Fr. Samir: Christians together, the small flock and hope in the Middle East
Cyprus (AsiaNews) – The Instrumentum Laboris (IL) released by the Pope in Cyprus, from the perspective of its overall structure, has in general remain unchanged from that of the Lineamenta. The internal development of each point, however, is different because they include at least 100 responses received from the entire entire region: Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the emigrant Church: from Paris, America . . .
Some sections are almost identical but overall at least two thirds of the IL is new, having to meet different requests and criticisms.
The situation of Christians has changed dramatically in recent decades
The structure is the same as the one initially envisaged. The first relatively well developed part deals with the status questionis, where a general overview is given of the situation of Christians today and why they emigrate. It is explained that often the reasons are dictated by the changes that have taken place in Middle Eastern society in recent decades:
- In first place, widespread Islamization (especially in Egypt); the worsening political situation in all countries, subject to authoritarianism and dictatorship, or the civil war in Lebanon and the Christians consequent loss of influence;
- The prolonging of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has a direct affect on the lack of regional stability;
- The recent war in Iraq, which has augmented the anxiety of Christians.
In the Middle East, what happens in one country affects others. Moreover, many Iraqi immigrants, for example, are now in other Arab countries, especially Jordan, Syria (many), Lebanon, Egypt . . .
The emigration of Christians
The internal development of Christianity is marked by slow but continuous emigration, the result of which, after almost 30-40 years, are there for all to see.
In Lebanon, for example, at the time of the Constitution in '46, about 60 years ago, there was a small Christian majority when compared to Muslim and Druze. Now nobody wants to carry out a census, but Christians have fallen below 40% (perhaps 35%). And this makes a big difference, even in political terms.
In Lebanon, it is said: "If this phenomenon continues, in a few years from now we will be less than 30%. Will we still have the freedom to decide on the future of the country? Will we still be a Christian-Muslim state?” Many Christians say, “I would stay in my country, but would my children still be able to live their faith?”
This applies even more to other countries, where the percentage of Christians does not exceed 10%, such as in Egypt. Elsewhere it is 6, 5, or 3%. In other countries in the region, like Turkey, we see the presence of Christian plunge, in less than a hundred years, from about 20% to 1%.
This leads us now to address these problems not only as “Catholics” but also as “Christians”. And this is a feature of the current Synod.
In May, I was invited to Munich to the "2. Ökumenischer Kirchentag ", the largest ecumenical meeting with about 100,000 people, to speak of the Synod of Churches for Middle East. With me was a Lebanese Greek Orthodox professor who teaches in Münster. He said, "This Synod is important to us Orthodox, like nothing else in the world."
We must really consider the Orthodox presence at Synod, making sure they are not just there at a representational level, but really a working part of the Synod, present in large numbers, all working together.
The question of unity among Christians disappear, the social challenges; political and religious freedom that does not exist in the Middle East (there is freedom of worship – not always – freedom of expression is denied in Algeria, Tunisia, etc.). These are all issues that must be addressed together.
But Muslims need to be present too in order to understand that it is time for them to evolve without losing their personality, but by addressing human rights, which are more important and come before that of religion.
International Christian Immigration
Another common problem that the churches have not yet fully addressed is the international Christian immigration from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Ethiopia, Sudan . . . to the countries of the Middle East.
Days ago in Beirut, I was listening to the Lebanese minister of justice on the radio who emphasized the urgent need to address the problems facing foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, that they must be treated with justice in accordance with human rights. This awareness is undoubtedly due to the many Christian activists who work in defense of these people.
Across the Middle East, domestic workers count over 1 million people. Many of them are Catholic and are treated like slaves. There is now a growing awareness of this and it is thanks to the commitment of Catholics. Although a minority, we are among the most attentive to the problems of human rights, of the individual and society.
This emphasis on Christian immigrants from the East is also important in another sense. They are a vital witness and support for local Christians. They are living communities, full of song and joy. Emphasizing their presence is also important for the case of Saudi Arabia, where the more than one million Christians who work there are denied the right to their religion, and the state cannot indefinitely refuse to find a solution to this situation.
The relationship with the Christians of the West
Little is mentioned in the IL about communion with the Churches of the West; instead, it asks their help to seek solutions to the political and social situation in the Middle East by influencing their Western governments (where applicable).
It must be said that the relationship between Churches of the East and the West has changed since the Crusades or Lebanese protectorates. We realize that the West is no longer Christian. France was once called "the eldest daughter of the Church;” today, it is rather defined as "the daughter who has disowned her mother!”
On the other hand, there is the growing realization that we, Christians of the East, have our own identity. And I must say that is not a single line on colonialism, on the wounds produced by the West, etc., in the entire document. We do not have this complex; we do not even reject the West. We have a clear identity in dialogue with it.
On the one hand, we think that the West still has much to give to the East, even from the spiritual point of view. The speeches of the Pope (the various Popes) are listened to with respect and esteem by many Christians and others, for their spirituality and their attention to a proper evolution of society. During a course in Beirut, an Eastern Orthodox professor told me that she and her Church consider the Synod important and see it as something that personally regards them.
