‘Be or not to be’ of Christianity in the Middle East
Fr Ksawery Sokolowski
On 10-24 October 2010 a Special Assembly for the Middle of the Synod of Bishops will be held in the Vatican, dedicated to the situation of Christians in such countries as Israel, the Palestinian Autonomy, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Egypt, whose total population is ca 400 million.
Churches in the Middle East
The Catholic Church is present in these territories in seven different communities: small Latin ones and bigger communities of different rites, creating six Catholic patriarchates of Eastern Churches. They cultivate their rich long spiritual, theological and liturgical heritages being in unity with the Pope. They constitute the richness of the Catholic Church.
Apart from them there are much larger communities of non-Catholic Christians: Orthodox Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Syriac, Coptic; Protestants, Anglicans – in total ca. 20 million people. In Lebanon Christians constitute over 40% of the society, the biggest group being the Maronites (25 % of the population), in Syria – 10%, in Jordan – 7%, in Iraq – 5 %.
Islam and Christianity
The situation of Christians in these countries is becoming more and more difficult. It is estimated that they constitute ca. 5% of the population of the Middle East. Their number is still decreasing. In the 8th century, when the Muslims began their conquest of these lands, Christians constituted over 50% of the population.
They were gradually driven out or forced to accept Islam. In recent years we can see a rapid decrease in the number of Christians. I will quote some data: at the beginning of the 20th century Christians in Turkey constituted 32% of the population, at present only 0.6%; In Egypt in 1975 there were 20% Christians, today only some 10%; in Syria the number of Christians fell from 40% to 7.8%; in Iran from 15% to 0.5%; in Tunisia from 50% to less than 10%.
What are the reasons? First of all, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism in the above-mentioned countries make thousands of Christians leave the lands that they have inhabited for ages. They are persecuted, marginalized in their local communities; their leaders are killed, their churches are burnt, their shops are plundered, their children cannot attend public schools without fears.
Most people are not aware of these facts. The news about many drastic situations is not publicised. For instance, we do not realise that Christians are the main victims of the war in Iraq. Further weakening or closing these Churches would be a great loss. The Western Churches should make their state governments sensitive to this fact and ask them to make appropriate interventions and declarations in the international conferences.
Being aware of this situation the Pope decided to gather the bishops of that region for a special assembly to seek counter-measures. During his visit to Cyprus (6 June 2010) Benedict XVI handed them the document called ‘Instrumentum laboris’ of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops. The document defines the aim of the Synod: demonstrating the interest of the Universal Church in the Churches of God in the Middle East and to give Christians a clear vision of the significance of their presence in Muslim or Jewish societies as well as to challenge the communities of different rites to unity and not to rivalry.
The document suggests increasing care for the presence of Christians in the Holy Land, i.e. in Israel and the Palestinian Autonomy. It notices that although the relationships with the Muslims are difficult the dialogue with Islam is a necessity. It recommends working out mutual guidelines for the dialogue with Jews and Muslims. Catholics are to promote ‘positive secularity’ of the Islamic states (pacifying the theocratic character of their rules) and division of the legal secular order from the religious order. They should be active minorities, not closed in ghettos, conducting educational activities not only for Christians.
The document also focuses on the need to overcome the crisis of vocations, the lack of unity among clergy, the need to improve the intellectual and spiritual formation of priests and religious, to practise contemplation in religious congregations. It also shows the need to strengthen actions for the cause of life in unity and mutual love of all Christian Churches in the Middle East. To create unity in diversity, members of particular rites should feel members of the whole Catholic Church and not only of their own patriarchate. One should overcome separatisms, encourage spiritual competition instead of rivalry. A useful thing could be the permission to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick in the other Churches. The especially meaningful signs of unity of Christians would be the communal date for Christmas and Easter and collaborative management of the shrines in the Holy Land.
The document postulates a renewal of catechesis and a liturgical renewal which is grounded in Tradition and cognisant of modern sensitivities and current spiritual and pastoral needs. Ecumenism overcoming prejudices is pressing. Today we can ‘remind the Christians of the Middle East of the inspirational words: "Do not be afraid, little flock!" (Lk 12:32). You have a mission, you are to fulfil it and assist your Church and your country to grow and develop in peace, justice and equality for all citizens’, we read in the conclusion. A detailed analysis of the document that will inspire the sessions of the approaching Synod can be found at www.info.wiara.pl. ‘Instrumentum laboris’ of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops.
Will Christianity survive in the Middle East?
A lot depends on the Christians that live there but a lot depends on our activities, too. The future of Christians depends on the attitudes of politicians, diplomats and people of the Church. A lot depends on the attitude of each of us.
When in the 11th century the Muslims began destroying monuments, the traces of Christianity in the Holy Land, the so-called Crusades were organised and in the 13th century when they threatened the Byzantine Empire (notice: Orthodox) the Council of the Roman Church, which met in Lyon (1245), decided to give half of the whole income, both from high dignities and offices in the Church as well as from the brebends and other benefices, to help the Christianity of Constantinople.
Those who ask how we, Polish Catholics, can help I refer to www.43dom.interia.pl. Forgotten Christians. The Christian Churches in Asia and the Middle East.