IT'S THE CRADLE of Christianity,
the region where it was born and
from where it spread to the rest of
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"The risks of modernity," the document
states, "can easily destroy Christian
families, communities and entire
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
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
"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
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,"
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.