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Dietmar W. Winkler {*}

Being a Catholic in the Middle East

Review of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 1/2011, P. 30-38
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In October 2010 Dietmar W. Winkler, Professor of Patristics and Church History at the University of Salzburg, has attended the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican as "Adiutor Secretarii Specialis". He reports on this assembly of bishops and outlines the tasks which the synod fathers intend to do.


From 10 to 24 October 2010 in Rome took place the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops. For the first time since the Second Vatican Council, as a result of which the Synod of Bishops was established as a special dicasterium in the Vatican, the bishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches were in the majority. Whether the Synod, however, was only a spectacular experience and served to exchange opinions, or whether the proposals (propositions) forwarded to the Pope will also be implemented, depends not least on the post-synodal process.

On 19 September 2009 Benedict XVI announced in Castel Gandolfo a "Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops" (Coetus Specialis Pro Medio Oriente), in order to discuss the difficult situation of Christians in the Orient and to find solutions {1}. This initiative is the result of an initiative of the bishops of the East.

The Presynodal Council defined the basic agenda of the Synod, under the theme "The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4: 32). The fundamental concern of better cooperation between the Catholic churches in the Orient becomes clear already in the title.

Since an exact geographical definition of the Middle East does ultimately no exist, the decision was made to extend the area. The preparatory synodal documents "Lineamenta" and "Instrumentum Laboris" were therefore sent to 16 countries: Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Nearly 400 million people live in this region of over seven million square kilometers. Circa 5.6 percent of the population are Christians, and 1.6 percent are Catholics of different rites. Although these figures are only approximate data, we can get an impression of the demographic distribution {2}. Consequently, if a better cooperation between the various Catholic churches in a narrower sense and with the other churches in the region in a broader sense is sought, the cooperation in Lebanon obviously needs to be different from that in e.g. the Gulf region. This applies also to the relations with Muslims and Jews. Another goal of the Synod was therefore to encourage the Christians in the Orient not to leave their homeland.



The document of the Presynodal Council, the Lineamenta, was widely discussed in the dioceses and religious orders. The proposals and suggestions which then arrived were incorporated into a new text, the Instrumentum Laboris.


The Course of the Synod

A total of 185 Synod Fathers took part in the two-week Special Assembly. This number includes not only the patriarchs, archbishops and bishops from countries in the Middle East but also from other continents, where today due to migration Catholic Eastern Churches exist, as well as representatives of the Curia and the Union of Superiors General. Delegates from 13 Orthodox and Protestant churches reflect the ecumenical efforts of the synod. There were also 36 experts who supported the special secretary, the Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus, Joseph Soueif, in drafting the relationes and propositions, as well as 34 auditors from various organizations that are active in the Middle East {3}.

The meetings in the Synod Hall, where Pope Benedict XVI was a regular and attentive listener, were conducted by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and the Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius III Youssif Younan. In his opening speech the Relator General of the Synod, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Antonios Naguib outlined the manifold problems of the churches of the Middle East on the basis of the Instrumentum Laboris {4}.

These can essentially be divided into four major subject areas: First, it is above all about a better cooperation between the Catholic churches of the Middle East. The aim is to strengthen the Christians in their identity through the word of God and the sacraments, and in their effort to achieve unity among the Christians, in order to give the world an authentic and effective testimony of their faith. The six Catholic Eastern Churches and the Latin Patriarchate hardly cooperate in the field of pastoral care. It was planned to discuss in concrete terms at the Synod a common catechesis in Arabic, the development of religious books, the education of the clergy and the like.

In addition to the intra-Catholic cooperation it is then also important to establish ecumenical relations - especially with the Oriental and Orthodox churches, but also with the churches of the Reformation. In the particular context of the Middle East the believers experience their identity first as "Christians" and not as members of a specific religious community. At the level of parishes, marriages between members of different denominations, baptisms, etc., the questions are asked practically and in very concrete terms. Here an appropriate support by the bishops is needed.



The relations with Muslims and Jews are the third large area. In the Middle East Christians live now as a minority mostly in a Muslim environment. The Palestinian Christianity is in the particular situation of the relationship to Judaism. Both relationships are theological and social challenges.

The fourth topic concerns the relations with the respective State; these can be very different. On the whole, the questions of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are here above all in the center of attention. For in most countries of the Middle East the full participation of Christians in society is by no means guaranteed.


The Plenary Sessions

In the plenary sessions the bishops had the possibility in a five-minute-speech to expound their reports, concerns, analyses and requirements, by referring then to the relevant paragraphs of the Instrumentum Laboris.

