Vatican convenes special assembly on plight of Middle East Christians

Catholic bishops from primarily Muslim-majority countries will convene at the Vatican for a landmark “Special Assembly for the Middle East”.

Starting on Sunday, the 172 bishops will spend two weeks discussing the future of Christian communities in the Middle East, where the faithful comprise around six per cent of the population and are steadily shrinking.

Pope Benedict XVI said: "I pray that the work of the special assembly will help to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs, so that just and lasting solutions may be found to the conflicts that cause so much hardship."

Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, told reporters that the special assembly was the result of requests from several bishops and apostolic trips made by Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey, the Holy Land, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus in 2010.

“It will also be an invitation to the international community, and more importantly to the countries that can and want to dedicate themselves, so that the people of these regions can finally move toward a path that brings them to peace and justice and mutual respect for the law and rights responsibilities of others,” he said.

In addition to the bishops, the meeting will be attended by 14 Roman Curia officials, 14 non-Catholic Christians and 30 academic experts. Among those expected to join are Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee and Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican’s Custodian of the Holy Land.

The meeting comes as Christians in the Middle East face difficult challenges wrought by the escalating conflicts and the rise of radical Islam.

Although Christians are the largest native non-Muslim religious group in Arab Middle East, Christians in the region are rapidly declining in number and influence due to a variety of reasons including a lower birth rate among Christians compared to Muslims, persecution, poor socioeconomic prospects, and political instability.

In Iraq, ongoing persecution has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians to flee the country. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, some 250,000 to 500,000 Christians have left the country. That translates to about half the Christian population leaving within the short time span of six years.

“We want to put an end – through the international community – to these discriminations, these persecutions against the Christian communities in Iraq and the Middle East, especially the Middle East, and we want a peaceful life,” Bishop Philip Najim, representative of the Chaldean Patriarchate to the Holy See, told Catholic News Agency earlier this year.

Ahead of the upcoming gathering, the Catholic Church released a 45-page document prepared for the synod of Middle East bishops.

The document – released in Arabic, English, French and Italian – said the rise of "political Islam in Arab, Turkish and Iranian societies and its extremist currents are "clearly a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike".

The document called for dialogue among all faiths in the region and said the key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims was to recognise religious freedom and human rights.

It also urged Christians in the Middle East to “respond to their vocation of service to society” in the face of their challenges.

“This will be a major factor in our presence and our witnessing in our countries,” it stated.