09/15/2012, 00.00
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Ecclesia in Medio Oriente: urgent need of Christians’ faith and witness

by Bernardo Cervellera
In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Middle East, signed yesterday in Beirut, Benedict XVI does not offer political solutions, but asks Christians to rekindle the gift of faith which gives rise to their creativity in society. The faithful must help free their societies of secularism and fundamentalism, and see that religious freedom is guaranteed to all. The Middle East as a laboratory of coexistence.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The Middle East - which nowadays continues to make headlines with news of violence, war, oppression, persecution and injustice - needs the unity and witness of Christians. This is Benedict XVI's simple, direct proposal, essential for Churches in the region and throughout the world. In his Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Medio Oriente," fruit of the Synod held in the Vatican in October 2010, he calls Christians to specific political, partisan, ideological commitments asking them to be Christians, with a strong identity, based on faith in Jesus Christ and the Church's tradition.

In the 90-page document, the word "faith" is mentioned more than 65 times. It is what gives strength to Christian life (no. 41), the push for collaboration between different denominations that bear witness to "the unity of the faith amid the diversity of their traditions " (2), the root of all ecumenism with Jews and Muslims (# 3), the source of every contribution to charity and culture that the faithful can make to society (No. 67).

Strengthening the faith

The Apostolic Exhortation does not offer political solutions. The Holy See's position on a number of regional conflicts, the holy places and the status of Jerusalem is mentioned only in passing, (n. 10). On the other hand, the tangled skein of problems - from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to Syria, from coexistence, to the exodus of Christians and Muslims, poverty, injustice - does not afford an easy agenda. At the same time, the Middle East is witness to festering dramas - for example the plight of Palestinian refugees, of Syrian and Iraqi Christians, of Kurds and other minorities, the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites, between moderate and fundamentalist Islam - and the failure of any attempts to find solutions.

The Pope speaks with sorrow of all this: " How many deaths have there been, how many lives ravaged by human blindness, how many occasions of fear and humiliation! It would seem that there is no end to the crime of Cain (cf. Gen 4:6-10 and 1 Jn 3:8-15) among the sons of Adam and Eve created in God's image (cf. Gen 1:27). Adam's transgression, reinforced by the sin of Cain, continues to produce thorns and thistles (cf. Gen 3:18) even today. How sad it is to see this blessed land suffer in its children who relentlessly tear one another to pieces and die!" (N. 8).

Somehow, Benedict XVI believes that Christians have been conniving with these situations. Suffice it to recall the massacre in the Palestinian camp of Sabra and Shatila (1982), by Lebanese Forces (Christian!), and at the behest of Israel. But the list could be much longer with Christian supporters of the Syrian Baath party, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the militancy of Hezbollah, .. For this reason he first asks Christians for "repentance" and "conversion" (n. 8), to return to proclaim that " that only Jesus, who passed through sufferings and death in order to rise again, is capable of bringing salvation and peace to all who dwell in your part of the world (cf. Acts 2:23-24, 32-33) "(n. 8). The "sin" of Christians is the result of "when the eschatological dimension of the faith has been attenuated and the Christian sense of history moving towards fulfilment in God has yielded to earthbound perspectives and projects" (n. 80).

Therefore, to strengthen the faith and its reason, the document devotes many pages to the internal life of the Church, unity and witness of patriarchs, bishops, priests, monks and nuns, lay people, families, youth and children (see . the second and third parts).

Healthy secularism and fundamentalism

At the same time, he demands a specific contribution of Christians to society, in helping to overcome two major obstacles in the region (and the world): an unhealthy secularism and fundamentalism.

The Pope explains that secularism is to be rejected when it reduces religion to the private sphere, alien to society (n. 29). But he speaks of the importance of implementing a "healthy secularity" that fosters "mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds." "This kind of healthy secularity ensures that political activity does not manipulate religion, while the practice of religion remains free from a politics of self-interest which at times is barely compatible with, if not downright contrary to, religious belief" (n. 29) .

Religious fundamentalism that uses "economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion" is not the prerogative only of Muslims. It "afflicts all religious communities, and denies their long-standing tradition of coexistence". It wants to gain power" continues the Pope, "at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons." And once again - as he has done in recent years - he launched an appeal to "to all Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region to seek, by their example and by their teaching, to do everything in their power to eliminate this menace which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions". (No. 30).

Peace and religious freedom

Christians also have a contribution to make to the question of peace (Nos 9 and 10). Reflecting on the meaning of the word in its Jewish origin ("being complete and intact, restored to wholeness"), the Pope defines it as "the state of those who live in harmony with God and with themselves, with others and with nature", which also affirms justice. Only by reaffirming the religious dimension of peace will it be implemented: " Christians know that the earthly politics of peace will only be effective if justice in God and justice among men and women are its authentic basis, and if this same justice battles against the sin which is at the origin of division. "(n. 10). With all this, the Church works to make every effort for peace and engages mainly in the fraternal relationship with Jews and Muslims. Together with them, in "recognition of the One God", we can "make a powerful contribution to peace in the region and to respectful coexistence on the part of its peoples" (n. 19). Moreover, it is this "contribution made by Jews, Christians and Muslims" over the centuries which has led to "the formation of a rich culture proper to the Middle East" (n. 24).

In order for Christians to contribute to the good of society, as they have always done in the past, full freedom of religion must be guaranteed: " The Catholics of the Middle East, the majority

of whom are native citizens of their countries, have the duty and right to participate fully in national life, working to build up their country. They should enjoy full citizenship and not be treated as second-class citizens or believers. "(n. 25). The pontiff recalls the Arab renaissance, the schools, hospitals, institutions with which Christians have enriched the life of the peoples of the Middle East. He reaffirms that the rights of the person to religious freedom is not only a "Christian right", but "nothing less than the rights demanded by the dignity of each human person and each citizen, whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences" (n. 25).

He defines the content of religious freedom: "It includes on the individual and collective levels the freedom to follow one's conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship. It includes the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one's beliefs in public". And again: "It must be possible to profess and freely manifest one's religion and its symbols without endangering one's life and personal freedom. " (n. 26)

The Pope also states that it is necessary to move from a limited "tolerance" to a true "religious freedom." This step is not "an open door to relativism," but a respect for the "ray of truth" that "enlightens all men" (n. 27). "Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love " (ibid.).

In this way, the Middle East - almost synonymous with violence and destruction - can become a laboratory of coexistence: "The attention of the whole world is fixed on the Middle East as it seeks its path. May this region demonstrate that coexistence is not a utopia, and that distrust and prejudice are not a foregone conclusion. Religions can join one another in service to the common good and contribute to the development of each person and the building of society" (n. 28).


For the integral text of the Apostolic Exhortation click here

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