The Enduring Contributions of Christians in the Middle East
Dr. Peter Makari, Executive, Middle East and Europe
Dr. Makari is a CMEP board member on behalf of Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.
In her recent book, The Vanished: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, journalist Janine di Giovanni writes of her encounters with Middle Eastern Christians in Iraq, Gaza, Syria, and Egypt. Her conversations led her to lament the disappearance of the Christian communities in those places, characterizing her writing by saying, “it grew into a book about how people pray to survive their own most turbulent times.” In her introduction, di Giovanni remarks, “I traveled to these places to try to record for history people whose villages, cultures, and ethos would perhaps not be standing in one hundred years’ time.” The emigration of Christians (and others) from the Middle East is a reality that cannot be denied, but Christian presence in the Middle East, with all its diversity and diverse circumstances, cannot simply be reduced to impending extinction. There is much to admire, and to be inspired by, in the enduring Christian presence across the region.
The United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have long histories of mission engagement in the Middle East, dating back to 1819 and 1849, respectively. In those years, the first Congregational and Disciples missionaries went to Smyrna and the Levant, and to Jerusalem, eager to stake a claim to mission in the places of the Biblical stories with which they were familiar. Over the course of two centuries, up to and beyond the eventual joining of the mission boards of the two churches in 1996 to form Global Ministries, our approach to mission in the region shifted. The two churches’ mission histories in the Middle East are rich and deep, but a hallmark has been the recognition of a vibrant Christian presence in the context of societies where faith is an important component of one’s identity. In the process, the UCC and Disciples missional approach of mutuality and accompaniment, as well as deep commitments to justice and peace, have informed the ways that our members and denominations walk in solidarity with our partners in the region, and the people, especially the most vulnerable.
Today, Global Ministries nurtures relationships with churches, church-based organizations, ecumenical councils, schools and seminaries, Christian social service organizations, and human rights advocacy organizations grounded in faith throughout the region. Through Global Ministries, the UCC and Disciples enjoy enduring partnerships in Morocco, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as regional agencies that extend to other countries in the Middle East. (A full list and description of our partners can be found here.) Some of our partnerships are grounded in historical relationships while others are based on our common ecumenical commitments. Still, others reflect our stated mission, “To receive and share the Good News of Jesus Christ by joining with global and local partners to work for justice, reconciliation and peace.” Embodied in that mission is our vision that “all of God’s people and creation share in God’s abundant life,” which is manifest in our support of and advocacy for the most vulnerable – whatever their faith may be.
A number of our partners in the region are involved directly in the response to the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons. The Middle East has a disproportionate number of people who have been forced from their homes, especially due to violence and war, in the past century, including in the last decade—Armenians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, and others—all have experienced massive dislocation and dispossession of homes and property. The impact of those displacements continues to be felt. Christian churches and agencies in the region are offering a witness to their faith by responding to the ongoing needs of those millions of displaced. We support that work and advocate for the rights of the displaced, rights that have often been forgotten or deliberately denied.
Others of our partners work in the areas of community development, health and education, and building better societies through dialogue. In Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, for example, such social services are necessary and often not provided to all those who need them, and innovative community-based programs foster better social cohesion.
Finally, we understand our responsibility to amplify the voices of our partners in our churches and for our members in order to go beyond the simple narratives often readily available in commercial media outlets and popular sources. The role the US has played in the region – including but not limited to the perpetuation of occupation and other injustices in Israel/Palestine, the devastation of Iraq, as well as the militarization of the region more broadly – continues to have a detrimental impact on the countries and people, and so our advocacy for peace with justice is as necessary now as ever. Our participation in Churches for Middle East Peace since its founding is one key advocacy channel, enabling us to join ecumenically to advocate in Washington, DC for peace with justice.
The Palestinian Lutheran contextual theologian, the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, writes in his new book, The Politics of Persecution, “Many Middle Eastern Christians throughout history have understood that they have no other option but to get involved in the national and regional struggle toward social and political transformation. The history of Middle Eastern Christians is, therefore, not so much one of persecution but one of resilience.” This resilience can be a source of inspiration to us all as we live out our faith through our often urgent participation in God’s mission with neighbors in our communities and around the world. And the contributions of the Christians of the Middle East in their contexts are a sign of hope that their presence will endure.
Gracious and everlasting God, from Bethlehem and Jerusalem where Jesus was born and crucified, your grace and mercy spread to the ends of the earth through the hope of Christ’s resurrection.
We pray today for the people of the Middle East – a region torn by conflict, injustice, and now COVID-19; for the Christians who are the proud inheritors of the legacy of the ancient Church and Jesus’ first followers, and for their neighbors of other faiths; and for our partners, who have endured much but remain steadfast, offering a witness of hope.
For the people of Syria, whose country has witnessed a decade of war, scattering many of its people leaving them homeless, displaced, and refugees; and for our partners who continue to offer basic needs, we pray;
For the people of Lebanon, a country torn by devastating inflation, political and economic crises, sectarian strife, and the continuing impact of the Beirut port explosion, we pray;
For Egypt, a land of great history, to which the Holy Family fled and sought refuge, and which now faces the pressures of high population growth and poverty, but where partners remain committed to empowering the most vulnerable and nurturing communal relations, especially among faith families, we pray;
For Armenians, scattered in the Middle East as a result of genocide, for those in Armenia, who have experienced more recent armed conflict; and for partners who offer ministries of worship and education, we pray;
For the region’s displaced, migrants, and refugees, now in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, and beyond, escaping various violent conflicts, seeking safety, security, and a better life; and for our partners in those countries, offering care and comfort, safe spaces and friendship, presence and provisions, we pray;
And for Palestinians, who have endured decades of dispossession and displacement, occupation and blockade, many as refugees yearning to realize their rights; and for our partners who persist in the struggle for justice while creatively creating a better present and future, we pray.
We pray for peace – salaam – with justice, throughout the Middle East and Europe, as we cling to the hope of the resurrection, and the promise of your grace and enduring presence. Amen.