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Sep 30 16 2:17 AM
Pope departs on papal visit to Georgia and AzerbaijanPope Francis departed Rome's Fiumicino airport just after 9 am on Friday morning for a three day Apostolic visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan.The Holy Father is due to touch down in the Georgian capital Tbilisi at 3pm local time.Following a welcoming ceremony at Tbilisi's international airport the Pope will pay a courtesy visit to the President of Georgia followed by a meeting with authorities and diplomatics.Pope Francis' visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan continues until October 2nd.
Russia, Syria geopolitics frame Pope's Caucasus trip VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis' trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan will be filled with religiously symbolic encounters with Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews. Current events in Syria and other geopolitical concerns might overshadow the message.Francis arrives Friday in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, and plunges right into the protocol of a papal visit: an airport welcome ceremony, a courtesy visit to President Giorgi Margvelashvili, a welcome speech and an eagerly anticipated meeting with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia.Later in the day, though, he will issue a strong appeal for peace in Syria and Iraq, where Christians are being attacked and driven from their homes by Islamic extremists and where Francis has strongly condemned the recent assault by Russian and Syrian forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.A special prayer for peace is planned Friday evening in the Chaldean Catholic church in Tbilisi with members of the Assyrian Chaldean church leadership. It comes just days after Francis warned those responsible for the Aleppo siege "will be held accountable before God."On the eve of his visit, he met with aid groups working in Syria and urged all governments involved to "renounce their own interests in order to achieve the greater good: peace."It's unclear how far Francis will take his condemnation given his reluctance to offend Russia or the Russian Orthodox Church, after his historic meeting with the Russian patriarch in Cuba earlier this year.Antonio Spadaro SJThat reluctance might also temper any criticism of what Georgia hopes to draw attention to during his trip: what it calls the "occupation" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia.South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia effectively gained complete control over both regions after a brief war against Georgia in 2008.The Vatican says the pope's main message will be one of peace and reconciliation and that the pope is unlikely to get drawn into specifics about the conflict.A more subtle message of the trip is one of steadily improving ties between the Holy See and the two former Soviet republics.When St. John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999 to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass. Relations are still strained, unlike the Vatican's more friendly relations with other Orthodox churches.But the Vatican says an official delegation from the Orthodox patriarchate will attend Francis' Saturday morning Mass, a not-insignificant ecumenical development."For Georgia's Catholics and personally for me, the papal visit is a great event," said Tako Peikrishvili, a 27-year-old from the village of Aral in southern Georgia's mountains.Francis on Sunday travels to Azerbaijan for the second leg of the trip, spending only 10 hours on the ground, however.
Pope begins the second leg of his trip to the Caucasus in Tblisi, GeorgiaThe pope had a very punctual arrival to the Tblisi airport, a few minutes before he was scheduled at three o'clock.He was welcomed by strong gusts of wind and the warm enthusiasm of several hundred Catholics.At the bottom of the plane's stairs, he greeted President Giorgi Margvelashvili, with his wife.The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, Ilia II, 83, also wanted to personally meet him at the airport, despite his delicate health.The powerful wind played some tricks on them, but was unable to distract them during the traditional anthems.This simple act started the pope's trip to Georgia, where he intends to promote peace in the Caucasus region and build bridges with the Georgian Orthodox Church, who is perhaps the most opposed to dialogue with Catholics.
Sep 30 16 5:22 AM
Pope delivers address to Authorities, diplomats in GeorgiaMeeting national authorities and members of the diplomatic corps in Tbilisi, Georgia Friday, Pope Francis described the Caucasus nation as a “blessed land, a place of encounter and vital exchange among cultures and civilizations” which, since the 4th century, “discovered in Christianity its deepest identity and the solid foundation of its values.”The Pope was speaking at the Presidential palace shortly after his arrival in the Georgian capital. In his address, he recalled his meeting in the Vatican last year with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and thanked him for the invitation to visit his country whose values, expressed “in culture, language and traditions,” he said, place it fully “within the bedrock of European civilization.”Georgia, a bridge between Europe and AsiaDescribing Georgia as a “natural bridge between Europe and Asia,” that for centuries has facilitated “communication and relations” between peoples of diverse cultures, the Pope observed that 25 years have passed since Georgia’s independence was proclaimed. During that time, and “at great sacrifice,” he noted, Georgia built and strengthened its democratic institutions seeking “to guarantee the most inclusive and authentic development possible.”He expressed his hope that all sectors of society would work towards peace and development so as “to create conditions for stability, justice and respect for the rule of law” in order to promote “greater opportunities for all.”Peaceful coexistence among people, states needed for stability, developmentFor such enduring progress, he said, “the peaceful coexistence among all people and states in the region” is indispensable. “This requires increasing mutual esteem,” he stressed, “which can never lay aside respect for the sovereign rights of every country within the framework of international law.”Pope Francis lamented what he called “a dominant way of thinking” in “far too many areas of the world” today which “hinders keeping legitimate differences and disagreements” within a climate of “civilized,” responsible and reasoned dialogue.This form of dialogue, he stressed, is all the more necessary in today’s context “with no shortage of violent extremism that manipulates and distorts civic and religious principles, and subjugates them to… domination and death.”Priority, the Pope said, should be given to human beings and “every attempt made to prevent differences from giving rise to violence.” Distinctions along ethnic, linguistic, political or religious lines,” he stressed, must be a “source of mutual enrichment” for the common good. This requires that everyone, he said, “make full use of their particular identity” with the possibility “to coexist peacefully in their homeland, or freely to return to that land if for some reason they have been forced to leave it.”He expressed his hope that civil authorities “will continue to show concern for the situation of these persons” and to find “tangible solutions” to their predicament.In conclusion, Pope Francis spoke of the centuries-long presence of the Catholic Church in the country and its on-going commitment to contribute to the well-being and peace of the nation through its charitable and institutional works and “by actively cooperating” with the authorities and civil society.” Finally, he noted “the renewed and strengthened dialogue with the ancient Georgian Orthodox Church and the other religious communities” in Georgia and expressed hope that the Catholic Church may continue to contribute to Georgian society “in common witness to the Christian tradition which unites us.”**********L'Osservatore RomanoOfficial English translation of Pope Francis’ discourse to Georgian authorities and members of the diplomatic corps:Mr President,Distinguished Authorities and Members of the Diplomatic Corps,Ladies and Gentlemen,I thank Almighty God for granting me the opportunity to visit this blessed land, a place of encounter and vital exchange among cultures and civilizations, which, since the preaching of Saint Nino at the beginning of the fourth century, discovered in Christianity its deepest identity and the solid foundation of its values. As Saint John Paul II observed when visiting your country: “Christianity became the seed of successive flowerings of Georgian culture” (Address at the Arrival Ceremony, 8 November 1999), and this seed continues to bear fruit. Recalling with gratitude our meeting in the Vatican last year and the good relations which Georgia has always maintained with the Holy See, I sincerely thank you, Mr President, for your gracious invitation and for your cordial words of welcome in the name of the Authorities of the State and all the Georgian people.The centuries-old history of your country shows that it is rooted in the values expressed in its culture, language and traditions. This places your country fully and in a particular way within the bedrock of European civilization; at the same time, as is evident from your geographical location, Georgia is to a great extent a natural bridge between Europe and Asia, a link that facilitates communication and relations between peoples. Through the centuries this has facilitated commercial ties as well as dialogue and the exchange of ideas and experiences between diverse cultures. As your national anthem proudly proclaims: “My icon is my homeland… bright mountains and valleys are shared with God”. The country is an icon expressing its identity and tracing its features and history; its mountains, rising freely towards heaven, far from being insurmountable walls, give splendour to the valleys; they distinguish them, connect them, make each one unique yet all open to the one sky, which covers them and offers them protection.Mr President, twenty-five years have passed since Georgia’s independence was proclaimed. During this period when Georgia regained its full liberty, it built and strengthened its democratic institutions and sought ways to guarantee the most inclusive and authentic development possible. All of this was not without great sacrifice, which the people faced courageously in order to ensure their longed-for freedom. I hope that the path of peace and development will advance with the consolidated commitment of all sectors of society, so as to create conditions for stability, justice and respect for the rule of law, hence promoting growth and greater opportunities for all.The peaceful coexistence among all peoples and states in the region is the indispensable and prior condition for such authentic and enduring progress. This requires increasing mutual esteem and consideration, which can never lay aside respect for the sovereign rights of every country within the framework of international law. So as to forge paths leading to lasting peace and true cooperation, we must recall that the relevant principles for a just and stable relationship between states are at the service of a practical, ordered and peaceful coexistence among nations. Indeed, in far too many areas of the world, there seems to be a dominant way of thinking which hinders keeping legitimate differences and disagreements – which can always arise – within a climate of civilized dialogue where reason, moderation and responsibility can prevail. This is all the more necessary in the present historical moment, with no shortage of violent extremism that manipulates and distorts civic and religious principles, and subjugates them to the dark designs of domination and death.We should wholeheartedly give priority to human beings in their actual circumstances and pursue every attempt to prevent differences from giving rise to violence that can cause ruinous calamity for people and for society. Far from being exploited as grounds for turning discord into conflict and conflict into interminable tragedy, distinctions along ethnic, linguistic, political or religious lines can and must be for everyone a source of mutual enrichment in favour of the common good. This requires that everyone make full use of their particular identity, having the possibility, above all else, to coexist peacefully in their homeland, or freely to return to that land, if for some reason they have been forced to leave it. I hope that civil authorities will continue to show concern for the situation of these persons, and that they will fully commit themselves to seeking tangible solutions, in spite of any unresolved political questions. It takes far-sightedness and courage to recognize the authentic good of peoples, and to pursue this good with determination and prudence. In this regard, it is essential to keep before our eyes the suffering of others, in order to proceed with conviction along the path which, though slow and laborious, is also captivating and freeing, and leads us towards peace. The Catholic Church, which has been present for centuries in this country and has distinguished itself in a particular way for its commitment to human promotion and to charitable works, shares the joys and concerns of the Georgian people, and is resolved to offer its contribution for the well-being and peace of the nation, by actively cooperating with the authorities and civil society. It is my ardent desire that the Catholic Church may continue to make its own authentic contribution to the growth of Georgian society, thanks to the common witness to the Christian tradition which unites us, its commitment to those most in need, and the renewed and strengthened dialogue with the ancient Georgian Orthodox Church and the other religious communities of the country.May God bless Georgia and give her peace and prosperity!
