10/12/2010 09:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vatican Focuses On Troubles in Middle East

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) As descendants of the original Christians, Catholics in the Middle East occupy a uniquely prestigious position in their church -- and also one of the most imperiled.

For the next two weeks (through Oct. 24), the region's dwindling Christian population will be the focus of rare international attention, as 185 Catholic bishops meet at the Vatican to discuss the special challenges they face.

"In those countries, unfortunately marked by profound divisions and lacerated by years-long conflicts, the church is called to be a sign and instrument of unity and reconciliation," said Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday (Oct. 10), opening a special two-week session of the Synod of

Benedict chose a word -- "arduous" -- that applies both to the church's presence in the region, and the problems that will be considered by the synod.

Participants, representing 5.7 million Catholics from 16 Middle Eastern countries, will focus on a number of issues, including a lack of religious freedom in Muslim countries, the danger of Islamic fundamentalism, the region's shrinking Christian population and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Christians sense an uneasiness at being considered noncitizens, despite the fact that they have called these countries 'home' long before Islam," said Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Egypt's Coptic Catholic Church, on Monday (Oct. 11).

The Coptic Catholic Church is one of 22 "Eastern Catholic" churches in union with Rome, whose combined membership comprises most Catholics in the Middle East. Eastern Rite representatives make up three-quarters of the bishops at the synod.

"Christians deserve full recognition," Naguib said, "passing from being merely tolerated to a just and equal status which is based on common citizenship, religious freedom and human rights."

Many Muslim-majority countries legally prohibit conversion from Islam. In Saudi Arabia, whose 1.25 million Catholics represent the region's second-largest Catholic population, private worship by non-Muslims is prohibited, and Catholic priests have been arrested for
celebrating Mass.

However, according to statistics presented at the synod on Monday, the Catholic population has risen substantially over the last 30 years in seven Middle Eastern countries, most notably in Saudi Arabia, where many Catholic women from the Philippines are employed as housekeepers.

The Christian population of Israel and Palestine, which six decades ago was as high as 20 percent of the total, has fallen to just 2 percent, largely because of economically driven emigration. The situation of Iraqi Catholics is equally dire, with tens of thousands fleeing war since broke out in 2003.

Last week, Israel's embassy to the Vatican issued a statement claiming that the Christian population in Israel has actually grown in recent decades, thanks in large part to immigration from Russia.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and an adviser to Israel's Chief Rabbinate, said he planned to stress the advantages that Israeli Christians enjoy compared to other Middle Eastern countries.

"Not only are Christians in Israel equal under the law, they have special status as a minority," Rosen said ahead of his scheduled Wednesday (Oct. 13) address. "Israel, for all its deficiencies, is a genuine democracy, as opposed to any other state in the region."

Rosen will be only the second Jewish speaker to address the synod of bishops since Pope Paul VI established the body in 1965. On Thursday (Oct. 14), two speakers representing Sunni and Shia Islam will become the first Muslims to address a synod meeting.

Benedict highlighted improved relations with both Jews and Muslims among the goals for the synod. Given the sensitive nature of the terrain, however, the potential for controversy appears high.

Cardinal John P. Foley, an American who runs a Catholic chivalric order dedicated to helping Christians in the Middle East, is participating in the synod as a papal appointee, and said "Christians have a very important role to play" in helping resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

But Foley would not rule out the possibility that some speeches by Middle Eastern bishops, who typically voice strong sympathies with the Palestinians, could create diplomatic tensions for the Vatican.

"They would never say anything deliberately provocative," Foley said of the bishops. "I expect them to be frank without being insulting. They want peace; they're devoted to it."