UCC/Disciples' leader visits UCC's Middle East partners
Having just returned from a meeting of the Middle East Council of Churches, Peter Makari, the UCC/Disciples' area executive for the Middle East and Europe, spoke with United Church News about the ongoing impact of war and terrorism there, increasing concerns about instability in Iraq, escalating violence in Israel and Palestine and the church's persistent work for peace and reconciliation in the region.
Prayer can accomplish great things by itself. Taking the step to pray for the people of the Middle East—Jews, Christians and Muslims—leads one to want to learn more about the circumstances and realities of the region's peoples.—Peter Makari
Peter, what was the purpose of your Dec. 1-10 trip to the Middle East? Why did you feel it was important that Global Ministries have a representative there?
First of all, I welcome this opportunity to share something about the current situation in the Middle East and the life of the churches there with your readers. The Middle East is in a time of challenge and change, and the recent capture of Saddam Hussein is just one indication of that.
My most recent trip included participation in the 8th General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) in Limassol, Cyprus; a consultation with Protestant Iraqi church representatives in Amman, Jordan; and a meeting of the Near East School of Theology board of managers in Beirut, Lebanon.
Iraqi children are glad to be back in school after their building was damaged during the war. The Middle East Council of Churches helped repair the school and provide the students with school kits through contributions from Christians throughout the world, including the UCC. Iraqi Christians participated in the re-opening of the school. MECC photo.
Can you tell us more about the MECC and its relationship to the UCC?
The MECC is one of the UCC's two Synod-affirmed partnerships in the Middle East. Its membership includes churches from the four ecclesial families—Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. Those churches' members number approximately 15 million Christians throughout the Middle East. Our partnership with the MECC has a strong history and so it was a privilege to represent the UCC and the Disciples at the quadrennial General Assembly.
The MECC is in a time of change. The Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, who attended the UCC/Disciples' joint General Synod/Assembly in 2001, had reached the end of his constitutionally-allowed term as General Secretary so the election of the new General Secretary, Guirgis Saleh, was significant in the life of the council. For me, it was helpful to renew relationships and to follow the discussions and hear reports on the various programs that the MECC undertakes.
Tell us more about the Christian community in the Middle East. Many of us are prone to forget about the presence of Christians in that region. You were raised as a Christian of Middle Eastern heritage, correct?
Indeed, my father is Egyptian and an ordained Protestant pastor, as is his father. When we discuss our Christian faith and our Middle Eastern background, people often ask, "When did you convert?"—assuming that we converted from Islam. Our answer is, only half in jest, "Two thousand years ago!"
Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, was born in the Middle East, and there have been vibrant Christian communities in the region since the time of Christ. Today, Christians are a minority in a prevailing Islamic culture and context—except Israel, where Judaism is the majority religion—but there are upwards of 15 million Christians in the countries of the region—Egypt, Palestine and Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, to name a few.
A bomb explodes outside an Iraqi mosque. During the war, mosques and churches helped shelter citizens. MECC photo.
The churches established by Jesus' disciples are still alive today in the region. There are Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians in the Middle East and, while their numbers are declining relative to the Muslim population, they still worship and witness to Christ's love.
Did you talk with any Iraqi Christians?
Yes. My Middle East counterpart in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and I met with a number of representatives from Iraq's five Protestant churches. Historically, the UCC, the PCUSA and the Reformed Church in America participated jointly in, what was called, the United Mission to Iraq until its institutions—such as schools and hospitals—were nationalized in 1969. So we have a connection with Iraq's Christians.
Meeting a week before Saddam Hussein's capture, these leaders were clear. They want the U.S. occupation of Iraq to end. They wish for an orderly transfer of authority to Iraqis, and noted that no single person is currently capable of ruling the country. Saddam was a dictator, but they are concerned that L. Paul Bremer [the U.S. administrator in Iraq] might fall into the same kind of trap.
They are asking for President Bush to fulfill his promise for a "rosy Iraq," because as they say, "Iraq is now very dark."
Given Saddam's capture, do you think that message has changed in any way?
