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Synod Spotlights the Church in the Middle East
By Doreen Abi Raad
Bishops from around the world meet this month to discuss the urgent challenges facing the Church there. A reporter from Lebanon provides background.

Q U I C K S C A N

Two Objectives of the Synod
Every Church Needs a Mission
Situation in the Holy Land
The Varied Fabric of Christianity
Christian Immigration inthe Middle East
The Ambiguity of Modernity
Unity With Sister Churches
Hopes for the Future
A Different Kind of Synod


IT'S THE CRADLE of Christianity, the region where it was born and from where it spread to the rest of the world.

But Christians in the Middle East are losing ground day by day. Faced with fear, uncertainty about their future and outright extermination, as in Iraq, they often see no other choice but to leave the land of their birth.

Many factors are pushing Christians out of the region: widespread Islamization, especially in Egypt; the worsening political situation in all the countries; the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the war in Iraq; limited economic opportunities and a lack of unity among their Churches.

Their plight prompted Pope Benedict XVI to convoke a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Church in the Middle East (October 10–24) on the theme "The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. 'Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul' (Acts 4:32)." (See "A Different Kind of Synod.") This synod will serve as a wake-up call for the worldwide Church.

During his apostolic visit to Cyprus in June, Pope Benedict presented the synod's working document to representatives from the Latin-rite, Maronite, Melkite, Armenian, Coptic, Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Churches in countries from Egypt to Iran to Turkey.

The pope prayed for "just and lasting solutions" to the region's conflicts. "I reiterate my personal appeal for an urgent and concerted international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land, before such conflicts lead to greater bloodshed," he said.

Special synods such as this upcoming one were instituted by Pope Paul VI to help the Church address a particular area and draw up recommendations for later action.

The synod's timetable reflects the urgency of the situation. While most synods usually involve two to three years of preparation, this one was announced on September 19, 2009, after a meeting with the patriarchs and major archbishops of the East.

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Two Objectives of the Synod

According to the working document, the objectives of this assembly are: first, to confirm and strengthen the members of the Catholic Church in their Christian identity; and second, to foster ecclesial communion among the Churches so that they can bear witness to the Christian life in an "authentic, joyous and winsome manner."

"We're going to plead for our real survival as Christians in this region, for the whole Universal Church," Syrian Patriarch Ignace Youssif III Younan of Antioch told this reporter. He and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, are the assembly's president-delegates.

"We're not scared, because we have to put our trust and confidence in the Lord, who promised to be with us," the patriarch says. "However, we have to work with the Lord in wisdom, to look at the reality and to learn from the history and to work building a future with more justice and equality for all."

This synod is important for Christians throughout the world, Father Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., told St. Anthony Messenger. He wrote its working document, based on more than 100 responses to the preliminary questionnaire sent to patriarchs, episcopal conferences, offices of the Holy See and heads of religious congretations.

Father Samir teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut and is founder of the CEDRAC (Center for Documentation and Research on Arab Christianity).

Pope John Paul II had likened the Church to having two "lungs"—Eastern and Western—necessary for its very survival. "The Eastern 'lung' is dying, so it's dangerous for the whole Church," says Father Samir.

The Christian presence in the Middle East helps Muslims, says the Jesuit priest, who has authored more than 50 books, including 111 Questions on Islam (Ignatius). "As long as the Muslims live in a multicultural or multireligious area, they are more open; they have to examine their opinions with others. But when they are only among Muslims, as in Saudi Arabia, they tend to become more fanatic. They see all others as atheists or irreligious people, even if they are Christians or from other religions," says Father Samir.

The synod's working document notes the rise of political Islam since 1970 in the region, which has at least an indirect impact on the psyche of Christians there. These Muslim groups maintain that the cause of every evil has been the failure to follow Islamic teaching.

"In some countries, the State is Islamic and sharia [Islamic law] is applied in not only private life but also society, even for non-Muslims, with the consequent deprivation of human rights," the working document states. "Islamic States generally do not recognize religious freedom and freedom of conscience, instead they acknowledge freedom of worship, which excludes the freedom to preach a religion different from Islam, much less embrace a religion other than Islam. Furthermore, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, attacks against Christians are increasing almost everywhere."

