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Voices raised for peace in the Middle East

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Singer Diana Rouvas performs at the One in Christ concert at St Michael’s Melkite Cathedral in Darlington. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Singer Diana Rouvas performs at the One in Christ concert at St Michael’s Melkite Cathedral in Darlington. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Melkite Archbishop of Beirut Georges Bacouni says he has been “living the cross” from the time he was 13 when the Lebanese Civil War broke out.

He still carries the piece of shrapnel lodged in his back from when his family were bombed leaving his fathers’ funeral Mass one year later, calling it a “sombre reminder” of the harsh realities of that war that lasted until he was nearly 30.

Further crippled today by subsequent war, unrest, corruption and the Beirut’s catastrophic port explosion in 2020, Lebanon faces economic collapse and fears that a fresh conflict on its southern border will spread.

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He admitted he had been tempted himself to leave for a more peaceful life of ministry in Europe, the United States or Australia.

“Why should I stay and suffer where I have suffered since I was a child? Everywhere I have lived and served I have found the cross waiting for me,” he said.

“But the Lord reminds me always of what he said about the Good Shepherd—that I am not an employee but a pastor, and the pastor does not run away when the flock is in danger.”

The archbishop told his story at a public lecture as part of Aid to the Church in Need’s “witnesses of faith” tour highlighting Christian victims of persecution, held at the Australian Catholic University on 2 December.

He also attended the Melkite-organised One in Christ concert for peace and unity in the Middle East.

Archbishop Bacouni tookthe place of His Beatitude Joseph Absi, Patriarch of the Melkite Catholic Church, after the patriarch decided to remain with his people as the shadow of war grows.

The archbishop has ministered as a bishop in dioceses in Lebanon, Israel and Syria, each time shepherding his flock through major crises. Clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in the country’s south have prompted Christians there to start leaving their villages, he said.

Archbishop Bacouni was joined at the ACU forum by Nigerian-based Sr Majella Dogonyaro OP and ACN’s head of projects for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, Xavier Stephen Bisits.

Sr Majella has been personally hunted by kidnappers, her community regularly attacked and terrorised, but she will not leave her home in northern Nigeria and abandon her young students, she said.

“I’ve never felt like leaving because I know if I live, live for Christ, and if I die, I die for Christ,” she said.

The softly-spoken head teacher of Regis Nursery and Primary School in Nigeria’s Katsina State is one of 92 Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena in the country.

However, she has only four sisters in her community in the remote region, where Christians are viciously targeted.

Speakers and dignitaries at the Australian Catholic University, from left: Thomas Ng, Bernard Toutonji, Bishop Robert Rabbat, Archbishop Georges Bacouni, Sr Majella Dogonyaro OP, Xavier Stephen Bisits. Photo: Patrick Lee
Speakers and dignitaries at the Australian Catholic University, from left: Thomas Ng, Bernard Toutonji, Bishop Robert Rabbat, Archbishop Georges Bacouni, Sr Majella Dogonyaro OP, Xavier Stephen Bisits. Photo: Patrick Lee

Large armed gangs of bandits with links to the extremist Islamic group Boko Haram attack, kidnap and kill Christians with impunity, and murdered Sr Majella’s own parish priest in 2020.

Even with security guards, the sisters are regularly in danger.

“Some nights we cannot sleep, many times we stand praying in the chapel through the night asking God to protect us,” Sr Majella explains.

“We are afraid, we turn off our lights and stay silent so the bandits think we aren’t there.”

One time they reluctantly agreed to close the school temporarily, but Sr Majella changed her mind when one of her students begged her not to leave them.

“My heart melted,” she said.

Without them, she says, the children won’t learn to defend their rights as citizens or their faith against forced conversions and Christianity would quickly be lost in the country’s north.

“Leaving will not solve my problem anyway,” she added.

“Nowhere is safe in northern Nigeria for Christians and the rest of Nigeria is not much safer, so where would I go?

“I grew up there and all my family are there.”

Bisits said large parts of the Middle East were mostly Christian up until recent centuries.

“In the Middle East Christians are consistently the only voice of peace and coexistence and tolerance in the region and it would be a tremendous lost not only to Christians and Catholics but also to our Muslim brothers and sisters for them to be gone,” he said.

In remote areas Aid to the Church in Need offers a lifeline to parishes, Catholics schools, and other church communities where humanitarian funding can’t reach.

Its Australian and New Zealand office has pledged to support the formation of six novices for Sr Majella’s congregation in Nigeria and a faith festival for Melkite Catholic youth in Lebanon next year.

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