The Synod on the situation of the Catholic Churches in the Middle East, from Egypt to Iran, concluded on October 24 with a solemn Liturgy in Saint Peter's Basilica. Patriarchs, bishops, priests, and laity gathered together with an aide to the Sunni Grand Mufti of Lebanon, a rabbi from the Grand Rabbi of Israel, an Iranian Shiite professor to confront both the exodus of Christians out of the Near East and solutions to their problems at home so as to strengthen the Churches' witness in their countries and abroad. India's Eastern Catholics were also present, both the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankar Churches, both of whom have tens of thousands of faithful working in the Persian Gulf or settling in the Americas and Australia and lacking full pastoral care.
For the first time in a modern Synod, Eastern Catholics vastly outnumbered Roman or Latin Catholics:140 Eastern patriarchs and bishops versus 22 Latin bishops and the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. Usually we are seen as an exotic add-on, but this time we were not only the majority but the main presenters, and most of the church services were held according to the ancient rites followed by us. I would suggest that readers refer to the current issue of CNEWA's ONE magazine, at http://www.cnewa.us/default.aspx?ID=201&pagetypeID=3&sitecode=US&pageno=1 which lists all of the Near Eastern Catholic Churches and gives up-to-date information on their history, population, current problems, and future hopes in a readable format. ONE is a superb resource about Eastern Catholicism in general, and the magazine is a first-rate publication. Also http://www.cnewa.us/default.aspx?ID=3&pagetypeID=9&sitecode=US&pageno=1 gives basic information on all of the Eastern Catholic Churches around the world.
In 1900, twenty percent of the people living from Constantinople to the Persian frontier and in Egypt were Christians. Wahabi Islam was considered an obscure sect of the Arabian peninsula, shunned for its fanaticism Today, only 5.6 per cent of the Near East is Christian, and the numbers continue to drop. The violent genocides and massacres perpetrated against Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christians from 1915-1933 destroyed entire dioceses and Christian centers that were founded by the converts of the Apostles.
The carving up of the Middle East after 1918 by the British and French created permanent problems by failing to grant safe homelands to the Armenian and Assyrian survivors as promised, founding Lebanon as a very lonely island of tolerance, and betraying the Kurds and Arabs alike who had fought for liberation from the Turks based on unfulfilled promises of full independence. And Wahibi Islam not only dominates Saudi Arabia and the jihadist movements, but is being exported around the world.
Despite Christian involvement in secular national movements, and even in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the constant pressure from the Israeli-Palestinian situation and resurgent Islamic fundamentalism has continued to drive out the faithful or drive them to official conversion while often remaining Christian at heart. The Synod, which has been obscured by the broad media attention given to a few controversial sentences from one bishop, produced a series of serious propositions to the Holy Father and the universal Church in order to help both local Christianity and the Muslim states which are kept pluralist by the presence of strong Churches.
The first surprise of the Synod was the appeal to make Eastern Catholic patriarchs the automatic electors of the Catholic Pope; a patriarch is of a much higher status than any cardinal, although often the patriarchs are slighted at papal events. The second surprise was the proposition asking for both the allowance of the married priesthood to be fully exported to the Americas, Europe, and Australia-New Zealand, and the authority of the patriarchs to include eparchies in those territories.
The Holy See currently controls all of the creation of eparchies for Eastern Catholics outside of their homelands, a situation which is fast becoming impractical since so many now live abroad. A third surprise was the bluntness of most participants. The Malabar and Malankar bishops pointed out that their faithful are often denied pastoral care by local Roman Catholic prelates who only allow a mission status and do not encourage the creation of parishes and eparchies. Practically all of the Near Eastern representatives spoke honestly about the difficulties of daily life and spiritual life in the variety of Muslim states for Christian believers. There was open discussion about the situation of Christian life in Israel and the Palestinian territories, some claiming all was good and others pointing out difficulties that exist.
To no surprise, the Shi'ite Ayatollah Sayed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, did not believe that Christians are experiencing true oppression and cited traditional Muslim teachings about Christians and Jews living in peace with Muslims. However the aide to the Sunni Grand Mufti, Mohammed, al-Sammak, did surprise many with his observations that the emigration of Christians proves that the lack of democracy and authentic religious freedom is a serious problem in the Near East. The Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Shenouda III, whose followers number at least ten percent of Egyptians (and probably more than that), lamented that the synod has come "at a very late stage", citing the ongoing pressures faced in Egypt by all Christians, "to the point of martyrdom, marginalization and the feeling of being "non-native" citizens enduring discrimination at work and in political institutions and parliamentary and local councils."
