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Christians in the Muslim World

In Communion, Witness

A summary of the two-week Middle East Synod was provided in the homily delivered by Benedict XVI at the conclusive mass ceremony. In it, the Pope pointed to communion as the pivot of the work of the 173 Synod Fathers.



Communion lies first of all within the Catholic Church, historically articulated into the seven Middle Eastern rites, diverse ways of celebrating and experiencing the mystery, and in some cases also coinciding with different ethnic communities. This enormously rich heritage is today an endangered one too, and the dangers do not only come from the outside. Before Islamic fundamentalism there is a strong temptation to withdraw within individual communities, in the illusion of better protecting the interests of each by an every-community-for-itself policy. In the new global scenario this strategy could only delay the end of the Christian presence in the Middle East. Hence the stress laid on communion by several Synod Fathers: not a political strategy but an element essential to Christian life.



If Christians living in the Middle East are 20,000,000 out of an overall total population of at least 365,000,000, Catholics barely reach 5,000,000. This is why communion, especially with the Orthodox Churches, also means, in a peculiar way, ecumenism. Whoever has been to Jerusalem at Easter time must have seen that the Catholics and the Orthodox do not usually celebrate Easter Sunday on the same date. This very old divergence in the calendar has a devastating symbolic impact, especially on Jews and Muslims. This is why the Synod Fathers have expressed the wish to quickly come to an agreement about the day of Easter.



A second proposal has come from the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo who, after remembering the genocide perpetrated against his own as well as the Armenian community, suggested the institution of a shared remembrance of all Middle-Eastern Christian martyrs. The theological problems raised by this proposal are by no means small but the bishop’s intuition seems to me important.



«We are united with the Lord, and therefore – the Pope declared during the lunch which concluded the Synod – we are “found” by the truth. This truth does not close or fix boundaries: conversely, it opens». Christians, as a creative minority, can become the makers of peace in a region torn apart by conflicts such as the one between Israelis and Palestinians or that between Shi’ite and Sunnite Muslims. There has been a lot of talk in the Western press about Synod declarations concerning the Palestinian question. In actual fact, the final document has simply confirmed the position of the Holy See, which has always supported the two-state solution. But neither Islamic fundamentalists nor some Jewish and some evangelical groups want to hear about this compromise, as they seek in the Old Testament a justification for their extreme political positions. For decades now, these conflicting fundamentalisms have been pursuing the dream of total victory and annihilation of their opponents; nevertheless, they have not managed to ensure either peace or security. It is time for a change, and Middle-Eastern Christians can offer a great contribution in this sense.



To work towards opening up a space for freedom is a second area where Christian minorities can be instrumental to a considerable extent. The question is first of all about a religious freedom not limited to the freedom to worship but also including the freedom to change one’s faith. This fundamental right is absent from, or very limited in, nearly all the Countries in the Middle-Eastern region. I personally believe that, contrary to popular belief, to extend it would help strengthening the Islamic-Christian “conviviality” of which so many examples already exist. Beside the lack of freedom, the difficult economic situation, social inequality and uncertainty of the future are just as many reasons for emigration, a phenomenon touching not just Christians, even though, being a minority, they are especially affected by it. Particularly dramatic remains the situation in Iraq and the Holy Land, though the migratory flux is steady everywhere in the region. There are also, nevertheless, some new indicators, such as the movement of Asian migrants towards the Gulf States, Cyprus and Israel. Many of these are Catholics and, despite often living in situations of extreme precariousness, they contribute to keeping alive the Christian presence in the Middle East. Even now, their number is calculated as level with that of Catholics from the ancient Eastern Churches.



In such a complex scenario, the only certain thing is these communities’ attachment to the faith. Yet many observers, not least the Pope among them, though not doubting this evidence, have stressed the need for a new evangelization, where ecclesial movements may play a crucial role, as long as they accept integration into each local reality with its specific features. On one of my first evenings, at dinnertime, I happened to discuss this particular issue. One of the experts, wanting to let me know that sometimes also in the East faith requires a more personal approach, told me a joke. It is the story of a gentleman who suffers from chronic headache. He goes from one doctor to another but all is in vain, until a specialist decides to open up his skull and look inside.



He finds nothing except a white thread. Not knowing what to do, he cuts off the thread. The headache is still there but now the man’s ears have dropped off. Sometimes – commented my interlocutor – the social context, particularly in Muslim countries, causes Christians to get together and form a close-knit group. They are united by a thread. But there too a personal encounter is needed; otherwise, sooner or later, the ears will drop off. In other words, in order not to emigrate one needs a sense of one’s own presence well beyond the mere belonging to a community.



What is left of the Synod now that the bishops have gone back to their respective countries? First of all, the propositiones, 44 proposals, usually of a pastoral nature, offered to the Pope. But especially there remains alive the communion experienced in these two weeks. As the Pope concluded, «it seems to me that this is the most important gift from the Synod which we have lived and brought about: the communion which connects us all and which, in itself, is witness».