The Synod for the Middle East: Considerations from the Desert

My comments presented here are based upon the reflections given by the Monastic Community of Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi in Syria to the Lineamentaprepared for Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which I consider still to be important, even after publication of theInstrumentum Laboris, I present them here, together with the text I wrote on the basis of my impressions of the latter, after our discussions in London. I would wish to stress here that the Lineamenta and the Instrumentum Laboris are both full of interesting insights. However, our role here is not simply to reiterate them, but rather to state what we think is either missing or insufficiently emphasised. Our approach is always intended to be constructive, even when critiquing the documents.

The following article was not accepted for publication after a good deal of dialogue and corrections... You will find underlined the parts that I was requested to cancel but this was not possible for me.

Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio

The Synod for the Middle East:

Considerations from the Desert


It was an honour to be invited to participate in the international conference in preparation for the Synod for the Middle East that took place at Heythrop College, University of London on 9 - 11 June 2010. The news of the assassination of Luigi Padovese, Bishop of Anatolia, underlines the dramatic importance of this Synod.1


My comments presented here are based upon the reflections given by the Monastic Community of Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi in Syria to the Lineamentaprepared for Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which I consider still to be important, even after publication of theInstrumentum Laboris, I present them here, together with the text I wrote on the basis of my impressions of the latter, after our discussions in London. I would wish to stress here that the Lineamenta and the Instrumentum Laboris are both full of interesting insights. However, our role here is not simply to reiterate them, but rather to state what we think is either missing or insufficiently emphasised. Our approach is always intended to be constructive, even when critiquing the documents.


Welcoming the proposal of good friends, I shall draw in the following a picture of the Monastic Community of Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi and its specific vocation to make clearer the monastic background of our considerations concerning the future of our Eastern Churches. Readers already informed on Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi can continue to read on Part One “A Monastic Community reflects on the Synod”.


Monastic Context:


I founded the monastic Community of Al-Khalil, “Abraham, the friend of God” (commonly known as the Community of Deir Mar Musa) in 1991in the Syrian Desert. The community live in the late antique monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi (Saint Moses the Ethiopian) east of the town of Nebek a monastic life dedicated to Christian-Islamic dialogue, contemplation, manual work and hospitality to all. 2


The monastery of Mar Musa has stood at the eastern fringes of the Anti-Lebanon mountains since at least the sixth century. Thought to have been built on the remnants of a Roman watchtower, today it resembles a storybook castle perched on the edge of a steep precipice overlooking the Syrian Desert. The first reference to the foundation is in a manuscript dated 575CE that is now in the British Library in London. It is clear that by this time the community was already a thriving Laura, with the monks living in cave-hermitages and returning to the monastery in order to pray together. The community seems to have been most active from the sixth until the fifteenth centuries, after which it appears to have suffered a gradual decline. 3 A period of prosperity was experienced from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. This is indicated by the renovation of the church in 1058 followed by no less than four different levels of frescoes. These frescoes have recently been restored by the Syrian Department of Antiquities and the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro, Roma and have revealed a complex iconography that is specifically Syrian and non-Chalcedonian in its execution.4 This is the only complete fresco cycle still extant in the Levant and, as such, is an irreplaceable source of information about mediaeval Syrian Christianity.


Today the monastery is actively involved in a wide variety of projects. Standing as it does at the end of a mountain valley leading to the desert, it is in a perfect location to engage with a variety of environmental organizations hoping to reverse the tide of desertification and encourage agro-biodiversity. Wadi Mar Musa (the valley of Mar Musa) has been declared a protected area by the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture in 2004, this enables environmental and cultural concerns to be married with economic considerations by promoting eco-tourism. All these projects are undertaken in full partnership with the local population and it is important that both Muslims and Christians from the local society feel that they have a relationship with the monastic community.


From the geographical and anthropological point of view, the monastery of Mar Musa in pre-Islamic times was located on the frontier between the Aramaic and Arabic-speaking peoples on the edge of the desert. It was also an acknowledged stop on the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem and was often under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.


It seems that by the eleventh century the local monastic community and villagers were already very Arabic-orientated. It is clear that Syriac was already on the decline and this is clearly illustrated by the inscriptions found on the frescoes of Deir Mar Musa. All civil inscriptions are in Arabic and overall most inscriptions are in Arabic, with some in Garshuni (Syriac characters but Arabic words). This shows a clear awareness that Syriac will stay only a liturgical language (with the exception of Maalula area) and at the same time indicates an awareness of being Arabs in an Arab world. Deir Mar Musa and the Christians of the villages of Sadad and Qaryatayn all show early evidence of an Arab form of Christianity and a movement away from a purely Syriac heritage. Syriac remained as the liturgical language but regionally Christians were very strongly involved in Arab culture in a manner that was very different to the Syrian Christians of the north. These northern Syrian Christians in Syria, Turkey and Iraq preserved an Aramaic culture and less readily accepted new Arab influences in their religious culture.


As with many other places in this region there was a local Islamic tradition for the monastery of Mar Musa. Moses in the Quran is one of the companions of Al Khudr (Sura 18) and it is not strange to find local Muslims visiting Al Khudr in this place.5 For the local Islamic population the monastery is a sacred place and this underlines the social and symbolic role and function of the Christian monastery in Islamic society, a fact that has been true from the time of the Prophet Mohammed up until the present day. It is also true that Christians have always been aware of this and often Christian families have visited monasteries together with their Muslim neighbours.


