Papal Visit to Cyprus and Appeal for Christians in the Middle East
June 4-6, 2010
Background to and purpose of the visit
Pope Benedict XVI, in his weekly public audience on June 9, summarised his trip the previous weekend to Cyprus, the first trip of his pontificate to a predominantly Orthodox country, and the first trip of any Pope to the island, adding a look forward to the October meeting of the Synod of Bishops, which will discuss the Middle East.
The Pope’s trip had fulfilled three purposes:
- encouraging the small Catholic community of Cyprus,
- encouraging ecumenical progress,
- and reaching out to all the peoples of the Middle East.
He praised the vigour of the local Catholic Churches and thanked the Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II for his hospitality, saying that the latter was living proof that “rootedness in tradition does not prevent the Orthodox community from being firmly committed to ecumenical dialogue together with the Catholic community.” Catholics and Orthodox are drawn together by their common reliance on the Scriptures, the Christian tradition, and the “profession of faith drawn up by the ancient councils.”
In choosing to accept Archbishop Chysostomos’ invitation to visit Cyprus as the site for the release of the working document, the instrumentum laboris, for this October’s Synod of Bishops on the Middle East, the Pope indicated that the Eastern Churches are an essential part of any initiative in the region. His visit was “a religious message,” which “should prepare more souls to find an opening for peace.”
He underlined the importance of preserving a vigorous Christian presence in that troubled region. During his trip to Cyprus, he had said, “I made a heartfelt appeal to all the Catholics of the Middle East, despite their great trials and the difficulties they notoriously face, not to give in to discouragement and the temptation to emigrate, because their presence in the region represents an irreplaceable sign of hope.”
The October Synod will take up the same question, the Pope said, reminding all the world’s Christians that the Middle East “occupies a special place” for believers, as the place “where God made Himself known to our fathers in the faith.” The Synod, he continued, would also address the “situations of suffering and conflict” that still plague the region and would also be an occasion to bring public attention to the Christian presence in the region, “so the world can see that there is a great and ancient Christianity in the Middle East.” He spoke of the importance of dialogue among the different Christian Churches of the region – including the different rites of the Catholic Church – and continuing efforts to promote peaceful coexistence with Islam.
In divided Cyprus, Pope’s theme was unity
On Friday, June 4,” following in the footsteps of our common fathers in the faith, Sts. Paul and Barnabas,” Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cyprus, to be greeted by President Demetris Christofias, Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II, Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir and a number of other Catholic prelates. On arrival, the Pope said: “Cyprus stands at the crossroads of cultures and religions, of histories both proud and ancient but which still retain a strong and visible impact upon the life of your country.”
Later that day, at an ecumenical service in the church of Agia Kiriaki Chrysopolitissa, the Pope stressed the ties that bind together all Christians. Christians should pray for a renewal of that original unity, he said, noting that “it will strengthen the witness to the Gospel in today’s world…The Church of Cyprus, which serves as a bridge between East and West, has contributed much to this process of reconciliation.” The Christians of Cyprus are mostly Orthodox, and during his visit the Pope spoke frequently of the need for Orthodox and Catholics, in view of their common concerns, to join together in common witness.
During a June 5 meeting with the Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus in St. John’s Cathedral, Pope Benedict shed some light on his choice of the island nation as the spot for the release of the instrumentum laboris. “Cyprus,” he observed, “is traditionally considered part of the Holy Land, and the situation of continuing conflict in the Middle East must be a source of concern to all Christ’s followers. No one can remain indifferent to the need to support in every way possible the Christians of that troubled region, so that its ancient churches can live in peace and flourish.”
Patriarch Gregorios III, who had arrived on this day from Beirut, accompanied by Archbishop Joseph Jules Zerey, Patriarchal Vicar in Jerusalem, Archbishop Elias Rahhal of Baalbek and Chancellor Archimandrite Tony Dib, also took the opportunity to talk with Archbishop Chrysostomos, with whom he has a cordial relationship since the latter’s visit to him in Damascus in May 2009.
Although Cyprus is a divided nation, with its own difficulties, mirroring some of the region’s persistent conflicts, some are working to promote dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Thus the Pope had an unscheduled encounter with Sheikh Mehmet Nazim Adil Al-Haqqani, the 89-year-old head of the Islamic Naqshbandi sect based in the Turkish-controlled north of Cyprus, who had come to visit him at the apostolic nunciature in Nicosia. Before separating, they exchanged gifts and embraced. The sheikh asked the Pope to pray for him, and the latter replied: “Of course I will: we will pray for one another.” SheikhNazim told reporters, “May Allah grant him a good life here and hereafter.”
That evening, Patriarch Gregorios III was among the concelebrating Patriarchs and bishops as the Pope presided at Mass in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s Parish Church of the Holy Cross in Nicosia, which is administered by Franciscans. The Latin Patriarch welcomed the Pope in the name of all the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs expressing his hope that suffering Christians in the Middle East might receive support from His Holiness and an experience of resurrection. In his sermon, the Pope offered special encouragement to the assembled congregation of consecrated persons, reflecting on the meaning of the Cross: “an instrument of torture, suffering and defeat, but at the same time it expresses the complete transformation, the definitive reversal of these evils: that is what makes it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world has ever seen.”
Papal trip highlights crisis facing Christians in the Middle East
On Sunday June 6 Patriarch Gregorios III together with the other Patriarchs and over fifty bishops of the many different Catholic communities in the Middle East were among some 6,000 people, attending the Papal Mass for Corpus Domini in the Elevtheria arena in Nicosia. Also attending the Mass were Archbishop Chrysostomos with several other Orthodox bishops of the island. “It is well known that some of you suffer great trials due to the current situation in the region,” the Pope said before switching from English into Polish to announce the beatification of Polish martyr, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko.
At lunch, Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Chrysostomos II dined together in company with the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs and clergy both Catholic and Orthodox and other guests.
Afterwards the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs and Major Archbishops received from the Pope the document, the instrumentum laboris, that will form the basis for discussion at their October Synod meeting. The Synod will be “an opportunity for Christians of the rest of the world to offer spiritual support and solidarity to their brothers and sisters in the Middle East,” Pope Benedict XVI said. The Pope offered a prayer that “just and lasting solutions may be found to the conflicts that cause so much hardship.”
His Holiness’ last visit was to the Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Graces and to the Maronite school, where he was welcomed by Patriarch Sfeir and Archbishop Youssef Soueif, who played a key role in organising the papal visit to the island.
As he prepared to leave Cyprus the Pope made one final appeal for international “efforts to build a real and lasting peace for all the peoples of the region.” He assured the participants in an airport farewell ceremony that “Cyprus can play a particular role in promoting dialogue and cooperation.” He promised to pray for the people of Cyprus, who have lived in an ethnically divided state for 36 years. “I have seen for myself something of the sad division of the island, as well as learning of the loss of a significant part of a cultural heritage which belongs to all humanity. I have also listened to Cypriots from the north, who wish to return in peace to their homes and places of worship, and I have been deeply moved by their pleas,” he said.
Sources: CatholicCulture.org; CW News.com; VOA News.com; http://www.asianews.it/ and HB. Patriarch Gregorios III.
Ed. V. Chamberlain