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Christians in the Muslim World

For the Small Flock a Possible Mission. Perhaps

Towards the assembly of bishops for the Middle East. The theme chosen points to the fundamental problem of the Church in a region that is characterised by bitter and deep conflict. On the one hand, divisions and, on the other, emigration: the very presence of Christians in their original homeland is at stake.

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 14:45:26


The initiative for a special Synod for the Middle East came from the Iraqi Chaldean ­Bishop of Kerkuk, Louis Sako. He contacted the ­other bishops of the region seeking their support. In January 2009 Bishop Sako presented the request to the Holy Father. On September 19, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI met the Catholic Patriarchs in Castel Gandolfo and made the following announcement: “I would like to take this opportunity to announce the special Assembly of the Synod dedicated to the Middle East, convened by me from the 10th to the 24th of October 2010, and the theme shall be ‘The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Testimony. The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul’ [Acts 4:32].” Immediately after the announcement a Pre-Synodal Council was constituted. Its second meeting was held in Rome on November 24-25, 2009, after which the draft for the final version of the Lineamenta was prepared. The statement of the Holy See’s Press Office after the meeting said: ‘Participants at the meeting have paid great attention to the deepening of communion in the Catholic Church and, in particular, in and between the Patriarchal Churches and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, as well as in the Bishops’ Conferences of Middle East countries. It is extremely important to favour communion, which is real, although not yet full, with ­other Churches and ecclesial communities.’ The Lineamenta finally were officially presented on January 19, 2010, in Arabic, French, English, and Italian. Although the ‘Middle East’ has never been clearly defined, we generally use the term for the countries of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ (Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq), the Arabian Peninsula (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Yemen), and Egypt, Cyprus and Iran. Very often Turkey is also included. The complexity of the Catholic Church in the region is already visible in the composition of the Pre-Synodal Council made up of seven Patriarchs, representing the six Patriarchal Churches and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, as well as two Presidents from episcopal conferences. The six (non-Latin) Patriarchates are the Coptic, Greek-Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian, and Chaldean Patriarchates. The theme of the Synod ‘Communion and Witness’ indirectly reveals the basic problem of the region: The communion and the witness of the Catholic Churches are seriously tested in an environment of deep political, social, and religious conflicts. In fact, the first chapter of the Lineamenta entitled ‘The Catholic Church in the Middle East’ speaks very openly about the problems the Christians of the region have to address, and the whole responsibility for which they cannot simply pass to others. The divisions and conflicts among the Christians during a long history were very often anything but witness to ‘Communion and Witness’ and can be seen as one of the reasons why Islam was able to spread so powerfully what were almost completely Christian regions. In recent history, because of economic problems and political and religious discrimination in many countries of the Middle East, Christians have tended to emigrate. This means that in the end the presence of the Christians in their original homelands is at stake. Obviously, such developments affect the whole Church and become a real concern to the region’s leaders. The Lineamenta begin with the rich tradition of Christianity in the Middle East, expressed in a diversity of traditions. This ‘Unity in Diversity,’ however, was, and still is, more a pious desire than a reality, and few can deny that very often diversity clearly prevails over unity. The jealous insistence on individual qualities had, and still has, its heavy price: tribalism and sectarian thinking too often darken the light of a true Catholic understanding of our traditions. That the Churches of the Middle East have survived despite many internal divisions and despite the victory of Islam is a miracle, and has certainly to do with the deep faith and the suffering of innumerable Christians who are unknown but who stand for the continuity of authentic evangelical witness. This document gives a clear diagnosis of the present situation in which Christians – and not only Catholics – are facing enormous challenges. There are the well-known political conflicts in the region that lead to social unrest and to a climate of anger and mistrust. Very often Christians are among the first to be the victims of retaliation and vengeance, and therefore they are inclined to leave their country if the pressure becomes too much. Emigration weakens their presence and makes the life of the Churches even