2014 Middle East Trip Blog
October 6, 2014
Global Ministries delegation of board and staff, including the Co-Executive, the Rev. Julia Brown Karimu travels to the Middle East. During the two weeks in the region, the delegation will meet with partners, learn about the context of their work and witness, and experience the realities in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. It is also an opportunity to express a visible presence of solidarity with partners as they respond to emergency situations in the region, including the ongoing Syrian crisis and the Gaza war.
The members of the delegation are:
Julia Brown Karimu, Co-Executive for Global Ministries and President of the Division of Overseas Ministries, Disciples
Linda Jaramillo, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, UCC
Stephanie Crowder, Global Ministries Board Member and faculty at Chicago Theological Seminary
Phyllis Hallman, Global Minsitries Board Member
Peter Makari, Middle East and Europe Executive, Global Ministries
Derek Duncan, Program Associate for Global Advocacy and Education, Global Ministries
Marcy Dory, Program Associate for Mission Education and Interpretation, Global Ministries
Follow our journey with the blog that follows.
Day 12: Jerusalem—Pain and Hope
“Jesus came and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives….In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22: 39a & 44).
Today was our group’s visit to Jerusalem after spending the previous days in Bethlehem at the YWCA conference. Starting at the Western Wall (or the Wailing Wall), we continued up to the promenade where the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosques are situated. From there, we traced the steps of the Via Dolorosa (the “Way of the Cross”), leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Later in the afternoon, we crossed to the other side of the Kidron Valley and contemplated the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. There, we visited the church called Dominus Flevit, or “The Lord Wept.” It remembers Jesus’ tears shed as he approached the city on that first Palm Sunday. Luke’s gospel records Jesus saying, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19: 41-42).
Our group has come and gone, traversing many miles and meeting many people in the past two weeks. As we approach the end of the trip, we are weary—worn with tears of much that we have seen. We have visited with Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; we have heard from Gazan Palestinians who survived this past summer’s war, and heard many stories of pain and agony: of poverty, displacement, and occupation. We have wondered how peace and justice can be attained, and if people in leadership have forgotten how to achieve it, even as they speak to each other in New York at the UN; did they ever know? Our hearts are heavy with structures of separation such as the Israeli Wall just steps from our hotel in Bethlehem. We know that for every person we have encountered, there are so many more whose lives are threatened in ways we cannot even imagine.
Today we have encountered Jesus weeping, sweating, and bleeding. We touch his anguish at the Garden of Gethsemane, where the roots of olive trees have sought sustenance, some for centuries, and where, while he prayed, his disciples slept. As we hear so many stories of anguish and pain, we wonder, too, if the world sleeps—oblivious, or worse, apathetic to the plight of God’s people.
But in the midst of these stories of Jesus passion, we encountered today the hope that we know comes at the end of the Maundy Thursday/Good Friday/Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday events. In the halls of Rawdat al-Zuhur, the “Garden of Flowers” primary school in East Jerusalem which is a Global Ministries Child Sponsorship partner, children tear down the stairs, chasing each other at the end of a day of classes, much like children at home would do. They slow down when they see us adults, but they clearly enjoy their space at this school, where they learn English and French; Palestinian culture, dance, and music; and science, reading, math, and computers. The smiles on their faces to have the opportunity to be children, to study and learn, and to play in an open space, albeit small, are signs of hope: that the future holds promise. They learn the principles of loyalty, sincerity, moral courage, and other virtuous marks of character that will serve them well as they grow, and they treat each other with respect. Seeing such a garden gave us hope as well—that not all is lost, and that peaceful and just communities are possible, because they do in fact exist in pockets, and that there are people working hard to build them.
Jesus wept, and so have we. But Christ is our hope, and we have seen signs of hope as well. As we prepare to cross the Jordan River again, we know there is much work ahead, but that the story must not end with despair because that work is underway, rooted and growing!
Yesterday afternoon, I was humbled and honored to join Jean Zaru from the Palestinian Quaker community and UMC Bishop Hope Morgan Ward from North Carolina as part of a panel sharing our distinct perspectives and connections regarding women’s justice issues. Hind Khoury, former Ambassador and Delegate General of the Palestine Liberation Organization in France did a wonderful job of moderating this conversation with women and men from around the world. As Julia shared in her message yesterday, our delegation was privileged to have a private conversation with Jean in the morning and it was indeed a worship experience.
