When Pope Benedict XVI goes to Cyprus on June 4-6, at stake will be the future of Christianity in the Middle East. The Cyprus visit will be the occasion for a preliminary meeting of bishops and patriarchs from the Coptic, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Catholic, and other churches affiliated with Rome in the Middle Eastern area. They will receive from Pope Benedict the instrumentum laboris, or working agenda, for a forthcoming Episcopal Synod in Rome in October to discuss the problems facing Christians in the Middle East.
Synods have become a standard way of dealing with church problems, including regional problems. There was a synod devoted to Europe in 1991, and another focusing on America six years later. This one will concentrate on how to stem the exodus of Christians from the Middle East by giving them the survival skills to stay put. Their situation, says the Vatican, is “one of conflict, instability, and political and social evolution.”
The irony is that while Europe, historically and culturally Christian, is struggling to absorb huge Islamic immigrant populations, the Middle East is rapidly emptying of Christians.
In Iraq, a Christian population of 1.3 million in 2003 has been more than halved as a frightened community escapes from Shiite violence. In the West Bank and Gaza, a Christian community that was once 20 percent of the population of 4 million Palestinians is now less than 2 percent, squeezed between Israeli pressure and — far worse — growing Islamic aggression. And Egyptian Copts are suddenly finding their neighbors turning belligerent. As a result, the Coptic community in the United States, swelled by refugees, has almost doubled.
The Vatican document’s best advice to Middle Eastern Christians in the face of growing pressure is to not leave, and to establish more dialogue with Islam and with Israel. It also calls for closer ecumenical collaboration between the different Christian churches — in other words, a united front, or closing of the ranks. Hopefully, the bishops in the synod will work on specifics. “It would be a loss to the universal church to be diminished precisely in the place where it was born,” the documents states.
But establishing a business-like relationship with governments in Islamic countries so as to offer Christians some protection will not be easy for the church. The main reason why the pope is meeting with bishops on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus is because Egypt, Syria and Lebanon would not agree to a papal visit.