Pope Francis held a truly historic meeting with leaders of Eastern Christian churches, on July 7, 2018 in the southern Italian city of Bari. In terms of the sheer seniority of the attendees, it was unprecedented. Not only were Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II present (the three had met during Pope Francis’s visit to Cairo in April 2017) but many others were as well. Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Aphrem II came from Damascus, Syria, and Mar Gewargis III, Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, arrived from Erbil, Iraq. Nineteen church delegations attended, including, of course, Eastern churches in full communion with Rome such the patriarchs of the Maronite and Chaldean Catholics. The presence of a Lutheran bishop from Jordan meant that almost every branch of Christianity was represented.
The day-long event, which included prayer and a closed-door meeting, was organized by the Vatican to call attention to the precarious situation of the Christians of the Middle East. The initiative for the meeting goes back several years, with many voices calling for such a meeting – including Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai, who proposed it in February 2016.
A preparatory statement from the Holy See for the summit outlined four key points: "Christians will only remain in the region if peace is restored"; Christians are essential part of the region not only for religious but for political and social reasons; the rights of every person and minority – not just Christians – need to be respected; and there is an urgent need to continue religious dialogue.
Certainly, prayer for these persecuted Christians is needed, and one can hope that there was real decisiveness and much-needed clarity in the closed-door meeting. But what of the public statements? Unfortunately, as with other papal statements, they consisted of a mishmash of real insight, the usual vague pabulum supplied to the media, and some points of concern.
Pope Francis spoke forcefully of the "murderous indifference" the world shows regarding the plight of these suffering people. He spoke of the real danger that these Christian communities will vanish, and that "a Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East." He also called for the release of bishops and priests who have gone missing in the Syrian conflict, and for Christians to be treated as "full citizens with equal rights."
Without specifying exactly what or who he meant, he also condemned "fundamentalism" and fanaticism (which "under the guise of religion, have profaned God’s name – which is peace – and persecuted age-old neighbors"), the war in Syria, the arms trade, poverty, and the powerful – all themes that the Pope has mentioned repeatedly in the past in different contexts. But his vague remarks on the arms trade made it sound as if this was some sort of external calamity imposed on the region by "the powerful," rather than local regimes arming themselves to the teeth to stay in power and fight their adversaries.
More troubling were remarks that seemed to echo the usual self-serving propaganda of regimes and extremists who blame anyone but themselves for the travails of the region. The Pope spoke of the "thirst for profit that surreptitiously exploits oil and gas fields without regard for our common home, with no scruples about the fact that energy market now dictates the law of coexistence among peoples!" This bit of an anti-Western rant seems misplaced, as the exploitation of energy resources in the region is not being carried out by profit-hungry Westerners, but by regimes in the region, who use those funds to enrich themselves and stay in power. If there is profit being made on these riches, it is chiefly local Arab profit and Iranian profit.
And while neither Israel nor the U.S. were mentioned by name, the condemnation of "no more occupying territories and thus tearing people apart" and criticism of "truces maintained by walls and displays of power" would seem to point to the Jewish state. An opaque reference to America – or is it Russia? – could be found in his demand that there be "an end to using the Middle East for gains that have nothing to do with the Middle East!"
It is unfair to criticize a pope who bears the heavy weight of coreligionists living under the whim and mercy of all sorts of brutal regimes in the regime for lack of clarity. Francis has before him the disastrous example of Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 Regensburg speech, a careful, nuanced and thoughtful discourse that nevertheless led to violence in the region against innocent Christians by Islamist extremists, and to controversy in the West.
But some of Pope Francis's remarks seem to reinforce certain toxic and false Middle Eastern notions – that the region's ills are due to outsiders who steal the region's resources and rob it of its wealth, and that Israel is a principal driver of conflict. Indeed, some of the clerics attending this event have lent themselves to this type of regime propaganda. But recent polls show that a principal concern of this drifting region's youth are more basic issues, such as lack of economic opportunity, and corruption. What a missed opportunity for the Pope to speak of the need for governments and peoples to take responsibility for their own actions and to spell out the fatal dearth of human flourishing and dignity in the region with a bit more bite and specificity!
According to press reports from the Vatican, Bari was chosen because of its historic connection with the East dating back centuries, particularly as the resting place of Saint Nicholas, who is much venerated, particularly in the East. His remains were removed in the 11th century by Italians – essentially stolen from his tomb in Anatolia – in the chaos following the battle of Manzikert.
Not mentioned in the press release were Bari's other, less ecumenical Middle East connections, such as that it was the seat of a short-lived Islamic emirate (841-871) set up by invaders from North Africa. Also not mentioned was that it was a port for Norman knights setting out for the First Crusade. Bari was also the venue of Mussolini's Radio Bari Arabic-language shortwave propaganda broadcasts to the Middle East, that began in 1934 – making Italy the first country in the world to carry out such broadcasts – and that called for the Arab masses to rise up against British colonialism.
Pope Francis had no need to dwell on bad history, or to nag the region to behave better or to engage in religious polemics. Polemics and nagging may be needed, but he was not the right messenger and this was not the right place for these. But after convening this star-studded array and focusing on this very timely subject, failing to be a bit more prophetic was a missed opportunity for a region that is desperate to find a clear way forward.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is a member of the board of directors of MEMRI and President of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of MBN or of the Government of the United States of America.
 Lastampa.it/2018/07/07/vaticaninsider/in-bari-the-pope-denounces-the-indifference-that-kills-the-middle-east-B5tPQPxP5SkaTaQnK0szwO/pagina.html, July 7, 2018.
 Thetablet.co.uk/news/9346/christian-leaders-meet-in-bari-to-pray-for-middle-east, July 4, 2018.
 Press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/07/03/180703a.html, July 3, 2018.
 Catholicworldreport.com/2016/09/12/benedict-the-brave-the-regensburg-address-ten-years-later/, July 8, 2018.
 Syriacpatriarchate.org/2018/04/a-statement-issued-by-the-patriarchates-of-antioch-and-all-the-east-for-the-greek-orthodox-syrian-orthodox-and-greek-melkite-catholic/, April 14, 2018.
 Arabyouthsurvey.com/findings.html, 2018.