CNEWA Connections: ‘The Church in the Middle East’ Eight Years Later

Eight years ago, on 14 September 2012 in Beirut Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the post-synodal exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente” (“The Church in the Middle East”). It was the product of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East which took place in Rome in October 2010.

As with so many things when we look back, we tend to think: 2012! That’s eight years ago! And, of course, it is ten years since the Special Assembly. A closer look, however, shows that it is not merely that eight or ten years have passed quickly. The world of September 2020 was totally unforeseen in 2010 and 2012. Since 2010 the so-called Arab Spring has come and totally withered. Any hopes for democracy that existed in 2010 have been dashed. Egypt had its first democratically elected President who was overthrown in a military coup and replaced with another in Egypt’s history of “strong men” and dictators.

In 2011 there were pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria. They developed into a full-blown civil war, internally displacing almost a million people, forcing large numbers of refugees into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Many of Syria’s major cities were either destroyed or severely damaged. Of course, the insecurity of the situation in Syria motivated many Christians to emigrate. While the civil war in Syria seems to be moving towards a pyrrhic victory for Bashar al Assad, the country has been devastated and it has been estimated that it will take the Syrian economy at least 20 years merely to be where it was at the beginning of the civil war in 2011.

This same period has seen the rise (29 June 2014) of the Islamic caliphate and its precipitous decline with the fall of Mosul (10 July 2017) and its capital Raqqa (17 October 2017). Iraq, though relieved at least temporarily of the pressure of ISIS, is a state desperately trying to reconstitute itself. Christians, once estimated to number 1.5 million, are now estimated to be between 250,000 and 500,000 with most people tending towards the lower number.

While Lebanon was spared most of the violence that followed the Arab Spring — having itself recently emerged from its own civil war (1985-1990) in which some 120,000 Lebanese died — the events in countries surrounding Lebanon had a devastating effect on it. The smallest country in continental Asia, Lebanon became one of the major “target countries” for refugees fleeing the violence in Iraq and Syria. It is estimated that at times 25 percent of the people in Lebanon were refugees. This would put a tremendous strain on even a healthy economy and Lebanon’s economy was anything but healthy

Lebanon also continues to have serious internal problems. The social contract (the al-mithāg al-waṭany) which divided the government between the major Christian and Muslim denominations was not holding. Instead of pluralism, it was corruption, cronyism and religious tribalism that were destroying the country. Because of corruption and a huge national debt, the Lebanese economy and currency began to collapse. Then on 4 August 2020, a blast calculated to be the largest non-nuclear explosion in history destroyed Lebanon’s port and large sections of Beirut. Two hundred people were killed and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.

Neither the city of Beirut that Pope Benedict XVI addressed in 2012 nor the country of Lebanon that he visited is the same in 2020. Visually, large parts of Beirut are either in ruin or with severely damaged buildings, hospitals, etc. Less visibly, the pandemic of COVID-19 stalks the ruins and overwhelms what hospitals are still functioning. Also, in a time when good leadership is crucial, Lebanese cannot count on a transparent, competent, functioning government to lead them through the crisis.

In all this, Benedict’s Ecclesia in medio oriente is still relevant and, perhaps even more so. He stresses the importance of citizenship and full participation of all, including Christians, in building up the country. (Par. 25) The pope calls on the religions/denominations in Lebanon “to join one another in service to the common good” (Par 28). Benedict sees two trends in the Middle East: “Secularization, with its occasionally extreme consequences, and, a violent fundamentalism claiming to be based on religion.” (Par. 29)

In a country where religion(s) and politics are often (hopelessly) intertwined with turfs jealously guarded, Benedict surprisingly speaks of  a “healthy secularity [which] frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres,” recognizing that religion must be remain “free from a politics of self-interest which at times is barely compatible with, if not downright contrary to, religious belief).” (ibid)

The future of Lebanon is not clear and is precarious at best. Advice from the outside runs the risk of paternalism, if not downright hubris. While Lebanon must solve its own problems, many wonder if it is capable of doing that by itself. With all due respect, while not unheard of, it is a rare thing that an apostolic exhortation gets more relevant with time — and most especially when the times have so radically changed. While Ecclesia in medio oriente most certainly does not provide Lebanon or the Lebanese with a magic formula to save themselves, it does, nevertheless, provide them with some very important points to ponder as they struggle toward a better and sustainable future.

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