The Middle East synod: Politics slipped back in

Analysis: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict played prominently on the sidelines of the Vatican’s two-week conference.

Pope in red 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Pope in red 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
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 prevailed.
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 recognized borders.”
“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 day.”
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 decision.
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.