Let us celebrate the faith of Middle Eastern Christians

By Harry Hagopian
December 29, 2018

Those of you who know something about me also realise that I worked with the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) in Lebanon and Cyprus for a few years. It was a departure from my legal training but life offers many surprises. 

I would be bold enough to aver that the ecumenical dimension of my Christian faith was largely enhanced by my friendships and activities within this organisation. Prior to the MECC days, my faith was a monochromatic space that was solely inhabited by me and God, with occasional intrusions by kith and kin. But after the MECC adventures, I was exposed to a broader, richer and more diverse tapestry of traditions that included Eastern and Oriental Orthodox as well as Catholic and Anglican or Reform Churches. I learnt once more that these churches are mere instruments and that the overarching central let alone unifying message comes from Jesus himself whose birth we celebrate these days.

Whether this was another step in my adulthood, I know not, but it was fascinating for me to watch all the church leaders, Presidents or Executive Committee members of this ecumenical organisation, expressing an outreach toward each other that was not necessarily the experience I had sustained in my own little space. I owe this openness, for want of a better word, to Gabriel Habib who was the General Secretary and who also was my frequent Arabic coffee companion.

So let me roll forward the years and come to the MECC today when the Acting General Secretary is a woman theologian and academic. A wonderful progression in the attitude of Middle Eastern Church leaders to elect as their regional ecumenical representative a Lebanese woman from the Melkite Catholic tradition. Even the World Council of Churches in Geneva has not undertaken this bold step yet. So a brownie point for the Middle East that is oft-times accused of cobwebby chauvinism or misogyny let alone of institutional top-down autocracy.

This woman, Dr Suraya Bechealany, recently undertook a number of courtesy visits to the Heads of those Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical Churches. A few key points, perhaps familiar to some observers, emerged from her meetings and they were documented by the MECC in their releases. Let me trudge through a few of those today. 

The consensus seemed to be that Christians in the Middle East can only be saved by a united vision and mutual acceptance. Unless the churches combine their efforts in the face of the threatening challenges in the Levant, and find ways to preserve human dignity as well as protect diversity, the remaining Christians of the East - in places like Iraq, Syria or Lebanon for instance - will face an existential danger. This seemed to be one of the conclusions drawn from the formal meetings with Yousef Al-Absi, the Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch, in Damascus. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna X Yazigi, also based in Damascus, emitted a rather alarmist message when he suggested that Christians are facing a “divide-and-rule policy to weaken us.” HH Ignatius Aphrem II, the Syriac Patriarch, underscored the crucial mission of securing the Christian presence in the region.

I suppose this longwinded introduction of mine leads me to an ecumenical event organised by Westminster Abbey in London on 4 December 2018 ‘to celebrate the contribution of Christians in the Middle East.’ Invited by the Dean, Dr John Hall, the various hierarchs or representatives of different churches in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar and Egypt came together for an ecumenical service at the Abbey where they met, amongst others, with HRH the Prince of Wales, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury - both of whom spoke at the service too.

To write that this was an important event is somewhat of an understatement, so I shall highlight instead five points that I believe are relevant to the event in particular and to the UK Churches in general.

The first thing that drew my attention is that the Anglican Church in the Gulf was represented at this event by its Archdeacon whose diocesan footprint covers all six GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. This was important since there is a prevailing tendency both in the Levant and across Europe to suggest that Christians are only located in the Middle East. This happens because many people would blithely argue that Christian equals Arab and therefore equals indigenous. This is indeed quite true insofar as the Levant is concerned, but untrue when one considers that there are hundreds of thousands of (almost exclusively) expatriate Christians in the Gulf countries. Most of them are not Arab, and spend time in the Gulf region as workers. It is therefore my contention that they and their daily realities must also be embraced by the ecumenical policy-makers involved in the MENA and Gulf regions. The question is clear for me: are those churches or organisations focusing on the faith of those men, women and children? Or are they somehow confusing if not merging faith with ethnicity? The Vatican has understood this emerging reality about the ‘new Christians’ quite well and it is no wonder that Pope Francis is visiting Abu Dhabi (in the UAE) in February 2019 for an inter-faith gathering.

