Today the Church remembers an obscure saint: St. Sharbel Makhlouf, who was a hermit in Syria (late 19th century). His witness gives us pause to look at the state of the Church in the Middle East, struggling under the shadow of Islam and a Church rent by division. The region where the Son of God became flesh, where the Church was born, is quite a mess, especially for Christians. Yet, there are some bright spots. And the Blessed Mother – as ever — leads the way.
The Holy Father sponsored a special meeting of the Synod of Bishops in the fall of 2009. In June 2010 he signed the bishop’s report, which followed these meetings. Its title, Instrumentum Laboris, means “working instrument.” Instrument means a devise that requires skills for proper use. This title reminds that the Church in the Middle East requires skillful care and hard work by its leaders. Of course, the missionary work in the Middle East remains “a work in progress.” This report precedes an extensive synod with all Church leaders in the Middle East, scheduled for October 2010 at the Vatican.
This report reminds us that Jesus took on human flesh in the Middle East, bore the physical appearance of those in this region, and that the Church was born there as well. The apostles’ evangelical work radiated from this geographic epicenter to spread the Gospel message, baptize, work miracles, preach and build up the Church to the ends of the Earth. Now, as Yeat’s poem The Second Coming reminds (which I’ve adapted): “Things fall apart; [when] the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The Bishop’s report states two trajectories of problems with the state of Christianity in the Middle East:
1. Disunity among Christians
The divide between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic communities dates to 1054, but most agree the division was a gradual process of estrangement. Theological differences involved a subtle conflict over the addition of the “Filioque” to the Nicene Creed (in the 6th century, at the Pope’s direction). Originally the Creed specified that the Holy Spirit came from the Father, but “from the Father and the Son” was added in 589, in attempt to shore up clarity amidst heresies. Orthodox claim the Pope had no power to do this unilaterally without all the patriarchs meeting in synod.
More tensions ensued, like the Iconoclast perversion in 9th century, where crusaders destroyed icons in the name of not worshipping “graven images,” but really to loot the churches in Constantinople. Nine crusades to restore the Holy Land from Muslim dangers added to Eastern-Western Church tensions, because crusaders were often motivated for land-grabbing and political power, as the crusades wore on. Western ecclesial leaders began appointing bishops in the East. The net result was the Great Schism. Some suggest that Rome sought to reclaim dominance over the Eastern Churches. Others suggest that the good work of the Church was subverted by power-aggrandizing goals. Either way, the split remains.
The Church in the Middle East is many: called the sui iuris (meaning “of one’s own laws), or independent churches. The diversity of Catholic-Orthodox liturgical expression, while respected, is also recognized as a source of tension, which further undermines effective Christian witness in the Middle East.
In 2009 the Holy Father called onr 22 sui iuris Churches to codify their laws in communion with the Holy See, in an effort to further the Gospel call to unity: “That they may all be one…that the world may believe…” (John 17:21) Hence the synod this fall. Pope Benedict XVI follows John Paul II’s efforts to restore full unity between the East and West. Yet, the Russian Patriarch remains the most resistant.
In addition to Eastern-Western Church divisions, protestants have added more dividing lines in the Middle East. The recent report also references the problematic role of some evangelical Christians in the area: “[C]ertain Christian fundamentalist theologies use Sacred Scripture to justify the political injustice imposed on the Palestinians, making the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue.”
Israeli also poses obstacles, “access to the Holy Places is dependent on military permission, which is granted to some and denied to others on security grounds.”
The division of the Church is, in brief, a scandal, which further weakens Christianity in the face of its most pressing danger in the Middle East: Islam.
Since the prophet Mohammed initiated this religion in the late 7th century, approximately 1 billion Muslims now live in the Middle East. Christians number about 15 million in the region today, since Jesus birthed His Church in the 1st century. Though vastly outnumbered, Christians represent a significant minority in the Middle East. Some Middle Eastern states have significant Christians living elsewhere (the “diaspora”), often because of persecution. So the actual number of Middle Eastern Christians is much higher. Add to this Islamic persecution, and the numbers climb further, because of the number of Christians uncounted.
The Bishop’s report calls for a multi-front effort to combat Islamisation:
- Islamic governments must allow true respect for conscience, and protect the rights of Christians as well as those of all citizens.
- Religious leaders must not shrink in fear, or isolate their efforts to the current members of their flocks – the “ghetto effect.” Instead, leaders must promote vocations, set up programs to encourage wider participation, and take the message of the Gospel to the streets, as did the early Apostles in the tense climate of Jerusalem following the Crucifixion.
- Churches must serve the needs of the poor, the sick, and especially bolster Catholic education (and access) efforts.
- Families should have more children, not hide in silence, and remain vigilant: “Islamisation also penetrates families through the media and school, leading to an unconscious change in attitudes which is Islamic in character. In other countries, authoritarianism or dictatorships force the population, Christians included, to bear everything in silence so as to safeguard the essential aspects of living.”
In brief, Christians are called to great courage. We are called to pray for Christians suffering under the strain of Islam. And we are called to pray for unity among all Christians – always. Let’s also pray for the success of the synod of Middle Eastern Churches this coming fall.
The report reminds of the foundational importance of this region:
Our Churches are apostolic in origin and our countries have been the cradle of Christianity. These lands have been blessed by the presence of Christ himself and the first generations of Christians. 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. Consequently, we bear a grave responsibility not only to maintain the Christian faith in these holy lands but, still more, to maintain the spirit of the Gospel in relations with both Christians and non-Christians, not to mention to keep alive the memory of these Christian beginnings.
Read the report, and get the real scoop on the Middle East Crisis.
The Hope: The Blessed Mother leads
While many protestants have rediscovered the Blessed Mother, it may surprise you to learn that Muslims have always reserved a place for Mary’s intercession. Two sections of the Quran, known as the Maryam, are devoted to Mary, who is recognized as “the purified woman” who is chosen to bring forth Messiah. Muslims do not recognize Jesus as Messiah, but just as a prophet. And yet, Shiite and Sufi Muslims believe that Mary is a mediatrix, between man and God. They pray to her for intercession, as they do to others they recognize as saints. Surprised? It gets better…
In Syria, Muslims have been seen rolling out their prayer carpets to reverence an icon of Mary, and many Muslims crowded in Cairo when Marian apparitions were reported there in the 1960s. Wow, did that surprise me. Read the full story.
So, amidst the overwhelming challenges faced by the Church in the Middle East, how logical that She who first said YES, is the one who leads us to the Son — and God’s people toward unity.