Syria to surmount and move beyond this turmoil in order to safeguard its pattern of living together.
The Ambassadors for their part, had also voiced the wish for a conference in the near future to make better known the situation of Syria’s Christian Churches and were keen to affirm that the Syrian model of living together that they had observed, ought to be preserved and supported. They wanted the Patriarch to make his voice heard to that purpose.
The Patriarch was very grateful for that stance and in turn asked the Ambassadors to make this known to their governments. Rather than pursuing the way of discord, dissent and violence, leading to the clash of civilizations, dialogue between religions should continue to be fostered in order to build peace on strong foundations.
The Patriarch spoke to the media to ask them to immunise Syria against revolutionary contagion, as Syria, whilst realising that there still remains much to be done, has already given plenty of evidence of development, and since President Bashar al Assad is ready to go much further along the road that he has embarked upon, towards openness, greater freedom (of ideas and movement) and more employment opportunities.
The Patriarch spoke to the European countries represented in Damascus and asked them to lend their support to the Syrian model and allow the crisis, which has begun to penetrate Syria, to subside, so that this model which he characterised as “faithful, positive, democratic secularism” can be protected as a pattern for Syria’s future and that of the Middle East as a region.
At the end of the meeting, the Patriarch led a brief tour of the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, and then hosted a meal for his guests.
Translation by Valerie Chamberlain