Mid-east Synod: the final speeches

[ROME] Friday afternoon and Saturday morning saw the final speeches of the Synod participants, bringing to a close the first part of the deliberations here in which bishops and other participants have a chance to air what they think important. This morning they discuss their "report after the discussion" -- relatio post disceptationem -- prior to beginning the working groups this afternoon. The working groups, divided into different languages (two of them are English, the others are in Arab and French) will concentrate on developing the Synod's reccommendations to the Pope.

Two themes emerged from the last of the speeches: the role of the Pope, and the situation in Iraq.


Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced that the CDF is considering an exchange of views with the Eastern Churches about the role of the pope, an issue of concern not just to the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome but also to the Orthodox Churches with whom the Eastern Catholics feel an obvious affinity. As Denys Chada, the Syrian Archbishop of Alep in Syria, argued in the synod hall, "what separates us from our Orthodox Brothers is the understanding of the Primacy of Peter. It’s up to the theologians to find a new interpretation. Why not reach a unity in faith, but in diversity?"

He will have been pleased by Cardinal Levada's announcement. "Our Congregation has been considering a convocation of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Synods and Episcopal Conferences of the Eastern and Oriental Churches sui iuris to discuss doctrinal issues of mutual concern," he told the Synod Friday afternoon. "In this context I would envision a useful study and exchange of views about how the ministry of the Successor of Peter, with its essential doctrinal characteristics, could be exercised in different ways, according to the diverse needs of times and places." He added: "This remains a chapter of ecclesiology to be further explored and completed."

The most heartfelt interventions in the Synod hall have come from Iraq, and Friday was no exception. The Syrian Archbishop of Babylon put the situation since 2003 in dramatic terms. "Christians", he said, "are the victims of a killing situation, which has provoked a great emigration from Iraq." He reckons that half of all Christians have left the country since 2003, leaving just  400,000 Christians left of the 800,000 that used to live there.

"The invasion of Iraq by America and its allies brought to Iraq in general, and especially to its Christians, destruction and ruin on all levels, " said Athanase Matti Makota. "Churches were blown up, bishops and priests and lay persons were massacred, many were the victims of aggression. Doctors and businessmen were kidnapped, others were threatened, storage places and homes were pillaged..."

The situation has improved in the past two years, he went on, "but there still is the fear of the unknown, insecurity and instability, as well as the continuation of emigration, which always makes this question arise: what is the future of Christian existence in this country should this situation continue?".

He appealed to the world. "Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world conscience? All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians. We want to sound the alarm. We ask the question of the great powers: is it true what is said that there is a plan to empty the Middle East of Christians and that Iraq is one of the victims?"

Middle-East Christians often feel abandoned by the Church across the world, and the Synod has seen plenty of calls for bishops in the West to encourage their flocks to go on pilgrimage to the holy sites of the Middle East. Pilgrimages and prosperity are linked, because many Christian communities depend on the pilgrim influx for their livelihoods; more pilgrims mean more sustainable livelihoods and therefore less emigration -- a key theme at the Synod.

Emmanuel Dabbaghian, the Armenian Archbishop of Babylon in Iraq, had a novel proposal in this regard.

In his speech he proposed that the Pope call on the bishops of the Church throughout the world to make an annual pilgrimage to the Middle East, "establishing for each bishop a fixed date, so that all the days of the year are occupied, and the Holy Land will be peopled by pilgrims, who, after having being enriched by the Lord’s graces become in turn like the “Samaritan” of the witnesses of Christ."

He assumes, I am guessing, that each bishop will bring a large number of his flock with him on this annual pilgrimage -- much as European bishops lead annual pilgrimages, for example, to Lourdes.

"The influx of pilgrims to the Holy Land," added Archbishop Dabbaghian optimistically, "would convince the inhabitants who have emigrated to return to their homeland."


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