Catholic Bishops from Muslim-majority countries and elsewhere in the world will convene at the Vatican for a landmark “Special Assembly for the Middle East.”
Starting Sunday, the 172 bishops will spend two weeks discussing the future of Christian communities in the Middle East, where the faithful comprise around six percent of the population and are shrinking by the day.
“The Special Assembly for the Middle East is the result, not only of the requests from several Bishops of various regions but also from the various apostolic trips Pope Benedict XVI has made to Turkey, the Holy Land, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus in 2010,” said Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, during a press conference.
“It will also be an invitation to the international community, and more importantly to the countries that can and want to dedicate themselves, so that the people of these regions can finally move toward a path that brings them to peace and justice and mutual respect for the law and rights responsibilities of others,” he added.
In addition to the bishops, the Oct. 10-24 gathering will be attended by 14 Roman Curia officials, 14 non-Catholic Christians and 30 academic experts. Among those expected to join are Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee and Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican’s Custodian of the Holy Land.
The weeks-long meeting comes as Christians in the Middle East face increasingly difficult challenges wrought by the escalating conflicts and the rise of radical Islam.
Although Christians are the largest native non-Muslim religious group in Arab Middle East, Christians in the region are rapidly declining in number and influence due to a variety of reasons including lower birth rates among Christians compared to Muslims, persecution, poor socioeconomic prospect, and political instability.
In Iraq, for example, ongoing persecution has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians to flee the country. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimated last year that since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, some 250,000 to 500,000 Christians had left the country. That translates to about half the Christian population leaving within the short time span of six years.
“We want to put an end – through the international community – to these discriminations, these persecutions against the Christian communities in Iraq and the Middle East, especially the Middle East, and we want a peaceful life,” Bishop Philip Najim, representative of the Chaldean Patriarchate to the Holy See, told Catholic News Agency earlier this year.
Ahead of the upcoming gathering, the Catholic Church released 45-page document prepared for the synod of Middle East bishops, whose flocks have been trickling to other parts of the world.
The document – released in Arabic, English, French and Italian – said the rise of "political Islam in Arab, Turkish and Iranian societies and its extremist currents are "clearly a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike."
The document called for dialogue among all faiths in the region and said the key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims is to recognize religious freedom and human rights.
It also urged Christians in the Middle East to “respond to their vocation of service to society” in the face of their challenges.
“This will be a major factor in our presence and our witnessing in our countries,” it stated before concluding.
In tandem with the document’s release, Pope Benedict XVI also made some remarks, expressing his hope in an upcoming gathering of Middle East bishops that will focus on "communion and witness" in the violence-ridden region.
"I pray that the work of the Special Assembly will help to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs, so that just and lasting solutions may be found to the conflicts that cause so much hardship,” Benedict said of the meeting.
Since becoming pope, Benedict has become more outspoken about his concern for Middle East Christians, condemning the killing and kidnapping of priests and the thousands of Christians forced to flee the region.
The Vatican estimates there are about 17 million Christians from Iran to Egypt. In total, over 356 million people live in the Middle East.