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Saturday, December 3, 2016
Vatican: Middle East Synod underway
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Coptic icon, Christ and St Mena
Pope Benedict XVI presided at a concelebration of the Eucharist on Sunday, with 177 Synod Fathers for the solemn opening of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which is being held in the Vatican's Synod Hall until 24 October.

The theme of the assembly is: 'The Catholic Church in the Middle East. Communion and Witness. Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul'.

After Mass the Holy Father presided  over the first General Congregation of the Special Assembly. In his opening remarks the Holy Father recalled how on this day, 11 October, in the year 1962, Pope John XXIII had officially opened Vatican Council II.

His Beatitude Antonios Naguib, Patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts, Egypt, relator general of the synod then read out the "Relatio ante disceptationem", (report before the discussion) extracts of the English translation of which are given below:

A. THE GOAL OF THE SYNOD

The twofold aim of the Synod was well received and appreciated in our Catholic Churches, namely:

1) To confirm and strengthen the Church's members in their Christian identity, through the Word of God and the Sacraments.

2) To foster ecclesial communion between the "sui iuris" Churches, so that they may offer an authentic and effective witness. Essential elements in this witness are ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue and the missionary effort.

I. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE MIDDLE EAST

A. THE SITUATION OF CHRISTIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Knowledge of the history of Christianity in the Middle East is important for us, as it is for the rest of the Christian world. ... Our Churches, blessed by the presence of Christ and the Apostles, were the cradle of Christianity and the home of the first generations of Christians. For this reason, our Churches are called to keep alive the memory of the Church's beginnings, to strengthen the faith of their members and to renew in them the spirit of the Gospel, so that God's Word might guide their lives and relations with others, both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Christians are "native citizens" in their countries, members with full rights in their civic communities. They consider themselves "at home", and have oftentimes lived in countries for a considerable length of time. Their presence and participation in the life of a country are a valuable treasure to be protected and maintained. A positive secularism would permit an effective and fruitful contribution of the Church and help strengthen the idea of citizenship, founded on the principles of equality and democracy.

Through the presentation of the social doctrine of the Church, our communities offer a valuable contribution to building society. Promotion of the family and the defence of life need to be central in our Church's teaching and mission programmes. Education is a privileged part of our activity and a major investment.

B. THE CHALLENGES FACING CHRISTIANS

The socio-political situations of our countries directly affect Christians, who more deeply feel their negative aspects. In the Palestinian Territories life is very difficult and often unsustainable. The position of Christian Arabs is a very delicate one. While condemning violence whatever its origin and calling for a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we express our solidarity with the Palestinian people, whose situation today is particularly conducive to the rise of fundamentalism. Listening to the voice of local Christians could help in better understanding the situation. Consideration should be given to the important status of the city of Jerusalem for the three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

It is regrettable that world politics does not sufficiently take into account the plight of Christians in Iraq, who are the primary victims of the war and its consequences. In Lebanon, greater unity between Christians would help ensure greater stability in the country. In Egypt, the Churches would greatly benefit from co-ordinating their efforts in strengthening the faith of the faithful and collaborating in works for the good of the country. According to the means available in each country, Christians should foster democracy, justice, peace and a "positive secularism" which distinguishes between the State and religion and respects all religions. Both the Church and society need to respond positively and dutifully.

The promotion of human rights requires peace, justice and stability.

Religious freedom is an essential component of human rights. Freedom of worship is but one aspect of freedom of religion. In most of our countries, freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution. But even in this case, certain laws or practices in some countries limit its application. Another aspect is freedom of conscience, based on a person's free will. Its absence impedes freedom of choice in those who wish to follow the Gospel, yet fear various acts of harassment to themselves and their families.

Freedom of conscience can develop and exist only in relation to the growth of respect for human rights in their completeness and entirety.

