The need for more interfaith dialogue and greater Christian-Muslim understanding has been a key theme in the month-long meeting of bishops at the Vatican to discuss the Middle East.
The special Synod for Bishops for the Middle East is winding down. It will conclude with a celebration of Mass by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 24.
Participants seem increasingly concerned about the growth of extremist forms of “political Islam” in the region.
Bishops and other experts to address the synod have sought to draw a sharp distinction between "moderate" Muslims and “extremists” who support a radical and political version of Islam.
But for Christians on the ground in Muslim-run countries, such distinctions are often hard to maintain.
Jordanian Father Raymond Moussalli, Protosyncellus of the Patriarchate of Babylon of the Chaldeans said the Church in his country, Iraq, is under attack.
“There is a deliberate campaign to drive Christians out of the country.”
Father Mousalli said the agenda is not limited to Iraq. There is evidence of this strategy in all parts of the region.
“There are satanic plans by fundamentalist extremist groups that are not only against Iraqi Christians in Iraq, but Christians throughout the Middle East."
Marco Impagliazzo, a history professor at the University for Foreigners of Perugia, Italy and president of the Community of Sant'Egidio said Christians are essential to preserving authentic Arabic culture.
Without Christians there will be little support for moderate elements within Islam. “Without then,” he explained, "Islam would be more alone and fundamentalist. Christians present a form of resistance to an Islamisizing 'totalitarianism'. Their permanence in the Middle East is in the general interest of the societies and of Islam."
Impagliazzo said that Muslim majorities in the Middle East must begin to respect the rights of Christians and other religious minorities. In addition, Muslims must demonstrate in more concrete ways “a social and cultural consensus that expresses the will to live all together."
In his Oct. 18 report on the progress of the synod, Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria of the Copts warned of the “real threat” of an increasingly confident "political Islam."
Summarizing many of the remarks made by synod delegates, he said there is increasing pressure throughout the region from extremist groups who want to “to impose an Islamic way of life on all citizens, sometimes by violence.”
He said that there are basic elements in the Muslim community in the Middle East. The “fundamentalists” or extremists are the minority, he said. Those he described as “peaceful traditionalists” make up the majority. These Muslims, he said, see their Islamic faith as “the supreme standard and have no problem living serenely with non-Muslims.” There is also an “elite” in Muslim society who are “moderates open to others,” he said.
The patriarch urged more grassroots leadership in building cooperation and ties with Muslims of good will. "A primary place needs to be given to the dialogue of life, which gives an eloquent, silent testimony and is sometimes the only means to proclaim the Kingdom of God,” he said.
Christians and Muslims, he said, "must know one another better." In order to do that, he said, “prejudices inherited from the history of conflicts and controversies, on both sides," must "be carefully faced, clarified and corrected.”
Patriarch Naguib ended his report on a hopeful, if uncertain note.
"We shall emphasize what we have in common, in particular on the spiritual and moral level,” he said, adding: “religion is a builder of unity and harmony and an expression of communion among persons and with God."