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Cardinal Koch on Hope For Closer Catholic-Orthodox Relations

Cardinal Kurt Koch 02

© Thomas Flügge / CC

Aleteia - published on 09/24/14

International dialogue did a reset during papal primacy talks in Jordan

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The head of the Vatican’s Council for Christian Unity says he regrets that Catholics and Orthodox leaders are unable to give a stronger sign of unity for Christians suffering persecution in the Middle East.

Cardinal Kurt Koch served as co-president of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, meeting this past week in Amman, Jordan. A communique released on Wednesday reflects the difficulties the two sides encountered in the search for agreement on the theme Synodality and Primacy, which has been at the heart of the discussions since a 2007 plenary meeting in Ravenna, Italy.

"The Commission members, assembled near the holy sites connected with the baptism of Jesus Christ, united their voices to express their deep concern for and solidarity with the Christians and members of other religious traditions of this entire region who are being persecuted, displaced and murdered," said a statement issued by the Vatican. "They categorically rejected the idea that such horrifying crimes can be justified in the name of God or of religion, and expressed their profound gratitude to all those engaged in bringing relief to millions of refugees and displaced persons. Furthermore, they prayed for all the religious leaders of the region, so that they might continue to comfort their people and keep alive their vision of their return to their lands and homes, which in recent times have been occupied and often profaned. The Commission implored the international community to listen seriously to those leaders regarding the most useful ways to intervene and protect those who are being persecuted, and to ensure the continuing vital presence of Christianity in the Middle East. They also launched a fresh appeal for the liberation of the Metropolitans of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, and all others who have been kidnapped, including priests and religious."

The meeting of the Joint Commission was marked by a spirit of friendship and trustful collaboration. The members greatly appreciated the generous hospitality of the host Church, and they strongly commend the continuing work of the dialogue to the prayers of the faithful

During the week-long meeting, which concluded on Tuesday, members of the Commission visited a refugee center in Amman where they heard first-hand the stories of those who have fled the fighting and persecution by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad also attended the meeting and expressed his support for the dialogue, despite the difficulties it is facing.

Cardinal Koch said in an interview with Vatican Radio that the first sign of progress is that “all are ready and willing to continue our dialogue and that we will provide a new step, a new coordination committee, in the next year for preparing a new plenary.”

After discussion about the text that was prepared by the coordination committee in Paris, he said, it was clear the text could not be accepted, above all by the Orthodox side. During the week, the Commission then prepared a new text about the most important elements of synodality and primacy in the first millennium as a source of imagination for rediscovering the unity in primacy and synod in the third millennium.

At the end of the meeting, the cardinal said, the Orthodox side did not agree to publish this text, but rather to give this text to the coordination committee for further discussion.

”We hope,” he said, “that the next plenary can finish this text.”

Asked about a time frame for the next meetings, the cardinal
said there will be a meeting of the coordination committee next year and in 2016 the Orthodox leaders will be busy with a synod of all their Churches, so the next plenary may not be held until 2017. He added that he hopes the Pan-Orthodox Synod can help to create unity between the Orthodox Churches "because this result will be a good condition for the continuation of our dialogue.”

The cardinal said the Russian Orthodox Church accepts the question of primacy on the universal level “in a pragmatic view and not in a theological view.” During this plenary, there was “very good cooperation," he said. "Above all, Metropolitan Hilarion was ready and willing to be a member of the drafting committee and also agreed to finish and publish this text.”

Asked about the planned visit of Pope Francis to Istanbul at the end of November, Cardinal Koch says the visit can help deepen the dialogue with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, though he says relations are already very good. “His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew is very open and very helpful for me, because we have some tendencies in the dialogue, also on the Catholic side, to say there’s no possibility of continuing our theological dialogue about primacy, we must have another issue. But the Patriarch always says no, this theological commission must continue this work, so I think the Pope’s visit can be a good help for the continuation of our dialogue.”

Asked about the witness of Catholic and Orthodox Christians who are suffering and dying together in the Middle East, Cardinal Koch said he had hoped for “a better sign of unity” between Orthodox and Catholics, though he added that all members and all people are very concerned about the situation, above all in Iraq and Syria. He said the King of Jordan is very open to receive up to a million refugees and he talks about their visit to a refugee camp.

“This was a very hard experience to meet these people and see their fears, but also their hope and joy. One person said we can’t return to Iraq, not because we’ve lost our apartment, but we’ve lost our Church and this is our homeland. This closeness to the Church is a beautiful sign….”

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