Early Sunday morning, Australian time, a delegation of Australian Bishops from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference as well as the Conference of Bishops and Representatives of the Middle Eastern Apostolic Churches in Australia and New Zealand returned from a visit to the Middle East where they spent time with displaced Christians in Iraq and refugees in Lebanon.
They had departed a week before and the visit followed on the designation of Sunday December 7 as a Day of Solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East in response to the recent tragic events.
The delegation was made up of: Most Reverend Christopher Prowse, Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Most Reverend Julian Porteous, Archbishop of Hobart, Most Reverend Robert Rabbat, Eparch of the Melkite Eparchy of Australia and New Zealand, Most Reverend Mar Jibrael Kassab, Archbishop of St Thomas The Apostle Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Diocese of Australia and New Zealand, Most Reverend Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, Maronite Bishop of Australia, Most Reverend Bishop Daniel, Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Sydney and Affiliated Regions, Most Reverend Danil Bolis, Archbishop of the Ancient Church of the East.
Around 120,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes by the end of June 2014 and resettle in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. “These people are living in terrible conditions and they are gradually losing hope of returning to their homes and are worried about the future of their families and children,” a statement issued by the delegation commented.
The aim of the visit was to show support before Christmas and to try and alleviate their suffering and listen to their needs.
Upon their arrival to Beirut, Archbishop Christopher Prowse spoke about the delegation’s mission to the Middle East. He stressed the compassion and support of the Church and the people of Australia, stating: “They were shocked by the ordeal of the Iraqi Christians who were obliged to abandon their homes and properties and leave without knowing what their destination and future would be.”
Following their arrival the bishops went to the Maronite Patriarchal See in Bkerke, where they met with His Beatitude and Eminence Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, who called this visit a blessed initiative by the Australian Bishops.
On Tuesday 16 December, the delegation visited the Caritas Lebanon Head Office in Beirut, where Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay celebrated mass, joined by Bishop Michel Aoun, responsible for Caritas – Lebanon and all the Bishops present.
Following the mass, the delegation met with some refugee families and heard their traumatizing experiences. The visiting bishops promised to carry back with them the concerns of the refugees to the Australian government and people.
During the meeting, Bishop Georges Kass Moussa, Syrian Catholic Bishop, summarized the appeal of the refugees to the Western world as following:
The right of the refugees to return to their homeland with international guarantee that will enable them to regain their homes and continue to live in dignity and peace;
To facilitate the immigration process to those who would like to immigrate to other countries, asking if it is possible for the Australian Government to take on more refugees;
To ensure that their basic humanitarian needs, such as education, health care and food are provided, knowing that there are about 2000 Christian Iraqi families currently in each of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey;
If the international community is unable to intervene and put an end to this situation, more people will be forced to leave their homes, placing an increased burden on the surrounding countries.
On Wednesday 16 December, the delegation visited St Maroun’s Monastery in Annaya where they celebrated mass and visited the tomb of Saint Charbel. They were welcomed by The Right Reverend Abbot Tannous Nehme, Superior General of the LMO and Fr Charbel Beirouthy, Superior of the Monastery.
In his homily, Bishop Julian Porteous asked our Lord, source of peace, to come to the aid of the Christians of the Middle East, and relieve their sufferings and distress, through the intercession of St Charbel.
Later in the day, the delegation met with His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
His Beatitude made a plea that the Church unites in seeking peace everywhere in the world and in protecting the rights of the Christians to remain in their land.