The Catholic Church infrastructure in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere in the East is maintained thanks to the financial and personnel assistance of Catholic missionaries, both Eastern and Western. The same can be seen in hospitals and schools.
Social work in favor of unions, workers' rights, and gender justice, came about thanks to the influence of Western religious. In Egypt, social work is also carried out by Muslims, and they themselves acknowledge that they learned this from Western Christians.
Turning then to the subtitle given by the Pope to Synod, "Communion and witness”, two other parts emerge.
The second part speaks of the communion among believers in the Catholic Church, and between believers and clergy, while the third part speaks of witness to other churches and non-Christians (Jews and Muslims).
Personally, I would have included in this second part on communion, sections on catechesis, on the renewal of the liturgy in fidelity to particular traditions (which should be done together with the Orthodox) and ecumenism (which are now in the third part) because these areas are instruments of true communion between Catholics and other Christians. Jesus Christ at the Last Supper prayed for Christian unity. And if Christians are divided, the witness loses meaning.
The witness to Jews and Muslims
The third part focuses mainly on witness toward non-Christians (Jews and Muslims) and to the commitment in cities to build a society that is more humane, more worthy of Man.
There are sections in this part on religious and theological dialogue with Judaism and Islam.
This part has been thoroughly revised, especially with regards to Judaism. Other parts deal with the political question, in view of a peace founded in justice. But in these sections, we wanted to address the theological question.
In the Middle East, neither Muslims nor Jews distinguish between politics or religion, and in general, hate is the common denominator. Among Christians, some make this distinction; others project their political reality onto theology. There are Christians – even Catholics – who claim that the Old Testament text is “ugly, that it does not come from God", just like Muslims, who in theory recognize its divine inspiration, but then say that these texts were manipulated (tahrîf).
The document insists on the theological basis in our bond with Judaism, on the relationship between the New and Ancient Israel: this is a challenge for Eastern theology. Many churches are closed within the horizon of the Arab world. Yet, especially those of the Holy Land must confront themselves in their daily life with the Jewish world.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem has made an important contribution to this opening. The contributions that arrived from Jerusalem say: for us the problem is not Islam, but religious Israel, which in everyday life has many aspects similar to Islam.
Attention to the Jewish world and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith is essential: there are Christians who refuse to read the Old Testament because it speaks of Israel. Not long ago in Palestine the idea was put forward to "purge" all the psalms of the parts, which spoke of "Israel", reciting an incomplete prayer, due to the ambiguity with which the Jews themselves used this word.
Some Muslims collaborators have complained that the section on Islam is short. From one point of view, this is true, but the essential is covered. For the rest, when speaking of witness in the cities (the last part of the IL), the ambiguity of modernity and the need for collaboration to address it in religious and spiritual terms, it refers not only to Christians but to Muslims as well.
The issue of witness in the cities cannot be separated between them and us. Moreover, a source of inspiration for the IL was ten documents of the Patriarchs of the East, rich in ideas, two of which are exclusively devoted to Islam.
Conclusion: We have a mission in this region and this gives us hope
Finally, there is the conclusion, which highlights hope. Even though we are a minority, we have a mission, and this should not discourage us.
Could this Christian hope also stir up the political-social situation, which is often “static” and “stale”? Not a lot.
The document highlights one hope against all hope, one based on Christ, more than the practical nature of events. In the Middle East, we have the impression that the situation is stuck and beyond our reach. Some Palestinians and some Israelis do not want peace. Both of these groups have an interest in maintaining a state of tensions.
At the same time, the big powers are weak. Russia has been out of the Mideast area for quite some time. The United States are tied lock, stock and barrel to Israel, for their own reasons. There was some hope with Obama, but in practical terms, nothing concrete has come from that direction. We have the feeling that the situation is getting out of hand.
Still, we insist that peace in the region can only be achieved if justice is respected and the law and all the decisions of the international community represented by the United Nations are upheld with guarantees for the two states (Israel and Palestine). No solution can come from the use of force or from violence. Only dialogue based on justice and respect for international decisions can lead to peace.
However the case may be, something justifies our hope. Until ten years ago, in Lebanon, Shias had plans to set up an Iranian-style Islamic state. Now they are saying they do not want an Islamic state because they have seen it in Iran and realize that it would be a step backward. There is therefore some movement, some tiny steps in the right direction.
Attempts in Egypt to restrict as much as possible the application of the Sharia, leaving some space to Christians, are also something noteworthy. In the past few years, it has become a important topic of discussion. Every year, thousands of Christians convert to Islam (often for family reasons), but about a thousand Muslims convert to Christianity but now they are no longer murdered. They might still be marginalized or even forced to practice in secret, but their situation shows that things are evolving in the right direction. Consequently, our presence as Christians is not pointless.
Lastly, we Christians are aware of our mission in the Middle East. This is where Christianity was born and from where it spread to the rest of the world. This is where it will continue to nurture this land blessed by God. It will truly become a “Holy Land” if we Christians can live the Gospel, be its Witnesses, until the ultimate Witness if need be!