Mention the Middle East these days, and a variety of words and images come to mind: Tinderbox, World War III and Armageddon might be high on the list. Arabs and Jews certainly would be up there. Conflict, Palestinians, terrorism, “Death to America,” suicide bombers, civilian casualties …
Quite often, the news we hear from the region is marred by death and violence, tinged with sadness and misunderstanding.
Recent events have been no exception. The Israeli blockade of Gaza came into view when a relief ship trying to bring supplies to the impoverished Palestinian area was boarded by Israeli military personnel. Nine relief workers lost their lives in the ensuing scuffle.
Amid the fallout, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas remarked that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home.” “Home,” meaning, in Thomas’ view, Germany, Poland and the U.S.
The prickly 89-year-old griller of presidents later apologized for her words and resigned from Hearst Newspapers.
The Vatican is helping to add new words to the vocabulary of the troubled region — hopeful words, words that can heal.
Earlier this month, while visiting Cyprus — the strife-torn island in the eastern Mediterranean in the shadow of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon — Pope Benedict XVI presented the working document for the special Synod of Bishops on the Middle East. The synod gathering’s theme this October will be “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.”
The document was prepared by a committee of patriarchs and bishops from the Middle East and representatives of Vatican offices dealing with ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, Eastern Catholic Churches and evangelization.
Consider its hopeful tone: “As Christians, we belong to the Middle East; we are identified with it; and we are an essential part of it. As citizens, we share the responsibility of working to build up and restore. Furthermore, this is our Christian duty, which implies the double obligation of fighting the evils in our society, be they political, juridical, economic, social or moral, and contributing to building a more just, sound and humane society. In doing so, we follow in the footsteps of generations of Christians who have preceded us. Their contribution in the past, in the areas of education and culture and works to benefit society, has been outstanding. They have played an essential role in the cultural, economic and political life of their countries.”
And this: “While, on the one hand, this work demands justice for the oppressed, it necessitates, on the other, the message of reconciliation based on mutual forgiveness. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, pardon can be both asked and given. This is the only path to creating a new humanity. Those having political power also have need of this spiritual approach which Christian humility and self-sacrifice can bring them. Permitting the Spirit to penetrate the hearts of men and women who suffer from conflicts in our region is the specific contribution of Christians and the best service they can render society.”
There’s another aspect of the Vatican’s outlook that deserves attention. In the midst of the major story line out of the Middle East — the seemingly never-ending conflict between Jews and Arabs/Palestinians — the document is a great reminder that the Middle East is where Christianity began and developed. The life of the Church, though fragile, is something the Vatican is keen on protecting and nurturing.
“All particular Churches throughout the world, in addition to those in the Middle East, trace their roots to the Church of Jerusalem,” the document declares. “It would indeed be a loss for the universal Church, if Christianity were to disappear or be diminished in the very place where it was born.”
Because of conflicts, economic hardships and outright persecution, Christian emigration from the region has long been a concern. Dwindling Christian communities may leave the Christian holy places more museum pieces than worship spaces.
But the document brings us another aspect that we don’t hear about too much in the news: In addition to the emigration of traditional Christian groups, there has been a surprising Christian immigration to the Middle East as well. Workers from strongly Catholic countries such as the Philippines are bolstering the Christian presence in the Holy Land.
But, the document warns, they too need our help, as many of these immigrants face prejudice and persecution in predominantly Muslim lands.
For those who remain, the document encourages steadfastness: “Although Christians are a small minority in almost every part of the Middle East, they are nonetheless active, forceful and involved where social and political situations allow. The danger lies in their isolating themselves out of fear of others. Our faithful need their faith and spirituality strengthened and relations and solidarity among them re-forged. This must be done, however, without yielding to a ghetto mentality.”
As our own country grapples with debates over immigration, focused mostly on newcomers from countries to the south — also traditional Catholic lands — let’s keep in our minds and prayers those Christians who struggle to live faithful lives in the land of Christ’s birth.