By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was convening a Synod of Bishops for the Middle East to be held in October of 2010, to address the trials and tribulations of the Christian population in the region.
The pope said the synod would look at the various problems faced by the minority Christian communities in Middle Eastern countries, from migration to interreligious dialogue.
He announced the initiative at a meeting Sept. 19 with patriarchs and other church leaders from the region. After the encounter at the papal residence outside Rome, the pope hosted the prelates at a working lunch.
The synod will be held Oct. 10-24, 2010, on the theme “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness: ‘The community of believers was of one heart and mind.'” The quotation is a description of the unity of the early church from the Acts of the Apostles.
“During this brotherly meeting, from your speeches will surely emerge the issues that beset you and the orientations toward their proper resolution,” the pope said. He told the church leaders that he was praying for them and their communities daily.
A Vatican statement said the informal discussion between the pontiff and the Eastern church representatives focused in particular on problems related to migration, ecumenical relations and interreligious dialogue, and highlighted the church’s efforts to promote peace in the region. As he often does during synods, the pope gave an impromptu talk at the end of the encounter to summarize the various points that were made.
Pope Benedict has spoken frequently about the pressures faced by Christian and Catholic minorities in the Middle East, particularly in the Holy Land and in Iraq. The synod was designed to provide an opportunity for a much-needed strategizing session at the level of the universal church.
Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, said the idea for such a synodal assembly on the Middle East has been around for a while. He said that last spring, during his visit to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict decided to go ahead with the idea.
Archbishop Eterovic said the synod would include representatives from other Christian churches, and perhaps those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths.
“We don’t know the format yet, but it is clear that one must take into account the entire complex reality of the Middle East,” Archbishop Eterovic told the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
“The synod is not ‘against’ anyone, but is an open space of dialogue that aims at communion and peace in justice and truth. Certainly we will find the way to hear the voices of the Jewish world and the Muslim world,” he said.
Archbishop Eterovic said it would be the first regional synod held in modern times. It will last two weeks, one week less than usual, and preparatory work was already beginning with a two-day meeting Sept. 21-22 among Vatican and Middle East church officials. Present at this planning session were many of the Eastern church representatives who met with the pope Sept. 19, as well as the president of the Iranian bishops’ conference, Chaldean Archbishop Ramzi Garmou of Tehran, and the president of the Turkish bishops’ conference, Bishop Luigi Padovese.
The “lineamenta” or outline for the Middle East synod was expected by the end of the year, and the “instrumentum laboris” or working document for the synod should be ready by Easter. Archbishop Eterovic said both documents would be briefer than usual.
Those participating in the talks with the pope included the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly of Baghdad, Iraq; Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem; the Lebanon-based Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir; and representatives of the Ukrainian, Syro-Malabar, Coptic, Melkite, Syrian, Armenian, Romanian and Syro-Malankar rites.
Last January, Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, and other Iraqi bishops in Rome for their “ad limina” visits asked the pope to convene a special synod for the churches of the Middle East.
Archbishop Sako said the priority topics for such a synod would include the problem of Christians fleeing the Middle East, paying Christian witness in a predominantly Muslim world, relations with Muslims, the role of Christians in civil and political life, lack of full religious freedom and Christians’ prospects for the future.
Bishop Maroun Lahham of Tunis, Tunisia, a Jordanian native of Palestinian parentage, told Catholic News Service earlier this year that when the church discusses Asia — as it did in a 1998 synod for that region — “it’s the Philippines, India, Japan, not the Middle East.”
Bishops Lahham, who worked as a priest in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem as well as in the United Arab Emirates, said while the Middle East is technically part of the Asian land mass, “the issues … were very unlike those” in typically Asian countries.
“We didn’t feel (the Asian synod) was meant for us,” said the bishop, who was head of the seminary in Beit Jalla, West Bank, at the time.
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Contributing to this story was Pat Morrison in Tunisia.