Pope urges dialogue to end Georgian-Russian territorial stalemate TBILISI, Georgia (CNS) -- Subtly acknowledging Georgia's ongoing territorial dispute with Russia, Pope Francis urged greater efforts to sow peace throughout the Caucasus region.Shortly after arriving in Tbilisi at the start of his 16th foreign trip, the pope met privately with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili Sept. 30 and, with the president, he addressed a small gathering of civic leaders and members of the diplomatic corps outside the presidential palace.In a nation where more than 230,000 people are still displaced by the ongoing Georgian-Russian dispute over control of South Ossetia, the pope said it was time to find a way for the displaced to return to their homes and for respect for the "sovereign rights" of each nation. Only Russia and a handful of other nations recognize the supposed independence of South Ossetia.The theme the government and local church chose for the pope's visit Sept. 30-Oct. 1 was "pax vobis," "peace be with you."Margvelashvili was more blunt than the pope. Georgia, he said, "is still victim of a military aggression on the part of another state: 20 percent of our territory is occupied and 15 percent of the population is displaced. Their homes were taken only because they are ethnically Georgian!""Only 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from here, there is barbed wire that prevents a peaceful population -- neighbors and relatives -- from having a relationship with each other," the president said. "Only 40 kilometers from here, each day human beings witness violence, kidnappings, murders and offenses that deeply wound dignity."The return of displaced people is the government's primary concern, he said. "Human beings should not have to suffer because of political situations and they have a right to return to their own homes."Pope Francis urged the people of the region to make concerted efforts to respect their cultural and ethnic differences, giving everyone a chance "to coexist peacefully in their homeland or freely to return to that land if, for some reason, they have been forced to leave it.""The peaceful coexistence among all peoples and states in the region is the indispensable and prior condition for such authentic and enduring progress," the pope told the country's leaders.Georgia, which had been part of the Soviet Union, has been working for 25 years to build democracy and promote development. Pope Francis said he hoped the process would continue, increasingly involving all sectors of society to ensure "stability, justice and respect for the rule of law."Both the pope and the president emphasized Georgia's "European" identity, but also it's geographical location and historic role as a meeting place of Asia and Europe. Over Russian objections, Georgia has been trying to join the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; it has belonged to the Council of Europe since 1999.The formal meetings took place after a brief airport welcoming ceremony. The president and patriarch were at the airport to welcome the pope, as were a boy and girl, who offered him a basket of grapes.Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, bowed by age and Parkinson's disease, stood next to each other as the Vatican and Georgian national anthems were played.Leaving the airport, the papal motorcade passed two groups of Orthodox faithful protesting the pope's visit. The groups held signs written in English. One said, "Pope arch heretic. You are not welcome in Orthodox Georgia." The other said, "Vatican is a spiritual aggressor."
Pope Francis begins his campaign for peace in the Caucasus regionImmediately upon his arrival, Pope Francis launched his campaign for peace in Georgia. After the official welcome at the airport and private meeting with President Giorgio Margvelashvili, he met with civil and diplomatic authorities.The pope did not explicitly speak about separatist internal conflicts and continuing tensions between Georgia and Russia, but spoke of the need to learn to overcome differences, both in Georgia and the world,.POPE FRANCIS"This is all the more necessary in the present historical moment, with no shortage of violent extremism that manipulates and distorts civic and religious principles, and subjugates them to the dark designs of domination and death."Pope Francis did not want to overlook refugees, who are the main victims of wars. Georgia has welcomed 200,000 refugees from areas that have self-declared their independence. When making decisions, the pope called on the international community to consider the suffering of real people.POPE FRANCIS"It is essential to keep before our eyes the suffering of others, in order to proceed with conviction along the path which, though slow and laborious, is also captivating and freeing, and leads us towards peace."In Georgia, the pope has two objectives: to promote peace in the region and strengthen ties with the local Orthodox Church. In fact, immediately after this meeting, he headed toward the Patriarchate to meet with its leader, Ilia II.
Sep 30 16 10:15 AM
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Sep 30 16 11:22 PM
“Blessed is the Church who does not entrust herself to the criteria of functionalism and organizational efficiency, nor worries about her image.” On the second and penultimate day of his visit to the Caucasus region, Pope Francis celebrated mass for Catholics at Tbilisi’s stadium, in the presence of Georgia’s authorities, representatives of the Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations. Today, 1 October, is the feast of Thérèse of Lisieux and an occasion to communicate a message the relevance of which extends beyond Georgia. The Pope’s words on freedom from the temptation of “functionalism” and hyper-efficiency appear particularly significant when applied to the reform process currently underway in the Roman Curia. The Pope arrived at the Mikheil Meskhi stadium – named after the “best Georgian footballer of the 20th century” - a little before 9 am. Although the stadium can hold up to 27,000 people there were only about a thousand or so faithful at mass, as was the case when John Paul II visited in 1999. Today they were wearing white and yellow hats, the colours of the Vatican flag. 1,5% of the country’s population is Catholic (around 112,000 faithful), most of them are members of the Armenian Church and the Chaldean Church in communion with Rome. In Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, the percentage drops to 1%. Francis crossed the stadium in a small electric-powered golf car, stopping along the way to greet numerous children. The mass was attended by delegations representing a number of different Christian denominations but contrary to expectations, there was no delegation from the Patriarchate of the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church. “Their canon does not permit it,” explained the director of the Vatican Press Office, Greg Burke. On 28 September, two days before the Pope’s arrival, the Patriarchate issued a statement, distancing itself from the critical views of more radical Orthodox groups, affirming that the mass for Catholics at Tbilisi’s stadium could not be considered “proselytism”. At the same time, however, it stated that “Orthodox faithful are not participating in the celebration”. Georgia’s president, Georgi Margvelashvili, sat in the front row nearest the altar. At the start of the celebration, the Pope and concelebrating bishops passed through a holy door. The Pope’s homily started off with a remark inspired by the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “Among the many treasures of this magnificent country, one that stands out is the importance of women. As Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, whom we commemorate today, wrote: “they love God in much larger numbers than men do”. Here in Georgia there are a great number of grandmothers and mothers who unceasingly defend and pass on the faith.”Francis described the Church as a “house of consolation”, where “God wishes to console us”. “We may ask ourselves: I who am in the Church, do I bring the consolation of God? Do I know how to welcome others as guests and console those whom I see tired and disillusioned? Even when enduring affliction and rejection, a Christian is always called to bring hope to the hearts of those who have given up, to encourage the downhearted, to bring the light of Jesus, the warmth of his presence and his forgiveness which restores us.” “Dear brothers and sisters,” the Pope continued, “let us take up this call: to not bury ourselves in what is going wrong around us or be saddened by the lack of harmony between us. It is not good for us to become accustomed to a closed ecclesial “microenvironment”; it is good for us to share wide horizons open to hope, having the courage to humbly open our doors and go beyond ourselves.” “There is, however, an underlying condition to receiving God’s consolation, and his word today reminds usof this: to become little like children, to be ‘like a child quieted at its mother’s breast’. To receive God’s love we need this littleness of heart: only little ones can be held in their mothers arms.” “To be great before the Most High,” Francis explained, “does not require the accumulation of honour and prestige or earthly goods and success, but rather a complete self-emptying. A child has nothing to give and everything to receive. A child is vulnerable, and depends on his or her father and mother. The one who becomes like a little child is poor in self but rich in God.” “It will help us to remember that we are constantlyand primarily his children: not masters of our lives, but children of the Father; not autonomous and self-sufficient adults, but children who always need to be lifted up and embraced, who need love and forgiveness.” From this, Francis drew up a new list of Beatitudes: “Blessed are those Christian communities who live this authentic gospel simplicity! Poor in means, they are rich in God. Blessed are the Shepherds who do not ride the logic of worldly success, but follow the law of love: welcoming, listening, serving. Blessed is the Church who does not entrust herself to the criteria of functionalism and organizational efficiency, nor worries about her image.” Because, Francis concluded quoting St. Thérèse, “Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude”. Thus the ideal attitude to have is the instinct of trust of “a little child who falls asleep without fear in his Father’s arms”.