The Synod was shaped by an atmosphere of amazing, often controversial openness regarding the interventions. This first week of exchange had probably also the result that many synod fathers became aware of how different the situation in each country actually is. This may particularly apply to the Gulf region. At present about 50 percent of all Catholics of the Middle East live there. These are mainly immigrants and guest workers from India, Philippines, Ethiopia, etc. Here, a complex problem became evident. In the Gulf states with a rather restrictive Islam only a few pastors can be appointed, and it is impossible to provide the faithful with the necessary number of priests. Many of the mentioned migrants are exploited by their employers and come back as broken people. However, in the countries with Eastern Catholic Churches, an effective pastoral care for migrants does also not exist. The Eastern Churches are trying to preserve their heritage and identity, and that is why they almost exclusively focus on the faithful of their own rite. But in the Middle East and the Gulf region there are thousands of Christian immigrants from other nations and cultures without adequate pastoral care, because the Arabic-speaking local churches show little interest in migrants.

The many pastoral problems were addressed or recognized as such: as e.g. youth-, family-, adult catechesis, religious education in order to enable the faithful to give competently information on their faith, liturgy in Arabic language, cooperation between the various Catholic churches in spite of different rites.



There were still no specific solutions and pastoral conceptions which require the cooperation of the churches. But the process of growing awareness and the offensive addressing of the problems must be welcomed. However, in the speeches of the first week the ecumenical approach was surprisingly lacking - except for some dedicated bishops. One moved initially within the Catholic area.

Another topic that crystallized is the relationship of the Eastern Catholic Churches with the Latin Church. There have been complaints that the Latin Church was the only church sui iuris that is allowed to expand freely, wheras jurisdictional restrictions apply to the Eastern Catholic Churches. The term Diaspora was rejected in this context, because in the Orient the Latin Church does not speak about itself as Diaspora church. The question of overlapping jurisdictions was therefore a concern of the Synod Fathers. The current canonical regulations e.g. provide that a patriarch can only exercise territorial jurisdiction. But this regulation makes the pastoral task of the head of an Eastern Catholic Church difficult, because due to the continuing emigration he is in charge of many parishes in countries outside of the Orient. Accordingly, it would be helpful for a patriarch when his jurisdiction would be extended. This had to be considered and examined in canon law. Here the inclusion of the hierarchy of the Eastern Catholic Churches in the Catholic Bishops Conference of the United States as well as the relationship on the spot in Paris and Vienna were pointed out as good examples. But the relations of the individual Catholic churches with each other are by no means everywhere without friction.

The living together with Islam was discussed extensively. Many speakers agreed on the fact that the fundamental human rights are not in force in countries with a Muslim majority, especially as regards freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. What was vigorously discussed in this context was the concept of a positive secularization, and of a civic and civil society in which the freedom to profess (and to change) one's faith is given.

Here the speeches of the Muslim and Jewish guests at the synod were most interesting. They were present only in that General Assembly in which they were invited as speaker. The speech of the adviser to the Sunni Grand Mufti of Lebanon was received with broad approval. He mentioned directly the social inequalities that result from the fact that in some countries Christians are not recognized as full citizens, and that the emigration of Christians means an impoverishment of the Arab identity. By contrast, the Shiite guest speaker from Tehran emphasized that in most Islamic countries, including Iran, de facto Muslims and Christians live peacefully together, and that Christians had all legal rights and full freedom of religion. It is evident that the two speeches were received differently.



According to many synod fathers who came from the Arab Christianity also in the speech of the Jewish rabbi the reality was portrayed too positive. Many of the synod participants are too much shaped by the political realities resulting from the the permanent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


The Study Groups

The problem description in the plenary sessions of the first week was followed by the discussions in ten groups, divided according to languages (French, English, Arabic) {5}. They compiled 44 propositions, which were discussed by the synod, and on the last day put to the vote.

Parallel to this process, the by the Synod Fathers elected editorial committee worked out the message of the synod. At the end of the first week a draft was presented, which was still widely criticized. It emphasized admittedly the pastoral and non-political character of the synod, but underlined then nevertheless the political situation of the Christians, the lack of basic rights, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obligations for the bishops were not included in the draft. In the following week, the final message was thoroughly revised.


The Message

The final message of the Special Assembly for the Middle East has the form of a pastoral letter of the bishops {6} and was published immediately after the synod. At first, the challenges are outlined: with regard to the internal unity of the Church, as well as regarding the political environment, security and religious pluralism in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation in Jerusalem and Iraq are mentioned explicitly.

