The ecumenical meeting involved patriarchs and representatives of several Orthodox churches, Oriental Orthodox churches, Eastern Catholic churches, and representatives of the Lutheran church and Middle East Council of Churches.
The first event of its kind
The meeting was the first of its kind according to the the Press Association News Agency. It is the only time so many Orthodox patriarchs from the Middle East have met with the Pope. The event also marks a milestone in the relations between the Vatican and other Christian communities.
The first part of the event involved a prayer with the faithful on the seafront of Bari. The second section will include a private dialogue between the religious leaders, where each will outline its proposal for peace in the Middle East.
The choice of the location, the town of Bari in the south Adriatic, has a deep symbolic value in terms of Catholic-Orthodox relations. Orthodox Christians are devoted to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Bari. Last year, his relics were displayed in Moscow and St Petersburg, and attracted more than two million people. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke defined Bari as a “window towards the East”.
Pope Francis, the bridge-builder
In his powerful introductory address, Pope Francis said: “Indifference kills; and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition of this murderous indifference. We want to give a voice to those who have none, for the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches.”
During the day-long gathering,designed to highlight to plight of Christians and others in the Middle East, the Pontiff said the region had been “covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect.”
Pope Francis warned about the danger the presence of people of faith in the region will disappear, causing the very face of the region to become unrecognisable. The Pope describes the region as “the crossroads of civilisations and the cradle of the great monotheistic religions.”
The Pope also cautioned that a Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East.
The percentage of Christians living in the Middle East has fallen from 20% before the First World War to just 4% today, according to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The Pope’s closing address
In his closing address Pope Francis said: “War is the daughter of power and poverty. It is defeated by renouncing the thirst for supremacy and by eradicating poverty. Violence is always fuelled by weapons. You cannot speak of peace while you are secretly racing to stockpile new arms. This is a most serious responsibility weighing on the conscience of nations, especially the most powerful.”
Pope Francis has always taken a close interest in the dilemma of Christians in the Middle East. In December 2014, he published a letter to “promote peace and stop violence in the Middle East, by encouraging Muslims to present an authentic image of Islam as a religion of peace.”