The National Catholic Review
Elias D. Mallon
Interreligious relations and the Synod of the Middle East
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Pope Benedict XVI was standing in prayer in the beautiful Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Alongside him stood Ali Bardakoglu, the president of the Religious Affairs Directorate of Turkey. The image of the two men standing side by side in silent prayer on Nov. 30, 3006, presented a stark contrast to the riotous Muslim reaction to Benedict’s lecture 11 weeks earlier in Regensburg, Germany. There the pope’s quotation of a passage from Emperor Manuel II Paleologos to the effect that the only thing that Muhammad had brought was “cruel and inhuman” had unleashed a storm of outrage across the Muslim world. The two events provide a paradigm of Catholic-Muslim relations: On the one side, mutual respect and dialogue, and on the other, misunderstanding, turmoil and resentment.

Last September Pope Benedict XVI convoked a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East to take place in Rome from Oct. 10 to 24, 2010. The convocation was announced during a meeting between the pope and major patriarchs and archbishops of the seven Catholic churches in the Middle East: the Coptic, Melkite (Byzantine Rite), Maronite, Syrian, Chaldaean, Armenian and Latin (Roman). Although the assembly will deal primarily with Catholic churches in the region, all Christians—Orthodox and Protestant as well—share the same concerns and experience many of the same problems as Catholics in the Middle East. The overarching situation they all feel is living as a religious minority in rapidly changing Muslim societies.

What follows is an examination of three closely related topics the synod will have to address: 1) formal interfaith (Muslim-Christian) relations; 2) interaction between Muslims and Christians in everyday life and 3) the factors spurring Christian emigration from the region.

Leaders and Scholars

With the publication of “The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (“Nostra Aetate”) in October 1965, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church committed itself to dialogue with Islam, which, the declaration said, it holds in “high regard.” Since that time the Catholic Church has engaged in widespread, high-level dialogue with Muslim religious leaders and thinkers. Although there have been bumps along the way, the dialogue has been fruitful.

Pope Benedict has visited several Muslim countries, and Muslim leaders have visited him at the Vatican. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited the pope in November 2007—the first visit of a Saudi monarch to the Vatican. The following summer (July 2008) the king’s interfaith conference in Madrid called for increased contact and dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians. In 2009 the pope visited King Abdullah II of Jordan and gave a major address at the King Hussein State Mosque in Amman.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has sponsored and engaged in many dialogues and conferences on topics of mutual interest with Muslims. There have been exchanges of faculty members between Catholic and Muslim universities, with Muslim scholars teaching at pontifical universities, like the Gregorian in Rome, and Catholic professors teaching at universities in Turkey, Iran and elsewhere. On this level there are many signs of healthy dialogue. While the pope’s Regensburg lecture was met with outrage in Muslim quarters and some people engaged in the dialogue wondered if relations with Muslims had been mortally wounded, the pope’s speedy explanation and expression of regret helped to defuse the situation. Benedict met with groups of Muslim leaders. Then in October 2007 leading Muslim scholars, under the sponsorship of the Jordanian royal family, published an open letter titled “A Common Word Between Us and You” in an effort to establish contacts at greater depth with the Christian world.

“A Common Word” was initially signed by 138 Muslim thinkers (more signed on later) from an array of Muslim traditions, as broad a representation of Islamic schools and sects as one can find in modern times. The document is addressed by name to 28 Christian leaders and “leaders of Christian Churches everywhere,” which reveals a sophisticated understanding of the diversity of Christianity. The “common word” the authors chose to share was “the love of God.”

Several conferences of Catholic bishops, cardinals and ecumenists have been among those who signed on to the process. In the United States, follow-up conferences have been held at Georgetown University and Yale, and at Cambridge University in Britain. In terms of public awareness and the range of people now engaged in discussions, “A Common Word” helped to move the dialogue between Christians and Muslims to an expanded level.

Most important, the Vatican initiated a new round of formal dialogues with representative Muslim scholar-participants. It has two tracks. The first deals with the religious and theological issues raised in the letter. The second addresses practical, pastoral and social-ethical issues of concern to the church worldwide, but of special relevance to the Middle East, where in many places Christians find their rights denied. These include human rights, tolerance and religious liberty. Pope Benedict has sometimes referred to this package of issues as “reciprocity,” by which he means the need for Muslim countries in the Middle East to allow the same freedoms for Christians in Islamic lands that Muslims enjoy in the West.

Encounters in Everyday Life

If relations between Catholic and Muslim leaders are for the most part very good, relations on the local level are often problematic, if not dangerous. Since the publication of “Nostra Aetate” many events have transpired that have profoundly influenced local Christian-Muslim relations for the worse: the occupation of the West Bank/Palestine (1967); the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990); the Iranian revolution (1979); the first and second intifada (1987–1993; 2000–); the first and second Persian Gulf wars (January-February 1991; 2003–); the war in Afghanistan (2001–); the rise of “militant Islam” or “Islamism”; and numerous localized conflicts among Israel and Lebanon and the Palestinians. These have made it very difficult for Christians living in the Middle East.

