The Pastoral Letter Issued by the Heads of the Churches of the Middle East at their meeting on 20 and 21 November, 2000 in Bkirke, Lebanon
21 November 2000

We praise God the Father whose love binds us by faith in Jesus Christ, in the joy of the Holy Spirit. We, the heads of churches of the four families, Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical, meet in Bkirke, the seat of the Antiochene Maronite Patriarchate, hosted by His Beatitude Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir.

Our biannual meeting this year is distinguished by its occurrence during the celebrations of the second millennium since the birth of our Lord and God Jesus Christ. We are called to take the opportunity of this holy year to examine ourselves before God in meditation, reflection and prayer, so that the occasion shall bring forth new life in our churches, families and societies, and in every single one of us.

We are inspired, as we meet, by the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves (Luke 9:10-17) hoping that, through it, Christ shall give people life and give it abundantly (John 10:10). We meet as Eastern Christians rooted in our land, confident in our future, joyful in our hope, witnessing to our Lord and Savior, and willing to be those five loaves which, being blessed by the Lord Jesus Christ, fed thousands and "twelve basketfuls ... were left over" (Luke 9:17).

We the Churches of the East are primarily concerned with commemorating the second millennium of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, born in a humble place in our land, in Bethlehem. Our forefathers were the first of those who heard the good news and rejoiced in it, accepted it and proclaimed it. Our fathers then struggled to safeguard this legacy as their apostolic heritage, which our churches formulated in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed. This creed we unanimously uphold to this day. On this blessed occasion, our eyes and hearts turn to Christ Jesus, the foundation of our faith, the rock of our salvation, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

It behooves us today to renew our covenant with Christ and deepen our faith in Him so that the beauty of his face and the majesty of his glory may be visible in our personal lives and those of our families, churches and societies. We are bound to be the truest witnesses to those who ask of us a sign of our hope, in humility and reverence (1 Peter 3:15-16). We do this in a world of conflicting currents, torn by challenges, overwhelmed by changes and governed by the logic of consumerism, opportunism and hedonism.

Since its birth, Christianity in our homeland has interacted with and enriched the civilizations and cultures of the East, exhibiting the wonderful potential of the Gospel to contextualize itself in all human environments. Christianity has formed many traditions with distinctive spiritualities, liturgies and schools of thought; it is rich in its Fathers and its saints.

However, this variety, at certain times in our history, has turned into controversy, and even into conflict and schism. The one Church became separated churches. Elements of alienation and estrangement were compounded. Conflicts arose, driven by differing social and political interests as well as selfishness and opposing desires.

At the outset of the third millennium, we are fully conscious of the need to continue in our efforts towards healing, dialogue and solidarity. This ecumenical endeavor will not achieve its goal unless our churches are renewed in spirit and mind. This spiritual renewal, planted and nurtured in our churches, is the guarantee of their faithfulness on the road to unity.

Our meeting today is nothing other than a sign that our ecumenical commitment is our choice for the present and the future. It is our response to the will of Christ expressed in his prayer for the unity of those who believe in him "That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:21).

We are fully aware that our Christian witness is incomplete as long as we are divided. We know that the road ahead is long and that many difficulties await us. Therefore, as we hear the voice of the master saying "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid" (Matthew 14:27), we affirm our commitment to hasten our steps on the path to unity. We have, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, made important steps toward rapprochement and friendship between our churches. And by the power of Christ, tangible results have been accomplished which cannot be ignored.

We see in the Middle East Council of Churches a concrete expression of this movement. In it we meet and through it we work together for unity. We are keen to keep the Council active in the churches and viable as a forum where the churches meet. It is our desire that the Council remain close to the everyday life of the churches so that it may not grow old, but stay vibrantly alive and be ever renewed. Pastoral agreements between member churches have been reached, which, if applied, will act to encourage further efforts making our common witness more effective on the global ecumenical level.

