Pope Benedict [left] Rome [yesterday] for his historic pastoral trip to the Holy Land (May 8-15). The trip has six main purposes which may be summarized in a phrase: to build peace through speaking truth. We will publish a regular commentary on the events of the Pope’s trip.
The way for Israel to secure its future lies not through making war, but through building a just peace, the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq, Jean Benjamin Sleiman, told Inside the Vatican magazine on the eve of Pope’s departure for the Holy Land.
“This trip is very dear to Pope’s heart,” the archbishop said. “But it is also very important for Israel. The Pope in his addresses will layout the principles by which the Israelis and Palestinians in coming months and years can develop a lasting peace. The question is whether this message will be heard and acted upon. I think it is a historically dramatic occasion when one man will speak words which will, if they are listened to, change history.”
Sleiman, 63, a native of Lebanon, has been Latin-rite bishop of Baghdad for eight years, since 2001. He is considered one of the leading spokesman among Catholics in the Middle East for the continued presence of the Christian community of that part of the world. He spoke to Inside the Vatican (Photo below: Archbishop Sleiman with the author meeting in Washington D.C.) in Washington DC, where he was meeting with US Senators and Congressmen to discuss the life of the Christian community in Iraq and its prospects for a secure future.
The Archbishop is persuaded that, despite the difficulty facing the Christians of Iraq, there are profound reasons to stay there and, if they have left, to return.
“We have had a tremendous flight of Christians from Iraq,” he said. “This is what I told the Pope on my last visit with him.
“I explained that many of the young people who seek a better life in places like London and Paris and Stockholm end up losing their faith. Iraq society puts tremendous value on a close-knit family. When the young people leave Iraq and get off on their own, away from their parents and grandparents, they often lose their way.
“So from a pastoral perspective, I feel compelled as a bishop to encourage the Christians to stay in Iraq, even thought I understand their desire to seek a better life elsewhere. I know that the ‘better life’ for them would be to keep their faith.”
When the archbishop spoke of his talks with Pope Benedict, he became animated. “Pope Benedict is a holy man, a intelligent man, and a humble man,” he said. “He is kind and he listens attentively to those to whom he speaks.”
Sleiman was born in Lebanon, near Byblos. He is one of five children and grew up speaking French and Arabic (he also speaks excellent English and Italian).
He felt the first promptings of a religious vocation in the admiration he felt for several of the priest who were his teachers. But later his vocation entered a deeper phase.
“I no longer simply wanted to imitate the life and character of the men I admired,” he said. “I wanted to commit myself totally to something higher — to the highest thing I could find. And that highest was the priesthood, conforming my life to the life of Christ.”
“The Muslims of the world are very confident that they will be the planet’s future,” he continued. “But I believe the future is in Christ. The Pope will proclaim this hope throughout his trip, to everyone in the Middle East, and to the whole world watching.”
Sleiman said he would have been in Jordan to greet the Pope upon his arrival, but the need to explain the situation of the Christians in Iraq to U.S. officials was so urgent that he decided to take more than a week in the United States to make his case.
The man who discovered and promoted Sleiman for the position in Baghdad was the Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, in 2001 the head of the Vatican’s Congregation of Oriental Churches, under Pope John Paul II. Silvestrini, a career Vatican diplomat who has since retired, visited Saddam Hussein personally to try to persuade him to come to a compromise with the Western powers before the 2003 war began.
Both Silverstrini and Pope John Paul II found in Sleiman a man with the diplomatic tact to work well in the explosive atmosphere of Baghdad and with the deep faith needed to be an effective pastor to the diverse Latin-rite community in the Iraqi capital (some 30,000 Poles, 6,000 Brazilians and many other nationalities).