The Local Church: A Place of Compassion in the Syrian Crisis


By Rupen Das

The Syrian conflict has now become a slow meat grinder with hundreds being killed every month, while families and communities across Syria are being systematically destroyed. There are no good guys in this conflict and there are no visible and viable solutions being considered.

In the “fog of war” it is very easy to miss the small signs of hope in the midst of the evil. One of these signs is the role that many local Arab churches have assumed during the Syrian crisis. As the present Syrian crisis developed and spilled into Lebanon over the past three years, the Lebanese Baptist community, officially the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), [of which IMES as a department of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) is a subsidiary ministry], decided to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Being a church based agency, it worked to empower local churches inside Syria and in Lebanon to reach beyond their comfort zones and social boundaries to help those in need. This is a story of reconciliation that has not yet been told.

Syria had occupied Lebanon for 20 years and every Lebanese family has stories of their homes being destroyed, family members killed, imprisoned and tortured, and the country systematically destroyed. The decision by a handful of Lebanese pastors to reach out to Syrian refugees in Lebanon meant being able to forgive the Syrians and then lead their congregations to forgive. This went against the grain of Lebanese society and to date most of these pastors face opposition for their actions from family, neighbours and others in the community. In one church, 85% of the congregation left the church because the pastor decided to help the refugees. Inside Syria, where the Protestant Churches over the centuries had become very insular, many among them decided to make their churches places of compassion for people of any faith to find help.

In the process, we are learning lessons about the role of the local church in the midst of crisis. Five such lessons are:

1. The local church is an institution in the community: Evangelicals too often focus on the church as a spiritual body that is concerned primarily with what happens after life. There is no doubt that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is a link between physical and spiritual realities. What is often not understood is the fact that a local church is a religious institution in the community. If this is true, then it has obligations to the community in which it exists. John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester in the UK writes about a Christian theology of place. Places and community are integrally linked and together build the identity of the other. A local church exists in a specific physical and social place within a community for a purpose.

The local church, as an institution in the community, has visibility, history, credibility and relationships. It is a part of the community. Because of this, it is a natural place through which a relief project can be implemented, as long as there is no conditionality or manipulation using the aid that is being provided.

2. A local church needs to be a church and not an NGO or a social service organization: Many Christian NGOs and donors that seek to work with and through local churches unintentionally turn these churches into social service organization through their requirements and restrictions. The functions of a local church include being a worshiping community, preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, praying and assisting those in need. Eph. 4: 12-13 describes the gifts given to the church in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This is the function of a local church.

Some well-intentioned donors, because of historic precedence, require churches receiving their funding to not be involved in evangelism or any form of proselytism or in any other spiritual activity during the period when aid is being provided. This is based on a humanitarian standard called the Red Cross Code of Conduct. They feel that it would be manipulative because of the power dynamics involved between those providing the aid and the beneficiaries. There are power dynamics in every human relationship and eliminating them is not realistic or possible. However, they can be managed and their impact minimized. The issue is that there should be no conditionality to the aid as it is being provided nor should there be manipulation by those providing the aid. The local church needs to continue to be a church and not a social service agency. However, helping those in need is one of its functions among all the others.

3. The local church needs to minister to those outside its community: Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century North African historian and father of sociology wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” since the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Yet this obligation was always limited in practice to the immediate group, family or clan and very rarely beyond it. In the Arab culture the family and the tribe take care of their own. As a result the Arab social context is very fragmented.

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf wrote about this in his book Exclusion and Embrace. Speaking from within the context of the Balkans (which is similar to the Arab world), he noticed that during times of crisis churches excluded those who were outsiders and different as a way to protect themselves. Yet, he notes that God, who has every right to exclude us because of our wanting to be different from Him and what He created us to be, does not do so but embraces us. This then becomes the model for the church to show compassion to outsiders and not just those within the church.

4. The local church needs to partner with others within the community and beyond: As we have a seen, the local church has specific roles and functions within a community. In order to be compassionate it does not have to develop the skills and capacity to provide the full range of social services. Instead it needs to partner with other organizations and individuals within the community and beyond with similar values. Such a network would enable the church to access the needed services as and when needed while maintaining its distinctiveness within the community. 

