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Papal trip highlights crisis facing Christians in the Middle East

Catholic World News - June 07, 2010

The October 2010 meeting of the Synod of Bishops will be "an opportunity for Christians of the rest of the world to offer spiritual support and solidarity to their brothers and sisters in the Middle East," Pope Benedict XVI said as he unveiled the working document for that Synod assembly. During a weekend visit to Cyprus the Pope himself took every opportunity to shine the spotlight on the problems facing the Christians in the troubled region.

"It is well known that some of you suffer great trails due to the current situation in the region," the Pope said during a Mass on June 6 in an arena in Nicosia, Cyprus. At that Mass, attended by about 6,000 people including the leaders of the many different Catholic communities in the Middle East, the Pope formally released the instrumentum laboris that will form the basis for discussion at the October Synod meeting. As he released the document the Pope offered a prayer that "just and lasting solutions may be found to the conflicts that cause so much hardship."

The Synod document emphasizes the difficulties that Christians face as a minority in the volatile region. In Islamic countries, the instrumentum laboris states, Christians are sometimes in "the precarious position of being considered non-citizens, despite the fact that they were citizens of their countries long before the rise of Islam." The great challenge in these countries, the document says, is to promote recognition of fundamental human rights, including religious freedom.

The document is critical of Israel as well, for its restrictions on access to religious shrines and especially its continued occupation of Palestinian territories. The Synod document adds a lament that "certain Christian fundamentalist theologies use sacred scripture to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine, making the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue.”

[For a more detailed analysis of the instrumentum laboris see our In-Depth Analysis]

During a June 5 meeting with the Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus, Pope Benedict shed some light on his choice of the island nation as the spot where he would release the instrumentum laboris. "Cyprus," he observed, "is traditionally considered part of the Holy Land, and the situation of continuing conflict in the Middle East must be a source of concern to all Christ's followers. No one can remain indifferent to the need to support in every way possible the Christians of that troubled region, so that its ancient churches can live in peace and flourish."

Cyprus, a divided nation, has its own difficulties, mirroring some of the region's persistent conflicts. The Pope avoided any direct mention of the continuing Turkish occupation in the north of the country. He did, however, meet briefly with a Muslim leader from the north, Sheikh Mehmet Nazim Adil Al-Haquani, who has been involved in efforts to promote dialogue between Muslims and Christians. The 89-year-old sheikh asked the Pope's pardon for remaining seated as they met. "I am old," he explained; the Pope replied, "I am old too." As they parted the sheikh asked for the Pontiff's prayers, and Benedict responded: "we will pray for one another."

The Christians of Cyprus are mostly Orthodox, and during his visit the Pope spoke frequently of the need for Orthodox and Catholics to join together in a common witness. However, he offered special encouragement to the small Catholic community during a Mass in the cathedral of Nicosia. In his homily the Pope reflected on the meaning of the Cross: "an an instrument of torture, suffering and defeat, but at the same time it expresses the complete transformation, the definitive reversal of these evils: that is what makes it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world has ever seen." The Pope concluded that "the world needs the Cross."

As he prepared to leave the island nation the Pope made one final appeal for "efforts to build a real and lasting peace for all the peoples of the region." He assured the participants in an airport farewell ceremony that "Cyprus can play a particular role in promoting dialogue and cooperation."

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