What also drew my attention is that Westminster did not identify this event as one of solidarity with the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, but rather as one that celebrated their faith. This distinction is essential if we truly mean to be prophetic in our ministry. But why, you might well ask me? Are Christians not suffering from persecution? My answer would be that there are indeed many instances of persecution, not least in places like Iraq or Syria (largely by ISIS), but we should not be so exclusivist and insular in our attitudes that we overlook - wittingly or unwittingly - the millions of Muslims who are also being persecuted by their own regimes or by proxies. Should we not care for them too, or is this not the modern-day Christian message?

 There is a converse reality here too. Muslims - be they rulers, religious leaders such as imams, or the media - should also be willing to include Arab Christians in their discussions, conferences or media events. In short, Christians should figure in the Muslim collective consciousness. After all, Arab Christians predate Arab Muslims and their conquests, and the Prophet Mohammed was well-known for his hospitality to the People of the Book - namely, Jews and Christians. It is true that many Muslims make inclusive statements, but viewpoints are not standpoints, and many Muslims have alas adopted narrower interpretations of ‘Arab’ and ‘Islam’. 

 Let me give an example that struck me. Fairouz Ziyani is one of the best presenters of a weekly programme on Al-Jazeera (Arabic) that looks behind the scenes at events across the world. I follow many of her episodes with keen interest. Last week, she presented an episode about the competition between Jordan and Saudi Arabia over the custodianship of the holy sites in Palestine. This custodianship, by the way, was clearly given to Jordan and dates back to 1924. However, the discussions that took place with the two guests hardly mentioned that such custodianship includes Muslim and Christian sites. Anybody listening to the programme (in Arabic) could have easily concluded that Christians were not part of this agreement, or that there were no Christians to start with in the region! This is a maladroit and ideological misrepresentation of facts, not least when one knows that Jordanian monarchs have paid not only for the upkeep of Muslim sites such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem but also of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In fact, HM King Abdullah II of Jordan contributed in 2016 a substantial amount of money toward the renovation of Jesus’ Tomb.

A final point that I also I raised with one of the key organisers of the event at Westminster Abbey, Canon Anthony Ball, during our meetings. Events that purport solidarity with the Christians of the MENA region risk turning into a vast money-spinning business. Everybody wants to jump on a bandwagon that has seemingly become a popular theme. And whilst many of those conferences are well-intentioned, some of them tend to focus exclusively on Christian persecution and even exaggerate its severity in order to raise funds for their organisations. This is both reprehensible and distasteful, and it does not do the indigenous Levantine Christians much good either as it could unleash a pushback. In one sense, this is why I was delighted to learn that our Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had commissioned a report on the phenomenon of the persecution of Christians around the world. I suspect that he was motivated in part by Asia Bibi’s horrible ordeal in Pakistan. However, what would sadden me is if this report by the Bishop of Truro were to focus exclusively on Christians and forget all other religious and ethnic communities - not least for instance those various small minorities in Iraq such as Yezidis, Kaka’i, Sabean-Mandaeans as well as Shabak or black Iraqis.   

So reverting to the Middle East Council of Churches as much as to the event at Westminster Abbey, is it not high time that we heed to the real message that is included in the parable of the Good Samaritan as told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke? Is it not high time to ask ourselves, “Who is my neighbour?” and is that not the person who shows mercy? Christians are of course challenged daily in their lives, and persecuted at times too, but perhaps we should try harder to understand the concept of neighbourliness even when it is inimical with our corporate interests or comfortable spaces.

 When I was involved in second-track negotiations during the maligned Oslo chapter between Israelis and Palestinians, one of my mentors was HB Patriarch (now Emeritus) Michel Sabbah of the Latin-rite Catholic Church. He often reminded me that Christians in the Levant carry a cross and that this is willy-nilly their calling. I am sure that this statement would evoke yelps of disapproval and even self-righteous indignation if not also amused benevolence by those who evangelise their faith outside the cultural fabrics of the region. They think they are more clued-up. But to them I humbly suggest reading Matthew 7.3-5 or even going to the Mount of Olives and contemplating on John 8.7.

Is our faith insular and self-contained, or is it one of witness and outreach? How do we perceive the neighbour in our midst and do we shutter ourselves inside our own realities? The event at Westminster Abbey hinted at such challenges.

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© Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as Legal Consultant to OTS Solicitors in London (particularly on Brexit and immigration issues). He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land (The Russell Press).  Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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