In the tranquility of the Lebanese mountains, land of milk and honey, I send news of your brothers and sisters from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and USA.
I am within a loving body of Christians at Dhour Choueir Evangelical Center, a conference center similar to the PC(USA)'s Montreat or Ghost Ranch. In this place that is close to heaven, we come together to celebrate our faith and ministries, and also share how parts of the body are hurting, and how they all are in need of our understanding, love and prayer.
The consultation in Lebanon brought together participants from the Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Iraq, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Syria-Lebanon and Iraq Partnership Mission Networks. It includes 16 participants from the U.S., 12 from Iraq and 15 from Syria and Lebanon.
Through worship and prayer, dialogue and fellowship, the hope is to come away with a better sense of how we, as Americans, can best help, encourage, preserve, advocate for and protect the faithful presence of Presbyterian Christians in the region.
The first day — Nov. 7 — included welcome by Rev. George Mourad and the Rabiya Presbyterian Church, who opened our time together with worship and communion. It also included a time of sharing of about the churches in the region — their history and current highlights. Throughout the region, Presbyterians are a minority among the Christian minority.
Synod leaders from Syria and Lebanon shared the rich history of offerings for education and healthcare. A Syrian pastor shared the decline of students being served at their K-12 school from 1,200 at its height to the current 406. Many new schools with state of the art buildings and teaching aids are being built.
The Christian Protestant schools have a long history of teaching peace and non-violence through Christian principles, without proselytizing.
"We don't try to make Muslims into Christians," one Syrian pastor said. The Presbyterian school does try to teach their students ways of living to promote a better society, and to reject fanaticism.
The Syrian pastor also shared that a large part of the churches' mission in Syria now is "to work with our Iraqi immigrants and accept them among us as a part of the body of Christ." He added, "I encourage you to carry the cross with us in these challenges ... not in money — although it helps — rather, we need prayers."
The recent massacre at the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq, has been very present in our discussions. During a presentation by the PC(USA) Iraq Partnership Network, several statements of condolence and solidarity were read to the Iraqi Presbyterian representatives present. The Rev. Chappie Chapman read a statement from the PC(USA) General Assembly Moderator Cynthia Bolbach.
The representatives from the Iraq Church shared the current situation in the region where we have a Presbyterian presence: Kirkuk, Basra, Baghdad, Mosel.
"There is a bright side and a dark side," one pastor shared.
Formerly, the government controlled everything, including the content of sermons. "Today Iraqis can proclaim our faith freely," he said.
The dark side, he continued, is there is no security — death can come at any time. For example, a young engineer from the Kirkuk Presbyterian Church was killed, not because he was Christian, but because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was one of the best engineers and had been sent to a dangerous place to fix something, and on his way back there was a bomb.
"Bombs do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians," the pastor said. "The Lord’s Prayer says, 'give us our daily bread.' We live daily and we say 'give us today our life.' We don't know if we will be living tomorrow or not."
The Iraqi pastor also made a request: "We ask you to support our people who come to your country. These people need to feel Presbyterians around the world support, help and care for them."
He added, "I want to add that the democratic life you live in your country is not like the democracy we are experiencing in Iraq. If we speak anything against Islam, we are in danger. When this man in the U.S. wanted to burn the Qur'an we were very scared. If any Christian in Europe or the U.S. speaks against Islam, we will suffer."
The three-day consultation is organized through the Iraq Partnership Mission Network and the Syria-Lebanon Mission Networks of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). They are two of the 38 mission networks currently working within the denomination.
After the consultation we will "hit the road" to encounter, in their context, the vital presence and ministries of the churches of the Synod of Syria-Lebanon in various cities. We trust that our fellowship with local Christians during these days will enrich and strengthen our faith and our bond with one another and how we are each called in Christ Jesus.
The trip and consultation is being led by Marilyn Borst, associate director for partnership development at The Outreach Foundation and the Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, PC(USA) mission co-worker and regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf.
We looking to the hope, which is always the risen Lord. And the body of Christ is helpful in finding that in what feels like eternal darkness. We are lifting our hearts up to the Lord in the Lebanese mountains.
Carol Dolezal-Ng is development associate for interpretation and support with the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, Lebanon. She works out of her home in California.