“Our prayer is extremely important for Christians in the Middle East. I visited two refugee camps: in Jordan and Greece. They kept repeating: don’t forget us, pray for us. Prayer is a sign of closeness and solidarity for the victims of wars, for all those who are suffering.” A few days ahead of the Day for Reflection and Prayer for the Middle East that will take place on July 7 on the initiative of Pope Francis, Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is preparing to welcome the Patriarchs of Orthodox Eastern Churches in the city of St. Nicholas. The Cardinal’s Pontifical Council issued the letters of invitation to all Patriarchs written personally by the Pope.
Your Eminence what brought Pope Francis to promote this Day for Reflection and Prayer for the Middle East?
In fact, it was being planned for some time already, for the situation in the Middle East is close to the heart of the Holy Father. The Pope said: time is ripe and it is important to offer a sign of prayer for peace for this region of the world and to invite all the other Churches to Bari – especially the Patriarchs of Orthodox, Eastern and Catholic Churches – to pray together for peace and hold a public meeting to express closeness and solidarity to all Christians and to all men and women living in the Middle East.”
What is the Holy Father most worried about?
He is worried about the war and especially about the fact that many Christians are leaving this Region, about the fact that only tombstones – no men and no Christians – are left in these lands. We have lost a lot. The Pope has the heartfelt wish to support Christians in this Region so as to create the conditions for them to remain. This is also a pressing question of the Patriarchs who said: “We are very grateful to you for welcoming our refugees but don’t encourage them to come: they should be helped to remain in their land.”
The ecumenism of the blood will be strongly felt in Bari. How did the Patriarchs of Orthodox Churches respond to Pope Francis’ invitation?
Many of them gave a very positive answer. They are very grateful to the Pope for having promoted this intiative. Many of them told us that they intend to participate in first person. Others cannot come because of previous commitments and sent their delegates.
They all wish to be present and give a sign of unity for Christians’ suffering and persecution.
To me, this ecumenism of the blood is extremely important. In the ancient Church it was said that the blood of the martyrs would be the seed of new Christians. Today I firmly believe that the blood of so many martyrs in the world will be a seed of unity of the Body of Christ. Christians are persecuted not because they belong to the Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic, Pentecostal Churches. They are persecuted for being Christian. In this respect Pope Francis once said that the persecutors have a better idea of ecumenism because they know that we are already united.
The tragic situation of Copt-Orthodox Christians in Egypt and Pope Tawadros II comes to our minds. The faithful killed in churches while gathered in prayer, at a moment of utmost quiescence. Who are the persecuted Christians, which Christianity do they bear witness to?
The martyrs remind us that martyrdom is no exception in Christian life. This unfortunately marks the entire course of history. Today we are experiencing it again and in a very extensive way. The proportion of Christian persecution today is unprecedented in history, even when compared to antiquity. In this respect the martyrs remind us that this is a realty of Christian life and the show us the unity of our Churches for
The blood of the martyrs does not divide us. It unites us.
This is a positive sign in the face of a tragic situation.
In this world upset by terror, when interviewed, Christians say they have forgiven their assailants. In your opinion, how is it possible to forgive?
It’s a major challenge. But I think that forgiveness is possible only if your are a religious person. As Jesus did on the Cross, when he said: “Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Saint Stephen did the same: he forgave as he was dying. Forgiveness is possible only in the light of Jesus’ suffering on the Cross. In this respect it’s a challenge; it’s a challenge for Christians who bear this high testimony of forgiveness in that way, in those circumstances.
Why prayer? What can prayer do in situations of destruction and death with no ways out, where even international diplomacies have failed in their fruitless quest for agreements and reconciliation?
Prayer is what Christians have. In prayer they bring the suffering and the persecutions to God. We pray but the outcome of our prayers are in the hands of God. We read it in the Gospel passage describing the wedding at Cana. Mary does not tell Jesus he should make a miracle. He only presents him with the problem so that He may decide what to do with her question. I believe that this image of Cana indicates the measure of our prayer: we present all the challenges, all the problems, all our suffering to God, and we let Him take the initiative.
Only He can convert the heart of dictators. Only He can convert the thought of political leaders.
What is the message of the meeting in Bari to Christians in the Middle East and to the international community?
It’s a sign of closeness and solidarity to Christians in the Middle East. You are in our hearts, you are in our thoughts, you are in our prayers. For the international community the meeting in Bari is meant as a public occasion to show our unity to the world and bear witness to the fact that
Peace, not violence is the brethren of religion.
This is a very important message in a world where we sadly witness a relationship between violence and religion, especially in the form of extremism. We must bear a counter-witness to this deviation.