The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Christians in the Middle East

Although Christians make up only a small minority in most Middle Eastern countries, there have been some interesting developments in recent years.

One statistic that might surprise you is that within the state of Israel the number of Christians has not been falling but has actually risen year after year since the nation's founding. In 1949 there were 34,000 Christians in Israel. As of 2008 there were over 150,000. Most of these Christians live in Galilee although some 15,000 reside in Jerusalem. As I said, this might surprise you because we have heard so much about Christians leaving the Holy Land in droves. The explanation involves the use of the words, "Holy Land," which is not well-defined and includes land under the control of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. For some it even includes other neighboring nations such as Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, and even Turkey and part of Cyprus. In most of these Muslim-dominated countries, yes, the Christian population is decreasing. Indeed, in some the Christians who have remained live a day-to-day ghetto-like existence, never knowing when they might become the next victims of Jihadist terror.
Byzantine Rite Liturgy

Middle Eastern Catholics are a varied group and belong to a number of autonomous, self-governing Eastern Churches, all in full communion with Rome and the Holy Father. Their liturgies are quite varied, as are many of their devotional traditions. Some of these Eastern Churches were at one time separated from Rome, but subsequently returned, while others have always been in full communion.

It's easy for us Roman Catholics of the Latin Rite to forget that there are 21 other rites in the Catholic Church, and all 21 are numbered among the Eastern Catholic Churches. In most instances we simply don't have much interaction with them at the parish or even the diocesan levels. And yet most of these Churches have an active presence right here in the United States. You may have encountered the faithful of some of these Churches -- for example, the Maronite Church, the Melkite Church, and various Byzantine Churches -- but many of the others are either very small or have little or no formal presence here in the United States. I suspect you haven't met too many members of the Syrian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches of India, the Coptic Catholic Churches of Egypt and of Ethiopia and Eritrea, or the Krizevci Catholic Church. And there are others...If you would like to read a brief overview of each, try either of these websites: Eastern Catholic Churches or Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
A Melkite Church in New Jersey

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a Mass in one of these Eastern rites, I highly recommend it. Go online and locate the nearest parish of one of these Eastern Catholic Churches and check its Mass schedule. All of these rites have beautiful, although quite different liturgies. Just to give you and idea of what you might encounter, I've included a brief video highlighting a choir from St. Anthony Maronite Catholic Church in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Maronite Catholic Church, which has its roots in what is now modern-day Lebanon, conducts its liturgy in Arabic, although the words of consecration are pronounced in Aramaic, the same language spoken by Our Lord.

One final note on the Christians of the Middle East concerns a unique group of Hebrew-speaking Christians who live in Israel. They are mixed group made up only partly of converts from Judaism, and many of these  came to the country during the many waves of immigration over the years. Others are immigrants from Catholic countries -- e.g. the Philippines -- who have assimilated into Israeli society and learned Hebrew. The rest include Lebanese Maronites and Arabic-speaking Palestinian Catholics who nevertheless send their children to Hebrew language schools. Because this diverse group has the Hebrew language in common, the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem has given them their own vicariate and placed it under a convert who is now a Catholic priest, Fr. David Neuhaus. Fr. Neuhaus ministers to about 400 Hebrew-speaking Catholics, and about half are converts. Although they are a small group, they are growing and now have seven active communities throughout Israel. Now wouldn't that be interesting...attending a Mass celebrated in Hebrew.

I've included a brief video (below) on Fr. Neuhaus and his ministry.


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