Mideast Catholic leaders hope synod calls attention to their problems

20090921cnsnw00009_web1.jpgThe future of Catholics in the Middle East, such as Elias Khader, praying during Mass at St. Justin Church the West Bank town of Nablus, will be a topic of discussion at the synod. (CNS file/Debbie Hill)
By Doreen Abi Raad
Catholic News Service

BEIRUT (CNS) — Catholic Church leaders, anticipating the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, view it as an opportunity to call attention to the problems facing Christians in the region.

The synod, to be held at the Vatican Oct. 10-24, will focus on “communion and witness.”

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, who had asked the pope in January 2008 to convene such a synod, said the meeting “is an opportunity to revise the whole situation for Christians in the Middle East.”

He said it is a pastoral and practical synod, and not a dogmatic one.

Archbishop Sako stressed that because there are so many crucial issues to tackle — liturgical reform; formation of clergy and other religious; dialogue among the churches; and particularly the political status of Christians — he hopes this synod will be highly productive.

Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said the synod represents “a big grace for the Middle East.”

“We need it because our faithful are leaving their countries,” he told Catholic News Service. “If we have peace and security, our people would not leave.”

The Middle East has many Catholic rites, and there is some division among them, Bishop Warduni said, “but like the first Christians, we must have one spirit and one heart, as when the Holy Spirit descended upon them.”

For those participating in the synod, he said, the Holy Spirit “will guide us to do what we must do for ecumenism and dialogue with other religions.”

“We ask the Lord to give us the wisdom to guide each of us, so we can arrive at some solutions that will be good for the glory of the Lord, the good of the church and the good of the faithful,” Bishop Warduni said.

In Israel, Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour of Haifa said local church leaders would like the synod to articulate why Christians should remain in the Middle East.

He said he hopes the synod will “define the reason why we need to stay in this country, which is not very favorable to our presence. … What reason is there for our presence here as Christians? To propagate and introduce the value of reconciliation, which is not on the political agenda in this country?”

“We expect better understanding of our mission in this country, our role in the Catholic Church and more attention to our human presence than to that of the presence of the holy shrines,” he said.

“We are hoping for very simple things. We don’t want miracles,” he added.

Though Catholics’ role in the Holy Land is recognized by the Holy See, Archbishop Chacour said they would like to see more consciousness of what they should do as a Christian minority within two large majorities “facing the challenge of meeting every day thousands of pilgrims who come not only to walk on the dirt and see artifacts but also to see what remains of Jesus Christ, the ‘living stones.'”

Archbishop Chacour said he would like to see the Holy See “encourage the local Christians here so they can really be aware of their role.”

“We need the Catholic communion to become more real,” he said.

Msgr. Raphael Minassian, who administers the Armenian Catholic Exarchate of Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, said Catholics “have many hopes for the synod: hope to strengthen the communion between the churches; to give knowledge to the (Western) churches about the existence of the (Eastern) churches; to define how the destiny of our land will be practiced; how to define our presence under the current conditions.”

Msgr. Minassian identified the emigration of Christians from the region as a “major problem” and said the synod should work to “find a way to approach this problem and to solve it.”

Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan of Antioch, who is co-president of the synod with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, sees the synod as an opportunity for the world to look more carefully at the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

“I think we all, religious leaders of the churches in the Middle East, hope that something will come out of this synod, particularly that the Western world will understand the region — its culture, its history — and urge people, governments and nations in the Middle East region to not only generally live together, but to abide by the laws of respecting civil liberties for all,” the patriarch told Catholic News Service.

“I think until now we spoke very little of this need. Unfortunately, the countries of the West, especially the governments, have been linked to mostly compromise and silence regarding the civil rights of all citizens (in this region), because they think that in urging those governments to respect the human dignity and the laws for all means that they would insult Islam and, therefore, they prefer to keep silent,” he said.

“For us (Christians), it’s a matter of survival,” the patriarch said. “We can’t just close our eyes and say we happen to be here and we have to continue. We have to … try to convince the whole world, especially the developed world, that we can’t accept just to endure or take our destiny so negatively, as in saying ‘It’s the will of God, and that’s it.’ We have to fight for our human rights,” the patriarch said.

Melkite Bishop Elie Haddad of Sidon, Lebanon, said the synod “can send a message to the world to save the countries in this region.”

Noting that a synod, by its very nature, orients the faithful toward the Gospel, Bishop Haddad said, “It is the church that can lead us again to the safe side.”

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Contributing to this story was Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem.