ROME, JAN. 31, 2001 (ZENIT.org–AVVENIRE).- John Paul II´s visit to Syria sometime in the near future could help the country´s Christians rediscover their role in this predominantly Muslim land, a bishop says.
The Pope announced the trip publicly Jan. 25, explaining that he is following in St. Paul´s footsteps to promote Christian unity.
In an interview, Catholic-Armenian Bishop Boutros Marayati of Aleppo spoke about the hopes of the country´s Christians for that papa visit. Christians, who are divided in numerous churches, communities and rites, make up 10% of the population of 16.3 million; the remaining 90% are Muslims.
–Q: What fruits does the Syrian Church expect from John Paul II´s visit?
–Bishop Marayati: We hope for a recovery of our role in the spread of Christianity — Antioch, the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul. This is the country of the first Christians. Besides Damascus, we have St. Simeon Stylite, Sergiopolis, Maalula and Saydnaya, where Aramaic is still spoken, and many other abandoned places in the entire East. The Holy Father´s visit will help us to remain in this land and rediscover our Christian roots.
–Q: Has the Jubilee helped at all in this respect?
–Bishop Marayati: I was pleased to see that even the Muslims saw in the Jubilee an opportunity of opening to the world. The Ministry of Tourism has opened centers of welcome in Maalula, Aleppo and Sergiopolis, with special itineraries for pilgrims.
–Q: The Holy Year also hoped to offer rich opportunities from the ecumenical point of view.
–Bishop Marayati: We have received a special opportunity for ecumenical collaboration from the Jubilee. For example: during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we participated in a meeting with youth of the different Churches of Aleppo — a meeting that acquires special value with reference to a city where the 160,000 Christians, one-tenth of the population, are divided in 11 different rites [six Catholic, four Orthodox and one Protestant].
–Q: The Pope´s visit is also of cultural value for the Syrian Church.
–Bishop Marayati: To rediscover and appreciate the ancient vestiges is decisive. They offer irrefutable evidence of the established Christian presence in this land. The Churches that date back to the third century refute what many Syrians believe about the arrival of Christians together with the Crusaders, which leads them to regard us as second-class citizens. Fortunately, the Muslim leaders are aware of the reality, but they compare Islam to a large tree that has cast its shadow on Christianity. A step forward: we are citizens of this country but we live in the shadow of Islam.
–Q: What can be done to change this situation?
–Bishop Marayati: It means giving new life to “dead cities.” We celebrate Masses, honor our martyrs, and distill a sense of communion from the memory of past times — in sum, a return to our sources and traditions. In any case, in some instances this effort has surpassed all expectations. I am thinking of Nabak, where Father Paolo Dall´Oglio has reconstructed the monastery, and in similar experiences, in the Aleppo area, to renew monastic life.
There are in Syria 295,000 Catholics, 18 dioceses, 234 parishes, one patriarch, 22 bishops, 227 priests, 19 [religious] brothers, 401 nuns, 83 seminarians. The Church is present in the richness of the Maronite, Greek-Melkite, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean and Latin rites.