THE international outcry over the boarding by Israeli troops of a flotilla of activists heading to Gaza (News, 4 June) has concentrated attention on a Middle East initiative being prepared by Pope Benedict XVI to support Christians in the region.
Last Sunday, towards the end of a three-day visit to Cyprus, the Pope launched a “special assembly” of Roman Catholic bishops from the Middle East, and circulated a document that will form the basis of a special conference on Christianity in the region in October.
The assembly of bishops would seek 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”, Pope Benedict said. He went on to reiterate his “personal appeal for an urgent and concerted international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East”.
A Vatican statement summarising the working document speaks of the challenges facing Christians in the region. Political conflicts, it says, “have a direct influence on the lives of Christians, both as citizens and as Christians. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories makes daily life difficult with regard to freedom of movement, the economy, and religious life. Moreover, certain Christian fundamentalist theologies use sacred scripture to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine, making the position of Christian Arabs even more sensitive.”
In Iraq, Christians “are among the principal victims, with world politics taking no notice”. The report also points to the growing crisis of Christian emigration from the Middle East, saying that it has become more serious recently with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, and political uncertainty in Lebanon.
During the Pope’s visit to Cyprus, the furore over the killing by Israeli commandos of nine Turkish civilians on one of the ships heading to Gaza showed no signs of abating. Leaders of a number of Arab and Islamic countries, including Iran, Pakistan, and Syria, have visited Turkey in a show of support for the Ankara leadership.
Turkey has been leading calls for an international inquiry into the flotilla shootings — but Israel has rejected them. “The international community is facing a serious test,” the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said on Monday.
Last weekend, another Gaza-bound ship, the Irish-owned Rachel Corrie, was intercepted peacefully by Israeli forces and diverted to Ashdod.