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Syrian bishop finds ecumenical solidarity in Boston

Vito Nicastro, associate director of the archdiocese's Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Rev. Dr. Rodney Petersen, executive director of the Boston Theological Institute; Bishop Elias Toumeh, Antiochian Orthodox Bishop of Pyrgou; and Rev. Luke Veronis, Director of the Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology are pictured at Costas Consultation of the Boston Theological Institute, March 28. Courtesy photo

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"Hello, Bishop? Would you mind picking up two prisoners, driving them alone behind enemy lines into a war zone, and completing a prisoner exchange for two kidnapped Christians?" This paraphrases part of the experience related by His Grace Bishop Elias Toumeh, Antiochian Orthodox bishop of Pyrgou in Syria, to an academic convocation March 28 in Brookline which was also an ecumenical gathering of Christians united in listening to his peoples' plight.

Hostage exchange is not even the most heartbreaking part of his ministry as a Syrian bishop. When his phone rings, he does not know if it is another request to come and collect the body of one of his flock. "In the last three years, I learned what it means to be a bishop. It is about being ready to be sacrificed at any moment for the people."

And his people were the centerpiece of the message, in my impression. The message Bishop Elias brought was Jesus, as witnessed in the life of the Christians of Syria. "We have no enemies. We carry no weapons." His church instead has become a relief center trying to cope with needs ranging from traumatic stress among children to hygiene supplies. They have built a Peace Center for Children -- children of many Christian and non-Christian backgrounds. "We teach them to care for each other."

A glance at the crowd listening to Bishop Elias told of the bond between Christians. "If one part of the body suffers..." (I Cor. 12:26) The gathering was the Costas Consultation of the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of 10 theological schools and seminaries of Greater Boston. This year's host was Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. There was a large crowd, perhaps over 150, of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. There were professors and students from Andover Newton Theological School, Boston College, Boston University School of Theology, and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. There were Evangelicals from Unite Boston and Emmanuel Gospel Center; there were mainline Protestants including the head of the Massachusetts Council of Churches; there were Catholics of several stripes including representatives of the lay ecclesial movement The Community of Sant'Egidio; and there were Orthodox of many Churches: Antiochian, Greek, and Romanian. Bishop Elias himself, like many Middle Eastern Christians, has a deep ecumenical background -- and a doctorate from Rome.

This diverse group came together in Christian solidarity around the suffering of the Syrian churches. We came first of all to listen and learn. When we Americans hear about Syria on the news it can seem an enigma to us. Most of us think it is a Muslim nation; few know it is historically composite, with a strong Christian presence. Even fewer of us realize how deep the Christian presence runs. Paul was converted to Christ in Syria. Christians were first called Christians in Syria. St. Peter was bishop of Antioch in Syria for seven years before he went to Rome. This is our family in the Triune God. They are precious members, giving witness at great cost. We were there to support them. Once again, as in the Christian Unity Martyrs' Prayer service of Jan. 25, one of the themes was "you are not forgotten."

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