The 2012 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, covering the period 1 April 2011 to 290 February 2012, has just been published. The full text can be accessed online at http://www.uscirf.gov/images/Annual%20Report%20of%20USCIRF%202012(2).pdf
Of particular interest are the reports dealing with Egypt and Eritrea. Whilst the period under review covered the Egyptian Revolution and overthrow of President Mubarak, there were no significance developments in Eritrea. Yet, both countries raise significant concerns. For Egypt the report found:
“Over the past year, the Egyptian transitional government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavoured Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt. Violence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians increased significantly during the reporting period. The transitional government has failed to protect religious minorities from violent attacks at a time when minority communities have been increasingly vulnerable. This high level of violence and the failure to convict those responsible continued to foster a climate of impunity, making further violence more likely. During the reporting period, military and security forces used excessive force and live ammunition targeting Coptic Christian demonstrators and places of worship resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. The government also continued to prosecute, convict, and impose prison terms on Egyptian citizens charged with blasphemy. Implementation of previous court rulings – related to granting official identity documents to Baha‘is and changing religious affiliation on identity documents for converts to Christianity – has seen some progress but continues to lag, particularly for Baha‘is. In addition, the government has not responded adequately to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government controlled media.”
In Eritrea, the report found:
“Systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Eritrea. These violations include: torture or other ill-treatment of thousands of religious prisoners; arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges of members of unregistered religious groups; a prolonged ban on public religious activities; revocation of citizenship rights of Jehovah‘s Witnesses; interference in the internal affairs of registered religious groups; and inordinate delays in responding to registration applications from religious groups.”
Abba Seraphim welcomed the report and said it was of particular help in supporting those seeking asylum, whose personal stories of intimidation and persecution were the specific outcomes of failures by the states in question. Whilst his particular concern was directed towards Orthodox Christians; he highlighted that religious persecution was an evil into which all societies could fall and those who love truth and justice must defend the rights and freedom of all, even those holding un-Orthodox beliefs. “We cannot demand religious freedom as an inalienable human right if we seek to limit those rights for groups whose beliefs we reject. Sadly, there are instances in countries where Orthodoxy is the dominant faith, of severe restrictions, if not direct persecution. If we remain passive in the face of such limitations of other’s freedom, we are not upholding a universal human right but merely seeking to defend our own interests.”
In two disturbing Press Communiqué issued by the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo we learn how the civil war in Syria is impinging on the daily life of the Christian community. Throughout these difficult times the clergy remain to minister to their flocks and to provide practical support to all people, regardless of their religious and ethnic affiliations. In the midst of such devastation they continue to call for restraint and peace
On Friday 19 October 2012 the Syrian Orthodox School (Bani Taghlub I), which is adjacent to the Archbishopric in the Sulimania District of Aleppo, sustained a direct hit on its third floor (where the kindergarten is located), by what appeared to be a home-made mortar. Providentially, as Friday is a holiday in Syria there were no injuries or fatalities apart from the damage to the third floor and the childrens’ play area. The source was unclear, “as missiles fall relentlessly and indiscriminately, day and night over all residential districts of Aleppo”.
Bani Taghlub has 550 pupils, but due to the current situation and migration from the city, the school administration expects to only have about 50 students attending school this year. It was also about to celebrate its centenary and discussions had already taken place about this. The governor and the administration assessed the damages and decided that business should run as usual, and that such incidents should not deprive the young children from their basic right to education. The school will be able resume its usual schedule at the beginning of November, as the necessary repair work is already under way.
Two days later, on Sunday 21 October 2012, a suicidal booby-trapped car exploded early in the morning in the main roundabout of the New Syriac district. It left huge craters and a considerable amount of damage to the Bet Hasada’ Complex, a Syrian Orthodox charitable endowment, which includes an elderly Home, al-Kalima Grammar School and a Hospital. Thanks be to God, the damages sustained were only material and no precious lives were lost. Naturally, the fear, traumatisation and horror this explosion imposed on the vulnerable elderly, recovering injured, convalescing patients, and dedicated, overstretched medical staff of these institutions are incalculable.
