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Patriarch Zakka's welcome address to Pope John Paul - St. George Syrian Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral, Damascus

May 6, 2001

Great is our joy to have such a significant historic event, which is the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Syria, at the very beginning of the twenty first century.

1. It gives us great pleasure to receive His Holiness today at our St. George Patriarchal cathedral in Damascus. On my own behalf and on behalf of their Graces, the Metropolitans, members of the Holy General Synod of our Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch all over the world, and in the presence of the Heads of sister Churches, their Beatitudes, the Patriarchs, their Eminences, the Metropolitans, and all the Representatives of different denominations with whom we share the joy of receiving His Holiness, We extend to His Holiness our hearty welcome.

2. The Apostolic See of Antioch, was established by Saint Peter and blessed by the Apostles Paul and Barnaba; the rest of the disciples and followers of our Lord who came to Antioch following the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the proto martyr and chief of deacons. The Church of Antioch consisted of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ from both the Jews and the Gentiles. The Apostles Peter and Paul consecrated two bishops, St. Ignatius to minister believers of Jewish origin and St. Evodius to minister believers of the gentiles.

After the demise of St. Evodius the Church of Antioch of Both groups, came under the leadership of Ignatius who called her the Universal Church.

The Church of Antioch embraced diverse Cultures in the lead of which were the ancient cultures of Syria, especially Syriac Aramaic, the ancient language of Syria which was spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ and His blessed Mother St. Mary and His Apostles who knew no other language but Syriac, according to Eusebius the Church historian of the fourth century AD.

Our Syrian Church of Antioch still preserves the Holy Syriac language as its official and liturgical language.

It is a well-established fact that it was at Antioch that the followers of our Lord were first called Christians. We are thankful to God and proud that the fathers of our Church have preserved the ancient historic roots of the Syrian Church of Antioch and spread the light of the Gospel in different regions in the world.

In the early history, Christianity in the East and West, enjoyed communion in one faith. It is noteworthy that the Apostolic Sees in Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople were all united in one faith; and the Shepherds of these churches who were enthroned on their Sees accepted one another. The schism took place after the Council of Chalcedon 451, when the one Christian church split into groups that proclaimed mutual anathemas and exchanged false accusations. This situation continued until the middle of the twentieth century. No one then could have expected or even imagined that His Holiness the Pope, Head of the Roman Catholic Church would visit the Syrian Orthodox Church or that the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch would visit the Vatican, exchange the kiss of peace and love and would sign a common declaration.

3. It was in 1971 that my predecessor Patriarch Mor Ignatius Jacob III of blessed memory paid a visit to His Holiness Pope Paul VI of blessed memory at the Vatican. I had the honour to be one of the bishops who accompanied His Holiness. It was a historical meeting in Mathilda Chapel where the two Holy Pontiffs prayed together in Latin as well as in Syriac. The Pope and the Patriarch made significant speeches. In his address the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch said:

"After 1520 years of separation and mutual excommunications, both the Heads of these two most ancient Churches in Christianity meet each other as brothers in an atmosphere of love and brotherhood. Really time heals."

And His Holiness the Pope in his speech said:

"We greet in your person a Church which sees in the faith of the Apostles at Antioch, the roots and basis for our common Christian witness. Nine years ago, Your Holiness accepted the invitation of our predecessor John 23rd and sent a representative to the second Vatican Council as an Official Observer. Since then the exchange of letters and visits by officials from our Church to Your Holiness helped in strengthening the relations between our churches. Now I am glad to meet you personally and to exchange points of view and desires which enliven us. Your visit greatly assures us that our two churches will find better means and ways to cooperate with each other in our common mission, and at the same time will open the way to full communion which we all warmly long for."

In the Common Declaration the following was stated:

"Progress has already been made and Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Mar Ignatius Jacob III are in agreement that there is no difference in the faith they profess concerning the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become really man, even if over the centuries difficulties have arisen out of the different theological expressions by which this faith was expressed. They therefore encourage the clergy and faithful of their Churches to even greater endeavors at removing the obstacles which still prevent complete communion among them. This should be done with love, with openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and with mutual respect for each other and each other's Church. They particularly exhort the scholars of their Churches, and of all Christian communities, to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of Christ with humility and fidelity to the Apostolic traditions so that the fruits of their reflections may help the Church in her service to the world which the Incarnate Son of God has redeemed."