The Iraqi Christians with whom we met told us that Iraq is on the verge of civil war. There are many groups vying for power, yet Saddam's capture is immaterial in the overall quest for authority. The occupation has intensified issues of identity and sovereignty, but our Iraqi brothers told us that stability depends on an authentically Iraqi government.
Do the Iraqi Christians say that Iraq is more or less stable than it was, say, two months ago? Do they seem optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
As long as the United States is occupying the country, they feel that the instability will only increase. This is a reflection of how the situation has deteriorated since the declared end of the military campaign, which we all know continues.
And what about the situation in Israel and Palestine? Anything to report?
The situation in Israel and Palestine has taken a back seat to all that is going on in Iraq. There is also a recognition among Palestinians and Israelis alike that U.S. election politics are entering into the process—a reality that most assume will hinder efforts for peace. The road map for peace, of which the United States is a major sponsor, along with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, the U.N., offers a glimmer of hope, even though it is not the detailed plan necessary for peace.
The Geneva Accord, recently signed by civilians with no real governmental authority or portfolio, is proof that the people want peace and that civil society is active and capable of acting. The reality on the ground, however, is that there is still much to overcome. Israel's continuation of settlement expansion and construction of the so-called "security barrier" or "wall" within the West Bank beyond the green line are two very dangerous activities that incite more violence while changing the physical and political landscape, thus creating further barriers to peace. These barriers are neither in the interest of Israel's security, nor in the interest of Palestinian hopes for peace.
What is the "green line"?
The green line demarcates the boundary between Israel and the occupied territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). United Nations resolutions, representing world opinion, call for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, or in other words, to withdraw to the "green line."
What is your take on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recently announced "disengagement plan"? How it will impact the region?
Any unilateral action that changes the so-called "facts on the ground" has a very detrimental effect on any prospect for peace. To Prime Minister Sharon, "disengage" means to "separate," and this will mean continued construction of the wall and further separation of Palestinians from each other, their land, and their livelihoods. The intention is therefore quite dangerous.
You also went to Lebanon?
I was in Beirut for the Near East School of Theology's board of managers' semi-annual meeting. Again, we have a long-standing relationship with NEST and are a non-voting affiliate member of the board.
Tell us more about NEST. What is Christian theological education like in the Middle East?
NEST serves Congregational, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Anglican students. A great number of the students are Armenian Protestants, mostly from Syria and Lebanon. The core curriculum is very similar to what one would find in the United States, even the language of instruction at NEST is English and there are even some professors from outside the region. NEST is an exceptional school.
The Protestant seminary in Cairo teaches in Arabic, as do other seminaries in Lebanon, such as the Orthodox seminary. Like in the United States, NEST students study the Reformation, church history and practical aspects of ministry.
It is interesting that many of NEST's students are women who are preparing for various kinds of ministry within the church, even though they do not have the opportunity for ordination in their churches.
If UCC members could learn one valuable spiritual lesson from our Christian sisters and brothers in the Middle East, what would you hope that would be?
For Middle Eastern Christians, faith is a central aspect of identity. Naturally, one constructs one's identity in different ways in different contexts. Middle Eastern Christians are keenly in touch with their Christianity and have been persistent in their expression of it. Despite social, political and economic challenges, emigration and shrinking numbers, the Christian communities remain steadfast in their witness and their participation.
What can local church members do in order to lessen our feelings of helplessness about the situation in the Middle East? Any concrete suggestions?
To start, I suggest prayer for our sisters and brothers in the Middle East. Prayer can accomplish great things by itself. Taking the step to pray for the people of the Middle East—Jews, Christians and Muslims—leads one to want to learn more about the circumstances and realities of the region's peoples. Education, both through individual reading and research and through group study, will help bring a greater awareness of the issues of justice and human rights.
Global Ministries' Middle East and Europe office has a number of resources available to help in this process. A decision to support justice and peace may then lead people to advocate for them—and there are many forums for such advocacy. It is easy to be intimidated by the perceived complexity of the region's history and politics, yet we are called by our loving God to reach out and to abide in that love, not just ourselves but with others.