Christians of the Middle East - their problems, reality and mission


Author: Samir Khalil Samir SJ

How does the Pope see the Synod, the problems of the region and its churches? Here are some notes: the apostolic tradition of the Eastern Churches, their diversity and unity with the pope. The suggestion for the Orthodox, the importance of the mission and proclamation of Christ the Saviour, even for Muslims. The emphasis on "the land" of Israelis, Palestinians, Muslims and Christian witness of a "land" which is not of this world.

 The Middle East by Benedict XVI
by Samir Khalil Samir

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - At the beginning of the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East it is very important to analyze the address Benedict XVI gave yesterday during the solemn liturgy in St. Peter’s basilica. Some of his emphases are essential in order to understand the social and ecclesial situation in the region.

Apostolic Churches

The Pope first mentioned the fact that the Middle East has seen "ever since the days of Jesus until today, the continued presence of Christians."

The pope wants to emphasize the apostolic nature of the churches in the Middle East and the fact that churches are alive. The Church of Antioch, there where Christians for the first time receive this  name from others (Acts 11:26). The Church of Jerusalem, which experienced the historical fact of Jesus and knew the Apostles. The Church of Alexandria, where St. Mark the Evangelist was martyred. These churches did not receive the faith by missionaries sent from Rome, but from the Apostles themselves, and thus are witnesses to the original message. This, for our Churches, is an important spiritual force. If they disappear, it would be a loss for Christians everywhere.

Cultural and religious pluralism: a treasure, at times particular

The Pope continues: "In those lands, the one Church of Christ is expressed in variety of liturgical, spiritual, cultural and disciplinary traditions."

Then he talks about the variety of traditions. This variety must be emphasized: we have no less than seven Patriarchs in the East and seven liturgical, cultural, spiritual, disciplinary, and I would add theological traditions. Dogmatically there is unity, theologically there is a great variety which are its greatest treasure. In exegesis for example, with the two great schools of interpretation: that of Alexandria, more allegorical and mystical, with Origen at the end of the second century, and that of Antioch, more grammatical and literal.

Even the theological positions are multiple from the outset. The variety of the liturgy is well known; however the spiritual is seldom deepened while the cultural variety reveals a great wealth of languages and traditions. The East’s great cultural diversity is a source of great wealth but also political and theological conflict.

Instead in the West there was only Rome, as a capital of great culture. The others had no weight, neither political nor cultural. Instead, in the East, even well before Christianity, there were important centres: Alexandria, Edessa, Jerusalem, Antioch.

This variety comes from the historical structure of the East. And the consequences are felt to this day. The unification in the West (and perhaps its homogeneity) came about over the course of time, in our case it was the opposite. Each Church is proud of its past, even pre-Christian, they all know they are the heirs of prestigious civilizations!

This variety is a great treasure, but sometimes it causes particularism or nationalism to creep into the Churches as well as internal divisions that weaken.

The Papacy and Church Unity

The problem of the papacy will also be raised, I know, by some bishops. Some feel that Rome is overly involved in their affairs, without needing to be, simply out of a habit of centralism, or sometimes out of the conviction that the Roman practice is of a higher level than ours. Others point out that it takes a single leader, especially in cases of conflict, to solve problems. But everyone agrees on one point: respect our differences, our cultures. In the Catholic East, for example, there are married priests and celibate priests, and many points ...

And this is one of the things that the pope wants to address. If there is no communion, there is no witness. Our witness is our communion. As the Gospel says: By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13, 35). If each rite stresses its own specificity, it could  led to division or neglect of others to save their own culture. The East insists on its particularity rather than unity: a balance is needed.

Even the West is returning to the particular: Germany, France, Spain, are claiming specific beliefs and ways of governing the Church, not to mention the African and Asian traditions.

In the U.S. there are particularistic tendencies with regard to male-female relationships, which put many things in question. Anglicanism has split in recent decades because the African churches have refused to accept American or British decisions on this point. How can you maintain the unity of the Church, while respecting the culture of each?

This is a fundamental problem: it concerns schism or unity, and this is where the Eastern Churches can make a contribution. Because we are Eastern, with are many traditions, but we are Catholics, recognizing the principle of unity that is represented by the Bishop of Rome.