In this regard, education towards greater justice and equality under the law is a precious contribution to the cultural progress of a country. The Catholic Church firmly condemns all proselytism. Perhaps some profit can result from calmly considering these questions, and ... from finding occasions for dialogue in each country. The Church's many educational institutions are an important instrument in this field. Health centres and social services are also an eloquent witness of love for one's neighbour, without distinction or discrimination. Promoting days, events and celebrations dedicated to these topics, at the local and international level, helps spread and reinforce the positive aspects of culture, which should also be propagated by the mass media.

Today, emigration in our countries has increased primarily as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, adverse political and economic situations, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the restriction of freedom and equality. Young people,  educated persons and affluent people form the majority of those leaving, thus depriving the Church and the country of valuable resources.

At the same time, emigration brings notable support to the Middle Eastern countries and the Churches. The Church in the country of origin must seek to maintain strong ties with the emigrating faithful and ensure their spiritual assistance. It is essential to provide the liturgy, in their respective rites, to the faithful of the Eastern Churches who find themselves in Latin territories. ... The communities of the diaspora have the task of promoting and consolidating the Christian presence in the Middle East by strengthening Christian witness and supporting causes for the good of the country or the region. Appropriate pastoral activity should take into account emigration within the country.

C. THE RESPONSE OF CHRISTIANS IN DAILY LIFE

II. ECCLESIAL COMMUNION

Diversity in the Catholic Church, far from a detriment, is a source of enhancement.

 

A. COMMUNION IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND AMONG THE DIFFERENT CHURCHES

The principal signs expressing communion in the Catholic Church are: Baptism, the Eucharist and communion with the Bishop of Rome, Coryphaeus of the Apostles ("hamat ar-Rusul"). The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches regulates the canonical aspects of this communion, accompanied and assisted by the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the various Roman dicasteries.

Among the Catholic Churches in the Middle East, communion is expressed by the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East (CCPO).

III. CHRISTIAN WITNESS

A. WITNESSING IN THE CHURCH: CATECHESIS

Today, catechetical activity cannot be limited to oral communication only; actions are necessary. ... The new media are very effective in proclaiming and bearing witness to the Gospel. Our Churches need people specialised in these areas. ... Catechesis must take account of the situation of conflict in the countries of the Middle East and seek to strengthen the faithful in their faith and form them so that they can live the commandment of love and be builders of peace, justice and forgiveness. Commitment in public life is a duty which requires witness and a mission to build the Kingdom of God. This work demands a formation that goes beyond confessionalism, sectarianism and internal quarrels and sees God's face in each individual, and collaborates with others in building a future of peace, stability and wellbeing.

B. A RENEWED LITURGY FAITHFUL TO TRADITION

In our Eastern Churches, the divine liturgy is at the centre of religious life. It plays an important role in maintaining Christian identity, strengthening a sense of belonging to the Church and animating a life of faith. The celebration of the divine liturgy is also a source of
attraction to those who may be far from the faith or even disbelievers. Consequently, the liturgy is an important part of the proclamation and witness of a Church which not only prays, but acts.

C. ECUMENISM

Proper actions are required in the work of ecumenism: prayer, conversion, sanctification and the mutual exchange of gifts, all in a spirit of respect, friendship, mutual charity, solidarity and collaboration. These actions and attitudes should be cultivated and encouraged through teaching and in the various media outlets. An essential part of ecumenism is dialogue, which requires a positive approach to understanding, listening and openness to others. This leads to overcoming mistrust, working together to develop religious values, joining in socially useful projects and facing shared problems together.

D. RELATIONS WITH JUDAISM

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has affected relations between Christians and Jews. Several times, the Holy See has expressed its position clearly, especially during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land in 2009.

While our Churches denounce every form of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, they acknowledge that the difficulties in relations between the Arab and Jewish peoples are due to conflicting political situations, which necessitates a distinction between the religious and political reality. ...

