Harry Hagopian

The Middle East Council of
Churches: Where to Now?

As the Middle East Council of Churches meets in Amman, its former assistant secretary general urges it to move beyond "platitudes."

The Middle East Council of Churches convenes its general assembly on Tuesday. (Facebook/Middle East Council of Churches)

The Middle East Council of Churches is holding this week its XI General Assembly in Jordan in the presence of a majority of the Christian regional hierarchs. The leaders are being hosted at this ecumenical event by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem in order to discuss the realities of the Christian communities across this vast region as well as to gauge the current status of interreligious dialogue.


One look at the map of the region would show us that the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been decimated and their numbers have dwindled alarmingly. Those two fractured countries however are for all intents and purposes in a state of war, and so one might try to understand this migrant trend to foreign climes. Yet, the same phenomenon is also quite true of Palestine, and even of Lebanon and Egypt.


So let me shed some light on those indigenous (largely Arab) communities in relation to their neighbours in their own backyards as well as relations with the broader Christian fellowship worldwide.


We MENA Christians (and I consider myself originally part of this increasingly endangered species) are part and parcel of this geography. In other words, we were not grafted there by Western missionaries but have been living and witnessing higgledy-piggledy in this region for two millennia. Not only do we belong to these lands - Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and others - but we happen to hold the lease alongside others for 2000 years. Hence, nobody can accuse those - largely - Arab Christians of being impostors in a foreign land. They have been there for long, and were certainly there during the time of the Prophet Mohammad in the 7th century.


Unlike many in the West today, most Middle Eastern Christians remain organically bound to their faith - and often by osmosis to their churches - and so tend at times to perceive daily life through the prism of their faith-centered lives. This means that their mannerisms and languages are inter alia a reflection of their religious and cultural backgrounds. They are Arabs and they are Christians and they are citizens and so are aghast when they are treated at best as visitors in their own homes.


Whilst the majority of those Christians in the Levant are Arabs, they have also been living alongside Muslims as neighbors for almost 14 centuries. There have been ups and downs during this period where both sides have experienced violent jolts and much pain. One obstacle is that the whole ethos of Christianity endorses the concept of citizenship above all others whereas this concept struggles at times with the largely dominant Muslim ethos that religion is more preeminent than citizenship.


We need to remember that there are a large number of Christians living in the Gulf region - in Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia - too. However, unlike the Arab Christians of the MENA region, those are mostly foreigners - from Europe and the USA as much as from the Philippines, India and Pakistan - and they do not view their faith from the same prism of Arab nationalism. They are no less Christian than their Arab counterparts though and the local churches should reach out to them and include them somehow in the ecumenical tent.


However, such a long history of Christian presence and witness means that they have a clear responsibility toward their communities that are suffering during those uncertain times. Such solidarity is part and parcel of their pastoral duty toward the men, women and children in their congregations. This is particularly true of Syria and Iraq. However, in their zeal to support their communities, those same leaders tend at times to ally themselves with the powers and principalities of the day rather than with the dispossessed, disenfranchised, subjugated or oppressed peoples. But this laudable zeal to protect their own communities should not turn into a source of defensive isolationism. Rather, it should stand in solidarity with all other communities that are equally suffering in this conflict-ridden and riven region.


Finally, it is also critical for the West - its churches and institutions - to calibrate its own relationship with the Christians of the East. In their quest to support their co-religionists, some Western Churches or organizations end up claiming they know better and sound a tad patronizing in their attitudes (because they have the money or perhaps exercise some political influence). Conversely, they can also become too compliant with the dictates of their MENA counterparts and select their favourite interlocutors (who are chosen because they confirm their own beliefs or share their interests). In both cases, this exclusive focus by the West on the plight of those Christian communities is detrimental. It ends up putting those Christians in the limelight and in so doing underlines their differences from other communities and polarises incipient tensions further. Ecumenical partnership denotes a relationship of equals where neither side controls, rejects or scorns the other.


The General Assembly is the foremost structure of the Middle East Council of Churches. Its quadrennial meetings are both organisational and thematic. So at this moment of multiple crises and fearful soul-searching across much of the region, I hope that the meetings in Jordan will go beyond the usual ecumenical platitudes that usually emerge in the concluding statements or on social media. Rather, it would strive to lift up this indigenous and rooted Christian presence in the region and consolidate it with an understanding that the Christian faith clothes the naked, feeds the hungry and supports the prisoner too. Perhaps their conclusions can best be informed by the story of the crucifixion that ultimately gave way to glorious hope.


Dr. Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, political analyst and ecumenical advisor based in London.

The Middle East Council of Churches convenes its general assembly on Tuesday. (Facebook/Middle East Council of Churches)

It is also critical for the West - its churches and institutions - to calibrate its own relationship with the Christians of the East.

  • Phil؟

    Well. I am Lebanese. I am Christian. But I'm definitely NOT an Arab. My ancestors came here from France, Poland and Italy during the crusades. They did not come from the Arabian Peninsula. I even have some Greek blood in me. My skin is white, not brown. I have 4 children and they all have white skin and light brown hair. I therefore feel more loyalty to Evropa than to any Arab nation, including this cesspool called Lebanon.

    September 8, 2016

  • boby

    Dwindling number every where in the Middle East except Israel . Guess which country the Middle East council of church vilified so viciously ? Not Syris , not Irak ,not Yemen, not Hamas , not Iran , not PA .....Go figure .

    September 8, 2016