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Vatican synod mulls Middle East Christian exodus

10/7/2010 Middle East, Vatican (Reuters) – With Christianity dwindling in its Middle Eastern birthplace, Pope Benedict has convened Catholic bishops from the region to debate how to save its minority communities and promote harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

For two weeks starting on Sunday, the bishops will discuss problems for the faithful ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and strife in Iraq to radical Islamism, economic crisis and the divisions among the region’s many Christian churches.

They come from local churches affiliated with the Vatican, but the relentless exodus of all Christians — Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants — has prompted them to take a broad look at the challenges facing all followers of Jesus there.

While conditions for Christians vary from country to country, the overall picture is dramatic. Christians made up around 20 percent of the region’s population a century ago, but now account for about five percent and falling.

“If this phenomenon continues, Christianity in the Middle East will disappear,” said Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, a Beirut-based Egyptian Jesuit who helped draw up the working documents for the October 10-24 synod at the Vatican.

“This is not an unreal hypothesis — Turkey went from 20 percent Christian in the early 20th century to 0.2 percent now,” he told journalists in Paris. The Christian exodus since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion “could bleed the Church in Iraq dry.”

Challenged by western-style modernity, many Middle Eastern societies have fused their Arab and Muslim identities, he said, narrowing religious freedom for non-Muslim minorities.

The working document stated: “Catholics, along with other Christian citizens and Muslim thinkers and reformers, ought to be able to support initiatives at examining thoroughly the concept of the ‘positive laicity’ of the state.

“This could help eliminate the theocratic character of government and allow for greater equality among citizens of different religions, thereby fostering the promotion of a sound democracy, positively secular in nature.”

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