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Pope in Lebanon: Excitement Builds Across Middle East
Vatican: Starting August, Christians throughout the Middle East will begin a simultaneous prayer marathon in the lead up to Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in Lebanon on September 14th. From Bkerke to Baghdad, through Gaza’s tiny parish of the Holy Family, the same set of prayers will be recited weekly by Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans, Syrian Catholics and Armenian Catholics. As well as the faithful of other denominations.
The Christians of the Middle East are waiting for Pope Benedict. “The excitement is building”, says Fr. Marwan Tabet, general co-ordinator of the Papal trip to Lebanon in an interview with Emer McCarthy.
“Particularly among the young people”, he adds, increasingly tempted to leave their homelands, frustrated by decades of tension, war and sometimes persecution. They are waiting to hear what Pope Benedict XVI will have to say to them and more importantly his vision for the future of the Churches of the Middle East – the Eastern Churches – as laid out in the post-Synodal exhortation which he will present to leaders there.
The tradition and diversity of the Eastern Churches – particularly those in the Middle East – is both spellbinding and complex. In the Synod for Middle East Churches in 2010, one of the key issues that emerged was the need for ever greater communion between the Catholic churches present throughout the region as well as the larger Christian community. Another was the urgent need to engage in constructive dialogue with other religions – primarily Muslims and Jews - to underscore and preserve the vitality of the Christian presence there.
“The Church in Lebanon is very diverse in the sense of its belonging to the Catholic Church” says Fr. Tabet. “Four of the denominations of the Eastern Churches are based in Lebanon; the Maronites, the Melkites; the Syrian Catholic and the Armenian Catholic and these four denominations form a very important presence on the grassroots, political, social and cultural level”.
Q: With this diversity how difficult is it find unity and coordination among these different rites?
“Being where we are and how things affects us we have learned as Catholic churches to coordinate together. And to know who goes first, where when and how. At the same time I must say the level of coordination with the non-Catholic Christian churches has also moved very far forward in many of the diocese where there is conviviality between the communities of the Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant communities. They have learned to live together, even when many of these Churches on an international level have not even sat down together”.
Q: In fact this was one of the themes of the Synod on the Churches in the Middle East, this call to communion. Looking ahead to Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in September, is this helping to galvanise the Christian community? How are you working together to prepare this visit?
“A committee was set up by the Catholic Church on which all of the denominations are represented. On the decision making level and strategic level. The visit has been organised – together with the Vatican officials - so that the Pope will be visiting the four main sites, that is the four Catholic patriarchates. And at every patriarchate an event will take place and the big Mass, will be in the capital Beirut, the largest place in the downtown city centre. So the division of the activities in these four Catholic residences shows to which extent the coordination is really at a high level. At the same time he will be meeting officials from non-Catholic Christian churches and he will be meeting officials from the Muslim communities. Everybody is getting ready in Lebanon to welcome him and tell him what they feel and they are waiting for him to tell them how he feels. We can say that all the Christians in the region do not think at this stage about whether they are Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant they feel that they are all in the same boat. Whether Christianity is going to survive in this part of the world? Are the Christians really going to remain there? Are they truly considered part of the material of the area? There [are] international forces or lobbying groups who really are working to expel the Christians from there or reduce them to a non-nominal presence. The Pope’s visit to Lebanon is to tell the Christians that Rome is with them, the Holy See is with them and working with International forces to make known that an East without the Christians would not be a proper East. And at the same time to work with the Muslims to tell them that … the contribution of Christians is even detrimental to the Muslim faith”.
Q: We can’t ignore the fact that tensions are rising in the region, particularly in the Syrian context, which has repercussions also for the Christian communities there…
“I am confident that at the level of the Church in the West and the officials of the Church in the West – because they know very well and are deeply informed of the situation of the Christians in the Middle East - they are doing there utmost. The problem falls where the politicians are concerned. Although the West is largely considered Christian, the politicians in the West are overtaken with their internal problems, their economic problems. I would call first on all the Christians in the West and the regular citizens to really try to understand the situation in this part of the world. The politics in this part of the world do not function the way they function in the West and the model of the West in terms of democracy, tolerance, acceptance of the other, freedom of speech, human rights is not applicable in the same way. So a proper understanding of how religion affects these values and how these values are stamped by the religious issues is very important. People in the Middle East do not look at the these values the same way the do in the West. So I would appeal to people in the West…to really try to understand the situation here”.
Q: Do you think that the West’s declining sense of religion contributes to this?
“Yes to a certain extent it does..”
Q: We are now at the two month mark to the Papal trip, what stage are the preparations at? What is the atmosphere in the streets of Lebanon?
“The visit is up to 80% prepared. All the strategic preparation, what’s going to happen where and when is already done. We had the visit of Dr. Gaspari, who is the co-ordinator of the Pope’s visits, and we had Msgr. Guido Marini who is the Master of Ceremonies for the liturgical department…
Q: How are you going to incorporate the different rites of the Eastern Churches in the liturgies?
“Everything will be done perfectly. We are going to have 7 choirs on the altar each one chanting in his own rite. So that is at the Beirut Mass. Then we decided that all these choirs are going to come together and chant the songs of everybody, together. One choir composed Maronite, Melkite, Armenian Catholic and Syrian Catholic. They will all chant together. It’s going to be a choir of almost 300 people. We are going to use the text of the Gospel will be from the Maronite missal, chanted in the Byzantine rite and the Alleluia will be in the Armenian and so forth.. we left it to Msgr. Marini to organise all of these things and it has been done perfectly. Everyone is happy now we are at the very final stages of the printing of the books.
Q: So the liturgy will reflect this rich mosaic of our oldest traditions in the Church..
“Yes but the Mass itself will be in the Latin Rite, not completely in the Latin language, but in the Latin rite. But everything else will be a mosaic of the Eastern Rite. Its very beautiful what is going to take place. We are also preparing a big gathering for the youth. About 20 thousand youth will be there [Maronite Patriarchal residence in Bkerke] to be with the Pope, pray with the Pope, listen to his words. We have decided not to invite any officials or politicians. This is only for our young people. Two young people will speak with him directly. So the atmosphere is really one of excitement particularly among the youth…Before the coming of the Pope to Lebanon – in 15 days time – we are launching a series of prayer services. The same set of prayers will be said in every church, in every parish throughout the Middle East. Then nine days before the coming of the Pope we have prepared a novena based on the chaplet of the Luminous Mysteries that was dear to John Paul II, in every parish of the Middle East and every home will light a candle for nine days – a light spreading throughout the Middle East”.
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