One important issue in the history of the monastery was the passing of the foundation from the Syrian Orthodox6 to the Syrian Catholic Church7 in the second half of the eighteenth/beginning of the nineteenth century. The presence of missionaries and a strong French influence, along with exposure to other western factors, had a strong effect on the life of the region. A large proportion of Syrian Orthodox Christians converted to Catholicism. In Damascus and Aleppo most of the Syrian Orthodox converted together and the same thing occurred later in Nebek. The evolution of the aesthetic of religious life under the influence of social and technical development and local difficulties made religious life in Deir Mar Musa impossible. The Oriental monastic life disappeared in Syria and was kept alive in Lebanon by the Aleppians, who founded Maronite, Melkite and Syrian Catholic monasteries there. Our monastery was abandoned and at this time many Syrian Christians emigrated to Lebanon and the west. The fact that Deir Mar Musa and the neighbouring monastery of Deir Mar Elian in Qaryatayn remained important is shown by the extremely long trials between the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic Churches for the ownership of the monasteries and the surrounding church lands (Awqaf). The trial over ownership of Deir Mar Musa began in 1830/31 and continued until the middle of the twentieth century - over a hundred years! This illustrates the symbolic importance of these places for local Christians. With the abandonment of Deir Mar Musa and the sister house of Deir Mar Elian the Christians had to make a decision about the future. In 1983 the Syrian Catholic community of Nebek offered Deir Mar Musa to the local branch of the department of antiquities. This transfer was never completed but does go a long way to explain the depth of the lack of perspectives amongst the local community. The fact that the offer was withdrawn was also due to my arrival and involvement with Deir Mar Musa.


My family was a very engaged Catholic family with strong Jesuit links in Rome. My father was very deeply involved with the Social Christian movement and I come from a background with a strong interest in social and political issues. I was a member of the left side of the Italian Socialist Party as a young man. From an early age I was involved in movements like “Christians for Socialism”, “Comunità di Base” and the Boy Scouts. My vocation was from the first based on two points. The first of these is purely ascetic - God, the Father of Jesus Christ, proposed to me not to marry in order to have a more radical and engaged relationship with Him. This became clear to me on the 12th of May 1974. I was still very young, having been born in 1954. The second point is the Universality of the Church mission based on the relevance of Jesus Christ for the salvation of every man and woman in the world and throughout all of history. Of these two vocational points, one is contemplative and the other apostolic.


I travelled twice in the Middle East and Palestine before joining the Society of Jesus in 1975. During the month of spiritual exercises (the Ignatian exercises undertaken during the noviciate) I received a spiritual call to offer myself in the mission of the Catholic Church in the Islamic world, in its specificity as Islamic. From that time Charles de Foucauld was already important for me, in order to think about the manner of a Catholic mission in the Islamic world. I started to think how to transform the presence of the Church in the Islamic world into a Church for the Islamic world. At that time within the Society of Jesus inculturation was already a key word.


From 1977 onwards I was sent to Lebanon to study Arabic and I went with a strong desire to inculturate Christian faith in an Islamic cultural, religious and spiritual background. This was immediately conjugated with inculturation in the Oriental Church. I always said at that time (and still do) that the Universal Church will not be able to meet Islam by jumping over the Oriental Churches and Christians, but through them.


In 1981 I was living in Damascus and studying Arabic and Islamic religion, frequenting the Sufi milieu of the city. In this time I went on a pilgrimage to Qalat Seman and asked grace from St Simeon Stylites to understand the apostolic priorities for disciples of Jesus, both men and women, in this suffering Middle East. For me to say disciples is to underline the connotation of a personal faith relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. I prefer it to the term Christian that carries its own connotation more of a social belonging to a cultural and historical body. In August 1982 I undertook a ten day spiritual retreat at Deir Mar Musa and I felt that the intercession of St Simeon Stylites had been effective when I received three apostolic directives.


The first was the contemplative life and experience rooted in the mystery of Jesus Christ and his Church and deeply inculturated as possible in the Islamic spiritual context and tradition, as much as in the local Oriental Christian tradition, although this would be open to a universal spiritual renewal. Some would call this a pluralistic spirituality for a globalised world in which the values of the particularities are not ignored nor considered absolute.


The second was manual work, in order to find an historical solution to the failure of the vow of poverty in the religious life. An ascetic instrument and a social and environmental assumption of responsibility and an expression of evangelical anthropology. A concrete way to be disciples of Jesus of Nazareth and this is also why we are proud of the Islamic name of Nasara for Christians.


The third was Abrahamitic hospitality in which the love of God and the love of Man become one.


From this first experience of August 1982 these three priorities clearly appeared as a spiritual and apostolic project that found in Deir Mar Musa an ideal place for realisation. These priorities define a way of acting for the main focus, the mission, the service of the Church in and for the Islamic world. Of necessity this must be realised through a Christian ecumenical dimension and dynamic. If we work for the unity of humanity this creates a movement of unity between Christians.


