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Synod priorities: Christians must remain in the Middle East, with a mission

By Samir Khalil Samir

With only a few days to go until the assembly of bishops from the Middle East, the region is dominated by tensions between Sunnis and Shiites; stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, persecution especially in Egypt. The Synod will also be able to make proposals for politics. But most of all it must reawaken the duty and mission of Christians in the Middle East: the freedom and right to offer witness to God’s love in front of Jews and Muslims.

10/6/2010 Middle East (AsiaNews) – With only a few days to go to the opening of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East (October 10 to 24), the Vatican Press Office has published the list of invitees. Among them, invited as an expert, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, a great friend and collaborator of AsiaNews. We asked him about the expectations aroused by the Synod.

Just as the Synod is about to begin, there is a growing tension in the region, both in Iran and in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Will all this affect the Synod?  The preparatory documents very explicitly state that the political situation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects the lives of Christians with regards their economic prospects, emigration and their freedom.

Inter-Islamic conflict between Sunnis and Shiites

On closer inspection it is obvious that underlying the current tension in the Middle East is a troubling inter-Islamic conflict, namely the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites. The whole crux of the problem is concentrated on the UN’s international tribunal which is expected to publish the results of its investigation into the assassination of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by the end of December.

Apparently, Hezbollah appears to have had an active role in the assassination. And since Hezbollah is armed, even by the Lebanese army, it is threatening conflict. On the other hand, throughout the Arab Muslim world, no one wants to start a war, or a serious confrontation with Iran. Behind Hezbollah is, in fact, Iran. The problem therefore does not relate primarily to Christians, but Muslims against Muslims. And this gives Christians and Lebanon as a whole a breathing space.

Staying, because we have a mission to carry out

Above all the Synod must serve to enhance awareness of the mission of Christians in the Middle East. Until now, many bishops have spoken about the situation of Christians from emigration and the emptying of the churches, to the violence, as inevitable. But Benedict XVI, during his trip to the Holy Land in May 2009, started to say that the task of Christians is to “stay” in the Middle East because they have a mission to carry out.

Certainly the problems between Christians and Muslims in this region are many and widespread. This is evident in Egypt. Here there is tension and conflict between Copts and Muslims everyday. In recent times there has been a sustained media attack against Anba Bishoi, the patriarchal vicar. The bishop apparently said that in the early Koran, the Gospel and Islamic faith had a lot in common, that the diverging aspects were later additions to this original version of the Koran. I do not know if the bishop really said these things, which in any case, pertain to the realms of scholasticism. But the accusation has become a pretext for street demonstrations. When basically what he says (or apparently said) shows the bishop’s desire for dialogue and sharing with Islam.

This illustrates an extremely tense situation between Christians and Muslims. But it is not the case in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. In Iraq it depends on the moment and often the persecution of Christians is a result of power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites.

However does the plight of Christians depend on politics and on this alone? Of course politics is what decides the orientation of any nation and is crucial for a small minority, as is the Christian minority. We note, however, that the Christian minorities in the Middle East cannot be compared to Muslim minorities in Europe. These have been in Europe for several generations: Christians were in the Middle East before Islam, they are the region’s indigenous peoples.

A mission of love

The Pope’s discourses in the Holy Land and the preparatory document for the Synod seem to say to Christians: “stay until the very end.” And above all, stay for a “reason”: for a mission. Recently in meeting some Lebanese Christians, I saw that they pose themselves the question of mission.

It should be clear that we must remain in this region on a mission of love: to help the local people discover the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the most amazing thing to save the life of a human being, freeing people from every weight. This is not a question of proselytism, but a matter of justice; even Muslims are entitled to know the Gospel, as Christians have a right to know the Koran.

The Synod must spell this out clearly: do not be afraid, stay in the Middle East, but remain to proclaim the beauty of the gospel.

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