more difficult. On the other hand, there is a remarkable migration from other parts of the world to the region, especially to those countries where manpower of every kind is highly needed. This is particularly the case in the Gulf where millions of foreigners from Asia, the other countries of the Middle East and from the rest of the world are working in almost all sectors of the economy. Among these millions we find numerous Christians from all over the world and also, therefore, Catholics of all traditions (‘rites’). Because of emigration from countries due to internal political and social insecurity and a critical standard of security, especially for Christians, and the migration of Christians from all over the world to the economically fast-developing countries of the Gulf, we have the following embarrassing situation: on the one hand, many old traditional Churches – some in union with the Bishop of Rome, most of them not – on the same territory along a belt from Egypt to Iraq, with fewer and fewer faithful, but heavy structures, and, on the other hand, a young, vibrant Church made up of faithful of more than 100 nationalities with their respective traditions, but with weak structures because of the limited freedom that exists in most of the Gulf countries A Part of the Problem It is understandable that the various ­Churches, weakening in their homelands, have a growing interest in those of their members who either emigrated for good or are temporarily working abroad. However, the lack of full religious freedom and freedom of worship very often makes it difficult or even impossible to establish the necessary structures for all the Church traditions. Many of the migrants are taking with them the traumas of the experience of war or the marks of the political, tribal, and religious tensions of their countries of origin. Too often even the Catholic bishops of the different Church traditions are not aware of the fact, or even deny, that giving particular traditions priority over unity is part of the problem and not the solution. It is a matter of fact that the more the voice and the appearance of the Church is polyphone and polychrome, the weaker becomes her witness and her position as regards the surrounding Muslim majority which has the political, religious, social, and economic power. The theme of the Synod ‘Communion and Witness’ is really a challenge! Without any doubt, the Church has to learn better that deposited in the different ancient Church traditions of the Middle East are treasures too often ill-known, or even unknown, by the majority of Christians in the other parts of the world. The Synod will be an opportunity to make present to the whole Catholic Church the riches of the different Churches with their respective histories and theologies, spiritualities and legal traditions. Very often, the Western Church tradition was, and is, still fixed on its own powerful and successful story, unaware of the particular values and the rights of its oriental sister Churches. Alongside theological and spiritual originality, there is also the store of a long experience of Islam. This experience can undoubtedly be helpful to Churches in other parts of the world for which this challenge is new. The Churches of the Middle East can help to overcome prejudices but also to prevent others from being too naïve, both in facing Islam and in idealizing the polymorphism of Churches in an environment which is very often rather hostile. It is understandable that the interest of the Synod itself, and of those who are watching it, will be focused on those countries and Churches which are struggling in particular: the Christians in Palestine, in Iraq, in Egypt, and similar situations. The Catholic Church as a whole cannot remain indifferent to the dramas that are going on in these regions, whether the victims are Catholic or Christians of other denominations. Their common baptism unites them all as true children of the same Father even if they may be in partial dissent over many particular aspects of the teaching and discipline of their respective communities. ‘Communion and Witness’ are burning issues if Christianity wants to survive in the region. The Lineamenta speak in two short paragraphs (28 and 29) about ‘the immigration of Christians to the Middle East from the world over’. The text seems to have in mind mainly the situation of the Levant and not so much of the Arabian Peninsula where I live. Going through the different texts and statements issued since the announcement of the Synod about the Middle East, it seems rather that the Gulf countries (except Iraq, which has old Christian traditions) are neither the focus nor of particular interest. However, it is a matter of fact that in the Gulf there exists a vital ‘pilgrim Church’ of migrants organized into two Apostolic Vicariates (Arabia and Kuwait). The total number of Catholics may be close to, if not greater than, the number of Catholics in all the other countries of the ­Middle East. However, because of the absence of true freedom of religion and full freedom of worship, and because of the non-existence of a local Catholic community, this Church ­never attracted the particular attention of the other Churches until they realized that these migrants could be the object of pastoral and – sometimes even more important – ­economic interest for their country of origin. In order to maintain the unity of the Catholics in the countries of the two Vicariates in the Gulf (i.e. