ROME – Like lights in the darkness, Christians facing persecution in the Middle East are resilient against the most staggering odds, Pope Francis said during an ecumenical prayer in the southern Italian town of Bari Saturday, condemning the “complicit silence” of many to anti-Christian persecution.
“Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference,” the pope said July 7 flanked by 19 other religious leaders, the majority of whom are Eastern patriarchs or heads of churches in the Middle East.
“We want to give a voice to those who have none, to those who can only wipe away their tears. For the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches,” Francis added.
Bari, often called a “window to the Middle East,” has historically been at the vanguard of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, a city projected toward the Mediterranean Sea where, for centuries, religions have both met and collided.
Serving as a good-will ambassador for Saturday’s summit of religious leaders was St. Nicholas of Bari, venerated both by Catholics and Orthodox alike, whose relics are kept in the city’s basilica.
The heads of Orthodox churches, Oriental Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, members of Catholic Oriental churches, a representative for the Lutheran Church, and one for the Middle East Council of Churches answered Francis’s call to unite under the motto, “Peace be upon you! Christians together for the Middle East.”
Five other leaders instead sent a representative, including Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch.
At the heart of Saturday’s gathering was the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The number of Christians in the region has dropped significantly in recent decades, the result of persecution by Muslim extremists, war, and political and economic uncertainty.
Upon arrival from the Vatican in his helicopter, the pope was greeted by Archbishop Franccesco Cacussi of Bari-Bitonto and city representatives. Later, Francis warmly embraced the religious representatives outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas, run by a Dominican community.
Together, the group prayed before the relics of St. Nicholas and lit a single candle representing their unified commitment to ending war in the Middle East.
“This region so full of light, especially in recent years, has been covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect. All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many,” Francis said during the ecumenical prayer.
The pope expressed fear that the Christian community in the Middle East might disappear, “disfiguring the face of the region,” which is the cradle of Christianity. “We have already lit, before Saint Nicholas, the ‘one-flame lamp,’ a symbol of the one Church,” Francis said.
“Today, as one, we want to kindle a flame of hope,” he added.
The pope described Christians as “the light of the world,” even in dark moments of history, when “they refuse to be resigned to the encircling gloom but instead feed the wick of hope with the oil of prayer and love.”
The ecumenical prayer for peace took place on the shoreline in Bari looking out toward the Middle East, a region which the pope described as a keeper of the Christian traditions “to be preserved to the utmost of our ability, for in the Middle East our very souls are rooted,” Francis said.
To get there from the basilica, the popes and patriarchs rode on a bus with no windows or cover, waving to the cheering crowd – habits flapping in the wind – offering a picture of ecumenism on the go.
“For all our suffering brothers and sisters, and for our friends of every people and creed, let us say again and again: Peace be upon you!” the pope said. “With the Psalmist, let us offer this prayer in a special way for Jerusalem, the holy city beloved of God and wounded by men, for which the Lord continues to weep: Peace be upon you!”
This is not Francis’s first prayer initiative for peace in the Middle East.
In Sept. 7, 2013, he called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. In 2014, he led an interreligious prayer for peace that included Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, who’d come to the Vatican to pray for peace in the region.
After the prayer the leaders met for a closed-door encounter at the Basilica of St. Nicholas.