ROME – Faced with the ever-present fear that Christianity could disappear from the Middle East, leaders from both Catholic and Orthodox churches in Iraq have said their unity is key to ensuring their churches are there to stay.
In comments to Crux, Mar Gewargis III, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East in Iraq, said every church leader in the region urges their faithful “to always remember that in the present situation in which all the churches find themselves, and that Christians in general find themselves, that they ought to be close to the Church and close to their pastors.”
“There is an understanding between all the heads of the churches there,” he said, adding that each church and each head of a church “teaches their faithful to be united in spirit, so it’s a unity in spirit, a unity in collaboration between all of the churches.”
Gewargis, 76, was elected head of the Assyrian Church, which belongs to an eastern branch of Syriac Christianity, in 2015. He is currently visiting the Vatican for a two-day meeting with the joint-commission for relations between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, which concluded Thursday.
Though he did not offer specifics of what was discussed, Gewargis said the commission continues to meet annually “in obedience to Christ, that we all might be one, as it says in John 17.”
The Vatican issued a landmark ruling in 2001 approving inter-communion between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East in certain circumstances, a decision described by one expert as “the most remarkable Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II,” in part because it represented official Catholic approval for a time-honored Eucharistic consecration rite that doesn’t involve the ‘institution narrative’ of the synoptic Gospels, which Catholic tradition always has regarded as essential.
Closing his time in Rome, Gewargis is scheduled to meet Pope Francis Friday morning. During the meeting, he said he wants to give the pope an update on the situation of Christians in his home region, “continuing the conversation of how the Holy See and the international community can continue to be aware and continue to help the plight of Christians in the Middle East.”
Unity among the different Christian rites in Iraq has been a major priority in recent years, as the number of Christians continues to diminish due in large part to migration, either because of the poor economy and lack of government stability, or because of persecution from extremist groups such as ISIS.
In general, the number of Christians has dwindled throughout the Middle East, not just Iraq, making up just four percent of the region’s overall population, which is down about 20 percent from before the First World War, according to a statement made over the summer by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Pope Francis has often spoken when referring to Christian persecution in the Middle East about the “ecumenism of blood,” a phrase indicating that when extremists target Christians, it doesn’t matter what rite they belong to.
However, dialogue among the various churches in the area has not always been an easy task, as those from the region are typically divided on ethnic and religious lines, with a deep sense of identity rooted in cultural or religious traditions.
According to Shlemon Warduni, auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, this task has become more difficult after the 2014 ISIS invasion. The reason, he said, is “egoism,” because the mentality now “is each one for himself.”
In comments to Crux, Warduni said many of the rites are controlled by “personal interests,” and that dialogue generally is “not like before. Before, it was better.”
Speaking generally, he said “we are not so spiritually deep as Christians,” which also has an influence over how they interact. However, if Christianity is to survive in the Middle East, “Christians must work together, not one against another.”
“If they don’t have this, this comes from me, that comes from you, and they go one against the other,” he said, adding that prayer and concrete help for families are also desperately needed to keep people from migrating.
With few jobs and many families already split by migration, the thought of leaving becomes increasingly more attractive, especially when threats such as ISIS arise, Warduni said.
Though ISIS has been defeated and Christians are trickling back to their villages, many are still without homes, “they don’t have anything to do, and they don’t have anything to eat, this is it. So, it’s something very serious. It’s very dangerous, because the Middle East will be without Christians,” he said.
For Christians to achieve unity, Warduni said it will first of all take humility, and a willingness “to choose Christ,” rather than themselves or their own interests.
“What does Christ say? That all are one, and then to love others as I have loved you. He has loved us to the cross, but we want the armchair, that one for you, this one for me. This is not good.”
“Right now, we really need people to pray for us a lot,” he said, because “if we choose God, we can do anything. If not, it will be difficult.”
If Christ is chosen above one’s own ego, then “everything happens, because Christ is for everyone,” he said, adding that in the spiritual life, “personal interests must be closed, not open to four doors.”
Warduni, who was present alongside Gewargis at the launch of a Nov. 8-9 conference in Rome marking the 700th anniversary of the death of Eastern theologian Abdisho bar Brikha, read aloud a statement from Chaldean Patriarch Luis Raphael Sako, who was originally scheduled to attend the gathering but was unable due to other commitments.
In his message, Sako also stressed the importance of unity, saying Christians in the Middle East “must have a unified strategy and vision to defend our presence.”
“To continue our indispensable role, we must be stronger than division and eliminate psychological and historic barriers in order to unite the Church in the east,” he said, adding that in the face of current challenges such as extremism and migration, “our unity will help us to reach a better future.”