Preventing the complete destruction of the Christian presence in the Middle East
Do the Christians in the Middle East still have a future? This question formed the focus of a conference hosted by the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC) in Cairo. Alongside numerous church representatives from the Middle East, America and Europe – including Bishop Michael Bünker – Muslim dignitaries were also in attendance to consider together how the peaceful coexistence of the religions can be encouraged and secured in the Middle East. The question concerning the future of Christians in the Middle East is not new. For many years, church leaders have been concerned to witness many Christians’ departure from the region to build a future elsewhere. With the outbreak of the civil war in Syria and, at the latest, since the appalling emergence of the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS) there and in Iraq, this long familiar worry has transformed into existential fear. Clear cries for help can be heard from all the churches in the Middle East. Only recently, the Highest Council of the Protestant communities in Syria and Lebanon issued an urgent appeal to all Protestant churches around the world to prevent the complete destruction of the Christian presence in the Middle East. The delegates at the FMEEC conference in Cairo last week also spoke out unequivocally. “Must we live in a world where our children are being killed? Is that Islam?” asked Adeeb Awad from the Presbyterian Church in Syria and Lebanon and Muslim representatives from Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt. They emphasised their unanimous belief that Islam has nothing to do with IS and that Islam is based on tolerance and compassion. With reference to various Islamic social models, including the new Tunisian constitution, they demonstrated that legal equality between Muslims and non-Muslims is compatible with the Koran. The suffering of the Muslim participants caused by the image that IS and other jihadist terrorist groups currently project of Islam also became very clear. “Many Muslims are very concerned. Things are changing so dramatically,” said a Muslim participant, who himself is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “We must save our religious heritage and the fundamental principles of Islam, these being peace, humility and tolerance,” he said. Sheikh Mohammed Eddin Afifi from the Council for Islamic Studies at the Al-Azhar, the highest educational institution in Sunni Islam, expressed a similar sentiment. “We in the Azhar suffer a lot from this violence that is perpetrated in the name of Islam,” he said. He explained that the Azhar is very conscious of the gravity of the situation. They have issued repeated calls for peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians and for this reason themselves fallen foul of the extremists. “There are forces at work that seek to destroy the good standing of the Azhar in the Islamic world,” said Afifi. He considers the virulent expansion of extremism in the Islamic world to be a manifestation of poor education. “We must make it clear to the people of our countries that the jihadists paint a false picture of Islam, that the real nature of Islam is moderate. We need your help to achieve this.” The Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem, Munib Younan, took the baton and emphasised that Christians in the Middle East only have a chance if a joint investment is made to educate the broad masses in order to eradicate radical thought patterns. “We must amend the curriculum in the Arabic world such that the people learn to accept their differences and live in peace alongside one another,” said Younan. The acute urgency of the situation was demonstrated by the reports delivered by pastors from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Armenian Protestant pastor Haroutune Selimian from Aleppo related the fear that the members of his congregation feel for the future. The city is under repeated attack with the warring factions concentrating their fire at the most populated civilian living quarters. “In the city centre, not a single building is inhabited any more.” Almost the entire Armenian community has returned to Armenia by now. The subject assumed a particularly tragic immediacy when, while the conference was taking place, a car bomb exploded in Baghdad killing members of a congregation led by a pastor in attendance. “It is particularly painful that the Christians living in the geographical origins of the Church have to fear for their future,” said Bishop Dr. Michael Bünker, General Secretary of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE). The very roots of the global tree of Christianity would be lost with their demise. “They therefore require our support. We must intensify relations and stand up for their rights,” said Bünker. And so it is important to listen to these Christians and to ask what they need from their western partners. “The Christians in the Middle East have lived alongside Islamic majorities in the population for centuries. They know best of all what needs to be done to re-establish peaceful coexistence and secure its future.”
Katja Dorothea Buck
Picture: General Secretaries Rosangela Jarjour (FMEEC) and Michael Bünker (CPCE). The next personal encounter between representatives of FMEEC and CPCE is scheduled to take place during the Meeting of European Synod Members in Budapest, January 2015.