CNS FILE PHOTO | DEBBIE HILL
Palestinian children pray in the West Bank City of Ramallah. The October Synod of Bishops for the Middle East will address such things as peace for them, plus issues varying from dialogue among churches to the political status of Christians.
VATICAN CITY – The Vatican is setting the stage for another Synod of Bishops in mid-October, this one aimed at turning a spotlight on the Christian communities of the Middle East.
Synods are typically drawn-out affairs, requiring several years of planning and more years of follow-up. But there's a greater sense of urgency about this synod: Pope Benedict convened it rather unexpectedly a year ago, after Church leaders from the region - particularly Iraq - requested the special assembly.
The problems of the minority Christian churches in the Middle East are well-known. A short list would include the massive emigration of Christians, political and military conflict, economic hardship, travel restrictions, discrimination and interreligious tensions, especially in predominantly Muslim countries.
The pope decided a synod was needed when he visited the Holy Land last year. The papal visit briefly turned the Church's attention to the daily struggles of Christian communities there; now the pope wants to bring those struggles to the heart of the universal Church for more systematic discussion.
The synod will run Oct. 10-24 and focus on the theme, The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul." The quotation comes from the Acts of the Apostles, and reflects the unity of the early Church - something that plays into the agenda of this assembly.
As the Vatican explains it, the goal of the synod is to strengthen Christians in their faith identity and deepen communion among the mosaic of particular churches that exist in the region, so that they can witness the faith more effectively in their societies.
The synod's working document said life often is difficult for Christians in the Middle East, especially because of "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability throughout the region."
"The menacing social situation in Iraq and the political instability of Lebanon further intensify the phenomenon," it said.
"The Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories is creating difficulties in everyday life, inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life - access to the holy places is dependent on military permission, which is granted to some and denied to others on security grounds.
To some extent, the Christian plight in the Middle East can be seen in numbers. According to estimates provided by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, there are about 16.5 million Christians in the Middle East today, representing 4.6 per cent of the population. Of that number, 5.7 million are Catholics, or 1.6 per cent of the total population.
Those numbers are down considerably from 100 years ago, and in some countries the drop has been steepest in recent years. In Iraq, Christians represented close to seven per cent of the population 30 years ago; now it's 1.2 per cent. Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country with a Christian majority 40 years ago, but the Christian population today is thought to be well below 50 per cent.
Syria and Jordan have also experienced widespread Christian emigration, and in the Palestinian territories of the Holy Land the Christian population is estimated by Church officials at 200,000 - and only 35,000 Catholics - might be much lower.
The synod will gather bishops and other participants from Middle Eastern countries that stretch from Egypt to Iran, as well as representatives from other countries.
The main topics of the assembly have already been set out in the working document:
"Islamic states generally do not recognize religious freedom and freedom of conscience, instead they acknowledge freedom of worship, which excludes the freedom to preach a religion different from Islam, much less embrace a religion other than Islam. Furthermore, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, attacks against Christians are increasing almost everywhere," the document said.
This "ambiguity of modernity," as synod planners have termed it, is seen as a threat to Christians and is also an issue with many Muslims, who perceive it as a cultural invasion from the West. Protecting the nature and stability of the family is viewed as a particular concern by synod fathers.