ROME – The coming together at the Vatican of over 200 bishops from Muslim countries for a two-week synod on the Middle East that ended Sunday is bound to leave its mark.
Arab Christians view Israel and dialogue with Judaism in more radical terms than does the Roman Curia.
Although the pope, Vatican officials and spokesmen attempted to close the door to politics (Benedict XVI defined the synod’s character as “pastoral”), obviously they managed to slip back in.
The difficulties and dangers encountered by Christian minorities living under Islamic law and above all, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, occupied major space on the sidelines through press conferences and panel discussions organized within and outside the Vatican.
The absence of human rights and liberties, and the persecution and
murder of Christians in Muslim countries such as Turkey, Iraq, Egypt,
and the exodus of over 2 million Iraqi Christian refugees, now reduced
to poverty and economic slavery in countries like Lebanon, were amply
discussed and identified as the major causes for the Christian exodus
from the region.
However, in the final message and list of proposals, as well as in the
pope’s message itself, there remain only generic allusions to these
grievances. References are made to “the rights of citizenship, freedom
of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom in education, teaching and
the use of the mass media.”
Gone is the repeated call, in synod discussions, for a separation
between religion and state, “a secular state” and “civic society.”
Evidently caution and fear of reprisals on Christian minorities
While during the synod, discussions on the Israeli “occupation” were
mostly conducted after hours in private halls or with journalists
looking for news, the synod’s final documents give ample space to
one-sided condemnations of that “occupation.”
Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director for
interreligious affairs, who delivered a keynote speech on October 13 as
the synod’s special Jewish guest, had this to say: “I regret that the
bishops in their closing statement do not have the courage to confront
the most serious challenges confronting Christians in the Middle East.
Even if the State of Israel didn’t exist, the depleting of the Christian
presence would not be any different. To make the Palestinian- Israeli
conflict the No. 1 issue is disingenuous.”
Certain ambiguities and contradictions arose that will be resolved only
with time, after Benedict’s examination of the synod’s recommendations
and his official conclusions.
Comments at Saturday’s Vatican press conference by US Greek Melkite
Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros (who headed the Message Commission) drew
worldwide headlines, diverting attention from the strongly positive
proposals for interreligious dialogue as a means to contain extremisms.
Interpreting Section VII of the Synod Message – the Appeal to the
International Community – which espouses the “two-state solution,”
advises taking “the necessary legal steps to put an end to the
occupation of the different Arab territories” and defines as
“unacceptable” the “recourse to biblical positions which use the Word of
God to wrongly justify injustices,” Bustros added that the recognition
of Jews as God’s “chosen people” to be granted “the promised Land” was
nullified by Christ’s coming.
Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, told The Jerusalem Post he found these words “outrageous and bizarre.”
He pointed out that they contradict Point 8 of the Synod Message, which
reads, “We believe in the promises of God and his covenant given to
Abraham and to you.
We believe that the Word of God is eternal.”
“This is a regression to the successionist theology we thought had been
permanently shelved – the theology that preached that Judaism had been
replaced by Christianity,” he said.
Lewy also found “problematic phrasing” in the Appeal to the
International Community, which expresses hopes for “an independent and
sovereign homeland” for “the Palestinian people” and “peace and
security” for “the State of Israel within their internationally
“At first glance there might appear to be no problems,” said the
ambassador, “but coupled with Archbishop Butros’s rejection of defining
Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ and his expectations that ‘all Palestinian
refugees will eventually return,’ plus the lack of any reference to ‘the
Jewish people’ in the Appeal, it follows that since Israel is a
democracy and there is no inherent Jewish right to the state,
demographic changes with the return of Palestinian refugees will win the
The Synod Message and a list of 44 propositions – many connected to
bolstering Christian life and unity in the region – will be sifted and
edited by Benedict and appear as a papal document at a future date.
Some proposals have already been accepted, such as the addition of Arabic to the Vatican’s official languages.
A de facto innovation is the creation of a Hebrewlanguage website that
functioned throughout the synod under the direction of Hana Bendcowsky,
program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations,
hired by the Vatican for the occasion. The growth of a Hebrew-speaking
Christian population in Israel, mainly due to immigration, spurred this
On Sunday, Benedict announced plans for a synod in 2012 on “New
Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” a sign of
the Catholic Church’s steady concern with loss of followers everywhere.