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Current Issue
September, 2017
Volume 43, Number 3
  
16 June 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




The newly renamed Mosque of Maryam, the Mother of Jesus, stands in Abu Dhabi.
(photo: Wikipedia)


The Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi has a new name. It is now the Mosque of Maryam (Mary), Mother of Jesus. This gesture of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zayed al-Nahyan, is intended to promote greater understanding and harmony between Christians and Muslims.

In fact, Our Lady plays an important role in Islam. She is the virgin mother of Jesus, although with no connotation of the Incarnation as understood by Christians. She is the one who hears God’s word and believes it. And in the Qur’an, she is the focus of Chapter 19.

When members of the early Muslim community fled to Abyssinia (ancient Ethiopia) to escape persecution, they were required by the king to explain their new faith. When he heard of the devotion they had to Mary, he immediately accepted them as protected refugees.

Two women play a major role in Islam. The first is Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali bin Abi Talib. The second is Mary, Mother of Jesus. Known among Muslims as Fatimah al-Zahra, “the Illustrious,” the daughter of the Prophet is widely revered in Sunni and especially Shi’ite Islam. While it is common among Shi’ites to have mosques bearing the name of Fatimah, to my knowledge this mosque is Abu Dhabi is the first to be named after the Virgin Mary.

This is not by any means to say that Mary plays no role in the popular piety of Muslims. Although it is seriously frowned upon by the Wahhabi/Salafi theological strain in Sunni Islam, many Muslims visit Marian shrines in Ephesus, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere.

The graciousness and breadth of spirit of Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan is to be applauded. One can only hope that it is the first of many gestures that Muslims and Christians can make to increase peace and understanding between our communities.



7 June 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




Palestinian girls stand in front the Dome of the Rock as they attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound on 2 June 2017. (photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

As Muslims around the world observe Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, the Pew Research Center has released its report “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.N. and around the world.” Originally published on 7 December 2016, the report has been updated and released again on 26 May 2017.

As is the case with most Pew Reports, it is detailed yet easy to read and understand. It provides a great deal of information about the number of Muslims in the world as well as in Europe and North America. Not surprisingly, Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet.

The report also investigates how Muslims feel about certain issues and how different non-Muslim groups feel about Muslims. It is noted that attitudes toward Muslims in the United States, for example, differ according to one’s party affiliation and that southern Europeans generally have a more negative attitude toward Muslims than do northern Europeans. An interesting study contrasts how Muslims in Islamic-dominated countries characterize the West and how non-Muslims in the West characterize Muslims. These provide important areas for dialogue and growth in mutual understanding.

Two other important issues are treated, though not equally well, in the report. The first issue is how Muslims feel about “groups like ISIS.” The overwhelming majority of Muslims both in and outside Muslim majority countries do not approve of violent extremism. This is extremely important to note.

Less satisfactory, however, is the section on “Support for Sharia.” Questions about sharia are often used by people who fear it becoming the law in more secular countries. In an unintended way, the section on “Support for Sharia” might seem to verify these fears as large majorities in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa “favor making sharia the official law in their country.”

There are many problems with this. The report describes sharia as “a legal code based on the Quran and other Islamic scripture.” The first thing to note is that there is no “other Islamic scripture” other than the Quran; and secondly in no sense of the word is sharia a “legal code.”

“Sharia” is not a univocal term and Muslims — even those who favor making it the law of their land — have very different understandings of what that might mean. In addition, “sharia” is a religiously charged term. Few Muslims, if any, would spontaneously be against sharia even if they had little or no understanding of what it might actually mean historically and practically. As a result “sharia” with no qualifications is generally speaking not a helpful category when researching Muslim opinions.

Nevertheless, the Pew Foundation has once again provided valuable and much needed information about Islam, a religion that is misunderstood.



Tags: Muslim Islam Ramadan Religious Differences

23 May 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




In this image from 2016, a migrant tries to open a border fence at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece.
(photo: CNS/Marko Djurica, Reuters)


The United Nations is not the fastest moving body in the world. It often takes decades for new ideas to become part and parcel of the UN agenda and worldview.

But yesterday, it appears that something new is happening — and it could have significance for millions, particularly in the parts of the world CNEWA serves.