The Communiqué concluded, “We unreservedly condemn and deprecate the escalation of these armed manifestations, and all kinds of shelling and explosions that can only lead entrenched combatant brothers deeper into this vicious circle of violence, devastation and death.We also condemn and deplore the continuation of kidnapping, killings, demolition of infrastructure, heritages and the attrition activities aimed at the crippling of the local and national economy.
The status quo of this conflict is apparent and demoralizing as it can only spiral to propagate the culture of anarchy, resentment and disunity, in a city which has never knowingly sustained such level of violence, destruction and decimation in its history. Until recently, we only knew affection, tolerance and a healthy co-existence of the people in our blessed city. It is heartbreaking to helplessly witness our beloved Aleppo and other Syrian cities, villages and hamlets becoming battlefields and their systematic obliteration. No one can raise the flag of victory over the heaps of such ruins and sacrilege.
Therefore, we wholeheartedly call on all to join us in prayer in support of all internal and external efforts and endeavours to achieve a lasting Cease-fire. To pray for peace and re-consolidate our shaken pillars of harmony and trust, and to hold love, security and national unity as holy aims of our Syrian solidarity.”
INTERNATIONAL JOINT COMMISSION FOR THEOLOGICAL DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE ORIENTAL ORTHODOX CHURCHES
Tenth Meeting – Rome, January 23 to 27, 2013
The tenth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome from January 23 to 27, 2013, hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It was chaired jointly by His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and by His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette.
Joining delegates from the Catholic Church were representatives of the following Oriental Orthodox Churches: the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians), the Armenian Apostolic Church (Holy See of Cilicia), the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. No representative of the EritreanOrthodoxTewahdoChurch was able to attend.
The two delegations met separately on the morning of January 23. The Joint Commission held plenary sessions on January 23, 24, 25 and 26, each of which began with a brief prayer service using material prepared for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
At the beginning of the first session, Cardinal Koch noted with sadness that the heads of two of the Oriental Orthodox Churches had passed away since the last meeting: His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, and His Holiness Abuna Paulos I, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church who had hosted the 2012 meeting of the dialogue. The members observed a moment of silent prayer for the repose of the two patriarchs, and also for Bishop Mikhael Al-Jamil, Procurator General of the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate, a member of the dialogue who died in December 2012. Prayers were also offered for the new Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, and for the new Coptic Catholic Patriarch, His Beatitude Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak. The members congratulated Most Reverend Paul Rouhana on his ordination as Maronite Bishop of Sarba in July 2012, and regretted very much that Armenian Catholic Archbishop Peter Marayati of Aleppo was not able to attend because of the dramatic situation in his city.
At this tenth meeting, the members continued their study of the ways in which full communion among our churches was expressed in the first five centuries. In particular, the role of mutual recognition of saints was examined. His Eminence Dr. Gabriel Mar Gregorios presented a paper, “Saints as an Element of Communion and Communication in the Early Church: A Biblical-Theological Perspective,” and Father Mark Sheridan, OSB, read his parallel study, “The Saints as an Element in the Communion and Communication in the Early Church.” The commission also considered the procedures employed by their churches to recognize new saints. Father Ronald Roberson, CSP, offered a paper entitled “The Process of Recognition/Canonization of Saints in the Catholic Church in History and Today,” which was coupled with a study by His Eminence Archbishop Nareg Alemezian, “The Procedure for Introducing a Saint into the Church Directory of Feasts – Recognition/Canonization in the ArmenianApostolicChurch.” Briefer summaries of the canonization/recognition procedures in their own churches were offered by Metropolitan Bishoy (Coptic Orthodox Church), His Eminence Metropolitan Theophilus George Saliba (Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch), Father Daniel Seifemichael Feleke (EthiopianOrthodoxTewahedoChurch), His Eminence Metropolitan Youhanon Mar Demetrios (MalankaraOrthodoxSyrianChurch), and His Eminence Metropolitan Theophilose Kuriakose (Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church). Based on these studies, the members noted that the mutual recognition of saints – which in the first five centuries was largely a local phenomenon – was a constitutive element in the expression of full communion at that time.