Your Holiness,
On this occasion, may I state that ever since my enthronement as Patriarch by the Grace of God in 1980, I have followed in the footsteps of my predecessors of blessed memory in cooperating with other sister Churches. I have been striving for the good of Christianity and for achieving Christian unity. With this objective in mind I exchanged cordial letters with Your Holiness on various occasions, and I also visited Your Holiness at the Vatican in 1984. During that visit a Common Declaration was made by Your Holiness and my humble self on June 23, 1984 in confirmation of our joint effort to achieve a better understanding and continue exerting efforts to attain the sublime goal which is ultimately Christian Unity. May I cite a few passages of that blessed historical declaration quoting the following:

"Our Unity in faith, though not yet complete, entitles us to envisage collaboration between our Churches in pastoral care, in situations which nowadays are frequent both because of the dispersion of our faithful throughout the world and because of the precarious conditions of these difficult times. It is not rare, in fact, for our faithful to find access to a priest of their own Church materially or morally impossible. Anxious to meet their needs and with their spiritual benefit in mind, we authorize them in such cases to ask for the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick from lawful priests of either of our two sister Churches, when they need them. It would be a logical corollary of collaboration in pastoral care to cooperate in priestly formation and theological education. Bishops are encouraged to promote sharing of facilities for theological education where they judge it to be advisable. While doing this we do not forget that we must still do all in our power to achieve the full visible communion between the Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and ceaselessly implore our Lord to grant us unity which alone will enable us to give to the world a fully unanimous Gospel witness.

Thanking the Lord who has allowed us to meet and enjoy the consolation of the faith we hold in common (cf. Rom 1:12) and to proclaim before the world the mystery of the Person of the Word incarnate and of His saving work, the unshakeable foundation of that common faith, we pledge ourselves solemnly to do all that in us lies to remove the last obstacles still hindering full communion between the Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, so that with one heart and voice we may preach the word: "The True Light that enlightens every man" and "that all who believe in His name may become the children of God" (cf. Jn1:9-12)". (The quotation ends.)

The Common Declaration is unique indeed. It represented great steps forward along the ecumenical movement because it went beyond doctrinal professions of the two churches to embrace the pastoral care of the faithful in both churches. The objectives of this declaration have been implemented in many parts of the world.

4. At this unique and historical meeting, we do have the pleasure to welcome our brethren, the Clergy from all denominations and thank them for their participation in welcoming His Holiness Pope John Paul II. We have to keep in mind that it's the duty of all of us to be fully aware of our spiritual mission as clergymen to provide means of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ to all the faithful from all Churches and continue praying and spreading love which is the first sign of the true disciples of Jesus Christ abiding thus by the Lord's commandment, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13: 35).

While endeavoring to attain Complete Unity, we have to accept one another. It's our message to convey the voice of people to God and the voice of God to people.

It's through preaching and religious guidance that we have to warn the sinners and exhort them to obey the divine laws.

We have to carry the cross of our Lord and follow Him, as did His Holiness Pope John Paul II who set us the good example in his courageous stand against immoral violations practiced nowadays in some institutions that claim to represent Christianity permitting abortion, homosexuality and what not.

In this generation invaded by many corrupt concepts we are badly in need for a true witness, for courage to address these challenges and adhere to our true faith in Christ our Lord and his divine law.

We can never claim to be Christians unless we adhere to this faith because true Apostolic Christianity is the true profession of faith and a life of virtues.

Your Holiness,
5. It goes without saying that Christians of good will from all Churches and denominations do acknowledge that God Almighty has chosen Your Holiness to be His instrument for spreading peace, love and fraternity among people and for confronting all deviations from Christian teachings in the world.

God Almighty has granted you both civil and religious authorities, being the Pope of Rome and the head of the Vatican, the smallest state in the world, yet the most powerful in its influence throughout the world in relation to what might be useful for the accomplishment of a just and comprehensive peace and for confirming man's faith in God Almighty and upholding His virtues and values. So far you've strived in this field for the attainment of such goals overlooking the hardships and fatigue endured by true shepherds.

I beseech God to grant Your Holiness good health and long life. I wish Your Holiness a pleasant stay in Syria and a safe journey back.

We are certain that your presence here is an affirmation of Christian-Christian and Christian-Muslim fraternity. I'd like to assert that we, as Christians enjoy a national Unity living with our Muslim brethren a life full of love and pure amicability.

6. On this occasion, it is of great pleasure to us to greet His Excellency President Bashar Al-Assad praying to God to bless him and keep the banners of victory held in our country under his wise leadership. Amen.

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