Acceding to the request of many Middle Eastern bishops, Pope Benedict announced in September 2009 that a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East would take place in October 2010. After consultation, Pope Benedict unveiled the synod’s insrumentum laboris (working document) during his apostolic journey to Cyprus in June.
The two highest-ranking officials of any synod of bishops are the Holy Father (who serves as the synod’s president) and the synod’s secretary general, since 2004 the Croatian Archbishop Nikola Eterović. Pope Benedict appointed four “presidents delegate”— two of them honorary—to run the synod on a day-to-day basis. Three of the four were Eastern Catholic patriarchs, and the other was Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. There were 185 synod fathers in all, including the heads of all 101 dioceses and other ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the Middle East, as well as the heads of the 23 jurisdictions of Middle Eastern Christians who live outside their native lands.
The synod opened on Sunday, October 10, as Pope Benedict XVI concelebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with most of the synod fathers. “We give thanks to the Lord of history, because, despite the often difficult and tormented events, he has allowed the Middle East to see, from the time of Jesus all the way up to today, a continuity in the presence of Christians,” the Pope said. “In those lands, the one Church of Christ is expressed in the variety of liturgical, spiritual, cultural, and teaching traditions of the six venerable Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris [of one’s own law], as well as in the Latin tradition.”
Pope Benedict was referring to the Maronite Catholic Church (3.2 million members), centered in Lebanon, which has always been in union with the Holy See, and to five other Eastern Catholic Churches:
• the Chaldean Catholic Church (445,000 members), which formed when some members of the Assyrian Church of the East sought full communion with the Holy See rather than going into schism following the Council of Ephesus (431);
• the Armenian Catholic Church (696,000 members), the Coptic Catholic Church (166,000 members), and the Syrian Catholic Church (164,000 members), formed when members of three Oriental Orthodox Churches at different times sought full communion with the Holy See (the Oriental Orthodox Churches went into schism following the Council of Chalcedon in 451);
• the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (1.6 million members), formed when Greek Orthodox in Antioch sought full communion. The Great Schism of 1054 had separated the Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox Churches from the See of Peter.
The purpose of the synod, Pope Benedict explained, was to foster the communion and witness of Catholics in the Middle East: “Without communion there can be no witness: the life of communion is truly the great witness. Jesus said it clearly: ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”
“In these countries, unfortunately marked by deep divisions and lacerated by years of conflict, the Church is called upon to be the sign and the instrument of unity and reconciliation, modeled on the first communities in Jerusalem,” the Pontiff said later in his Sunday Angelus address.
Following the celebration of Terce and the chanting of the Veni, Creator Spiritus, the synod began its deliberations on October 11 with a Marian reflection by the Holy Father. Turning to the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 12, in which the woman clothed with the sun gives birth with a cry of pain, the Pontiff said that “Christ is always reborn in all generations and … this cosmic birth is achieved in the cry of the Cross, in the suffering of the Passion. And the blood of martyrs belongs to this cry of the Cross.” Through the suffering of God’s people, false gods— including the contemporary false gods of mammon, terrorism, drugs, and promiscuity— lose their power.
Cardinal Sandri then spoke, noting that martyrdom has united Eastern Christians throughout history. “Catholics along with other Christians still endure hostility, persecution, and the lack of respect for the fundamental right of religious freedom.”
Archbishop Eterović then presented a lengthy report on the number of believers in the Middle East. Of the 356.2 million people in the Middle East’s 16 nations, 5.7 million (1.6 percent) are Catholic; in addition, there are some 14 million non-Catholic Christians. Despite its small size, the Catholic Church in the Middle East operates 686 nursery schools, 1,417 primary and secondary schools, and 13 institutes of higher learning, along with 544 health care institutions.
Eterović noted that in the nine nations in the region with a long-time Christian presence, the percentage of Catholics fell from 1.4 percent in 1980 to 1.1 percent in 2008, even as the absolute number of Catholics rose. However, in the seven other nations of the Middle East, the percentage of Catholics has nearly quadrupled from 1.1 percent to 4.1 percent, principally through the presence of foreign workers from the Philippines, India, and other nations. In 2008, Catholics made up an astounding 12 percent of the population in the United Arab Emirates, 11 percent in Kuwait, 7 percent in Qatar, and 5 percent in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Then came the relatio ante disceptationem (report before the discussion), a lengthy talk that inevitably draws worldwide attention to the relator general appointed by the Pontiff. Cardinals Marc Ouellet of Quebec and Peter Turkson of Ghana, who served in this role during the previous two synods, were subsequently named heads of Vatican dicasteries.
