Special Assembly for the Middle East – Vatican

Last Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010, the special assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops started off with an eucharist celebration, and today, Monday, the opening session took place. While we have to wait and see what the meeting (continuing for another two weeks) will bring (see the link above, as well as the Vatican New Service: http://press.catholica.va/news_services/press/vis/englinde.php), it is worthwhile to note a few remarkable aspects of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document to which many of the Catholic bishops participating in the synod contributed by answering to questions posed to them from the Vatican.  

This document presents an interesting overview of themes and discussions characterizing Middle Eastern Catholic Christianity in its wide variety, consisting of ‘Roman’ (latin-rite) Catholics, but mostly of Eastern-rite Christians, like the Syrian-Catholics, the Chaldeans, the Maronites, the Armenian-Catholics and the Rum-Catholics (Melkites).

First, the document is clearly not intended to be a political document: it focuses on pastoral, ecclesiastical and ecumenical issues, referring to the fraught political situation in many countries merely as one of the causes for the high rates of emigration that characterize many Christian communities. It does, however, single out two regions where these vaguely described circumstances are particularly difficult: the Palestinian territories and Iraq. While some might think this unsatisfactory (and the document itself asks for more attention to the suffering of Christians in the Middle East), the caution is justified by difficulties in pinpointing the exact causes of violence in general and more specific religious violence in particular.

Second, the document, and, thus, the bishops, tend to put most to all of their efforts in motivating the Christian communities of the Middle East to stay and multiply, to engage in local societies, to put in their best to contribute to the ‘common good’, through educational and social projects, by resisting cultural and political marginalization, and by striving and supporting a ‘positive secularism’ that ensures not only freedom of religious worship (generally present in all but a few Middle Eastern countries), but also freedom of religious change – something much more contentious both from the perspective of majority Islam, but also from the Eastern churches themselves which fear the consequences of conversions to Evangelical churches almost as much as to Islam — it seems that most communities in the Middle East, be the Muslim, Christian or else, tend to value their communal religious identity over and above individual religious choice.

Third, somewhat circumspectively, the document also addresses the sometimes difficult ecumenical relationships between the various Eastern Catholic communities — here especially the Lebanese situation seems to be intended where conflicts between separatist communal identities (i.e. the Maronites) and the more universal Catholicism of the other Christian communities complicates rather than softens the difficult political situation.

Fourth, while the document speaks mostly to the situation of Christians in Arab/Muslim contexts – where the vast majority of bishops reside, it also includes, very explicitly references to the situation in Israel, and not only to those of the Arab-Palestinian Christians, but also to the fast-growing Hebrew-speaking community. While admittedly tensions between the anti-Zionism of much of the Arab Christians and the explicit Catholic rejection of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism exist, the document tries to do justice to various sides of the discussion, mostly by separating the ‘political’ anti-Zionism from the ‘theological’ anti-Judaism. Notably, this group of Hebrew-speaking Catholics consists for a large part of ‘new’ Catholics in the region: recent immigrants, legal and illegal, from Africa and Asia, especially the Philippines. This group also changed the fabric of Christianity in the Arab Peninsula, where many countries now, again have sizable Christian minorities.

Fifth, the importance of the diaspora communities is acknowledged explicitly, also by the inclusion of some of the bishops of the diaspora in the synod. One may expect some discussions to arise over this topic, because the document sees the diaspora communities mostly as serving those in the home countries – it would be interested to know how the churches in the diaspora think of their responbilities, especially those that have been present in the West already for over a century.   

Sixth, the document underlines the symbolic importance of the Middle East as the "cradle of Christianity".Thus its concern for a continuous Christian presence in the Middle East is not only a concern for the well-being of a vulnerable minority, not only a well-meant contribution to the welfare of wider Middle-Eastern society, but is also Christianity’s interest in maintaining a vital Christian presence in the lands of its birth, by supporting the ´living stones´ of the Christian community in the Holy Land, be in in Israel-Palestine proper, or in the wider Middle East. As such, it is also a dangerous concern that might easily backfire on the Christians of the Middle East — all too often they have been seen as pawns of Western and Christian ambitions in this region.

And finally: while the document is not speaking for all Middle-Eastern Christians (the majority of Christians in the Middle East belong to one of the Orthodox (‘Oriental’ or ‘Eastern’) churches, in addition to a variety of small Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, many of the concerns are shared by other Christians, which suffer from the same political and social pressures, which also see many of their flock, especially the younger and higher-educated ones migrate, which also are affected by the ambiguities of the contacts in wider global Christianity, and which view the developments in the Catholic Church sometimes with envy, sometimes with distrust and sometimes with hope.  

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