by Edward Pentin | October 11, 2010
(Vatican City) - During the first General Congregation of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, held this morning in the Synod Hall, Pope Benedict XVI made some brief opening remarks in which he recalled how on this day, 11 October, in the year 1962, Pope John XXIII officially opened Vatican Council II.
But he also took the opportunity to condemn, in off-the-cuff remarks, the scourge of terrorist ideologies, emphasizing that those who cling to violence in the name of God are following false deities which will eventually fall. Terrorists’ destructive power can be carried out in the name of God, the Pope said, but he added: “It is not God: they are false gods that must be unmasked.”
As well as terrorist ideologies, he also singled out other idols such as drug abuse that “devours human lives like a beast”, as well as “a widespread view of marriage that no longer values the virtue of chastity”. He also spoke of “anonymous” economic interests that, instead of belonging to man, enslave and even massacre people.
The Pope explained that in the time of the early Church, the blood of martyrs weakened such false gods, beginning with the divine emperor and such false deities. “It is the blood of the martyrs, the pain, the cry of the Mother Church that makes them fall and so transform the world” – a process, he said, which “is never finished.”
Also addressing the first Congregation were Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and president delegate on duty, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, and His Beatitude Antonios Naguib, Patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts, Egypt, relator general of the synod. The Patriarch read his "Relatio ante disceptationem", (report before the discussion).
Patriarch Naguib later gave a press conference to journalists at the Vatican, along with Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo SJ of Alep, Syria. As expected, religious freedom appears to be at the forefront of discussions. The Patriarch said that freedom of conscience is “not so much a right to be claimed for Christians,” but a “universal right, which Christians and Muslims defend together for the common good.” He said it was important that Christians emerge defending only the rights of Christians, and engage in the defence of the rights of all.
One of the first questions the Patriarch was asked related to the news over the weekend of the Israeli government’s decision to enforce a new loyalty oath. The measure, which was approved by the cabinet, means all non-Jews who want to become citizens of Israel must now pledge loyalty to “a Jewish democratic” state. Critics say the decision, which will now go before the Knesset for approval, is a racist measure.
It will not apply to Jews who migrate to Israel nor affect current citizens, including the Israeli Arab community, but it is expected mainly to affect Palestinians living in the West Bank who want to marry Palestinians who live in Israel, who are known by the Israeli government as Israeli Arabs.
Patriarch Naguib said the decision was “contradictory”. “You cannot publicly proclaim that you are a democratic, a civil state and then impose on people to swear loyalty to this state, because that is a matter of personal religious choice,” he said. “That would not be logical or reasonable but in my opinion contradictory.”
He said it is “quite curious this has come from a state which declares itself as most democratic state - even the only democratic state - in the Arab region. In my opinion that’s patently contradictory [and] makes no sense.”
Turning to his native Egypt, the Patriarch acknowledged that Egyptian Christians are a small minority (only one in ten of the population) which makes the situation “peculiar”. It is therefore difficult for Christians to be adequately represented in all sections of society, he said. But he did not accept they were being persecuted. “Persecution implies there are rules and regulations, laws and decrees, that regulate the treatment and behaviour of Christians – this is not the case,” he explained.
Responding to a question asking for clarification on how the Synod will approach the issue of Church and State, Bishop Audo stressed the importance of differentiating between a positive lay status (one which separates the roles of religion and state yet respectful of religious values) and a negative lay status (one which regulates without reference to natural and divine law). The challenge, with which Lebanon has shown some success, is building a civil lay status while respecting religious values, he said.
Responding to a question on disputes in his native Lebanon, Bishop Audo said Christian divisions over politics are closely related to Muslim divisions – namely between Sunnites and Shiites. “Some have chosen to support Sunnites, others Shiites, while others consider relations should be good with both without being entrapped by a regional political axis,” he said. He added it was a “difficult situation” affecting the wider Middle East, but he said it was “good for society” to have a “multitude of opinions.”
On the liturgies taking place during the Synod, Patriarch Naguib said that on each day a different Eastern rite will lead the readings. Today, the liturgy was from the Latin rite, tomorrow it will be the turn of the Copts.