Today, the conference wrapped up with some powerful conclusions about next steps for the implementation on the United Nations Resolution 1325 regarding women, especially from the Palestinian perspective. I agree with the conference planners, leaders of the YWCA of Palestine, that this is a very critical time in the history of humanity. In the course of current generations, never has it been so important for us to witness together in the midst of such chaos and uncertainty. Calling attention to the crisis facing their families all over the world and crying out for justice to be realized in the here and now, it indeed a pivotal moment for women’s voices to be heard. Our solidarity was clear and our voices were strong. We will not be silenced – not now and not ever again.
As the summer tragedy unfolded in Gaza and attacks on innocent children, women, and men, I must admit that I had much trepidation about coming. As the time in this remarkable part of the world comes to a close, I know that our presence and witness was deeply appreciated. I am so grateful that I made the decision to come ahead in spite of all the warnings and concern expressed by friends and family.
I want to express my deep gratitude to my colleague, Jim Moos (Executive for Wider Church Ministries/Co-Executive for Global Ministries) for the invitation to be part of this delegation. Our time over the last two weeks has been filled with rich experiences that were extremely well organized by Dr. Peter Makari, Area Executive for the Middle East and Europe. I have learned so much from our global partners and colleagues in the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). While we work together in a variety of ways, being immersed in this way will prompt new insights and ideas for collaboration in the future. I can hardly wait to explore all the possibilities!
Day 10: Building Communities of Resistance
How does one live with violence or the threat of violence and the force removal from one’s homeland and remain a dedicated peace activist? One person who is able to answer that question is Jean Zaru, a leader in the Palestinian community; a pioneer for women’s equality and a dedicated advocate of nonviolence. Jean is one of millions of Palestinians who has been uprooted from her home and is forced to live within a confined area of space. She has lived through 10 wars; yet she is dedicated to a non-violent solution to the evil systems of violence and domination that are part of her daily reality.
Today the delegation had the opportunity to visit with Jean Zaru or should I say worship with her because it was a spiritual experience to listen as she described the reality of life in the occupied territory and the nonviolent approach she has taken in working to end the occupation.
She observed how the Christian community in Palestine is becoming smaller and smaller because of the occupation and people are leaving the area because they want better lives for their children and they do not want to live in fear for their safety. However, it is only those individuals with degrees and wealth that are able to escape the oppressive conditions of the occupation. Many people are stuck in what could be considered a type of prison because they do not have the resources to leave; thus, many who are left find themselves in a state of insecurity.
It is within this reality that Jean has committed her life to accompanying her brothers and sisters in Palestine. She receives numerous delegations that come to learn about the reality of the Christian community in the occupied territory. She reported that church attendance is low and there are many seasonal Christians, which means they show up for baptism, marriage, Easter and Christmas; not so unlike nominal Christians within the United States and Canada. She went on to explain that Christians are under attack. She shared that Christian leaders have received letters stating that all the Christians should leave the area. Some leaders understand that the Israeli government is more upset by the Christian presence than the Moslems. The Israeli government is pushing to have Christian written on the identification cards of Palestinians, which is seen as a tool to drive a wedge between Moslems and Christians.
Also, it is significant to note that Jean understands that nonviolence is seen as more dangerous than violence. How do you speak out against structures of violence and domination? Jean is convinced that war is not the answer. Rather, we should build communities of resistance and hope. Resistance should be a global movement. This is what we should do to transform structures of domination and violence. Jean concluded that we are called to see the face of God in everyone and to commit to share the resources of the world with every religion, nationality, race and gender; which could possibly stop the causes of war.
