ROME – When some 50 bishops and patriarchs from different Catholic churches throughout the Mediterranean gather in Bari this month to discuss the dire situation many Middle Eastern countries face, the survival of Christianity in the region will be front and center.
For many church leaders, the fate of Christians in the Middle East, including dwindling numbers and ongoing threats, will be among the most urgent topics put forward during the gathering, which will be held in Bari Feb. 19-23 and is titled: “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace.”
Sponsored by the Italian bishops’ conference, the gathering is expected to draw more than 50 bishops from 19 Mediterranean nations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Regional issues such as migration, poverty, inequality, evangelization of young people, unemployment, cultural exchanges, and peace efforts are also among the topics likely to be discussed during the summit, which will conclude with Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
Recalling how St. John Paul II during a visit to Bari told him that “you must look to the Mediterranean and to Africa,” the Archbishop of Bari-Bitonto, Francesco Cacucci, said in an interview with the Italian paper Avvenire that the city has become “a bridge between the shores of the great sea: in particular between the East and the West, as our patron Saint Nicholas was and still is.”
Bari, home to the relics of Saint Nicholas, who is venerated in both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, has become a unique place in Francis’s pontificate. In 2017 Francis lent the relics to the Russian Orthodox Church for several weeks, allowing Orthodox faithful in Moscow to cue for several hours to seek the revered saint’s intercession.
During this year’s gathering, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan is keen to highlight the plight of Christians in Syria and Iraq, a population he says has been ignored by the West and risks extinction.
In another interview with Avvenire, Younan said Iraq and Syria have been “devastated in the vague name of democracy,” and stained by fundamentalism.
“It is a utopia to believe that Islamic terrorism has been defeated,” he said, insisting that the situation is not “a theatrical melodrama but an authentic disaster” featuring the exodus of thousands of Christians from the Middle East, who he said have not just been ignored by Western countries, but “betrayed.”
He praised Russian intervention in Syria as “crucial” to saving the country from the creation of an Islamic state further threatening minorities.
Younan said he is confident that when the conflict ends, Syrians will be able to rebuild their country, just as Europe rebuilt itself after the Second World War. Russia, he said, will have “a leading role” in this reconstruction, “since they have been the most honest and ready to help the Syrian people in tragic moments.”
“They should be considered firm defenders of Christian minorities,” he said, recalling a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Damascus during a recent visit to Syria.
Criticizing Western countries for accusing leaders of Christian churches in the Middle East of aligning themselves with the government and against the people, Younan charged that the West has “remained indifferent to the suffering caused by Islamic terrorism.”
Pope Francis met with Middle Eastern patriarchs Feb. 8 at the Vatican for a private conversation, during which the patriarchs expressed their concern about the survival of Christians in the area.
On Monday Francis again took up the cause in an audience with members of the Knights of Columbus, praising the organization for their humanitarian work in the Middle East. Francis lauded the Knights’ “faithful witness to the sacredness and dignity of human life,” which he said is particularly visible in the material and spiritual aid offered by the organization to “those Christian communities in the Middle East that are suffering the effects of violence, war and poverty.”
Cacucci said Bari has a specific role to play in the drama unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, not only because of the ecumenical dimension of the city, but its proximity to the Mediterranean, the most common route for migrants seeking to enter Europe, most of whom are fleeing war and conflict.
The meeting, he said, is happening at a “providential moment” given the many migrants who still perish in their effort to cross the sea, “therefore the bishops who take part in the Bari days cannot but raise an invocation to peace.”
Cacucci pointed to an increase in Christian persecution, saying it has made dialogue between Christians and other faith traditions more difficult.
Younan echoed the concern, but said he has little hope for this dialogue to be successful, because in his view, “Islam has no exegesis: All verses of the Koran are taken literally, including violent verses.”
This applies to “every Muslim,” and especially to Sunnis, he said, insisting that Western nations and the Catholic Church are “required to better understand the matrices of terrorism,” because “as long as the teaching of these verses continues, violence based on Islamic radicalism will not cease.”
“Islam does not recognize religious freedom,” Younan said, so if a Christian-Muslim dialogue is to take place, he only sees it happening in countries where Muslims are a minority and where full religious freedom is already a guarantee.
Younan said he and other church leaders in the Middle East are “horrified” to see the mass exodus of Christians from the region, especially young people, and thanked European Catholics who have been close to Iraq and Syria.
“I believe that the Church is called to contribute to peace in the Mediterranean by following a specific path: that of ‘charity in truth,’” he said, saying this can be done by “avoiding hypocritically submitting to the Islamic world” due to its numbers, natural resources and the fear of terrorism, and by “rejecting an avid opportunism nourished by contempt for the people of our territories.”