By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archdiocese of Philadelphia
The Synod of Bishops, which has been taking place in Rome, addressing the topic of the Church in the Middle East, gives us our topic this week.
What do we mean by the “Middle East,” and why is it important to us?
Even in the secular news, we often hear reference to the “Middle East.” This can be a confusing term, so it may be helpful for us first to describe what countries make up this region, encompassing the theme of the Synod. According to the explanation of the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, apart from Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, the following sixteen States make up the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. This is a vast region, with a population exceeding 350,000,000 people. Within that population, only about 20,000,000 are Christians and just 5,707,000, or 1.6 percent, are Catholics.
It is interesting to note that this area encompasses the very regions in which our Lord Jesus Christ was born, lived and exercised His public ministry, died and rose from the dead, and from which He first sent forth His apostles. The very manner in which He taught, which we are so familiar with from the Gospels, takes its human origin from the manner of teaching found in this part of the world.
In commenting on this, one of the Fathers of the Church, St. Jerome (347 – 420), wrote: “It is customary among the people of Syria, especially those of Palestine, to illustrate their discourse with parables, that by simile and example they may impress truth upon their hearers in a way that unaided instruction might not do” (Commentary on Chapter 18 of Matthew, Book 3).
The Church in these regions is so ancient that, from the earliest ages of Christianity there have existed local Eastern Catholic Churches, with their own Patriarchs, presided over by the Supreme Pastor, the Pope. In writing about the Church in India several weeks ago, I explained the identity of the Eastern Catholic Churches. You will recall that they have their own traditions, spirituality, liturgy and ecclesiastical law.
The local Churches present in the Middle East have names that you may have heard of, because most of them have members in other parts of the world, especially in the United States. The universal Church, as a loving mother, always tries to provide for her children, and so, even when members of these local Churches have been dispersed throughout the world, the Church has sought to provide for their spiritual needs and help them to maintain their own rich traditions and enable them to worship according to their liturgical usages.
The names of the Eastern Catholic Churches found in the Middle East are: the Coptic Church; the Syrian Church; the Greek-Melkite Church; the Maronite Church; the Chaldean Church; and the Armenian Church. Living within the physical territory of the Latin Rite Archdiocese of Philadelphia are members of the Armenian and Maronite Ritual Churches, but they are not under my pastoral care, as the Latin Rite Archbishop of Philadelphia, but under the jurisdiction and pastoral care of their own Bishops, both of whom reside in Brooklyn, New York.
We are all members of the one Church of Christ, sharing in that “one Lord, one faith and one Baptism,” and so we are all united in Jesus Christ under the earthly guidance of the current Successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI. We make ourselves aware of these realities because, as explained by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the secretary general, the Synod is “a joyous occasion to present the riches of the Eastern Catholic Churches to the entire world, especially to Christians, that they may offer greater spiritual and material support to their brothers and sisters in the Middle East, in particular those who live in difficult situations because of violence, terrorism, emigration and discrimination.”
The challenges for Christians in the Middle East
With even a limited knowledge of the Middle East, we all know that many parts of it contain areas of struggle, war and violence. These affect Christians in a particular way, especially because of their small numbers and the religious fundamentalism that the conflicts in these areas often breed. The Patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts (Egypt), described the situation of Christians in the Palestinian Territories as “very difficult and often unsustainable.” We know that the very place in which the “Prince of Peace” was born, Bethlehem, has been and is an area of great tension. Jerusalem, sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, has often been called the “Holy City,” but the violence that has surrounded it seems to desecrate that name. The Christians in Iraq are the primary victims of the war taking place there, with all the suffering that goes with it. In many places, although freedom of religion and of conscience may be guaranteed by a country’s constitution, the harassment and prejudice manifested against Christians sometimes negates those guarantees.
Emigration has become a great challenge for the Church in the Middle East. Large numbers of people, many of whom can trace their presence in their lands back thousands of years, have been impelled to leave their native land. The causes for this have primarily been: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, stressful political and economic situations, religious fundamentalism and challenges to freedom and equality with their fellow citizens. Very often, those who could be most helpful to their countries, the young, the well-educated and the affluent, are the very ones who feel compelled to leave, thereby depriving these areas of precious resources of people and talent.
Contributions of Christians in the Middle East
The Christians present throughout the Middle East are not there as guests, nor should they be treated as if their presence is merely tolerated. Their presence is an ancient one and they have a right to live in their native places in peace and be allowed to continue to make the contributions to society and culture that they have always made. The many educational institutions sponsored by the Church in the Middle East help to dispel ignorance and prejudice, and contribute to the common good of society. There are also many institutions of charity, which not only provide help for those in need, regardless of religion, but also show forth the loving face of Christ because they do their work according to His command to “love one another” and care for the most needy and neglected as if they were caring for Him. It is also important to point out that the customs and liturgical forms unique to the Churches of the Middle East are also means of maintaining and preserving the culture and customs of the place from which they originated.
What can we do?
There is much more that could be written about the challenges facing Christians in the part of the world we have been discussing. In this brief presentation, I hope that I have been able to heighten the awareness of our own local Church, pay tribute to the fidelity of the Catholics of the Middle East, and encourage all to do everything possible to be of assistance to our brothers and sisters in that part of the world. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association is one particular source of information and vehicle of charity, present in our own country, which provides a great deal of assistance to Christians in the Middle East. You may wish to visit their web site, www.cnewa.org, as a means of learning more about this Papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support.
We also want to remember that, as I mentioned earlier in this article, we have members of the Eastern Churches present in our own midst. When you meet one of these members of Christ’s Church, try to learn more about their country of origin and the trials they and their relatives and friends are still living through in the Middle East. It is also important to have an appreciation of the rich liturgical tradition that is preserved throughout the world by members of the Eastern Churches. If you have the opportunity to attend one of the liturgies in one of our area Eastern Catholic Churches, be sure to do so, and try to have an appreciation of this ancient and valuable part of the liturgical patrimony of the universal Church.
Finally, let us pray for the freedom of the Christians in the Middle East, so that they may be able to practice their faith in Jesus Christ, in their own ancient homelands and according to their rich traditions, for their own spiritual welfare and the good of their beloved countries.
21 October 2010