5. The local church needs to understand its mission and mandate: The community of the followers of Christ should not only remember the last thing He said (the Great Commission Matt. 28:19-20) but also the greatest thing He said (the Great Commandment Matt. 22:36-40), to love the Lord and one’s neighbor. The Micah Declaration refers to the mission and the mandate of the Church as Integral Mission:

Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world… As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.

In the Syrian crisis, the local church as an institution in the community has enabled access to areas and to refugees and those affected by violence that would not have been possible otherwise. While many organizations are providing assistance, the local church can be a place of refuge and compassion.

The Personal Touch: Discovering the Humanity in International Conflict

By Lexy Airey*

This summer I had the pleasure of serving IMES as part of an intensive internship experience. As a student of political science and a young Christian, it was an incredibly educational experience for me. I had come to Lebanon seeking understanding of the Middle East and was blessed with the best kind of education: personal relationships. It has become abundantly apparent to me that no conflict situation can be properly understood unless you begin to love the people involved. It seems like the most intuitive thing in the world to me now, but it took my experience in the Middle East to fully erode the picture I had of this region and reveal the potential power of loving your neighbor.

Growing up, I lived in a fairly conservative American household. Like most young people from my background I thought little about the Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and the opinions I did have reflected a loose and underdeveloped support for Israel. As a child of 9/11 I had a general resentment towards Islam and didn’t feel the need to understand its moderate side. As a young Christian, if the Middle East ever came up in church settings, the conflicts were characterized as being a very natural battle between Isaac vs. Ishmael. I say all this because many people look at the Christian evangelical community in the US and think we are a bunch of Zionists, but I think that for my generation there is simply a lack of interest and education that perpetuates ignorance, rather than any proactive support. For many young people it only takes an informed professor to make them reevaluate the unexamined opinions they’ve been handed. For me, it was the girls from Yemen and Lebanon I met in high school who made me realize that the Middle East wasn’t a single homogeneous place with one people and that Islam was a complex worldview, not a doctrine of murder.

When I came to Lebanon this past Summer I found that many people I met had the same question: why does the US always support Israel no matter what? While it is relatively easy to identify the political motivators, lobbyist groups, public apathy, media narratives and Christian Zionist ideologies responsible for this unilateral and over-permissive support of Israel, I should rather be honest about my own ignorance on the issue and of my responsibility in allowing it to continue in my community. Because the truth is I was one of “those Americans” and, though I didn’t stay that way for long, if the right people didn’t cross my path I would probably still be walking through my life with the same assumptions, stereotypes and apathy. This once again points us to the importance of seeing the humanity affected by the opinions we hold.

Working this summer with interns from across the Middle East and interacting with people from all around the MENA region at IMES’s Middle East Consultation (MEC) forced me to reevaluate how I both discover and engage with information. Though I know my friends in the Middle East have their own biases as well, living in Lebanon has opened my ears to a whole new set of narratives that force me to seek out additional information on the actual people involved in conflict situations.

Being, for example, only a few hours removed from the Israeli-Gaza conflict and seeing the apparent intractability and mutual hatred expressed on each side, it’s not as easy to politicize and rationalize or dehumanize (intentionally or not) the parties involved. So who do you support? The side claiming to protect its citizens from traumatic fear and imminent terrorist action, or the side desperately trying to relieve a humanitarian crisis and free its people from imprisonment and a life without hope? Because human beings, same as you or I, reside at the heart of this conflict and to write them away as nothing more than “extremists” or “religious crazies” is to ignore the basic human desires, the love for family and friends and the fear and hate driving this conflict. I have begun to think about how I would feel if someone discredited my actions as a result of my own “crazy” beliefs without giving any thought to any rational decisions that went into them. So how can we change that perception and once again humanize everyone in the conflict, not simply this side or that?

It should be obvious that as soon as you humanize any issue, the problem becomes far more complex. Justice often seems easier if you aren’t emotionally involved, but this is in fact false justice. We forget too often that “acting justly” goes hand-in-hand with “loving mercy” (Micah 6:8), a synthesis at which Jesus, who always seemed to humanize any situation, was an expert. So we must remember that political systems are simply different arrangements of peoples. Therefore, to be ignorant of the people involved is to be the most ignorant politician, political scientist, political activist, pundit or opinion holder one could be. This was a major reason I came to the Middle East.