I then started a doctorate on Islam and religious dialogue entitled ‘Hope in Islam’ and it looked at the hermeneutics of Quranic eschatology. Very soon Louis Massignon8 became extremely important and led me back in his way to Charles de Foucauld.9


From 1984 onwards youth camps of prayer and work were organised in the ruins of the monastery. These gradually led me to realise that I had a matter of conscience to establish a monastic community at Deir Mar Musa. The man who encouraged me with the most efficacy was the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Monsignor Neophytos Edelby and he firmly confirmed this vocation. It is known that I was obliged to leave the Society of Jesus from 1992 until 1997. I was not able to put together the desire of obedience, the feeling of being obliged by conscience and a difficult character. In 1991 I began to live in Deir Mar Musa with Fr Yacoub Mourad, a deacon of the Syrian Catholic Church. The most important thing occurred the day after Christmas on the Feast of the Mother of God. We felt that Jesus’ mother taught us her silence and asked us to have one hour of silence together in the church before the evening liturgy. This time is considered as dedicated to the Jesus Prayer and silent intercession and we felt that this was a gift of Our Lady.


Very soon some women asked to join the community. Although few have stayed, I felt that this enabled us to build a chaste harmony between men and women; disciples of Jesus in a praying, working, welcoming community is really the way to learn the basic grammar of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue and harmony building.


From the canonical point of view the monastic community depend on the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Homs, Hama and Nebek. The community has a big debt to His Eminence Cardinal Musa Daoud. He was bishop of the monastery from 1992 onwards and in 1997 he wished to successfully find an agreement between the eparchy and the Society of Jesus. He was then elevated to Syrian Catholic Patriarch and is finally taking care of the community from Rome as Cardinal with responsibility for the Oriental Churches. As a bishop he received the first recension of the constitutions of the community and orally approved a summary of them. As Prefect for the Congregation of Oriental Church’s he asked for a new text more coherently harmonized with Catholic Canon law for the Oriental Churches. This text has now been written in Arabic and translated into Italian and, after a large discernment and discussion, received the nulla osta of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 2006. The most delicate issues are the fact that it is a monastic community of men and women in full parity and share of responsibilities, although they are very clearly separate in terms of accommodation. The second issue is the desire to be a community currently belonging to the Catholic Church and at the same time deeply respecting the different church belongings of its members. At the moment the community is mainly of Catholic and Orthodox origin from different Oriental and Occidental Churches, although some Protestants are also showing interest in our life.


To put this more clearly, the community asks all its members to have a mature, deep and engaged sense of the mystery of the Church in its being Catholic under Peter. At the same time the community asks all members to grasp, respect and love the providential mystery of the particularities of the Orthodox and Protestant Churches in order not to deepen the wounds of divisions, but to offer a practical prophetic perspective of dynamic unity.


Now the community is already distributed over three places, Deir Mar Musa, Deir Mar Elian in Qaryatayn and Cori, south of Rome. The monks and nuns of the community go to Rome to study theology and philosophy. Because of this, and because of our large dreams for the future of having monasteries in several Islamic countries, we are beginning to build the canonic structure of a monastic federation.


For vows we have adopted the option available in Oriental Canon law. After a year of postulancy there are three years of the novitiate, followed immediately and simply by perpetual vows with a particular engagement of love and service in the Islamic world and a vow of hospitality.


We think that the monastery has rediscovered and redeveloped the role of the oriental monastery, especially the role of the desert monastery, in a social, symbolic and spiritual context for both Muslims and Christians. On the Christian level many people from all over Syria and from other countries come fromall churches. It is also evident that local Muslims are interested on a level that goes deeper than mere cultural curiosity as they come in their thousands, especially in the spring. On another level other people, tourists or foreigners working in Syria, coming from a variety of religions and cultural backgrounds, see the monastery as a symbolic spiritual place relevant for them.


The monastery also organizes some workshops and seminars on different items of inter-religious dialogue and these activities create strong and personal Christian-Islamic relationships and we hope that these aspects will be developed in the coming years. The special interest of the monastic community in the Islamic world created both curiosity and appreciation as well as doubts and sometimes aggressive refusal. Our idea is that the Church is not only sent by the Spirit to nations or tribes, but to all meanful groups of people. Spiritual discernment and Church teaching pushes us to believe that the relationship between the Church and the Islamic umma (community/nation) is relevant for the history of salvation. This is rooted in the Bible as much as in the particular spiritual and religious experience of the Prophet Mohammed. There is a mystery of Ismail related and analogous to the mystery of Israel that only evangelical love and spiritual intelligence can gauge. We consider that this process is an ecclesial charge and duty in which the participation of many is needed in a spirit of large communion and sharing of experiences. 10

We live our vocation building on this extremely rich experience of Christian witness accumulated by the Oriental Churches in common life with Muslims for fourteen centuries, and deeply harmonised with them through the Arabic language. And we walk on the path of St Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Charles de Foucauld, Louis Massignon and Mary Kahil feeling the love of Jesus to each Muslim man and woman. We now consider Islam as being the human group to which we belong and in which we are happy to live, thankful that we have been chosen by God to participate in the life of the umma.