As a result, Christians are making a ghetto for spiritual protection, Father Samir warns; they are losing a sense of mission. "We live together within a spiritual wall without contact with Muslims and others," he says.

Pointing out that "a Church without a mission is a poor Church," Louis Sako, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk, Iraq, e-mailed St. Anthony Messenger that liturgical reform and pastoral work should be efficient and respond to the needs of the faithful today, yet at the same time these should reflect fidelity to their traditions.

This October 10–24 meeting at the Vatican is a special assembly of the World Synod of Bishops. Its approximately 250 voters will come mostly from the Middle East but will also include representatives from around the world. Because of this synod's theme, there may be more fraternal delegates from the Orthodox Churches than has been the case at previous synods. There will also be Muslim and Jewish observers.

Pope Benedict XVI has appointed Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, as recording secretary and Maronite Archbishop Joseph Soueif of Cyprus as its special secretary.

The synod's preliminary questionnaire and working document are available at the Synod of Bishops' section of www.vatican.va. News bulletins will be posted there once the synod begins.

Archbishop Sako was instrumental in spearheading the synod, asking the pope in January 2008 to convene one. "Human bleeding is threatening the Christian presence in the area," he explains. "It is a disaster that with their departure will go their history, heritage, liturgies, spirituality and witness."

Archbishop Sako knows all too well the suffering of his diminishing flock in Iraq, where Christians totaled about 800,000 before the 1991–2003 embargo. That number has now been reduced by half, mostly through emigration. More than 820 Christians have been killed since the United States invaded Iraq. This number includes one bishop, three priests, a Presbyterian member of the church council and four subdeacons. Also, 10 priests have been kidnapped and released for ransom.

Iraqi Christians seeking refuge in neighboring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon have witnessed killings, kidnappings or threats back home.

The synod's working document states: "In Iraq, the war has unleashed evil forces within the country, within political movements and religious confessions and has made all Iraqis victims. However, since Christians represent the smallest and weakest part of Iraqi society, they are the principal victims of violence, a fact which is not given sufficient attention in world politics."

According to the working document, "The Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories is creating difficulties in everyday life, inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life (access to the Holy Places is dependent on military permission which is granted to some and denied to others on security grounds).

"Moreover, certain Christian fundamentalist theologies use Sacred Scripture to justify the political injustice imposed on the Palestinians, making the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue."

Michel Sabbah, the Latin-rite patriarch emeritus of Jerusalem, will play a prominent role in the synod. He spoke at a May conference held in Beirut on "The Future of Eastern Christians." Their future, Sabbah said, "is shaped by internal political and social factors in which religion exerts its own influence, but also by a powerful external element, namely, international politics, which does not take into account the presence of Christians in its plans for the region."

In Egypt, Coptic Christians represent about 10 percent of the population. Father Samir, who was born in Egypt, recalls the 1950s as a wonderful time for Christians. "We were esteemed," he recalls. Then came the Islamization of the 1970s.

Now Egypt's Christians are regularly attacked. Six Coptic Christians were killed and nine wounded in a drive-by shooting as they came out of church after celebrating Mass last January 6. Other attacks have occurred inside churches. Christians are also discriminated against and cannot work in some professions.

In Jordan, Christians represent three percent of the population. Their political participation is guaranteed by the constitution, with nine seats in parliament and one to three ministers in every government cabinet. The current vice prime minister is a Christian. The Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem, for example, runs 24 schools in Jordan, each open to Muslims and Christians.

Although no official census has been taken since the 1930s in Lebanon, by far it has the most Christians of any Middle East country, about 33 percent of the population. Christians can practice their religion, and this year the Lebanese government instituted a Muslim-Christian national holiday on the Feast of the Annunciation to honor the Blessed Mother.

Lebanon's constitution requires that the president be a Maronite Catholic. Some Christians lean more toward Western superpowers and others toward the Arab world.

Of great pride and hope for Lebanese Christians was the beatification last June 27 of Brother Estfan Nehmé, a Maronite Catholic monk. Two more beatifications for Lebanese were announced that day, to follow the footsteps of Lebanon's Blessed Yacoob Haddad and Saints Charbel, Rafka and Nimatullah Youssef Al-Hardini.

"In Lebanon, it's the fear of the future. We're in an area where there's no stability and there's fear of this Islamic movement. It's a wave: You see the wave coming. The wave is not yet in your country, but you feel it could come," says Father Samir.

Immigration is also a concern in the region, with millions of Christians from Africa and Asia coming to the Middle East for work, often trading spiritual nourishment for a chance to send money back home.

Saudi Arabia has about a million Christians, mostly from the Philippines, employed as domestic workers. They can't go to Mass or even eat between sunrise and sunset during the Muslim fast of Ramadan.

"They are often treated very badly, and their countries are too poor to defend them," Father Samir says. "It's a pity the Church is not taking seriously these phenomena."

Modernity is also a problem for the Churches of the East, both internally and externally. While modernity has a certain appeal "because of the prospects of material well-being and the end to oppressing cultural or spiritual traditions," the synod's working document states, modernity also represents "the struggle for justice and equality, the defense of the rights of [the] weakest, equal status among men and women as well as believers and nonbelievers and the recognition of human rights, all of which are values demonstrating the immense progress made by humanity.

"On the other hand, 'modernity' to most Muslim believers is perceived to be atheistic and immoral and a cultural invasion, threatening them and upsetting their value system. Many do not know how to react to this phenomenon, while some fight against it with every fiber of their being.

"Modernity is also a risk for Christians. Christian communities are likewise threatened by a lack of a sense of God, atheism, materialism and, especially, relativism and an attitude of indifference.

"The risks of modernity," the document states, "can easily destroy Christian families, communities and entire Churches."

Pointing to the mosaic of Churches in the Middle East—including the various Catholic rites as well as Orthodox—Patriarch Younan says that, until now, they have largely focused on their individuality.

Yet in Lebanon, for example, marriages between Catholic and Orthodox Christians are common. Among the 12 Christian communities represented in Lebanon, three are Orthodox, eight are Catholic and Protestants account for the rest.

"We may be different in our rites, the liturgical language and heritage. But we have to think that we all are baptized in the same Universal Church, that we are members of the Body of Christ," Patriarch Younan says. Christian unity, he stresses, can be an important witness, especially to Muslims.

Archbishop Sako explains that it's important to restore unity between Orthodox and Catholics, "particularly since dogmatically they are united.

"We are small Churches, but without unity there will be no future for us," he says, noting that a lack of unity weakens the Church's communion and witness. Also, Muslims don't always understand the divisions among Christians.

"The Christians of the East must act together and look together for the future. Unity is not a choice here: It is a must, if the Christians want to keep their presence in the holy lands," stresses Father Rif'at Bader, director of the Catholic Media Center in Jordan.

While Father Samir says he expects the fruits of the synod to evolve slowly, "At least the synod means we want to stop and think together and take decisions for the future. It will not be a revolution."

Father Bader told St. Anthony Messenger that he hopes the synod "will be not only a renovation of the Christians—and not only the Catholic communities—but will also promote reconciliation and more mutual understanding and sincere collaboration, among the Churches from one side and among the different religions from another side. Hope is the key for this synod....The Christians in the East depend on this virtue: hope."

Patriarch Younan describes the Synod of the Middle East as a "wake-up call" for the West, as well. "It's time that Western civilizations—mostly the Americas and Europe—care more about their brethren in the Middle East.

"We don't need, as Christians, the bread [money] to survive. We need the upholding of our human rights, not only by words, but it has to be followed up with realistic, concrete steps," he affirms.

In its conclusion, the synod's working document states: "Despite the fact that both pastors and the faithful might oftentimes be tempted to discouragement, we must remember that we are disciples of the Risen Christ, who conquered sin and death. We have a future! We must firmly grasp it!

"Today, the Lord Jesus can again say to Christians in the Middle East: 'Do not be afraid, little flock!' (Luke 12:32). You have a mission; the growth of your country and the vitality of your Church depend on you.

"This will only be achieved with peace, justice and equality for all citizens!"

 


Doreen Abi Raad, based in Lebanon, has written for Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Register. An American Roman Catholic married to a Lebanese Maronite Catholic, she and her husband have two teenage daughters.


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