Day 9: Palestinian Women, Civil Society Leaders
One purpose of our delegation is to attend an international conference sponsored by the YWCA Palestine that started on Monday in Bethlehem. Called Women’s Freedom, Peace and Dignity in Palestine, the conference focuses on implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. UNSCR1325, adopted in 2000 but barely implemented, calls on the UN and its Member States to institute “training guidelines and materials on the protection, rights and particular needs of women, as well as on the importance of involving women in all peacekeeping and peacebuilding measures…”
There are about 75 international participants and some 200 local Palestinian civil society leaders and residents gathered in Bethlehem for the three-day conference. When we arrived we met Global Ministries mission worker Loren McGrail, who helped plan for the conference, and were joined by Kim McKerley, who arrived early to participate in a pre-conference witness tour.
The first day was also an opportunity to reunite with many friends of Global Ministries, among them Mira Rizek, current member of the Global Ministries Board, and Abla Nasir, both of the YWCA Palestine; Jean Zaru, leader of the Palestinian Quaker community in Ramallah and speaker at the 1999 UCC General Synod and Disciples Mix in ‘06; Nora Carmi, Project Coordinator of Kairos Palestine, whom many of us saw at the Disciples Women Quadrennial Assembly in Atlanta this summer; Samia Khoury, former director of Global Ministries’ child sponsorship school Rawdat el-Zuhur in Jerusalem; Nader Abu-Amsha, director of the Shepherds’ Field YMCA in Beit Sahour ; and Jonathan Kuttab, founder of the international law center al-Haq and guest at the 2005 UCC General Synod in Atlanta.
The Palestinian community has benefitted historically from the strength of its well-developed, progressive and dynamic civil society, of which the YWCA has been a leader for more than a century. Indeed, while the percentage of Palestinian Christians has diminished in recent years living under occupation, NGO and community organizations rooted in the Christian community remain at the core of Palestinian democratic institutions. Moreover, Palestinian women have always played a significant role as leaders in Palestinian society, if not always to an equal degree in the political sphere. One of the highlights of Monday’s presentations was an inspiring presentation by Dr. Vera Baboun, the first woman Mayor of Bethlehem. Pressing the theme of the conference, she asked “Where are the women at the peace negotiations?”
The open, give-and-take of Palestinian civil society was present during a panel laying out the international and human rights legal framework undergirding Palestinian self-determination. After the panelists themselves challenged the official political assumptions presented by a previous speaker, Palestinian negotiator Dr. Saeb Ereikat, numerous attendees rose eagerly to agree but then to challenge the blinders of the all-male panel itself. If anything, the conference is highlighting the capacity of Palestinian women to lead and hold their politicians accountable.
The YWCA Palestine itself is proudly on display at the conference. They presented a moving video that showed the YWCA’s various educational, vocational and community service programs, and then introduced the “Fabric of Our Lives” Palestinian dolls project.
The day ended with a cultural dinner hosted for international participants. A troupe of young dancers performed several traditional Palestinian “dabka” dances, some with a popular techno or hip-hop twist. Dabka was one of the Palestinian cultural practices outlawed by Israel for many years. After a musical performance of traditional songs accompanied by oud and drum, a group comprising of the “matriarchs” of the YWCA Palestine were invited to the stage to sing a Palestinian peace song, “The Song of the Bird,” written by one of the women in 1979, the Year of the Child, in the style of U.S. anti-war/civil rights songs. One verse of the song is below:
“They bombed grandfather’s house
And bulldozed every stone
My people they dispersed
And drove away from home
O lucky happy bird
Please save me dear bird”
Day 8: CROSSINGS
Today was a day of crossings! This could have been the most challenging day of our visit to the Middle East. We crossed over Jordan to Israel by land. We did not know what to expect once we reached the border. We were told that we could possibly be detained or that Stephanie Crowder and I, the two African Americans in the delegation may be treated differently than other members of the delegation and could be questioned more thoroughly. We were somewhat anxious, however just the opposite occurred. Stephanie and I were processed probably faster than any other members of the group and we all made it through in rapid time. Yet, security was tight and we went through screening about 4 times between departing Jordan and clearing customs in Israel. However, we were treated with respect.
This was just the beginning of the crossings. We had to pass through several check points in order to get to Bethlehem, which is the location of the YWCA Conference we are attending. As we were riding in the bus to the hotel, we were saddened to witness the separation barrier. One could see the wall for miles and the massive settlements; that are causing more pain and humiliation to the Palestinian people.