We wish deeply that today, also through us, the incarnate Son of God can take his body linguistically, religiously, historically and symbolically in the Islamic world in order to fulfil the blessings of God to Ismail, because of the interception of Abraham. We understand that together with the mystery of the Church His body, this mystery of Jesus is relevant for the salvation of each man and woman from the very dawn of humanity until whatever ends humanities. This mystery that with the Spirit of God we are deep witnesses, has to be harmonised by the same Spirit with the intelligence of the fact that there are huge and growing religious groups in the world offering alternative and often concurrent religious experiences. Islam is not the only one fully aware of its will to be more perfect and definitive than Christianity. It is not only contemporaneous to Christianity but in a sense it is post-Christian. The “hermeneutic of love” is the only one able to overcome such enormous interpretative and relational challenges. We understand the monastery as the spiritual home of those Christians, disciples of Christ, who feel a vocation of deep and humble love for Muslims and for Islam, as much as a spiritual port for Muslims feeling a vocation for deep friendship with Christians. For both it is a place of harmony and a prophecy for peace for our region and further than that.


Important topics like faith, prophecy, Mohammed as prophet, theological value of extra Biblical revelations, theological status of extra Christian mysticism etc are all topics that have to be treated in the activity of dialogue of the Churches as an essential part of the spiritual interpretation of the signs of God for our time. What is marvellous in being in the Church is that we can strongly believe that we can stay deeply faithful and even faithfully traditional in exploring together and through different charismas the large unknown lands of an always new Islamic-Christian relationship.


We feel and we suffer the impasse of our Islamic world in these days. We are saddened by the symbolic meanings of the suicide attacks and together with that humiliated by the Occidental and Zionist violent aggression of our world.

As much as because of the love of Jesus we deepen our belonging to the Islamic world, we feel that we deepen our mystical belonging to His body, the Church in the perspective of a Jerusalem really mother of all men.




Part One: A Monastic Community reflects on the Synod


It was with joy that we heard news of the future « Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East ». We feel very grateful to Pope Benedict XVI, successor of the fisherman of Galilee, for his decision, which proves his apostolic concern for the future of our Churches.


The Monastic Community of Deir Mar Musa in Syria would like to offer its own contribution to the gathering of the Synod by commenting on the preparatory document, the Lineamenta.


Reading the Bible, Promoting Justice:


In the East, understanding of the Bible is problematic because of the interpretation of the First Testament which is largely used to justify the establishment and the enlargement of the State of Israel. This shocks Arabs, Christians and Muslims alike. On the Arab side, efforts are made to delegitimize all historical references to the Holy Scriptures, while other interpretations are meant to support a theology of liberation of the Palestinian people. In all this, the Bible is often a real victim of hermeneutical violence. Therefore, Christianity in the East remains, so to speak, locked in the New Testament, cut off from its roots. By reading the entire Bible here in our community we come into contact with the conflictual aspects of our own history in the pattern of the divine plan of hope. 


The reality of the three Abrahamic communities, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, appears to many to be one of mandatory coexistence where each considers only their own Scriptures holy and those of the others obsolete or falsified.  Symbolically, eastern Christianity feels somehow blocked between its defeat in the 7thcentury in the face of Islam and that at the hands of Israel and the West in the 20th century. Some of our Eastern Christians still long for the golden time when the king and the state were Christian, and it seems to many of them that today, victory has smiled on those who crucified Christ (in their opinion the Jews) and on the Antichrist (in their opinion the Moslems).


Despite those elements, the practice of being a good neighbour for Jews, Christians and Muslims in Arab-Islamic villages and towns has often led to esteem for the other's faith, worship and Sacred Scriptures. This is still true today: common sacred places, shared holy days (such as the 25th of March, a national holiday in Lebanon), participation in one another’s ceremonies of worship (Shabbat, Ramadan, the Hajj, Christmas, and baptisms, circumcisions, weddings and funerals).


Nevertheless, despite the Second Vatican Council, we must admit that the Church in the Middle East, the Eastern as well as the Latin Church, does not seem prepared to leave behind the traditional theological framework that considers the Church, “the people of God”, the only substitute for the Jewish people. In this same logic of substitution, the Church must face an Islam that considers the Umma the only and definitive people of God. Together with most of the Muslims, Christians in the East often find the Western interpretations (and more clearly in the case of Christian fundamentalists) of the Bible naive because they feel that those hermeneutics are easily used by the Israeli propaganda. 


The Eastern liturgical texts (Friday hymns, Good Friday, Easter, etc.) still express an old and deep antagonism towards the Jews. A revision of the liturgical texts and catechisms is therefore unavoidable. This will also help to overcome traditional anti-Islamic feelings. This change of perspective stays difficult as long as the entire Church does not show effective theological and political solidarity with the suffering inhabitants of Palestine. The Synod must call for the internationalization of Jerusalem and for a UN commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state that would be viable, along with the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Reconciliation with the Jewish people at the expense of justice is not acceptable and the tragedy of the Holocaust does not justify in the eyes of Eastern Christians the occupation of Palestine. The Synod can propose a prophetical vision where the today necessary splitting of the Holy Land in two states is looked at in the perspective of the unity of Jerusalem and the Land in Abrahamatic harmony. This is not only an eschatological view because the unity of the Land is concretely relevant today for both Muslims and Jews for opposite reasons. So far, the division is refused by both sides and can only be accepted temporarily. The Church will act and pray so that all partners on the Land could wait for a better understanding between neighbours in the one Country.


