Friday, 18 April 2014
When Pope Francis canonises two of his predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, on Sunday week, raising them to the ranks of sainthood, it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between the present pope and his predecessors. On Good Friday, it is worth remembering how Pope John XXIII removed offensive references to Jews in the liturgy for Good Friday. His decision paved the way for a visit to the Holy Land by his successor, Pope Paul VI, and laid the foundations for vastly improved Jewish-Catholic relations.
Jewish-Christian relations will be to the fore again when Pope Francis visits the Middle East next month. This visit, marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit in 1964, and includes a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
But Pope Francis must be acutely aware that while he is free next month to visit Bethlehem, Jerusalem and other key sites associated with the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, Christians in the Middle East are suffering increasingly as they are caught between state-sanctioned discriminations in Israel and violence and bloodshed in other parts of the Middle East. When Pope Paul VI visited the Middle East in 1964, Christians accounted for about 20 per cent of the total population of the region; half a century later, it is calculated, they are just three per cent of the population.
Divisions between churches
In many parts of the world, political conflicts are reflected in the divisions between the Churches. In Ukraine, for example, the divisions between the Churches and within the Churches reflect centuries of conflict – even the Orthodox Church has fractured into factions that look towards Moscow or look towards the nationalists in Kiev. In recent days, two prominent Russian-speaking Orthodox priests have fled Ukraine after questioning by the Ukrainian Security Service, while properties belonging to Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church have been seized by Russian Orthodox groups in Crimea. A Ukrainian Catholic leader, Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh, fears Catholics could lose their legal status in Crimea under Russian rule, and some of his priests say they have been branded “Vatican agents” and warned to leave Crimea.
Yet, unlike Ukraine, Christians in the Middle East are united in their sufferings. This year is one of those rare occasions when the calendars of the Western and Eastern Churches coincide so that Good Friday and Easter fall on the same days for the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant traditions. And Palestinian Christians have been united this week in speaking out against Israeli restrictions imposed on them all, severely restricting their access to many of the holy sites this weekend.
In a collective statement this week, the Christian community in Jerusalem claimed the mobility of worshippers inside the Old City is being heavily restricted by checkpoints and gates, preventing Christians from free access to sites that include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa. Monasteries in the West Bank are frequently the targets of arsonists and vandals. Deir Rafat Monastery, west of Jerusalem, was recently petrol bombed and its walls daubed with racist graffiti.
A Christian exodus
In neighbouring states too, Christians are suffering. A Jesuit priest in Syria, Father Frans van der Lugt, was abducted from a monastery in Qoms and murdered earlier this month. Syrian rebels have razed the Christian town of Maaloula, where Christians lived for almost 2,000 years and spoke Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself. Although 12 nuns were released by their kidnappers last month, there is still no news of two archbishops abducted in Aleppo 12 months ago. In all, 1,200 Christians have been killed in Syria, 30 per cent of churches have been destroyed and 600,000 Christians have fled the country.
The Chaldean Patriarch, Mar Louis Sako Raphael I, who leads a Church in Iraq that is in communion with the Pope, has declared: “1,400 years of Islam have not been able to take us away from our lands and our churches; now Western policy has dispersed us to the four corners of the earth.” About half of all Iraqi Christians, once numbering 1.5 million, have left Iraq in fear of violence and persecution.
The exodus of Christians from the Middle East appears unstoppable. At a meeting before Christmas with the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, Pope Francis said he could “never accept a Middle East without Christians.” Christians in Jerusalem carried a bold message in the Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City last Sunday, with banners that called out: “Pope Francis: Palestine Wants Justice.” The Pope will need to reiterate his fears forcibly when he meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders next month in a torn and suffering place where Christ was crucified and that was once called the Holy Land.