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‘Between Iraq and a hard place’

PC(USA) supports tenacious Christian community in Middle East

October 29, 2009

Cincinnati

The complex history and current strife of the Middle East continue to make it a difficult place for Christians, despite 2,000 uninterrupted years of Christian witness in the region, participants in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s World Mission Celebration ’09 were told here Oct. 23.

“We’re caught between Iraq and a hard place,” Jordan-based longtime PC(USA) mission worker Douglas Dicks told some 700 mission-minded Presbyterians during a plenary session on the church’s witness in the Middle East. “It’s a tough neighborhood to live and navigate.”

Jordan is probably the most stable country in the region, even though it has been home to millions of Palestinian refugees since the State of Israel was created in 1948. Refugee numbers swelled during ensuing wars “and in 2003 Jordan inherited a million Iraqi refugees,” Dicks said. Another million Iraq war refugees fled to Syria and Lebanon.

Because Christianity is associated with the West in the overwhelmingly Muslim region, those refugees and anti-American sentiment bred by the Iraq war have made living conditions even more tenuous for Christians in the region.

“The focus of our ministry in the Middle East today, as it has been for many years now,” said the Rev. Victor Makari, Presbyterian World Mission’s coordinator for the Middle East and Asia Minor, “is on the ministry of peace and reconciliation in an area of so much strife and in need of so much healing.”

Christians in the Middle East face much discrimination, persecution, occupation, economic hardship, internal division and displacement, Makari said. “As a result, we are seeing too much emigration of Christians out of the region.”

Lebanon, for instance, was once the only majority-Christian country in the Middle East. Today, Christians make up only an estimated 35 percent of the population, said Mary Mikhail, president of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut.

“What do we do? Close our doors, immigrate, shut our mouths?” Mikhail asked rhetorically. “We are called to peace and reconciliation, which can only be achieved by open dialogue and hard work. If we do not build trust, we live in fear. If we don’t reach out, we live in isolation.”

In response to that challenge, Mikhail added, NEST, in 2002, established an ongoing Christian-Muslim Forum. “The purpose of the forum,” she said, “is to listen and discuss, to get to know each other, to seek reconciled relationships, to create an atmosphere for peace and reconciliation and to respond to God’s will for our region.”

Interfaith understanding and cooperation is a key component of PC(USA) mission work in the region, the Rev. Jay Rock, Presbyterian World Mission’s coordinator for interfaith relations, agreed. “We are always drawn to the Middle East because it is there where Christians live among Muslims and Jews, and so are called to listen to others and to try and be receptive to what God is doing among them and through them to build the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ,” he said.

“To establish peace and work for justice and build bridges between communities,” Rock said, requires “the quiet, slow work of building trust and relationships between individuals and institutions.”

Creating hope in the midst of such interminable strife was a common theme in the presentations. “So many in the Middle East are wondering if God is still there,” said the Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf. “They wonder why God is allowing the controlling, bombarding and destroying of their lands.

“We and our partners are trying to help them find hope, that God never left us,” Tomeh said. “They have lost hope and are fearful about the future and we are trying to give them help, to reassure them of the power of the resurrection which brings hope.”

Those PC(USA) efforts, as in all parts of the world, are done in partnership with other churches and church-related organizations. The denomination’s chief Middle East partner is the Middle East Council of Churches, which was created in 1974 after more than 50 years of ecumenical cooperation in the region. Presbyterian missionaries have been active in the Middle East since the 1820s.

Today, Makari said, the MECC engages in ministries of health, education, women’s concerns, peace and reconciliation, children’s welfare and refugee relief. 

In Israel/Palestine, where most of the world’s attention in the Middle East is usually focused, the PC(USA) works with a number of other partners, Dicks — who was based in Bethlehem for many years before travel restrictions forced him to relocate to Amman — said. Those include the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Lutherans, in addition to a number of other faith-based humanitarian and peace groups and  interfaith organizations.

“We listen to the voices of those that often go unheard,” Dicks said, “and serve as intermediary between Israel and Arabs. It’s impossible to reconcile if you deny or fail to recognize the humanity of the other — the reality of Christ’s love for all God’s children.”

Mikhail agreed. “In God,” she said, “we have a perfect example in Jesus Christ in creating a bridge through humanity.”

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