The Synod is an opportunity to revise the traditional exclusive ecclesiology on the basis of the inclusive ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium (no 16) and the consideration expressed in Dominus Jesus (no  8) for the Sacred Scriptures of religions related to the mystery of Christ. Such a revision will lead to a new hermeneutics of the New Testament and openness to the Jewish and Muslim communities through a reinterpretation of the First Testament which is neither selective nor apologetic. 


God has not abandoned his Jewish and Muslim children. In the Holy Spirit and through the universal merits of the Death and Resurrection of the Lord, He communicates Himself not only to Christians, but to all those who believe in Him, for the sake of true fraternity. Christians should be the leaven of peace in the Middle East, but they must ask God for the grace of a heart generous enough to embrace all the problems of our region!


An Examination of Conscience:


Although the preparatory document acknowledges the moral responsibility of the ministers of Christ (no 42), in our opinion the reference made to the moral deficiencies of a part of the clergy is insufficient. Some members of the clergy scandalise the faithful and insult the poor with their ostentatious wealth and their attachment to money.


The issue of chastity is no less serious, even if Middle Eastern societies tend to avoid scandals at all costs. The Church’s examination of conscience regarding paedophilia and other grievous acts cannot permit the Eastern Churches to presume their innocence in the matter. In fact, Eastern Christians are already scandalized, but without ways to express or defend themselves. We should not forget that chastity is a virtue learnt in the home and the parish, before being a specific aspect of consecrated life. Lamentably, an atmosphere of formal authority in families as well as in religious communities and in society easily leads to hidden vices, corrupted solidarities and dangerous silences. The great courage to reform in those matters the whole Church shown by Pope Benedict XVI is a reason for new hope and courage for Christians in the Middle East.


In general, our Churches show little interest in religious and monastic vocations rooted in the Eastern tradition. The study of Eastern Christian theology and spirituality is not sufficiently promoted, especially when compared to the many students specializing in canon law, and candidates for the episcopate. The promotion of consecrated life requires contemplation and evangelical witness along with the capacity for interreligious dialogue.


Eastern Churches and the Latin Rite:


The Second Vatican Council also recognizes the value of the Eastern Churches in their bearing witness to a synodal and varied ecclesiology. Little of this has since been realized, and the Synod will not be able to avoid the question. In fact, various Western ecclesiastical organizations (male and female religious congregations in particular) still find it difficult to adopt the language, liturgy and spirituality of the Eastern Churches. This is often also true of new ecclesiastical movements and forms of consecrated life, to the extent that they continue to culturally uproot our Christians, alienating them from the treasures of their own traditions.


We would like to emphasize the importance of the presbyteral ordination of married men in our Eastern Churches in accordance with the Council textPresbyterorum Ordinis (no 16): “While recommending ecclesiastical celibacy this sacred Council does not by any means aim at changing that contrary discipline which is lawfully practiced in the Eastern Churches. Rather the Council affectionately exhorts all those who have received the priesthood in the married state to persevere in their holy vocation and continue to devote their lives fully and generously to the flock entrusted to them.”


This question is also debated in the Latin Church, but even in the Eastern Churches, married priests feel like a second-class priesthood, one less qualified compared to celibate priests, who are the only ones currently eligible for episcopal office.


Women remain marginalized and discriminated against in our Churches. The Synod should stress the importance of the ecclesial ministries of women in the Eastern Churches, the possessors of ancient texts on the ordination rites of deaconesses.


We also recognize the value of the ecclesial role of women, through the presence and impact of numerous exemplary spouses of priests who act as carers to the sick, catechists, mediators between people. Christian women bear in their hearts the hope for a peaceful, just and humane Middle East.


The Synod, in my opinion, will need to reconsider the question of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (cf. A.1.10 of Lineamenta) in terms of historical and contemporary ecclesiology. In fact, in the eyes of Eastern Christians, neither the Crusades nor the colonial period can justify the creation of the Latin Patriarchate.

The question of the Latin Church, altogether a very Arab Community present in the whole Middle East, should be understood as a relevant element in relation between Christians and Muslims and Christians and Jews, most particularly in the Holy Land. This ecclesial reality cannot be understood only in opposition to Eastern Catholic/Eastern Christian ecclesiology. The religious-political, theological-ecclesial Catholic world of the Middle East has an importance for not only the 1.5 billion Catholics, but for 2.5 billion Christian community worldwide. Therefore I consider the Patriarchal title as being inappropriate for the Chief of the Latin Community in the Middle East.  If the movement for the union of Eastern Christians with Rome takes place without due respect for the apostolic dignity of the Eastern Churches, accusations of divisiveness and of changing the character of the Eastern Church through Latinisation would be justified. In any case, conversions from the Orthodox Churches to Roman Catholicism (referred to in the East as the Latin rite) is inconceivable from the perspective of a proper ecclesiology.


Even the Latin Church in the Middle East, after having learned to celebrate in Arabic, should rediscover the patristic and oriental canonical roots of its worshippers in order to bear witness to the more constructive elements of its experience (rediscovery of the Bible, liturgical renewal, universalistic sensibility, missionary zeal, charismatic character).


