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Middle East Christians — an overview

25 Oct 2010 – Christians in the Middle East: Contemporary Human Rights Issues
St. John’s University, School of Law

21 October 2010 — Distinguished panelists, guests and colleagues,

For nearly two weeks, I have been immersed in the topic that has brought us together this evening. In Rome, from where I have just returned, some 300 hierarchs and religious, lay men and women, Catholics and Orthodox, Christians, Muslims and Jews have gathered at the request of the bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, to attend the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops. Under the shadow of Michelangelo’s dome, these pastors and academics have met and prayed, discussed and debated the concerns and lessons to be learned from the Christians who live in — or originate from — the lands sanctified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and by the blood of the first Christian martyrs.

I was not among the chosen — that honor belongs to my colleague, publisher and friend, Msgr. Robert L. Stern. My duties involved the press and synod participants, some of whom I have had the pleasure to have known for nearly two decades. But, even from my perspective, it is clear each synod father has been challenged to think about questions and issues perhaps greater than originally thought. For example:

  • What includes the Middle East?
  • Should our concerns be for the Christians OF the Middle East, Christians IN the Middle East or Middle East Christians everywhere?
  • Should we focus on emigration of Middle East Christians, displacement of Middle East Christians or immigration of Christians to the Middle East?
  • What sociopolitical and economic issues contribute to the movement of Christians?
  • How central is the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy to the challenges facing the region’s Christians?
  • Are the agonies endured by Christians in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Egypt, best described as persecution?
  • What constitutes persecution? And, if it is persecution, who are the persecutors?
  • What about the role and rights of women?

My comments tonight should not be understood as a report on the special assembly — it does not conclude until this Sunday. Nor will I attempt to address the questions I outlined above in detail. But, I hope my observations will help broaden what we define as Middle East Christianity and that human rights issues affect a far greater number of people than we may suspect.

In the context of Middle East Christianity, what defines Middle East?

In a special edition of ONE magazine published by Catholic Near East Welfare Association, the editorial staff defined the Middle East as those modern countries historically associated with the four apostolic patriarchates of the Eastern churches. (Parenthetically, these territories are the same as those treated by the Specially Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops.) They include:

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