Pope Francis' efforts to improve relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church suffered a public setback Saturday after the patriarchate decided not to send an official delegation to his Mass and repeated that Orthodox faithful cannot participate in Catholic services.In the run-up to Francis' Caucasus visit, the Vatican spokesman had said the Orthodox Patriarchate would send a delegation to the Mass in a Tbilisi sports stadium "in a sign of the rapport between the two churches" - suggesting that the chill that had clouded the 1999 visit of St. John Paul II to Georgia had warmed slightly.But Orthodox patriarchate spokeswoman Nato Asatiani said Saturday that the delegation had stayed away "by mutual agreement." The patriarchate updated a previous statement on its website saying that "as long as there are dogmatic differences between our churches, Orthodox believers will not participate in their prayers."The update apparently came after Francis' arrival Friday in Tbilisi was met with protests of hardline Orthodox opposed to any ecumenical initiatives by their church."It's typical proselytizing," said Father David Klividze, who was among about 100 people protesting outside the stadium from the hardline Union of Orthodox Parents. "Can you imagine how it would be if a Sunni preacher came to Shiite Iran and conducted prayers in a stadium or somewhere else? Such a thing could not be. Therefore, we are speaking against this."Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Vatican accepted the Orthodox decision, which he said had been conveyed to the papal delegation Friday night. Orthodox law didn't allow for the participation of the delegation, he said.Francis had been scheduled to personally greet the delegation at the end of the Mass. Instead, Francis thanked "those Orthodox faithful" who were present.Organizers had said they expected the Meshki sports stadium, capacity 27,000, to be full for the Mass, but only a few thousand people took their seats in the stands by the time Francis entered on his popemobile and began the celebration. There was no immediate explanation for the low turnout of Catholic faithful on the brilliantly sunny day.Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox, with less than 3 percent of the population - or about 112,000 people - Catholic, according to Vatican statistics.In his homily, Francis urged his faithful to find consolation in God and not be "saddened by the lack of harmony around us.""It is when we are united, in communion, that God's consolation works in us," he said.Francis had received a surprisingly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader upon his arrival Friday for the three-day visit that also includes a stop in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.Patriarch Ilia welcomed Francis as my "dear brother" and toasted him saying: "May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome."It was a different tone compared to the chill that characterized John Paul II's 1999 visit, when Ilia greeted him only as a head of state, not a religious leader. Then, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass.The last-minute decision not to send an Orthodox delegation to Francis' Mass, and to repeat that Orthodox shouldn't attend, suggested a "one step forward, two steps back" progress that often characterizes the Vatican's ecumenical efforts.Other than Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, there were no prominent Georgian politicians on hand for the Mass. That suggested that with parliamentary elections planned for next week, politicians might have been reluctant to alienate any hardline Orthodox voters with their presence.Francis' visit has been met with some protests by hardline Orthodox, who demonstrated outside the airport and Chaldean church holding signs saying "The Vatican is a spiritual aggressor," and "Death of papism."The Orthodox patriarchate, though, had criticized the protests, indicating something of an institutional shift that has accompanied Georgia's geopolitical aspirations. Georgia is anxious to join NATO and is pursuing an eventual membership in the 28-nation European Union. The papal visit is being seen in Georgia as the government's attempt to win allies among Europe's Catholic nations.Francis' main ecumenical event of the day was an evening visit to the seat of the Orthodox church, where he was expected to press his call for improved Catholic-Orthodox ties.The Orthodox cathedral is located in Mtskheta, the spiritual capital of Georgia and where Christianity took root in the 4th century. The 11th-century Svetitskhoveli cathedral, one of three Mtskheta monuments on the UNESCO world heritage list, is said to have housed Christ's tunic."For the Christian world and not only, the visit of the pope is very significant," said Amiran Tsiklauri, an Orthodox resident of Tbilisi. "The pope is not only spiritual leader for Catholics but also the person who calls and urges for peace around the world."
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“We are not called to serve only now and again, but to live in serving,” Pope Francis said at the mass he celebrated for the few hundreds of faithful gathered in the church of the Immaculate Conception in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, the final leg of his brief trip to the Caucasus, where he arrived this morning from Georgia. The first Catholic church that bore this name was built in 1912 and was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1931. In 2002, John Paul II celebrated mass in a small gym. After his visit, the then president, Heydar Aliyev, decided to allocate some land for a new church to be built. And so the current church came into being and was consecrated in 2007 by the then Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. It holds up to 300 or so people and is part of the Salesian Centre. Francis celebrated mass in English with a group of Filipinos also taking part in the liturgy.“Faith, which is always God’s gift and always to be asked for, must be nurtured by us,” the Pope said in his homily. It is no magic power which comes down from heaven, it is not a “talent” which is given once and for all, not a special force for solving life’s problems. A faith useful for satisfying our needs would be a selfish one, centred entirely on ourselves.” Francis explained that “faith must not be confused with well-being or feeling well, with having consolation in our heart that gives us inner peace. Faith is the golden thread which binds us to the Lord, the pure joy of being with him, united to him; it is a gift that lasts our whole life, but bears fruit only if we play our part.”“And what is our part?” Francis pondered. “Jesus helps us understand that it consists of service. In the Gospel, immediately following his words on the power of faith, Jesus speaks of service. Faith and service cannot be separated; on the contrary, they are intimately linked, interwoven with each other. In order to explain this, I would like to take an image very familiar to you, that of a beautiful carpet. Your carpets are true works of art and have an ancient heritage.” Christian life too “must be woven patiently, intertwining a precise weft and warp: the weft of faith and the warp of service. When faith is interwoven with service, the heart remains open and youthful, and it expands in the process of doing good. Thus faith, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, becomes powerful and accomplishes marvellous deeds.”Francis went to explain the meaning of service. “We might think that it consists only in being faithful to our duties or carrying out some good action. For Jesus it is much more. In today’s Gospel, and in very firm and radical terms, he asks us for complete availability, a life offered in complete openness, free of calculation and gain.” “And so, we are not called to serve merely in order to receive a reward, but rather to imitate God, who made himself a servant for our love. Nor are we called to serve only now and again, but to live in serving. Service is thus a way of life; indeed it recapitulates the entire Christian way of life: serving God in adoration and prayer; being open and available; loving our neighbour with practical deeds; passionately working for the common good.” “The lukewarm person,” the Pope said, “lives to satisfy his or her own convenience, which is never enough, and in that way is never satisfied; gradually such a Christian ends up being content with a mediocre life. The lukewarm person allocates to God and others a 'percentage' of their time and their own heart, never spending too much, but rather always trying to economise. And so, he or she can lose the zest for life: rather like a cup of truly fine tea, which is unbearable to taste when it gets cold.The Pope also spoke about a “second temptation”, “which we can fall into not so much because we are passive, but because we are “overactive”: the one of thinking like masters, of giving oneself only in order to gain something or become someone. In such cases service becomes a means and not an end, because the end has become prestige; and then comes power, the desire to be great.”