The day included a meeting with Oded Diner, the Director of International Relations for B’Tselem, which is the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. It was established in 1989 by a group of prominent academics, journalists and Knesset members. B’Tselem means “In the Image of” and is based on Genesis 1:27. “And God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” B’Tselem at its core believes that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. Its main priorities are to monitor settlement expansion and human rights violations. This organization has spent years documenting human rights violations in the occupied territories, but now has a new approach, which is to define occupation as a violation of human rights and thus they are working to bring an end to the occupation. B’Tselem judges its success by getting the message in the public eye. They are working to go the extra mile in extending the public debate. Disciples and UCC members may be supportive of B’Tselem by using the massive data they have collected to become more knowledgeable of the impact the occupation has on both Palestinians and Israelis and by leveraging advocacy efforts to promote human rights. “Promoting human rights bring about long lasting peace.”
In the late afternoon the delegation met with Global Ministries’ missionary Victor Makari. Victor and his wife Sara serve with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. Victor shared how important it is for the church to provide a critical presence as a visible sign of solidarity to accompany people as they face challenges and stresses in their everyday lives. Also, he shared the significance of the Diyar Consortium’s ministry in providing hope for young people, who have lost hope because of massive unemployment in the occupied territories. Diyar Consortium has created a college to provide training that will result in employment and hopefully prevent young people from leaving the region. As people leave the region, it results in a decrease in the Christian presence and the possibility of peace. Victor went on to say that hope is what we do today, hope is to encourage people of 50 years of age and older who have lived through 10 wars.
Another highlight of today was a visit to the Church of the Nativity! The delegation visited the site that is recognized as the place where Christ was born. It was amazing to experience the reverence of those visiting this site and to walk through a church that is over a thousand years old. I was not so amazed by the site but the call for us to respond to the birth, life, crucifixion, and yes, the resurrection of our Lord, the Prince of Peace! There are many more crossings we as Christians have to make as we work to break down the barriers that separate us one from another and those that destroy the dignity of humanity. The challenge for us is to work together for those things that make for peace.
Day 7: Amman, Jordan
Our day was spent with Ms. Wafa Goussous, Director of the Orthodox Initiative of the Middle East Churches. The organization is under patronage of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem
Wafa stressed to us the importance of our visiting Jordan as they are crucial to the work involved with receiving Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
Jordan’s population of 5 million has increased to 8 million with refugees. Service to refugees is purely humanitarian. Wafa referred to one columnist who fears that by Christmas not one Christian will be left in Iraq. ISIS is kidnapping Christian girls and using them.
We went to the Syrian Orthodox Church to meet Father Emanuel and hear how the church has been opened to receiving and housing refugees.
We met a family of 10 living in one small room of the church – a 4-month-old baby being the youngest, while the oldest is a grandmother who is very ill and needs surgery. The head of the family told us how he had to leave his work as a teacher, leave home and everything behind as shooting started, sell the car for money to fly the family to Jordan, where they have been living in the church for one month.
Winter is coming and we were told it will be very expensive to heat the church for this family and another 130 Iraqis and Syrians who are being housed there.
Our next stop was St. Ephram Syrian Orthodox Church where Father Emmanuel welcomed us and asked Rev. Julia Brown Karimu to bring greetings to the representatives of 100 families (Syrian and Iraqi) who are refugees living in Amman. Each family was given school supplies, chips, and vouchers for clothing.
Buses are sent every Sunday to the neighborhoods where refugees are living to bring people to church. Christmas is coming and the Orthodox Initiative personnel want to be able to distribute toys for the children, plus stoves, warm coats, boots and gloves for children and adults.
Wafa will be speaking at the Disciples General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio next summer as part of the Middle East Initiative.
Day 6: Palestinians in Lebanon
Today, we were met once again by the generous hospitality of our partners in ministry and mission here in Beirut, one of whom is the Middle East Council of Churches. Mrs. Sylvia Haddad oversees the work of the Joint Christian Committee for Social Serves in Lebanon (JCC), which is part of the Middle East Council of Churches, Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees. Mrs. Haddad boldly demonstrates extraordinary commitment to serving Palestinian refugees, who were first displaced over 65 years ago; some twice: first to Syria and now to Lebanon. She is courageous in her quest to keep the Palestinian community’s story alive, generation after generation. She was accompanied by local leaders, Aida and Gabby, and Susan from the U.S. whose own life was transformed many years ago when she first came as a volunteer to this region.