For example, it may seem easy to understand the political desire to limit the amount of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon; a nation still reeling from a civil war partially caused by the destabilizing effects of influxes of Palestinian refugees in 1948 should naturally be wary of any demographic upset that could threaten the delicate sectarian balance of the parliamentary democratic republic of Lebanon. However, when you see the families and the desperate situation of the Syrian refugees it makes it nearly impossible to sacrifice these people’s well-being for the sake of political stability. It doesn’t make “forward thinking, rational” calculations necessarily wrong, it just stops you from making them without empathy and compassion.

When people asked me why I wanted to go to Lebanon it was easy for them to understand my political interest in going. I’m studying politics and this area has extreme political salience. However, I wasn’t in Lebanon to observe conflicts or political institutions. I was there to serve people. One can’t understand the human face of a conflict unless we go and build personal relationships with the places and peoples involved. This discovery, however, comes with a lot of heartbreak. When I hear and read of how Christians and other minorities are being executed in Iraq, when I see Syrian refugee children looking for hope and education, when I listen to my Lebanese friends worry about their families in the Bekaa Valley as violence develops, and when I personally hear explosions in Beirut, a city far too familiar with rockets and bombs, my heart aches for my new friends.

I have found, however, that this also comes with great joy. Having the opportunity to interact with brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the MENA region at the Middle East Consultation allowed me to hear and be a part of the stories of the worldwide church. I cannot articulate how thankful I am for being a part of this annual gathering that IMES has put together. The testimonies and stories that I heard by listening to the diverse group of participants widened my thinking on and my love for the global church a thousand-fold. It is truly these kinds of interpersonal interactions that will bridge the gaps of ignorance, fear and hatred. It is therefore my hope that this globalized generation might begin to see themselves as not only more technologically connected, but emotionally and spiritually as well. If my experience in Lebanon has taught me anything it is that the more genuine friends you have, the more dynamic and beautiful the world becomes. Let us pray that we can be the light of Christ’s love in all places.

lexiLexi Airey is a student at Westmont College in Santa Barabra, California studying Political Science and Business. Lexi worked as an intern for IMES during the summer of 2014. She is a member of the Middle East Current Affairs (MECA) group and is an active promoter of interfaith discussions at Westmont.

Preventing Radicalisation

by Colin Chapman*

Radicalisation is one of the pressing issues of our time, and as a long-time lecturer in Islamic studies in Beirut, it is something that I have thought about deeply. I would therefore like to present my thoughts on preventing this coming about. Assuming that we’re not talking about Islamists who reject the use of violence and are committed to work through democratic processes to create a more just Islamic society, but about Islamists who turn to violence, this would by my 10-point plan:

1. Recognise the many different faces of Islam.

While some Muslims are highly political, many are pietistic and even mystical, and others live in the world of Folk Islam or Rural Islam. Some Muslims embrace modernity, while others want to conserve the past with all its values and social customs (including its views of women). If there is violent and non-violent Islamism, there is also what has been called “post-Islamism” which incorporates democracy and pluralism into Islamism . Islam has as many faces as Christianity, and the vast majority of Muslims who are as critical of violent jihadis as all of us are should be encouraged to make their voices heard.

2. Understand more about Islam and encourage Muslims to be more self-critical about their history.

In what is known as the Hijra, in 622AD Muhammad moved from Mecca to create the first Islamic state in Medina. Three of the first caliphs died violent deaths. By 732AD, Arab Muslims had created an empire stretching from France and Spain to the borders of China. Later they had their Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman empires. If we in the West have had to agonise over the Crusades, the slave trade and imperialism, are Muslims prepared to be as self-critical about their history? Of all the different brands of Islamism on offer in Muslim-majority countries today, has any succeeded in creating a truly just society?

3. Understand the importance of social and political issues.

It’s been a basic conviction of Muslims that the state should ideally be Islamic and follow God-given shari‘a. The theologian Lesslie Newbigin often pointed out how the western secular mind-set had privatised religion and therefore found it difficult to cope with Muslims who want God to be recognised in the public sphere. Christians have a special responsibility to be bridge-builders because they should be able to understand both the secular and the Muslim mind.

4. Address local social and economic issues.

‘I’m not afraid of Islam,’ says Philip Lewis, a Christian expert on Islam in Britain, ‘but I am afraid of thousands of poorly educated young Muslim men who have no work.’ Poverty, unemployment and poor prospects don’t explain everything; but they are major factors in creating the discontent, which can lead to radicalisation.