The relator general at this synod was Patriarch Antonios Naguib, the 75-yearold head of the Coptic Catholic Church; on the synod’s 11th day, the Holy Father named the patriarch a cardinal. In his French-language address, Patriarch Naguib largely adhered to the synod’s working document as he discussed the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East. Referring to the region’s troubled political situation, he said:
In the Palestinian Territories, life is very difficult and often unsustainable. The position of Christian Arabs is a very delicate one. While condemning violence whatever its origin and calling for a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we express our solidarity with the Palestinian people, whose situation today is particularly conducive to the rise of fundamentalism. Listening to the voice of local Christians could help in better understanding the situation …
In most of our countries, freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution. But even in this case, certain laws or practices in some countries limit its application. Those who wish to follow the Gospel … fear various acts of harassment to themselves and their families … Since 1970, we have witnessed the rise of political Islam in the region, consisting of many different religious currents, which has affected Christians, especially in the Arab world. This phenomenon seeks to impose the Islamic way of life on all citizens, at times using violent methods, thus becoming a threat which we must face together.
“Generally speaking, the West is identified with Christianity, and thus, the choices made by Western countries are wrongly taken as those of the Church, despite the fact that today, these governments are secular and increasingly opposed to the principles of the Christian faith,” the patriarch noted. “Modernity is a threat also for Christians, bringing the dangers of materialism, practical atheism, relativism, and indifference, and threatening our families, our societies, and our Churches.”
The patriarch also discussed the possibility of liturgical reform in the Eastern rites. In doing so, he was not making a novel proposal, but was simply quoting the synod’s instrumentum laboris. According to the synod’s working document, most Eastern Catholic leaders desire that the sacred liturgy be celebrated more widely in the vernacular (typically Arabic), and many desire adapted liturgies for children and youth.
The synod fathers then had the opportunity to speak; each was allotted five minutes. “During the 20 past centuries our Christians from the Holy Land were likewise condemned and privileged to share oppression, persecution, and suffering with Christ,” said Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour of Israel. “They still live under daily threats from officials who dream [about] continuing the transfer of our minority, away from their lands … away from their ancestral homeland.”
“In 1915, hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians were deported violently from their countries, and they faced the first genocide in the 20th century, by the Ottomans,” added Armenian Archbishop Boutros Marayati of Syria. “These acts continued with the Palestinian events, the civil war in Lebanon, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the invasion of Iraq . . . Christians are martyred, forced to emigrate . . . Are we waiting for the day where the world as a spectator, amidst the indifference of the Western churches, will sit back and watch the death of the Christians of the East?”
The following day, several prelates expanded on themes mentioned the previous day. Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, rejoiced that many non-Christians are among the 600,000 students at Mideast Catholic schools but cautioned that “this does not mean, however, silencing the Christian values on which the Catholic educational system is founded, nor the weakening of its own specific identity and Christian mission.” Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, urged bishops to be more open to new ecclesial movements in order to foster the Church’s missionary vitality.
Latin-rite Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Iraq expressed concern that attitudes rooted in “primitive Arab- Islamic structures” at times seem to transform the different Catholic rites into separate denominations. The various rites, he said, must “disengage from this historical heritage to find the model of the [original Christian] community of Jerusalem.”
While several bishops throughout the course of the synod attributed Christian emigration to political instability, some faulted the “greed” of local Christians who wish to seek wealth in the West. “I strongly state that many of our socalled Christian families have a vital need for re-evangelization and [need] to personally embrace the forgiveness and mercy of God,” said Melkite Archbishop Joseph Zerey of Jerusalem. Maronite Archbishop Basile Camoussa of Iraq also lamented the “alarming decrease of births among Christians, faced with an ever-growing natality among Muslims,” along with “the unjust accusation against Christians of being troops loaned or led by and for the so-called Christian West, and thus considered as a parasite in the nation.”
Coptic Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Egypt was the first of several Eastern prelates to sound a new theme: he urged that Eastern Catholic patriarchs be granted full jurisdiction over Eastern Catholics outside their historic territory. “Since the 1930s there has been a ban on the ordination of and the practice of the ministry by married priests outside the territories of the patriarchate and the historically Eastern regions,” Bishop Mina added. “I think, in line with whatever the Holy Father decides, that the time has come to take this step in favor of the pastoral care of the Eastern faithful throughout the diaspora.”
