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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Cardinal’s Middle East Trip Promotes Interfaith Fellowship

Traveling “without a portfolio,” John Cardinal O’Connnor bridges interfaith barriers in the Middle East.

It would be hard to imagine John Cardinal O’Connor accomplishing more than he did on his nine-day pastoral trip through the Middle East in late December and early January. The cardinal traveled with Msgr. Robert L. Stern and Bishop John J. Nevins, a trustee of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, to review some of the Association’s programs and projects in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Territories.

In addition, Catholic Near East’s president and treasurer met with a dizzying array of religious leaders. He met with Armenian, Coptic, Latin, Maronite, Melkite and Syrian Catholics; Armenian, Coptic and Greek Orthodox; Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Druze and Jews.

In each of the four countries he visited in perhaps the world’s most peace-starved region, Cardinal O’Connor was also invited to call upon government leaders. Their frank though friendly conversations concerned religious liberty, mutual understanding, respect for human rights and the improving prospects for peace in the region.

By his many meetings, the cardinal demonstrated an understanding of Middle Eastern culture, a culture in which courtesy visits carry great weight. He also kept an important promise he made before leaving New York City December 28: that although he was traveling “without a portfolio” in an entirely apolitical capacity, he would meet and “be at the service of” anyone who wanted to meet with him.

What made the 72-year-old prelate’s achievement all the more noteworthy was that he traveled in far from ideal conditions. The Middle East was experiencing the worst winter in more than 50 years. The mercury dipped to the 40s in Egypt, the 30s in Lebanon and, remarkably, the 20s in Jordan before climbing to the relatively balmy 50s in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Ice-encrusted palm and olive trees and snow-covered desert floors were strange but common sights. Heavy snowfall eliminated one of the cardinal’s planned stops – Syria – and almost forced the cancellation of several others.

His voyage started in the teeming capital of the Arab world’s most populous nation –Egypt – a place he had never visited.

There, on New Year’s Eve, the cardinal had a constructive meeting with the republic’s president, Hosni Mubarak, in the opulent presidential palace.

Afterward, Cardinal O’Connor told reporters that the president seemed interested in the various projects sponsored by Catholic Near East in Egypt and “very optimistic and confident” about the Arab-Israeli peace talks, then scheduled to start in Washington, D.C.

Later that day the cardinal met Maximos V Hakim, the Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria, and of Jerusalem. An adventurous drive through Cairo then took the cardinal to St. Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, where he met Stephanos II Ghattas, Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria. Under the Association’s sponsorship, St. Leo’s trains the majority of the candidates for the Coptic Catholic priesthood.

On New Year’s Day the cardinal had a productive meeting with Dr. Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. To the country’s huge Sunni Muslim population (Sunnis compose 90 percent of Egypt’s 55 million people), the grand mufti is the nation’s main religious authority, a sort of quasi-governmental “canon lawyer” who determines all public matters relating to Muslim law.

Before leaving Egypt for Lebanon, the cardinal also met Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, and Bishop Moussa, the Pope’s Bishop for Youth and a friend of the Association. With an estimated five million believers, the Copts form a significant minority in Egypt and the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Pope Shenouda was very pastoral-minded. Never did he utter a word about politics. He spoke extensively about the Gospel, evangelization, the formation of his peoples’ faith and how to attract more youths to the church. To strengthen one point, the pope thumbed through the Bible that he carried and cited a passage from Ezekiel.

The cardinal distilled the essence of his third trip to Lebanon (the others were in 1986 and 1989) a few hours after he arrived on Lebanese soil.

“I come for the same reason each time,” he told the large Lebanese press contigent that crowded round him at the Maronite patriarch’s residence in Bkerke. “I support Lebanon any way that I can. I am on a mission of love, to express my love for Lebanon, the patriarch and the Lebanese people.”

Before leaving to celebrate Mass in Bkerke’s chilly chapel for the staff of Catholic Near East’s operating agency, the Pontifical Mission, Cardinal O’Connor said, “It’s no secret that Lebanon is the heart of my trip.” Motioning to his heart, he added, “And I see Patriarch Sfeir as the heart of Lebanon.” Clearly touched, the cardinal’s host smiled.

That the cardinal’s plane actually landed in Beirut signified that Lebanon has regained a measure of political stability. On his last visit, in 1989, he was flown by helicopter from Cyprus directly to Bkerke. But there was no disputing that the war has nearly obliterated the economic infrastructure of this once-prosperous nation, the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

During a Jan. 2 tour in pouring rain, the cardinal saw first-hand how Catholic Near East has promoted peace and social justice in Lebanon. The tour took him through the surreal maze of wreckage along the Green Line, the former line of demarcation that divided Beirut according to religious belief – East Beirut was primarily Christian, West Beirut, primarily Muslim.

The cardinal stopped to visit two families whose homes have been partly repaired by the Pontifical Mission. All told, the Pontifical Mission has helped repair some 6,000 war-damaged homes in Beirut and elsewhere and assisted over 12,000 people.

After visiting the Dakkashes, a Muslim family living in the Berjawi section of Beirut, Cardinal O’Connor remarked, “It’s a trivial thing on the surface that we’re doing, creating one livable room in each of those 6,000 units, but it seems to have done an awful lot for the spirits of the people.”

