“Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference,” Pope Francis said as he and 17 leaders of the Christian churches and communities in the Middle East met in the southern Italian city of Bari on July 7. The gathering was convened to pray for peace in the Middle East and to discuss what the Christian churches might do together to contribute to that goal.
“We want to give a voice to those who have none, to those who can only wipe away their tears. For the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches,” the pope said at the beginning of the prayer service on the waterfront of this sea-port city. “On behalf of the little ones, the simple ones, the wounded and all those at whose side God stands, let us beg, ‘Let there be peace’!”
Participants came from the various Orthodox churches and the Eastern and Latin rite Catholic churches of the region. Among them were Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox churches; Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem; Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, representing Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia; the Lebanese cardinal Béchara Boutros Rai, Patriarch of the Maronites; the Egyptian Tawadros II, Patriarch of the Copts; the Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans; and Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Francis welcomed each of them individually in front of the basilica of St. Nicolàs, the bishop-saint who is greatly revered by Christians of both the East and the West, and then descended with them to the crypt to pray before relics of the saint. They then shared a prayer service under a covered platform on the Bari waterfront, where they listened to scripture readings and each one read a prayer for peace in the presence of 70,000 faithful.
At the beginning of the service, Pope Francis commented, “We feel drawn to live this day with minds and hearts turned towards the Middle East, the crossroads of civilizations and the cradle of the great monotheistic religions” from where “the light of faith spread throughout the world.”
Pope Francis: "A Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East.”
Indeed, “in the Middle East our very souls are rooted,” he said, but in recent years the region “has been covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect.” He denounced the fact that “all this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many” and the region “has become a land of people who leave their own lands behind.”
Moreover, Francis said, “there is also the danger that the presence of our brothers and sisters in the faith will disappear, disfiguring the very face of the region. For a Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East.” Before World War I, (1914-1918), some 20 percent of the population of the Middle East was Christian; today it has decreased to around 4 percent.
After the prayer service, Pope Francis and the other Christian leaders returned to the Basilica of St. Nicolàs for a discussion behind closed doors on the situation in the Middle East today. After more than two hours of private conversation, the Christian leaders appeared again in front of the basilica, where Pope Francis delivered a hard-hitting talk.
He began by thanking them for “this graced moment of sharing” and for having “helped one another to appreciate anew our presence as Christians in the Middle East.” He reminded them that “this presence will be all the more prophetic to the extent that it bears witness to Jesus, the Prince of Peace,” who “does not draw a sword; instead, he asks his disciples to put it back in its sheath.”
Francis has visited the region on three different occasions, and today he reminded these Christian leaders that “the faith of the lowly, so deeply rooted in the Middle East, is the wellspring from which we can draw water to drink and to be purified. This is always the case whenever we return to our origins and go as pilgrims to Jerusalem, the Holy Land or the shrines of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and the other holy places in the region.”
Pope Francis: "Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many! No more occupying territories and thus tearing people apart!"
“It is essential that those in power choose finally and decisively to work for true peace and not for their own interests,” he continued. “Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many! No more occupying territories and thus tearing people apart! No more letting half-truths continue to frustrate people’s aspirations! Let there be an end to using the Middle East for gains that have nothing to do with the Middle East!”
He denounced war as “the scourge that tragically assails this beloved region,” using war-torn Syria as an example. War, Francis said, can be defeated only “by renouncing the thirst for supremacy and by eradicating poverty.” He recalled too that “so many conflicts have been stoked too by forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism that, under the guise of religion, and have profaned God’s name—which is peace—and persecuted age-old neighbors.”
Highlighting the fact that “violence is always fueled by weapons,” Francis said “you cannot speak of peace while you are secretly racing to stockpile new arms.” He said that “this is a most serious responsibility weighing on the conscience of nations, especially the most powerful. Let us not forget the last century. Let us not forget the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Let us not turn the Middle East, where the Word of peace sprang up, into dark stretches of silence.”
He added, “Enough of stubborn opposition! Enough of the thirst for profit that surreptitiously exploits oil and gas fields without regard for our common home, with no scruples about the fact that energy market now dictates the law of coexistence among peoples!”
Pope Francis: "Only a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians, firmly willed and promoted by the international community, will be able to lead to a stable and lasting peace, and guarantee the coexistence of two states for two peoples.”
Turning to the ever-more dramatic situation of Jerusalem, Francis described it as “a unique and sacred city for Christians, Jews and Muslims the world over” and said its “identity and vocation must be safeguarded apart from various disputes and tensions, and whose status quo demands to be respected, as decided by the international community and repeatedly requested by the Christian communities of the Holy Land.”
He insisted that “only a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians, firmly willed and promoted by the international community, will be able to lead to a stable and lasting peace, and guarantee the coexistence of two states for two peoples.”
“All too many children,” Francis continued, “have spent most of their lives looking at rubble instead of schools, hearing the deafening explosion of bombs rather than the happy din of playgrounds.” He appealed to everyone to “listen to the cry of children.”
When he had finished speaking, a group of children released doves in an expression of the desire for peace in the region.