It happened at a side event hosted by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See, the International Catholic Migration Commission, Caritas Internationalis and the Center for Migration Studies. The event was for “ensuring the right of all to remain in dignity, peace and security in their countries of origin.” The concept emerging that is new and which kept surfacing at the event was the Right to Remain.

In sum: the event participants recognized that most refugees and migrants do not want to leave their homes and, when forced to, want to return as soon as possible. What results is the Right to Remain — which, the event stated, precedes the Right to Migrate. While migration is and remains a right, migration is often the less desirable solution. Thus it is recognized that for most migrants migration is not a free choice but is forced upon them by what the event called “Drivers of Forced Migration.” The major “drivers of forced migration” are: climate change, economic underdevelopment and internal conflicts.The Right to Remain stresses that people have the right to have these drivers removed, so they can remain in the native countries.

Clearly the issue of refugees and migrants has been a major concern at the UN. It is estimated that over 65 million people on the planet are in one way or another refugees or migrants (in what follows, the words migrant and migration will include refugees). The flow of these people from Africa and the Middle East has put European and other countries under tremendous economic, political and social pressures. In some areas the migration problem has bred nativist, xenophobic and often racist reactions which manifest themselves in different ways in different countries. For example, the rise of ethno-nationalist and rightist populist groups — political and otherwise — has been a concern for many.

The UN and Pope Francis have been consistent in calling for programs to help and accept people who are fleeing from their homes. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is responding to a situation of mass migration that has not been seen for at least a hundred years. While continuing to defend the right of people to migrate, however, the event recognized that migration must be: 1) sustainable, 2) manageable and 3) a choice, indicating that at present it is too often none of these. This recognizes not only the legitimate issues of the migrants but also of the receiving countries.

Recognizing the priority of the Right to Remain, the Holy See and its colleagues did not in any way question the right to migrate. However, it laid great emphasis on the fact that migration must be a free choice and that people have the right to have problems solved which are drivers of forced migration in their own countries.

Clearly at this point the Right to Remain does not enjoy the same legal standing in international humanitarian law as does the Right to Migrate. However, there is the recognition that migration must be sustainable, manageable and a free choice together with the indication and that such is not the case at present. This is leading to the the gradual emergence of a Right to Remain.

And, as I noted: this is something new and significant. It recognizes the rights of both migrants and receiving countries. And it provides a significant impulse towards making a Right to Remain one of the basic human rights.

Helping people to achieve a standard of living that is sustainable and human has been one of the major efforts of CNEWA. While CNEWA has not spoken of the Right to Remain or the Drivers of Forced Migration, in fact, almost all of our programs are geared to make it possible for people to remain in their homes in dignity, peace and security.



21 October 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




Syrian Christians celebrate the Divine Liturgy at a Greek Orthodox church in the Syrian government-controlled area in the northern city of Aleppo on 16 November 2014. (photo: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) works with many groups in the Middle East. The men and women of the Franciscan family are among our partners. Franciscans have been in the Middle East since the time of St. Francis in the 13th century. The Custody of the Holy Land has been the organization through which Franciscans have worked as custodians of the holy places for eight centuries. However, Franciscan men and women in the Middle East are engaged in far more than maintaining shrines. They run parishes, schools, hospitals, etc., in almost every country in the region.

Recently the Syrian city of Aleppo has been in the news. Eastern Aleppo has been the target of almost constant bombardment, destroying homes, hospitals and people’s lives. The photograph of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting bloodied and in shock in an ambulance has burned itself into the conscience of the world. Franciscan men and women are working there and Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, a Franciscan, is the Latin Rite vicar apostolic of the city.

The Rev. Michael Perry, O.F.M., the minister general of the (Franciscan) Order of Friars Minor, has recently issued a “Message Concerning Syria.” Drawing on statements of Pope Francis and the deep peace tradition of Franciscans, Father Michael calls all parties to “silence your weapons; put an end to hatred and every kind of violence, so that all may find and walk the path of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Father Michael also asks that Aleppo be designated a safe zone. Realizing the difficulties involved in such a move, he calls the operatives to use “lessons and solutions acquired in previous conflicts.” Importantly Father Michael does not call for denominational safe zones but zones which would “allow the whole population … to receive essential humanitarian aid without discrimination, to find safety and security, and to recover some trust and hope in a speedy solution, which would be motivated by peace alone.” One can only hope that the “Message Concerning Syria” is widely read and taken to heart by world leaders.