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Urging Catholics and Lutherans to take decisive steps toward unity, Pope Francis nevertheless offered no new openings to the idea of sharing Communion before full unity is achieved.“We Christians will be credible witnesses of mercy to the extent that forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation are daily experienced in our midst,” the pope said Oct. 31 during an ecumenical prayer service in the Lutherans’ Lund cathedral, which was built as a Catholic cathedral in the 11th century.With the prayer service, Pope Francis and leaders of the Lutheran World Federation launched a year of activities to mark the 500th anniversary in 2017 of Martin Luther’s efforts to reform the church.For Pope Francis and the Vatican, Catholics are called to commemorate the event by focusing on concrete ways to express and strengthen the doctrinal agreements reached by Catholic and Lutheran theologians over the past 50 years. The most appropriate way to mark the anniversary, they said, was with common prayer and renewed commitments to working together to help the poor and promote justice.The Lutherans agree, but many also saw the joint commemoration as a moment to recognize that the joint agreements on issues of faith over the past 50 years mean it is appropriate now to expand occasions when eucharistic sharing is possible.The Catholic Church has insisted that regular sharing of the Eucharist will be possible only when divided Christians have attained full unity.In his homily at the Lund cathedral, the Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, expressed his hope for shared Communion sooner.While in the past Catholics and Lutherans sometimes carried stones to throw at each other, he said, that is no longer possible “now that we know who we are in Christ.” The stones cannot be used “to raise walls of separation and exclusion” either, he said.“Jesus Christ calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation,” he said, using stones for “building bridges so that we can draw closer to each other, houses where we can meet together and tables — yes, tables — where we can share the bread and the wine, the presence of Jesus Christ who has never left us and who calls us to abide in him so the world may believe.”A joint statement signed in Lund by Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, said, “Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table as the concrete expression of full unity.”Particularly referring to Catholic-Lutheran married couples, the two leaders’ statement said, “We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ.”However, they did not authorize further opportunities for shared Communion, but expressed longing “for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavors, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”Pope Francis began the service praying that the Holy Spirit would “help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the church through the Reformation.” In an interview released Oct 28, he said those gifts were greater appreciation of the Bible as God’s word and an acknowledgement that members of the church are called to a process of ongoing reform.The service was punctuated with music from around the world, including a Kyrie or “Lord Have Mercy” in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Catholic and Lutheran leaders took turns asking God’s forgiveness for maintaining divisions, “bearing false witness” against each other and allowing political and economic interests to exacerbate the wounds in the body of Christ.Lutheran Archbishop Antje Jackelen of Uppsala, the first woman to serve as primate of Sweden, read the Gospel at the service.In his homily, Pope Francis insisted that Catholics and Lutherans must “look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness.”The division among Christians, he said, goes against Christ’s will for his disciples, weakens their ability to serve the world and often makes it difficult for others to believe Christianity is a religion of peace and fraternity.The Gospel reading at the service, from John 15, was about Jesus being the vine and his disciples being the branches. In his homily, Rev. Junge said that too often over the past 499 years, Catholics and Lutherans saw each other “as branches separated from the true vine, Christ.”Yet, he said, “Jesus never forgot us, even when we seemed to have forgotten him, losing ourselves in violent and hateful actions.”After 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, Rev. Junge said, “we acknowledge that there is much more that unites us than that which separates us. We are branches of the same vine. We are one in baptism.
Pope Francis is in Sweden today to mark the start of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation together with Lutherans from across the world. The ecumenical gathering, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation, has been dubbed “From Conflict to Communion,” and it marks the first time that Catholics and Lutherans have jointly commemorated the Reformation on a global level. The event will take place in the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund, a sleepy university town in southern Sweden.“For all of us, it was a big surprise that the pope would come here for this commemoration of the Reformation,” said Bishop Anders Arborelius, O.C.D., of Stockholm’s Catholic diocese. “When you think about Reformation, you think about Germany, about Wittenberg and not about Lund.” But both Lutheran and Catholic traditions have deep roots in Lund. In the Middle Ages, Lund’s cathedral was Northern Europe’s hub for the Catholic Church, the seat of the archbishop of the Nordic countries. It was in Lund that the ecumenical movement began when, in 1947, the Lutheran World Federation was founded after Lutheran churches came together after the war to ensure greater unity.“This is a place where we have been praying during times long before Reformation. This is a church for the whole church,” said the Rev. Lena Sjöstrand, the chaplain of Lund’s cathedral, when I met her on Sunday outside the cathedral which was already buzzing with security measures, a gaggle of policemen with automatic weapons a few meters away.If one does not associate Lund with the Reformation, one certainly does not associate it with Catholicism. “We have to remember that Sweden as a nation was born against the Catholic Church, so since the 16th century, up to about 200 years ago, the Catholic Church was banned from Sweden and even had capital punishment for Catholics,” said Bishop Arborelius. Catholics could not become physicians, teachers, or nurses until 1951, and Catholic convents were not legal until the early 1970s. Bishop Arborelius, a kind-eyed Carmelite in his late 60s, became Sweden’s first Swedish Catholic bishop since the Reformation when he was installed in 1998.Like most native Swedish Catholics, he is a convert from the Lutheran Church of Sweden. But the bulk of the church he inherited is made up of first and second generation immigrants. St. Eugenia, the Jesuit parish in Stockholm, has almost 100 different nationalities. While the Catholic Church in Sweden now has over 100,000 members, far more than the approximately 5,000 members it had in the 1950s, it is still far less than the Church of Sweden, which counts 6.4 million registered members.Active membership in the Church of Sweden is a fraction of that number, however, and Sweden consistently ranks among the world’s most secular countries. “You have to have a deep faith in order to live in Sweden because it’s a very secular surrounding and you have to be very conscious of your faith,” Bishop Arborelius told me. But “it’s a very thrilling time to be a Catholic in Sweden because the church is growing. People are more interested to listen to us. For instance, today, the biggest Swedish newspaper had several pages about the visit of the pope and about people becoming Catholics.”Indeed, Pope Francis’ visit has created a media frenzy and has largely overshadowed the event itself. “Most Christians and most people in Sweden have a very high regard of the pope as a moral authority, as a person who can somehow help people to come closer to God and to live a good life,” said Bishop Arborelius. After the service in Lund’s cathedral, the pope will travel to the neighboring city of Malmö, where he will take part in a similar event in Malmö Arena; the initial block of 6,000 tickets sold out within an hour.On Tuesday, he will celebrate a Mass for Scandinavian Catholics, a decision that was not popular among Lutherans, according to reporting in Expressen, a major Swedish newspaper. But in an interview with America, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, the Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala and primate of the Church of Sweden, was quick to emphasize the two sides’ cooperation: “Pope Francis is not coming as a guest—he’s coming as a host—together with the Lutheran World Federation.”According to Bishop Arborelius, the commemoration and the document which will be signed will stress commonalities: “We want to start with proclaiming our belief in Jesus and what that means for the world today and from that common faith in him. We want to give a witness to the world, especially to those in need.”Caritas Internationalis and Lutheran World Relief have a strong presence at the event in Lund. Bishop Antoine Audo, S.J., the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, will speak, and Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, who worked to negotiate the end of the civil war in Colombia, will also be in attendance. “We could say this meeting somehow is concentrating upon this common witness,” noted Bishop Arborelius, “what we can do for a world in need, in sorrow, in war.”“I hear many people asking for a solid basis for hope, and maybe this can provide something of an answer,” said Archbishop Jackelén.The focus on conflict resolution and social justice is a natural fit for Sweden, a country that has been at the forefront of the current refugee crisis. The pope “is a symbol for those questions, and apparently, it touches something in people’s hearts right now,” noted the Rev. Sjöstrand. “What is important in the ecumenical movement is to bring together those social issues with prayer and transcendence. That is important in this meeting—that we meet to pray. In the praying, we bring up these issues of the world, but we do it, praying before God, together.
