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Ecumenism: two years since the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba. Conference in Vienna on persecuted Christians, “priority” of dialogue

The situation of Christians who are persecuted, killed, kidnapped, and wounded in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, calls for greater ecumenical cooperation between the Churches to meet the specific needs of the population and the expectations for peace. This “priority” became the focus of yesterday’s second anniversary of the meeting that took place in Havana between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis. Indeed, an international conference dedicated to the situation of Christians in the Middle East was held to mark the anniversary. The forum, organised with the participation of the Catholic Archdiocese of Austria, was held at the Archdiocese of Vienna. Co-organising the event were the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate; the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation; and the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Austria. The conference opened with a welcome address by Cardinal Christophe Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, President of the Department for External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, presented a report about the situation of persecuted Christians, their great suffering which is a matter of concern for Patriarch Kirill, and about the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church, aimed at supporting our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. In the context of the implementation of the plans agreed in Havana, an illustrated catalogue was compiled, which includes 30 churches, monasteries and Christian cemeteries in Syria, whose restoration can begin as soon as possible. According to Metropolitan Hilarion, the question of the restoration of normal life in Syria “is, for the Patriarchate of Moscow, a priority in interfaith cooperation today”. So much so that only a few days ago the Interreligious Working Group visited Syria and Lebanon. 77 tons of humanitarian aid were delivered to the most needy Syrians in Damascus and in the Bekaa Valley, with the personal involvement of local spiritual leaders: 3,000 food packs with flour, cereals, butter, sugar, canned meat and fish, pasta, sweets and baby food. In a report about the meeting, the Patriarchate of Moscow informed that Cardinal Kurt Koch, too, briefed the participants on the humanitarian activities that the Catholic Church is carrying out in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, dedicating a large part of his speech to analysing the phenomenon of Christian martyrdom. The testimony of Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Damascus, who spoke of the situation of Christians in Syria, was particularly strong. According to the Bishop, 60% of local Christians have lost their homes; in the Armenian community of Syria alone, 200 people were killed, 450 wounded, 120 kidnapped, thousands of homes were destroyed, 70 churches ruined, and over 50 Christian buildings damaged. Mgr. Armash Nalbandian urged the Christian Churches to promote initiatives to preserve the Christian presence in the Middle East, also through prayer, and expressed his gratitude for the solidarity shown by both Orthodox and Catholics.

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