Archbishop of Canterbury visits Middle East to support Christians there

(Photo: Reuters / Alessandra Tarantino / Pool)Pope Francis (R) exchange gifts with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during a private audience at the Vatican June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has started a five-day visit to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories at a time of intense pressure on Christian minorities in the Middle East.

The visit began Sunday and it is the spiritual leader of the 85-million strong Anglican Communion's is his first official visit to the region where Christianity began, but where Islam is now the dominant religion in a turbulent region.

"Archbishop Justin will meet with fellow Anglican bishops and other religious leaders, visit holy sites, and meet with a range of communities and leaders," said the Archbishop's website.

His visit comes at a time of growing concern by global church leaders at the situation facing Christians in the region, especially in Syria where abductions are commonplace and the death toll in the conflict is nearing 100,000.

"Archbishop Justin is making this trip early in his ministry because of the significance of the region, the importance of the relationships that his Office has there, and because he is keenly aware of the particular pressures on the region at the moment – not least the devastating conflict in Syria, and its impact more widely," the Archbishop's website said.

Welby, who was a banking and oil industry executive before joining the ministry, has visited the Middle East several times prior to taking on his new role.

He has expressed deep concern for justice and for the security of all the peoples of the region, and the pressures on its Christian communities.

In will  meet the President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East; the Rev. Mouneer Anis in Cairo; and the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rev. Suheil Dawani, with whom he will be staying in Jerusalem and who will accompany him on all his visits.

In Cairo, the Archbishop will meet with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb, both of whom maintain official dialogues with his Office and the Anglican Communion.

In Jerusalem, the Archbishop will meet the Patriarchs and Head of Churches in Jerusalem at various points in his program. He will also meet with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, with which his Office has had a formal dialogue since 2006, and a wide range of leaders from other religious traditions.

The visit will include sites holy to the principal religious communities in the Holy City – the Church of the Resurrection, the Western Wall, and the Haram ash-Sharif — as well as to Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust memorial) and the opening of a community-based diabetes clinic run by the Anglican Diocese in Ramallah.

Archbishop Justin spent his honeymoon in the Holy Land with his wife, Caroline, who will also be travelling with him on this occasion.

His visit is part of concerted efforts by major Christian chucrhes and organizations to engage with leaders and religions in the Middle East.

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, made a similar visit to the Middle East in April that was followed by an ecumenical meeting at the end of May in Beirut, Lebanon of Christian leaders from the region.

Churches in the Anglican Communion are members of the WCC, representing more than 500 million Christians wordlwide.

After the World Council of Churches conference in Lebanon, the WCC  issued a joint statement calling the churches and ecumenical actors to commit themselves to support one another in prayers and actions to support Christian presence
and witness in the Middle East.. 

At a separate conference last week of Muslim and Catholic leaders in Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola encouraged greater support for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

"We need to help Christians more strongly," Cardinal Scola said at the University of Milan, where the tenth annual meeting of the Oasis International Foundation was held this week.

"We need to support them with real love and a very strong friendship, but also with different means," the archbishop of Milan told the Catholic News Agency (CAN) in an interview.

Cardinal Scola founded Oasis to promote dialogue between Muslims and Christians, and this year's conference discussed the tightrope between secularism and ideology so often walked in the Middle East.

"Above all, many Christians are being pushed to leave their countries, and it's a very bad thing because Christianity was born in the Middle East," said Cardinal Scola. "In certain countries Christians are persecuted, and sometimes they even become martyrs."

He considered that there is a likeness to Jesus when Christians in the Middle East undergo suffering and persecution.

"Once, the previous Latin patriarch, (Michel) Sabbah, explained to me that Jerusalem is the place of Holy Friday. And that seemed to me a very good definition," Cardinal Scola told CNA.

"That must provoke all world Christians – above all in Europe and in the United States – to be more assured in witnessing, and offering a real experience of love and support," the cardinal stated.

Cardinal John O. Onaiyekan gave a presentation at the same conference June 17 discussing how Muslims in his country of Nigeria are not a uniform group, and there is much variation in expression of Islam there.

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