Mrs. Haddad first wanted to expose our group to a positive experience at the Sabra Center because she knew that entering the nearby inner-city refugee camp would present a more disturbing picture that would jolt our consciousness. She was correct on both accounts.
Mrs. Haddad and the staff began with an orientation to the programs that the JCC offers to refugee communities. But the real treat was when we were greeted by pre-school age children with sparkling eyes and joyful smiles, with an occasional frightened face sprinkled throughout. In classroom after classroom, teachers were busily teaching basic skills, but they readily interrupted their schedule to welcome us with waves and songs.
The Center’s vocational education programs for youth and adults include computer technology, electronics, literacy, and hair dressing which help to equip them with basic skills. The Center also offers programs for the elderly, who according to Mrs. Haddad “carry the keys to the family and community story.”
As Mrs. Haddad promised, my consciousness was profoundly stirred by the journey through the Shatilla Palestinian refugee camp just a short walk from the Sabra Center where thousands of people reside (an accurate number is not known). The fresh open market that is the source of local food commodities was our entrance into the community. We wound through narrow streets and passageways between buildings greeting people along the way. Even with the electrical wires hanging overhead from building to building and street to street, there are still some small home spaces without electrical power.
On this journey, two significant encounters will remain in my memory forever. We came upon a stack of baked bread, safely tucked in clear plastic bags. We were told that many in the community are without food so the bread left on a concrete shelf for them to take with no questions asked. In this way they do not have to beg on the streets – their dignity is preserved and immediate hunger needs are met. The second was coming upon children playing in the narrow passageways. While the Sabra Center serves many children, they are filled to capacity so the rest are left to pass their day in the camp. Three little boys were jostling as we passed, one with a t-shirt with letters spelling out “Never Give Up.”
I am once again reminded that in the midst of human tragedy, such as the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland for generations, we must never give up. As Mrs. Haddad reminds us, we must continue to tell this story so that it stays in our consciousness and is not forgotten.
Day 5: Journeys
Today was the fullest day on our journey, so far. It involved several meetings in various parts of Beirut, a city of about 1 million Lebanese. Lebanon is a country of just under 4 million citizens, so about one-fourth live in the city and its environs. It is a very cosmopolitan city in which one sees and hears Arabic, Armenian, English, and French, to name the most widely used languages. The religious diversity is astounding with eighteen officially recognized sects—Muslim and Christian; Sunni, Shi`ite, Druze, and Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.
Beirut is not built with such a large population in mind, though, so a full and geographically spread out schedule as ours provided a logistical challenge for us. We were behind most of the day, but we at least were mostly sure of the following:
- Where we were going;
- Approximately when we would be there and for how long;
- That we had reliable transportation;
- That we had sufficient financial resources to make it through the day;
- That, at the end of the day, we would have comfortable shelter.
Our day began with meetings, first with the President of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical (Protestant) Community in Syria and Lebanon, and then with the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), both across town and slightly up in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. In both sessions, the main topic of conversation was the situation in Syria. The leaders with whom we met, including pastors of churches in Syria, shared the reality as they experience it, saying that Christians as well as Muslims are suffering there, and that no end is near. So far, more than 230,000 Syrians have been killed, 6.5 million have been displaced inside the country, and more than 2 million are refugees in neighboring countries. Christians are among the Syrians who are leaving—for the sake of their children’s future, and because of the fear of armed threat—and who face daily and even hourly uncertainty about their lives, their next meal, their destination, and their ability to access any resources. Even so, the churches are continuing to reach out in mission, caring for the physical and spiritual needs of the people through the provision of basic needs, such as food, medicine, fuel, and rent. As a result, people have come to know the church in a new way, and find that it can be a place of joy in the midst of turmoil. We, as North American churches, were called upon to commit not just our financial resources to support the work of the church to respond to the great humanitarian tragedy in Syria, but to share faithfully what we learn, and to remain in solidarity.
