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Eritrean Government targets the Church in the diaspora

During September and October 2007 the Eritrean Embassy to the United States of America, began broadcasting in Tigrigna, as “The Voice of Eritrea” (VoE.) encouraging Eritreans sympathetic to the regime in Asmara to take control of the religious assets of the North American Archdiocese and threatening those priests who refuse to comply because they remain loyal to Patriarch Antonios.

The following extract demonstrates its purpose:
“Under the pretext of asking ‘why was the patriarch deposed’, some priests and a few of their lay supporters who reside in America went against the guidelines and directives of the church and started to deceive the people. And, in broad daylight, they started campaigning against the government and the people.
Since it is evident that the Eritrean government is a secular government, it is understood that it would not interfere in the internal administrative affairs of the church.
Even now, what concerns us, and the main objective of this statement, is due to the conspiracy that is placing the sovereignty of our country at risk and is against the national unity and, since it is our national duty, to inform our people to struggle against the conspiracy. It is important to remind [the people] that it is our duty and national obligation to struggle against [the conspiracy].”

The tone and content is full of derision and disrespect, referring to H.H. Pope Shenouda as “a foreign Egyptian Pope.”  It misrepresents the views of its opponents; it accuses the dissident of being foreign agents and of sowing seeds of disharmony; it lumps the party, the government, the country and the people into one entity and equates nationalism with support for the government and treason with opposing it; and, finally, it calls for the blackmail, marginalization and ostracisation of those targeted. It particularly targets the priests Father Gebremichael from Atlanta and Father Kesete from Seattle, describing them as “a group with some deceived elements, and others with hidden agendas, a group of a few priests and laymen who can be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Kidnapped Priest freed

In November, Father Edip Daniel Savci, a priest of the Syrian Orthodox Church, was kidnapped while travelling from Mor Yakup monastery to Midyat. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of €300,000 but the swift response of the Turkish security forces led to his captors releasing him two days later. His release in the nearby town of Batman was announced by the Governor of Mardin, Mehmet Kiliclar. It is unclear whether his release was the result of intervention by the security forces or because the kidnappers realised they were close to being discovered.

Oriental Orthodox – Catholic International Joint Commission

The fifth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place at St Ephrem Syrian Orthodox Monastery in Maarrat Saydnaya, Syria, 27 January to 2 February, 2008, at the invitation of H.H. Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East. The meeting was chaired jointly by His Eminence Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, General Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Representatives of the following Oriental Orthodox Churches: the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians & the Catholicosate of Cilicia) and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Representatives of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church were unable to attend.

The bulk of the meeting was devoted to the examination of a draft document produced by the drafting committee, entitled “Nature, Constitution and Mission of the Church.” There was broad agreement about the main lines of the draft document. The drafting committee will elaborate the document in the light of the discussion at this plenary session and present a revised text at the next meeting. The document mentions points for further study and discussion that will be taken up in future meetings.

In addition, papers were presented by His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian and by Rev. Fr. Frans Bouwen on the goal of our dialogue. Each day began with a prayer service using material that had been produced for the 2008 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Special prayers were offered for the repose of the soul of His Beatitude Archbishop Christodoulos of the Orthodox Church of Greece who passed away on 28 January.

On the morning of 30 January, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka invited the other two Patriarchs living in Damascus to meet the dialogue members. These were His Beatitude Ignatius IV Hazim, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and His Beatitude Gregory III Laham, Greek Catholic Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. His Excellency the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Morandini, was also present. During this encounter the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch spoke about the new ecumenical relationship that has existed between Catholics and Oriental Orthodox in recent decades, and pointed in particular to the Joint Statement on Pastoral Issues signed by himself and His Holiness Pope John Paul II in 1984, noting that the agreement provided for cooperation saying that “by cooperating in priestly formation, that is, by sharing facilities in regard to the education of the clergy and having the service of professors of theology from either church, we hope that we will be able to understand each other better and that would help to bring us much closer. Now, with the formation of the official Catholic-Oriental Orthodox Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue, I believe that the way has been cleared for better relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and not only my Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, but the whole family of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. And may the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in us,’ (St. John 17:21) be fulfilled in all of us.”

On the morning of 31 January, His Holiness the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch and His Eminence Walter Cardinal Kasper were received by His Excellency Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic. His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy was unable to attend for health reasons. The Patriarch and Cardinal were kindly received, and the President expressed a lively interest in promoting good relations between Christians and Muslims, and fraternal relations and cooperation among the various Christian churches. The importance of the Christian presence in the Middle East was emphasized. The Patriarch and the Cardinal expressed their gratitude for Syria’s reception of many refugees from Iraq, and for promoting conditions in which Christians can live in religious freedom in this country.

The sixth meeting of the International Commission will be hosted by the Catholic Church in Rome in January 2009. At this session work will continue on the common statement on ecclesiology, and each side will present one paper “The Exercise of Communion Among the Churches in the First Five Centuries” and another paper “Reception of Councils in the First Five Centuries.”

