Rome (AsiaNews) - The pope and the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches are meeting on 19-22 November to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East, the Catholic Church's role in Arab countries affected by conflict, its relations with the Orthodox Church and the problems of stability in the region.
Maronite Patriarch Card Beshara al-Rai, Chaldean Patriarch and Archbishop of Baghdad Raphael Louis Sako, Melkite Patriarch of Antioch Mgr Gregorios III Laham, Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, and Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX are expected at the three-day meeting that will focus on the Eastern churches in the 50 years since Vatican II.
Led by Card Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Pontifical Council of the Eastern Churches, the conference comes at a critical moment for Christians in the Middle East, whose communities are under constant attacks from Islamic extremists, especially in Syria.
Vatican sources cited by the Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria noted that the meeting will mark a change of direction in Vatican policy towards the Middle East. The final statement is expected to reflect the fears of Christians in the region.
Speaking a few days before leaving for the meeting, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), "We want to consult with the Holy Father on the situation in Syria and Iraq, but we also want to discuss fundamental issues regarding the role of Christians in the Middle East, interreligious dialogue and ecumenism with regard to Orthodoxy."
For the Melkite patriarch, the leaders of the Eastern Churches will suggest setting up "a permanent consultative body with the Pope, which could perhaps meet every other year".
For Gregorios III, Christians in the region are in a dire situation and the Vatican must undertake a concerted diplomatic campaign through its nuncios around the world and help Eastern Churches develop their relations with the Orthodox.
"We are very happy at our communion with the Holy See," he said. "However, Rome should not forget that we have Orthodox roots. We are the Catholic branch of the Orthodox Church."
For his part, Mgr Raphael Louis Sako recently spoke to ACN about the union of Catholic patriarchs and ecumenism with the Orthodox.
"We are hoping for greater closeness towards our Churches in these difficult times," he said. "We need more support from the Holy See, more encouragement and more solidarity".
For the patriarch of Baghdad, the crisis in the Middle East is forcing Christians to leave their lands and that this poses a serious threat to the Church's survival.
"Emigration is threatening our present and our future. We fear for our survival," he explained. "Muslims need our witness of human and Christian values", he added.