Back in town, we met with the Middle East Council of Churches’ program director for the Diaconal and Social Justice unit. Among other areas of work, this program is deeply committed to countering human trafficking and support for human rights for Asian, African, and Middle Eastern migrant laborers in the Gulf states. This is a less visible problem throughout the region, but is pressing and persistent nonetheless. Continuing our encounter with ecumenical institutions, we enjoyed conversation with the General Secretary of the Fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), a body that was a major catalyst for the ecumenical movement in the region. FMEEC recently held a conference called, “Evangelicals [Protestants] and Christian Presence in the Middle East,” issuing a major statement on the situation in the region. It is also working to offer some relief to the Syrian crisis, a way to demonstrate ecumenical solidarity with the people of Syria.
Across town again, we met with the General Secretary of the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East, who spoke about the challenges of the Armenian Protestant churches as a minority (as Armenian Protestants) within a minority (of Armenian Christians) in a minority (of Christians more broadly) of the Muslim-majority countries of the region. Armenians were displaced from their homes in Anatolia—Turkey—100 years ago in the Armenian Genocide, and many resettled in Aleppo and Hasaka, Syria. Today, Armenians are feeling threatened again, caught in the midst of a struggle that has left them victims.
What came through in all of these sessions was a clear sense of calling, and a faith filled with hope, as well as conviction that the church must remain present and offer a witness in this extremely difficult time. Our day, while exhausting, was indeed humbling and inspiring, knowing that our sisters and brothers representing our partners in the region persevere despite challenges that do not lend themselves to any discernible solution.
Day 4: Tell Your Own Truth
We have traveled over four continents. We left North America Saturday. After seven hours in flight we landed in Europe. Two days in Africa and we saw the splendor of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids. Today as we descended over the Mediterranean Sea we entered our fourth continent, Asia. Now our journey in beautiful Beirut begins.
Yes, I said, “beautiful.” I was surprised. The seashore with the glistening white sand and the blushing blue that is the sea are not images the news cycle gives of this place. More than often Beirut, Lebanon is depicted as a war-torn, poverty-stricken place with an unstable government and radical out-of-control Muslims. This is not the Beirut we have experienced. This is not how the people in Beirut see themselves. As Dr. George Sabra, President of the Near East School of Theology stated, “What you see on the news is not the Beirut we know.”
For the third time since we left the U. S., someone has stated that what the American media reports about Africa, Beirut or the Middle East in general is, well— not always accurate. From the lens of those inside, the residents, it is important to provide a counter-narrative to what external viewers give. In other words, it is one thing for those of us not living in the Middle East to assess what is happening, but from our conversations today with the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), it is essential that the perspective of persons living in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and other Middle Eastern “hot spots” tell what is going on and not depend on the media to do so.
I offer a few lessons I learned today. I dare not speak what tenets my fellow sojourners have taken to heart this day. First, for me, it is important to allow room for surprises. The charm that is Beirut, the warmth of the few people I have met and, yes, the delicious food, were not what I expected. Nonetheless, I am grateful for these surprises. Second, learn to tell your own story. Never let anyone spin, shift or craft your experiences. You know the real you. You know your truth. Third, drink plenty of (bottled) water and get some rest. On that note—Farewell!
Day 3: “The pyramids are amazing, but our partners are the real story
We started Tuesday with a quick—and early morning—visit to the pyramids, having found them closed after our full day of visits on Monday. The monumental tombs of the Pharaohs are one of the wonders of the ancient world. Although weathered by millennia of sand and exploration, their massive stones rise in perfect geometric proportions from the desert just outside Giza, the city opposite the Nile River from bustling Cairo.
The pyramids are amazing, but our partners are the real story.
First, the presence of the Coptic Orthodox Church we visited Tuesday has an enduring legacy, with churches and diaconal programs operated by BLESS active throughout Egypt. However, the extensive development and dialogue programs operated by the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), a major partner of Global Ministries, make this Protestant public witness and social service ministry one of the largest development sector non-governmental organizations in Egypt.
