Moscow (AsiaNews) – The defence of Christians and the protection of sanctuaries in the Middle East was the focus of an international conference, with the participation of representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and of the Catholic Church, held in Vienna on 12 February . The conference was planned in the framework of Catholic-Orthodox cooperation for the help of Christians in the Middle East, but it was also an opportunity to remember the second anniversary of the meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Havana of 12 February 2016.
The Russian delegation to Vienna was led by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev), head of the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate; on the Catholic side there was Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Also present were Metropolitan Ignatius of the Orthodox Church of Antioch, head of the Paris office; the director of the Moscow Patriarchate Directorate for Foreign Institutions, the Archbishop of Vienna and Budapest Antonij (Sevrjuk, former secretary of Patriarch Kirill and pastor of the Russian Church in Rome); the metropolitan of the Syro-Jacobite Church in Austria and Switzerland, Dionisio Issa Gurbuz; the head of the diocese of Damascus of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Bishop Armas Nalbandian of the Catholicosato of Echmjadzin; Bishop Joseph Mouawad, head of the Maronite diocese of Zahleh in Lebanon.
Card. Cristoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, did the honors, welcoming guests to the archiepiscopal palace with these words: “We heard the joint appeal of Catholic priests for Christians in the Middle East who need not only humanitarian aid, but also political support. Many archbishops are turning to their own countries and their governments, to do all they can to re-establish peace in that region. The commitment of the Russian Orthodox Church has always been clear to our priests, and I also think of the Russian government, which has always been directed to providing help for Christians in this region”.
During the conference a catalogue was also presented, showing all the Christian shrines destroyed or ruined by the terrorists of the self-styled “Islamic State” during the war in Syria. It includes churches, cemeteries and monasteries, described in a very accurate way, which require immediate restoration, as Metropolitan Hilarion observed in the main report of the meeting. He outlined an impressive humanitarian projectrecently carried out in Syria by the Interfaith Working Group, which acts under the auspices of the Council for cooperation with the religious organizations of the Presidency of the Russian Federation and involves many Muslim associations of Russia. In turn, Cardinal Koch illustrated the humanitarian activities of the Catholic Church in the Middle East, in particular in Syria and Iraq.
Hilarion did not rule out another meeting between the Pope and the Russian patriarch, stating it could take place any time, when the two will feel ready: “The decision on where and when to meet depends on the pope and the patriarch. I think when they are ready to meet again, they themselves will find the right place. “
In general, the metropolitan believes that the present perspectives of dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox are “very positive”, and that “the results of the last two years show that the common response of Christians to the challenges of contemporary civilization is ever more effective. After the meeting in Havana, bilateral collaboration has become increasingly intense. It is important that during the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, for the first time the condemnation of the persecution of Christians, defined as genocide, resounded at such a high level. This term had not been used before by the main religious leaders, while in Cuba it was sanctioned by the authority and firmness of the leaders of the two main Churches”.
The Russian Church representative reiterated the personal commitment of President Vladimir Putin to the needs of Christians in the Middle East, as evidenced by the recent meetings he had with the head of the Orthodox Church of Antioch John X and with Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II.
Concluding his speech, Metropolitan Ilarion wanted to point out another important aspect of the collaboration between Orthodox and Catholics: that of research work, which commits ecclesiastical and academic structures to the understanding of all aspects of situations and historical-social motivations of events in the Middle East. This joint study, according to the prelate, “allows us to understand current events, in an attempt to overcome the reasons for war and conflicts, and to prepare the future, to create new conditions of tolerance and peaceful coexistence”.