Vatican’s ‘Special Middle East Assembly’ set to begin

Analysis: Questionnaire reveals ‘ghetto mentality’ among Mideast Christians due to rise of ‘political Islam.’

Vatican (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
VATICAN CITY – An unprecedented Vatican Synod of Bishops – a “Special Assembly for the Middle East” – will be held in Vatican City from October 10 to 24.
One hundred and seventy-two Catholic bishops from Islamic countries, 14 Roman Curia officials, 14 non-Catholic Christians and 30 academic experts will spend two weeks discussing the future of Catholic communities in the Middle East.
“The urgent reasons for this meeting are that Christians are fleeing from the Middle East, and extremist Islamism is invading the area. We need to find a dialogue with Muslims, and unity among Christians,” Monsignor Shlemon Warduni, the auxiliary bishop of the Patriarchate of Babylon, Iraq, of the Chaldean Catholic Church, told The Jerusalem Post.
Usually, the Catholic Church points to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the factor behind all unrest in the Middle East, declining to denounce the repression of Christian life in Muslim countries for fear of retaliation. Things are changing.
According to Mordechay Lewy, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, the oft-repeated lament that Christians are fleeing the Holy Land is misleading. The term “Holy Land” encompasses Turkey, Egypt and Iraq in addition to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, he said.
“Therefore, to speak about the persecution or emigration of Christians from the Holy Land is doing an injustice to Israel and Jordan, as those countries never hosted such occurrences. The presence of Christians in Israel and in Jerusalem has not only remained stable since 1967, but is increasing in real terms,” Lewy said.
Catholics are a small, persecuted minority in the Middle East. The recent slaying in Turkey of an Italian priest, Monsignor Luigi Padovese, by his driver four years after the murder of another Catholic priest, Father Andrea Santoro, are only the most sensational examples of an endless series of sporadic killings and steady violations of civil rights of Christians in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.
In Iraq, for example, the Christian population has diminished from 1.4 million in 1987 to fewer than 400,000 today.
The working document (instrumentum laboris) for the Synod, “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness,” was produced from a flood of alarming replies to a questionnaire based on a previous outline (lineamenta).
The responses came from the Synods of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, the Episcopal Conferences, the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, and the Union of Superiors- General, as well as from many individual persons and ecclesial groups.
The resulting document clearly expresses concern over the rise of “political Islam...
a threat to all, Christians, Jews and Muslims” and the consequent “ghetto mentality” of Christians who “isolate themselves out of fear of others.”
The official objective is to strengthen Christian identity and promote ecumenism in Muslim countries. The working document’s section on Catholics’ “Relations with Muslims” states that they “are difficult principally because Muslims make no distinction between religion and politics, thereby relegating Christians to precarious positions of being considered noncitizens despite the fact that they were citizens of these countries long before the rise of Islam.”
A key goal is acquiring “religious freedom” – to be understood as freedom of worship and not, it is cautioned, “freedom of conscience, defined as freedom to believe or not believe, to practice one’s religion openly, either privately or publicly, or to change one’s religion for another.”
Instituting “human rights education,” says the document, is necessary for achieving these rights.
As a tribute to the two main non-Christian religions in the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI and the Synod attendees will hear keynote speeches by three authorities: On October 13, Rabbi David Rosen, adviser to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, will speak; and on October 14, both the Grand Mufti of Beirut Mohammed al-Sammak, a Sunni, and Ayatollah Sayed Mostafa Muhagag Ahmadabadi, a professor of Islamic Law at Teheran University and a Shi’ite, will speak.
Rosen said he will address four points: “1. The sociological, cultural and political context in which Christian communities function in the Holy land and interact with Jewry against the background of profound, recent changes in Jewish-Christian relations; 2. Advances as well as difficulties in this relationship; 3. Significant differences in the situation of the Christian communities within Israel and those considered part of a Palestinian polity in the making; and 4. Significant recent changes in perceptions of Christianity in Israel and the role of Christian leadership in interfaith life and its potential for peacemaking in the region.”
Guidelines for relating to Jews and Judaism are contained in the working document’s 10-paragraph section on “Relations with Judaism,” with both theological and political overtones.
Theologically, the post-Vatican II era of respect for the intrinsic value of the Jewish Bible seems to have vanished, overshadowed by the Christological “Salvation history” thrust of this Synod, which defines the Old Testament mainly in its function of “prefiguration” of the New Testament – sadly reminiscent of the Supercessionist theology of the past that effectively delegitimized Judaism.
According to the Synod’s working document, anti-Zionism must be banished as “foreign to every ecclesial discourse,” because although not anti-Semitic, it is purely political.
Moreover, Catholic anti-Semitism, said the questionnaire respondents, no longer exists.
Catholic communities are urged to engage in dialogue with Jews in a spirit of reconciliation. This dialogue is “essential,” though “at times not without its obstacles.”
One obstacle is that “some biblical verses can be interpreted according to a ‘culture of violence.’” On October 19, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, 77, who was the archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem from 1987 to 2008, will present “Kairos Palestine,” a scathing, mainly Protestant anti-Israel document signed by various Middle East Christian representatives who define “the Israeli occupation” as a “sin against God and Humanity,” (lifting this phrase from John Paul II’s definition of anti-Semitism). The document calls for both love, and “nonviolent resistance through divestment.”