Cardinal’s Middle East Trip Promotes Interfaith Fellowship

by Michael J. Healey
photos by Maria Bastone

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It would be hard to imagine John Cardinal O’Connor accomplishing more than he did on his nine-day pastoral trip through the Middle East in late December and early January. The cardinal traveled with Msgr. Robert L. Stern and Bishop John J. Nevins, a trustee of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, to review some of the Association’s programs and projects in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Territories.

In addition, Catholic Near East’s president and treasurer met with a dizzying array of religious leaders. He met with Armenian, Coptic, Latin, Maronite, Melkite and Syrian Catholics; Armenian, Coptic and Greek Orthodox; Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Druze and Jews.

In each of the four countries he visited in perhaps the world’s most peace-starved region, Cardinal O’Connor was also invited to call upon government leaders. Their frank though friendly conversations concerned religious liberty, mutual understanding, respect for human rights and the improving prospects for peace in the region.

By his many meetings, the cardinal demonstrated an understanding of Middle Eastern culture, a culture in which courtesy visits carry great weight. He also kept an important promise he made before leaving New York City December 28: that although he was traveling “without a portfolio” in an entirely apolitical capacity, he would meet and “be at the service of” anyone who wanted to meet with him.

What made the 72-year-old prelate’s achievement all the more noteworthy was that he traveled in far from ideal conditions. The Middle East was experiencing the worst winter in more than 50 years. The mercury dipped to the 40s in Egypt, the 30s in Lebanon and, remarkably, the 20s in Jordan before climbing to the relatively balmy 50s in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Ice-encrusted palm and olive trees and snow-covered desert floors were strange but common sights. Heavy snowfall eliminated one of the cardinal’s planned stops – Syria – and almost forced the cancellation of several others.

His voyage started in the teeming capital of the Arab world’s most populous nation –Egypt – a place he had never visited.

There, on New Year’s Eve, the cardinal had a constructive meeting with the republic’s president, Hosni Mubarak, in the opulent presidential palace.

Afterward, Cardinal O’Connor told reporters that the president seemed interested in the various projects sponsored by Catholic Near East in Egypt and “very optimistic and confident” about the Arab-Israeli peace talks, then scheduled to start in Washington, D.C.

Later that day the cardinal met Maximos V Hakim, the Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria, and of Jerusalem. An adventurous drive through Cairo then took the cardinal to St. Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, where he met Stephanos II Ghattas, Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria. Under the Association’s sponsorship, St. Leo’s trains the majority of the candidates for the Coptic Catholic priesthood.

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Tags: CNEWA Middle East Interreligious Msgr. Stern John Cardinal O'Connor