The Synod presented forty-four propositions for the consideration of Pope Benedict. These include the aforementioned items of exporting patriarchal authority and allowing for the expansion of the married priesthood, to a broad range. Some of the most important points are:
a. Internal Renewal of the Churches: this can be accomplished through more intensive study of the Bible, asking for a Year of the Bible; retaining authentic Eastern Catholic spirituality and identity rather than Roman Catholic; a commission to unite all of the Catholic Churches in the region with regular meetings and true mutual support; encouraging seminarians to be missionaries at home and abroad; prayer and work for increase of vocations; better material support for the priests and for their families; greater responsibility among the laity for pastoral and educational work; renewal of consecrated life and new movements; greater use of women's talents and strengthening of Christian family life; better catechesis, homilies, schools and secular education; better use of internet and audiovisual media and use of Turkish and Farsi along with Arabic and Syriac; more youth programs and integration of youth into parishes; better implementation of Catholic Social Justice teaching.
b. Facing Persecution: They ask for an increase in foreign pilgrimages in the footsteps of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul to the Holy Land as a sign of support to the local Churches; recognition that the Christians of the Near East are participants in the Carrying of the Cross by Christ; more publicity in Catholic circles about the Eastern Catholic Churches and the situation of all Christians in the Near East through world prayer campaigns; support in keeping Christian-owned land in Christian hands to give the faithful economic sustenance and places to live; renewal of the monastic life to help strengthen Christians; use of social justice teachings;
c. Diaspora: Quick action on establishing proper eparchies for all emigrant communities out of the Near East and Indian Churches; pastoral help for immigrant foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf; programs to strengthen family life; religious education; more involvement of the youth.
d. Universal Church: recognize Arabic as a language to be used in world Catholicism and official church events and give a standard Arabic translation of important prayers; welcome emigrants and assist the laity, sisters and priests in establishing parishes and eparchies; better acceptance of married priests; more ecumenism on the local level with non-Catholic Christians; an honest and sincere dialogue with world Islam and local Islam; a common feast for all the martyrs of the Near Eastern Churches; environmental protection (deforestation and water supply in particular are a crisis in the Near East and northern Africa).
e. Ecumenism: In addition to working with fellow Christians, the Synod has proposed better understanding of Judaism and Islam in the Near Eastern Churches and a rejection of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism; promotion of positive dialogue with Muslims encouraging not only equal rights with Muslims but also knowledge of Islam, and working for full religious freedom and the true dignity of the human person against fundamentalism and terrorism.
The Synod's propositions concluded with an appeal to the Mother of God for her intercession and protection. Exactly one week after the closing Mass, jihadists stormed the Syriac Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad, the biggest Catholic church in the city, and butchered three priests and worshippers during the Qurbono, or Offering, the ancient Syriac Mass. A car bomb detonated outside the church (which had been attacked in 2006) and terrorists came in, shooting the priests immediately, according to survivors, and then shooting anyone who did not get down on the floor fast enough or who had the audacity to move slightly while prostrate.
The Iraqi police rescue operation resulted in more dead and severely wounded Catholics as the terrorists responded with both gunfire and the detonation of suicide bombs. The reason for slaughtering the supposedly protected "People of the Book" during a Sunday Mass? Two Coptic Orthodox women in Egypt who converted to Islam or were planning to convert were allegedly kidnapped by family members to encourage them to remain Christian. So, these Syriac Catholics paid for such a terrible affront to Islam. And Al-Qaeda wanted thirteen other terrorists released from jail -- so obviously defenseless Christians must pay.
The Synod was called by Pope Benedict XVI in order to assess the needs of Middle Eastern Christianity. This territory is literally the foundation of our Faith. Jesus walked in Palestine. Paul preached in Syria and Turkey. Jude was the evangelizer of Mesopotamia. Mark is the founder of the Church in Egypt. These people are our brothers and sisters through baptism and our mutual faith. The extended hand of the Catholic Churches was brutally rejected on Sunday evening by Islamic jihadists.
The world can not afford to ignore the Christians' plight, and many of the Synod's propositions should be acted upon by First World Catholics: pilgrimages of support to the Holy Land, full pastoral support to refugees and immigrants, scriptural renewal, and use of the internet and other media for both the New Evangelization and to educate the world about the Near Eastern Christians, and so break the silence that will slowly suffocate them without our help.
By Christopher Zugger
Rev. Christopher Zugger is a priest of the Byzantine Catholic eparchy of Van Nuys CA. He writes at http://frchriszugger.wordpress.com/books/ and is the author of Finding a Hidden Church.