The Christian Presence in the Middle East Witness and Mission

Collegial Pastoral letter of the Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East
to their Faithful in their different countries of Residence

Stephanos II Ghattas Patnarch of Alexandria of the Catholic Copts; Maximos V. Waxir, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem; Mar IgnaceAntoine ll Hayek, Antiochian Patriarch of the Syrian Catholics; Mar Nasrallah-Pierre Sfeir, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East; Mar Raphail I st Bidawid, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans; Jean-Pierre XVIII Kasparian, Patriarch of the Armenian Catholics; Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

Incarnation in Arab civilization

30. Christians in the Middle East do not limit themselves to using the Arabic language as a means of expression for their rites, their particular culture, and daily relations. They have gone beyond this to concern themselves with the future of the whole of culture and civilization. Christians have not been mere spectators in the progressive modernization of Arab civilization. They have played an active part by the work of translation and the production of original works. They have thus created an outstanding means of cooperation between Muslims, Jews and Christians, and we can rightly be proud of this cooperation as a model and privileged means of coexistence. This cooperation has given life to a genuine Arabic culture, and, for centuries, has allowed it to nourish universal culture by its dynamism and richness. In this way a common cultural heritage has been generated and the three partners have all helped to crystallize it. Mutual assistance and cohesion on the level of civilization between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, have thus become a reality engraved on the fidelity of each side to its own faith and beliefs. This phenomenon is not limited to the formative period of Arab civilization. It also applies to the following periods. In the period of the modern renaissance, for example, Christians, alongside their Muslim and Jewish brothers, have been pioneers in the cultural and political resurgence of the Arab world from which we continue to draw at present. It is this dialogue, creative of civilization, which we invite Christians, Muslims and Jews in our countries to pursue in the new historic conditions opening up to the future.

The Arab Christian heritage

31. We would also like to consider the vast, outstanding heritage which has expressed itself in the Arabic language, and nowadays is known as the " Arab Christian heritage" . It is found particularly between Vlll and XIV centuries in the different Christian Churches in the Middle East. Until recently, this heritage was buried away in libraries in the form of menu scripts, and researchers have been astounded by their number, the variety of subjects, and the wealth and originality of their contents. Today, we have only words of praise for those who have striven for so many years to publish this heritage. We wish to encourage this line of research and create conditions which will enable it to continue and develop, becoming a stimulus for Arab Christian thought in the contemporary world. We appeal to our universities, institutes and centers of scientific research to take the greatest interest in this subject, and place the necessary human and material resources at its disposal.

Present day demands

32. The return to a patrimony such as this is a powerful stimulus to meet the present urgent needs of our Churches in the realm of culture and ideas. First of all, we would like to stress the importance of Christian books and the production of original, intellectual work. Our ancient Eastern heritage is authentic, but needs to be renewed, recreated to respond to the new demands posed by present-day conditions. In spite of growing activity over recent decades, the move towards translating, research, publishing and popularization is still minimum compared to the needs. We are called to multiply our efforts, undertaking practical initiatives to enrich the Arab Christian library. It must he given the means to support our Christian advancement, providing it with the essential cultural contents. This takes us back to the need for specialized publishing houses and distributors who can act together to encourage a wave of Christian thought in our lands. To this must be added the attention that needs to be given to the social media, enabling them to became a sui table means Or information and culture, and at the same time a precious instrument Or Christian presence and witness.

Incarnation and Authenticity

33. The cultural dialogue characteristic or our Christian exper fence in the Middle East cannot be divorced from authenticity and uniqueness. Interaction at the level of civilization demands authenticity, and calls it forth. Based on this, our social environment enriches us, while in turn being enriched by us. The incarnation is realized by two Specific entities which work together to create a common form of culture that gives glory to God, and honors man, while serving him. A transitory identification with the other and the momentary coloring which gives the illusion of assimilation to him, leads in fact to the setting aside of one of the parties, and nullifies the authenticity of his participation, just as absorption by the other leads only to a false dialogue. This helps no one and leads nowhere. We have a twofold responsibility as regards our faith, and our patrimony. Only by fidelity to the one and the other will we be able to make a real contribution to the common task of giving our societies a sense of direction on the level or civilization. More over, cultural action is an essential area in the evolution or our societies. We must follow this evolution both from the aspect of our patrimony and from the aspect of world culture. With patience, objectivity, and a critical spirit, we will thus be able to make a real contribution to a renewed, authentic Arab culture, in a way that is consistent with our national patrimony and responds to contemporary needs. This is what guides our faith, and is far-removed from foreign ideological perversions which would isolate us from one another and from our environment, and I also protects us from falling prey to racial slogans.

IV. Presence and service

Christ as servant

34. When Christ defined the different aspects Or his redemptive action, he insisted on service as the distinctive feature or his mission. He is the King who has come "not to be served, but to serve" (Mk 10:45). Christ, the Master and Lord, is he who rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet (Jn 13:45). In particular, he serves those who are rejected or marginalized: the sick, the physically handicapped, the poor,sinners, women,children and all those to whom society gives scarcely no importance. Christ sides with all these, and brings them out of their isolation. He has dressed their spiritual, moral and physical wounds,and restored their human dignity. He has gone beyond the social barriers and the customs of his day, even the injunctions of the law, since, he said, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (cf Mk 2:27). In his teaching, Christ has ennobled service, giving it a particular dignity, and he who wishes to be great, will be a servant (cf Mk 10:43). Henceforth, service is not the task of slaves, but that of free men and women, who place their freedom at the service of the needy and neglected. This royal service of Christ found its highest expression on the cross. On the cross he did not limit himself to giving what he had: he gave what he was - he gave his life for those he loved. He came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45).

The serving Church

35. It was not enough for Christ to be a servant, so Christ did not call himself alone a servant he called also his disciples to follow in his footsteps and be a sign of his presence among men by their service to one another: " You call me teacher and 'master and rightly so for indeed I am. If 1 therefore the master and teacher have washed your feet you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you you should also do (Jn 13:13-15). The Church has always seen in the example of Christ an urgent call to serve every man, whoever he might be, particularly he who suffers the different forms of human wretchedness, and to serve the whole man, body and soul. Vatican Council II has summed up this ecclesial orientation in this way: "This is the reason why this sacred Synod, in proclaiming the noble destiny of man and affirming an element of the divine in hint offers to cooperate unreservedly with mankind in fostering a sense of brotherhood to correspond to this destiny of theirs. The Church is not motivated by an earthly ambition but is interested in one thing only - to carry on the work of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for he came into the world to bear witness to the truth to save and not to judge to serve and not to be served (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n.3).

Thus, throughout its history, the Church has put this directive into effect through its institutions and through the variety of initiatives that go by the name of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

The service of Man

36. The spiritual mission of the church cannot be separated from its mission, for the love of God poured into our hearts is directed both to man and to God: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself" (Lk 10:27). As the Church looks towards the goods of the kingdom, she does not lose sight of the value of temporal, worldly affairs. On the contrary, her commitment to everything that is human is deepened. For she is "the good samaritan" who stops to dress the wounds of the man by the roadside. "He came upon him (and) was moved with compassion the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them' (Lk 10:34). God has shown solidarity with man in all things except sin. He took a body like ours to free us from sin and from everything that disfigures his image in us, such as spiritual, moral and corporal evils. The Church is a living, tangible, visible sign which throughout history witnesses to this divine solidarity. She therefore stands at the side of man in order to alleviate his sufferings in all their forms, and to support his development in all its aspects.

To be continued

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