The Kingdom of Jordan is usually considered to be one of the most Christian-friendly countries in the Middle East but, according to a Catholic News Service report this week, even there Chaldean Catholic refugees from Iraq are being forbidden to work.
This is just one of a number of concerns that will probably be up for discussion at the synod of bishops for the Middle East, due to take place Oct. 10-24 at the Vatican. Regional Church leaders view the meeting as an important opportunity to call attention to the many problems facing Christians in the region.
The synod’s main theme focuses on communion and witness: Participants will grapple with how the Church as a whole can offer an authentic witness in a region where she is often a fragile minority among Muslims and Jews. Closely connected is how all the various rites can strengthen their communion and unity, and so offer that effective witness.
“These are the main two subjects, but beyond them we have to discuss all the pastoral activities and perspectives,” explained Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Custody of the Holy Land. These are many, but revolve around the problem of Christian emigration, the rise of political Islam, the dangers of a “ghetto mentality” and restrictions on religious freedom. “We know very well our problems but we’ve never confronted them all like this,” says Father Pizzaballa. “So the first and most important thing is just to be together, to talk about and share our experiences.”
The geographical area to be covered by the synod is vast, complex and diverse. It runs from Egypt to Turkey, from Iran to Israel and right through to the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Cyprus. It includes directly or indirectly 14 million Christians in a population of 330 million inhabitants, among whom are Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Greeks and Jews.
On the Arab peninsula are political regimes that have differing attitudes toward Christians that range from heavy restrictions on religious freedom (Saudi Arabia) to relative respect, such as Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Yet even in these countries, whose populations are mostly made up of immigrant workers, Christians are deprived of elementary social and religious rights.
Elsewhere, although conditions for Christians are not universally poor, many face hardships. In Egypt, Copts feel despised by the country’s Muslim majority and deprived of many rights, especially freedom of worship and conscience. In Iran, converts to Christianity are treated as renegades and traitors to Islam. In Iraq, Christians have left the country in droves due to insecurity and violence (at just 400,000, down from 1.25 million in 1987, they are now the smallest and weakest minority in the country). In Syria, life is more tranquil, but the country’s 1.5 million Christians live in constant fear of unexpected change. Christians in Lebanon are deeply divided and not accurately represented in politics. And in the Palestinian region and Israel, conflict, lack of security and a poor economy has forced thousands of Palestinian Christians to emigrate: the diaspora now numbers 500,000, mostly living in Chile. Even in Jordan, where Christians are well represented in parliament, freedom of conscience does not exist.
But it’s emigration and the rise of political Islam that will arguably be the greatest concerns for the synod fathers. Addressing a conference on the synod in May, Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said emigration had “weakened the fabric of Christian life.” He pointed out that moderate Muslims and many Palestinian intellectuals -- including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- have said that the departure of Christians has been a loss for all Palestinians who believe it will result in “setting Jewish and Muslim extremism face to face.”
For Father Pizzaballa, it’s a problem that has many causes, not just conflict and poverty. “First of all, we have to study very thoroughly the reasons for this plague, and also study together the strategies in order to block this phenomenon as much as possible,” he said.
On political Islam, the "Instrumentum Laboris" – the synod’s working document – noted it was a “striking” trend that has been on the rise since 1970 and that poses a “threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike.”
As a result of this and other hardships, some remaining Christians in the region have resorted to a “ghetto mentality." But the bishops are expected to warn strongly against such a reaction, saying that it will merely lead to division. Instead, they are expected to argue for a strengthening of the faith, social bonds and solidarity.
More generally, the synod will put a great emphasis on formation for clergy, religious and laity. The synod fathers will stress the need to read and live the Word of God; to learn forgiveness, reconciliation and openness through dialogue and action; and to educate Christians that their presence in the Middle East should be seen as a vocation, not their fate.
“Christians should not feel that they are foreigners,” said Bishop Shomali. “They are called to be witnesses of Christ in those countries where they live. To flee their countries of origin means to escape reality. We need to encourage Christians to live with faith and joy in the land of their ancestors.”
Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, who will be a general rapporteur at the synod, said Christians should prepare themselves for potential martyrdom -- a possibility that he sees growing as Middle East governments increasingly appease the extremists. But he stressed: “I cannot tell people: ‘You have to remain and our vocation is to be martyrs.’ No, this is not our vocation; our vocation is to try to make peace.”
Father Pizzaballa said there is a need to talk “very frankly” about problems between Muslims and Christians. But he stressed a “very strong tradition of coexistence over the centuries,” adding that a dialogue is necessary, not between religions as much, but between religious people in order to create “a mentality of coexistence.”
Perhaps above all, the synod is likely to stress the need for Middle East Christians to be as united as possible, to be both communion and witness to all the people of the region facing so many challenges.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” exhorted the text of the "Instrumentum Laboris." “You have a mission; the growth of your country and the vitality of your Church depend on you.”