Tags: Syria Aleppo Syrian Conflict

27 September 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




In this photograph from 2014, Pope Francis greets Skender Brucaj, head of Albania’s Muslim community, during a meeting with leaders of other religions in Tirana, Albania. Last Friday, CNEWA took part in a full-day program which, among other things, explored the pope’s thoughts on religious freedom and the common good. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

For 90 years, CNEWA has been engaged in regions where conflict and war have aggravated poverty and destroyed basic human rights — including and often especially religious freedom — of people living in the regions. Painfully aware of the relationship between peace, justice and development and freedom of religion, CNEWA works to bring about the integral human development which Pope Francis sees as making people the “dignified agents of their own destiny.”

Last week, CNEWA was invited to share some insights on all this at New York’s Fordham University. “Pope Francis’ Call for Escaping Poverty: Practical Examples and New Proposals” was the topic of a full-day program sponsored by CAPP-USA and Fordham University. CAPP, which stands for Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice, is a lay-led papal organization composed of Catholic business, academic and professional leaders whose purpose is to promote the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

The conference was attended by leading economists, financiers and bankers who dealt with practical ways to respond to Pope Francis’ call to help the poor. Presentations were made to the gathering by Cardinals Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State (who had to withdraw on short notice and had a priest present his paper), and Theodore McCarrick, as well as by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Apostolic Nuncio to the UN. Many CAPP members from Italy and Germany were present as participants and presenters.

As would be expected, a great deal of emphasis was placed on how one measures poverty, deals with alleviating it and then measures the effectiveness of programs. Scholars and economists spoke of the different metrics used in dealing with poverty and various ways to alleviate poverty. Both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN as well as Fordham University’s sevenfold Pope Francis Global Poverty Index were compared, contrasted and studied at length.

I was invited to speak on religious freedom as one of Pope Francis’ indicators. Pulling together two rather broad topics, I indicated that Pope Francis’ understanding of religious freedom, based as it is on Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, is not “denominationally limited.” Rather, Pope Francis sees religious freedom as “a fundamental human right” of all people and that questions intrinsic to one’s intimate essence...are questions of religions and...require religious freedom.”

Combining both realism and practicality, Pope Francis sees religious freedom as intimately related to the need for a peaceful society and for the achievement of the common good. Religious freedom, therefore, is characterized by two attitudes. The first is universal — one regards every man and woman, even those of different religious traditions “not as rivals, less still enemies, but rather as brothers and sisters.” The second attitude is practical — religious freedom also impels believers (and non-believers) to “work done in the service of the common good” with “concern for the whole of society without making distinctions....”

I noted that Pope Francis’ universal and practical understanding of religious freedom helps to bridge the sometimes differently understood concepts of “the common good,” used by the Catholic Church and “the universal destination of goods,” used by the UN. The two expressions/concepts, while not identical, are not contradictory and can, in fact, complement each other.

You can read the full text of my talk here.



24 August 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




Morocco’s King Mohammad VI, shown in this image from 2011, last weekend condemned terrorism in the name of Islam. (photo: Azzouz Boukallouch/AFP/Getty Images)

On Saturday 20 August 2016 King Mohammad VI of Morocco joined a growing list of Muslim leaders to condemn what is often referred to as Islamic terrorism or extremism. The speech was delivered on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of the Revolution of 20 August, in which Morocco gained its independence.

The King, a descendant of Muhammad, condemns those “who call for murder and aggression, those who excommunicated people without a legitimate reason” and accuses them of “lying to Allah and His messenger,” thereby earning a place in hell. The king also makes oblique reference to the 26 July murder of the Rev. Jacques Hamel in Rouen, France, stating “Killing a priest is forbidden by religion; murdering him inside a church is unforgivable madness.” Finally the king states, “As ignorance spreads in the name of religion, Muslims, Christians and Jews have to close ranks in order to tackle all forms of extremism, hatred and reclusiveness (sic).”