This model of the Eastern Churches could be a suggestion for the world of Orthodoxy. If the Orthodox see that the Catholic reality is lived in a rich and positive way, then they could move closer to unity. And vice versa: A bishop confided to me yesterday that the Orthodox see unity at a bureaucratic level, not  as a relationship between the patriarchs and the pope, this would distance them from unity.

Eastern faithful immigrants in the West

At one point in his speech, the Pope speaks of the faithful of the diaspora, and this raises a problem within the Catholic Church, because bishops in Europe often want to have jurisdiction over the Eastern faithful immigrants. For example, there is a rule that prohibits the existence of married Eastern priests in the West. They can have them in the East but not in the Western Diocese. This decision was taken - it was said – so as not to scandalize the faithful. But all this must change.

Originally, the patriarchates were geographical, but now the fact of migration is raising several issues. Yesterday, the pope spoke of "all the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care (ie of the Patriarchs) in their own countries and also in the diaspora." It is a small point but an important one. This is also a problem for the Orthodox, the Church of Moscow. Who do the Orthodox of the diaspora depend on? Once it was the Ecumenical Patriarch who had responsibility beyond territorial boundaries, now they want to restrict it to Turkey.

"Salvation is universal, but it passes through a determined historical mediation”

At one point, Benedict XVI commented on the readings of the Mass and spoke of the two lepers, both non-Jews [Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5.14-17) and the Samaritan (Luke 17.11-19)], who are cured because they believe the word of God’s messenger and this heals them. He commented: "They heal in body, but are open to faith, and this heals their soul, that is, it saves them."

The pope raised the issue of conversion. Going further, he said: "salvation is universal," all are called to be saved by God's love. For us Christians, this is of vital theological importance with regards to Muslims. It is not a race, a people who are saved, God wants universal salvation.

But he said that this salvation comes through Judaism, and then through Christianity. "Salvation is universal, but it passes through a determined historical mediation” And he emphasized this by using the word "door": "the door of life is open to all." In short, Benedict XVI reaffirms that salvation is in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10), and this is an obligatory passage.

In contemporary theology, there is often opposition to this. Some say: salvation is universal, so there is no need of Christ, others say there is no salvation outside the Church.

With a simple vision, starting from the biblical texts, Ratzinger resolves this objection: salvation is Christ, announced and prepared by the historic Israel, and prolonged by the spiritual Israel which is the Church. The role of the Church is therefore essential, although not absolute.

We need mission to rediscover the meaning of our faith

All this is important for us in the Middle East. From the sociological point of view we feel unable to engage in mission to Muslims, who are the majority of our people, inviting them to discover the Gospel and the salvation that comes from the absolute Gospel, because the laws forbid it.

Yesterday, I saw the Bishop of Algiers, who told me that he spent two hours speaking with the Minister for Religious Affairs on this issue [anti-proselytizing laws that hamper the freedom to proclaim]. To the point that some bishops and many missionaries refuse to baptize Muslims who have been asking to be baptised for years, because they are afraid that by doing so they will lose elements of their culture!

From the theological point of view the pope's discourse corrects those theologies (some in India and many "theologies of religions" popular in the West) that preach that it is not necessary to switch to the Christ. A missionary once said to me, the Second Vatican Council established that everyone can be saved in their own religion, so why baptize them?

Our Churches in the East have lost their sense of mission because they are focused on their survival. But the body will not survival if I concentrate on the physical problem alone: it becomes a form of asphyxia. And this is what is happening to our Churches, we are so interested in saving our culture, our particularity, our survival, in the end we focus on little things, instead of seeing our world mission.

We are even dying in Europe because the missionary age, when from Italy and France we went out everywhere, is no more. Today we are so concerned about ourselves and our problems that we have lost the sense of mission. We must recapture that sense. We also tend to reduce mission to charity, commitment to development is not satisfactory.

The land

Continuing, Benedict XVI spoke of a salvation tied to the land: "God reveals himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6), who wants to lead his people to 'land' of freedom and of peace ". But - he added - "this 'land' is not of this world."

