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Pope Francis is making a three-day papal visit to the Holy Land from May 24-26. The Catholic Register's Michael Swan is already on site. He will be filing daily reports as well as conducting interviews and compiling research for an upcoming in-depth look at the future of Christianity in the lands where Jesus once walked. You can follow him daily on this blog.

 

Day 13: Christian unity at the heart of Pope's pilgrimage

  Pope Francis has not come to the Middle East to solve the 66-year-old problem of Israel's conflict with the Palestinian people, even if he does pray for peace and express his solidarity with Palestinian suffering.<

He will not tear down the wall. He will not give Palestinians back homes they lost in 1948, 1967, 1973 and to house demolitions through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. He will not make Israeli settlers leave their hilltop outposts deep inside Palestine or their comfortable suburbs in East Jerusalem.

Pope Francis is not here to solve the demographic crisis facing Middle Eastern Christians who find themselves on the move and threatened from Baghdad to Cairo. Which is not to say that the diminishing presence and integrity of Christians in this region does not wound him as he prays for the whole Christian community around the world.

This pope believes all the children of Abraham should be able to talk to one another rather than nurse suspicions and formulate baseless theories about brothers and sisters they barely recognize. He is travelling with old friends, a sheik and a rabbi from Argentina.

But that is not the purpose of the trip, only his mode of travel.

His purpose here is Christian unity. He has come to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians. He is marking 50 years of careful repair work in a 900-year-old rent in the fabric of Christianity.

It is natural that Bartholomew and Francis have come to ground zero of the Christian explosion into the world to pursue this essential work of bishops – to heal, to repair, to reconcile and to encourage. In 1964 it was the only place Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenegoras could have met, despite the fact that at that time the Holy See had not yet recognized Israel and through the whole of his trip Pope Paul did not utter the word Israel.

If you want the Church to be one, then you must go back to the place where it began as one.

But it is also significant that Pope Francis is meeting with Bartholomew on Orthodox turf. Catholics in the Middle East are a minority within the Christian minority. Of the 7.5 million Chrsitians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt only 27 per cent are Catholic. Sixty-five per cent are Orthodox.

In the eyes of many Orthodox, the Latins here seem more like a European transplant, closer to the seven per cent of Christians who are Protestant.

On a global level, of course, the Catholics are the majority. One billion-plus Catholics are richer, more powerful, more secure than the 300 million Orthodox, concentrated in ex-Soviet bloc countries and the Middle East.

While some Catholics seem obsessed with how they are persecuted and marginalized, they really have no case when compared to the Orthodox. The Ecumenical Patriarch himself lives in a country where his own citizenship is often ignored.

The Turkish government refuses to recognize Bartholomew's title as ecumenical patriarch. In 1971 a military, secularist government in Turkey closed down the only Orthodox seminary in the country. Despite subsequent Turkish elections and reforms and a long-running application to be accepted into the European Union, there is still no place in Turkey for Orthodox young men to study for the priesthood, while there are 24 state-funded theology faculties for Muslim men. And imams throughout the country receive a stipend from the government.

Despite all this, Patriarch Bartholomew has not made his own suffering or the suffering of the Orthodox his sole concern. He has become the Green Patriarch and thought in deeply Christian terms about the human relationship with the natural world.

As a former lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, who speaks English, French, German, Italian, Turkish and Greek (to say nothing of his mastery of classical Greek and Latin), Bartholomew has made it clear he doesn't see Orthodox Christianity languishing behind a wall of separation, apart from the world's Christian community. As Patriarch of New Rome, Bartholomew sees Orthodoxy as a full member of a world-faith, just as Catholics conceive of their mission as global.

Divisions in a small minority can only weaken those who most need the strength of unity. Nothing would do Christians of the Middle East more good than the means to stand up and reclaim their life together in Christ. Francis and Bartholomew both understand how ecumenism in the Middle East is not just an exercise in academic theology – it is the only road to the Kingdom of God.

Francis and Bartholomew are both sometimes wrongly called "the first." Neither the ecumenical patriarch nor the pope will become the first until there is a second. For now, they are unique. And while their work together in the Holy Land is the continuation of something which began 50 years ago, it is also a new beginning under the care of two men unafraid of a new world they have discovered in Christ.

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