The different groups of people: priests, deacons, monks, nuns and lay people in the various religious and social areas are explicitly addressed as well as the exiled believers. The latter are called upon not to forget their homeland and their religious traditions. Greetings are sent also to the Protestant and Orthodox churches - linked with the encouragement to continue the common path in the Middle East Council of Churches.

Regarding the relationship between Christians and Muslims, the message underlines that it belongs to the Christian mission and vocation to live together with Muslims according to the "commandment of love and by the power of the Spirit within us." But these relations are above all based on the fact that Christians are an integral part of the societies of the Middle East. Likewise, the hope is expressed that concrete solutions of the political conflict will be supported also by the Christian-Jewish dialogue.



With this message the Synod Fathers call upon the international community, particularly the United Nations, to work to find a peaceful, just and definitive solution in the region. To put an end to the occupation of the different Arab territories the application of the Security Council’s resolutions is required. The Palestinian people would thus have an "independent and sovereign homeland" where they can live with dignity and security. And the State of Israel would be able to enjoy peace and security "within their internationally recognized borders." Finally, the Holy City of Jerusalem would be able to find its proper status, which does equally justice to the religious patrimony of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The hope that the two-State-solution might become a reality is clearly expressed. In the message every violence, terrorism, religious extremism in the context of "racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Christianism and Islamophobia" {7} are vehemently condemned.

An obligation of bishops to concrete action is not included in the final version of the message. However, it gains high credibility by the commitment of the Synod Fathers in one of the final paragraphs:

"We confess that, until now, we have not done what is possible to better live communion in our communities. We have not done enough to better live communion among our communities. We have not done everything possible to confirm you in your faith and to give you the spiritual nourishment you need in your difficulties."


The Propositions {*}

The crucial factor in improving the situation of Christians in the Middle East will not be the message as an once published document but the practical and sustainable implementation of the proposals addressed to the Pope. These are together with the Lineamenta, the Instrumentum Laboris and "Relationes ante et post disceptationem" the basis for a post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (Prop. 1). Since this can sometimes appear one to two years later, if ever, it is pleasing that all these documents, including the propositions, were made public already on the internet {8}.

The propositions are grouped around the topics "Christian presence in the Middle East" (Prop. 4-15), "Ecclesial Communion" (Prop. 16-29) and "Christian witness" (Prop. 30-42), framed by an introduction (Prop. 1-3) and a conclusion (Prop. 43-44).

In the first section one calls for the preservation of identity (Prop.4). This is done by preserving our rich historical, liturgical, patristic and spiritual heritage. Here a wrongly-conceived confessionalism is rejected and called for openness to everyone in the community of the universal Church.



This aims both at the emigration of Eastern Christians from the Middle East (Prop. 11) and at the immigration of mostly Latin Christians in the Middle East (Prop. 14). For the Christians of both migrations the pastoral care in the respective own rite is necessary and has to be ensured.

The second section shows two areas of communion: first that of the Catholic churches with each other (ad intra) and then with all Christians and churches in the region (ad extra). A permanent commission of cooperation between the hierarchs of the Middle East is proposed. It would be responsible for common pastoral strategies, the mutual understanding of one another's traditions, and maintain joint institutions (Prop. 16). The lengthy discussion in the Synod about the "movimenti" lead to a special proposition (Prop. 17), because it was the synod fathers' concern that they are able to live out their charisma but at the same time preserve the union with the bishop and do not cause divisions in the parishes. The latter is certainly a latent danger. The synod fathers demand that married clergy, according to the Orthodox tradition, can work on principle and not only because of dispensation outside the canonical territories (Prop. 23). The discussion of this proposition made evident that Western Latin bishops show little interest to provide in their dioceses a home for married clergy of Eastern Catholic Churches. Compared with the first draft, a separate paragraph on the importance and the work of the laity was rightly inserted in the final version (Prop. 24).

Regarding the theological formation, maximum cooperation between the churches is recommended, in accordance with the principle of unity in diversity while maintaining the respective religious traditions (Prop. 25).

In Instrumentum Laboris the chapter on ecumenism was still incorporated in the section "Common Witness". In the Synod it became soon clear that this is part of the Communio. The need to preserve the crisis-torn Middle East Council of Churches is mentioned as well as the ecumenical training and the adoptation of a standard Arab translation of the Our Father and the Nicene Creed (Prop. 28). Here were also included specific concerns of the delegates of the other churches, as e.g. the call for the development of a common Easter date (along with other ecumenical concerns contained in Prop. 28) and the establishment of a joint annual feast for all martyrs of all churches (Prop. 29). Both were proposed by the Syrian Orthodox Church.

