Prendergast’s perspective on Lebanon and Syria

On my arrival in Ottawa, I became President of CNEWA-Canada, an agency of the Holy See concerned about the welfare of Christians of the Middle East and of Catholics of Oriental Rites (in India, Northeast Africa and Eastern Europe), whose headquarters are located in the Diocesan Centre.

The New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan holds the same position in CNEWA located in New York. And so it was that both of us found ourselves in Easter Week travelling with Seattle Archbishop Alex J. Brunette, Vice-President of CNEWA-USA on a familiarization trip to CNEWA projects in Lebanon and Syria.

Beirut is a beautifully stunning city on the Mediterranean Sea and it served as an entry point for learning about and appreciating the venerable Christian Communities of Syria and Lebanon. These church bodies are ancient and we were inspired by the sacred roots of these churches, places and people so cherished a part of the story of our redemption.

So we prayed “on the road to Damascus,” where Saul became Paul; at the house of Ananias on “Straight Street” where the shocked and blinded Paul came to be baptized: and at the church on the spot where St. Paul was lowered in a basket to escape persecutors.

And we were embraced by the Patriarchs of the historic churches that trace their origins to Antioch, where we were “first called Christians,” and where Peter himself served as first bishop for seven years before he went to Rome:

  • The Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregory III Laham;
  • The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius IV Hazim;
  • The Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, Cardinal Moran Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas;
  • The Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir;
  • The Syrian Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Ignace Yousef III Younan; and
  • The Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia Neres Bedros XIX Tarmouni.

Likewise, we bent to enter caves where monks have lived in penitential, prayerful seclusion since earliest Christian centuries, and prayed at fifteen century-old shrines to Our Lady and the Apostle Thomas in the mountains outside Damascus and Beirut.

These churches are ancient, but they are also young and vibrant! We worshipped at Sunday Mass, in the Melkite Rite, with hundreds of young families.

We conversed with dozens of Melkite and Maronite seminarians earnest in priestly formation, and sang Easter songs with a hundred orphaned girls at a home and school tenderly run by sisters.

These Christian communities may be tiny numerically; they are confronting towering problems; they certainly can chart their Christian lineage back to Peter and Paul; but they are not museum pieces. The church is young and alive.

These Christian communities get along. We sometimes perceive the religious climate of the Mideast to be tense, even violent. Tragically, this is accurate in some places; but not in Syria and Lebanon.

So bishops from the ancient churches mentioned above, joined by the local Presbyterian pastor, came together in hosting a most symbolic meal for us in Homs, Syria. The Grand Mufti of Syria welcomed the Melkite Patriarch and us to the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. And two Islamic leaders prayed in the front row of Sunday Mass at Sayadnaya in Syria.

The Ecumenical and inter-religious climate, especially in Syria, was warm and gracious. They long for unity and in many ways have achieved it. Lebanon is an example of a country where religious cooperation is necessary for survival itself. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Lebanon is not just a nation but a message.”

These Churches suffer. Indeed, the destruction of past wars and violence are still obvious; Christian refugees from Iraq cried as they shared with us their anguish at a centre offering food, clothing, and healthcare run by the Melkite patriarch and funded by CNEWA; and pastors told us that weekly their faithful people leave these biblical lands to emigrate to countries offering more hope; and Catholic Palestinian refugees in Beirut, in a camp where CNEWA is present, told us of their near hopelessness after over sixty years of exile.

As we completed our voyage, we thanked God for those brave souls who remain in these lands and are committed to these honoured, historic Christian communities. Thank God, too, for organizations such as CNEWA that bring support and encouragement to people who inspire us.

The religious communities thanked us for the sustenance they receive from agencies such as CNEWA and Caritas. Each community asked that we convey to you, Catholics in Canada, their gratitude, plus their message:

“We are still the land of the Bible! We have been here since Jesus, Peter and Paul! And we intend to stay! We need your solidarity in prayer and concern, and we promise you our own!”

Yes, these historic Christians are but a small minority in overwhelmingly Islamic countries. While it has not always been so, now, in Syria and Lebanon, our older brothers and sisters in the faith mostly enjoy freedom and friendship, and their communities are vibrant and respected.

It was clear to us that, by their perseverance in the faith, by the depth of their prayer and liturgy, by their service in education and charity, by the cohesion of their families and their communities, and by their tenacity in clinging to their homelands, they are a light to the world.

Who can be inattentive to such a message? We should keep them in mind as we pray for the Synod on the Church in the Middle East to be held in Rome this coming October.

Most Rev. Terrence Prendergast
Archbishop of Ottawa

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