Nov 1 16 2:35 AM
Nov 1 16 2:41 AM
On the day that the church celebrates all the saints of history, Pope Francis told Sweden's small Roman Catholic population that holiness is not shown so much in extraordinary deeds but rather in "daily fidelity to the demands of our baptism."Speaking in a homily during an outdoor Mass with about 15,000 people on a drizzly fall day at a soccer stadium here, the pontiff also proposed a series of six new items to add to the eight blessings, known as the beatitudes, that Jesus said would come upon those who, among other things, were poor in spirit or acted as peacemakers.Francis told the Swedes that the yearly marking of All Saints' Day, held each Nov. 1, is an occasion to celebrate holiness, or "a love that remains faithful to the point of self-renunciation and complete devotion to others."And the pope said that Jesus' Beatitudes, which also mention blessings for those who are meek and those who hunger for righteousness, are the saints' "path, their goal, their native land.""We are called to be blessed, to be followers of Jesus, to confront the troubles and anxieties of our age with the spirit and love of Jesus," he continued, adding: "Thus we ought to be able to recognize and respond to new situations with fresh spiritual energy."NCR's award-winning reporting and commentary are possible because of support from people like you. Give today.Francis then proposed six new beatitudes for the modern era:"Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others, and forgive them from their heart;"Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized, and show them their closeness;"Blessed are those who see God in every person, and strive to make others also discover him;"Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home;"Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others;"Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians."All those who enact the six items, said the pontiff, "are messengers of God’s mercy and tenderness, and surely they will receive from him their merited reward."The Beatitudes, given by Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount as recounted in Matthew's Gospel, are among the most recognizable of Jesus' teachings, with him naming eight groups of people traditionally thought to be unfortunate but that he pronounces blessed.Francis traveled to Sweden Monday for a two-day visit in a bold gesture to mark the start of yearlong commemorations of the Protestant Reformation, which is traditionally dated as beginning with the October 1517 publication of Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses."The pope took part in two ecumenical events Monday afternoon and urged members of the two faith communities to "mend a critical moment of our history" by forging new common paths together.The Catholic church represents a small minority in Sweden, with about 113,000 registered members in a country of some 9.6 million. About 65 percent of Sweden's population belongs to the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran denomination.Among those taking part in the commemorations Monday were the head of the 72-million-member Lutheran World Federation, a global communion of Lutheran churches, and the primate of the Church of Sweden, Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala Jackelen Antje, who is a woman.There had been some speculation in anticipation of Francis' trip that the pope or Lutheran leaders would use the visit to make some sort of grand overture towards achieving full unity between Catholics and Lutherans, perhaps even with a declaration that members of the two communities could take Communion at each other's services.Hopes for such a gesture were tempered in a joint statement signed Monday by Francis and Lutheran World Federation President Bishop Munib Younan. While the two leaders pledged to work towards intercommunion, they did not indicate it was possible as yet.During a press conference Monday evening, one Vatican official made a distinction between the universal opening to Catholic communion for Lutherans and the possibility of communion for Lutheran individuals in special circumstances, such as those who are married to Catholics.Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said there is a difference between "Eucharistic hospitality" for individuals and wider "Eucharistic communion" for the two faith groups.Hospitality towards Lutherans in mixed Lutheran-Catholic marriages, said Koch, is a "pastoral question" to be handled individually at the level of the local church.Francis is to return to Rome Tuesday afternoon.
Apr 19 17 2:20 PM
Apr 25 17 4:26 AM
As Pope Francis prepares for a two-day visit to Egypt at the end of this week, experts on the country say he will face a series of difficult choices while he's there. The trip could be one of the most delicate yet of his four-year papacy.In one realm, Francis is expected to express solidarity with the country's minority Coptic Christian community following suicide bombings April 9 that killed 45 people at two churches. But there is a fear that if the pope speaks too strongly, it could spark more attacks by Muslim extremists.In another realm, some hope Francis will speak out against the silencing of political opposition under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power after a 2013 coup that deposed elected leader Mohamed Morsi. But should Francis say too much, he could upset his host and endanger efforts Sisi is taking to protect Christians."There's a lot of land mines," said Dwight Bashir, an expert on the region who has studied and traveled in Egypt for decades."How do you navigate?" asked Bashir, director of research and policy for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "There's a lot of anticipation [about the visit] because it's not clear how [it's] going to go."Francis will speak with Sisi privately upon landing in Cairo April 28. The two will meet at the presidential palace in the city's northeast quarter before the pope heads to the al-Azhar Mosque, where he will be speaking at a peace conference hosted by Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb.Augustus Richard Norton, who has written several books on political reform in the Middle East and has taught as a visiting scholar at Cairo's al-Ahram Center, said he thought the land mines for the pope regarding the political opposition in Egypt are "worth navigating."Norton said that since the 2013 coup, thousands of Egyptians have been thrown in jail with little regard for due process, simply on suspicion of opposing Sisi. Some in jail are the leaders of the 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country since 1981."That seems to me to be horrendous," said Norton, a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University. "That's the kind of thing I would hope, land mine or not, the pope would address because these are quite literally prisoners of conscience."If Francis addressed it, Norton said, "it would not make Sisi happy, but I think it would be very appropriate."At a press conference April 24 in advance of the papal trip, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke was asked whether Francis' trip to Egypt inappropriately legitimizes Sisi's presidency and his moves against political opponents."We're not going to make everyone happy ever," Burke responded. "Let's hear what the pope has to say."The spokesman was also asked about concerns for the pope's safety on the visit. Burke said the Vatican is taking the same measures to protect Francis as it does for every visit abroad.Some Italian-language reports have indicated Francis would use a bulletproof car in Egypt for the first time in his papacy, but Burke said those reports are inaccurate, adding: "He'll use a normal car."Bashir said Francis' invitation to speak at the peace conference reflects a "new opening" for formal dialogue between the Catholic Church and al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic seat of learning and Sunni Muslim authority.Such dialogue had been interrupted in 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI called on international leaders to take measures to defend the Coptic community following earlier attacks on their churches, which el-Tayeb called interference in his country's affairs.In another sign of a new possibility for such Christian-Muslim dialogue, Francis will be speaking at the peace conference alongside Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.The pope and patriarch last traveled together in April 2016, when they made a joint visit to meet refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.Francis will visit the Coptic community following his participation in the peace conference April 28. He will meet with its leader, Pope Tawadros II, and the two are expected to both give public remarks.Related: Pope to visit pope in Egypt (April 13, 2017)The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is a small minority in Egypt, where about 90 percent of the country's population of more than 92 million identifies as Muslim.Bashir said that part of the dynamic Francis will face in meeting the Copts and expressing solidarity after the April 9 bombings is the fact that Sisi's moves to defend Christians have angered some relatively small extremist Muslim sects."This has ... started this process of a backlash against Christians," said Bashir. "The anger is even greater with some of these extremist elements, saying, 'If he's doing all this for Christians, we've got to go after the Christians.' "Norton said the recent attacks have undermined Sisi's authority."Sisi has had firm and enthusiastic support from the Coptic community," he said. "And his consistent position has been to stand with the Copts and to pledge security. What the bombings did is basically make him look like he wasn't effective."The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its founding to the apostle Mark and is one of six churches that form Oriental Orthodoxy. Those churches, which have about 84 million members together, recognize only the first three ecumenical councils, having broken off from the other Christian churches in the fifth century.Paulist Fr. Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the Catholic and Coptic Churches in general have a "very positive" relationship.Roberson said he thought Francis' visit, coming after the bombings, is "a clear indication of support for the Coptic Orthodox Church as it goes through another difficult time."Anthony Cirelli, the committee's other associate director, said that something not often reported in the press are stories of Muslims in Egypt who come to the support of the Orthodox when their churches are under attack.Cirelli said he thought Francis' speech at the al-Azhar peace conference might be an opportunity to lift up examples of such cooperation.Norton said he hoped the pope might use his speeches in Egypt to distinguish between different Muslim views."Given the pope's stature and position, the major contribution he might make is distinguishing the violent terrorism of groups like the Islamic State from mainstream Islam," he said."That's a very important message at a time when some governments, notably our present U.S. government, don't seem to mind blurring the lines between the extremists and the mainstream," said Norton.Francis is scheduled to conclude his visit April 29 with the celebration of a Mass and a meeting with the clergy of Egypt's small Catholic population. According to 2015 figures from the Vatican, the latest available, there are some 272,000 Catholics in the country, who are ministered to by 494 priests.The Egypt trip will be the pope's 18th outside Italy since his election in March 2013.
