By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis expressed his joy and “prayerful solidarity” to the new head of the Assyrian Church of the East, 73-year-old Catholicos Gewargis III.
The former metropolitan of Iraq, Jordan and Russian was elected patriarch Sept. 18 by members of the Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East. He was scheduled to be consecrated Sept. 27 in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Irbil, Iraq.
In a telegram sent to the new patriarch, the pope said: “It is my prayer that your holiness may be an inspirational pastor for the flock entrusted to your care and an untiring builder of peace and harmony, serving the common good and the good of the entire Middle East.”
The Vatican released a copy of the telegram Sept. 21.
The pope wrote that he was praying for “all who suffer because of the tragic situation in the Middle East, especially our Christian brothers and sisters and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. With you, I ask the Lord to grant them strength so that they may persevere in their Christian witness.”
Pope Francis expressed his gratitude “for the bonds of fraternity between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, I hope and pray that our continuing friendship and dialogue may be further developed and deepened.”
Catholicos Gewargis was born Nov. 23, 1941, in Habbaniya, Iraq, and studied at the University of Baghdad. He was consecrated metropolitan of Iraq, Jordan and Russia in 1981 in Chicago by his predecessor, the late Catholicos Dinka IV.
The new patriarch succeeds Catholicos Dinkha, who died March 26 in Rochester, Minnesota, at the age of 79. The Iraqi-born Catholicos Dinkha was the first patriarch to be elected; traditionally, succession was from uncle to nephew.
Because of political instability in Iraq, Catholicos Dinkha moved the patriarchal see in 1980 from its ancestral homeland in modern-day Iraq to suburban Chicago in the United States, where a growing diaspora community was located.
The majority of the Assyrian Church of the East’s faithful lives in the diaspora, mostly in the U.S. — about 300,000 — but also in Australia and Europe.
Although the Assyrian Church of the East is not in communion with any other churches, either Catholic or Orthodox, Catholicos Dinkha was a strong promoter of unity as he led the church for 39 years.
The Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church have a long-standing theological dialogue. Catholicos Dinkha and St. John Paul II signed in 1994 the “Common Christological Agreement between the Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church,” which expressed the two churches’ common faith in Christ’s incarnation.