Middle Eastern Christians experienced the same wars, deprivations and sufferings as their Muslim neighbors. The historical traumas of the last 60 years, however, have put greater pressure on Christians, especially with the rise in the 1990s of a politically resurgent and militant Islam. Since many Muslims perceive some of these events as attacks by the West on Islam, in many places the situation of Middle Eastern Christians has grown precarious. For that reason, the church has tried to encourage their full civic engagement in nonconfessional secular states whenever this is a real possibility. In addition, the diplomatic policy of the Holy See has sought to guarantee religious liberty and full civic equality for Christians in the region.

The Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East, like the Vatican, stresses notions of “citizenship” that transcend religious identity and entail equality for all citizens. The situation in which Christians find themselves varies greatly from country to country. In Lebanon and Jordan Christians are relatively free and equal, while in Saudi Arabia, they are severely restricted. Notable progress has been made in recent years in some Gulf states (Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain), especially in the construction of churches, mostly for congregations of guest workers. But in other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and to a lesser extent Egypt, barriers exist to full exercise of freedom of religion.

Violence Against Christians

A result of the breakdown of society in Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon during its civil war and Iraq and Afghanistan at present, has been a massive increase in lawlessness and violence. Extremist organizations like Al Qaeda do not hesitate to use violence and terror against civilians. While the vast majority of casualties from Muslim terrorist attacks are other Muslims, local Christians often provide convenient targets and, given their numerical and political weakness, suffer a disproportionate amount of the violence.

The number of violent attacks directed at Christians because of their religious identity has risen markedly in recent years. A coordinated bombing of six churches in Mosul and Baghdad, for example, took place on Jan. 6, 2008. The following month Archbishop Paulos F. Rahho of Mosul was kidnapped; his body was found weeks later. Six more bombs were detonated in front of Christian churches in Baghdad in July 2009. Reports from Christians living in Iraq indicate that they are under constant threat of kidnapping, violence and murder. It is estimated that since the beginning of the second Gulf war, half the Christian population has left Iraq. Although Christians comprised a minority of less than 5 percent of the total population, almost 40 percent of Iraqi refugees are Christians.

Even in secular Turkey there have been very public instances of violence against Christians. On Feb. 5, 2006, Andrea Santoro, a Capuchin priest, was murdered, apparently in retaliation for the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons in a Danish newspaper. Four years later, on June 3, 2010, Bishop Luigi Padovese was murdered by his own driver. While it is not clear that the latter was a crime motivated by religion, and Benedict XVI has stated that it was not so motivated, such acts do not make Christians in the region feel any more comfortable. While Catholic-Muslim relations appear to be doing well at the level of the leaders of the two faiths, demographic, political and cultural forces, like militant Islam, have made life increasingly difficult for many Christians living in the region.

The Dilemmas of Emigration

In the past century Christian emigration from the Middle East has reached alarming proportions. It is estimated that in 1900 more than 25 percent of the population of Istanbul was Christian. The figure is now 0.2 percent. In 1948 Jerusalem was 20 percent Christian. Today the proportion is about 2 percent. Christians who once were the overwhelming majority in cities like Bethlehem now find themselves in the minority; by some estimates they have gone from being 80 percent of the population a few decades ago to 15 percent today.

Christian leaders in the Middle East have long recognized the possibility that a viable Christian presence may be lost in the very lands where Christianity was born. The synod has listed emigration as one of the primary problems it will address. Merely to assert that Christian migration from the Middle East has to be stopped, however, is not a realistic response. Without changes in the environment in which Christians live, calls from synods, the Council of Patriarchs and local church leaders to stem the tide of emigration are not likely to be effective. If Christian families are discriminated against or subject to violence, those who can will do so to protect themselves and their families. While some brave spirits may choose to continue to give witness to Christianity in the Middle East, it is highly unlikely that they will be a majority.

Clearly emigration is a major crisis for the Eastern Catholic churches as well as for the universal church, not to mention the other historic churches of the region. Middle Eastern Christians have rich theological, spiritual and liturgical traditions that go back to the very beginnings of Christianity. To be deprived of these would be a loss for all Christians. When Christians emigrate, they face a double threat: first, the threat of becoming so assimilated into the cultures of their new countries that they lose their distinctive traditions; second, the threat of becoming “ghettoized,” reduced to living in exotic religious enclaves. The first threat imperils their identity; the second their viability.

The synod has a daunting task ahead of it. It needs to address the problems of Christians in the Middle East and provide them with support and encouragement in meeting them. The synod must also address Middle Eastern Christians living—probably permanently—outside the Middle East and help them to adapt to their new situations and to bring the gifts of their ancient traditions to new countries and new cultures. The members of the synod can be assured that Christians all over the world are of “one heart and soul” (Acts 43:32) in praying for their success.

Editor’s Note: While Catholic-Muslim dialogue is the major interfaith encounter in the region, we attempted to find a contribution on the Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Israel, but were unable to do so by deadline.

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., a Graymoor friar, serves as advocacy director for Franciscans International at the United Nations in New York. His last article for America,“Shiite Muslims—the Party of Aly,” appeared in 200