John L. Allen Jr.
The scene of a May 2015 attack on Christians in Aleppo. (Credit: Melkite Archdiocese of Aleppo.)
ROME – Pope Francis said his regular morning Mass on Tuesday for the “persecuted Christians of the Middle East,” celebrating the liturgy alongside Patriarch Youssef Absi of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the chapel at the Santa Marta residence at the Vatican where he lives.
The Melkite Greek Catholic Church is one of the eastern churches in communion with Rome, with its largest presence in Syria.
In comments released by the Vatican this morning, Francis introduced Absi at the Santa Marta by saying that he leads “a church … with a grand part of its people crucified, like Jesus,” referring to the suffering of Syrian Christians unleashed by that country’s bitter civil conflict.
“We offer this Mass for that people, a people that’s suffering, for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, which damages life, damages [their] goods and property, because they’ve been driven out.”
“And we offer this Mass,” the pope said, “for the ministry of our brother Youssef.”
The pope also described the liturgy celebrated with the Melkite prelate as an important sign of communion.
“This Mass with our brother, Patriarch Youssef, makes for apostolic communion,” the pope said. “He’s the father of a church, an ancient church, who’s come to embrace Peter and say, ‘I am in communion with Peter.’”
“That’s the significance of today’s ceremony,” the pope said, “the embrace of a father of a church with Peter.”
In a fashion typical of the eastern churches, Absi thanked Francis in the name of the “synod” of his church, meaning its governing body, typically made up of the bishops of each church.
Absi emphasized the importance of saying Mass with the pope for his church.
“Personally, I’m very moved by your fraternal charity, the gestures of fraternity and solidarity which you’ve demonstrated for our church in the course of this Mass,” Absi said.
“We promise to always keep you in our hearts, in the heart of all our clergy and faithful, and will always remember this event, these historical moments, this moment the beauty of which I can’t describe: This fraternity, this communion that links all the disciples of Christ,” he said.
Syria’s Christian population has been especially hard hit by the country’s ongoing conflict, and their suffering at the hands of the Islamic State has been recognized by both the European Union and the United States. Since 2011, the country’s Christian population has shrunk from 30 percent to an estimated 10 percent of the population as many Christians were driven from their homes or forced to convert to Islam.