CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Participants follow prayer books at the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East Oct. 11
VATICAN CITY – The survival of the Christian communities in the Middle East is threatened by violence and political repression, but also by the churches themselves.
The churches in the region suffer from a weakened sense of mission, failure to work ecumenically and loss of their traditional liturgical heritage, bishops told the special synod for the Middle East.
"The Palestinian events, the civil war in Lebanon, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the invasion of Iraq . . . Christians of all churches without distinction are martyred, forced to emigrate, forced to leave," Armenian Archbishop Boutros Marayati of Aleppo, Syria, told the synod Oct. 11.
"This is a real ecumenical concern," Marayati said.
He urged synod members to find ways to strengthen the bonds among all Christians in the Middle East, "encouraging a spirit of fraternity, dialogue and communion among the churches."
After a morning of listening to formal presentations Oct. 11, the 185 synod members began making their own speeches.
Marayati said that while Christians throughout the region share many similar challenges, the situation of the communities varies from country to country.
The synod, he said, should be followed by ecumenical conferences in each country to respond to local needs.
Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour of Haifa, Israel, told the synod that 2,000 years ago "my ancestors started spreading around everywhere the exciting news revolving around an empty tomb and a risen man."
Despite centuries of oppression and persecution, the Christians of the Holy Land continue to proclaim to the world the good news, Chacour said.
"He is risen, but his cross is still high in our sky. Our Christianity is hanging on that terrible cross," he said.
CNS PHOTO | DEBBIE HILL
Catholics celebrate the Easter Vigil at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in April. The Synod of Bishops for the Middle East is looking at issues of liturgical reform, formation of clergy and religious dialogue among churches and the political status of Christians.
Christians in the Holy Land "still live under daily threats" from governments who want to transfer Arabs from their ancestral lands.
Chacour asked the universal Church to be more supportive of the land's native Christians. "We need your friendship more than your money," he said.
Coptic Bishop Youhannes Zakaria of Luxor, Egypt, said national conflicts, doctrinal differences among Christians and the rise of Islam have combined to weaken the missionary enthusiasm of the region's Christians.
"The Church in the Middle East today is a minority living in the midst of a non-Christian majority, and is fighting against the danger of its own decline, and is struggling to maintain Christian faith in the hearts of its faithful," he said.
Nevertheless, the Church "must not be afraid or be ashamed and must not hesitate in obeying the mandate of the Lord, which asks it to continue teaching the Gospel," he said.
Another Coptic bishop from Egypt, Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut, told the synod that the liturgies of the Coptic and other Eastern Catholic churches always have been the primary means of drawing the faithful together, educating them and inspiring them to evangelize.
From early in the 10th century, he said, the Copts translated their liturgy into Arabic and into the dialects spoken by the people.
The fact that the liturgy was in the vernacular, he said, "helped to preserve the faith; and if we compare our situation with that in neighbouring countries of North Africa, we observe that several centuries later, Christianity, which flourished at the outset, has vanished because a foreign liturgy in a little-known language had been imposed on them."
The problem today, William said, is that Latin-rite missionaries have come into Egypt and have started celebrating the Mass in Arabic just like the Copts do. That separates them from their churches.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who represented the U.S. bishops at the synod, called for "greater sensitivity" to the specific rites and practices of the Eastern churches and for a greater effort to educate all Catholics about the Eastern churches.
Catholic colleges and universities, he said, "are keen to offer courses and seminars on other religions - be it Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism - but little if any attention is given to the theology, liturgy or spirituality of the Eastern churches."
Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto is representing Canada at the synod.