The search for the common date for Easter found active support, whereas the feast of the martyr was controversially discussed in the working groups, especially in those with Palestinian participants. This probably happened against the background that Muslim suicide bombers claim the martyrdom for themselves. However, the Christian concept of martyrdom is downright a fundamental alternative.



Christians does not seek martyrdom for the sake of gains in the world to come. They regard it as the consequence of their faith in a loving God; a faith that is kept up to the last breath and does not out of hatred kill innocent people.

The final section deals with the common witness and consistently takes faith formation as starting point. It includes schools, universities and adult education centres (Prop. 30-32). Christians must be able to give competently information on their faith to themselves and to the non-Christian environment. In spreading the faith the media play a special role (Prop. 33). Not only a very specific pastoral care for family and youth (Prop. 35 and 36) is required but also a new evangelization (Prop. 37) and a better consideration and implementation of the Church's social doctrine (Prop. 38). The section about the Liturgy is too short and weak (Prop. 35), if you consider the high status that the Eastern churches give the liturgy. Here the renewal of liturgical texts in contemporary language and contemporary forms of expression, in continuity with tradition, is only feebly mentioned as helpful.

Inter-religious dialogue in everyday life must also be practised better in order to build a peaceful society without fanaticism and extremism. Especially in the seminaries and novitiates the candidates should be prepared for it (Prop. 40). The dialogue with Judaism (Prop. 41) as well as with Islam (Prop. 42) are put on the base of the Second Vatican Council and its declaration "Nostra Aetate". It is then about values such as peace, justice, religious freedom, including both freedom of worship and freedom of conscience, as well as freedom and equal rights in the state.


The Post-Synodal Process is Important

The propositions are as rich as fragmentary. The individual proposals can here be presented only in an overview but had to be subjected to a separate analysis. In particular, the measures which should be taken must again be worked out specifically. Ultimately, here the Post-Synodal process is required and the individual bishops who have to approach in concrete terms the implementation of the proposals. But this will not happen without a greater pastoral and spiritual mobility of the patriarchs, and the serious intent to cooperate. Seen in this way the proposition 43 is the pivot for a successful implementation:

"The Churches which have taken part in the Synod are called upon to make sure that it is properly followed up by working together with the Council of the Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East and the official structures of the relevant Churches, with a greater involvement of priests and lay and religious experts."



It will depend on this process, whether a lasting value can be ascribed to this assembly in Rome and whether positive and sustained impulses are given by it to the religious, social and political life in the Middle East.



{1} Benedictus PP. XVI, Ad Patriarchas et Archiepiscopos Maiores Orientales, in: AAS 101 (2009) 858859. — About the preparation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East see D. W. Winkler, Towards a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, in: The Catholic Church in the Contemporary Middle East. Studies for The Synod for the Middle East, ed. by A. O'Mahony & J. Flannery (London 2010) 37-68. I say thanks to Christina M. Kreinecker (University of Chicago, IL/USA) for the Skype suggestions while I was writing this text.

{2} These figures, presented by Archbishop Eterovic at the beginning of the Synod, are from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2008 (Vatikan 2010); see N. Eterovic, Relatio Secretarii Generalis. De Laboribus Secretariae Generalis eiusque Consilii in praeparando Coetu Speciali pro Medio Oriente (Vatikanstadt 2010).

{3} See Coetus Specialis pro Medio Oriente — Elenchus Participantium (Vatican City 2010).

{4} See A. Naguib, Relatio ante disceptationem (Vatican City 2010).

{5} Six French-, tow English- and two Arabic-speaking working groups.

{6} See The Catholic Church in the Middle East, Communion and Witness. Coetus Specialis Pro Medio Oriente — Nuntius (Vatican City 2010).

{7} It cannot be dealt here with the fact that the message immediately after its publication was differently received in the political world. While it was welcomed by the Palestinians, it was misinterpreted by the Jewish side and heavily criticized, and so the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, SJ, and Patriarch Antonios Naguib had decidedly to deny those interpretations; see and (as of 3.11.2010).

{8} See (as of 3.11.2010). Interestingly, at present only the Arab and Italian text of the "propositions" is accessible on the Internet. During the synod the French text was regarded as the reference text.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'