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Yemen), the Holy See has decided that on this territory the Vicar Apostolic is the only bearer of jurisdiction for all Catholics, to whatever tradition they may belong. The Vicars Apostolic are obliged to procure the personnel and means for the ­faithful of the various Catholic oriental Churches to celebrate the sacraments in their traditions insofar as the restrictions of religious freedom do not put severe limits to this goal. The Rescript ex audientia approved by Pope John Paul II (March 6, 2003) and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI (April 6, 2006) therefore put an end to some conflicts and lack of clarity in this regard. However, the simple fact that the Patriarchs brought the issue up again on the occasion of the assembly in Castel Gandolfo (September 2009) shows that the decision of the Holy See has not yet found the acceptance of all the Catholic oriental Churches. What for outsiders might seem a power struggle among bishops is, in the reality of the Gulf, a question of survival. If the Catholic Church in this region should fragment into six, seven, or even more different jurisdictions on the same territory, an unhealthy competition for the limited number and space of places of worship would start, and lead to countless tensions, consuming the energy of the priests and faithful, and darkening the witness of unity and communion in a rather hostile environment. Unknown Freedoms In contrast to the countries of the Levant and Iraq, Christians in the Gulf countries of the Arabian Peninsula are almost exclusively foreigners without citizenship. This is also tue for the Arabic-speaking Catholics from countries with ancient Arabic-speaking Churches. As the Lineamenta show, the main attention of the Synod will be directed to the Arabic-speaking Churches of the Near East and will therefore reflect the variety of the Catholic oriental Churches, the Latin being numerically rather modest. In the Arabian Peninsula, however, the great majority of Catholics are of the Latin rite. Not having the advantage of a long historical presence in the area, they feel even more the consequences of the situation described in the Lineamenta (nr. 84) as follows: ‘Certain countries are Islamic States, where Shariah law is applied in both private and public life, including the lives of non-Muslims, which always constitutes discrimination and, therefore, a violation of a person’s human rights. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience are foreign to a Muslim mentality, which recognizes freedom of worship, but does not permit the profession of a religion other than Islam, still less the abandonment of Islam. With the rise of Islamism, incidents against Christians are increasing almost everywhere.’ Although the coming Synod will relate mainly to a geographically limited area with a relatively modest number of Christians, the challenges will be enormous. It will be essential that the main topic ‘Communion and Witness’ does not disappear in the face of the particular interests of bishops and in the permanent and still unresolved conflicts of the region that will draw the attention of the media. Numbers 87 and 88 of the Lineamenta give a good description of these challenges: ‘The reduced number of Christians in our region is a consequence of history. However, as a result of our actions as Christians, we can still improve the present and build for the future. Where, on the one hand, global politics will likely have an impact on a decision to stay in our countries or emigrate; on the ­other hand, accepting our vocation as Christians within and on behalf of our societies will be the paramount reason to remain and witness in our countries. At one and the same time, it is a question of politics and faith (87). ‘At present, this faith is fragile and perplexed. Our attitudes, including those of certain pastors, vary between fear and discouragement. This faith must mature and grow more trustful. We must make a firm decision for the future, which will be shaped by how we manage to treat others and forge alliances with people of good will in our society. We need a faith which becomes involved in the life of society, a faith which serves to remind the Christians of the Middle East of the inspirational words: “Do not be afraid, ­little flock!” [Lk 12:32]. You have a mission, you are to ­fulfill it and assist your Church and your country to grow and develop in peace, justice and equality for all citizens’ (88). The Churches of the Middle East need the fraternal and critical solidarity of the whole Catholic Church in order to get out of the vicious circle of the political struggles, on the one hand, and of the internal power struggles and jealousies, on the other, helping them to renew a true Christian and Catholic mentality and lifestyle which will be the best contribution to a healing of the wounds that have deeply affected the whole region. It will be a challenge for our faith, a faith able to remove mountains of hatred and to open the field to reconciliation and peace.