These statements are very important for the Middle East where a theology and a politics based on "land" is rampant: the question of Jerusalem, the Israel of today (or that of the Zionists, to the Nile and the Euphrates), Palestine ... The whole issue of land is crucial. And each side claims it for themselves. The Jews claim the Holy Land in the name of the divine promise of the "land", the Muslims claim it as part of the "Dar al-Islam," the House of Islam. But the Pope says; there is a land not of this world.

Yet Jerusalem for Christians - more than for anyone else - is the land where Jesus lived, preached and died. But the Catholic Church has never laid claim, at least in modern times, that it is a Christian land. It has only ever claimed freedom of access, even at the time of the Crusades.

Instead, the Jews in their majority, they say: No, we will never leave this land (and there are settlers who are militarily fighting to occupy it!). In truth it must be said that there are also Jews who spiritualize their relationship with the earth. The Muslims themselves say that what was once a Muslim, can never be abandoned. The Eastern Christians will always have to emphasize that this "land" is not of this world. This is our contribution to peace and justice.

The Middle East, "land" of all

Even Benedict XVI’s vision of the Middle East is special "it is the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land of the exodus and the return from exile, the land of the temple and the prophets, the land where the only begotten Son was born of Mary, where he lived, died and rose again, the cradle of the Church, formed to bring the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the world".

This enumeration in five elements is wonderful! The Pope links this vision (from “on high”, from God’s perspective)

  • To the faith of Abraham (in which we can also see the integration of Muslims, for whom Abraham is the father in faith, and more widely to all those who seek God in their hearts!)
  • To the historic Israel: "the land of the exodus and the return from exile, the land of the temple and the prophets," but perhaps even to those who "return from exile", who today are innumerable;
  • To historic Christianity, "the land where the only-begotten Son was born of Mary, where he lived, died and rose again" (note that the passion is still connected to the resurrection, without which it makes no sense);
  • Finally to emphasize "the cradle of the Church, formed to bring the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the world," in short evangelization. Once again, the mission of the Church is emphasized.

We can not exclude any dimension from the Middle East, but we neither can we forget that this is all oriented toward mission. I can not keep this wonder of the revelation of God in Christ to myself, even Muslims are entitled to know Jesus Christ.

Conclusion: The design of the Universal Love of God

Finally, one last point: looking at the Middle East from God’s perspective means that there is "a universal plan of salvation in love". Salvation is expressed in love and freedom and it can not be proselytizing. It is all fulfilled in Jesus Christ, a son of this land. From his heart and his spirit, the Church was born (an allusion to the death of Christ on the cross, with water and blood flowing from his open side), she is a pilgrim in this world who takes on her universal salvific role: sign and instrument, that is, the sacrament of Christ. The Church's mission is to communion and witness.

The message of salvation is the proclamation that God is love. Man, created in God's image, has the task of recognizing the true nature of God, and to save himself by living and spreading this love. The Church is sign and instrument only if she is a communion of love.

"The Catholic Church in the Middle East: communion and witness," is the motto of this Synod, exactly as developed by Benedict XVI yesterday in his homily.



Synod: Christians and Islam demand religious freedom, to fight extremism
by Samir Khalil Samir

New strengths in mission emerge at the Synod for the Middle East: the scourge of extremism that suffocates Christians and Muslims, the need to recognize Christians as citizens with full rights in society, the right to the proclamation of the gospel. A summary of the week’s proceedings by an expert at the synodal assembly.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - A new factor that emerged forcefully during the Synod is that Christians are not called to fight against Islam. On the contrary, the interventions by Synod Fathers and Muslim guests expressed the need to work together to stop extremism and ensure full citizenship for Christians in Middle Eastern societies.

We can say that the central idea that emerged in the first week of the synod is the task of helping Christians to live in the East, where Christianity was born, but where it is now a minority.

1. Tolerance and discrimination

The biggest problem affecting all countries is that Christians - slowly or suddenly – are emigrating, firstly for political reasons, then economic reasons and more often for reasons specific to religious persecution. In some countries, the continuing discrimination against Christians also plays a role.

Discrimination is the result of the attitude of the Muslim majority that pertains to all countries in the region. This attitude on a national level relegates Christians to the role of second-class citizens.