By mid-morning we were headed to Dar al-Salaam, a poor district of Cairo densely crowded with 1.2 million people—a slum as large as many cities! After our van threaded its way through narrow, dusty streets lined with store front shops, many selling mechanical and automotive parts, others produce or other wares, we made a tight turn down an alley and unloaded in front of a plain cinderblock building. We walked up a flight and into small room filled with twenty or so young Egyptian adults eager to welcome us and share their story. This was a community-based organization supported by CEOSS named Rawdat as-Salaam (“Garden of Peace”). It provides vocational skills training to struggling young people so they can have a sustainable income.
We heard from young men and women training to become hairdressers, seamstresses, and computer programmers and repairers. One pair of young women, dressed in modest head-coverings, had been given training and supplies to make ceramic figurines. They demonstrated their craft by quickly making a hieroglyphic-designed figure right before us, and explained that their business now employed several others in making souvenirs like these to sell to tourists. Another young woman explained she had to gain a job skill when her husband went to jail, so she had received training and a sewing machine and now sews clothes to sell. One young man, dressed much as any American young person, was a musician who sang to us a song he wrote about economic self-empowerment.
This inspiring community development association is just one of over 200 organizations given support, training and funding through CEOSS. We spent the afternoon visiting the senior staff of CEOSS and hearing about the breadth of work they do, from development work in agriculture and literacy, to operating eye clinics and other healthcare centers. They estimate their services reach 2 million Egyptians in need each year. But they go beyond providing development services; they extend microcredit lending to 58,000 clients, advocate for disability rights, lobby for small-farmer rights and agricultural reforms, and operate a publishing house.
In addition, Rev. Dr. Andrea Zaki, CEOSS General Director, placed just as much emphasis on their wide array of Peacebuilding and Conflict Management programs. In the area of what CEOSS calls “public diplomacy,” Dr. Zaki described the vital role the Protestant organization played in hosting a Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, which brings together Christian and Muslim voices, and representatives from the public and private spheres. CEOSS conducts peacemaking and dialogue trainings, and hosts high-level dialogues with Egyptian and other international leaders. Global Ministries is glad to be a co-sponsor of an Egyptian-American dialogue CEOSS is hosting with US government and civil society leaders in Washington, DC in October.
With 750 staff and nearly 5000 volunteers, CEOSS has worked not only with international partners like Global Ministries, but also Egyptian government and private sector partners, to become one of the largest and most effective social service organizations in Egypt. And while the 10-15 million Christians in Egypt today are a minority among the predominantly Muslim population of about 90 million, CEOSS helps Egyptian Christians have a larger profile in Egyptian society than their relative numbers would suggest.
Our first visit this morning was to the Evangelical (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary in Cairo. The seminary has existed for 151 years and educates 330 students on 3 campuses: 30 students in Alexandria to the north, 30 students in Minya to the south and 270 on the Cairo campus. The students are required to be college-educated for the ordination track. During our tour of the campus, we saw new classrooms, a computer lab, the renovated chapel, and a theological library that is now climate controlled to prevent deterioration of books. The Center for Middle East Christianity is housed on the seminary campus as well.
We met with the president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Rev. Dr. Atef Gendy, who shared the rich history of the seminary. While the seminary began as a school to prepare pastors, it now offers programs to equip lay leaders as well. Students are mainly Egyptian, but also have also come from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Sudan.
Students are required to serve in “compassionate ministry” with the community in places like orphanages, prisons, drug addiction centers, and programs with street children. This service enlightens students to the social problems of the people they will be working with and emphasizes the need for the church to serve society.
Rev. Gendy shared that the recent tension, violence, and changes in Egypt have brought blessings as well. Rabaa, where the largest demonstrations were held, is about 10 minutes from the seminary, which had to be guarded during the demonstrations. When 100 churches in Cairo and surrounding areas were burned, some were led by graduates of the seminary. This was the most difficult time for the church. Not only were churches burned, but Christians were pulled into the streets, attacked and even killed.
When Rev. Gendy spoke with a pastor in a nearby community, he learned that moderate Muslims in that community and others tried to save Christians by any means. Rev. Gendy urged the pastor in that community to leave for his safety, but the pastor refused to leave his people. This difficult situation became an opportunity for this community to be present with one another, both Muslim and Christian. Many learned the importance of living their faith in service to others, just as God’s way of saving us by sending Emmanuel to be with us.
