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Search for Brotherhood in the Christian Near East

by Thomas McHugh

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The continued Christian presence in Lebanon is somewhat of a barometer of the survival of Christianity throughout the Middle East. One religious leader from that region believes that realizing Christian brotherhood, despite dogmatic differences, is the only chance for the survival of the faith there.

“The world made us become conscious of the commonness of our cause in a world which is becoming for the Christians a minority situation,” said His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The catholicos, who is based in Beirut, is the highest official of that Church outside of Soviet Armenia.

“We live in an area and in a time in the Middle East where either we face the issues ecumenically, or we lose our cause,” Karekin said during a May visit to Catholic Near East’s offices in New York. “We face atheism and secularism not as a Catholic Church or a Protestant Church or an Episcopalian Church, but as Christians. Common problems need common solutions instead of sectarian or isolated approaches. That was part of the emergence of the ecumenical movement.”

Karekin is by word, deed and formation an internationalist. His view of order in the world is dependent on such an orientation. It’s been his experience.

Born in Syria in 1932, the catholicos was ordained there in 1952. From 1957 to 1959 he studied theology in Great Britain at Oxford University. Proficient in languages, particularly in English and French, he became a representative of the House of Cilicia at ecumenical conferences throughout the world. From 1963 to 1965 he was Cilicia’s observer at the Second Vatican Council. In 1971 he was elected prelate of the Iran-Indian diocese of New Julfa in Isfahan, Iran, and two years later was appointed Pontifical Legate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, based in New York. He was eventually made primate of the Eastern prelacy Throughout this time he was noted for his work in ecumenism, education and in organizing youth.

When Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, Karekin was still in New York. Two years later he was elected Catholicos of Cilicia, whose seat is in Antelias, a suburb of Beirut.

“When I was elected there was the sounds of shelling outside,” the Catholicos recalled. “In all these 13 years they have never ceased.”

In simply a physical sense the survival of the church in Lebanon is crucial, for the Christian presence there is proportionally the greatest in the Middle East. Karekin has not given up on Lebanon, if only because of the reasons the Armenians had in going there in the first place.

“We used to be in Turkey, in the ancient kingdom of Cilicia,” he said. “Why did we leave? Because of the genocide, because of the massacres… The question is why we chose Lebanon. We had other countries where we had more Armenians, like Syria. It was because of the strong Christian presence in Lebanon … And secondly, because of the freedom and democracy that still is in Lebanon. Thanks be to God, this freedom was not lost after so much has been lost in Lebanon.

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Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Middle East Christianity Eastern Churches