Signs of Ecumenism in Syria

Interview With Greek-Catholic Metropolitan of Aleppo

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ALEPPO, Syria, JAN. 15, 2004 ( The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches have entrusted the preparations for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity to the churches of this ancient city. Why?

Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, Greek-Catholic metropolitan of Aleppo and apostolic visitor for Central Europe, explained to ZENIT the situation of this Church and of Christian denominations in Aleppo. The week of prayer runs Jan. 18-25.

Q: What are the origins of the Church in Aleppo?

Archbishop Jeanbart: The first Christians arrived in Aleppo 2,000 years ago, with the preaching of the apostles. In fact, Syria is a cradle of Christianity and it could be said, in a certain sense, that, if the Church was born in Jerusalem, it grew and was formed in Syria.

In Antioch, the first disciples of Christ were given the name «Christians.» This Church has given to humanity famous saints and martyrs and doctors, and has played a considerable role in Christianity, just as we know it today.

Q: What are the Christian communities in Aleppo today?

Archbishop Jeanbart: At present, Christians of Aleppo are regrouped around 11 religious leaders, nine of whom are Catholic and Orthodox bishops.

That is, there are six Catholic communities, with their respective bishops: the Greek-Catholics, the Armenians, the Syrians, the Maronites, the Chaldeans and the Latins; and three Orthodox communities: Greek-Orthodox, Armenians and Syrians.

One must add, moreover, two evangelical Protestant communities: one Armenian and another Arab.

Q: John Paul II’s trip to Damascus underlined, in particular during the meeting with Christian youths of Syria, a genuine harmony between those communities. What is this like in Aleppo?

Archbishop Jeanbart: Before the Second Vatican Council there were tensions between Catholics and Orthodox, due in part to the centuries-old excommunications launched by both sides. There was an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion that blocked all relations.

After Vatican II, the Catholic Church has moved toward openness with the Orthodox Churches. The suspicions that separated the Churches and that kept them at a distance began to disappear little by little in Aleppo.

Between the diverse Churches of the city at present there are relations that are increasingly cordial — we might even say, fraternal.

At present, the sister Churches come together to address difficult situations and to agree and help one another mutually in their service to their respective faithful.

At the social level, the Catholic Church offers the services of its humanitarian and charitable institutions to all Christians, Catholics and Orthodox, thus helping them to resolve their difficulties.

Q: What are relations like between leaders of the Christian communities?

Archbishop Jeanbart: The bishops and religious leaders of all the Churches of the city meet once a month in turns at the headquarters of one or the other of the communities.

These meetings offer the opportunity to exchange points of view on questions of common interest. This allows them, among other things, to come to an agreement especially on matters that affect Christians and their life among Muslims. From this assembly spring the various ecumenical committees that work in the city.

Q: How is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity observed in Aleppo?

Archbishop Jeanbart: Every year, a special committee stemming from this same assembly is in charge of its preparation and celebration so that the greatest possible number of priests and faithful will participate.

These celebrations, both liturgical as well as various ecumenical meetings, take place in Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant premises.

Q: Which celebrations have the greatest impact?

Archbishop Jeanbart: In these last years, several mixed working committees have been established to prepare the great events that have marked the history of the country: in 1991, on the occasion of the celebration of the 1,500th anniversary of St. Simeon the Stylite; in 1997, for the celebration of the 1,700th anniversary of the martyrdom of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus; and recently, in 2001, all the Christian communities of Syria got together to welcome His Holiness John Paul II, who came on pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul.

Q: John Paul II’s pilgrimage passed into history as a gesture that had an impact on world public opinion. He was received in the Damascus mosque to pray at the tomb of St. John the Baptist and to meet with the mosque leaders. How are your relations with Muslim leaders in Aleppo?

Archbishop Jeanbart: Together, the Christian religious leaders do not cease to organize meetings with Muslim religious leaders. They meet several times a year, either for feasts, dialogue seminars, or fraternal meals offered by one another.

The relations of religious leaders in this city, which is known for its centuries-old traditions of hospitality and good fellowship, are characterized by friendship.

Q: And is this also the relation in daily life between the faithful of the various religions?

Archbishop Jeanbart: There are genuine exchanges between the communities. Schools and educational institutions are open to all. Cultural and charitable structures offer the same services without distinctions to all those who need help.

Members of the Orthodox and Catholic clergy often have the opportunity to celebrate marriage and funeral ceremonies together, in one another’s premises. On the feast of the Churches’ patron saints they do not fail to participate in the liturgical celebrations established for the feast, with the exception of the eucharistic celebration.

Some Orthodox priests accompany their faithful to certain meetings or study sessions organized by Catholic Action movements, active in the city. The exchange of speakers between the movements of the various communities is something frequent in Aleppo.

Q: Then there is good understanding in the local clergy?

Archbishop Jeanbart: There are special bonds of union in particular between the Greek-Catholic and Greek-Orthodox clergy, thanks to the cordial relations that also exist between the two bishops. The priests of these two communities collaborate in many areas, and help each other mutually in their apostolic action and pastoral service.

Thus, in June 2001, the two metropolitans of Aleppo, Orthodox monsignor Boulos Yazigi, and yours truly, agreed to organize together the annual retreat for our priests. Two priests, one Catholic and the other Orthodox, preached the retreat together, in a Greek-Orthodox convent in Balamand, in northern Lebanon.

This retreat allowed the clergy of the two communities to get to know one another better and appreciate each other mutually.

Q: Is it possible to make this communion reach the parishes?

Archbishop Jeanbart: In this context, on March 17, 2002, the two communities were able to inaugurate a common church, dedicated to St. Joseph, which belongs both to the Orthodox as well as the Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo. It has been placed at the disposition of all Christians of the city.

The inauguration of this church was presided over by the two patriarchs, the Catholic and Orthodox, as well as by His Eminence Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

It was a great ecumenical meeting that warmed the hearts of the faithful of Aleppo, of Syria, and perhaps of many other faithful of the world who desire a rapprochement between Christians and the unity of the Church.

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