U.S. Presbyterians must rediscover the church’s role in bringing peace to the troubled Middle East as the key means to strengthening the Christian community there, a delegation of PC(USA) partners from Syria and Lebanon said yesterday (Sept. 9).

“There must be a conviction from local churches that they are agents of peace,” said the Rev. Salim Sahiouny, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. “By doing this they will support PC(USA) World Mission to support the church in the Middle East and elsewhere. Presbyterian World Mission is very important to us.

The six-person delegation spoke with the Presbyterian News Service during a visit to the Presbyterian Center here for the inaugural meeting of the PC(USA)’s Syria-Lebanon Mission Network. About two dozen U.S. Presbyterians are expected to attend.

“This network will strengthen the bond between our two churches,” said the Rev. George Mourad, moderator of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. “So far we have engaged the leaders but we want grassroots participation both ways.”

Mary Mikhael, president of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, agreed. “Our main expectation is to strengthen our relationship with the PC(USA) at all levels, leadership and congregations,” she said. “We feel organically connected to the PC(USA) — we want to be purposeful about it and be in solidarity in every possible way.”

The history of Presbyterian mission in Syria and Lebanon dates to the arrival of U.S. missionaries in 1820. The first Evangelical (Presbyterian) congregation in the region was founded in 1846 in Beirut. Since then, the legacy of Presbyterian mission activity has been schools, hospitals and evangelistic outreach.

The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon was formed in 1959, with the national leadership of the church assuming full, autonomous responsibility for its life and ministry.

Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that has had a majority Christian population, though Mourad said the current figure is about 35 percent. Reasons for the decline, he added, are the lower birth rate among Christians and migration from the region caused by the effects of war and the economic situation. “Because many Christians are Western-educated, they adapt easier and fewer return home after their education is completed,” he explained.

“Christian institutions are very important because they promote understanding and tolerance with Muslims,” said the Rev. Fadi Dagher, general secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon.

At least two of the synod’s seven schools are comprised of at least 95 percent Muslim students, said Nelly Awdeh Dagher, principal of the National Evangelical School in Kab Elias, Lebanon. “All students are very open and it helps us very much with our mission in Lebanon to spread the gospel,” Fadi Dagher said.

That evangelistic imperative is much on the minds of the delegation, Sahiouny said. “In both Lebanon and the U.S. we must ask if the church is still serious about spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “With budget cuts, reduced personnel, less money to central offices — we are afraid all this is deviating us from spreading the gospel, is a retreat from our calling.”

Elder Fawzi Dagher said maintaining strong relationships between the two churches is important … and must be personal. “We have to understand and appreciate PC(USA) support, with statements and relief funds, particularly during the war,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. “But visits and interaction by both sides is very important — better than emails, letters — because personal relationships are so important.”

That is why establishing the new Syria-Lebanon Mission Network is so important, Fadi Dagher said. “It will create the road map for our relationship,” he said. “We are the daughter of the PC(USA) … but we have to understand each other more. We have coordinators and liaisons, but we need fraternal workers and missionaries and congregations involved so we can learn more from each other.”

“We will appeal to PC(USA) pastors to see the importance of the mission of Christ given to the church to share the gospel,” Sahiouny said, “and to give it due importance because this is a need that will help us all grow.”

The delegation was accompanied by the Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Gulf, working with the Middle East Council of Churches.