The Synod should propose to Eastern Christians the rediscovery of their originality and their old and ever-new charisma. We need true cooperation based on the awareness of our shared Catholic belonging, recognising the value of our diverse traditions, but also creating effective communion in our countries. Foreign missionaries, traditionally present in the region, should pay more attention to the value of the Eastern Churches and should belong to it!


We should especially encourage Christian family movements to promote a synthesis of the values of our Eastern traditions and the new dynamic of the Spirit. Our pastors and lay leaders (men and women) should take into account the attraction of our young people to all that is Western and in their view ‘modern’. They would like to adopt a Western style of life as a reaction to a seemingly traditional and `fundamentalist’ Muslim world.


Frequently, many of our young people regard the traditionalism of Eastern Christianity and that of our Muslim society as two aspects of a single repressive society. The Eastern Church will have to become humbly prophetic; it must work towards living together with Islam and renewal of a Christian witness in the context of interreligious dialogue. With regards to youth, it will need to show a new capacity for symbolic and liturgical dialogue with modernity, and to this end, it should work hand in hand with its sister Orthodox Churches to realize this common goal.


Experience shows that young people appreciate and are ready to participate when their mentors are conscientious and coherent in their approach, even when this goes against the mainstream. We should stop opposing tradition and modernity! Young people, on the contrary, long for deep roots that would allow them to cope with both global modernity and Islamic revival.


Christian Witness:


Missionary services aimed at human development, for example in education and medical , are often interpreted as proselytism directed against the community identity of the other, whether Eastern Christians or Muslim, or sometimes simply Arab.


The Eastern Church must develop a theology of the value of Muslims in the history of salvation. We can choose to bear witness against the other, or, on the contrary, bear witness in favour of the other, recognizing their own vocation and capacity to offer us their original witness. It is not sufficient to work towards an exclusive presentation of Christ and the Gospel. We should show an interest in the Qur’an and the figure of the Prophet of Islam. We believe that the Holy Spirit harmonizes, in a symbolic, cultural and political perspective, the presence of grace and light, fidelity and suffering sown in the souls of the men and women with whom we live in our indivisible societies.


We believe in the evolution of Muslim society. Putting our hope in a Western modernity that would overwhelm Muslim culture like a tide and wipe out the religious desired utopia of our neighbours would provoke their violent reaction. This would set the scene our own defeat and a future of spiritual impoverishment and chronic social conflict for our children.


A true alternative is to recognize who we are and what we value; of adapting the liturgy to youth; of teaching children through catechesis the respect and consideration owed to those of another faith; of bearing witness to the inviolable dignity of the individual and their conscience as redefined by the modern Church; of working to nurture a democracy which is not a dictatorship of the majority; of promoting women’s dignity in the Church, so that they are recognized in society itself; of working for the gradual and non-violent maturation of society.


We want a “postmodern” state where Islam is in harmony with democracy and citizenship, but with a consciousness of the sacred. Synthesizing the value of the ancient and the newness of the other, Eastern Christians will be the yeast at the heart of an Islamic society which evolves positively.


Together we will bear witness to the desire for social justice and national liberation, stressing our conviction of the efficacy of non-violent means which we share with many Muslims. Contemporary Muslim society is moved by the need for moral transparency and reacts violently against the depravity tolerated and publicised in modern Western society.


Demanding freedom of conscience and respect for Human Rights, we should first interiorise it in our catechesis. If Eastern Christians have access to authentic liberty in the Church, they will bear witness to it in society.


Together with Muslims and Jews, we will bear witness to the need to overcome economic corruption, standing against every ‘mafia’ based on community or ethnic solidarity. We will bear witness to a society in which benevolent tolerance for every minority is the expression of our belonging to the gentle Master of Nazareth. This Christian witness cannot be separated from its eschatological perspective and harmonizes with Muslim and Jewish hope.


We ask the Holy Virgin Mary, the Joy of Abraham, the Daughter of Zion, the Mother of God, the Mother of Christ in Bethlehem, the Teacher of Life in Nazareth, to teach us to be good neighbours, to show us how to be children of God together, to give us the spiritual strength to serve the resurrection of the East, and to make us see the luminous future awaiting us together, for in that Jerusalem we shall be consoled.


In its search for ecumenical communion and in its relations with Jews and Muslims, the Church in the East carries in its womb a prophecy of hope for the whole world.




Second Part: A Comment on the Instrumentum Laboris


The text of this second preparatory document is very rich. The conference organised by the Centre for Eastern Christianity was opened by the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, the Syrian Jesuit Antoine Audo, an expert in biblical studies and a generous pastor, who has done much to assist Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria. Bishop Audo clearly stated that Eastern Christians are fearful of having to revert to living as dhimmis (Christians and Jews in the Islamic state, subjected to Qur’anic law, discriminated against and obliged to pay a special tax). Their claim is, rather, for full citizenship in modern nations and emancipation from shari’a.


This introduces a fundamental problem that is, in my opinion, central to the pre-Synodal discussion. I feel that we are at a turning point: Eastern Christians want to be free citizens (with freedom of conscience and other rights as declared in UN resolutions). They want the same degree of liberty as their western co-religionists, or they will emigrate! For many Muslims this plan smacks of westernization and it may be they are also (irresponsibly) happy about the idea of having the country all to themselves: “They went away on their own!” A brief analysis of the topic in the Instrumentum Laboris will clarify this matter.


