Radical Islam is synod's elephant in the room

  • October 22, 2010
Two Sundays ago, on Oct. 10, Pope Benedict XVI opened the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. The synod participants joined the Holy Father for a solemn Mass to begin two weeks of discussions about the situation of Christians in the Middle East — a small minority that is getting smaller in many places.

Sudan is not part of the Middle East, but what happened in Khartoum that same Sunday morning illustrates the challenge of radical Islam faced by Catholics in the whole region, stretching from North Africa, across the Arabian Peninsula and into south Asia. During Mass, the archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, came close to being killed. A Muslim man, Hamdan Mohamed Abdurrahman, rushed toward the cardinal armed with a dagger, only to be stopped a few steps short of his intended target.

Little is known about the would-be assassin, but it is enough to know this — Catholics living in the midst of Muslims are subject to harassment, hostility and violence. Not all Catholics, and not all Muslims, obviously. Both historically and today, Christians and Muslims have shown in many places that they are able to live in peace and harmony.

Yet if a cardinal is not safe from Islamic violence while offering the Holy Mass, or if an archbishop can be kidnapped and left to die, as happened in Mosul, Iraq, or if a priest can be cut down in a hail of bullets, gangland style, outside his own parish church, as also happened in Iraq, or if clerics can be murdered in Turkey, or if Missionaries of Charity Sisters can be massacred, as happened in Yemen — then can anyone expect the ordinary Christians of the Middle East not to live in fear of the extremists among their Muslim neighbours? The point has been made repeatedly at the synod, even if local bishops are reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals.

There is a violent civil war going on the Islamic world between a radical minority and the majority. The principal victims of that war are Muslims themselves, who have been killed in the hundreds of thousands. Christians who live in their midst suffer too. Hence the problem of emigration, wherein formerly numerous Christian communities are experiencing an exodus as people leave seeking religious liberty and personal security.

In the Middle East, all of this is often blamed — as is everything — on Israel. Yet over the past decades Israel is one of the few countries which has had an increase in its Christian population. Christians in Israel proper have full religious liberty, even if there remain problems with access to the holy places for Christians who are resident in the Palestinian territories.

A large and growing Christian population exists in Saudi Arabia due to the large number — perhaps as many as two million — of expatriate workers from the Philippines and India. Those Christians suffer constant and intense persecution, liable to imprisonment and even torture if they are caught with Bibles, rosaries or attending a clandestine Mass. So fierce and repressive is Saudi Arabia that even other Muslims are loathe to criticize the Saudis for blackening the name of Islam.

Radical Islam is the elephant in the sacristy at the synod. Arab Christians are reluctant to speak critically of their fellow Arabs, and there is intense pressure in the Islamic world to put the blame on Israel, Jews and the Christian West. Christians in that milieu fear being considered traitors should they too loudly insist upon their rights.

A way forward has been suggested at the synod — namely a joint Muslim-Christian argument for religious liberty and against harassment of religious minorities. As Muslims too are victims of state persecution and violence from other Muslims, the argument may be heard as something other than special pleading from Christians.

The prospect of that remains remote and the immediate future looks bleak. When the shepherd faces the assassin at Mass, the flock too is in mortal danger.

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