By Tony Assaf
ROME, OCT. 13, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops is well under way, and the synod fathers are discussing matters transparently, in the hopes of finding the necessary solutions to support the Christians of the Middle East and of creating communion.
Political and social issues are impossible to avoid in the discussions because they, of course, have their effect on religious matters.
In this interview with ZENIT, Patriarch Antonios Naguib, general relator of the synod, and Catholic Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, discusses some of the topics raised in the special assembly.
ZENIT: The synod has just begun. Are there any priorities among the issues raised?
Patriarch Naguib: Certainly, in the interventions of yesterday and today, as well as in the free interventions, there was a lot of emphasis on the active presence, the brilliant presence, of Christians, and there was also emphasis on the communion, not only the communion among the churches, but also the communion in the mission of Christians. Light was shed well on this matter.
ZENIT: How do the Christian faithful in the Middle East view the organization of the Synod? The hope of the patriarchs and bishops and pastors is high, but are the laity and religious back in your home countries also in a state of such great hope?
Patriarch Naguib: I think this depends on the preparations made in each country for the synod. In countries that have experienced a good preparation and participation of the faithful, there is great hope. In Egypt, there was full participation in the preparations for the synod in parishes in all the dioceses, institutions, movements, and religious orders. And therefore there will also be a follow-up. The laity and religious all closely follow the work of the synod and are waiting for many things. We hope to be able to meet their aspirations and hopes.
ZENIT: Do you think the presence of an Iranian Ayatollah, a Lebanese Muslim cleric, and a rabbi from Jerusalem will have a positive impact on the synod and any lasting positive effect afterward?
Patriarch Naguib: I think so, just as it happened in other synods, and in international meetings in general. Their presence cannot be but positive. For it is very good to be able to listen to another voice, perhaps there are situations in which we do not see it clearly ourselves. We need to see also what others expect from us, and not only what we expect and we want. It cannot be but constructive and positive.
ZENIT: There are political divisions in the Arab world that cast a shadow on the clergy, and in some countries, even some of the clergy align themselves with political parties, which leads to divisions within the clergy themselves. Will the synod address this topic? And what are the solutions?
Patriarch Naguib: The synod has dealt with this issue over the last few days, and some of the synod fathers spoke of the danger of affiliations and the risk of taking political positions instead of strengthening pastoral and religious work according to the Church’s social teaching. It is very good that the fathers work on drawing attention to the need to unify Christians in our countries where they can exercise political action and possess political weight; the need to work together to build a society based on human rights, democracy, and mutual respect and not on political choices. We’ve already spoken about it in these days but I think others will raise this matter again.
ZENIT: What about the situation of Christians in Egypt? Politicians speak of religious freedom and freedom of belief, but it seems to be a freedom on paper only, remaining in the world of theory. In reality, what is the situation like on the ground?
Patriarch Naguib: In Egypt, whether for the Catholics or other Christians, we are all in the same situation. Without doubt, the Constitution affirms our freedom and equality; the first point of the Constitution states that citizenship is the basis of belonging. The practical application for citizenship and for the confirmation of religious freedom, which is also contained in the other clauses of the Constitution, is first of all the total freedom for churches and religious institutions to exercise their religious life, so one cannot complain at all about these issues.
Without doubt, there are some difficulties, for example in relation to the building of churches in the new cities and rebuilding old or ruined churches, but it must be said that in fact there is no legal prevention nor prohibition, but rather there are procedures that take some time but usually end with a good result. Here, I want to emphasize the importance of dealing directly with civil, political and security officials, and avoiding the provocation of going through the media, which does more harm than it does good.
ZENIT: How did the synod of bishops for the Middle East perceive the news that Israel is demanding to be described as a Jewish state and thus turn a democracy into a theocracy?
Patriarch Naguib: I am not up to date with this story because I arrived here only a few days ago, and when I heard about it in the synod hall during the press conference my comment was very clear and direct: I cannot understand such a decision.
A country that announces that, within the Middle East and in the Arab and Muslim world, it is the only liberal democracy and civil country, and then makes such a decision and wants to impose swearing fidelity to the Jewish state upon its citizens … where is the logic? I see a conflict here between the announcement of a particular identity on one hand and on the other hand, making decisions and enacting laws against the principle enunciated as an identity of this state.
This is my personal opinion. Some Italian newspapers announced yesterday that the synod condemns the state of Israel; we do not condemn the state of Israel. This is my personal opinion and there may be others with different opinions, but I personally think that this is not logical nor consistent. And again, this is my personal opinion.[Translation from Arabic by ZENIT]