Pope Francis's visit to the Middle East has been hugely significant, for both religious and political reasons, writes Rebcecca Rist in The Conversation.
Francis hopes to encourage ongoing peaceful dialogue and co-operation between both Israelis and Palestinians over the future of the Holy Land, and in particular over Jerusalem, the focus of so much tension throughout history.
The most obvious practical effect is that Pope Francis has called on the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, to visit the Vatican to pray for peace and to continue the peace process.
Another longer-term effect will be to boost the morale of Arab Christians, who feel increasingly caught between calls for a Palestinian State (which, although Arab, would be overwhelmingly Muslim) on the one hand and the State of Israel on the other. The symbolism of Francis’s trip is therefore immensely important for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, and should not be underestimated.
But for the Church itself, the most striking and historically meaningful events of the Middle East visit – apart from talking to the region’s major political and religious brokers – were Francis’ meetings with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the symbolic leader of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew. But why?
The significance is historical. 'Patriarch' is originally a Biblical term used to describe a father or elder of the Church, while the title 'Ecumenical' goes back as far as the sixth century. We find its usage in the Law Code of the Emperor Justinian, who worked to re-unite the Eastern and Western Empires.
In later centuries, 'ecumenical' was used to refer to the seat of imperial power, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), which was referred to as the 'ecumenical didaskalos' (literally, teacher), in effect the 'ecumenical chair.'
Cracks in the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity started to widen more than 1000 years ago. In the 11th century, during the pontificate of Leo IX (1049-1054), a great schism arose between the western Catholic Church and the eastern Orthodox Church. Leo and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Kerullarios, fought over the influence of their respective Latin and Orthodox rites in southern Italy, which had once belonged to the Byzantine Empire.