His Holiness Aram I Takes Part in International Conference to Protect and Preserve Christianity in the Middle East – Prelate Joined the Entourage of His Holiness

On Saturday, September 6, 2014 His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, arrived in Washington D.C. to address the International Conference on Christians in the Middle East. His Holiness addressed the Conference on two occasions, speaking on Christian unity and sharing his reflections on the future of Christianity in the Middle East.

The conference brought together six Heads of Churches in the Middle East; His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, His Beatitude Cardinal Bechara Rai, Patriarch of the Maronite Church, His Beatitude John X, Patriarch of Antioch, His Beatitude Gregorius III Laham, Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, His Beatitude Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, and His Beatitude Ignatius Youssef III Yonan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioc, as well as law- makers, experts and representatives of non-governmental organizations working on Human Rights issues from the Middle East and the U.S.A.

His Holiness was accompanied by Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Orthodox Church of America, Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, Prelate of the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Orthodox Church of America and Very Rev. Housig Mardirosian, Director of Ecumenical Relations.

DIVINE LITURGY On Sunday, September 7, 2014, his Holiness Aram I presided over Divine Liturgy and addressed the faithful at Holy Cross Church in Washington DC. H.E. Archbishop Oshagan, Prelate of the Eastern U.S., celebrated the Liturgy after welcoming His Holiness and explaining the purpose of his presence in Washington to the congregation. Ambassador of Armenia Tigran Sargsyan and representative of Artsakh Robert Avetisyan, were among the faithful in attendance.

In his message, His Holiness told the faithful that “Christian faith is the foundation of Christian life and is central to the teachings and miracles of Jesus.” He added that Jesus transformed the meaning and purpose of faith.” He went on to point out that according to the Bible, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and Life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:16). “To follow Jesus,” said His Holiness “means discipleship, giving up everything and following him. Faith in Christ is the source of life; whoever lives a Christian life will be courageous before the challenges of the world.”

Referring to Armenians, His Holiness said, “With this assurance our people lived their faith. Armenians were not only the first to accept Christianity as national religion, they also shed their blood for their faith; as the ancient historian wrote, faith for Armenians is like the ‘their skin.’ His Holiness then added that for this reason, in the 5th century, when the enemy wanted us to give up our faith, our people said, “no power in this world can take us away from our faith. “This commitment to the faith has sustained our people throughout history,” he added, and urged the people to remain faithful to our faith and our Church.

In conclusion His Holiness spoke of the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Genocide, urging all Armenians to unite and demand justice from Turkey for the one-and-a-half-million victims and the restoration of the rights of the survivors with one voice.

After the service His Holiness held meetings with Archbishop Oshagan, Church Board members and members of the Armenian Genocide Committee.

PRESS CONFERENCE On Tuesday, September 9, the International Conference on the Crisis in the Middle East began its deliberations with the participation of five hundred people, including high-ranking clergy, elected official, representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations, and the press.

At the press conference preceding the main conference, His Holiness Aram I made the following statement:

“First we have not come to ask the backing of the United States of America. We have come to inform and present a full picture of the situation in our region. Second, we have not come to organize opposition against any of the sides in the region. We have come to reflect together and to seek ways to overcome and eradicate terrorism from our societies. Terrorism has many faces and forms in different parts of the world. Terrorism is an insult to human dignity and an evil that religions and nations must actively counter. Third, it is not true to say that only specific minorities are being persecuted in the Middle East. The current violence is directed against freedom of conscience and basic human rights, and is, by extension, a threat to all humanity. This is a compelling reason for the international community to respond. Fourth, the current crisis is not due to Christian and Muslim relations. For many centuries the two religions have existed together and continue to co-exist together. Certain groups are exploiting religious teaching for their own cause.” His Holiness concluded, “It is because of these concerns that we expect religious and political leaders to adopt a public position and work actively to overcome the current crisis.”