Muslims always say that Islam is tolerant. In a sense, the statement is true: Christians and Jews are tolerated and have for centuries lived alongside Muslims, in the Muslim empire. But Christians no longer want to be tolerated; they want to be fully fledged citizens, period! Islam was structured in legal and organizational terms in the mid seventh to ninth century. At that time, the concept of total equality between religions was not conceived in the West or even among Christians. Thecuius regio eius religio reigned in Europe until 1600. We must not therefore be surprised that the Muslim legal system, which came into being no later that the ninth century, did not give legal equality to Christians. This system considers Christians and Jews as protected by the Muslim power in exchange for their submission and becoming dhimmi. This system, for the time, was not bad: it was the most tolerant of the time and had already existed in the Greek and Persian world. Among the Greeks, for example, there were metochoi, those who live with us "in our house", those who share our country. But then it was an ethno-cultural policy. With Islam the same system is applied, but the method becomes religious. Muslims (Persians, Arabs, Turks, Africans ...) are (or should be) all the same, with the same rights, the non-Muslim believers (Jews and Christians) can live with Islam, but under certain conditions, non-believers (corresponding to the barbarians of the Greek world), can not live with Muslims and should be banned from the city or have to convert.

This system remained in place until the end of 1800's. It's true that the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Medjid inaugurated his reign with the famous paper, hatt-i sciarif di Gulhane proclaiming on November 3, 1839 the equality of all subjects of the empire, whatever their religion. It was one of the reforms (Tanzimat) to renew the empire. But the people did not accept it and it was not applied. The concept of citizen (with equal rights and duties) as it emerged in the West, has never been accepted. Even today in the Islamic system that governs everything is sharia which is applied to varying degrees.

2. The debate on secular society

In Egypt's Constitution of May 22, 1980, the principle of sharia was introduced in the second article, as the "main source" of legislation. This introduces elements which do not grant full citizenship to Christians.

What the Christians of the Middle East are asking is not only to be treated well, but to be recognized as citizens with equal rights, so that no religion has any privileges.

This is our concept of secular society.

In this regard, during the synod, several interventions criticized the expression "positive secularism" twice mentioned in the Instrumentum Laboris (IL), also referring to Benedict XVI. The original text of the IL was in Italian and French. The expression therefore indicates a corrective element to the concept of European secularism, particularly its neutrality without expressing hostility toward religion.

For Arabs, however, the word "secular" is unknown. It was translated for the first time in the 1800's, using the word 'almāniyyah, which derives from the concept of "secularization." But for Muslims this concept evokes a reality similar to atheism. So when you use this translation of "secular", there are misunderstandings. We must explain that we are talking about a civil society that is neutral to, but not an enemy of religion, one which recognizes all religions. And this corresponds more to Eastern Christian and Muslim mentality: we do not want the marginalization of religion, the total separation between politics and religion, politics and ethics. This is what Muslims and Eastern Christians criticize of the West. As such the Synod Fathers, then, ask for a society of believers, but one where all faiths are equally recognized.

3. Religious freedom for all

Thus, during the first week of the synod, the principle of religious freedom was developed. The desire to ask the States of the Middle East to acknowledge the principle of total religious freedom. This includes: the right to renounce a religion to adhere to a religion or to change religion; the right to be atheist and the equal treatment of religions in accordance with the UN Human Rights Charter.

This does not mean the cancellation of religion, but giving it greater space so the religion does not come into conflict with other laws of the State. For example, if sharia goes against some state law, state law takes precedence. In the name of Sharia for example,you can not force anyone to fast during Ramadan, as is the case today in all countries of the Arabian peninsula (Saudi, Arabia, Yemen, Gulf countries) and also in Algeria, Morocco, etc..

4. The right to proclaim one’s faith

Another very important point in this debate is right practice and proclaim one’s faith. The proclamation of the gospel is an obligation for Christians as it is for Muslims to proclaim Islam, but it is almost forbidden to Christians everywhere, even in countries that call themselves "secular," such as Turkey and Tunisia, where the state provides every means to spread Islam and to carry out Da'wah, ie Islamic propaganda. If you convert to Christianity in secret, they let it lie, but if one proclaims his new faith in public, they risk being expelled or killed. Beyond Lebanon - the only exception - in other Arab countries, those who convert will never find peace.

