In various ways, the existence of these ancient communities that have contributed so much to the cultural and economic renaissance of their respective nations has been undermined. Here and there, their minority status is starting to be a burden because of increasing restrictions on the freedom to worship.
Such problems have pushed thousands of Christian families to think that hope for true coexistence, if not altogether impossible, is at least an increasingly distant possibility, leading many to choose emigration. The consequences of this are visible to everyone. Since the middle of the last century, the proportion of Christians, all denominations included, has drastically declined, from 51 to 36 per cent per cent of the population in Lebanon, from 6.8 to 1.8 per cent in the Holy Land, and from 3.2 to 1.4 in Iraq. Moreover, among local Christians, Catholics are but a minority within a minority, less than two million out of more than 11 million: one million in Lebanon, 350,000 in Iraq, 300,000 in Syria, 200,000 in Egypt, 62,000 in Israel, 45,000 in Jordan and 20,000 in the Palestinian territories.
“Will there still be Christians in the Middle East in the third millennium?” asked a few years ago Jean-Pierre Valognes in his mammoth Vie et mort des chrétiens d’Orient (Life and death of Eastern Christians). “Without a doubt, “wrote the author, “but they will be so few to matter. [. . .] One of the longest battles in History is on the verge of being lost.”
The decision to convene the Synod is a way to counter the widespread pessimism that appears every time the future of Middle East Christians comes up for discussion; it is meant to instil new hope for Christianity in the land of its birth.
In his foresight, John Paul II saw this in 1997 when he gave the Apostolic Exhortation he released following the Special Synod for Lebanon the title A new hope for Lebanon.
“When I convened a special assembly for Lebanon of the Synod of Bishops, on 12 June 1991,” the Pope said in the exhortation, “the situation in the country was tragic. Lebanon was profoundly jolted in all its components. I urged Catholics living in that land to embark on a journey of prayer, penitence and conversion that would enable them to question themselves, before the Lord, about their true commitment in the Sequela of Christ. It was necessary for pastors and the faithful, by means of a clear-headed understanding realised through faith, to better identify and name the spiritual, pastoral and apostolic priorities that had to be promoted in the country’s present context.”
The same journey will soon be proposed to all Middle East Catholics, who will be called to ask questions about the deep significance of their presence in the region in view of the chosen theme: ‘Communion and witness’.
It is true that the Synod convened by the Pope will put the heritage of faith of Middle East Christian communities, including their history of martyrdom, on display for the entire Church to see; yet the Pope wants these communities to go the extra mile.
In particular, local Churches will have to boost their credibility in bearing witness to the Gospel vis-à-vis local Muslim communities. Despite their small number, Catholics can do a lot through their social and educational work; in this, they have never failed. The large network of Catholic schools and institutions, from Lebanon to Egypt, is evidence of that. Not only are they open without discrimination to Muslims, they also continue to contribute to the progress of their respective societies.
In order to continue, Catholics now need new tools, which—and this is our hope—the upcoming Synod can provide. One of them is a more authentic and sound communion among them. Given the challenges ahead, it becomes more urgent for local Churches to show their unity in the birthplace of Christianity rather than emphasise their distinct heritage and traditions in the new countries of the Diaspora.