CHRISTIAN UNITY On the first day of the International Conference on Christians in the Middle East, His Holiness Aram I addressed the theme of church unity. In his presentation he spoke of the theological foundations of church unity, addressed the question of why Christian unity is indispensable for the churches in the Middle East, and commented on the recent tragic experience of Christians in Iraq.

Speaking of Christian unity, His Holiness said that it is a Gift of God. He pointed out that although churches have often divided for political reasons, in essence they remain united. He said that the ecumenical movement, of which all churches are a part, is a reminder of this given unity. He then reminded the audience that unity is the mission and vocation of the Church to continue the salvific work of Christ.

Addressing the Middle East, the Catholicos called the participants’ attention to the fact that Christianity was born in the Middle East and that it is, therefore, imperative for the Churches in the region to express Christian unity and remind the world that although their history has been one of genocides and persecutions, Christians have stayed in the region and contributed to the flourishing of local civilizations. Despite the current crisis, Christians remain united, are aware of their obligations and hold on to their rights.

In the end, His Holiness Aram I addressed the tragic experiences of Christians in Iraq and stated that violence and religion do not go together. He then criticized those who exploit religious teaching for political causes and added, “Churches oppose the emigration of Christians from the Middle East. Christians are part of the Middle East and must remain attached to their lands and rights.” During his speech His Holiness twice reminded the audience of the Armenian Genocide and the persecution of Christians under the Ottoman Empire.

THE FUTURE OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE MIDDLE EAST The International Conference on the Crisis in the Middle East concluded its deliberations on Thursday, September 11. His Holiness Aram I, who concluded the conference, spoke once more of the urgency for the international community to adopt a comprehensive strategy to respond to the violence in the Middle East. He stated that “The current violence is not a concern for Christians only, nor for the Middle East, nor for Islam. It is a concern for all of humanity.”

His Holiness offered the following five points to be considered by the international community in their strategic planning for the Middle East:

1. Any democratization process in the region should be gradual and consider the specificities of the region.

2. Any process should respect the religious and cultural pluralism of the region, which must be constitutionally guaranteed.

3. Cooperation between the monotheistic religions should be strengthened.

4. The international community, in cooperation with the Muslim states, should plan long-term and short-term strategies.

5. Activities of the Diaspora communities in support of their churches in the Middle East should be supported.

In his conclusion, His Holiness Aram I said, “We have not come only to ask for the support of the international community for Christians in the Middle East, but to seek ways as religions and governments to overcome violence together and to stop the exploitation of religion by extremist movements.”

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WHITE HOUSE MEETING On Thursday, September 11, the spiritual leaders of the Middle Eastern Maronite, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, and Greek Catholic churches who had gathered with for a Christian conference in Washington, DC, held an hour long meeting with President Barack Obama. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and other key White House staff also attended the meeting.

At the request of the Patriarchs, His Holiness Aram I spoke, first offering condolences in memory of the victims on the 13th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He noted that terrorism, in its different forms and expressions, continues in various corners of the world, and particularly in the Middle East. His Holiness noted that the expanding terrorist movements in the region are not only a threat to Christians, but also to Muslims and the world as a whole. As such, collective and concerted efforts must be made to combat extremism. The participation of Arab and Islamic states in this effort is crucial, noted His Holiness.

Referring to the Christian presence in the Middle East, His Holiness noted that Christians are not newcomers or outsiders to the region, nor should they be considered second class citizens, as their history is deeply rooted in the Middle East. He welcomed President Obama’s announcement just one day earlier and U.S. commitment to a united effort to eradicate extremist movements.

Following the remarks of His Holiness, each of the Patriarchs briefly shared their concerns, primarily focusing on the plight of Christian communities in Iraq. Patriarch Rai submitted to President Obama a previously prepared letter by the spiritual leaders.

President Obama, in turn, broadly outlined the key points of his address to the United States, stressing that freedom of conscience and the defense of human rights remain top priorities in the United States foreign policy.

On Friday morning, His Holiness and entourage visited the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia, and later were hosted to a reception at the ANCA headquarters.

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