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For example, what in the United States is referred to as the “separation of church and state” is a very valuable concept. Vatican II enshrined the essence of this idea in its teaching about religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The United Nations also enshrines it in its declarations. It is deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus. It is the idea that human dignity and freedom require respect for the conscience of the individual, which in turn requires freedom of worship. This concept can be very upsetting to the Islamic world. Yet, if the Islamic world is to join fully the community of modern societies, it has to integrate this and similar values into daily life.

Religious, cultural and social pluralism is not an evil. Pluralism is a healthy phenomenon. It has been long experienced in North America and is increasingly being experienced in many other Western countries. It is a value in itself. Christians, because they serve as a bridge to these cultures, can be instruments in assisting the growth and evolution of the Islamic and Arab worlds.

Christians can offer the Islamic world some other unique perspectives. When the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue recently was asked about the difference between Muslim and Christian attitudes toward God, he summarized a lot by very briefly responding that Christians see God as Father — a tremendous insight.

Christians bring the values, for example, of reconciliation and forgiveness. We may take them for granted, but in the culture of much of the Mediterranean world, you are considered weak and soft if you are too open and forgiving; traditionally, honor demands vengeance. We may think of this as a sort of Mafia code, but it is alive and well. Even in some fairly modern Middle Eastern countries, the honor of your family, clan and tribe sometimes requires vengeance.

Christians come with a message of reconciliation and forgiveness that is countercultural. Jesus taught his followers to renounce their legitimate right to vengeance. This typically Christian value is totally different from the traditional culture of much of the Middle East. Yet it is a precious contribution Christians may bring to it.

Ultimately what Christians bring to the Middle East is that they become bridges in their very selves. In Rome, the Holy Father uses the title of “Pontifex Maximus,” originally a pagan Roman title. “Ponti” refers to “bridge” and “fex,” “to make”; a pontifex is a bridge builder. In ancient times, the building of a bridge represented a tremendous advancement. Bridges allowed people to cross rivers easily, facilitated transportation and opened the way for armies.

As Christians, we are all called to be “pontifical.” Our challenge is to bridge misunderstandings and differences. Christians have a tremendous role to play in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East, even though they are a tiny minority and may not quite fit in.

In light of the current sociological reality, what Middle East Christians need is a John-the-Baptist-type of spirituality. The church is not going to flourish in the near future in the Middle East; it is in a state of rapid decline. But, this is okay. “He must increase, I must decrease.”

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Tags: Middle East Christians Christian-Muslim relations Emigration Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem