The recent news coming from the Christian Middle East is heartbreaking. Let it suffice to examine the daily news from Iraq. This country is seen as a place of death. Though marked by factious violence and political instability, this land does give some signs of hope. One of these is the promising flowering of priestly vocations. During the month of July, two young men were ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Kirkuk, one for Dohok in the north and another for the Archdiocese of Mosul. Mosul is the ‘‘martyr city’’ of Iraq where in the last few years hundreds of Christians have been killed, churches attacked, and priests and bishops murdered. Notably among them were Father Ragheed Ganni and Bishop Paulos Rahho.
In a recent interview for AsiaNews, Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk said that “in this dark and hard time, these young men consecrated to the Lord at the service of their suffering brothers and sisters are indeed a sign of life and hope.”
The situation of the Christians and priestly vocations in the Middle East was one of the topics in the agenda of the special Synod for the Churches of the Middle East held in Rome from the October 10–24.
However, the vocation situation of Iraq — together with that of Lebanon — seems nearly an exception in comparison to the other countries of the Middle East. By now, in many of them — like in Syria — even though there are new vocations, the retirement or passing away of the older clergy exceeds the ordination of newcomers, and if sometimes the number of priests remains constant, in reality such balance hides the ever higher rate of aging of the clergy.
Middle East Vocation Crisis
There is a vocation crisis in the Middle East. The reasons are several. Some are “external,” linked to the social situation that is influenced by the political instability and economic situation of the region. This has created decades of drain on the Christian presence and, therefore, of priestly vocations. Cities like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, which a century or so ago had, respectively, at least 20%, 99% and 70% Christian populations, now scarcely have some 2%, 30% and 25% Christian populations.
Often, the reason given in the Holy Land for emigrating is to secure a future for their children. But one must also consider demography and politics: the Muslims have larger families than the Christians and, above all, in Jerusalem and Nazareth, Jewish immigration occupies more and more space in East Jerusalem and Galilee, reducing even further the space for a Christian presence.
The problem of emigration has become acute in all the Middle East. The Christian population of Iraq is by now reduced by nearly 50%; many thousands escaped to Syria, Jordan, Europe, America and Australia. The Christians of Lebanon, who in the 1940s were the majority, now barely reach 35-40% of the Lebanese population. This demographic shift carries with it possible repercussions also on the government of Lebanon, which has always conferred the charge of president to a Maronite Christian.
Even in “secular” Turkey one can see the drop of the Christian presence. In a century the Christian population fell from approximately 20% to 1%. Another problem that favors emigration and, consequently, the drop of priestly vocations is the increase of Muslim fundamentalism. For many years the mass media — newspapers, radio, television and movies — have presented insistently Muslim topics. In classrooms there is a significant teaching on Islam, particularly its fundamentalist aspect. On the street there is an escalating increase in the number of religious ads and in the traditional external signs of this tendency, such as beards on men and headscarves on women.
In some countries the trend toward fundamentalism has favored the adoption of the Muslim sharia law or part of it. All this has a strong repercussion on the life of Christians because they are forced to behave in a “more Muslim” way, often enduring social marginalization and being forced to hide their own identity. Even in Palestine — where once a secular–nationalist tendency prevailed — today there is increasing Muslim fundamentalism.
The bitter consequence is that religious freedom is diminished everywhere and the mission of the Church has been greatly stifled. Sound vocational programs must then work within these premises. The special Synod for the Middle East continued to emphasize the importance of the presence of Christians in these lands, considering it the only unalterable mission, and to work in society to guarantee religious freedom for all citizens, Christians in particular.
Lack of Ardor
The crisis of priestly vocations also has “inner” reasons linked to the weakening of faith in these regions. The Instrumentum Laboris, the working document of the Synod, asserted with clarity that “the evangelical impetus is often hindered, and the flame of the Spirit seems to be faded.” Such lack of ardor is in part motivated by the fact that Eastern Christian communities, violently pressed during the last centuries by Islam, often became ethnic–religious communities, with their clergy interested only in their own rituals and faithful, without willing to face the society at large. In such a way, the faith presented by the priest seemed a shelter in times of trouble but insufficient to motivate a spirit of total self-giving, as something important for himself and for the larger community.
As the Middle Eastern priests become missionaries in their surrounding environment — and not only “shepherds of souls” of their small group — it will be easier to attract young people to assuming higher responsibilities including ordained ministry. Many times I have met priests and bishops from the Middle East with such missionary spirit. Under their leadership young people participate in local activities and, sooner or later, are faced with the choice of vocation.
The Synod Fathers dealt also with ecumenical relations. It is painful that, in this situation of marginalization typical of the Middle East, the Christians of the various ritual Churches remain closed in on themselves without trying together to influence the surrounding society. To collaborate ecumenically is an important vocational theme.
It is not so much theological divisions that are a problem, but rather the daily disagreements made of mutual indifference, attempts at domination, injustices and mean tricks. (One need think only of the shameful behavior of the various Christian groups in their failure to simply “get along” at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.) All these mindsets are a very weak Christian witness, leading young people away from selfless giving.
Youth Yearning for Authentic Self-Giving
When travelling throughout the Middle East one often finds young men and women yearning for an experience of authentic self-giving, full of love toward others, but finding difficulty in being accepted by the local parochial or diocesan structures that have been reduced to dressed up formalism, ethnic social fraternities, or have become suspicious of other Christian groups.
Nevertheless, the testimony of Christians in these regions has a fundamental value from the historical viewpoint and in the dialogue with Islam.
The awakening of missionary awareness in Christians of the Middle East regards us too. Indeed, it cries for our own ability of witnessing and showing solidarity. Back in June 2010, on delivering the Instrumentum Laboris to the Middle East Christians on the island of Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI said:
It is…known that some among you suffer great hardships due to the current situation of the region. The Special Assembly is an occasion for the worldwide Christian community to offer spiritual support and solidarity to their bothers and sisters of the Middle East. It is also an occasion to highlight the important value of the Christian presence and witness in these Biblical regions, not only for the worldwide Christian community but equally for your neighbors and fellow citizens.
FATHER GALLARO is professor of Canon Law and Dean of Students at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Pittsburgh, Pa. He received his Licentiate in Ecumenical Theology (1994) and his Doctorate in Eastern Canon Law (1981) from Pontifical Universities. In addition, he holds a Specialization in Liturgical Theology (1980) as well as his Bachelor in Philosophy. Father Gallaro teaches and writes in the areas of ecclesiastical law, ecumenical theology, and Eastern Churches history. He lives in Pittsburgh.