In Tunisia, an Egyptian priest was expelled for holding a cultural encounter with young people and was accused of proselytizing; preachers in Turkey were killed and the killers were half-heartedly pursued by police, and they are two "secular and moderate” countries. None of these governments order the killings, but they turn a blind eye to them. Sometimes, it is the very parents or relatives of the converts who carry out the murders.

Another new factor in the Synod is the realization that the Eastern Churches immersed in a stalled evangelization for centuries - have lost tehir sense of mission. Several synod fathers have said: "We must recapture the sense of mission."

The fact that Christians are emigrating because of Islamic pressure, has led the synod fathers to two conclusions: first, that Islam is intolerant in itself, that it carries the seeds of closure, and they have cited the appropriate Koranic verses to qualify this. But this line is supported by a small group. The majority of interventions however, pointed out that in Islam there is also a tolerant tendency. Many Muslims want to live in peace with Christians and therefore the problem of intolerance is common to Christians and Muslims. Extremism is fomented for reasons that are not religious, even if it manifests itself with religious aspects.

There are fanatics who strive for the emigration of Christians, condemning them as "Kafir" (infidel), but also condemning Muslims who do not follow the strict orthodoxy advocated by them.

The fathers stressed that Christians and Muslims must fight extremism that is based on religion. Muslims repeat that Islam is the religion of the right medium (din al-Wasat). Christians must work together with the Muslims to elevate the level of society, making it more human.

The task of Christians is to raise the level of awareness in society, a human, cultural but also religious commitment that emphasizes forgiveness, peace, etc.. searching the Koran and the Bible for everything which affirms this affinity of consciousness. Moreover, the principle of forgiveness is even in the Koran (albeit milder than in the Gospel).

5. The intervention by Muhammad al-Sammak

This commitment to raise the values in Arab societies was also the subject of an intervention by Lebanese Sunni Muslim, Muhammd al-Sammak. He said that thanks to Christians, Muslim society has increased its cultural level to make positive progress. In his speech (delivered in Arabic), he said:

"Two negative points demonstrate the problem faced by Eastern Christians: The first point concerns the lack of respect for the rights of fully equal citizenship when faced with the law in certain countries. The second concerns the misunderstanding of the spirit of the Islamic teachings, especially the part relative with Christians... "For this, we are called upon, as Christians and Muslims, to work together to transform these two negative elements into positive elements: in the first place, through the respect for the bases and rules of citizenship which accomplishes equality first in rights and then in duties. In second place, in denouncing the culture of exaggeration and extremism in its refusal of others and in its wish to have the exclusive monopoly on an ultimate truth, and in working towards the promotion and spreading a culture of moderation, of charity and of forgiveness as the respect of the differences of religion and beliefs, of language, of culture, of color and of race, and as we are taught by the Holy Koran, we put ourselves at the judgment of God about our differences. Yes, the Christians in the Middle East are being tested, but they are not the only ones ".

He then points out that Christians and Muslims are in the same predicament regarding extremism. He adds:

"The Eastern Christian presence, which works and acts with Muslims, is a Christian as well as an Islamic need. This is a need not only for the East, but also for the entire world. The danger represented by the erosion of this presence on the qualitative and quantitative levels is a Christian as well as an Islamic concern, not only for Eastern Muslims, but for all Muslims all over the world”.

6. Conclusion

Muhammad al-Sammak highlights a number of times that without the presence of Christians in the Middle East (and world) society regresses.

I think this way of thinking is a strong stand by the synod fathers: to propose, not so much a fight against Islam, but a collaboration between Christians and Muslims against Islamic extremism. This positive position is not merely a new way of "doing good", the fathers recognize that there is also an intolerant tendency in Islam, but they understand that in the Muslim world there is hope of development and change, though not as obvious and clear as in the Christian world.

