VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Synod of Bishops for the Middle East will be the shortest synod ever held at the Vatican and the first to welcome Arabic as an official synod language.
Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, said Arabic was used by some members of the special synod for Lebanon in 1995, but it was not recognized as an official language in the synod hall.
For the Middle East synod Oct. 10-24, members were allowed to make their speeches in Arabic, the Vatican planned to publish summaries in Arabic of all synod speeches, and the synod designated an Arabic-speaking priest to brief the press each day on synod events.
Explaining the synod innovations Oct. 8, Archbishop Eterovic announced that Israel-based Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, would address the synod Oct. 13.
The first rabbi to address a synod was Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, Israel, who spoke at the synod on the Bible in 2008.
While there were Muslim guests invited to observe the 1995 synod for Lebanon, the Middle East synod was to mark the first time the Vatican has extended an invitation to two Muslim scholars — a Sunni and a Shiite — to address a synod.
Muhammad al-Sammak, adviser to the chief mufti of Lebanon and secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, was to speak from the Sunni point of view. Ayatollah Sayyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, a professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Teheran, was to speak from the Shiite point of view. Both were scheduled to address the synod Oct. 14.
Archbishop Eterovic said the countries most directly involved in the synod are: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, the Palestinian territories and Yemen.
While the exact number of Catholics in the region is difficult to determine, and is sometimes politically sensitive, the Vatican estimates there are just more than 356 million people living in the countries covered by the synod and that about 5.7 million (just under 1.2 percent) of them are Catholic.
“We must recognize an interesting fact: In the Middle East there is emigration and immigration so that the number of Christians and the number of Catholics has varied only slightly” over the past 30 years, Archbishop Eterovic said. The immigrants include thousands of temporary workers from the Philippines and other countries working in the Gulf States as well as in Israel, he added.
However, he said, it is clear that the number of Catholics living in Iraq has dropped “dramatically” and that the Christian population also is declining in Turkey and in the Holy Land — Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.
Shortly after Archbishop Eterovic’s briefing, the Israeli embassy to the Holy See e-mailed reporters a statement saying “the Christian presence in Israel is increasing.”
“In the light of repeated insinuations that imply that the number of Christians present in the state of Israel is diminishing,” the embassy provided statistics from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics showing that the growth rate of Israeli Christians has been similar to the population growth of Israeli Jews from 1949 to 2007.
According to the Israeli figures, the number of Christians in Israel in 2007 was 151,600, while in 1949 there were an estimated 34,000 Christians there.
The Israeli embassy said, “To speak of persecutions or the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land is unjust to Israel and Jordan because such events have never been verified there.”
Archbishop Eterovic also told reporters that 140 of the 185 voting members of the synod come from one of the Eastern Catholic churches. The six Eastern churches present in the Middle East are the Coptic, Syrian, Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean and Armenian churches. In addition, Pope Benedict XVI has invited representatives of Ukrainian, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics to participate.