FaithWorld

Christians in Middle East much more than a numbers game

Franciscan Father David Jaeger is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most authoritative experts on the Middle East. Until a few weeks ago, he was the delegate of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in Rome. A convert from Judaism who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1986, he is  a noted canon lawyer. He was part of the Vatican team that negotiated diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 and is part of the Vatican team that is still ironing out the final subsidiary details of that accord. He spoke to Reuters and Reuters Television about the upcoming Mideast synod in the atrium of Antonianum University in Rome. Here is a transcript of parts of the conversation.

jaegerWhat do you expect from the synod?

I think it is intended to be a very significant step forward in the development of the witness of the Church in the Middle East.  Synods are convened not simply, or not necessarily, in response to a current affairs concerns but as a moment for the Church to grow, in faithfulness and in effectiveness of  witness. (Photo: Fr. David Jaeger in a screengrab from a Reuters Television interview in Rome, 6 Oct 2010)

The moment in the  Middle East is particularly appropriate for this further development. There is hope for new ecumenical relations. There is a growth of the Church itself in the Middle East, in awareness of fundamental values of Vatican II, such as religious freedom and the civic responsibility of Christians. I don’t think people in the West appreciate to what extent the thematics of the synod are totally new to so much of the Church in the Middle East. Religious freedom some decades ago was not even a known concept. It had never been experienced in 13 centuries. It had always been presupposed that it could not be attained,  yet now it is being spoken of in the preparatory documents of the synod as a serious subject, not as something already existing of course, but as  something realistically to be looked forward to.

The whole discussion of the civic duty of the Christian, the Christian as citizen, the Christian communities as actors in the national lives of the countries where they live, this is totally new for the region as a whole. For 13 centuries, Christians in the Middle East had been made to live strictly in kinds of socio-political ghettos, not a physical ones necessarily, but socio-political and legal ones,  and it was a given that general society was something else, in which as Christians they had no part. Maybe individuals did manage to insert themselves into politics in different countries, of course,  but that the idea that as a Christian, as a Christian community, you had to participate in the formation of a national culture, in the development of the national political culture too,  these are all new insights in that region. These are all (examples) of Vatican II coming finally to fruition in that region too, so it is a very exiting moment for the Church.

There is great concern about a continuing exodus of Christians from the region. What can be done about that?

Constitution, not sharia, is supreme law in Germany – Merkel

merkelChancellor Angela Merkel has said Muslims must obey the constitution and not sharia law if they want to live in Germany, which is debating the integration of its 4 million-strong Muslim population.

In the furore following a German central banker’s blunt comments about Muslims failing to integrate, moderate leaders including President Christian Wulff have urged Germans to accept that “Islam also belongs in Germany.” (Photo: Angela Merkel at a CDU conference in Wiesbaden, 6 Oct 2010/Alex Domanski)

Merkel , the daughter of a Protestant pastor brought up in East Germany who now leads the predominantly Catholic CDU party,  said Wulff had emphasised Germany’s “Christian roots and its Jewish roots.”

Iraqi Christians flee homeland even as war fades

iraq christians (Photo: Family and friends mourn a Christian student killed in attack on Iraq’s Christian minority in Mosul, May 11, 2010/Khalid al-Mousuly)

Bassam Hermiz has slashed prices to clear his stock of electrical appliances, close his shop and join many thousands of other Iraqi Christians abroad. Once numbering some 750,000 in this mainly Muslim country of 30 million, Christians have been trapped in the crossfire of sectarian strife ignited after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship in 2003.

Alarmed that their flock could face extinction, Iraqi Christian leaders appealed to the Vatican for help. Pope Benedict, also worried about the shrinking Christian presence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, has called a synod of bishops for October 10-24 to discuss how churches can work together to preserve Christianity’s oldest communities.

Post-invasion bloodshed and chronic insecurity have spooked Iraqi Christians, many of whom feel they have no future here. “We decided to leave after we lost hope of living in peace in Iraq. It was not our choice,” said Hermiz, the shopkeeper who is taking his family from the volatile northern city of Mosul to Holland, where his brother already lives.

Many Tea Partiers part of religious right: study

tea party (Photo: Tea Party member Ellie Mels at a Tea Party Fair in Charlotte, Michigan July 24, 2010/Rebecca Cook)

Many supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement that has shaken up politics share the same views as the Christian right on social issues like abortion and the role of religion in public life, according to a poll released on Tuesday.

While the loosely organized Tea Party movement has focused largely on shrinking the size of government and other fiscal issues, its backers are more likely to support government restrictions on gay marriage and other social issues, the Public Religion Research Institute found in its American Values Survey.

