Fr. Jaeger: Churches in the Middle East from "protected" minorities to full religious freedom

Jerusalem, Israel - Benedict XVI begins his apostolic visit to Cyprus, the first pope in Church history to visit the island. As part of the trip, Benedict XVI will deliver the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the October Synod of Bishops dedicated to the Middle East to the bishops of the region.

Among the themes under discussion the diminishing number of Christians and dialogue with Islam, the difficult relations with the governments and political and social conflicts. In a situation that is often overshadowed by difficulties, there are also signs of hope, expressions of solidarity, and the search of believers for "full freedom of religion" despite their being a minority.

On the eve of publication of the Instrumentum Laboris, AsiaNews has interviewed Franciscan Father David-Maria A. Jaeger, Delegate for Italy of the Custody of the Holy Land:

The politics and society of the Middle East seem to be characterized by stagnation. From the ecclesial point of view there have been some changes, the new auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa reconfirmed for another three years. Is there any hope for the Middle East?

First, it is encouraging that the Church is alive in the Holy Land, alive and vibrant. The appointment of the new auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is also reassuring. Bishop William Shomali is known to all as a priest of great charity, of human virtue and priestly virtues. He has been a pillar of Christian witness in Jerusalem and the Holy Land for many years. I think with his new status he will be a valuable support to the Patriarch of Jerusalem and all the pastors of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. The reappointment for another three years of the Father Custos is a well-deserved recognition of the important work done by this Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa. He has the delicate and challenging role of maintaining contact and dialogue with various authorities and populations in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and elsewhere, and for our Order, and not only that, his reappointment is proof of the right path that he has embarked on in previous years, one which should be continued.

Can the Church really do anything to infuse hope in the deteriorating and stagnant political situation in the Middle East? The Pope, after his visit to the Holy Land launched the idea of a Synod for the Churches of the Middle East. It is not aims to be a support to the local Churches but also to the wider situation in the Middle East ...

We must understand that the Church in the Holy Land in particular is a minute entity, a materially tiny reality, and therefore can not exert a decisive influence or direct the course of events on a social, military, political or economic level in the region. The Church in the Middle East is vibrant, but can not influence according to the criteria of this world. Rather, it carries on its testimony in a different, almost mystical, way.

The Church does a lot of good for many people in these regions, it shows the radiant face of Christ even in the most dark and desperate hours, its witness has a mysterious influence on many souls. But it is not a social force with political implications, as it may be in a country with a more consolidated Christian tradition, or majority Christian population. So we cannot expect the Church of the Holy Land to be visibly impressive. In other countries of the Middle East there are places where Christians are more numerous - as in the case of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt - but they are still a minority in these countries, with limited political influence. Lebanon of course is an exception to this, but then again the situation in Lebanon is very special, so much so that John Paul II wanted to celebrate it by calling, as he did, as special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the whole of Lebanon, so as to emphasize both its importance and its special character.

Certainly the Synod, as shown by the Lineamenta and as will be seen from the 'Instrumentum laboris will not only deals with issues "of the sacristyā€¯ as they say, but it will also try to understand, analyze, and respond to the world that revolves around the community of believers. But it will do so in a way that is proper to the Church.

What real value can this Synod have?

The Synod, called by Pope Benedict XVI, as a continuation and completion of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year, may have great value. First to increase, consolidate and demonstrate the solidarity among the Catholic Churches of the Middle East. Different according to rite, geographic location or national allegiance. The Middle East is not a homogeneous area, rather it marked by legal situations, constitutional situations, Church-State relations that are different from each other. But it is still the area where Christianity was born. In Antioch the disciples were first called "Christians." The Synod is a way in which the Catholic Churches in the Middle East can find and affirm what binds them together and what they have that is specific to them when compared to the other faiths and societies among which they live.

As to the Middle Eastern Churches which find themselves in a difficult situation from the geopolitical point of view, this message of solidarity and hope is important to hearten them, make them feel they are at the centre of the universal Church. As laid out in the Lineamenta it will be a very frank forum for further reflection about their situation, with very sincere and open exchanges. This is no small matter: the churches that for centuries have found themselves isolated, ghettoized, now feel confident to the point of talking more openly than ever, even if it takes place within the Church.

I think this liberation of the Churches discourse finds its source in the speech that John Paul II delivered on 11 December in 1993, at International Juridical Colloquium at the Pontifical Lateran University. There, the pope expressed his hope that the Churches of the Eastern Mediterranean would make a decisive step forward: to move from the status of isolated, even if protected, minorities to a condition of freedom for the Church itself and for Church members as citizens in their own right. They should no longer be "islands" - with guaranteed tolerance - but part of the societies to which they belong, enjoying full equality and freedom, not tolerance but freedom, which is a different matter! This is the vision of a new era, an epoch-making change, which is worth reading and rereading. I see this reflected in the preparation for the Synod, starting with the Lineamenta.

Certainly it is a goal towards which we must patiently aspire and work, a prophetic vision, not a change that can be obtained overnight. Its realisation, even more than on the church, depends firstly on the evolution of the same society or interested nations, their constitutional and cultural evolution, as well as their democratic evolution, which have their own rhythms and from time to time may also suffer disruption. But the important thing for now is that believers in Christ have clear aspirations and conceptions of the role of the Church and faithful in society. The Synod will constitute a unique opportunity to verify this.