He then met separately with Lebanon’s top three leaders: President Hraoui, a Maronite Catholic; Prime Minister Omar Karami, a Sunni Muslim, and Speaker of the Parliament Hussein el-Husseini, a Shi’ite Muslim. All three stressed the importance of the peace talks.

Cardinal O’Connor’s historic visit into western Beirut Jan. 3 may have done more to advance interreligious dialogue in Lebanon than any effort made since the start of the civil war in 1975. That day he had a very friendly and candid meeting with Dr. Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, acting Grand Mufti of Lebanon, representatives of Lebanon’s Shi’ite and Druze religious leaders, Sheikh Moursal Nasr and Sheikh Abdel Amir Kabalan. According to the Shi’ite representative’s press attache, never before had a Catholic of the cardinal’s stature met with the Muslim and Druze leaders.

Afterward, the cardinal told reporters he was “honored” to meet them. “The meeting was one more opportunity for understanding on my part,” he stated. “Christians and Muslims either live together in peace or we die in division. It is not simply a question of co-existence or detente, but living in unity.”

Other religious leaders the cardinal met during the Lebanon leg of the trip included Karekin II Sarkissian, the Armenian Apostolic Catholicos of Cilicia; Ignatius Anthony II Hayek, the Syrian Catholic Patriarch of Antioch; Jean Pierre XVIII Kasparian, the Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia, and Metropolitan Elias Audi, the plainspoken Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Beirut.

A severe snowstorm blocked all the mountain roads leading to the Syrian capital of Damascus, where the cardinal was scheduled to meet with President Hafez Assad. He then flew to Amman, Jordan Jan. 4.

In Jordan Cardinal O’Connor saw some of the desperate offspring of “The Mother of All Battles” – displaced people. During the peak of the Persian Gulf War, more than 100,000 Iraqi refugees – many of them Christian – flooded Jordan. By the time of the cardinal’s trip, about 15,000 remained.

About 4,000 of these refugees gathered in the shivering cold at a Caritas center in downtown Amman to receive blankets and foodstuffs as part of a program jointly operated by the Pontifical Mission and Caritas. The cardinal handed out wool blankets and bags of food, as well as a check for $50,000, which will enable the agencies to continue their work with the refugees.

Earlier that day he and Bishop Nevins met privately with Jordan’s long-standing leader, King Hussein. Like every other political leader the cardinal saw, the king held great hopes for the peace talks.

The weather came into play again Jan. 5, and nearly forced the cancellation of Cardinal O’Connor’s packed itinerary in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Because of all the precipitation, the Jordan River – ordinarily not much more than a creek – was transformed into a swollen, muddy mess. Running nearly six feet higher than normal, it flooded the Allenby Bridge, which spans the river just north of the Dead Sea. But thanks to the cooperation of the Jordanian and Israeli governments, a rare event not to be overlooked, a cargo bridge about 25 miles north of the regular route was opened and the cardinal and his party were able to enter the Holy Land.

Over the next two days, Cardinal O’Connor met with practically every political and religious leader of note. He made Church history when he formally met both President Chaim Hertzog and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the Israeli leaders’ respective offices while wearing his cassock, red sash and pectoral cross rather than street clothes – a significant symbol.

He also met with opposition leader Shimon Peres, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and Rabbi David Rosen of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and a friend of the Association.

Additional discussions were held with Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Bethlehem’s Palestinian mayor, Elias Freij, Faisal Husseini, head of the Palestinian peace negotiation team, and six other Palestinian leaders.

On Jan. 6, his last full day in Israel and the Occupied Territories, Cardinal O’Connor visited the Creche, a shelter in Bethlehem for abandoned Palestinian children that receives significant funding from the Pontifical Mission. His plans to tour a PMP health clinic and school for the hearing-impaired in Dheisheh, a refugee camp near Bethlehem, were overturned when he was informed by Israeli soldiers that the camp was under curfew.

He still managed to get a glimpse of the squalid living conditions there when his group later returned to the camp’s back boundary. There he met a resident of the camp who came out of his house and offered the cardinal a cup of coffee.

Another highlight that day was a luncheon hosted by Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Jerusalem. The patriarch, the former primate of the Apostolic Church in the U.S., also invited the cardinal to celebrate the patronal feast of St. James with members of the Brotherhood of St. James in the 12th century cathedral of the same name.

After celebrating Mass in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth Jan. 7, Cardinal O’Connor flew to Rome for a meeting with Pope John Paul II. On his return flight to New York Jan. 9, he termed his trip a success and spoke optimistically about the international peace talks that were on the lips of so many leaders.

While cautioning that there will be many “slips and falls” throughout the process, he said, “Certainly the moderate Muslim world – which is most of the Muslim world – wants peace. The Christian world wants peace. And the Jewish world wants peace. I think that good will is beginning to accumulate.”

If that is so, it’s probably a safe bet to say that under the cardinal’s tutelage, and through his well-timed travels as its ambassador, Catholic Near East Welfare Association has had more than a little to do with the accumulation.

Michael J. Healey, a staff writer for Catholic New York, accompanied the cardinal on his trip.

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