image of jerusalem 2016

The Middle East Council of Churches: What Horizons Next?
The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) held last week its XI General Assembly in Jordan in the presence of a majority of the Christian regional hierarchs.

12 September   |   2016   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

The leaders were hosted at this ecumenical event by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem in order to discuss the realities of the Christian communities across this vast region as well as to gauge the current status of interreligious dialogue.

One look at the map of the region would show us that the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been decimated and their numbers have dwindled alarmingly. Those two fractured countries however are for all intents and purposes in a state of war, and so one might try to understand this migrant trend to foreign climes. Yet, the same phenomenon is also quite true of Palestine, and even of Lebanon and Egypt.

So let me shed some light on those indigenous communities in relation to their neighbours in their own backyards as well as relations with the broader Christian fellowship worldwide.

  • • We MENA Christians (and I consider myself originally part of this increasingly endangered species) are part and parcel of this geography. In other words, we were not grafted there by Western missionaries but have been living and witnessing higgledy-piggledy in this region for two millennia. Not only do we belong to these lands - Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and others - but we happen to hold the lease alongside others for 2000 years. Hence, nobody can accuse those - largely albeit not exclusively - Arab Christians of being impostors in a foreign land. They have been there for long, and were certainly there during the time of the prophet Mohammed in the 7th century.
  • • Unlike many in the West today, most Middle Eastern Christians remain organically bound to their faith - and often by osmosis to their churches - and so tend at times to perceive daily life through the prism of their faith-centred lives. This means that their mannerisms, relations and languages are a reflection of their religious and cultural backgrounds. They are Arabs and they are Christians and they are citizens and so are aghast when they are treated at best as visitors in their own homes.
  • Al-Qaeda was distinctive in that it had by and large a central command that directed its terror-driven activities. This made it slightly easier to predict and even infiltrate their cells. Then came Daesh and its various permutations or shifting alliances and they decided that their intent to recreate a caliphate went hand-in-hand with callous attacks meant to coerce us to lose our nerve and cave in to fear. But we are now witnessing the solitary ‘lone wolves’ with their own grievances going on the rampage. No matter the intelligence services and security readiness of the agencies protecting us, it is almost a Sisyphean task to predict let alone manage every single terror act. This is perhaps where true grit kicks in.
  • • Whilst the majority of those Christians in the Levant are Arabs, they have also been living alongside Muslims as neighbours for almost 14 centuries. There have been ups and downs during this period where both sides have experienced violent ructions and much pain. One obstacle is that the Christian ethos endorses the concept of citizenship above all others whereas this approach struggles at times with the largely dominant Muslim ethos that religion is more preeminent than citizenship.
  • • We need to remember that there are a large number of Christians living in the Gulf region - in Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia - too. However, unlike the Arab Christians of the MENA region, those are mostly foreigners - from Europe and the USA as much as from the Philippines, India and Pakistan - and they do not view their faith from the same lens of Arab nationalism. They are no less Christian than their Arab counterparts though and the local churches should reach out to them and include them somehow in the ecumenical tent.
  • • However, such a long history of Christian presence and witness means that the hierarchs have a clear responsibility toward their communities that are suffering during those uncertain times. Such solidarity is part and parcel of their pastoral duty toward the men, women and children in their congregations. This is particularly true of Syria and Iraq. However, in their eagerness to support their communities, those same leaders tend at times to ally themselves with the ugly powers and principalities of the day rather than with the dispossessed, disenfranchised, subjugated or oppressed peoples. But this laudable zeal to protect their own communities should not turn into a source of defensive isolationism. Rather, it should stand in solidarity with all other communities that are equally suffering in this conflict-ridden and riven region.
  • • Finally, it is also critical for the West - its churches and institutions - to calibrate its own relationship with the Christians of the East. In their quest to support their co-religionists, some Western Churches or organisations end up claiming they know better and sound a tad patronising in their attitudes (because they have the money or perhaps exercise some political influence). Conversely, they can also become too compliant with the dictates of their MENA counterparts and select their favourite interlocutors (who are chosen because they conform with their own beliefs or share their interests). In both cases, this exclusive focus by the West on the plight of those Christian communities is detrimental. It ends up putting those Christians in the limelight and in so doing underlines their differences from other communities and ends up polarising incipient tensions further. Ecumenical partnership denotes a relationship of equals where neither side controls, rejects or scorns the other.

The General Assembly is the foremost structure of the Middle East Council of Churches. Its quadrennial meetings are both organisational and thematic. So at this moment of multiple crises and daunting uncertainties across much of the region, I hope that the meetings in Jordan will help lift up this indigenous and rooted Christian presence in the region and consolidate it with an understanding that the Christian faith clothes the naked, feeds the hungry and supports the prisoner too. After all, was the story of the crucifixion not the critical link that ultimately yielded to glorious hope?

This edited piece was first posted on the Lebanese NOW portal at on 8 September 2016

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2016   |   12 September


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