VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI has named prelates from several countries to lead the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, and Syrian Patriarch Ignace Youssif III Younan of Antioch will be co-presidents of the assembly, the Vatican announced April 24.
Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, will act as recording secretary, while Maronite Archbishop Joseph Soueif of Cyprus will be the special secretary.
The Lebanon-based Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir, and the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly of Baghdad, Iraq, will serve as honorary president delegates.
The synod will be Oct. 10-24.
The pope is convening the meeting to give the bishops from the troubled area an opportunity to discuss the difficulties that the small Christian communities face there. The theme of the synod is, “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. ‘The community of believers was of one heart and mind.’” The quotation is a description of the unity of the early church from the Acts of the Apostles.
The issues to be addressed include the problem of Christians fleeing the Middle East because of war or violence, relations with Muslims, the lack of full religious freedom and the future of Christian communities there.
In an interview April 24 with Vatican Radio, Bishop Maroun Lahham of Tunis, Tunisia, said synod participants would discuss the right to religious freedom and the fostering of positive dialogue with Muslims in light of the minority status of Christians in Middle Eastern and North African countries.
Bishop Lahham, vice president of the regional bishops’ conference of northern Africa, said that living as Christians in his area is a delicate matter. While religious freedom is guaranteed by law, he said, “we must always be very attentive and careful to not give the impression that, through our presence or our charitable works, we are trying to evangelize.”
Bishop Lahham said he and bishops from other Maghreb countries will bring to the synod their ideas on a dialogue with Islam specific to the region and will discuss the shortage of priests and nuns there and the need for collaboration with sister churches.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem, who is in Rome to help prepare for the synod, talked to Vatican Radio about the challenges of living in the Holy Land. In an interview April 23, he said the Christian message of “forgive and start over” regarding the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is only laughed at.
“We are considered imbeciles, but this is our language, to forgive,” he said.
Israelis and Palestinians are both responsible for the situation of constant conflict, he said, “but the international community should step in and do something.”
Israel, he said, “seems to be more afraid of peace than of war.” It should leave the occupied territories and accept a two-state solution, he said. In the current situation, Patriarch Twal said, Israelis “have the right to return to their country and be welcomed by everyone, while the Palestinians don’t have any right of return.”