image of jerusalem 2016

An Anglican Encounter over the MENA region in Germany!
It is rather infrequent for me these days to give talks on the challenges of ecumenism within the MENA region. This is not because the whole concept of ecumenism - unity within diversity in the Christian catholic understanding - is redundant.

8 June   |   2016   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Or because I wish to avoid talking about the rich mosaic of Christian communities that have been indigenous to this troubled region since the early centuries. If anything, those two considerations would certainly urge me to speak out even more frequently in order to highlight the perils facing our common living today.

However, my recalcitrance is due largely to the fact that the shuddering political and demographic upheavals in the MENA over the past five years have somehow thrown up in the air any sustained effort let alone any sober analysis at blue-sky thinking. After all, there are many different factors that are impacting the region, and so many players or proxies affecting the endgame, that more voices often lead to more confusion instead of more clarity.

However, it is a rare opportunity indeed for me to be invited by The Right Reverend Dr David Hamid of the Diocese of Europe in the Church of England to be the key ‘international’ speaker at its forthcoming Synod. This gathering will take place this month in the city of Cologne in Germany that enjoys not only the enchanting majesty of the Rhine River and a Gothic cathedral but also the ugly incidents that allegedly occurred near the hauptbahnhof last Christmas when refugees purportedly harassed German women having a fun night out.

More confusion, and less clarity, insofar as the Christian communities go in the MENA: is this true?

When the popular uprisings started in Tunisia in 2010, and then quickly spread to Egypt and Libya, a number of ordinary - largely Arab - Christians were empathetic with, albeit cautious of, the claims of those going out into the streets. On the one hand, the demand for dignity and freedom, coupled with a loaf of bread, resonated well with Christian social teaching. After all, one need only follow the three-year ministry of Jesus, His parables and His challenging Sermon on the Mount, to realise there is a lot in the Christian ethos that chimed well with the hopes in those Squares in various Arab cities. On the other hand, there was serious unease in a considerable cross-section of religious institutions, with stories of church doors shut in the face of demonstrators fleeing the chasing policemen.

This was even more so when the ‘Arab Spring’ moved to Syria. This beautiful Levantine country had prided itself with its multi-confessional coexistence and convivial ecumenism despite the massacres of Hama in 1982. If one wanted to hear of cases of Christians and Muslims living as peaceful neighbours, one did not go to Egypt or even Lebanon (given the 15-year civil war there) but to Syria where Christian bishops and Muslim muftis were friends. The fact that this fellowship was managed with an iron fist from the topmost echelons did not matter too much in an Arab World accustomed to top-down rule. Nor the fact that one dared not breathe against the Baath secular ruling regime, or that the gaols (like the one in Tadmur / Palmyra that is depicted so romantically by Orientalists but was an oubliette if not a hellhole) were full of prisoners who were degraded, beaten and maimed without any whisper of mercy. After all, the mantra was that an Arab can live well in the MENA if s/he did not interfere with politics. Human rights, equality, freedom or the dignity of men or women born in the image and likeness of our Maker were irrelevant. It was simple: keep your head low, your mouth shut, and learn to obey your rulers.

And then everything crumpled when the Assad regime decided to punish those initial demonstrators in Dara’a who had come out without arms and were simply seeking better conditions. Church hierarchs and numerous grassroots Christians alongside other small communities found themselves in the midst of a grave threat. Their agony was palpable and even understandable: how could they ensure their survival? So some of them supported the regime no matter the expostulations of the likes of Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio or others who were thirsting for freedom. President Assad and his advisers simplified matters for the West: they helped create ISIL and in so doing offered a stark choice for Christians. What is better, they queried, us hardliners or those murdering thugs? The numbers according to the Syrian Network of Human Rights for the period March 2011 till March 2016 told a different story. 94.6% of those killed in Syria during this period were a result of a homicidal regime and not those criminal groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda or other terror groups. But such figures do not truly matter when fear is both palpable and livid, and so many Christian and other communities consequently chose the devil they knew to the devil they didn’t - simple!

But is it ever so simple? No matter their misgivings and fears, Christians found themselves in a quandary: do they accept to side with one evil against another? How can they be party to the brutalisation (wahshaneh in Arabic) of human beings? Should they only think of their own Christian communities or should they also look at the broader tapestry and ask themselves whether their moral probity and faith-driven values condone survival in a penumbra?

This is one miniscule part of the raw soul-searching I take with me to the Synod in Germany. It is more challenging than textbook ecumenism; it wrestles with the existential core of human beings. May the Force be with us all!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2016   |   8 June


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