In Rome, Middle East bishops talk survival

The Middle East bishops, summoned to Rome by Pope Benedict XVI to discuss a Church in a region in crisis, have been in no doubt about the challenges they face. Poverty and violence — especially in Iraq, where Christians have been kidnapped and their churches firebombed — have cast long shadows over fragile communities squeezed between Islamic radicals and an aggressively expanding Israel.  

The result is emigration on a scale unprecedented in the history of these ancient churches, born from Christ’s first witnesses. The “living stones” of the Church in the Middle East, already fragmented among Catholic communities separated by tradition, are increasingly scattered: there are now almost as many Eastern-rite Catholics in Detroit, Toronto and Stockholm as in Amman, Damascus and Jerusalem. 

Survival focus

Because the cause of so much that afflicts the cradle of Christianity lies not with the Church but with political and economic forces beyond its control, the synod concentrated, at Pope Benedict’s urging, on the Church’s own life, deepening the bonds of communion between fragmented congregations to enable a more united witness. 

For many of the synod fathers, the focus of their speeches was survival. In Iraq, almost every Catholic family knows someone who has been kidnapped or killed; close to half of the 800,000 Christians in Iraq have left Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk for the north of the country, or — more often — abroad. 

The Chaldean bishops at the synod have been sounding the alarm, appealing for action and solidarity. Because of the close link between the economic survival of Christian communities in the Holy Land and pilgrims from abroad, there have been many calls for the Church across the world to encourage Catholics to visit and stay, which would in turn help to curb emigration. Persuading Christians not to leave the Middle East means tackling the pressures on land and housing, notably in Israel and the West Bank, where Arab Catholics find themselves squeezed by settlements and land-grabs in the name of security. 

Given the immediacy of these concerns, it is all the more surprising to find a more ambitious vision emerging from the synod, one that puts the Catholic Church in the Middle East at the forefront of arguing for a new political vision, “an all-inclusive, shared civic order,” in the words of the synod’s working document, that protects “human rights, human dignity and religious freedom.” 

The idea of the Church advocating a “positive secularity” — the term is problematic — is also, of course, a matter of survival. Caught between Israeli expansionism and Islamic radicalism, the future of the tiny Christian minority depends, in large part, on basic rights of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

Bold step 

But inviting the Catholics of the Middle East to take a stand against theocracy and fundamentalism, to argue in the public square for the separation of faith and politics, is nonetheless a bold step — especially in a region where Christians have long kept their heads below the parapet. It also provides an opportunity for the Church worldwide to develop a concept of religious and civic pluralism that counterbalances the Catholic opposition in the United States and Europe to what Pope Benedict calls “aggressive secularism.” It means arguing for the freedoms of the secular state, while at the same time advocating the freedom of religion to influence it. 

The synod’s working document offers some of the arguments in favour of what it calls positive laïcité” a term borrowed from a speech made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Rome in 2007, the closest equivalent to which in English is “positive secularity.” It means a separation of religion from the state, but not its exclusion from society; it allows for faiths to seek to shape society on equal terms, benefitting from the freedom accorded to them by the state by not depending on state sponsorship or legal privilege. While it “fully acknowledges the role of religion,” the document notes, positive secularity “respects the distinction between the religious and the civic orders.” The synod’s interim report — a distillation of the synod speeches — adds, “Religion must not be politicized, nor the State take precedence over religion.” 

The interim report also uses the term “citizenship,” with its connotation of the right of speaking and acting in the public square, and calls for instilling in the Christians of the Middle East a “spirit of citizenship, both in ways of thinking and the manner of living.” They are “indigenous citizens” — not guests or visitors who must abide by the host’s rules, but social actors with a stake in society and the legitimate right to seek to shape it. 

Seeking equal rights 

The term positive laïcité was not universally welcomed at the synod because of its associations with European ideas of exclusion of the sacred; the interim document said “civil state” had been proposed as an alternative, while others preferred to speak of the dignity of all human beings as language more likely to appeal to humanist traditions in Judaism and Islam.  

Arguing for a “positive secularity” is not easy in the Middle East, where political regimes face strong pressures from millenarian and fundamentalist movements — whether Zionism or radical Islam — which link rights to religious allegiance. The greatest freedom of religion in the Middle East is to be found in authoritarian regimes (such as Syria’s) or monarchies, rather than in constitutional democracies. 

Yet the three religions of the Middle East have a long history of coexistence, and have learned to live together in peace; it is not such a long step from the Islamic rule that there should be “no coercion in religion” to recognizing universal rights based on God-given human dignity. As Mohammed Al-Sammak, a Muslim scholar, told the synod, Christians and Muslims were called to work together to establish the “bases and rules of citizenship which accomplish equality first in rights and then in duties.” 

It is a formidable challenge for the Christians of the Middle East, so often these days focused on the here and now, to see themselves as the co-builders of a new civic order in the region. But the fate of the Church in the place of its birth may yet depend on Christians assuming this historic task. 

Austen Ivereigh writes from Rome.

At A Glance (sidebar)

Ranged across 16 countries (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey and Yemen) are 5.7 million Catholics belonging to 23 different Churches, dominated by the six sui iuris – that is, with their own rites and laws — Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, each headed by its own patriarch. The 123 bishops from the Coptic, Syrian, Greek-Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean and Armenian Churches sat down each day in the synod hall with 45 bishops of the Latin rite as well as those of other, smaller Near-East Catholic Churches, such as the Ukrainians and Ethopians. For these Church leaders to share the same space over two weeks is, in itself, an unprecedented event.