5. Understand the anger of many Muslims.

After 9/11, instead of asking ‘Why are these people so angry and do they have good reason to be angry?’, Americans put all their energies into ‘the war on terror’. The Muslim world is still living with what they have felt as the trauma of centuries of western imperialism, and their list of current grievances includes Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and the Iraq war of 2003. The best way to respond to anger from others is first to put ourselves in their shoes and understand why they’re angry. We can challenge them if we feel their anger is unjustified. But at the very least we should be willing to see ourselves as others see us and own up to what we’ve done to provoke them.

6. Press for a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Why is it that Israel has been allowed by the international community to continue its occupation of the West Bank, which most of the world believes is illegal in international law? If a lasting solution to this conflict could be worked out, Muslims would have one less reason to be angry.

7. Press Muslims to explain why they believe the jihadi interpretations are wrong.

When jihadis feel that the West has been making war on Islam, they inevitably identify with Muhammad who was under attack from the Meccans, and then apply to themselves the more warlike verses in the Qur’an. It’s not enough for Muslim leaders to repeat the mantra ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ or to say that qur’anic verses are being taken out of context. There are some hard questions that they need to answer about their scriptural sources and their history.

8. Recognise the negative consequences of multiculturalism.

Sometimes it looks as if ethnic communities have been encouraged to remain closed and self-contained, while governments have channeled resources through Muslim organisations. In an effort to affirm different ethnic and religious communities, these approaches have often led to separation more than integration.

9. Encourage public debate between different kinds of Muslims.

I would love to see a debate/discussion on TV between a thoughtful jihadi (yes – there must be some!) and a Muslim who can give good Islamic reasons for saying that the jihadi interpretations are wrong. It could be important for young Muslims who are drawn towards radicalisation to learn from the experience of Muslims who have become disillusioned with their jihadi world-view.

10. Encourage Muslims to engage with other faith communities.

When I used to take theological students to visit a mosque in Bristol and asked if a group of Muslims would like to visit our college, these were some of the responses I received from the leaders there: ‘We’re not experts in Islam and are too busy looking after our own community. And since we believe that Islam is the true religion, what would we have to learn from talking to Christians?’ If these attitudes are shared by ordinary Muslims, anything that helps Muslims to engage with the wider community – and especially with people of faith – will help Muslims to talk seriously with non-Muslims. If young men drawn to jihadi violence are genuinely concerned about creating a just society, they may find that there are others around them who have a similar passion, and that Christians in particular have a vision of what the kingdom of God might look like, both here in Britain where I live and across the world.

NB All of the above need to be attempted in one way or another!

(This post originally appeared on the website for Theos: Clear Thinking on Religion and Society. See more at:

MEC 2012 - Day 1 (9)Colin Chapman currently serves as Lead Faculty for the MENA Islam Module of IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program. Chapman worked with CMS in the Middle East for 18 years and he previously taught Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. He has taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and was principal of Crowther Hall, the CMS training college in Selly Oak, Bristol.

**The MENA Islam module for IMES’s MRel in MENA Studies program led by Colin launches October 13th, 2014**

Christians at the Heart of the Middle East’s Future

By Martin Accad

Middle East Patriarchs at IDC Summit

Source: IDC

Three weeks ago, on September 9-11, 2014, the well-publicized conference entitled ‘In Defense of Christians’ (IDC) was held in Washington, D.C. As Arab Christians, we are grateful for this gigantic effort. There are numerous positive aspects to this initiative. A large proportion of the speakers were actually senior leaders of the Christian communities of the Middle East. Many, both on the Board of Advisers and on the Executive Leadership of IDC are Arabs living both in the US and in the Arab World. Speakers for the most part did not take an ‘us-and-them’ approach vis-à-vis Muslims, as many of them are also active in interfaith dialogue work. The fact that, by all accounts, President Obama was thoroughly briefed on the contents of the speeches, and that many other significant US leaders were in attendance, was certainly an outstanding achievement as well.