As one continues to hear “why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?,” King Mohammad VI adds his voice to a long list of Muslim leaders — many unheard in the West — who have condemned extremism and religious terrorism in the strongest terms. He joins the ranks of those courageous Muslims who have condemned what is being done in the name of God and Islam. Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Mustaza Bahari, two Muslim scholars, have published a list of 86 organization and individuals who have spoken out against ISIS, containing statements made by the Grand Muftis of Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the political leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Iran together with numerous Islamic universities, societies and individual scholars.

But perhaps the strongest reaction can be found in the form of an open letter to “Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri, alias ‘Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’ and to the fighters and followers of the self-declared ‘Islamic State.’” Published on 19 September 2014, the letter uses the method of traditional Islamic jurisprudence to condemn ISIS. Meanwhile, setting a more constructive tone, the Declarations of Marrakesh (25-27 January 2016) and Erbil (2-4 June 2016) outline in detail how Muslims can and should live in a pluralistic world.



12 July 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




Pope Francis talks with Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, during a private meeting at the Vatican on 23 May. The Vatican and Sunni Islam’s leading institution of higher learning have begun looking for ways to restart formal dialogue.
(photo: CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters)


The news today that the Vatican plans to send a high-ranking official to Cairo, in hopes of restarting talks at a leading Sunni Muslim university, is important for a number of reasons.

First, this move marks a possible thaw in relations that had grown frosty. If nothing else, it also signals a symbolic gesture of conciliation and respect toward one of the oldest universities in the world, one which has always been a powerful voice in Sunni Islam.

It also indicates that restoring this relationship is a priority to Pope Francis. Recalling the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate last year, he indicated in his message for the World Day of Peace in January that Nostra Aetate was “emblematic of the new relationship of dialogue, solidarity and accompaniment which the Church sought to awaken within the human family.”

To understand the significance of this move, it helps to understand a little background.

After the Second Vatican Council, the Secretariat for non-Christians, which later become the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, exchanged visits and was engaged in dialogue with al-Azhar University.

However, on 20 January 2011 the Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar University broke off dialogue with the Vatican. The remarks of Pope Benedict XVI in his address at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 and his call in 2011 for the protection of Coptic Christians who were under attack in Egypt were not well received at al-Azhar.

The address in Regensburg was looked upon as offensive and the call to protect Coptic Christians was seen as interference in the internal affairs of Egypt during a particularly tumultuous time. As a result, contact and dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican were broken off.

But on 23 May 2016, Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Sheikh al-Azhar, made an official visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. The visit received broad media coverage and Pope Francis’ “dialogue of friendship” was evident.

Now, only a few weeks later, it appears that initial dialogue has born fruit, and it is quickly ripening.

It is a very happy and hopeful event.



20 June 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




The symbols of the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, on the front of an Arab Jewish center in the northern port city of Haifa in Israel.
(photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)


This past Saturday, the Archdiocese of New York and the American Bible Society invited CNEWA to take part in the New York Catholic Bible Summit — a remarkable gathering of biblical experts, academics, writers and theologians. It was attended by over 600 people, including the Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., (coincidentally, a member of CNEWA’s board) and Archbishop Octavio Ruis Arenas, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

I was privileged to give two seminars on “The Holy Lands Today,” a subject CNEWA knows intimately.

The brochure summed up the subject this way:

“The sacred scriptures of Jews, Christians and Islam... are held in deep reverence by more than a quarter of the world's population. At times, it is easy to believe that the lands of the Middle East are little more than Biblical places with modern conveniences. This can cause confusion and conflict... ‘Biblical geography’ can easily become sacred geopolitics with a potential for great conflict. The land called ‘holy’ by a quarter of the earth’s people is also a land of conflict, oppression and bloodshed.”

Few organizations are as familiar with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East than CNEWA. Across nine decades, this agency has worked to bring healing and hope to a land that too often suffers from turmoil and terror. Taking part in this summit was one way to share some of what we’ve discovered, and reflect on why this land is sacred to so many.

It was also an opportunity to affirm why the ongoing mission of Catholic Near East Welfare Association is so critically important — now, perhaps, more than ever.