Speaking on behalf of the Indiabased Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Bishop Bosco Puthur criticized a 2003 decision of Pope John Paul II, renewed by Pope Benedict in 2006, to entrust to local Latin-rite ordinaries the jurisdiction of the almost 430,000 Syro-Malabar migrant workers on the Arabian Peninsula. “The local ordinaries are neither able nor adequately prepared to give proper pastoral care as per the heritage of the individual Church,” said Bishop Puthur. “Not even a single parish is erected for them.”
Latin-rite Bishop Paul Hinder, one of the two bishops on the Arabian Peninsula, defended the decision of recent popes to entrust the pastoral care of Eastern Catholics to the Latin hierarchy. The decision “has helped to maintain and promote unity, to avoid fragmentation, and to provide the best possible pastoral ministry to all the Catholic faithful,” he said.
The day’s deliberations concluded with an address from Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee. Lauding the progress in Jewish- Catholic relations under Popes John Paul and Benedict, he expressed sympathy for Palestinian Christians who suffer from Israeli security measures but added that “those who claim that ‘occupation’ [of Jordanian territory by Israel following the 1967 war] is the ‘root cause’ of conflict are at best disingenuous … The real ‘root issue’ … is precisely whether the Arab world can tolerate a non-Arab sovereign polity within its midst.”
Lamenting that only one Middle Eastern nation (Lebanon) permits Muslims to convert to Christianity, American Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Bustros made a novel proposal. The Koran, he noted, teaches that “there shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” On the other hand, a post-Koranic saying attributed to Mohammed states, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.” The Church, said Archbishop Bustros, ought to engage in dialogue with “enlightened Muslims” to determine whether the latter saying truly comes from Mohammed and, if it does, to interpret it “in its historical context.” “Today’s Muslim society has nothing to fear from the passage of some Muslims to Christianity,” the archbishop added.
Speaking of the extreme difficulties the Church faces in some parts of the Middle East, Iranian Chaldean Archbishop Thomas Miram said that “the Christian bears his cross every day and continues as on the road to Golgotha and gives living and silent witness, and this silent witness is a loud shout which echoes … the Christian hears every day from loudspeakers, television, newspapers, and magazines that he is an infidel, and he is treated as a second-class citizen … Despite continuous emigration and the small number of Catholics, we see today vocations increase and the Church in Iran, like a tree, has new leaves and bears fruit.”
“The attack that is coming from the West and the Muslim influx against the family, the possibility of divorce and emigration, the spread of contraceptives, the legalization of abortion, family planning or birth control, the spread and the business of pornography, all this leads to a new vision of the family,” added Chaldean Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Iraq. “Here, too, large families are on the wane and the secular vision where man plans everything is dominant.”
Archbishop Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, noted that when Eastern Catholics convert to Orthodoxy or Islam, it is often because they wish to divorce. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris gently asked the Holy See to reconsider the “firm rule” that “a priest from an Eastern Catholic Church who is married cannot receive the pastoral mission in Latin territories.”
Day 5 of the synod concluded with reflections from two Muslims. Muhammad Al-Sammak, a Sunni Muslim from Lebanon, said that Muslims have the duty to ensure a Christian presence in the Middle East. Iranian Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi told the synod fathers that “in most Islamic countries, notably Iran, as it has been stipulated also by law, Christians live side by side and in peace with their Muslim brothers. They enjoy all legal rights like other citizens and perform their religious practices freely.”
On October 15, several Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox prelates addressed the synod. While most of the speakers were irenic, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Georges Khodre of Lebanon strongly criticized the Eastern Catholic practice of praying for the pope during the sacred liturgy.
Later, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka of Baghdad said that 400,000 of Iraq’s 800,000 Christians have fled since 2003. His words, spoken more than two weeks before militants linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq killed 58 worshipers and injured at least 75 more in an attack on the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad on October 31, are particularly chilling in light of the events that would follow in just a few weeks:
The invasion of Iraq by America and its allies brought to Iraq in general, and especially to its Christians, destruction and ruin on all levels. Churches were blown up, bishops and priests and lay persons were massacred, many were the victims of aggression. Doctors and businessmen were kidnapped, others were threatened, storage places and homes were pillaged … Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world conscience? All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians.
