Christian unity needed for survival, patriarch says

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Catholicos Aram of Cilicia, the Beirut-based patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is a forceful speaker and a committed ecumenist who believes that theologians should continue dealing with the dogmatic differences keeping Christians apart. But even while they do that, he said, Christians leaders and their faithful must get on with the business of the full visible unity of the churches.

“One of our top priorities in the Middle East at this point of history is Christian unity,” he said today during a meeting with Catholic journalists visiting Lebanon with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. “Today our people don’t care” about highly theological, historically influenced differences. “They care about how we can be together.”

The Armenian Orthodox leader accepted Pope Benedict XVI’s invitation to send a “fraternal delegate” to the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October and he said he wrote to the pope expressing his opinion that the synod “should not be exclusively Catholic” since the issues it was dealing with were “Christian concerns” common throughout the Middle East.

Catholicos Aram of Cilicia (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Echoing a call made repeatedly at the synod, the catholicos said, “The first thing we must do is fix a common date for Easter. There is no theological problem — it’s a calendar problem,” depending on whether a church follows the older Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar used in the West. Especially in the Middle East, when people see Christians celebrating the major feast of their year on different dates, he said, they wonder how they can all claim to share the same faith.

One of the big issues at the synod was what the churches could do to help stem the tide of Christian emigration from the region.

“Emigration is a pan-Christian concern,” the catholicos said. “The churches in the Middle East have a clear policy on emigration: we are against it. The Christians should not leave the region…. Christians belong here and they should stay firmly attached to our land and our tradition.”

At the same time, he said, Christians must work together more closely to educate their members on their rights and obligations as citizens and be more vocal in demanding respect for those rights.

“We have to be faithful to our traditions and history, but faithfulness to our roots doesn’t mean we have to stay away from each other because we all are the body of Christ,” he said. “We must identify the best ways so that that God-given togetherness (of faith in Jesus) is visible in the life of the people, especially in the Middle East where we are a minority.”

“We cannot live like small islands in the middle of a huge ocean,” he said.

While Haiti’s earthquake zone was largely spared by hurricane, other parts were not so fortunate

A Haitian woman walks in a flooded street Nov. 6 in Port-au-Prince after Hurricane Tomas brushed the island. Tomas left 6,000 families homeless. (CNS/Reuters)

Reports emerged over the weekend that areas of Haiti’s southern peninsula were hit hard by Hurricane Tomas as it moved west of the country without making landfall Nov. 5.

The storm’s toll was not as great as first anticipated. Twenty people died and seven remain missing, according to Haiti’s civil protection department.

Still, 30,000 remain in shelters after 6,000 families lost their homes. Some people whose homes were destroyed in the massive Jan. 12 earthquake had their tents washed away in the most recent storm.

Many towns and villages in the far southwest sustained serious wind and flood damage. Thousands of people fled to shelters. Relief workers were making their way to isolated communities in Grand Anse and South departments. Travel was difficult due to deep mud and washed-out roads and bridges.

Camillian Father Scott Binet, international coordinator of the Servants of St. Camillus Disaster Relief Services, said in a blog posted this morning that the storm ripped off roofs from homes, left tent communities flooded and crops ruined. Carcasse was among the most devastated communities.

Catholic Relief Services and the U.N. World Food Program reported providing water, ready-to-eat meals and high-energy biscuits to more than 4,000 people who sought refuge in temporary shelters throughout the southern peninsula.

In Port-au-Prince CRS workers visited 15 camps to assess needs and found little damage in the overcrowded conditions. Assistance with clean water and sanitation was being provided.

Some 1.3 million people remain in the camps across a large part of the country 10 months after the earthquake.

Meanwhile, one crew of volunteers is planning a weeklong mission trip to Haiti beginning Nov. 13. Among their supplies is anti-malarial and cholera medications.

The trip’s leader is Brent DeLand, a member of Christ the King Parish in Springfield, Ill. His Haitian Development Fund supports a medical clinic in a poor neighborhood in Sarthe near the capital of Port-au-Prince. He told Catholic News Service pools of water left behind by the storm are prime breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Aid agencies and health workers fear that floods in the central part of the country may expand the cholera epidemic beyond the Artibonite province. The outbreak, which has claimed more than 500 lives and hospitalized 7,000 more since Oct. 19, has been contained to a fairly small area in central Haiti. Without the ability to control the water, it’s feared that bacteria-laden cholera could find its way elsewhere.