By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Closing the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI said, “We must never resign ourselves to the absence of peace.”
“Peace is possible. Peace is urgent,” the pope said Oct. 24 during his homily at the Mass closing the two-week synod.
Peace is what will stop Christians from emigrating, he said.
Pope Benedict also urged Christians to promote respect for freedom of religion and conscience, “one of the fundamental human rights that each state should always respect.”
Synod members released a message Oct. 23 to their own faithful, their government leaders, Catholics around the world, the international community and to all people of goodwill. The Vatican also released the 44 propositions adopted by synod members as recommendations for Pope Benedict to consider in writing his post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
Although the bishops said the main point of the synod was to find pastoral responses to the challenges facing their people, they said the biggest challenges are caused by political and social injustice and war and conflict.
“We have taken account of the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the whole region, especially on the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation: the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio-economic life and the thousands of refugees,” they said in one of the strongest sentences in the message.
They called for continued Catholic-Jewish dialogue, condemned anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and affirmed Israel’s right to live at peace within its “internationally recognized borders.”
Although relations between Christians and Jews in the region often are colored by Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the bishops said the Catholic Church affirms the Old Testament — the Hebrew Scriptures — is the word of God and that God’s promises to the Jewish people, beginning with Abraham, are still valid.
However, they said, “recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable. On the contrary, recourse to religion must lead every person to see the face of God in others.”
Addressing the synod’s final news conference Oct. 23, Melkite Bishop Cyrille S. Bustros of Newton, Mass., said, “For us Christians, you can no longer speak of a land promised to the Jewish people,” because Christ’s coming into the world demonstrated that God’s chosen people are all men and women and that their promised land would be the kingdom of God established throughout the world.
The bishops’ point in criticizing some people’s use of Scripture was intended to say “one cannot use the theme of the Promised Land to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the expatriation of Palestinians,” Bishop Bustros said.
In their message, the bishops expressed particular concern over the future of Jerusalem, particularly given Israeli “unilateral initiatives” that threaten the composition and demographic profile of the city through construction and buying up the property of Christians and other Arabs.
They also offered words of support for the suffering Iraqi people, both Christians and Muslims, and for those forced to flee the country.
The synod members said they talked extensively about Christian-Muslim relations and about the fact that they both are long-standing citizens of the same countries and should be working together for the good of all.
“We say to our Muslim fellow-citizens: We are brothers and sisters; God wishes us to be together, united by one faith in God and by the dual commandment of love of God and neighbor,” they said.
But Christians must be given their full rights as citizens and the future peace and prosperity of the region require civil societies built “on the basis of citizenship, religious freedom and freedom of conscience.”
Throughout the synod, members said that while religious freedom and freedom of worship are recognized in most of the region’s constitutions, freedom of conscience — particularly the freedom to change religious affiliation — is not respected in many places.
The synod propositions called for educating Christians in the beliefs of their Muslim and Jewish neighbors and for strengthening dialogue programs that would help the region’s people “accept one another in spite of their differences, working to build a new society in which fanaticism and extremism have no place.”
Much of the synod’s discussion focused on the fact that many Christians are emigrating because of ongoing conflicts, a lack of security and equality and a lack of economic opportunities at home.
They praised those who have remained despite hardship and thanked them for their contributions to church and society.
While they did not call on emigrants to return home, they did ask them to consider it eventually and to think twice before selling their property in their homelands. Several bishops had told the synod that Christians selling off their property was turning previously Christian-Muslim neighborhoods and towns into totally Muslim areas.
One of the synod propositions said, “We exhort our faithful and our church communities not to give in to the temptation to sell off their real estate,” and they pledged to set up micro-finance and other projects to help people retain their property and make it prosper.
The synod members affirmed their commitment to efforts to promote full Christian unity and promised to strengthen cooperative efforts with other Christian churches in the region because “we share the same journey” and unity is necessary for effectively sharing the Gospel.
The bishops at the synod also recognized their own failures in not promoting greater communion between Catholics of different rites, with other Christians and with the Jewish and Muslim majorities of their homelands.
And they told their lay faithful, “We have not done everything possible to confirm you in your faith and to give you the spiritual nourishment you need in your difficulties.”
All Christians, including the bishops, are called to conversion, they said.
The propositions called for creation of a “commission of cooperation” between church leaders of different rites, the sharing of material resources and establishment of a program to share priests.
They also echoed a repeated call in the synod for the pope to study ways to expand the jurisdiction of Eastern Catholic patriarchs and major archbishops to allow them greater power in providing for their faithful who live outside the traditional territory of their churches and to consider dropping restrictions on ordaining married men to the priesthood outside the traditional homeland of the particular church.
Maronite Archbishop Joseph Soueif of Cyprus told reporters, “The synod is not a medical prescription or a cure” for the problems Christians face in the Middle East, “it’s a journey that is just beginning” and will have to be implemented by the region’s Catholics.
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