In n39, it is proposed that Catholics should thoroughly investigate the concept of ‘positive laicity’ of the state. In this way they would help to alleviate the theocratic character of government, and support equality between citizens of different religions, thereby favouring the promotion of a secular democracy which fully recognizes the role of religion, even in public life, while respecting distinction between the orders of the religious and secular. So important is the concept of ‘positive laicity’ for the writer of the document that it is found not only in n39 but also in other sections, sometimes under a different name!

Throughout the document, the idea is developed that Christians should come out of their ghettos of confessionalism and once more commit themselves, politically and socially, to seeking the modernization of society and the state.


No 41 deals with the theme of the development of political Islam in the past forty years. The conclusion is found in n42: “These extremist currents, clearly a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike (in the Italian translation: Christians, Jews and Muslims), require joint action.” I would like to point out that without the re-establishment of justice in the Holy Land, it will be difficult to face the extremists together. Furthermore, Islamic political movements are a reality that genuinely express the strongly-felt needs of the majority of the Muslim population, so that in fact the choice opposes ‘laicity’ (more or less “positive”) to democracy, according to the Middle Eastern principle: “the more democracy you concede, the more political Islam will rise up”!


In n90, in the context of the difficult relationship between the Eastern Church and Judaism, the document repeats, “The Churches in the Middle East also call upon all involved to take into account the distinction between the religious reality and the political one.” Just previously, it had clarified that “anti-Zionism” is “more a political position and, consequently, to be considered foreign to every ecclesial discourse.” I am afraid of reading between the lines that important ecclesiastical circles are prepared to accept the Zionist occupation of all of Jerusalem in the name of the distinction between politics and religion and of positive laicity. This, however, is at the expense of justice without which religion no longer has any meaning and laicity no positive aspects. The Holy Land has universal symbolic value for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, religiously and therefore politically unrenounceable.


In no 94, Jerusalem is briefly mentioned in the context of dialogue with Judaism. It refers to the theologically and pastorally opportune institution which is the Latin Patriarchal Vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Christians... I have a problem with the name, not with the institution: why is the Vicariate not simply for the Israelis, as it is for the French, the Mongolians, and the Arabs? It is a matter of fact that the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel have in their majority a Roman-Catholic background. But from my point of view, they should develop a liturgy deeply rooted in the Hebrew context and not just a Hebrew translation of a Latin rite. So far, they are not in need of belonging to the Latin Patriarchate.


We have to stress that the issue of Jerusalem was left untouched by the Instrumentum Laboris. The creation of the Latin Patriarchate in the 19th century is still an open wound for all Eastern Catholics and constituted in itself a symbolic operation of a politico-religious nature tied to a centralized ecclesiology and to a colonial ideal surpassed by Vatican II. The Synod would be an opportune occasion for the most respectable Head of the “Latin Church” of Jerusalem (himself an Arab Palestinian...) to renounce the patriarchal title and maybe even the qualification as “Latin”, awaiting (eschatologically?) the Synodal election of one sole ecumenical Patriarch of the Mother Church of all Churches! Re-establishing justice in the Church before even doing so in the society will offer a good example also to other Christian Communities and the society altogether. However, the Instrumentum Laboris, more than the preceding Lineamenta, avoids dealing with this topic of Jerusalem that is, in fact, both politically and religiously central.


In the section of the Instrumentum Laboris dedicated to dialogue with Muslims, the Second Vatican Council is cited, but not the dogmatic affirmation ofLumen Gentium no 16 in which Islam has a special place in the Church’s understanding of its own mystery. It is interesting to note that a similar resistance also appeared in the preparatory stage of the Synod on the Word of God.


One positive element, almost a counter-trend, is represented by no 96, in which a fine citation of Benedict XVI underlines that the Biblical and Qur’anic traditions have “much in common”, precisely starting from divisive elements in the geographic-cultural-religious framework of the Middle East, so that it presages the development of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue.

In n96, for the third time, Muslims are reproached for not distinguishing between religion and politics (the fourth is in no 101 and the subject reappears in no 103 and no 110): “thereby relegating Christians to the precarious position of being considered non-citizens.” “The key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims is to recognise religious freedom and human rights.” In short, what Eastern Christians are tired of bearing is precisely what Muslims would like to re-establish: a theocracy. I see a double amnesia in this: we forget how theocratic the triumph of the Constantinian Church was in the East as much as in the West, and we overlook the fact that it was precisely Muslim theocracy that guaranteed religious pluralism, albeit imperfect, in the Middle East.


To make myself clear, I do not support a static and traditionalist Islam, but I think that one cannot impose a model from the outside without mediation. Religious freedom and human rights are not easy to impose, even with weapons. Instead they should be proposed in calm and non-ideological dialogue, in patience and ever with openness to the new. Indeed, Islam can mature and develop them in its own way, as original fruits of a vivacious Muslim world in the process of reformation in the framework of a multi-polar redefinition of global governance.


