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VATICAN LETTER Oct-1-2010 (1,060 words) Backgrounder. With photos with posted Sept. 28 and Oct. 1. xxxi

Unity and identity: Synod aims to bolster Middle East church presence

A man helps an altar server light a candle during Mass at the Melkite Catholic Church in the Bedouin village of Smakieh, Jordan, Sept. 19. The plight of Christian churches in the Middle East will be the focus of a Synod of Bishops at the Vatican this month. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican is setting the stage for another Synod of Bishops in mid-October, this one aimed at turning a spotlight on the Christian communities of the Middle East.

Synods are typically drawn-out affairs, requiring several years of planning and more years of follow-up. But there's a greater sense of urgency about this synod: Pope Benedict XVI convened it rather unexpectedly a year ago, after church leaders from the region -- particularly Iraq -- requested the special assembly.

The problems of the minority Christian churches in the Middle East are well-known. A short list would include the massive emigration of Christians, political and military conflict, economic hardship, travel restrictions, discrimination and interreligious tensions, especially in predominantly Muslim countries.

The pope decided a synod was needed when he visited the Holy Land last year. The papal visit briefly turned the church's attention to the daily struggles of Christian communities there; now the pope wants to bring those struggles to the heart of the universal church for more systematic discussion.

The synod will run Oct. 10-24 and focus 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.'" The quotation comes from the Acts of the Apostles, and reflects the unity of the early church -- something that plays into the agenda of this assembly.

As the Vatican explains it, the goal of the synod is to strengthen Christians in their faith identity and deepen communion among the mosaic of particular churches that exist in the region, so that they can witness the faith more effectively in their societies. Synod planners are underlining ecumenical cooperation as an essential aspect of credible Christian witness in the Middle East.

Representatives from other Christian churches have been invited to speak at the synod, and so have Jewish and Muslim guests. With Catholic representatives numbering well over 150, there will be many voices to hear in a relatively short time span.

To some extent, the Christian plight in the Middle East can be seen in numbers. According to estimates provided by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, there are about 16.5 million Christians in the Middle East today, representing 4.6 percent of the population. Of that number, 5.7 million are Catholics, or 1.6 percent of the total population.

Those numbers are down considerably from 100 years ago, and in some countries the drop has been steepest in recent years. In Iraq, Christians represented close to 7 percent of the population 30 years ago; now it's 1.2 percent. Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country with a Christian majority 40 years ago, but the Christian population today is thought to be well below 50 percent.

Syria and Jordan have also experienced widespread Christian emigration, and in the Palestinian territories of the Holy Land the Christian population is estimated by church officials at 200,000 -- and only 35,000 Catholics -- but many think the actual number might be much lower.

The synod will gather bishops and other participants from Middle Eastern countries that stretch from Egypt to Iran, as well as representatives from other countries. Pope Benedict has modified synod rules to allow for more free discussion, but the main topics of this assembly have already been distilled in preliminary documents:

-- Relations with Muslims. The crux here is religious freedom, and the synod's working document analyzed the problem in unusually blunt language. It said that in predominantly Muslim countries where Islam is the state religion or where Islamic law is applied in society, human rights are eroded.

"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," the document said.

-- Religious extremism. While being careful not to criticize Islam with too broad a brush, the synod's preparatory documents have underlined the threat posed by the rise of a radical "political Islam" that doesn't hesitate to resort to violence. The bishops are expected to call for joint Christian-Muslim action against extremist currents.

-- Regional political conflicts. In particular, the synod will hear reports from bishops in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will undoubtedly receive detailed discussion at the synod.

-- Emigration. The synod will examine the causes of what has been called a Christian "exodus" from the Middle East. In general, the bishops are convinced that peace and democracy, combined with economic development, will create social and cultural environments in which Christians no longer feel the need to leave.

At the same time, emigration is not being seen as a strictly negative phenomenon, because it has created a network of support around the world. The synod will also look at the more recent arrival of Christian immigrants from Africa and Asia, who are often subject to new forms of discrimination.

-- Relations with Judaism. The synod will discuss Catholic-Jewish relations, but in doing so will try to distinguish between the religious sentiments of anti-Judaism and the political animosity between Arabs and Jews.

-- Catholic educational and social services. Education is seen as the church's best investment for the future in the Middle East. Because its network of schools, hospitals and charity activities are open to all, they also demonstrate in concrete terms the church's openness and willingness to find common ground with Muslims and others. The bishops are likely to remind the universal church that these activities rely on outside assistance.

-- Changing religious and cultural values. The synod's preparatory documents have emphasized that the Middle East is not immune from the values -- or loss of values -- introduced by the mass media and electronic communications. This "ambiguity of modernity," as synod planners have termed it, is seen as a threat to Christians and is also an issue with many Muslims, who perceive it as a cultural invasion from the West. Protecting the nature and stability of the family is viewed as a particular concern by synod fathers.

-- Scripture. Finally, the synod is expected to underline the importance of Scripture in a biblical land, and urge Middle Eastern Catholics to read and reflect on the Bible in order to strengthen their historical identity.


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