Another Syrian Orthodox Martyr

Father Youssef  Abdel Aboudi, aged 49, Syrian Orthodox parish priest of the Church of St. Severios the Great in Baghdad, was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad on 5 April 2008 by attackers who used a pistol with a silencer, witnesses said. His wife, they said, who stood near him, did not realise he had been shot until well after he had fallen.

His house was just around the corner from the heavily barricaded Cathedral. He and his wife had just returned from the market and as he went to close the gate after parking his car, he was hit by three or four bullets to the chest and shoulder. The gunmen escaped.

He was the second senior Syrian Orthodox priest to be killed this year. Church officials estimate that since the invasion in 2003, about 40% of the Syrian Orthodox community, the country’s second-largest Christian group, have fled their homes.

H.H. Patriarch Ignatius Zakka spoke of his martyrdom and said he  “was slain for sticking to the faith in the Lord Jesus in performing his priestly duty” and said he had cried at his death because it is a great loss to the Church and to his family.

The Armenian Archbishop of Baghdad, Avak V. Asadourian, who is the Chairman of the Christian Council in Baghdad, spoke of the exodus of Christians from Iraq, “We do have the courage of faith, the outpouring of love, but because  of the war, you see death and destruction, the manifestation of evil. Our people are lacking hope, and so they are leaving … Young people are faced each day with death and destruction. They are faced each day with being kidnapped or facing the agony of having a loved one who is kidnapped.” Yet those who stayed were steadfast in the faith, “We have new martyrs in the church in Iraq. I know of no one incident in the last four years where priests have converted to another religion because they have been threatened,” the Archbishop stated, adding that the same was true for lay people. “So in Iraq the faith of your brothers and sisters in Christ is strong enough to face martyrdom.”

Armenian Catholicos visits Rome

From 6-9 May H.H. Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch & Catholicos of All Armenians, paid an official visit to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. The visit to Italy also included a one-day visit to the Armenian community of Milan and a two-day visit to the Mekhitarian Congregation on the Island of San Lazzaro in Venice. Upon arrival, Catholicos Karekin II and the Armenian bishops visited the tomb of Pope John Paul II in the crypt below Saint Peter’s Basilica, and offered a solemn prayer for the repose of his soul. The Catholicos and the Armenian delegation also visited the newly named St. Gregory the Illuminator plaza inside St. Peter’s courtyard and viewed the statue of the patron saint of the Armenian Church, placed there during the pontificate of John Paul II. Immediately afterwards, the Armenian delegation of clergy and laity participated in the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, jointly held by Pope Benedict XVI and Catholicos Karekin. The two church heads exchanged messages of greeting, a fraternal embrace and kiss of peace on the platform before a crowd of more than 35,000 faithful. That same afternoon the Catholicos was presented with an Honoris Causa doctorate from the Pontifical Salesian University recognizing his fruitful work in Christian Education and Youth Instruction. On 8 May Catholicos Karekin and his delegation visited the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and conveyed his blessings and warm greetings to the participants of a symposium dedicated to the study of the Armenian Divine Liturgy organized by Fr. Robert Taft.

On 9 May, the delegation of 100 Armenian bishops and faithful went to the Apostolic Palace of the Holy See, for a private audience under the joint presidency of Catholicos Karekin and Pope Benedict. The two pontiffs again exchanged warm messages of greeting and brotherly love, embraced with a solemn kiss of peace and spoke of the strong ties and increasing collaboration between the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church and the Roman Catholic Church. A short prayer service was held under the presidency of both church heads, following which, the faithful approached the Catholicos and the Pope to kiss their hands and receive their blessings. At the conclusion of the audience, Catholicos Karekin and Pope Benedict met privately during lunch to discuss issues of importance to both Churches.

In the afternoon, Catholicos Karekin met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Vatican Guest House for a private meeting. The Archbishop was coincidentally also in the Holy See and the two fondly recalled the Archbishop’s fraternal visit to Holy Etchmiadzin in September 2007, as well as discussed the forthcoming Lambeth Conference.

The final event at the Vatican was an Ecumenical Prayer Service, offered at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, where the grave of St. Paul the Apostle is located. Catholicos Karekin presided during the service, which included the participation of Roman Catholic and Armenian Church bishops and clergy.

New Malankara Dioceses to be erected

On 14 May, H.H. Baselious Marthoma Didymus I, Catholicos of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, approved the erection of five new dioceses: Bangalore, Ahammadabad, London, South West USA and North East USA. Until the death of Thomas Mar Makarios, the Malankara Orthodox parishes in the United Kingdom were administered from Buffalo as part of a joint Canadian-European diocese. The new bishop, who will have oversight of Europe, will reside in London. Elections are expected to take place in India on 19 August.

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