The Work of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the Middle East
by Archdeacon A Paul Feheley
The Middle East Partnership Officer for The Episcopal Church is a fascinating position to hold in a part of the world that is fraught with what seems like unsolvable problems. Nonetheless, the people in the Middle East show and display their faith in a wide variety of ways, sometimes making those of us who are quite comfortable in North America almost embarrassed about the way we go about the work and ministry of the gospel we share.
The region I am responsible for, the Province of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, includes the three dioceses of Jerusalem, Cyprus, the Gulf, and Iran. Previously, there were four dioceses within the province until Egypt became its own province of Alexandria in June 2020. Fourteen countries make up the province.
It has been said an expert is a person who’s read one more book on the subject than you have. I am not sure how many books you may have read, but I do not consider myself an expert but a learner. I’ve been the Middle East Partnership Officer since August 2021, and the learning curve has been steep but richly rewarding. The Middle East is a complex place. Be careful if you hear people say, as they seem to do, “I have been to the Middle East now, and I understand all the issues.” No matter how well-informed someone may be, they most likely do not. As one Archdeacon told me, “groups and individuals come for a week with their set program the drop off bibles and go home to write up wonderful notes in their parish newsletter about how successful their evangelism has been.” The Archdeacon told me that the havoc returning pilgrims could wreck over their first weeks home can take months, if not years, to overcome.
When discussing the conflicts in the Middle East, theological, geographical, and political nuances need to be part of every conversation, and no set or pat answers will fit all circumstances. Talking about conflicts in the Middle East can feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells. The importance of appreciating the uniqueness of the province, dioceses, and each specific part of the diocese is critical to learning in this foundational place of Christianity.
The Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf
Cyprus is a country divided by what is known as the green line, with the south being predominantly Greek Orthodox and the North Turkish. The Anglican Church here is largely made up of ex-patriots with substantial numbers from the United Kingdom. There are eleven different parish churches around the island, including two in the north. The island of Cyprus has very few indigenous Christians. In more recent times, churches here have become important homes for refugees and asylum seekers. There are very dedicated clergy making the most of ministry opportunities.
The Gulf portion of the diocese is in seven countries across the Middle East, with fourteen church compounds. St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Bahrain provides a historical focal point for Anglican worship in the region. Inclusive and diverse, their international congregations are actively involved in the community, cooperation, and growing together in faith.
All of these countries are Islamic, and the Anglican Church sits in a unique position as we are understood to be in charge of Protestant church engagement in those nations. By being in charge, we mean that all the Protestant churches come under the Anglican church. These Gulf States include a substantial number of domestic and construction workers, both male and female, who have come from a wide variety of places, especially from Africa and the Philippines. 40,000- 50,000 people might attend an Easter celebration within any one church compound. The Anglicans bear responsibility in these extensive compounds and provide space for both traditional and other less traditional worship, as the government will not register different Protestant groups separately. These dynamics also create a good deal of political difficulty because the Anglicans are responsible for ensuring that different Christian groups maintain the rules of operation within each of these countries. These rules might include, for example, no evangelization of the people, not being allowed to advertise church events, and not being allowed to distribute bibles. The Anglican Church takes responsibility for all Christian groups, but you can imagine some of our more even evangelical brothers and sisters not wanting to abide by such rules.
None of the Christians are citizens of the country. Every one of them operates under a visa with a 3-year limit which can be withdrawn anytime for any reason, and you’re forced to leave the country. All Christians see themselves as guests of the Islamic leadership in their respective Gulf States. Christians living in the Gulf States have a fascinating challenge of trying to be faithful to scripture and our baptismal vows but also needing to follow the laws of the country of residence. The consequences of not abiding by religious restrictions can result in not being allowed to maintain a presence in those communities.
In Yemen, the Anglican church has a unique circumstance at Christ Church in Aden in the South of war-torn Yemen. Located in the area is an eye clinic run entirely by Muslims. The degree of eye disease, particularly cataracts, is extremely high, and there is little opportunity to administer treatment. The eye clinic is one of the few in the country still operating. People in the area know it’s a Christian building and that the church practices a ministry of presence there that sets it apart from other institutions. There are no worship services, but the Bishop and those involved very much believe the church’s presence is a witness of and by itself. In this case, the church building is an integral part of our overall ministry that we one day hope will be able to offer worship again
The Diocese of Iran
In the Diocese of Iran, we have four churches: St Luke, Isfahan, St Paul, Julfa (a suburb of Isfahan) St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz, and St Paul’s in Tehran. There are still a small number of Iranian Anglicans who go to Church They do so quietly while under the observation of the Iranian police. There was a time when the Anglican Church with its medical practices and schools was held in high regard. Under the present regime, former bishops have either fled in exile or left for other appointments. Ironically, one of the bishops in exile’s daughter is Guli Francis-Dehqani, the Bishop of Chelmsford in England. Our Anglican Church as beleaguered as it is is not underground but remains visible even well being under constant threat and suffering discrimination in employment, housing, and other opportunities because of their faith.
The Diocese of Jerusalem
We have about 8,000 Anglicans in 27 parishes in the Diocese of Jerusalem. Geographically there are two in Jerusalem, one in Lebanon, one in Syria, five in Palestine, nine in Israel, and nine in Jordan. The Diocese of Jerusalem sponsors ministry institutions for pastoral care, health care, education, and hospitality, including 35 service institutions serving 6,400 children with 1,500 employees and engaging with more than 10,000 people annually.
With Christians in a substantial minority, Anglican numbers are small. Nonetheless, as we have seen in other places in the Middle East, Anglicans play a significant role with a sense of presence and living out their Christian faith as living stones. Almost all the members of the Churches in the diocese are indigenous Christians who face enormous challenges due to geopolitics, economics, and extremism. The readers of this blog would be very familiar with scores of stories of pain, frustration, and discrimination against the Palestinian people.
The latest story of discrimination is a raid on the Anglican Church premises in Ramallah. The raid’s focus was the offices of the human-rights organisation Al-Haq (classified as a terrorist organisation by the Israeli government) that rents space in the church compound. Much damage was done to the church itself, not to mention the effects on the families who live in the compound, with the raid beginning at 3 a.m., including gunshots and stun grenades.
The statement from the diocese can be seen here. You can also read CMEP’s statement here. The Episcopal Church works in careful partnership with our siblings in the Middle East. Our role, as far as we are able, is to support their decisions and decision-making process. For example, money raised in our Good Friday Offering is sent to the diocese for their decisions on its use. Our Office of Government Relations also plays a vital role in stating our positions and encouraging justice on legislative matters.
None of us know for certain how many centuries ago the words of verse 6 of Psalm 122 asking for prayers for the peace of Jerusalem were written. What we do know with certainty is that what was true then is true now- that prayers are needed to support and care for the people of the Middle East in their quest for peace, justice, and the full humanity of all people.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
May peace be within your walls,
And prosperity within your palaces.”
Archdeacon A. Paul Feheley was the Principal Secretary to the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from September 2004 – April 2020. He has been seconded by the Anglican Communion a variety of times to serve the communication needs at the Lambeth Conference, Primates’ meetings, and Anglican Consultative Council gatherings. Paul is currently the Partnership Officer for the Middle East for The Episcopal Church (USA) and the National Director of The Anglican Fellowship of Prayer. To learn more about The Episcopal Church (USA), visit their website at https://www.episcopalchurch.org.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).