Apr 25 17 4:31 AM
Apr 25 17 4:51 AM
Pope Francis may struggle to walk in the footsteps of his namesake in modern-day EgyptDuring the sweltering heat of an Egyptian summer, a pair of humble friars wearing rough robes and walking on bare feet ignored the scoffing of knights on a fifth crusade to the Holy Land to cross to the Muslim forces and appeal for peace. One of the friars was St Francis of Assisi, the famous founder of the Franciscan order, and his meeting with Islamic leader Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt has gone down in history as a powerfully moment of Christian/Muslim relationships.Nearly 800 years later and another Francis, a Pope who named himself after the iconic saint of poverty and peace, is travelling to Egypt on what will be a highly symbolic bridge-building mission with the Islamic world. It couldn’t be more timely. His 36-hour trip comes at a time of increased violence in the country with bomb attacks on two Coptic Christian churches taking place on Palm Sunday killing 45 people, one in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the other in Alexandria. Responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by Islamic State (IS), which has been gaining a foothold in the country. The main focus of Francis’ short trip will be dialogue and diplomacy, a moment where a global Christian leader travels to the cradle of civilisation and a city known as “the mother of the world.” More than anything he says, the Pope’s presence and appeals for peace in such an important Islamic country will provide a powerful counter-narrative to the idea that religions are the cause of violence or that Islam and Christianity are involved in a clash of civilisations. Nevertheless, the recent instability in Egypt has led President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to declare a state of emergency in the country meaning that security will be extremely tight throughout the Pope’s visit. In a briefing with journalists a spokesman for the Holy See said that they were not worried about security problems and that the Pope will not use a bulletproof vehicle. When he is in Cairo, the Latin American pontiff will be keen to help Islam in any way he can turn from the ideology which inspires terrorists: he will call on all religions to condemn any violence committed in the name of God. His past denouncement of terrorist atrocities as separate from the faith of Islam has won him respect across the Muslim world as a religious leader worth listening to. This respect among Muslim leaders means that all eyes will be on the major set-piece event of his Cairo trip: a speech to a conference on peace organised by Al-Azhar, the 10th century mosque and university that has been a centre of academic thought in the Sunni-Islamic world for more than a thousand years. Al-Azhar plays a crucial role in interpretation of the Koran, an important task given it is texts from this holy book that are used to justify terrorism of Sunni-ideologues of Islamic IS.Al-Azhar, which runs a network of schools, a linguistic centre and a medical faculty, plays an important role in Egyptian national life with the Grand Imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb, appointed by the Government and holds the the rank of Prime Minister. The Pope’s trip also takes place soon after the Vatican and Al-Azhar recently re-established formal ties while last year Francis met Sheikh el-Tayeb last year in what has been a patient rebuilding of links.Relations between the Holy See and Egypt have been tense in the past with Cairo withdrawing their Ambassador to the Vatican in 2011 after Benedict XVI called for greater protection of Christian minorities in the country. Al-Azhar then quickly followed suit, who were also offended by Benedict’s famous 2006 Regensburg lecture which quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor complaining that the Prophet Mohammed brought only what was “evil and inhuman” and spread faith “by the sword.” While Benedict’s speech damaged diplomacy, it ironically sparked a renewed Catholic-Islamic dialogue with a letter from 138 Muslim scholars a year after Regensburg starting the “common word” forum. While the Holy See maintains good diplomatic links across the Arab world - including Shia-dominated Iran - they have often voiced concern about the lack of religious freedom for Christians in Islamic countries. Given recent attacks, Francis is expected to raise the plight of persecuted Christians, who make up around 10 per cent of the country’s 92 million population. And the attacks on religious and ethnic minorities by extremists is a concern for Muslims: a prominent British Imam and former student of Al-Azhar, recently met with the Pope and then lobbied Vatican officials on the matter. “I’m sure His Holiness will register his concern and remind Muslim leaders in Egypt and political leaders that it is their religious and political duties to safeguard the religious rights - and the human rights - of the minority communities,” Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra told The Tablet this month.A Vatican diplomatic source warned, however, that when Francis does raise the matter he should be careful not to overly criticise the government for Christian persecution, a trap that Benedict XVI fell into. “The attacks are very difficult to control,” the source said. “How are you going to prevent them? It's very difficult. They have taken measures to increase power but that doesn’t go down well with the Western World.” el-Sisi came to power in a military coup, overthrowing Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood who had been swept to power in 2011 elections following the “Arab Spring”, which was expected to herald the birth of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. In order to keep control of Egypt, el-Sisi’s military regime has cracked down on dissent and has been accused of trampling over human rights. Ties between Italy and Egypt have been strained by the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian who was a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge. He was tortured and murdered while spending time in Cairo researching the country’s trade unions. The strong suspicion is that the country’s security services were responsible for his ordeal.Sources on the ground say that since being unseated the Brotherhood have been involved in a sort of civil war with the country’s army while Islamic State has been able to recruit disaffected members of the movement. Given the rise in extremism there are those who believe that the Pope is naive in his approach to the Muslim world."The Pope comes from Argentina. He doesn't know Islam,” Father Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit told reporters in Rome earlier this month. "In my opinion, his lack of knowledge about Islam does not help dialogue." He said that the Islamic State, and Muslim Brotherhood were trying to “Islamise” countries in North Africa and the Middle East while stressing that the vast majority of Muslims are opposed to the “inhuman crimes” of violence. Egyptians like Samir feel understandably vulnerable given the driving out of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. His country is, after all, the land of Jesus who, in the Gospel of St Matthew, took refuge in Egypt from the wrath of Herod the Great 2,000 years ago. The faith was brought to the country by St Mark the evangelist and spread during the Early Church period: after the Arab-Muslim takeover of Egypt there were for long periods Christians, Muslims and Jews lived peacefully alongside one another. During his visit, Francis will meet with the Coptic Orthodox leader, Pope Tawadros II, who had been present in one of the churches attacked on Palm Sunday. In a sign of ecumenical solidarity Francis is to be joined in Cairo by the “first among equals” leader of global orthodoxy, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The Copts, which stands at 9 million, broke off from western Christendom in 451AD following disagreement over the Council of Chalcedon's definition of Christ’s divine and human nature. They continue to represent a living link with of the world’s oldest Christian communities. As for Catholics in communion with Rome they are made up of 272,000 and are divided up into seven sub-groups. These include a Latin-Rite community; Coptic Catholics; Greek Melkites; Maronites; Syrian Catholics; Armenians and Chaldeans. These churches spring from immigrant communities and during the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century played an important role in the renaissance of Arab culture. While relations between Catholics loyal to Rome and Coptic Orthodox had been tense the new Pope Tawadros has helped improve things. The presence of these Christians in a Muslim-dominated country show that co-existence has been, and is still, possible. This is only possible if members of both faiths are willing, in the first instance to, build friendships with one another. This practical dialogue is something that Francis has pushed for both during his time in Argentina and as Pope. And he follows in the footsteps of John Paul II who made the first ever papal visit to Egypt in 2000 and also appealed for Muslim-Christian harmony. It’s now a long time since Pope’s commanded armies to go on crusades, but the question of violent conflict in the name of God has not gone away. These conflicts, Francis has said, are often driven by power, land and money - but he also believes that religious leaders have a responsibility to do something about them.