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, on the other hand, offered an almost upbeat picture of Christian life in Iraq:
The population of this country, crossed by two famous rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, is 24 million, all Muslims, with whom we live peacefully and freely … We have the freedom of religion in our churches.The bishop or priest, the religious leader is listened to and respected by his fellow citizens.
Echoing many synod fathers, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, called for a religious freedomthat extended beyond worship to public life.
During the ensuing days, synod fathers worked on their final message and the propositions they would send to the Holy Father. The synod reached its midway point on October 17 when Pope Benedict canonized six saints. The next day, Coptic Catholic Patriarch Antonios Naguib delivered the relatio post disceptationem (speech after the discussion), in which he summarized at length the speeches of the previous days. He noted:
We must not argue with Muslims but love them, hoping to elicit reciprocity from their hearts. Before disputing about what separates us, let us meet on what unites us, especially as regards human dignity and the construction of a better world. It is necessary to avoid any provocative, offensive, humiliating action, and any anti-Islamic attitude. To be authentic, dialogue must take place in truth. Dialogue is a testimony in truth and love. It is necessary to speak frankly about the truth, the problems and the difficulties, in a respectful and charitable way … Religious freedom is fundamental to healthy relations between Muslims and Christians. It should be a main theme in interreligious dialogue. We would wish that the Koranic principle “no constraint in religion” should really be put into practice.
In a written contribution to the synod deliberations, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Raboula Antoine Beylouni, who is based in Lebanon, boldly critiqued the Koran.
In the Koran, men and women are not equal, not even in marriage itself where the man takes several wives and can divorce at his pleasure; nor in the heritage where man takes double; nor in the testifying before judges where the voice of one man is equal to the voice of two women.
The Koran allows the Muslim to hide the truth from the Christian, and to speak and act contrary to how he thinks and believes. In the Koran, there are contradictory verses which annul others, which give the Muslim the possibility of using one or the other to his advantage, and therefore he can tell the Christian that he is humble and pious and believes in God, just as he can treat him as impious, apostate, and idolatrous.
The Koran gives the Muslim the right to judge Christians and to kill them for the jihad. It commands the imposition of religion through force, with the sword. The history of invasions bears witness to this. This is why the Muslims do not recognize religious freedom, for themselves or for others.
“Middle Eastern Christians, who number about 15 million, have been for the past 14 centuries submitted to forms of multiple persecution, massacres, discrimination, taxation and humiliation,” added Syrian Catholic Bishop Flavien Joseph Melki, also based in Lebanon. “We must act quickly to reform the Islamic regimes … European countries, the United States, and the countries that respect human rights should put pressure on all levels on the regimes that infringe the inalienable rights of the human being, to lead them to reform their laws, inspired by the Islamic Sharia, that treat religious minorities like second class citizens.”
On October 22, the synod fathers approved their “Message to the People of God.” At a press conference presenting the message, Archbishop Bustros was quoted as saying that “the Holy Scriptures cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands … We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people—all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.” Rabbi Rosen and other Jewish leaders denounced the archbishop’s comments.
The following day, the synod released 44 propositions for the Holy Father’s consideration. The propositions call for greater cooperation among Middle Eastern Catholics, a commission to resolve the conflict over the care of Syro-Malabar Catholics on the Arabian Peninsula, and further study of the issues of the jurisdiction of patriarchs and ordination of married Eastern Catholics to the priesthood outside Eastern territories. One proposition sought a liturgical renewal “based on an ever-deeper knowledge of tradition” and “adapted to contemporary language and categories.” While calling for an authentic religious freedom that goes beyond freedom of worship, the propositions avoided negative language towards Islam and the Koran.
On October 24, the synod concluded with Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. “We pray for peace in the Middle East, undertaking to try to ensure that this gift of God to men of goodwill should spread through the whole world,” Pope Benedict said in his homily. “Another contribution that Christians can bring to society is the promotion of an authentic freedom of religion and conscience, one of the fundamental human rights that each state should always respect. In numerous countries of the Middle East there exists freedom of belief, while the space given to the freedom to practice religion is often quite limited. Increasing this space of freedom becomes essential to guarantee to all the members of the various religious communities the true freedom to live and profess their faith.”
“We entrust the results of the Special Assembly for the Middle East,” he concluded, “to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and Queen of Peace.”