The Vatican’s 2010 meeting for the Middle East has been misunderstood by many in the region as calling for a “new crusade” against Islam.
As officials gathered in Rome recently to assess last October’s special Synod for Bishops, a veteran Vatican adviser on Christian-Muslim dialogue told CNA that many Muslims saw the Synod as “a new project against Islam.”
“Many people, many Muslims, who have no idea of Christianity at all are interpreting it ... as a new crusade,” Father Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, of the Pontifical Oriental Institute said in a late January interview.
Church leaders from the region and Vatican officials met Jan. 20-21 to assess reactions to the Synod, and to suggest themes for the document that Pope Benedict XVI is writing in response to the Synod, known as a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation.”
On Feb. 8, the Vatican issued a statement that concluded: the “socio-political situation in the various countries of the Middle East remains tense.”
Fr. Samir said that the Synod was widely interpreted in political, not religious terms. “When Muslims meet,” he said, “usually they meet on a political level.” As a result, many saw the bishops as meeting to discuss “how to attack Islam.”
“Fifty-seven Muslim countries meet yearly, usually invited by Saudi Arabia and they discuss as nations how to defend Islam,” he said. “In their mentality, the West is still seen as Christian nations. It is still Christianity against Islam – properly because they don’t make a difference between religion and state.”
In its statement, the Vatican reported that the Synod’s final message had been sent to “political figures” throughout the region. It also reported that an international congress had been held in Syria on the state of Muslim-Christian relations in Arab countries. In addition, a meeting of Christians and Jews has been held in Jerusalem to “promote more objective information about the synodal assembly.”
The Vatican insisted in its statement that “respect for Christian communities” is necessary “to eradicate any hotbeds of anti-Christian sentiment in the Middle East, to halt the emigration of Christians from that region, which is their native land, and to favor the common good.”
The Vatican’s press office said the meeting was held to prepare the council members for direct collaboration in the Pope’s eventual preparation of a final document, called an apostolic exhortation. The Pope will set forth his teaching to guide the future of the Church on pastoral and practical questions proposed at the conclusion of the Synod.
The next meeting of the Special Council for the Middle East of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, under the leadership of the Synod’s secretary general, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, will be held Mar. 30-31.