NICOSIA, Cyprus (CNS) — Presenting the working document for the special Synod of Bishops on the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI prayed for “just and lasting solutions” to the region’s conflicts, which cause so much hardship.
“I reiterate my personal appeal for an urgent and concerted international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land, before such conflicts lead to greater bloodshed,” the pope said June 6 at the end of a Mass in a Nicosia sports arena.
The pope gave the document to representatives from the Latin-rite, Maronite, Melkite, Armenian, Coptic, Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Churches living in countries from Egypt to Iran.
The synod will be held at the Vatican Oct. 10-24 and focus on “communion and witness” in the region where Christianity was born, but where Christians are a minority.
Pope Benedict told the region’s Catholics that the synod would be an occasion “to highlight the important value of the Christian presence and witness in the biblical lands, not just for the Christian community around the world, but also for your neighbors and fellow citizens.”
“You desire to live in peace and harmony with your Jewish and Muslim neighbors,” the pope said, adding that “often you act as peacemakers in the difficult process of reconciliation.”
Even though they are recognized for their work in education, health care and other charitable activities, many of the region’s Catholics face discrimination and limits on their rights, particularly their right to religious freedom, he said.
The synod working document was prepared by a committee of patriarchs and bishops from the Middle East and representatives of Vatican offices dealing with ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, Eastern Catholic churches and evangelization.
Pope Benedict began his presentation by remembering one of the committee members, Bishop Luigi Padovese, the president of the Turkish bishops’ conference, who was murdered June 3.
“His death is a sobering reminder of the vocation that all Christians share, to be courageous witnesses in every circumstance to what is good, noble and just,” the pope said.
The 45-page working document — released in Arabic, English, French and Italian — said that often surrounded by war and sometimes treated like outsiders, Christians in the Middle East need faith and outside support so that they can stay in the region and contribute to peacemaking.
For all Christians, but especially for many in the Middle East, the document said, “Living the truth and proclaiming it with charity and courage demands a real commitment. The most effective witness is allowing actions to speak louder than words, living Christianity faithfully and showing solidarity” through the work of Christian institutions like schools and hospitals.
Life often is difficult for Christians in the Middle East, especially because of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability throughout the region,” said the document, which was prepared on the basis of responses to a questionnaire sent to church leaders in the region.
“The menacing social situation in Iraq and the political instability of Lebanon further intensify the phenomenon,” it said.
The document said responses to the questionnaire clearly rejected anti-Semitism, while “the actual animosity between Arabs and Jews seems to be political in character due to the situation of conflict and the resulting political hostility.”
Given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it said, opposition to the existence of a Jewish state, “anti-Zionism, is more a political position and, consequently, to be considered foreign to every ecclesial discourse. In all these situations, Christians are asked to bring a spirit of reconciliation, based on justice and equality of the two parties.”
“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. Moreover, 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,” it said.
Some Christian fundamentalists interpret the Book of Revelation as saying that Jesus will not come again unless Jews are governing the Holy Land.
While acknowledging that the region’s political tensions often spill over onto relations among members of different religions, the document repeatedly encouraged new efforts at interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
The document noted the prevalence of traditional values and cultures throughout the region, a factor that is praiseworthy for upholding the importance of the family, for example, but one that also can lead to the exclusion of those seen as different.
“As one element in identification, religion not only differentiates people but can also be a source of division, when invoked to engender exclusion and hostility,” it said.
Christianity is native to the Middle East and existed there for centuries before Islam developed, the document said.
“Oftentimes, relations between Christians and Muslims are difficult, principally because Muslims make no distinction between religion and politics, thereby relegating Christians to the precarious position of being considered non-citizens,” the document said.
“The key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims is to recognize religious freedom and human rights,” it said.
Adnane Mokrani, a Muslim professor at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, told Catholic News Service in an e-mail that the tie between religion and politics is not part of Islamic faith, but of the culture and history of many predominantly Muslim countries.
Islam, like other religions, was born at a time “when the idea of a separation between religion and politics was not known,” he said, adding that other religions, too, initially struggled against the idea of a secular state.
“The real problem in some countries of the so-called Muslim world is the lack of democracy, where some dictators try to use religion to justify their political monopoly,” he said.
“There is a need for a common struggle for justice and democracy for all,” Mokrani said.
Urging Middle East Catholics to dialogue with their Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Druze neighbors, the document said Catholics “should avoid isolating themselves in ghettos” and being defensive, but rather promote projects that help members of the region’s different religious groups to learn about each other’s teachings without pretending that the serious doctrinal differences among them do not matter.
The military might of the powerful and the angry violence of the weak have not brought peace to the Middle East, so the only realistic solution to the region’s problems is to make a commitment to dialogue and reconciliation, it said.
“Although efforts on behalf of peace can be rebuffed, they also have the possibility of being accepted, considering that the path to violence, taken by both the strong and the weak, has led in the Middle East to nothing but faithful and a general stalemate,” it said.