Christian presence in the Middle East: theological and political challenges
The need for increased dialogue among churches in the Middle East and with churches in the East and West were only two of the many concerns addressed by 30 theologians, social scientists, politicians and church representatives at a recent conference in Volos, Greece.
The five-day conference, which was sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Volos Theological Academy, was held 19-23 June as a follow up to a WCC Central Committee statement adopted in February on the presence and witness of Christians in the Middle East.
This meeting comes in advance of a second meeting with religious leaders to take place in the Middle East in November 2012.
At the conference the group wrestled with the theological and political challenges facing Christians in the Middle East and particularly in Palestine today. These include not only the need for bridging gaps and increasing dialogue, but the future of the Christian presence in the region.
While there are no reliable numbers for the entire region, conflict situations such as Palestine and Iraq have seen significant drops in the Christian populations because of Israeli occupation and the war in Iraq respectively.
In 2003 Christians in Iraq made up almost six percent of the population, today their number has dropped to just one percent.
Christian populations in other countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt have been decreasing over longer periods of time, often due to demographic, economic and immigration realities.
Churches in the Middle East are viewed as the cradle of Christianity, and their decreasing numbers have become a pressing concern for the global Christian community.
During the conference the participants explored a number of topics including the impact of the Kairos Document issued by Palestinian Christian leaders in December 2009 concerning the long running Israeli occupation.
The gathering also explored the impact of recent political uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East on Christians in the region.
Participants listened to testimonies on Christian living experiences coming from different parts of the region. They also explored the historical connection between the Bible and the region, looked into issues of occupation and “Promised Land”, the adoption of a minority mentality, as well as theological perspectives including Christian Zionism.
Finally, the gathering sought to propose ways for Christians to help shape the region and deepen the Christian self-understanding in the wider Mediterranean region.
The conference was hosted by Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias and heard Bishop Athenagoras of Sinope speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as well as a message addressed to the participants by the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Hieronymus II. It was followed worldwide through an internet live stream.