16 June 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




Muslim scholars and religious leaders gather in Erbil earlier this month to discuss how to deal with the situation in the Middle East. (photo: PRIO.org)

The tragic situation in the Middle East has challenged Muslim thinkers and religious leaders to analyze the almost total breakdown of civil society, sectarian violence on a historically unprecedented scale and widespread human suffering the region has not seen for centuries.

What can be done?

In recent months, two gatherings of Muslims scholars have attempted to deal with the situation and to offer possible solutions. A very important conference took place earlier this month in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. It was held 2-4 June 2016 under the co-sponsorship of the Hikmah Center for Dialogue and Cooperation (Najaf, Iraq), the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) (Norway) and the Center for the Study of Islam and the Middle East (CSIME) (Washington, DC). As such, it was the second major recent attempt by Muslim scholars to deal with the situation in the Middle East.

The first attempt was a meeting of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. It took place in Marrakesh, Morocco, 25-27 January 2016. It was attended by Muslims from 120 Muslim majority countries from around the world. The Marrakesh conference dealt with the topic on a global scale and generally speaking from a Sunni perspective. The Marrakesh Declaration uses as its point of departure the so-called Constitution of Medina, which is an agreement the Prophet Muhammad made with the citizens of Medina delineating their rights and obligations when he came from Mecca and took over leadership of Medina. The Marrakesh Declaration challenges Muslim majority countries to: “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in the Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global change.”

The Erbil Declaration, however, is different in significant ways.First, it deals specifically with the situation in Iraq. Secondly, the document has been influenced by Shi’ite thought through the co-sponsorship of the Hikmah Center for Dialogue and Cooperation and also the CSIME. The presence of PRIO provides an non-Muslim perspective. The first thing that one notices is that the Erbil Declaration relies less on traditional Islamic categories and more on contemporary political theory. This is by no means to imply that the Erbil Declaration is a break with traditional Islamic thinking but rather that it is a contribution to its development.

Several very important concepts form the framework of the Erbil Declaration: citizenship, civil society and government, which is “responsive to all its citizens equally and regardless of their religious or ethnic identities.”

Dr. Ahmad Iravani, the president of CSIME, delivered a paper at the forum entitled “Inclusive Citizenship amid Cultural and Religious Diversity.” In the paper Dr. Iravani makes several important points. First, he states that “power-sharing through both direct electoral participation and civil society involvement is an absolutely integral part of building a social and political trust.” Religion is seen as having played and continuing to play an important — though not exclusive — role in civil society. Iravani notes that “...civil society engagement should be utilized to promote social harmony and religious pluralism within Iraq and demand a government that is responsive to all citizens....”

Recognizing that the notion of citizenship cannot simply be translated from a Western context into Iraq, Iravani notes: “Building a harmonious social compact that includes all Iraqi citizens is achievable perhaps only through the notion of citizenship. Although a modern concept...without it [citizenship], and given the diversity and recent conflicts and insecurity in Iraq, it would be very difficult to build a harmonious social order based on trust and mutual state-society responsibility.”

The Erbil Declaration then makes concrete applications of these principles:

  1. That the solution for Iraq is to enhance the status of citizenship, so all have equal rights and duties under the rule of law.
  2. That the well-ordered state should protect and guarantee for all Iraqis the fundamental freedoms of belief and expression.
  3. That authentic reconciliation should be promoted among the Iraqi people ensure the enhancement of mutual trust.
  4. That religious, educational, and media institutions should actively support inclusive citizenship, co-existence, and respect for others.
  5. That religious leaders should educate their congregations to respect our humanity and to reject all forms of extremism, hatred, and the use of terror.
  6. That after completely liberating the land of Iraq from Daesh, the Iraqi government should implement procedures for the establishment of peace and to prevent negative consequences from arising, such as cycles of revenge and sectarianism.
  7. That cultural institutions, civil society organizations, and universities should channel their energies towards the eradication of everything that would be detrimental to citizenship.
  8. That the capacities of young people should be given much attention, and support should be given to activities that ensure them with a life in dignity and an education that protects them from extremism.
  9. That the role of women as half of society should be reflected in their status as citizens, and they should have a substantive role in the development of society.