The survey found significant overlap between the Tea Party, made up mostly of Republicans, and the religious right, which has played a significant political role for decades.

Algerian court clears Christians of charge of flouting Ramadan by eating during day

ramadan 1Two Christian men on trial in Algeria for eating during daylight in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan were acquitted on Tuesday, a verdict their supporters said was a triumph for religious freedom.

The two men, members of Algeria’s small Protestant community, were charged with offending public morals for eating at the building site where they were working before the Ramadan fast had been broken for the day. (Photo: Food shoppers in Algiers on first day of Ramadan, August 11, 2010/Louafi Larbi)

After the judge in the small town of Ain El-Hammam, about 150 km (93.21 miles) east of the Algerian capital, ruled they were innocent, a group of about seven Protestants standing on the steps of the courthouse shouted “Hallelujah!”

IVF spawns host of ethical issues

embryosIn vitro fertilization (IVF), the pioneering technique that won Robert Edwards the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine, opened up a wealth of scientific options and a Pandora’s box of ethical dilemmas.

Edwards’s success in fertilizing a human egg outside of the womb led not only to “test tube babies” but also to innovations such as embryonic stem cell research and surrogate motherhood. (Photo: Frozen human embryos at the Priory Hospital in Birmingham, England, July 31., 1996/Ian Hodgson)

Amid the applause for these medical breakthroughs, ethicists from some Christian churches oppose IVF and techniques related to it because they involve the destruction of human embryos.  The bewildering array of options due to the IVF revolution — from the morality of making “designer babies” to exploitation of poor women as surrogate mothers — has created much concern and many debates among secular ethicists as well.

German president welcomes Islam in 20th anniversary Unity Day speech

imam (Photo: An imam leads prayers at a mosque in Dortmund on German Unity Day, October 3, 2010./Ina Fassbender)

German President Christian Wulff said Sunday that Islam had a place in Germany, during a speech celebrating two decades of the country’s reunification.

The president, who holds a largely ceremonial position but is considered a moral authority for the nation, used the televised ceremony to wade into a debate over immigrant integration that has captivated public attention for weeks.

“First and foremost, we need adopt a clear stance: an understanding that for Germany, belonging is not restricted to a passport, a family history, or a religion,” he told an audience in the northern city of Bremen.  “Christianity doubtless belongs in Germany. Judaism belongs doubtless in Germany. That is our Judeo-Christian history. But by now, Islam also belongs in Germany.”

Obama answers the question: Why are you a Christian?

obama (Photo: President Barack Obama talks with voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, September 28, 2010/Larry Downing)

President Barack Obama spoke openly about his faith on Tuesday, describing himself as a “Christian by choice” while reiterating his belief in the importance of religious tolerance. Obama, who polls show many Americans think is a Muslim, was asked by a participant at a campaign-style event in Albuquerqe, New Mexico about why he was a Christian.

“It was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead — being my brother’s and sister’s keeper, treating others as they would treat me,” he said. “And I think also understanding that, you know, that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings — that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes, and that we … achieve salvation through the grace of God.”

The president, who has voiced strong support for the right of Muslims to build a community center near the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, said he tried to express his religious beliefs through his job. “I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith,” he said.

Atheists, Jews, Mormons top U.S. religious knowledge poll

relig symbolsAtheists and agnostics may not believe in God or gods but they know a thing or two about them, according to a survey of religious knowledge among Americans released on Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

“On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 … Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers,” Pew said. It found Protestants answered 16 correctly and Catholics on average 14.7.

“While previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations, this survey shows that large numbers of Americans are not well informed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions — including their own,” said Pew, which is based in Washington.

Catholics and Orthodox report promising progress in latest round of unity talks

cathorth 1Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians reported promising progress on Friday in talks on overcoming their Great Schism of 1054 and bringing the two largest denominations in Christianity back to full communion. Experts meeting in Vienna this week agreed the two could eventually become “sister churches” that recognize the Roman pope as their titular head but retain many church structures, liturgy and customs that developed over the past millennium. (Photo: Metropolitan John Zizioulas (L) and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna, 24 Sept 2010/Leonhard Foeger)

The delegation heads for the international commission for Catholic-Orthodox dialogue stressed that unity was still far off, but their upbeat report reflected growing cooperation between Rome and the Orthodox churches traditionally centred in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“There are no clouds of mistrust between our two churches,” Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon told a news conference. “If we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain.” Archbishop Kurt Koch, the top Vatican official for Christian unity, said the joint dialogue must continue “intensively” so that “we see each other fully as sister churches.”