Rev. Gendy said that we as the church are not to get into politics, but to engage in the community. He said the church’s response is often to pray or to defend the church, but in addition Christians should become engaged and allow God to use us as part of the solution.
Mariam Hanna, Director of Development and International Relations, shared that when times are difficult, people sometimes question their faith. This could be a challenging thing, but she sees it as an opportunity, as people seek reassurance and answers. The seminary equips students to answer questions from inside and outside the faith.
She shared that Christians often react in a way that makes people ask questions. Why are you at peace? Why are you not meeting violence with violence? When Christians didn’t react with violence when churches were burned, Egyptians asked, “Why?” Some Muslims would answer that this was the way Jesus taught Christians to live – in peace.
In closing, Rev. Gendy said that as we talk about love and reconciliation, we need to maintain the pillar of justice.
Next we visited the Coptic Orthodox Bishopric for Public, Ecumenical and Social Services, known as BLESS. We had an audience with head of BLESS, His Grace Bishop Youannes. He expressed that a most difficult time for the Coptic Orthodox church was during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. His Grace shared that, of the Christians in the Middle East, a majority are Coptic Orthodox. He emphasized that moderate Muslims and Christians joined together in revolution against the former regime, and that now, the government felt more stable.
In sharing about the work of BLESS, His Grace emphasized that justice is an essential element of peace. The work of BLESS involves work in economic justice and human rights. BLESS focuses on uplifting identified communities in order to transform them.
Our final visit for the day was with Rev. Refat Fathi, General Secretary of the Synod of the Nile of the Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Egypt. As we began our conversation, he expressed that Christians in the region were suffering, but Christians in the Middle East feel that now, more than other times in the past, they belong to the Middle East and are partners with Muslim brothers and sisters in the region.
The Synod of the Nile includes 400 churches in Egypt as well as schools and 2 hospitals. They have organized conferences in Cairo where everyone (Muslims included) has been invited to the conversation about such topics as the role of women in Egyptian society. The Synod established the Council of Egyptian Churches, which includes all Christian denominations in Egypt.
One of the projects of the Synod of the Nile has been to bring one pastor and one imam from a village to work together on a community project with young people. Rev. Fathi shared that Christians and Muslims live together and work together and it is important that they walk together in their communities if we want to have peace. “If we have no peace between religions, we will not have peace in the world,” Rev. Fathi said.
The messages we continued to hear throughout the day were that Christians and moderate Muslims joined together to change their communities and their country and that they were hopeful for the future of Egypt.
Our group arrived safely in Cairo, Egypt in the late afternoon. After checking into the hotel, we went to Old Cairo to visit a church known as the “Hanging Church,” a Coptic Orthodox church. It is called the Hanging Church because it was built on the southern gate of the Roman Fortress. Palm tree logs and stones were layered above the ruins to be the foundation. The raised foundation makes it appear as though the church is “hanging” in the air. The church is one of the oldest churches in Egypt and the history of a church on this site dates to the 3rd century AD. The Christian community believes that this is a place that the Holy Family visited when they came to Egypt to escape Herod.
A church caretaker was kind enough to show us around the church and share some of the unique aspects of the church. One door was inlaid with ebony and ivory. He shared with us the symbolism of the motif on the door. He told us the story of Noah, which is represented by the roof of the Hanging Church, and that Noah took two of everything into the ark except fish. The fish continued to live in their numbers through the flood, representing the abundance of life. The diamond shaped sections represent these fish. The cross represents Jesus while the points on the ends of the cross (there are 3) represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The 3 points on each of 4 ends represent the 12 Disciples, and they point out to the four corners of the earth, where we have been called to share the Gospel.
The church was once the home of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. The church also contains relics (remains) of many martyrs of the church.
From there, we walked down the street to the Mosque of Omar Ibn al-`As. Upon entry, we were to remove our shoes, as is customary. The women were given long green hooded robes to cover their bodies for modesty. We met a young Muslim man who shared his faith with us and also told us that, as a moderate Muslim, they don’t see the actions of the Islamic State group as consistent with the teachings of Islam.
As we left the mosque, we encountered two adorable little children and their mother.