Given the situation in Iraq and elsewhere, the principles of the Erbil Declaration provide a clear, practical and contemporary framework for rebuilding societies that have been destroyed. Although specifically proposed for Iraq, the principles can be far more widely applied.

You can download the full text of the Erbil Declaration here.



15 June 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.






The title of the 1970 film, “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came,” has recently morphed into the question “what if they called a Great and Holy Synod and nobody came?”

Since 1961, there has been talk among the 14 autocephalous (or independent) Orthodox churches, comprising some 300 million people, about the possibility and necessity of a meeting — a Pan-Orthodox Council or, more formally, a Great and Holy Synod. The obstacles to convening a synod of the Orthodox churches have been many and sometimes great. But, finally, after decades of negotiating and tumultuous change in the lands of most of these churches, a synod was planned for June 2016. The original venue was scheduled to be in Istanbul, the seat of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, but that was unacceptable to the patriarch of Moscow of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Instead, the synod is to take place in Crete from 19 to 26 June.

The idea of a synod of all the Orthodox churches began in 1961 with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. While the ecumenical patriarch is recognized as the “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion of churches, he has no authority over those churches that are fully independent. Consequently, issues of leadership surface, raised especially by those Orthodox churches backed by powerful civil governments.

While synods of bishops generally govern each of the independent Orthodox churches, meeting at least annually, the Orthodox world has little experience with general councils: Occasional synods and councils, with varying degrees of participation and canonical recognition among the churches, stretch back to Nicaea in the year 787, when the last of the universally recognized ecumenical councils was convoked by the emperor of the Romans.

The proposed Great and Holy Synod has been compared in the media — especially in the West — with the Catholic Church’s Vatican II. In actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Should the synod take place, each of the 14 churches will be a full and equal member — there is no emperor or pope to convene and preside. And no single individual will approve the decrees of the synod; they are accepted or rejected by unanimous consensus.

A gathering of Orthodox leaders — a Synaxis of Prelates — met in January 2016 and set six issues on the synodal agenda: ecumenism, marriage, fasting, autonomy of churches, the diaspora and mission. But there is little unanimity on any of the topics. Ecumenism is a major issue of contention. Some Orthodox churches do not consider any other Christian body to be a valid church. These churches do not recognize the baptism or other sacraments of other Christians. Marriage between an Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian, even if the non-Orthodox individual is a baptized Christian, is forbidden. Other Orthodox churches are more open in their acceptance. At present there is clearly no consensus.

Deep theological issues, however, are not the only obstacles to the synod. There are conflicts among several of the Orthodox churches. Almost all of the objections can and are articulated in theological terms, making dialogue and compromise more difficult.

At present, five of the 14 autocephalous churches — Antioch, Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Georgia — have indicated they will not attend. The patriarch of Antioch has broken communion with the patriarch of Jerusalem, who has appointed a bishop in Qatar, traditionally the territory of the patriarch of Antioch. Thus the Orthodox Church of Antioch, one of the first patriarchates and the third most in importance, will not participate in the synod. The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria has decided not to attend the synod because, among other things, it was not happy with the seating arrangements.

For an outsider this is a tragedy. The world has changed since Athenagoras first proposed a pan-Orthodox synod. One of the greatest strengths of Orthodoxy has been its ability to enculturate and adapt to the culture where it lives. While that is still of great value in the homelands of Orthodoxy, it proves an anomaly in the diaspora. More and more Orthodox Christians are living in the “New World,” which is culturally, linguistically and philosophically very different from the homelands of these churches. Almost every Orthodox Church is represented, for example, in North America. Very often they have little to do with other Orthodox churches in their area — despite being in full communion. As they lose contact with the ancient homeland, they run the risk of becoming ghettoized in the new world, isolated from the home church and also isolated from each other.

It is an open question whether the Great and Holy Synod will take place and, if it does, whether it will have any impact on Orthodoxy in particular and Christianity in general. It is not an open question whether the Great and Holy Synod is necessary. It is very necessary if Orthodoxy is to remain an integral part of the modern, globalized world.



Tags: Ecumenism Christian Unity Orthodox





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