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.
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.