In his eternal wisdom, God willed that we be his witnesses in this part of the world. This gives us joy, and we gladly respond to the responsibilities and privileges this entails. Our churches are rooted in this land and situated at the heart of its societies, sharing in the building of the human person and participating in public life in all its facets, requirements, problems and sacrifices. We stand in solidarity with the poor, the needy, the marginalized and the oppressed.

We have discussed the challenges facing Christians today such as emigration, participation in public affairs, and the need to invigorate the role of youth and engage in a positive dialogue with them. We considered the problems posed by the globalization of culture and the media, and the influence of such globalization on the awareness of their Christian identity among the youth of our countries, as well as on their values and lifestyles. We reiterate the need to encounter these challenges with objectivity, wisdom and creativity, steering away from exaggerations, fear and threats. This does not mean we should ignore any difficulties. On the contrary, we call upon the faithful to face these challenges without sway and urge them to join hands as they benefit from their various potentialities in pastoral and diaconal work, and to invigorate the role of Christian individuals and institutions for the public good.

Our presence in society is for the sake of the human person who is created by God in his image and likeness, who is loved by God and for whom the Lord Christ was made man, died and rose from the dead. This is the person who God does not forget, and therefore neither can our churches. We struggle to promote every human person's spiritual growth, social progress and national liberation.

We turn to our fellow citizens, the Muslims, with whom we share the same national allegiance to our common land, and the same concerns and destiny. We shall continue to work together in the existential dialogue of life for the sake of a society that respects differences, achieves equality, safeguards freedoms, and protects human rights and dignity. We are encouraged by the good relationship now existing between us and the dialogue initiatives and joint efforts we have engaged in.

Today, as in all similar meetings held by our churches, we renew our commitment to the just causes of our peoples. We first turn our eyes to Palestine, the place of the nativity of the Lord Christ and the land of his incarnation and mission. The continual suffering of the Palestinian people is ever-present in our minds. Today, more than at any other time, they suffer from the oppression of occupation and its violence. Their children are being killed and starved. They live under siege and their lands and possessions are violated. They are simply a people struggling to regain their legitimate rights.

Rockets plant death, they do not make peace. Peace will not prevail unless the full national and human rights of the Palestinian people are recognized; this requires the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. This is what international legality has affirmed. Peace shall not come in our region unless all Arab land is returned to its rightful owners, the Golan Heights not excluded.

The recent events in Jerusalem prove that the city cannot be separated from the Palestinian body. It is close to the Palestinian heart and must be returned to its owners so that it may play its authentic role as a city of justice, peace, dialogue and reconciliation, and become a city of peaceful encounter and prayer for all the faithful. In the midst of the ongoing struggle now raging between Palestinians and Israelis, we call upon the faithful of the Jewish religion that they may also contribute through their faith to the establishment of the justice and truth called for by Palestinians.

We share the struggles and hopes of the Lebanese people of all confessional groups. We rejoice in the liberation of its South from Israeli occupation. We look forward to the return of all land still occupied and hope for the full restoration of Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and freedom of decision, for its economic recovery, for communal reconciliation between its inhabitants and the unity of its people, and for the preservation of the rights and freedoms of its citizens. All this must take place for Lebanon to resume its leadership role for the welfare of the whole region.

We hold up the tragedy of the Iraqi people after ten years of collective punishment. The misery they endure has reached unbearable levels, and cannot be accepted by any living human conscience. We lift our voices high before the whole world for the sake of the Iraqi people, so that the yoke of the unjust siege may be lifted from their children, their youth, their elderly and their whole people.

We also remember the right of the Cypriot people to a peace based on justice. We support its continuous effort, since the occupation of the island in 1974, to recover the unity of its land and people. This unity must include the return of all refugees to their homes and the retrieval of their property, and must proceed by way of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, guaranteeing the human rights of all Cyprus's inhabitants.

Dear brothers, sisters and beloved children,

At the dawn of the third millennium, our churches stand together in faith, hope, love and joy, having full trust in the Lord Christ who gives us life and is with us and in us for all times and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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