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Week of Christian Unity in the Middle East

Posted on: January 22, 2003 2:24 PM
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Their robes may look different, but when it comes to working on behalf of the Holy Land's dwindling Christian population, the Heads of Churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem have become increasingly unified.

Next week, these leaders and their churches plan to celebrate their common bond in Christ during the annual Week of Christian Unity. This weeklong series of prayer and worship services will commence at St George's Cathedral on Sunday evening.

"Being a minority in the first place in a time of real difficulties, it seems the differences start to fade away," said the Rt Revd Riah Abu El-Assal, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. "For hundreds of years, Christians of different denominations closed the doors in the face of each other. Today, we're all under the same roof, and the doors are quite open."

The heads of churches in Jerusalem meet once a month to discuss issues that impact their congregations. Church leaders say cooperation is on the rise among churches in Jerusalem and it is becoming increasingly important because of the difficulty of life in the Holy Land.

"We need the support of [local clergy] to try with all their abilities, and all their minds, from the deepest of their hearts, to find a way to stop all these acts of violence," said the Revd Shemun Can, a Syrian Orthodox priest at St Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem.

The heads of churches have worked together for this purpose in various ways. In August, they organised a week of peace prayers, with services taking place at churches throughout the city. In addition, some church leaders have talked to political leaders about working for peace.

This summer, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem met with Bishop Riah, the Lutheran bishop and Roman Catholic priests in Gaza and Beit Sahour to talk with the spiritual head of the Hamas movement. Later that evening, the group met with President Yasser Arafat.

The three heads of churches who met on that occasion - Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Bishop Riah and the Rt Revd Mounib Younan of the Lutheran church - are the only Palestinian heads of churches in Jerusalem. As a result, they often work together on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Palestinian Christians are flooding out of the Holy Land at alarming rates, according to George Awad, secretary at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. In 1967, there were close to 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem. Today, various heads of churches estimate that figure has dropped into 8,000-9,000 range, or less than 2 percent of Jerusalem's population.

"The dwindling Christian presence is just one of several issues that local churches have worked together to solve," said Fr Athanasius, secretary of the Franciscans' status quo commission in Jerusalem.

He mentioned that Christianity often is fragmented into different groups with different interests, but those groups have joined together locally when they have common goals. "For example, the Franciscans are concerned about the preservation of holy sites, and they have worked together with other Christian leaders in Jerusalem to accomplish this task," he said. "Ecumenical work in Jerusalem particularly has improved since the heads of churches banded together three years ago for Jubilee year activities."

Furthermore, he believes interchurch unity in Jerusalem is much better than it was 50 years ago, noting a greater spirit of cooperation in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher alone.

"I don't want to paint too many rosy pictures, but I think things have improved enormously," he said. "We still have a long way to go."

Ecumenical cooperation is particularly important in Jerusalem, he said, noting that it's a bad witness for churches to fight in the holy city. "It's also important that churches work together to curb the violence for the sake of the pilgrims," said Fr Shemun. "People are looking for the situation to get better, so they can come to the Holy Land and see the salvation of our Lord from heaven."

The Week of Christian Unity is an annual event celebrated by churches throughout the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, it generally takes place during the week of January 18-25 to cover the feasts of the Confession of St Peter and the Conversion of St Paul.

Each year, the World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order comes up with a theme for the event. This year's theme, "We have this treasure in clay jars," comes from 2 Corinthians 4:7. Materials were prepared for the event by Argentinean churches, which placed a special emphasis on the issue of migration.

Jerusalem's event is typically well attended, attracting more than 100 people annually. However, most people involved in the Jerusalem campaign say a one-week campaign is not enough. Interchurch unity needs to be a way of life, especially during this difficult time, they say.

"When the floods start rising up, animals seek refuge on top of the closest hill and help each other," Bishop Riah said. "If this is true of animals, how much more should it be true for human beings."

Article from: Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem