Middle East synod participant explains factors behind its controversial conclusion

Msgr Robert Stern CNEWA Jerusalem CNA World Catholic News 10 29 10 Msgr. Robert Stern

The Synod for the Middle East, a historic gathering of the region's bishops, concluded October 24, amid controversy over alleged bias in its concluding message. One expert on the region told CNA that the document reflected pastoral needs, not a political agenda.

The bishops' concluding “Message to the People of God” criticized Israel in detail, but omitted most of the criticisms made against Islamic governments during the synod. Some observers took remarks about using religion to “justify injustices” as a blanket rebuke of Israel, a charge participants denied.

Shortly after his return from Rome, synod participant Monsignor Robert Stern, secretary general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, spoke with CNA about some of the considerations that shaped the synod's concluding message.

“The synod really didn't have a political focus at all,” Msgr. Stern said, recalling that its main purposes were to strengthen bonds between diverse groups of Catholics, and to ensure a continuing Middle Eastern Christian presence and witness.

As such, he said, the synod's final message did not contain “the same degree of detail about every situation where Christians have difficulties in the Middle East.” Rather, he said, the message reflected “two major concerns” that took priority as “the more compelling matters,” Palestine and Iraq. Migration has greatly diminished both regions' Christian populations in recent years.

In this context, he said, the bishops' choices of emphasis and restraint --which could appear to focus on Israel's treatment of Palestine, while treading lightly with Islamic regimes-- should not be interpreted as political statements, but as expressions of their pastoral priorities, and suggestions toward peace.

“They did list out several of the issues that are raised by (Muslim and Christian) Palestinians,” the monsignor said, noting that all of the specific criticisms of Israel were ongoing “issues of concern for the Christians who live in Palestine.” The synod fathers, he recalled, “also mentioned being conscious of the suffering and insecurity in which Israelis live” because of violence from some Palestinians.

Monsignor Stern also acknowledged that fear for the safety of Christians in some Muslim countries may have prompted the synod fathers to moderate their comments. This was, he said, a “prudential judgment,” since Christians throughout the region can suffer consequences of their leaders' remarks.

“Most of these bishops come from ... places where they're a very small minority, they're bishops of a very small community, and they feel a lot of social pressure living in an Islamic world,” he observed. “A lot of them are in politically very uncertain circumstances-- where they're at risk, and their people are at risk. So, they don't have quite so open and expansive of a way of talking about the situation.”

“Just the experience for them to come to Rome, and talk to one another, and experience a kind of free ambiance where anything can be said ... was a very powerful experience for them-- to have solidarity, to be gathered around the Pope, and to be able to reflect.”

He said that the Middle Eastern bishops' “Message to the People of God,” whatever its possible limitations might be, was a historic and crucial statement-- giving guidance to communities whose decisions in the near future could make the difference between their survival or disappearance.

“The whole thrust of it is saying, 'What's our ... situation in the Middle East, and what do we want to say to our people here, or our people abroad? How do we stick together as Catholics? ... How do we deal with our brothers and fellow citizens, the Muslims and Jews?'”

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