Archbishop returns from visit to Armenia, Syria and Lebanon

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has returned from a visit to Armenia, Syria and Lebanon.

His gruelling schedule of visits, meetings and services included time with senior politicians, Church leaders, senior Muslim clerics, refugees and communities and community projects ranging from prison inmates and chaplains in Armenia.

He also met people with learning disabilities living in a L'Arche community in Damascus, and first, second and third generation refugees living in one of the Palestinian camps outside Beirut.

In an 80-minute meeting, the Archbishop heard first hand from the President of Syria, His Excellency Dr Bashar al Asad, how Syria was dealing with major instability in the region.

Their discussions covered the prospects for moves towards peace in the region, the importance of the freedom of expression of religion in society and models of religious pluralism, and the growing problem of refugees fleeing from the violence in Iraq.

Meanwhile, in a "harrowing" meeting with around 300 Iraqi Christian refugees at the Syrian Orthodox monastery at Ma'aret Sednaya the Archbishop heard first hand the plight of some of the one and a half million refugees who have fled Iraq for Syria since 2003.

He told the refugees, "The events of the last few years have done terrible damage in the whole of this region and many people, I know, do not see the cost in human terms of the war which was unleashed," he said.

"So for me to be here is to gain an opportunity when I return to say something about what you have endured. I do so in the hope and in the daily prayer that we may yet find a solution that will be just and good for all of you."

In Lebanon, the Archbishop met Palestinian refugees at the Dibayeh camp outside Beirut. Most had lived there, or in other camps, all their adult lives, some since 1948. Others had been born and raised their own children in the camp.

Despite the best efforts of some of aid agencies, support for the camps is drying up. The Archbishop will raise the question of better coordination of aid to the camps with aid agencies.

The Archbishop had discussions with a number of Muslim religious leaders in Syria and Lebanon. Discussions with the Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmad Hassun concerned issues internal to Syria and focussed on the secular character of the Syrian constitution within which the ancient Christian communities and churches of Syria enjoy freedom of religious expression.

In Lebanon, separate meetings were held with the Grand Mufti Sheikh Qabani and the Head of the Shia Council Sheikh Qabalan. The Archbishop spoke on Muslim-Christian dialogue at an inter faith seminar arranged by the Near East School of Theology in Beirut.

The visit was an opportunity to build on existing ecumenical contacts with a wide range of heads of Church. In Armenia, the Archbishop signed a joint communiqué with Catholicos of All Armenians , HH Karekin II, committing their churches to an early resumption of the theological dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the family of Orthodox Oriental Churches.

During his visit, Dr Williams was able to discuss practical steps towards this goal with other members of the Oriental Orthodox family, whose agreement is needed for the dialogue to resume.

In Syria and Lebanon, the Archbishop spent time with other Church leaders, including the Patriarchs of Antioch and All the East for the Greek Orthodox , HB Ignatius IV, the Syrian Orthodox, HH Zakka I, the Maronites, HB Cardinbal Sfeir, and the Melkite Greek Catholics, HB Gregorios III, as well as the Armenian Catholicos of Cilicia, HH Aram I. These encounters enabled the Archbishop and those accompanying him, to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges facing these communities.

The Archbishop, together with Catholicos Karekin II and members of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches laid a wreath at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, where the Archbishop also planted a tree. He had the honour of talks with the Armenian, President His Excellency Robert S Kocharian, and Prime Minister His Excellency Serz Sargsyan.

The Archbishop was accompanied on this visit by the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, the Rt Rev Geoffrey Rowell and the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev David Stancliffe . In addition the Bishop of Warwick, the Rt Rev John Stroyan joined the Archbishop in Syria and the Bishop of Woolwich, the Rt Rev Christopher Chessun, in Lebanon, each having spent about a week in those countries as part of the wider preparations for the visit.