During his much appreciated intervention in London, the Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Latins (the Israeli Jesuit David Neuhaus) acknowledged that Jews, Muslims and Christians have already had an ultimately positive experience of peaceful coexistence as good neighbours and this must be rediscovered today despite the difficulties. I have therefore allowed myself to recall that such coexistence was possible precisely in the framework of an un-appreciated Islamic theocracy (whose return I do not wish, but rather its original remaking as the fruit of confrontation with modernity). No one can ignore, even at the Synod, that rights and freedom are not obtained against democracy, and that democracy does not grow against the majority (in this case Muslim) but in the evolution of the said majority stimulated by minorities in sincere solidarity and national unity, open to the region and the world.


Why should we be unable to work, starting precisely with Jerusalem, al-Quds, towards a plural and shared vision in which – I will try to lay it out here – Jews open the Holy City to the Nations and to their brother Ismail, inaugurating the Messianic times; Christians make themselves deacons of universal communion, starting with service of the poorest, understood as a Messianic sign; and Muslims reinstitute the City of Peace in the theological-political vision of the Islamic world, intended as the World of Peace, in sacred willingness to protect Jews and Christians, in the face of Judgement Day in Jerusalem; while the UN provides the guarantee of global legitimacy. Perhaps positive laicity, a mainly French concept, will help us, but of much more help will be prophetic obedience to the beautiful, ever-new and ever-evolving Spirit of God.


1 Luigi Padovese, OFM.Cap (March 31, 1947, Milan – June 3, 2010, Iskenderun) was the titular bishop of Monteverde and the vicar apostolic of Anatolia in Turkey. He was murdered by his driver on June 3, 2010. Padovese was a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in 1965 and was ordained in 1973, which has an historic presence in Turkey, later studying at the Pontifical University Antonianum and Pontifical Gregorian University, he would in due course be appointed as a professor in Patristics He was consecrated a bishop and appointed Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia in 2004. He had also been the president of Caritas Turkey.


2 The following section of this paper follows closely the narrative and study, Emma Loosely - an Anglican lay women and historian of Eastern Christian Art - & Paolo Dall’Oglio, `La communauté d’Al-Khalil: une vie monastique au service du dialogue islamo-chrétien’ in: Proche Orient Chrétien (Jérusalem), Vol. 54, 2004 , pp. 117-128.


3 The history of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (The Monastery of Saint Moses the Ethiopian) can be found in the study by H. Kaufhold, “Notizen über das Moseskloster bei Nabek und das Julianskloster bei Qaryatain in Syrien”, Oriens Christianus, 79 (1995), pp.48-119.


4 Dall’Oglio, P., Cordaro, M. & Alberti, L., Il restauro del monastero di San Mose l’Abissino, Nebek, Siria, Damascus, 1998.

5 P. Dall’Oglio, Speranza nell’Islam: Interpretazione della prospettiva escatologica di Corano XVIII Genova, Casa Editrice Marietti, 1991.

6 On the Syrian Orthodox Church see, S.Brock, `The Syrian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century’, Christianity in the Middle East: Studies in Modern History, Theology and Politics, Edited by A.O’Mahony, London, Melisende, 2008, pp. 17-28; S.Brock, `The Syrian Orthodox Church in the modern Middle East’, in: Eastern Christianity in the modern Middle East, (eds) A.O’Mahony & E.Loosley, London, Routledge, 2010, pp. 13-24; E.Loosley `After the Ottomans: The Renewal of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries’, Studies in World Christianity, Vol. 15, no.3, 2009, pp. 236-247.


7 On The Syrian Catholic Church see John Flannery, `The Syrian Catholic Church: Martyrdom, Mission, Identity and Ecumenism in modern history’, Christianity in the Middle East Studies in Modern History, theology and Politics, London, Melisende, 2008, pp. 143-167; A.O’Mahony, `Between Rome and Antioch: The Syrian Catholic Church in the modern Middle East’, in: Eastern Christianity in the modern Middle East, (eds) A.O’Mahony & E.Loosley, London, Routledge, 2010, pp. pp. 120-137. For the development of Ecumenism between the Syrian Orthodox Church and Catholic Church see, Sebastian Brock, “The Syriac Churches in Ecumenical Dialogue on Christology,” in A. O’Mahony, ed. Eastern Christianity. Studies in Modern History, Religion, and Politics, London: Melisende, 2004, 44-65; Sebastian Brock, `The Syriac Churches and Dialogue with the Catholic Church’ In: The Heythrop JournalA Quarterly Review of Philosophy and Theology, Vol. XLV (2004), pp. 466-476.

8 Dall’Oglio, P., “Massignon and jihad, through De Foucauld, al-Hallaj and Gandhi” in Faith, Power and Violence, ed. J.J. Donahue, S.J & C.W. Troll, S.J., Orientalia Christiana Analecta 258 (1998), pp.103-114.

9 Paolo Dall’Oglio S.J. `Louis Massignon and Badaliya’, Aram: Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, Vol. 20. (2008) pp. 329-336; Emma Loosley, `The Challenge of Monasticism: Louis Massignon and the Hospitality of Abraham’, Aram: Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, Vol. 20. (2008) pp. 317-327; on the relationship between Massignon and Charles de Foucauld see, Hugues Didier, `Louis Massignon and Charles de Foucauld’, Aram: Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, Vol. 20. (2008) pp. 337-353.

10 Paolo Dall’Oglio, Amoureux de l’Islam, croyant en Jésus, les Éditions de l’Atelier, Paris 2009.