But there are also some problems with the philosophical starting point of a conference like this one, and of many others, as well as of books and other media, that call for the ‘protection of Christian minorities,’ or that discuss the ‘future of Christianity in the Middle East,’ or ones that highlight the ‘demise of Christians in the Middle East,’ and so on. Here are a few problems that come to mind:

  1. First, such events risk representing Christians of the Middle East as some sort of intruders in the region. The Middle East was once the cradle of Christianity. Yet in several countries of the Arab world, there are so few visible marks of Christianity that many Muslims are not even aware that their lands were once populated with Christians. Any discourse that represents Christians as needing protection from the outside risks reinforcing the skewed notion that casts them as foreigners, as some sort of ‘franchise’ of western Christianity.
  2. Secondly, rarely does anyone stop to ask for a definition of the word ‘minority’ as used in this context. The assumption seems to be that ‘minority’ status has to do with number only. But then it would be better to specify that we are discussing the ‘numeric minority’ status of Christians in the Middle East. Philosophically speaking, I would argue that Christians of the Middle East belong to the ‘silent majority.’ It is this silent majority, made up of Christians and Muslims (Sunni and Shii), Druze, Jews, Yazidis, Ahmadis, Baha’is, agnostics, and others, that we are a part of. This silent majority continues to be bullied and persecuted by religious fanatics of all walks of life. It is true that groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Boko Haram have brought Sunni Islam in particular to the center of this minority/majority problem. But religious fanaticism is also at the heart of certain expressions of Zionism, just as it can also drive waves of hate speech towards Muslims among some Christians around the world.
  3. Thirdly, with such a philosophical starting point, we are only reinforcing the representation of Christians of the Middle East as weak and insignificant. But this is a false representation. It suffices to study the consistently high impact of the Christian communities of the Middle East throughout history to see that this representation is wrong. Think of the universities, schools and hospitals that have been established by Christians and continue to be the centers of learning, healing and progress under the able leadership of Middle East Christians, and you will realize that impact and influence has nothing to do with numbers.
  4. Fourth, such conferences as the one organized ‘In Defense of Christians’ could reinforce the ‘minority complex’ and ‘survival mentality’ of Middle East Christians. The problem is that this ‘complex’ and ‘mentality’ neutralize Middle East Christians’ resolve to be a part of the Middle East’s future. It is this feeling of being weak, of needing protection, of being persecuted (however true these may be), that drive us Middle East Christians to emigrate and barely to strive for ‘survival’ rather than thrive and continue to lead in the region.
  5. And finally, this ‘minority’ approach tends to pit Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others even more against each other. By continuing to insist that Christians are a ‘persecuted minority’ and by continuing to paint the ‘persecutor’ generally as being simply Muslim, both Christians and Muslims of the Middle East are becoming increasingly convinced that this is the true and only picture of reality. But Muslims have been persecuted by their own states and their security apparatuses, as well as by Muslim fanatical groups of differing doctrinal beliefs for centuries. How, then, does it help to reinforce the idea simply that ‘Muslims are persecuting Christians’? As balanced as the speeches of the Middle East Christian leaders were at the In Defense of Christians conference, the absence of Muslim leaders, both as speakers and as organizers and leaders of the IDC is conspicuous, and at some level it hurts the initiative’s credibility.

What is needed at this point in the Middle East’s tragic history is a summit which would aim to provoke a paradigm shift in the popular discourse. Such a gathering would take a title like: ‘Christians at the Heart of the Middle East’s Future,’ or ‘A Faith-Driven Majority against Minority Religious Bigots,’ or something in those lines.

  1. Such a summit should justifiably keep its focus on the Christians of the Middle East, since they are a major at-risk group at the moment, but it would invite speeches both from Christian, Muslim and other leaders.
  2. In addition to advocacy, this summit would call on ‘western powers’ to step down their militarization of conflicts in the Middle East. What is needed in these tragic days is not the arming of so-called ‘minority’ or ‘opposition’ groups. Haven’t most conflicts that we are living today been triggered by this strategy of arming a supposedly ‘aligned’ group against another supposed ‘rogue’ group? What is needed at this point more than ever is a demilitarization and de-escalation of the conflict. If western powers want to bomb anything, they should bomb arms depots on all sides of the conflict!
  3. Finally, this summit should call for a reassignment of these obscene militarization budgets to aggressive strategies of education, community development, state building, and the eradication of systemic corruption across the Middle East.

