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A tasty stew at synod on the Middle East.

Assessing the value of a Synod of Bishops, those gatherings when the pope summons roughly 250 bishops and other church leaders to Rome for three weeks to advise him on some topic, is an exercise that often says more about the analyst than the event.

For pessimists, a synod usually seems like an expensive talk shop that accomplishes nothing. Glass-half-full types, however, say that a synod is an opportunity to put down markers about important issues--even if resolution usually must await another day.

As important matters go, it's hard to top the fate of Christianity in the Middle East. Hence if all synods are equal, the Oct. 10-24 Special Assembly on the Middle East is arguably more equal than most.

The bishops, priests and religious and lay leaders who will assemble in the Vatican's Synod Hall must confront a series of seeming intractable problems: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the relationship with Islam (including Islamic extremism), and the ongoing exodus of Christians out of the region. They'll also have to wrestle with relations among the various Catholic churches (Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syrian, as well as the Latin rite), to say nothing of a bewildering array of Orthodox churches and Protestants.

Despite those headaches, Catholics in the Middle East may also have something important to contribute to the global church: a new, and more positive, view of secularization. What gets them out of bed in the morning isn't alarm about secularism, but rather Islamic theocracy--and in that context, separation of church and state and the other pillars of a secular society look awfully attractive.

The two working presidents of the synod will be Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan of Antioch, Syria, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches. Patriarch Antonios Naguib of the Egyptian Coptic church will hold the all-important role of "relator," or general secretary.

Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, Italy, whose Oasis project has forged deep ties with both Christian and Islamic leaders in the Middle East, has suggested that the synod represents a "last call" for Christianity in the region. A reminder of the region's turmoil came on the cusp of the synod, as the Lebanese bishops, led by Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, an honorary president of the synod, warned that the country is on the brink of another civil war.

Overall, there are an estimated 14 million Christians across the Middle East, a tiny fraction of an overall population of 330 million. That's less than half of the roughly 25 million Christians in the area in the middle of the last century. Daniel Pipes, writing in the Middle East Quarterly a decade ago, predicted that within a relatively brief arc of time, Christians "will effectively disappear from the region as a cultural and political force."

There are small signs of hope, such as a new Catholic university being built by the patriarchate of Jerusalem in Madaba, near Amman in Jordan. When Pope Benedict XVI was in Jordan in 2009, he blessed the cornerstones for two new Catholic churches at Bethany beyond the Jordan, one Latin rite and the other Greek Melkite.

On the whole, however, Pipes' 2001 prediction still seems prescient.

Most experts say that the Christian exodus actually began in the early 20th century, well before the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, although it's been turbocharged by the political and economic crisis. In some ways, Christianity in the Middle East is a victim of its own success. It built the region's best school system, and its graduates have gone on to achieve success in business and the professions. Christians are disproportionately likely to be middle-class and well educated, meaning they're in a better position to leave.

Virtually everyone says that curbing the exodus will require progress on the Israeli/Palestinian front How much the Catholic church might contribute to a peace deal isn't clear. Within Israel, the Catholic presence is mostly composed of non-Hebrew-speaking outsiders who aren't really engaged in civil society.

The Vatican could be a potential broker, as seen in early September when Israeli President Shimon Peres called on Benedict in Castel Gandolfo, and both men pledged themselves anew to the quest for peace. Yet the Vatican is also locked in a seemingly endless cycle of tax and legal negotiations with the Israeli government that can impede broader diplomatic initiatives.

Theoretically, Christians might have more traction with the Palestinians, but here too there are complications. Arab Christians tend to be strong nationalists, trying to demonstrate their Arab credentials despite being non-Muslim, which means that church leaders sometimes come off as radically pro-Palestinian. That may help with local politics, but it weakens efforts to serve as intermediaries.

In terms of Catholic relations with Islam, at the official level things look surprisingly good. Benedict got off to a rocky start with his infamous Regensburg address in September 2006, which set off a firestorm of protest by seeming to link Muhammad with violence, but it also unleashed massive new energies in Catholic/Muslim dialogue. The pope's subsequent encounters with Muslims have largely seemed like positive steps toward what the pope calls an "alliance of civilizations" between Christianity and Islam, in defense of a role for religion in public life.

Yet on the ground, things remain tense. In Iraq in 2008, radicals carried out coordinated bombings of six Christian churches, and an archbishop was kidnapped and executed. In Turkey, a Catholic priest was gunned down in 2006, and a bishop met the same fate earlier this year. Across the region, Christians report increased pressure from fundamentalist Muslims who see them as agents of the West.

How much the synod can change that calculus remains to be seen, but one point of emphasis likely will be pilgrimage. If more visitors from around the world were to wash through the region, spending on hotels and meals and tours and trinkets, the typical Middle Easterner might be more inclined to see the Christian presence as an asset. It would also provide a revenue stream for local Christians themselves.

Even questions that may seem no-brainers, such as pastoral care for Christian refugees in the West, can be minefields. Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto, one of the papal appointments to the synod, told NCR he plans to talk about what's being done in Canada to help Christian exiles. At the same time, he said, he's conscious that if those efforts are too successful, they could actually end up fueling the exodus out of the region rather than arresting it.

During the synod, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, in tandem with an Italian Catholic movement, will be holding a parallel series of talks, meetings and visual exhibits titled "A Look at Christians in the Middle East."

Beyond mere survival, the synod is of interest for a different reason. Some of the most interesting Catholic thought today on church/state relations comes from the Middle East, where secularism looks not like a threat to Christian identity, but rather a safety blanket against the threat of Islamization.

That point shines through the Instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the synod, which Benedict presented during his June trip to Cyprus.

The document calls upon Christians to work for "an all-inclusive, shared civic order" that protects "human rights, human dignity and religious freedom." Twice, it dwells on the concept of "positive laicity"--meaning, in effect, a positive form of secularism. It cites a September 2008 speech in France by Benedict, who in turn borrowed the term "positive laicity" from French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Catholics, together 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," the synod document says.

"This could help eliminate the theocratic character of government and allow for greater equality among citizens of different religions," the document asserts, "thereby fostering the promotion of a sound democracy, positively secular in nature, which fully acknowledges the role of religion ... while completely respecting the distinction between the religious and civic orders."

All this suggests there are plenty of ingredients for the synod to produce a tasty stew. Now, everything depends on how artful the cooks are in the kitchen--and how Benedict eventually digests the meal they prepare.

[John L. Allen Jr., NCR senior correspondent, will be in Rome covering the synod. Watch for his regular reports.]
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Title Annotation:ANALYSIS
Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Oct 15, 2010
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