Another Synod of Bishops demands attention – especially from US Catholics

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John L. Allen Jr., associate editor, specializes in coverage of the Vatican. Full bio
Christian children prayed during Mass at the St. Joseph Cathedral in Ankawa, Irbil, in northern Iraq last December. The Christians were expelled from their homes in August, 2014 when the Islamic State group militants attacked their villages in the Nineveh Province. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
By John L. Allen Jr.

During the past month, the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family has been the dominant Catholic story in the world. The gathering of 270 prelates in Rome drew massive coverage and commentary, with many styling it as almost a “Vatican III” – maybe with a dash of the Iowa caucuses thrown in, because of its political intrigue.

There’s a case to be made, however, that it wasn’t even the most important synod of Catholic bishops in October.

To be sure, the issues involved, such as whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion, and how the Church ought to think about gay and lesbian relationships, raised important questions about the Catholic Church in the early 21st century: its pastoral effectiveness and its relationship with the culture.

What was not at stake in any literal sense, however, was raw survival. That clearly is the case with the Synodal Assembly of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, which is taking place in Rome Oct. 24-29.

The Chaldean Catholic church is the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches in Iraq, presently numbering around 500,000 people.

In August, Iraqi Christians marked the grim one-year anniversary of an ISIS offensive in the Plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq that broke out on Aug. 6-7, 2014 and left thousands of Christians and Yazidis dead. It also drove an estimated 120,000 Christians into exile either inside the country, in places such as Kirkuk and Erbil, or in refugee camps in nations such as Turkey and Jordan.

During the assault, churches, and monasteries were destroyed, centuries-old Christian manuscripts were burned, and scores of Christians were killed, often in staggeringly brutal fashion – flogged to death, beheaded, and, in at least a few cases, reportedly crucified.

In that context, there are real questions about whether Christianity is an endangered species in Iraq as well as in neighboring Syria, the strongholds of ISIS and its self-declared caliphate.

The synod going on now brings together 21 Chaldean bishops representing both the Middle East and the diaspora, predominantly in the United States, Canada, and Australia. It was originally scheduled for September in a suburb of Erbil in Iraq, but then postponed to coincide with the synod on the family in Rome.

(Although no one quite wants to say so out loud, moving the meeting to Rome also has an obvious security advantage. Under present circumstances, bringing all the Chaldean bishops together in one location inside Iraq creates an awfully tempting target.)

The bishops are discussing the fate of tens of thousands of Christian refugees who fled the Nineveh Plains, both their short-term humanitarian situation and also plans for their long-term future. The tension is between sympathy for the utterly natural desire many of them feel to get out of the country, versus trying to encourage them to hold on so Christianity itself can endure.

Another agenda item is the situation of Chaldean priests who have fled the country without authorization, including nine who settled in the United States, mostly in the San Diego area. Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako of Baghdad issued an order in the fall of 2014 that those priests must return to set a good example for their people, but several defied it, arguing that returning under the present circumstances would be tantamount to a death sentence.

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad, Iraq, arrived for a session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
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Sako suspended the priests, but some are continuing to minister while they appeal to the Vatican.

Pope Francis addressed the Chaldean bishops on Monday, saying he wanted to bring the Vatican’s “complete support and solidarity” to the Chaldean Church.

“Your visit enables me to renew my heartfelt appeal to the international community to adopt every useful strategy aimed at bringing peace to countries terribly devastated by hatred,” he said, decrying what he called “the fanatical hatred sown by terrorism.”
“The United States has a moral responsibility, because they destroyed the country.”

– Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako of Baghdad

(In what may have been an indirect reference to the controversy over the AWOL priests, the pontiff called the bishops to be “accepting” of their clergy, “benevolent and understanding of their needs, discerning ways to help them be ever more aware of the demands of their ministry and service to the faithful.”)

Given that no Christian community on earth today faces a more lethal threat than in Iraq and Syria, the outcome of the Chaldean synod ought to be a front-burner concern for Catholics everywhere.

US Catholics in particular, however, have an obligation to take an interest. Whatever one makes of the moral legitimacy of the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, it’s undeniable that invasion created the context in which widespread assaults on the country’s Christian minority are occurring.

A couple of weeks ago, Crux spoke to Sako in Rome, both about the synod on the family and his own. Among other points, he insisted that the United States ought to be willing to put boots on the ground in Iraq as part of an international coalition or in cooperation with the Iraqi government, in order to break the back of ISIS.

“There’s no other way,” Sako said. “The United States has a moral responsibility, because they destroyed the country.”

Airstrikes alone, Sako said, won’t cut it.

“The Americans are saying [it will take] five years, 10 years, 30 years, and this language is encouraging ISIS [to think], ‘You can stay’,” he said. “It’s discouraging Christians and other refugees, [who are] thinking they can’t go back home now.”

One can agree or disagree with Sako’s call for military action, but there’s no debate about the precariousness of the situation or the responsibility of Americans, including American Catholics, to do whatever they can to help.

In other words, Americans may need to rethink which Synod of Bishops in October 2015 is the real wake-up call.