In conclusion, YES! As Christians of the Middle East, we are being persecuted. We are being driven out of our homes and many churches are being burnt down. We are being pushed to emigrate out of the region. We are becoming less and less hopeful about our children’s ability to live peacefully in this part of the world. But the enemy is not simply ‘Islam.’ Conferences, media, pressure groups, preachers, teachers and writers who keep reinforcing this simplistic message are not helping us. They are not defending us, protecting us, or ensuring the prevention of our demise.

This question requires a major paradigm shift in everyone’s thinking with regards to who belongs to the ‘majority’ and who belongs to the ‘minority.’ As Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other people of faith, those of us who simply want to be loving human beings and who desire to harness our love for the building of peace, we are the ‘majority’ and we need to become more vocal. But let’s be honest, it is easier to make great rhetorical speeches about love than to actually practice it, particularly towards those who do not share our political, economic and religious opinions, let alone those who physically harm us and are objectively our enemies. This is not going to happen simply by following a code of ethic, whether human or religious.

But in the person of Jesus we have far more than a moralizing teacher on love. I am not speaking about ‘Christianity’ here, but about the person of Jesus, who is shared by both Christians and Muslims, and some would argue also by Jews and other people of faith. Jesus manifested the height of God’s love for us while we were still God’s ‘enemies.’ As the apostle Paul puts it: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8 [NIV]). And rather importantly in my mind, the fact that Jesus was killed was hardly incidental. His willingness to lay down his life through death was flatly the culmination of his willingness to lay down his life through his life as well. He lived entirely for others, including for God’s enemies, and he died entirely for others as well, including God’s enemies, which includes us. As people of faith, if we want to get anywhere with our good intentions to love others, then certainly we have a great example to follow in the person of Jesus.

As Middle East Christians, we say to the world: This is a battle between people who love God and people who hate him! Stop arming anyone, whether those you consider your enemies or those you consider your friends! If you want to support us, then support us in our mission of educating, developing communities, building states of accountability and transparency, fighting systemic corruption, and building civil societies!

Trying to make sense of Gaza

By Colin Chapman*

If there’s been a cease-fire by the time this article appears, none of the underlying issues will have been resolved. Here then is a brief attempt to analyse what this recent outbreak of fighting between Israel and Gaza has been about – with four clues which help me to make sense of the big picture.

1. Most Palestinians in Gaza today are the children or grandchildren of Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from their homes in the Nakba in 1948.

Benny Morris was one of the first of the new revisionist Israeli historians who documented the process by which around 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the months before and after the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948. In his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1988) he debunked the myth that they had fled because their leaders encouraged them to do so, and described how some went to Gaza, while others moved to Egypt, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon. Some years later he shocked many when he said in an interview with Haaretz that Israel would not have so many problems today if it had done the job more thoroughly and expelled far more Palestinians from the area of the new state of Israel. Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, who is now a professor at the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at Exeter University, used similar material to describe in great detail how the expulsions were carried out all over the country with the aim of reducing as far as possible the number of Arabs who would remain within the state of Israel, and he wasn’t afraid to give his book the title The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006). Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians during this crucial period before and after the establishment of the state has been called ‘Israel’s original sin’. The relevant point in this context is that the rockets that Palestinians have been firing from Gaza have been landing on areas from which their parents and grandparents were driven out in 1948.

Rami Khoury, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist, makes this point powerfully in an article which appeared in The Daily Star in Beirut on Saturday 26 July:

Grasping and resolving these root issues is very hard to do for Zionists and Israelis, who refuse to acknowledge their major role in making refugees of the Palestinians. They have also ignored that no peace will come to anyone unless the root causes of the 1947-49 conflict are resolved equitably. If Israelis do not see this in the eyes, tunnels, rockets and charred bodies of dead Palestinian infants, and continue, with the U.S., to insist on prioritizing Israeli security over a more balanced approach to ensuring rights for both peoples, then these savage rounds of violence will persist for years. That would only be adding stupidity to savagery.

2. ‘It’s the blockade and the occupation, stupid!’

