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Christians in the Muslim World

‘A small council for the Middle East’

‘A small council for the Middle East’: in this way P. Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land, on Sunday 10th defined the Synod on the Middle East which is being held in the Vatican, during the presentation of the exhibition Abanà. The pictures of almost 200 Synodal Fathers, who in their variety of liturgical vestments surround Benedict XVI for the celebration of the inaugural mass, visibly illustrated the rich expression of the Catholic Church in those lands.



But where did the idea come from to gather together all the bishops of the Middle East in Rome? In short we could say that the Synod was born in Iraq and the Holy Land. The dramatic situation in Iraq had spurred on a number of bishops, some time ago now, to seek dialogue and help with all the Church. Then the great pilgrimage of Benedict XVI to the Holy Land took place and the meeting with the Christian communities, increasingly tried by emigration. The Synod is in a certain sense the continuation of that pilgrimage and the ensuing journey to Cyprus.



The large variety of liturgical and spiritual traditions finds its most stimulating expression in the prayer of Tertia which the Synodal Fathers say together to the Holy Father. Every morning it is entrusted to a particular rite. After the Latin Church, until now it has been the turn of the Copts, Syriacs and the Melkite Greeks. The bishops whose ‘turn’ it is are to be seen gathering together around the microphone to begin to sing the psalmody in one of the ancient languages of the Christian East. While these magnificent melodies are being sung, for a moment it is possible to forget the myriad of problems that torment these communities: internal problems (divisions among the different rites, rivalry) and problems in the relationship with the Muslim majority or – in Israel – the Jewish one. The Synod’s intention was to offer an obvious remedy to these challenges: Communion (besides the particularisms) and testimony (towards the non Christians).



It is now however a question of translating these categories into concrete outlines to answer the thousands of questions being asked: religious freedom, Diaspora, emigration, ecumenism, ways of exercising authority on the part of the bishops and patriarchs. These are not questions for specialists only. The Middle East is today a geopolitical scenario of greatest importance, having continuous repercussions on our daily lives too. The relationship with the Muslims and Jews is no longer a question of a few representatives. The Eastern churches also share the way of praying and celebrating mass with the Orthodox one and therefore highlight even more clearly that the division has no concrete theological foundations. This does not mean of course that it is easy to overcome, since politics is no less a minefield than dogmatics.



It was the Pope however who offered the wider and deeper perspective on the Synod. Speaking extempore and deep in meditation, Benedict XVI located the effort of the Church in the Middle East within the labour of the whole Church. When in the East it is above all terrorist ideology that threatens life, in the West it is the financial powers and dominating mentality that enslave man to the point of destroying him. It is a fight without quarter. The arms to fight it with are always the same, in the Middle East as elsewhere: communion and testimony.



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