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Vatican-Moscow. Christians persecuted in the Middle East top the ecumenical agenda

Christians persecuted, killed, kidnapped, wounded in Syria, Egypt, Iraq. The Churches’ ecumenical cooperation has been stepped up to meet the concrete needs of the population and the expectations of peace in the Middle East. This "priority" was the focus of the second anniversary of the meeting in Havana between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis. To celebrate the recurrence an international conference on the situation of Christians in the Middle East was held in Vienna on February 12

Preserving Christian presence in the Middle-Eastern region, preventing the Christian population from abandoning their homeland, promoting the return to a normal way of life, supporting reconstruction efforts. The life – and sadly, on many occasions, the bloodshed – of persecuted Christians top the agenda of the second chapter of the relations between the Catholic Church in Rome and Moscow’s Patriarchate. The subject was addressed on Monday February 12 in Vienna during the International Conference on the plight of Christians in the Middle East, held on the day marking the second anniversary of the meeting in Havana (Cuba) between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope Francis. The Forum, organized with the participation of the Catholic Archdiocese of Austria and Cardinal Schönborn, was held at Vienna’s archbishopric. The event was co-organized with Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation and the embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Austria.

“The tragic situation of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, in North Africa and in many more regions has become a challenge for world Christianity. This challenge cannot remain unanswered”, said Metropolitan Hilarion. “Today most of the terrorists in Syria and Iraq have been defeated.” “However, it is too early to say that Christians in these countries are in complete safety.” In his speech, the chairman of Moscow’s Patriarchate listed the persecutions suffered by Christians in Egypt, Nigeria, India, Pakistan. He remarked: “Persecution has become the common challenge to Christians of various confessions. The terrorists, who are trying to wipe out Christianity in the Middle East, do not make any distinction as to who is before them: Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians or Assyrians.”

A Middle East without Christians cannot and must not be imagined, said in his speech Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The disappearance of Christians in the region would not only be an unconceivable loss in religious and cultural terms. It would also signal a defeat of the peace process and of stability in the region.

The powerful witness of Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese in Damascus, on the situation of Christians in Syria. 60% of local Christians – he said – have lost their homes, 200 members of Syria’s Armenian community were killed, 450 were left wounded. Thousands of houses have been destroyed, as many as 70 churches, over 50 Christian sites have been seriously damaged. While this is happening, the “world stands idly by” without intervening. The Vienna Forum revived the memory of the two Metropolitans of Aleppo, the Syriac-Orthodox Archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and the Greek-Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi Metropolitan – of whom we have no news since April 2013.

Restoring a normal way of life and supporting reconstruction efforts. For Moscow’s Patriarchate this represents “today’s priority in inter-confessional cooperation.” In his speech Metropolitan Hilarion listed all the concrete initiatives and international diplomacy steps undertaken by Moscow’s Patriarchate to further the speedy recovery of “the basic conditions enabling Christians to return to a normal way of life.” The Russian Church catalogued thirty churches, monasteries and Christian cemeteries which have to be restored in the near future. In addition to homes, schools and hospitals, the life of the Christian population is centred on their places of worship, vital for their existence. Among the initiatives figures the visit of an interreligious Russian delegation to Lebanon and Syria a few days ago. In Damascus and the Beqaa Valley seventy-seven tons of humanitarian aid were delivered to the needy Syrians. It comprised of three thousand food packages of flour, grain, oil, sugar, tins of meat and fish, pasta, sweets and baby food. The goal of the delegation was not only the rendering of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, but also “the promotion of interfaith peace in the land of Syria.” This was also the underlying objective of the representatives of the Orthodox Church attending, in their capacities as Observers, the National Dialogue Congress on Syria held past January 29 – 30 in Sochi.

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