Apr 27 17 8:09 AM
Francis Goes to EgyptBut Nothing Is ‘Strictly Religious’ NowPope Francis is about to arrive in Egypt on a trip that will include a visit to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university); an address to participants in the International Conference on Peace; a meeting with Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria; celebration of a stadium Mass; lunch with Egyptian bishops; and a prayer meeting with clergy, religious men and women, and seminarians. Despite appearances, though, the trip isn’t only or primarily about inter-religious dialogue.Recent tradition has it that papal visits to countries where religion and international politics can’t be separated should stick to the “strictly religious.” This can be traced to Paul VI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964. At Vatican II, the “strictly religious” aspect of inter-religious dialogue was necessitated by the opposition of Catholic bishops from Arab countries to any gesture from the council that could possibly be interpreted as legitimization of the state of Israel. This would have set the small minorities of Catholics in Arab countries at odds with the anti-Israel foreign policy of their governments. It would also have put the embryonic theology of Judaism of many Catholic bishops (not just Arab) in a crisis even deeper than it was already with the purely religious text of Nostra Aetate, approved in October 1965.In September 1964, during the difficult debate on Nostra Aetate, Cardinal Augustine Bea, president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity created by John XXIII, had to emphasize that Vatican II would not discuss Zionism or the state of Israel, but would have a purely religious scope. Vatican II and Nostra Aetate would usher in a new relationship not only between Catholicism and Judaism, but also between Catholicism and the state of Israel. Yet for all the progress since then in relations between the Catholic Church and the Holy See on one side, and Judaism and the state of Israel on the other, the theological debate still has not touched on the role of the state of Israel.In the post-Benedict XVI Catholic Church, one of the major issues both theologically and politically is the relationship with Islam. Interviews and statements ahead of Francis’s arrival in Egypt have that familiar “religious, not political” ring. In America, Thomas Michel (currently teaching at the Pontifical Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies in Rome) downplays the political side of the visit, and narrows its inter-religious scope: “The Second Vatican Council never addresses Islam, never uses the world ‘Islam.’ It always says, the church has great esteem for Muslims. It talks about Muslims always, not about Islam. There is no dialogue with ‘Islam.’” The political situation under Egypt President General Abdel Fatah Al Sisi is also a factor, Michael suggests. “That’s why I think [the pope] is going mainly to Al-Azhar: to meet the religious leaders, not the political leaders.” But there is an important theological-political aspect to this visit. Just as Vatican II opened the door to dialogue with the state of Israel and not just with Judaism, so Francis is now opening a door to Islam—at a time when an important institution like Al-Azhar is re-examining a key political issue for relations between Christianity and Islam. Two months ago, Al-Azhar hosted a conference on “Freedom, Citizenship, Diversity, and Integration.” It attracted some two hundred participants (Sunni Muslims from all over the world, including Nepal and Pakistan; Shiite Muslims; Yazidis; Protestants; Orthodox Christians; and Catholics), but more significant was the six-point final declaration of the conference, read by the imam of Al-Azhar himself. Point 2 explicitly addresses the concept of citizenship “as as a contract stipulated between citizens, society and the state.” It also cites alack of understanding of the concept of citizenship and what it entails leads to talking about ‘minorities’ and their rights. With this as a starting point, the declaration wishes that all men of culture and intellectuals be cautious regarding the risks implied in the use of the term ‘minorities.’ In fact, while it claims to affirm certain rights, it veils a sense of discrimination and separation. In the last couple of years, we have witnessed the re-appearance of the term ‘minorities,’ which we thought we had overcome with the end of colonialism. But it has recently come back into use to create differences between Muslims and Christians, but also between Muslims themselves, considering that it leads to dispersion of allegiance and favours foreign interests.Antoine Courban, professor at the Jesuit-run St. Joseph University in Beirut, was at the Al-Azhar conference. As he explained to the Vatican Insider, the declaration specifies that in the new “umma” (community) described by Al-Azhar, all citizens are subject to a constitution that is not written by theologians: “The concept of the nation, a word that in Arabic did not exist until the nineteenth century, was interpreted in ethnic or religious terms. Now the most important Sunni institution, al-Azhar, reinterprets it in geographic terms, as the common homeland, where to live together, as equals, without legal majorities and minorities ethnically or religiously defined.”It’s important to understand the Al-Azhar declaration, one in a series of similar ones it has issued since the 2011 revolution, in a number of contexts: Egypt as whole; the attacks against Christians and Muslims in Egypt; and the downfall of the country’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. The document should thus be read as part of the ongoing effort of the University of Al-Azhar to, as this report at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it, “[align] itself firmly with the post-Morsi road map, and [assert] its leadership of religious life throughout Egypt.”And from a Catholic point of view, the declaration is interesting for two reasons. The first is that the shift in the concept of citizenship from the theological to the constitutional is similar to that advanced by Catholicism in the 20th century and at Vatican II. Especially in the declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae (one of the last documents approved by Vatican II, on December 7, 1965), the council fathers demand that “constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations.” The words “constitution” and “constitutional order” are used eight times in the fifteen short paragraphs of the declaration, after a long history of Catholic contempt for the idea of a constitution as something embodying popular sovereignty at the expense of the divine right of the rulers. This shows the link between the theological developments in ecclesiology (in the case of Al-Azhar: the idea of “umma”) and the development in the political role of Catholics in the nation-state (in the case of Al-Azhar: the role of Sunni Muslims).Second, the Al-Azhar declaration can also be read in light of the debate in the United States on the relationship between religion and citizenship in contemporary America. Fear of a “post-Christian country” is at the center of support for the Benedict option and of the favorable response to it from important American Catholic prelates like Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bishop Robert Barron. True, it’s hard to say what impact (if any) the Benedict option might have on non-American Catholics, especially where Christians have always been a small minority. It would also be an overstatement to say that the Al-Azhar declaration advances the proposal for a post-Muslim, secular state. Yet its emphasis on equal citizenship based on a constitution is certainly a step toward the preference of Middle Eastern Christians for a secular or religiously neutral state.One of the interesting paradoxes of the relationship between American Christianity and the Middle East is that the former seeks from the latter what it rejects for itself: a more secular constitution. The election of Donald Trump in part reflects a wish to restore a majority/minority country, where that majority (at least for now) remains white and Christian. This was also a subtext of the U.S. bishops’ fight against the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act, which was built much more on a legal-constitutional argument than on a theological one. Despite the bishops’ non-theological, mostly constitutional understanding of religious liberty, they seem to be reluctant to grant that same understanding when it comes to religious liberty for Muslims. Bishop Joseph Vasquez, chairman of the Committee on Migration, responded to Trump’s travel-ban executive order in January with a statement of support for “Yazidis and Shia Muslims from Syria, Rohingyas from Burma, and other religious minorities,” adding that “we need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims, who have lost family, home, and country.” Yet when USCCB chairmen Timothy Dolan, William Lori, Frank Dewane, and Charles Chaput hailed the president’s draft executive order on religious freedom on February 16, they made no mention of the targeting of Muslims by the Trump administration at all.Francis’s trip to Egypt is not just another addition to the history of inter-religious dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam. It’s also part of the larger debate about religion and citizenship in the context of the crisis of the nation-state. The Benedict option as a reaction to the post-Christian nation expresses an illusion about the possibility of withdrawal from the world outside to recreate, on the inside and in smaller communities, a majority complex. It is a proposal that cannot escape the challenge of a new idea of citizenship in a multi-religious and multi-cultural world. In different ways and from different circumstances, Pope Francis and Al-Azhar are trying to articulate a response to the crisis of political authorities and of the nation-state. The task that world religions like Catholicism and Islam share now is to come up with a response against the temptation to replace citizenship among equals with an exclusive, ethno-nationalist, and tribal understanding of religious identity.
lack of understanding of the concept of citizenship and what it entails leads to talking about ‘minorities’ and their rights. With this as a starting point, the declaration wishes that all men of culture and intellectuals be cautious regarding the risks implied in the use of the term ‘minorities.’ In fact, while it claims to affirm certain rights, it veils a sense of discrimination and separation. In the last couple of years, we have witnessed the re-appearance of the term ‘minorities,’ which we thought we had overcome with the end of colonialism. But it has recently come back into use to create differences between Muslims and Christians, but also between Muslims themselves, considering that it leads to dispersion of allegiance and favours foreign interests.