On September 13 and 14, 2012, a drafting committee met in Rome and produced an initial draft document entitled, “The Exercise of Communion in the Life of the Early Church and its Implications for our Search for Communion Today.” The bulk of the commission’s time at this tenth meeting was spent carefully examining this draft text, to which a section on the mutual recognition of saints will also be added. The comments and observations of the members were noted by the drafting committee and will be taken into account as it prepares a more ample text for consideration at the next meeting.
On January 25, the Commission was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Metropolitan Bishoy extended greetings to the Holy Father on behalf of the members of the commission. He thanked him for the condolences he expressed upon the recent deaths of the Coptic and Ethiopian patriarchs, and for his congratulatory message to Pope Tawardos II. He also presented him with a hand painted icon of the Blessed Virgin Saint Mary the Mother of God as a gift.
Pope Benedict then addressed the Commission in these words: “It is with joy in the Lord that I welcome you, the members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Through you I extend fraternal greetings to the heads of all the Oriental Orthodox Churches. In a particular way I greet His Eminence Anba Bishoy, Co-President of the Commission, and I thank him for his kind words. Before all else I would like to recall with appreciation the memory of His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, who died recently. I also remember with gratitude His Holiness Abuna Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, who last year hosted the Ninth Meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was saddened, too, to learn of the death of the Most Reverend Jules Mikhael Al-Jamil, Titular Archbishop of Takrit and Procurator of the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate in Rome and a member of your Commission. I join you in prayer for the eternal rest of these dedicated servants of the Lord. Our meeting today affords us an opportunity to reflect together with gratitude on the work of the International Joint Commission, which began ten years ago, in January 2003, as an initiative of the ecclesial authorities of the family of the OrientalOrthodoxChurches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In the past decade the Commission has examined from an historical perspective the various ways in which the Churches expressed their communion in the early centuries. During this week devoted to prayer for the unity of all Christ’s followers, you have met to explore more fully the communion and communication which existed between the Churches in the first five centuries of Christian history. In acknowledging the progress which has been made, I express my hope that relations between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches will continue to develop in a fraternal spirit of cooperation, particularly through the growth of a theological dialogue capable of helping all the Lord’s followers to grow in communion and to bear witness before the world to the saving truth of the Gospel. Many of you come from areas where Christians, as individuals and communities, face painful trials and difficulties which are a source of deep concern to us all. Through you, I would like to assure all the faithful of the Middle East of my spiritual closeness and my prayer that this land, so important in God’s plan of salvation, may be led, through constructive dialogue and cooperation, to a future of justice and lasting peace. All Christians need to work together in mutual acceptance and trust in serving the cause of peace and justice in fidelity to the Lord’s will. May the example and intercession of the countless martyrs and saints who down the ages have borne courageous witness to Christ in all our Churches, sustain and strengthen all of us in meeting the challenges of the present with confidence and hope in the future which the Lord is opening before us. Upon you, and upon all those associated with the work of the Commission, I cordially invoke a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom, joy and peace. Thank you for your attention.”
Later on the same day, the members attended the Vespers Service presided over by Pope Benedict XVI in the Basilica of Saint Paul the Apostle Outside the Walls for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Cardinal Koch hosted a meal at the Domus Sanctae Marthae in the Vatican on Thursday evening, January 24 for the members of the dialogue commission and the staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. His Eminence Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, also attended the dinner.
The eleventh meeting of the International Joint Commission will take place in Kerala, India, hosted by the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The members will plan to arrive on Monday, January 27, 2014. Separate family meetings will take place on January 28, followed by plenary sessions on January 29, 30, 31, and February 1.
The members concluded with joyful thanks to God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for what has been accomplished at this meeting.