October 8, 2010


The Middle East synod

The Synod of Bishops for the Middle East is taking place at the Vatican on Oct. 10-24.

Our news stories will, of course, report on what is discussed and decided at the synod, but we write about it again in this space—the last time was in our July 30 issue—because we believe it is imperative for Catholics throughout the world to recognize the plight of Catholics in the Middle East.

The war in Iraq had numerous unintended consequences. They continue today as it appears that the anti-American, hard-line Shiite group led by Muqtada al-Sadr, in

self-imposed exile in Iran, has become more influential. High on the list of unintended consequences is the fact that the war has resulted in persecution of Iraq’s Catholics and their exodus from Iraq to friendlier Jordan and Syria.

The threat to Chaldean Catholics was most blatant on June 3, 2007, when Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni and three subdeacons were killed in Mosul, and on Feb. 29, 2008, when Archbishop Paulos Faraz Rahho and three companions were abducted and murdered a few days later.

It is no wonder that thousands of Catholics are leaving Iraq. Fortunately, Jordan has taken them in—at least so far. King Abdullah II has guaranteed their safety. Bishop Selim Sayagh, the Latin patriarch’s vicar for Jordan, has said that Catholics’ encounters with Islam there practice the “dialogue of daily life” peacefully.

Nevertheless, we are eager to see what the synod will say about the predicament of Chaldean Catholics in Iraq.

Emigration from Middle Eastern countries is one topic being discussed. As we reported in our Oct. 1 issue, Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour of Haifa hopes that the synod will have much to say about why Christians should remain in the Middle East.

He said he hopes the Holy See will “encourage the local Christians here so they can really be aware of their role.”

Emigration has long been a problem for Catholics in the Middle East, where they live as a minority population among Jews in Israel and Muslims in Arab countries. For decades, they have been emigrating, mainly to Latin America, the United States, Australia, Canada and South Africa.

An editorial in the Oct. 4 issue of America magazine pointed out that some of the 22 Eastern Churches in communion with Rome are facing extinction because, when their members assimilate in their new countries, they are likely to lose their distinctive historic identities.

“Even when they remain Catholics, they are likely to join Roman Catholic congregations,” it said.

For example, the editorial said, there are now 300,000 Melkite Catholics in Argentina, but only three Melkite parishes.

However, the synod must also face up to the new problem of immigration in the Middle East. Unknown to most Catholics, the Roman Catholic population in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states has been increasing. Nearly 2 million Catholics now live in Saudi Arabia, mainly guest workers from the Philippines and South Asia.

Saudi Arabia, of course, prohibits any public observance of Christianity, which might be the biggest problem for the bishops at the synod. Surely, we will see a statement demanding religious freedom in the Middle East.

What will the synod say about Muslim extremism? Until recently, Catholics in the Middle East had been living with moderate Muslims for centuries and they would like to continue to do so. It is predictable that there will be a statement saying that Catholics are eager to live in peace with their Muslim neighbors but, in order for them to do so, the Muslims must clamp down on their extremists.

Finally, the synod will probably say something about the difficulties faced by the Christians who live in Israel. A Fundamental Agreement was reached between the Holy See and Israel in 1993, but Israel continues to refuse to put it into effect. Palestinian Christians constantly must live with restrictions that make it difficult for them to practice their faith, especially to visit Catholic sacred places.

The editorial in America said, “The rise of Islamic extremism and of Jewish radicalism has placed in doubt the possibility of continued

co-existence among the three Abrahamic faiths.”

That is why this synod is so important.

—John F. Fink

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