Apr 28 17 4:51 AM
Though Pope Francis will only be in Egypt this weekend for a little over 24 hours, the brief trip to the world’s sixth largest Muslim nation, and the biggest in the Middle East, nevertheless shapes up as one of the most complicated and riskiest of his papacy.From security concerns to the labyrinthian politics awaiting him, Francis will face hard choices in Cairo from the moment he lands, at roughly 8:00 a.m. Eastern time on Friday until he leaves to return to Rome at 11:00 a.m. Eastern on Saturday.Although the aims of the trip may be relatively straight-forward, the path to achieving them seems far less clear.SecurityWhile every papal outing generates concerns about the pontiff’s safety, that’s especially true for the April 28-29 visit to Egypt, which unfolds in the wake of the bombing of two Coptic Orthodox churches on Palm Sunday, one in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the other in Alexandria, that left 45 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for those attacks.Last week, Islamic State gunmen also attacked security forces at a checkpoint near the famous St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, killing a police officer and injuring three others.As they always do, Vatican spokesmen are playing down any risks during the trip, expressing confidence in the local security forces.“Security is an issue everywhere, not just in Egypt,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said this week. “Are we worried? I wouldn’t use the word ‘worry’. The security measures are similar to many trips. The Egyptians obviously want everything to go well.”The risk may actually be less for Francis himself and more for Egypt’s Christian minority, which ranges somewhere between 10 and 20 million people, depending on which demographic estimates one accepts. It’s the largest Christian community in the Middle East, largely composed of members of the Coptic Orthodox Church led by Pope Tawadros II.Not only are Christians in Egypt a frequent target of Islamic militants for the mere fact of being a religious minority, but politically they’re seen a solidly aligned behind the government of former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power in 2014 after the ouster of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government under Mohammed Morsi.Supporters of al-Sisi recall that transition as the “June 30 revolution,” celebrating it as an expression of popular will, while adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood see it as a coup which led to the resumption of rule by the same military and political establishment that’s dominated Egypt since the era of Nasser.The net result is that Christians are frequently at risk because of political as well as cultural or religious resentments. Many observers in Egypt fear that while Pope Francis is in the country, Christian sites and individuals may be at heightened risk from forces calculating that they may not be able to strike at the pontiff himself, but can reach other less well-defended targets.PoliticsAl-Sisi came into office vowing to protect the country’s Christian minority and to treat all Egyptians as full citizens regardless of their religious affiliation. He enjoyed the open backing of Egypt’s Christian leaders, and still draws widespread Christian support.“I think most Christians are still supportive of President Sisi,” said Father Rafic Greiche, a Greek Melkite priest and spokesman for the country’s Catholic churches, in an April 11 interview with Crux.Sisi has made a point of attending the Orthodox Christmas Mass every year at Cairo’s historic St. Mark’s Cathedral, having become the first Egyptian president in history to do so in 2015. Every year he draws raucous applause, and although Egypt is no stranger to stage-managed demonstrations of enthusiasm for political figures, the Christian response comes off as largely genuine.This year during his visit to the cathedral, Sisi announced a project to build the largest mosque and church complex in Egypt in Cairo in 2018.“God Has created us different…in religion, manner, color, language, habit, tradition…and no one can make us the all same,” he said in 2016 in brief remarks at the Christmas Mass, using the kind of language that non-Muslim Egyptians appreciate.(Some Christians, however, charge that Sisi’s rhetoric is not always matched by action. Coptic Solidarity, an independent watchdog group, recently reported a rise in anti-Christian attacks during the past two years, including at least 30 cases of violence against Christians since the fall of 2016 alone.)Sisi also presides over what expert Erik Trager at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls “certainly the most repressive [government] in Egypt’s contemporary history.”According to Human Rights Watch, Sisi’s security forces have arrested tens of thousands and committed flagrant rights abuses, including torture, enforced disappearances, and likely extrajudicial executions. The group estimates that at least 41,000 people, and possibly as many as 60,000, are currently in Egyptian prisons for political reasons.Pope Francis is a well-known supporter of human rights, and thus faces the challenge in Egypt of not wanting to embarrass his hosts or undercut the political position of local Christians who will have to live with the consequences of his visit long after he’s back in Rome, but also not wanting to appear to bestow legitimacy on a regime whose track record towards dissent is perceived as highly questionable.Christian/Muslim relationsThe overt purpose for Francis’s trip to Egypt is a Friday visit to Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, considered the most important center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world and sometimes dubbed the “Islamic Vatican.” While there, Francis will address an international conference on peace being sponsored by Al-Azhar.This will be the second time a pope has visited Al-Azhar, after a stop by St. Pope John Paul II in 2000.In recent years, the Vatican and Al-Azhar have seen themselves as partners in the struggle against religious violence and extremism. In May 2016, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Ima of Al-Azhar, visited Pope Francis in the Vatican.“Our meeting is the message,” Francis told reporters on that occasion. In a statement, Al-Azhar said the purpose of the encounter was to “explore efforts to spread peace and co-existence”.In February, a Vatican delegation led by French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran visited the mosque and university for a summit on “The role of al-Azhar al-Sharif and of the Vatican in countering the phenomena of fanaticism, extremism and violence in the name of religion,” using the institution’s formal name, which means “the honorable.”Just ten days ago, in response to a spate of attacks on Christians, the Supreme Council of al Azhar scholars issued a statement insisting that “Sharia prohibits every kind of assault against human beings, regardless of their religion and belief,” and also that “Islam binds Muslims to protect all places of worship and to treat non-Muslims with kindness.”Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar issue fatwas, or legal edicts, on disputes sent to them from across the Islamic world, and the university also trains imams not only for Egypt but for Sunni Muslim institutions around the world. As a result, the Vatican sees it as indispensable in terms of engaging Muslim thought and culture.Yet some observers question the sincerity of Al-Azhar’s clerical leadership in genuinely promoting religious tolerance.Coptic intellectual Naguib Gabriel, leader of the Egyptian Human Rights Union, charges that some courses at Al-Azhar foster Islamic triumphalism and breed the sort of attitudes that can lead to terroristic violence. He also notes that the university employs books and Arab language study courses that also force non-Muslim students to memorize verses of the Koran and the hadiths of the Prophet Mohammad.When officials at Al-Azhar recently bristled at suggestions that their policies impose Islamic beliefs as normative, Egyptian writer Khaled Montasser called their reaction “the last nail of the coffin of the rule of law in Egypt.”Another Egyptian writer and intellectual, Ashraf Ramelah, says that “Sisi is stifled in his efforts to expunge religious supremacy from Egypt without cooperation from Al-Ahzar, and apparently even with its assistance.”For his part, Greiche expressed wariness about how much to expect from the Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar.“Change comes very, very, very slowly, and often it’s just for show,” he said. “That’s my personal opinion, it’s not the opinion of the Church, but I know these people very, very well. It’s all for show, to show that they’re open, they’re people of dialogue, etc., but deep inside it’s not very true.”Pope Francis thus will have to try to strike an appropriate balance between gratitude for the steps his Muslim hosts in Egypt have taken in the direction of tolerance and understanding, without inadvertently sending the signal that no work is left to be done.EcumenismFrom the beginning of his papacy, Francis has been committed to the ecumenical cause, meaning the quest for unity among the various branches of the Christian family. One expression of that spirit has been a strong partnership with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered the “first among equals” among Orthodox leaders, who will join Francis in Cairo.Francis’s last act Friday evening will be to pay a visit to Pope Tawadros II, leader of the country’s Coptic Orthodox Church, who has received numerous death threats from Islamic radicals and who was actually targeted by the Palm Sunday church bombing in Alexandria. (Tawadros had left the church shortly before the bomb exploded and was unharmed.)In many ways, ecumenism in Egypt is a natural byproduct of the fact that Christians are a minority and perceive themselves to be more or less in the same boast vis-à-vis a sometimes hostile Islamic majority. The Catholic movement Focolare, for an instance, has a group in Egypt that’s composed of Latin-rite Catholics, members of various Eastern churches, and also Coptic Orthodox.However, despite the ecumenical vibe, Christians in Egypt as elsewhere remain divided on several fronts. Christians in the country frequently express frustration, for instance, at the fact that they have different dates for major holy days such as Easter, projecting an image of disunity to the country’s Muslim majority.Francis will therefore face pressure on this trip to deliver a concrete expression of common cause among Christians, without further aggravating impressions among some Catholic traditionalists that he’s already too willing to sacrifice core principles of Catholic identity for the sake of dialogue and outreach.
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