Reading the Old Testament and becoming more acquainted with Judaic traditions lead to a better understanding of the Jewish religion, thereby offering common ground for serious studies and assistance in a better understanding of the New Testament and Eastern traditions. Other possibilities for collaboration are also available today.

E. RELATIONS WITH MUSLIMS

The reasons to foster relations between Christians and Muslims include: their status as fellow citizens and their sharing the same language and the same culture, not to mention the same joys and sufferings. Furthermore, Christians are called to live as witnesses of Jesus Christ in society. From its beginnings, Islam has found common roots with Christianity and Judaism, as the Holy Father has mentioned. Arab-Christian literature should also be given greater consideration and better valued.

The Islamic religion is not a uniformity; rather, the profession of Islam has confessional, cultural and ideological differences. In fact, difficulties in the relations between Christians and Muslims generally arise when Muslims do not distinguish between religion and politics. On this basis, Christians sense an uneasiness at being considered non-citizens, despite the fact that they called these countries "home" long before Islam. Christians deserve full recognition, passing from being merely tolerated to a just and equal status which is based on common citizenship, religious freedom and human rights.

All prejudices concerning others and any offensive talk or argumentation needs to be eliminated from textbooks in schools. Instead, we should try to understand the other's point of view, while respecting differences in beliefs and practices.

F. WITNESSING IN SOCIETY

All citizens in our countries have to face two common challenges: peace and violence. The situation of war and conflict we are experiencing spawn further violence and are being exploited by world terrorist groups. Generally speaking, the West is identified with Christianity, and thus the choices made by western countries are wrongly taken as those of the Church, despite the fact that today these governments are secular and increasingly opposed to the principles of the Christian faith. This situation needs to be better understood and further explanation given to the meaning of "positive secularism" which makes a distinction between politics and religion.

The influence of modernisation, globalisation and secularisation in our societies has an effect on the members of our Churches. ... Every national constitution of the countries in the Middle East affirms the equality of all citizens. However in States with a Muslim majority, apart from some exceptions, Islam is the State religion and the "sharia" is the main source of legislation. In some countries, or parts of them, it is applied to all citizens. ... Freedom of worship is recognised but not freedom of conscience. With the increasing growth of fundamentalism, attacks against Christians are on the rise.

G. THE SPECIFIC AND UNIQUE CONTRIBUTION OF CHRISTIANS

The specific contribution of Christians in the society in which they live is irreplaceable. Through their witness and actions, they enrich society with the values Christ brought to humanity. Since many of these values are shared in common with Muslims, the interest and possibility exist to promote them together. Catechesis must form believers to be active citizens. Commitment to social programmes and civic life without reference to Gospel-values, is a counter-witness.

Service on behalf of others is a specific characteristic of our identity as Christians and not to our belonging to a particular confession. Our primary task is to live the faith and allow our actions to speak; to live the truth and proclaim it with charity and courage; and to practice solidarity in our institutions. We must live a mature faith - not a superficial one - supported and animated by prayer. Our credibility requires harmony within the Church, the promotion of unity among Christians and a convinced religious life which is translated into real life. This eloquent witness demands education and ongoing guidance for children, young people and adults.

CONCLUSION

A. WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR MIDDLE EASTERN CHRISTIANS?

Present-day situations give rise to difficulties and concerns. However, empowered by the Holy Spirit and guided by the Gospel, we can face them with hope and filial trust in Divine Providence. Today, though we are not numerically significant in the region, our actions and witness can make us a considerable presence. ... Faced with the temptation of discouragement, we need to remind ourselves that we are disciples of the Risen Christ, the Conqueror of sin and death.

B. HOPE

Our Churches need believers-witnesses among the pastors as well as among the rest of the Church's members. The proclamation of the Good News can only be fruitful, if bishops, priests, consecrated men and women and the laity are aflame with the love of Christ and zealously seek to make Him known and loved. We are confident that this Synod will not simply be a passing event, but one which will truly allow the Spirit to move our Churches.

Source: VIS
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