Christians work together to address new challenges in the Middle East
With rapidly changing political and social landscapes in the Middle East, church leaders have come together to strengthen pro-active Christian witness in the region and to find ways of furthering stronger engagements with people of other faiths.
Around 150 church representatives from the Middle East and beyond are now in Beirut, Lebanon, focusing their discussions on the dynamics of power, social injustice, the rise in the threat of extremism and its impact on Christian-Muslim relations.
Organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), the conference is underway at the Notre-Dame du Mont monastery, 21 to 25 May.
“The churches in the Middle East are aware that the guarantee of their free and proactive Christian existence in the Arab world is not a bequest given by political powers. It is acquired by being courageous in exposing the structures and mechanisms of oppressive political systems and by persistent patience in changing mentalities,” stated the conference working paper.
“Isolation from the Arab world and sectarian inwardness are not what guarantee a flourishing life and the vitality of the witness of Christians of the Middle East,” read the paper. “The church does not indulge in hypocrisy, nor does it collude with the political authorities corrupted due to their own self-interests.”
Rev. Dr Michel Jalkh, acting general secretary of the MECC, highlighted the importance of church solidarity. Quoting Pope Tawadros II of the Egyptian Coptic Church, he said that “We are gathered by the ecumenism of suffering and pain. This kind of ecumenism calls us to fulfill our responsibility and leads us to a deeper communion, which is splendidly revealed in the unity of faith shown by our churches.”
Examples of such solidarity, Jalkh said, have been visible, especially when several church leaders participated in the enthronement of Patriarch Youhanna Yazigi in Syria and joined together to condemn the recent kidnapping of two Syrian Orthodox bishops from Aleppo.
Jalkh added that the Christian presence is neither recent nor accidental but has deep historical roots. “Our suffering,” he said, “is derived from our profound belonging to our societies, and the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of our countries and our fellow citizens, both Christians and non-Christians.”
Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, encouraged global churches to work together for peace in the region. “The task of our respective churches is to pray and work for peace, and to advocate for justice for all human beings, particularly those quite literally caught in the crossfire. We gather under the cross so that we might lead others toward peace,” she said.
At the conference, participants urged Christians of the Middle East not to submit to the current troubled realities of their societies, despite the fact that current convulsions in the region have not so far resulted in an awakening that can fulfil aspirations of the vast majority of the people.
They said that the Christians are mobilizing to overcome these difficulties, however. This can happen especially through the younger generation, who do not want to retreat or immigrate but are involved in the initiatives for peace and stability in the region.
Hany Fawzy, a young Egyptian participant from the Coptic Orthodox Church, questioned the concept of “Christian presence.” “It’s not just our presence we have to struggle for, as Christians in the Middle East, but we must make sure that we are the catalyst of change in our societies,” he said.
“Three years after the revolution in my country, I see great potential in youth and the churches, believing that we have to defend the values of justice, dignity and peace, regardless of our religious associations. Churches have to participate in the process of revolution without making any compromises,” said Fawzy.