Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

What the West can learn from the Synod for the Middle East

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 07, 2010

The working document for the October 2010 meeting of the Synod of Bishops, devoted to the Church in the Middle East, should be an eye-opener for comfortable Christians in the West.

Informed Christians in Europe and North America realize that the Church in the Middle East is suffering: from the pressure of militant Islam, from the reverberations of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and from the drain of emigration. But the instrumentum laboris for the October Synod underlines the urgency of these problems and challenges the faithful throughout the world to show their support for their embattled fellow believers in the world's most volatile region.

In his preface to the instrumentum laboris, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, asks readers to recognize what is at stake, noting that "the present-day situation in the Middle East is much like that of the primitive Christian community in the Holy Land." Anyone who loves the Church, which arose first in the region, should recognize the importance of strengthening this community. Archbishop Eterovic draws out the conclusion in an admirable understatement: "It would indeed be a great loss for the universal Church if Christianity were to disappear or be diminished in the very place where it was born."

The instrumentum laboris, which will form the basis for discussion at the October Synod meeting, serves as a useful preliminary indication of how the universal Church approaches the challenge of strengthening Christianity in this troubled region. The instrumentum laboris is prepared by the Synod office on the basis the comments received from bishops all over the world, in response to an earlier document, the lineamenta. So this working document represents the thinking of the world's Church leaders-- not those of any particular country or region. The instrumentum laboris is a working document, to be sure, rather than a final product. The Synod discussions in October will yield more fully developed conclusions. Still Catholics who wish to "think with the Church" can learn a great deal from the working document.

[The full 51- page text of the instrumentum laboris is available on the web site of the Synod of Bishops and, of course, here on The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. The Vatican Information Service has provided a useful summary.]

Any attentive reader will draw some useful perspectives from this document. In my own reading of the instrumentum laboris I found six noteworthy themes:

  1. A serious difference on religious freedom
  2. The negligence of the West, and of world leaders generally, regarding the plight of Christians in the Middle East
  3. The injustice of the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
  4. The danger of Islamic terrorism-- to Muslims as well as others.
  5. The diversity of Christian and even Catholic traditions in the region.
  6. The vital importance of the family.
A serious difference on religious freedom

The problems that Christians face in the religious minority in the Middle East are exacerbated by "the theocratic character of government," the Synod document notes. That criticism-- which is directed primarily but not solely at Islamic governments-- points toward a deeper disagreement about the meaning of religious freedom. The instrumentum explains:

In the Middle East, freedom of religion customarily means freedom of worship and not freedom of conscience, that is, the freedom to believe or not believe, to practice openly one's religion, privately or publicly, or to change one's religion for another. Generally speaking, religion in the Middle East is a social and even a national choice, not an individual one. To change one's religion is perceived as a betrayal of the society, culture and nation, which are founded, for the most part, on a religious tradition.

When world leaders speak of the need to recognize religious freedom, the more moderate Islamic states nod in agreement. But from their perspective, "religious freedom" means the right of Christians to be Christians. It does not necessarily extend far enough to protect the right of Christians to practice their faith openly, much less the right of Muslims to embrace Christianity.

The negligence of the West, and of world leaders generally, regarding the plight of Christians in the Middle East

Christians are suffering throughout the Middle East, and while the world occasionally pays attention to other victims groups, these Christians are ignored. The Synod document levels the charge:

International policies often pay no attention to the existence of Christians, and the fact that they are victims, at times the first to suffer, goes unnoticed. This is also a major cause of emigration.
The massive flight of Christians from the nations of the Middle East should be evidence enough that something is terribly wrong. Thousands of Christians are leaving the region. Young, ambitious, talented Christians-- the best hope for the future of their communities-- are looking for a better life elsewhere. Shouldn't that be enough to convince world leaders that the situation is dire? The Synod document mentions several countries in which Christians are facing particularly difficult problems. Amid the continuing turmoil in Iraq, the instrumentum notes, "since Christians represent the smallest and weakest part of Iraqi society, they are the principal victims of violence, a fact which his not given sufficient attention in world politics." In Lebanon, where the Christian population has slipped from a bare majority to a minority, the "Islamicization" of society hastens the exodus. In Turkey, the country's peculiar notion of secularity "is currently posing more problems" for the Christian minority. Will world leaders pay more attention to the dire conditions facing Christians in the Middle East? That will surely be one major goal of the October Synod.

The injustice of the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

One passage of the instrumentum has already received widespread attention in the secular media, because its political implications are unavoidable:

The Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories is creating difficulties in everyday life, inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life (access to the Holy Places is dependent on military permission which is granted to some and denied to others on security grounds).
Equally significant-- especially from an American perspective-- is the severe criticism of "certain Christian fundamentalist theologies" that "use Sacred Scripture to justify Israel's occupation of Palestine, making the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue."

The danger of Islamic terrorism-- to Muslims as well as others.

Because the threat of Islamic radicalism hangs like a cloud over the entire world, it is easy to forget that the Church is a special object of hatred among Muslim fundamentalists. Western governments may be thoroughly secularized, but proponents of jihad still identify them with the Christian world that launched the Crusades. The Vatican is regarded as one of the top targets of Islamic terrorist groups. Christians in Iraq, in Egypt, and in Algeria have been particular objects of terror attacks.

The Vatican's strategic response to these threats, which can be seen in the Synod document, is an effort to persuade more moderate Muslims that they must join in the effort to stamp out religious extremism. The terror and bloodshed wrought by radical Islam, the instrumentum notes, brings disaster for believers and non-believers; it is "a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike."

The diversity of Christian and even Catholic traditions in the region.

The difficulties facing Catholics in the Middle East are often complicated by the fact that Catholics themselves are divided. Maronite, Melkite, Syrian, Coptic, and Armenian Catholics live alongside the Roman Catholics. Each of these churches has its own leadership, its own rituals, and its own traditions that stretch back to the times of the Apostles. The dispute that led to their separation-- often tainted by political forces-- have not entirely disappeared over the centuries, the instrumentum concedes: "These divisions, a bitter fruit of history, still exist today in the various churches of the Middle East." In order to present a united witness to the world, and to ensure the maximum protection for the faithful, Catholics must work closely together despite their historic and ritual differences. And that challenge is reproduced on a larger scale in the need for Catholics to work effectively with the many different Orthodox churches of the region.

The vital importance of the family.

In the West it is commonplace for the Church to defend marriage and family life against the damage done by the sexual revolution. In the Middle East, where that revolution is generally unknown, the challenge is somewhat different. Family life remains, nonetheless, the fundamental building block from which any viable society is constructed. Moreover, in a community troubled by emigration and a decline in population, the need for large, intact families is clear. The words of the instrumentum laboris need no explanation:

The foremost task of the Church is to promote the family and to defend it from the various dangers which in recent times are threatening its sacred nature and stability. At the same time, given current demographics, the Church encourages parents to have large families.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Defender - Jun. 08, 2010 1:27 PM ET USA

    Despite the existence of Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the occupation of the Church of the Nativity by Muslim militants in 2002, ignoring how Christians are treated around the Arab world and the need to be so politically correct in Europe and the United States (to the detriment of Christians)it becomes obvious that things will not change until states and the Church stop practicing appeasement.