09/07/2012, 00.00
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Benedict XVI to visit a Middle East seething unrest

by Fady Noun
The pope is coming to Lebanon with the Apostolic Exhortation that follows the 2010 Synod. Since then however, the region has changed radically with Syria's turmoil, Israel-Iran tensions, economic crisis and anti-Christian violence. The pontiff and the Holy See are working on these issues but Christian unity and witness in the Arab world are also paramount. The Arab spring can help Christians in their mission. Although some thought the visit would be postponed, fear does not stop Peter's boat.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - In a few days, Benedict XVI will be in Lebanon (14-16 September). In view of the current situation, the pope is coming as a man of peace, but also as a man of justice because without justice there is no peace, especially in relations between nations. As John Paul II well realised, tensions in the world are ethical in nature and today's situation makes it even clearer.

Benedict XVI will be a man of peace wielding the "weapons" the Church. The Church is neither a state, nor an international organisation. He will bring a point of view built on what the Church knows of mankind, backed by a spiritual authority that comes from Jesus Christ himself. He will also come as someone with some standing in the international community.

The first observation we can make is that the pope is coming to a Middle East that has changed since the Special Synod of the Churches of the Middle East of October 2010. Indeed, in two years, popular uprisings have reshaped the Middle East, completely changed the political relations, geopolitics and the Christian presence in Arab countries (especially Egypt and Syria). In two years, the crisis caused by Iran's nuclear programme has deepened, Turkey has emerged as an 'Islamic democracy,' and the US-Russia confrontation has hardened. From the Caspian Sea to Egypt, the region is seething unrest.

As we know, Christians are very sensitive to political tensions, not mention economic crisis. The Church is thus faced with an ever-changing situation and makes its work that more difficult.

In the heartland of the region, there is also an issue called Israel and the Church knows that this crisis must solved before the region can reach lasting peace for the greater good of its Christian communities.

The Lebanese exception

In this context, the pope, or rather the Holy See, since the pope is travelling with his entourage, will speak to the Catholic Churches of the Middle East from Lebanon because that country is an exception for it is the only Arab country where Christian and Muslims share the same culture and are equal before the law, embodied in an original political system defined by power-sharing between Christians and Muslims at the top.

Lebanon is also an exception at the religious level. Annie Laurent, a Synod expert, wrote that the country "is a concentration of believers from all Near East Christian denominations: Catholics (Maronites, Melkites, Armenians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Copts and Latins), and those who are not in full communion with Rome (Greek Orthodox, Apostolic Armenians, Assyrians, Syro-Orthodox, and a number of Protestant denominations). In particular, it is a place favourable to ecumenical dialogue."

Reassure first, put right later

What will the pope say? Certainly he will not say what he has not said before. But he will say what he said before with new words and emphasis. The special charism of Benedict XVI's doctrinal clarity will leave a mark on what he will say.

The problems the Christian minority faces today, such as relations with Islam, freedom of religion, conscience and worship as well as dialogue, will be among the main topics.

The Church's internal problems will also be discussed at a time when each community turns to defending its narrow interests, Christians become contaminated by secularisation, elites are de-Christianised, corruption affects the clergy, the gap between youth and the hierarchy widens, people are tempted by emigration, the new evangelisation becomes urgent. . . .

Benedict XVI will probably try to reassure everyone first. Aware of the political aspects of the papal visit, the media have already highlighted the cloud of fear hovering over Eastern Christians, the fear of becoming an ever declining minority after the bloodbath in Iraq; fear of emerging Islamist regimes; fear of a cold war that could lead to a new holocaust; fear of jihadism; fear the Holy Sites in Jerusalem might be lost.

Yet, however justified these fears may be, the Church has a duty to dispel them. As fear seeks company, it leads to behaviour that might cause what one wants to avoid.

More importantly, that is not the issue. If something can be done to dispel this fear, we can be certain the Church is already doing it or will do it. However, the Holy See carries out this kind of diplomatic or international action with the utmost of discretion.

