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Middle East Synod

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A man helps an altar server light a candle during Mass at the Melkite Catholic Church in the Bedouin village of Smakieh, Jordan. (Photo: CNS/Paul Haring) 

04 Oct 2010 – by John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — p>

Synods are typically drawn-out affairs, requiring several years of planning and more years of follow-up. But there’s a greater sense of urgency about this synod: Pope Benedict XVI convened it rather unexpectedly a year ago, after church leaders from the region — particularly Iraq — requested the special assembly.

The problems of the minority Christian churches in the Middle East are well-known. A short list would include the massive emigration of Christians, political and military conflict, economic hardship, travel restrictions, discrimination and interreligious tensions, especially in predominantly Muslim countries.

The pope decided a synod was needed when he visited the Holy Land last year. The papal visit briefly turned the church’s attention to the daily struggles of Christian communities there; now the pope wants to bring those struggles to the heart of the universal church for more systematic discussion.

The synod will run Oct. 10-24 and focus on the theme, “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness: ‘Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul.'&147;The quotation comes from the Acts of the Apostles, and reflects the unity of the early church — something that plays into the agenda of this assembly.

As the Vatican explains it, the goal of the synod is to strengthen Christians in their faith identity and deepen communion among the mosaic of particular churches that exist in the region, so that they can witness the faith more effectively in their societies. Synod planners are underlining ecumenical cooperation as an essential aspect of credible Christian witness in the Middle East.

Representatives from other Christian churches have been invited to speak at the synod, and so have Jewish and Muslim guests. With Catholic representatives numbering well over 150, there will be many voices to hear in a relatively short time span.

To some extent, the Christian plight in the Middle East can be seen in numbers. According to estimates provided by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, there are about 16.5 million Christians in the Middle East today, representing 4.6 percent of the population. Of that number, 5.7 million are Catholics, or 1.6 percent of the total population.

Those numbers are down considerably from 100 years ago, and in some countries the drop has been steepest in recent years. In Iraq, Christians represented close to 7 percent of the population 30 years ago; now it's 1.2 percent. Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country with a Christian majority 40 years ago, but the Christian population today is thought to be well below 50 percent.

Syria and Jordan have also experienced widespread Christian emigration, and in the Palestinian territories of the Holy Land the Christian population is estimated by church officials at 200,000 — and only 35,000 Catholics &gamil but many think the actual number might be much lower.

The synod will gather bishops and other participants from Middle Eastern countries that stretch from Egypt to Iran, as well as representatives from other countries. Pope Benedict has modified synod rules to allow for more free discussion, but the main topics of this assembly have already been distilled in preliminary documents:





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