July 30, 2010


Church in the Middle East

Our July 2 issue of The Criterion featured a front-page article about the need for Catholics to strengthen the Church’s Middle East roots. It called attention to the special assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops that will be held in the Vatican on Oct. 10-24.

We Catholics of the Latin Rite often have a poor knowledge of the Catholic Church of the East. Today, it is in crisis, in large part because it exists in primarily Muslim countries.

Nevertheless, as Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, the general relator of the special assembly, said in The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan periodical, “The disappearance of the Eastern Church would be a loss for the universal Church as well as for the entire civil society of the Middle East.”

Historically, of course, Christianity began in the East. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325, there were three patriarchs—Antioch and Alexandria in the East and Rome in the West. Subsequent councils added more patriarchs. A patriarch, subject only to the pope, is the head of the faithful belonging to his rite throughout the world.

Today, there are two Latin Rite patriarchs—the pope and the Patriarch of Jerusalem—and six Eastern patriarchs—three for the Antiochene Rite (the Syrians, Maronites and Melkites), and one each for the Coptic, Chaldean and Armenian Rites.

The special assembly will have two main goals: to confirm and strengthen Christians in their identity, and to deepen communion among other Christians in the Middle East—the Orthodox Churches and Protestant communities. The ecumenical aspect is considered basic as is an interreligious aspect.

The document, called a lineamenta, prepared for the assembly says, “We have to strengthen the witness we give to Jews, Muslims, believers and non-believers.” It notes that Christians are a small minority in almost every part of the Middle East (with the exception of Lebanon), ranging from less than 1 percent in Iran and Turkey to 10 percent in Egypt. However, it says, Christians must not isolate themselves out of fear.

The political situation in the Middle East, obviously, will be discussed during the special assembly. The lineamenta says, “The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories makes daily life difficult with regard to freedom of movement, the economy and religious life.”

In Iraq, it says, the war made all Iraqis victims. However, because Christians represent the smallest and weakest part of Iraqi communities, they are among the principal victims, with world politics taking no notice. Many Christians have had to flee the country, and are now living as refugees in Syria and Jordan.

Religious freedom will be another large topic. Pope Benedict XVI has criticized Muslim states for their lack of religious freedom. Commenting on this aspect in The Holy Land Review, Father Samir said, “In my view, we cannot accept the limits placed on religious liberty. There is a right to announce the Gospel as there is a right to proclaim Islam, and there is an inalienable right to change religions. A legal fight is necessary to affirm these principles.”

He said that there is a need to educate the clergy and the faithful so that they stand up to the government to gain more justice. For example, he said, “More than 1 million Catholics live in Arabia, and they do not have the right to build a chapel at their own expense!”

Of utmost importance for the Eastern Church is keeping Christians in the Holy Land. As Pope Benedict said on June 25, the future of the Church there depends on the Christians “persevering in the faith and, despite numerous sacrifices, remaining in the land where they were born.”

Education seems to be the answer. Organizations in the United States—such as the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association—are providing scholarships for young Christians. The Franciscan Foundation has found that 70 percent of students who have graduated as a result of having received scholarships are now working in their respective professions or trades.

Those interested in reading the lineamenta for the special assembly online can find it at www.vatican.va.

—John F. Fink

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