With the much anticipated Apostolic Exhortation and through other channels, the Holy See will urge the governments of Israel and the Arab world to show respect for their minorities, for religious freedom and for the Holy Sites. It will address Muslim religious authorities in Arab and non-Arab nations, directly or via interfaith dialogue. This will be done by promoting understanding and keeping one's word.

The challenge of faithfulness to Christ

On the other hand, the pope's challenge to the Eastern Churches and the Apostolic Churches of the Middle East is that of faithfulness to Christ and the Church he founded, the challenge of communion and witness.

Following in the footsteps of John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation 'A New Hope for Lebanon,' which was addressed to the Lebanese people, but also indirectly to all Eastern Catholics, the upcoming Exhortation' 'Communion and Witness' offers guidelines on how to cope with problems due to Lebanon's economic and social situation, issues like the weakening of family ties; late marriage; unemployment, emigration; sale of immovable property that favours the "Islamisation of the land," which has been blamed on secret Muslim powers; relations with the media and with non-Christians, involvement in politics, the place of Christians in the public service and in trade unions, etc. All this affects the Christian faith, the presence of Christians and the coherence of Christian life in the East. For this reason, they are of interest to the Catholic Church.

Besides these important matters, the Holy See should be foremost concerned with the new evangelisation and unity.

By new evangelisation, we mean proclaiming Jesus Christ anew to a mass of faithful who received the Sacraments but who are not evangelised.

By unity, we mean, first, the unity inside the Church, something that raises all sorts of questions like, Why are there five Catholic universities, four belonging to the Maronite Church? Isn't this a waste in resources and energies? Isn't there some unproductive rivalries? By unity, we also mean, secondly, cooperation among Catholic Churches that follow different rites as a way to boost witness and efficacy. Finally, by unity we mean the unity, amid the diversity of rites, of Catholic and Orthodox Churches with the focal point being the shared date for the celebration of Easter.

Clearly, these issues will play a minor role. The Exhortation is expected to be a tool for Eastern Churches, an extra but not superfluous compass to come out of the political, economic and moral jungle in which the Churches are moving in a disoriented fashion.

Finally, it will all depend on how Catholic Churches of the Middle East respond to Benedict XVI's guidelines.

Citing Henry Kissinger's memoires, an elderly cleric said that the Machiavellian US secretary of state, when he visited the region, could not understand the Lebanese because they were all talking at the same time. He also said Kissinger could not understand the Syrians because they were all silent at the same time, unsure whether they were silent because they knew nothing or knew too much.

The Apostolic Exhortation will only answer questions that were openly discussed at the 2010 Synod. What was not said or was said obliquely will not be discussed.

The Church and the Arab spring

Will Benedict XVI talk about the Arab spring? No one knows. Still, prudence aside, the Catholic Church cannot but take into account how the region's peoples view such "springtime" in their national life.

Whatever the impact this historical process may have, the threats that might affect it or the dismissive views of its enemies and sceptics, the Arab spring has generated a real aspiration for democracy, human emancipation, dignity and respect for people.

In any case, this aspiration is in line with the "flow of history," backed by unquestionable demographic data reported by anthropologist Emmanuel Todd and demographer Youssef Courbage.

In a study that predates current events, the two scholars identified a number of factors that led to political changes: a declining birth-rate; high illiteracy, especially among women; and the decline of endogamy, i.e. marrying cousins, so typical of Arab countries. This shows that Western and Arab Muslim lifestyles are converging, not diverging.

It is important for the Church to realise that, notwithstanding regressions and varying periods of transitions from country to country, we are witnessing a groundswell in the Arab world that is leading to the secularisation of Islam.

Walking on water

Lastly and unfortunately, many media have viewed Benedict XVI's much anticipated trip against a backdrop of fear. Since July in fact, every time Lebanon experienced some political hiccup, many expected the visit to be postponed.  But Christianity is not that at all.

When in 1993 John Paul II decided to visit Nicaragua, it was suggested that all the members of the pontifical delegation wear bullet-proof vests. The pope refused. He told the head of his mission that in 1981 he was struck in one of the safest places for a pope, St Peter's Square.

John Paul II's argument still applies today. Benedict XVI cannot stir Peter's boat by hiding in his papal apartments; he must instead face the storms and when necessary walk on water.

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