Secularism Means Survival for Christians in Middle East

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, June 25, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Secularism Means Survival for Christians in Middle East

Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


Where people stand often determines what they see, so perspective is critical in framing any question. Take secularism, for instance: It may be the bogeyman of the Catholic imagination across Europe and the United States, but for Christians in the Middle East, it's more like a survival strategy.

Squeezed between two religiously defined behemoths--Israel and the Muslim states that surround it--the tiny Christian minority has no future if fundamentalism wins the day. As a result, nowhere on earth are Catholic leaders more zealous apostles of the separation of religion and state, and the construction of a legal order that protects both pluralism and freedom of conscience.

In part, their advocacy reflects a basic law of religious life--secularism always looks better to minorities who would be the big losers in a theocracy. If it doesn't disappear first, therefore, Christianity in the Middle East may be ideally positioned to inject balance into global Catholic reflection about the relationship between faith and secular society.

That point shines through the instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the upcoming Oct. 10-24 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in Rome. Pope Benedict XVI presented the document during his June 4-6' trip to Cyprus.

The pope's outing began under the shadow of a dramatic reminder of the struggles facing Christians in the region--the June 3 murder of Bishop Luigi Padovese in Turkey by his longtime driver, for motives that remain murky.

In Turkey, police sources say the investigation into the killing of the 63-year-old Capuchin prelate by his driver and bodyguard, Murat Altun, is ongoing. The act stirred memories of the killing of Italian Fr. Andrea Santoro in 2006, another murder of a Christian cleric by a young Turkish male for obscure reasons.

Benedict's three-day visit to Cyprus, the first ever by a pope to the tiny island nation, played to multiple audiences. At one level, Benedict spoke to the Cypriots themselves, gently prodding them toward reconciliation. The island was ethnically split between Greeks and Turks in 1974 following an invasion by Turkey. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in the north in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it, and it maintains 35,000 troops there.

Benedict urged his hosts to become "a bridge that unites different worlds."

Because of the symbolic significance of Cyprus as a focal point of tensions between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, as well as Christians and Muslims, the pope also used the trip to signal his interest in both relationships. He briefly met a Turkish Cypriot Muslim leader, Sheik Mehmet Nazim Adil, as a sign of outreach to the Islamic world. (It was also a moment of octogenarian solidarity, as the 83-year-old pontiff and the 88-year-old sheik joked about their ages.)

Benedict held a longer and more formal session with Orthodox leaders on Cyprus, including Archbishop Chrysostomos II, who has carved out a profile as an ecumenical pioneer in the Orthodox world. Yet that meeting also offered a reminder of lingering tensions in Catholic/Orthodox relations, as two Orthodox bishops boycotted in protest. Outside the stadium where Benedict celebrated Mass on June 6, a small knot of Orthodox protestors displayed signs reading, "The pope is not a brother, but a heretic," and "Papal infallibility is not only a heresy but an ultra-heresy."

The centerpiece of the trip, however, was the presentation of the working document for the October synod, and more broadly, the effort to raise global consciousness about the plight of Christianity across the Middle East.

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