“It was a day of Kairos, the right, propitious moment. Not only the Heads of Churches, also the people of God arrived in great numbers to support of efforts and pray with us, Eastern Christians, in Bari. It’s more than an impression: it’s a certainty: this is a living Church that shall not die.” Lebanese Christian, Souraya Bechealany is the Secretary General of the Council of Churches in the Middle East. She spoke with SIR about the meeting in Bari seen through the lenses of the only woman invited to participate in the prayer and dialogue meeting behind closed doors in St. Nicholas’ church, together with the Patriarchs of Eastern Churches and with Pope Francis “I saw the Church as one, notwithstanding her diversity, and the Church united in prayer prior to theological and dogmatic reflection”, she said.
You are Secretary General of the Council of Christian Churches in the Middle East. What worries you the most?
What is most dear to me is that the Churches stay together, for we cannot face all the challenges that lie ahead alone.
The Pope said, “a Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East.” Do what extent does Christians’ flight impact the peace balance in the Region?
We cannot blame the Christians who are fleeing the Middle East, for they take this decision only when they can no longer live in their homes. But what the Pope says is extremely important. There can be no peace without justice and there can be no justice without openness to our fellow others. Christians in the Middle East are guarantors of otherness. They show the Muslim world that we can’t only live with those who are like us, who correspond to us in everything. Coexistence in diversity is possible. If Christians abandon the Middle East they are likely to leave the field open to a terrible war between Shiites and Sunnis, internally between Muslims, and between Muslims and Jews. Thus if we leave, peace will disappear from the Middle East because Christians, everywhere in this land, are a bridge between peoples”
What was the outcome of the private dialogue in St. Nicholas Church?
It was a meeting around a round table where the Pope and the Patriarchs shared a moment of synodality among brothers. They spoke as brothers, bravely, openly, with no constraints. Everyone freely expressed their opinion and also the Pope intervened. It was beautiful to see the Churches gathered around a round table.
Did everyone take the floor?
Everyone did, and so did I. I was the last one to speak. I waited for everyone else to speak. It was a moving experience to take the floor as a woman. I was seated right opposite the Pope. The patriarchs were to my left and to my right.
What did you say?
I realised that as a woman I was the only one who represented the people of God, I tried to be the voice of that people. A few days ago I met with youths from Middle Eastern countries and they left me a written note. I tried to convey the contents of that note to the Patriarchs.
What did they write? What do Middle Eastern populations expect from this meeting in Bari?
That the Church be faithful to her mission, that she refrain from resembling this world, namely, that she be in the world but not of the world. They expect her to denounce everything that does not correspond to her. We can be exposed to the temptation of corruption and division. The people of God in the Middle East – but not only – expect from the Church to be the face of Christ in the world, that she be honest, righteous, brave and united. If she does, the people of God will follow her in full.
What impression did Pope Francis give you in St.Nicholas’ basilica?
In theological terms one says “primus inter pares”, “the first among equals.” But most of all he was a brother for this brethren, a father.
What is the next step after Bari?
There have been difficult moments in the past. But they shouldn’t discourage us. Events such as those experienced in Bari give strength to responsible people and hope to their Churches. The fruits will be unnoticeable in the short run, but with time they will be clearly visible. We must not lose hope. Do you know why? Because we follow a God that has won over the world. We work for someone who is not weak, for someone who gave his own life and was resurrected. However powerful evil may be, the ultimate outcome is the victory of life over death. This is the hope that motivates Christians to never give up, to build peace, to fight for justice. It’s the reason why, as Christians in the Middle East, we will never be discouraged.