Dear Blog Readers –
I traveled to the southern Italian city of Bari this weekend to cover a summit called by Pope Francis with Orthodox Patriarchs and leaders of Eastern Christian churches to discuss peace in the Middle East and the persecution of Christians in that region.
Bari, a port city that is roughly at the top of the heel of Italy’s boot, is known as a bridge city between East and West linking Catholics with their Orthodox Christian brothers. The center of that link is Bari’s Basilica of St. Nicholas, hidden amid the maze of alleys of Barivecchia, the old city. The basilica holds the relics of the 4th-century saint from Myra, once ancient Greece but now the Turkish city of Demre. Saint Nicholas is widely revered by Eastern Churches and the basilica continues to be a popular destination for pilgrimages by orthodox Christians. Last year after nearly one thousand years in Bari, the relics of St. Nicholas were flown to Russia on a loan from the Vatican. Hundreds of thousands of people lined up for hours to view them.
Saint Nicholas, known for his secret gift-giving, is more widely recognize in the west as the popular Christmas figure, Santa Claus (Saint Nick).
The day was well-choreographed with Pope Francis arriving at the basilica and greeting the 20 religious leaders on the doorstep before praying before the relics. That was followed by an evocative prayer ceremony on the seafront, the Pope dressed in white, surrounded by the Patriarchs in black, the sea breezes blowing their robes about them. The leaders delivered prayers for peace in the Middle East in eight languages – Italian, English, French, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Assyrian- and lit candles for peace.
Police estimated 70,000 people were lining the seafront and filling the nearby piazzas to take part in the event.
Following the prayer service, the religious leaders climbed onto an open-sided bus, looking a bit like they were on a school field trip, to go back to the basilica where they sat down for a two-hour meeting to discuss problems in the Mideast from Syria to Jerusalem.
Emerging from the meeting, Pope Francis delivered a blistering attack on the powerful who have used the Mideast for their own profits, on those who stockpile weapons, on fundamentalism, on fanaticism and the thirst for supremacy. Here is a key passage:
“..it is essential that those in power choose finally and decisively to work for true peace and not for their own interests. Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many! No more occupying territories and thus tearing people apart! No more letting half-truths continue to frustrate people’s aspirations! Let there be an end to using the Middle East for gains that have nothing to do with the Middle East!
War is the scourge that tragically assails this beloved region. The poor are its principal victims. Let us think only of war-torn Syria. War is the daughter of power and poverty. It is defeated by renouncing the thirst for supremacy and by eradicating poverty. So many conflicts have been stoked too by forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism that, under the guise of religion, have profaned God’s name – which is peace – and persecuted age-old neighbours. Violence is always fueled by weapons. You cannot speak of peace while you are secretly racing to stockpile new arms. This is a most serious responsibility weighing on the conscience of nations, especially the most powerful. Let us not forget the last century. Let us not forget the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
He spoke about Jerusalem and Syria, about children and poverty and the persecution of Christians.
At the end, the leaders released doves brought to them by children from Bari.
But enough on the news, which has already been reported. Here is a bit of behind-the-scenes with the journalists, camerapersons and photographers covering the event.
I travelled down on a train from Rome with AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara and photographer Alessandra Tarantino. Several other international news agency staffers were on our train and including AFP photographer Alberto Pizzoli. Alberto explained to us that he had inherited the “Bible” from renowned Vatican photographer Giancarlo Giuliani who travelled the world covering Popes starting in the 1960s and put together a list of the best restaurants in all the cities the Popes visited. Pizzoli had plumed the pages of Giuliani’s restaurant bible and found “Le Terrazze del Santalucia” in Bari, known for its fabulous fish dishes, and had booked a table for ten.
Friday night I found myself slurping up the insides of sea urchins, getting lessons on how to suck the meat out of a prawn’s head, and throwing back glass after glass of chilled white wine while waves slapped up against the seawall nearby. In the distance, we could see Coast Guard and police boats patrolling the waters ahead of the Pope’s morning arrival.
Here is a photo of my little “Riccio del Mare” – directly translated “sea hedgehog” or correctly translated “sea urchin” – on my very white plate.
It was a late evening, making the 5am wakeup call a little difficult. The police opened the gateways for journalists at dawn and closed them at 6:30am. We dragged our equipment – cameras, tripods, cables, computers…down the seafront, passing scouts handing out bottles of water. We stopped to get bottles from a girl scout, but she insisted she had to take the cap off and throw it away before giving us a bottle. “Safety rule,” she shrugged. We weren’t sure what the danger in closed plastic water bottles could be, but did not have time to argue and left the water behind as we made our way past giant cement New Jersey traffic blocks towards our position.