What appears to be strong and clear is that the majority of the Synod Fathers are convinced that the only way forward is to constructively address the weaknesses of our society which finds itself in deep crisis, together, Muslims and Christians.,-to-fight-extremism-19758.html




Christians in Arabia 

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - “No religious freedom” for Christians living in Arabia, even when they are allowed (not in Saudi Arabia) to have a church. In Lebanon, however, the Arab country where the Christian presence is proportionately greater and has the constitutional and political implications (the President of the Republic is a Christian) they are united among confessions, but divided politically. These are the two experiences that have had the greatest impact yesterday at the Synod of Bishops on the Middle East, where bishops interventions continue, while work begins on the “circuli minores,” the study groups.
The situation of Christians in the Arab peninsula was clearly outlined by Mgr. Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Arabia. In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, he said, there are no native Christians. The three million Catholics out of a population of 65 million inhabitants are all migrant workers from a hundred different countries, mostly from the Philippines and India.
The Catholic presence in Arab countries with Islam as the state religion is facing “tough laws on immigration (restricting the number of priests) and security systems. Individual rights and social assistance are very limited”.
There is no “freedom of religion” (no Muslim may convert, but Christians are welcome in Islam), there is limited freedom of worship in designated places, granted by benevolent rulers (except Saudi Arabia). Too few churches, very high turnouts with a single parish having up to 25 thousand faithful on Friday with 10 or more masses a day. The distance from the church, work, laws governing residential areas, all make participation impossible for many”. The Catholic Church is respectful of the law and is trusted by the government. It “has to adapt its structures and pastoral activity to limitations imposed by external circumstances”.
Several bishops spoke of Lebanon, examining different perspectives.
Bishop Béchara Rai, the Maronite Bishop of Jbeil said that “there is no sectarian division, but a diversity of Catholic Churches sui iuris, Orthodox and Protestant, each having their own liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage. However there is a political division that does not concern a difference in essence, rather in strategic options. Regarding the essence, Christians disagree about some national constants, defined in the document called ‘The constants’, published by the Maronite Patriarchate 6 December 2006, accepted and signed by the Heads of Christian political parties”. “As for the political options, the division of Christians is based on the strategy for the protection of these constants and the efficient and effective presence of Christians. This division is caused by the current political conditions, both internal, regional and international. ” In particular, Bishop, Rai said that, following the division of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christian groups have chosen to ally with one or the other.
Bishop Béchara Elie Haddad, Archbishop of Sidon of the Greek-Melkites spoke instead of the “dangerous phenomenon” of the sale of the land of the Christians in Lebanon. It “threatens to annihilate the Christian presence in the coming years”. To remedy this phenomenon, he proposes a strategy to create solidarity among the churches linked to the Holy See to change the discourse on the Church regards Islam in order to distinguish clearly between Islam and fundamentalism. “This helps our dialogue with Muslims in order to help us persevere in our land” and move from concept of helping the Eastern Christians to the concept of a development rooted in their own land that helps them find employment.
The importance of formation, already highlighted in recent days by several bishops, was once again the focus of two speeches by two Syrian bishops. Bishop Antoine Audo, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo said that despite the dwindling number of vocations, we must “test the candidates before admitting them to the seminary.” “To form the seminarians in a deep meaning of each liturgy and to be open to the universality of the Church.”
For Mgr. Nicolas Sawaf, Archbishop of Lattaquié of the Greek-Melkites (Syria), “we live in a secularized, globalized world in which the number of men who are not interested in God or act without Christian reference is enormous compared to the small number of those who profess to be Christians and believers. ” In this context, “our catechesis must be determined by a dual relationship to those to whom it is addressed: the relationship of belonging to a community founded on the unity of faith and a relationship (of belonging) to a community based on the acceptance of pluralism and diversity. ” “In the Middle East we lack a catechesis that takes account of our Arab culture, of our Christian traditions and riches of the liturgy. We lack a catechetical program for the catechumens. We must make an effort in the spiritual formation of seminarians”.
Finally on an ecumenical note, Egyptian Mgr. Youhanna Golte, Curia bishop of Alexandria of the Copts, speaking of the Orthodox Churches of his country, said: “They are our roots, our ancestors; they are the ones who have fought to defend the Christian faith and keep it alive for us until today. It is they who have sacrificed martyrs, saints, the great theologians. Therefore, the unity of the Church, which is the prayer of the Church, remains the hope of Christian history.







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