No one can deny Israel’s right to self-defence, subject to the test of proportionality, and it’s understandable that Israel should want to force Hamas to stop firing rockets indiscriminatingly into Israel. Hamas could have stopped firing the rockets as soon as the casualties began to mount and the international community called for a cease-fire. But Gaza has been described as the largest open-air prison in the world, and the rockets (which have so far killed only three civilians in Israel) have been an expression of the desperation of the Palestinians over the eight-year economic blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas seized power in 2006. Israel is clearly determined to destroy Hamas’s arsenal of weapons and the network of tunnels penetrating into Israel. But the Hamas leadership believes that it can’t afford to agree to a cease-fire without securing concessions from Israel which relieve the humanitarian crisis developing inside Gaza. The appalling numbers of civilian casualties, therefore, and the destruction of so much property are seen as a price that must be paid in order to force Israel to bow to international pressure and end its crippling blockade. Palestinians in Gaza feel that if they don’t die under the rockets, they will be strangled to death by the blockade.

Before the blockade, of course, was the occupation. In June 1967 Israel occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Sinai and the Gaza Strip, where they eventually built 20 settlements on 20% of the area. It was in this context of occupation around 1988 that Hamas came into existence as a resistance movement. Most of the world believes that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967 is illegal in international law and that every single settlement in the occupied territories is illegal. Under Ariel Sharon’s leadership Israel withdrew completely from Gaza in 2005, but in international law it still has all the responsibilities of the occupying power. The rationale for the withdrawal was explained in these terms by Dov Weissglass, one of Sharon’s advisers: ‘The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.’ It now seems that even the American administration has concluded that the so-called peace-process pursued so vigorously by John Kerry for the past nine months has broken down largely because of Israel’s refusal to stop the building of new settlements on the West Bank. Hamas’s rockets, therefore, seem to be their only way of expressing the anger and desperation of Palestinians over the blockade and the occupation.

Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of International Relations at Oxford University makes these points in an article entitled ‘What’s the use of “balance” in such an asymmetric war?’ in The Independent on Sunday of 27 July:

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Israel’s real objective in unleashing this offensive is to bomb Hamas into a humiliating surrender. Israel’s ultimate aim seems to be not just a peace but the re-imposition of the status quo with a fragmented Palestine and with itself as an imperial overlord.

3. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a conflict of two nationalisms, with two peoples claiming the same piece of land for different reasons.

Theodore Herzl spelled out his vision of political Zionism in his book The Jewish State in 1896, and the following year he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel. Having concluded that the emancipation of Jews in Europe in the nineteenth century had failed, he believed that the only way for them to feel secure in the modern world was for them to return to their ancestral homeland in Palestine and create some new kind of Jewish polity there. At the time when he wrote the book, Jews were no more than 8% of the total population of Palestine. The remaining 92% of the population – Palestinian Arabs – were aware of nationalist movements in Europe and were beginning to develop their own dreams of Arab nationalism and independence from Ottoman rule. One of the ironies of history, therefore, is that Jewish nationalism (Zionism) had the effect of stimulating Arab nationalism. Jews have been basing their claim to the land and to sovereignty on their occupation of the land in biblical times. Palestinians base their claim on the fact their ancestors have been living in the land since – and even before – the Arab conquest in the 7th century. So one of the fundamental roots of the conflict is this clash of nationalisms.

Palestinians today need somehow to understand that European anti-semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust, created the longing for a homeland in which Jews could feel safe and secure. By the same token, Jews in Israel and elsewhere need to understand that Jewish nationalism and Arab (and especially Palestinian) nationalism have developed side by side during the last century, and that the biblical understanding of justice is that we should seek for our neighbours what we seek for ourselves. The relevance of this point to the present conflict is made by Rami Khoury:

The fundamental problem for Israel that it has never grasped is that the intensity of the individual and collective Palestinian will to resist permanent exile or oblivion, and to keep fighting for national reconstitution and justice, is just as strong as the will among Jews who fought Western Christian anti-Semitism for centuries and finally created their Zionist state in Palestine.

4. For all its failings and crimes, Hamas has been a consistent expression of Palestinian nationalism and anger.

I could never be an apologist for Hamas, because I’m only too aware of its hard-line Islamist ideology, its brutal suppression of opposition and its violent attacks on Israeli citizens. I doubt if it is as innocent as it claims over the location of its rocket launchers, and the tunnels under the northern border fence into Israel are intended for launching attacks on Israel. At the same time I believe that much of the criticism directed against it has been unfair and unjustified.

It came into existence as a resistance movement in the context of Israeli occupation. So if there had been no occupation beginning in 1967, there might be no Hamas – just as there might be no Hizbullah in Lebanon if Israel had not invaded in 1982 and stayed as occupiers for so many years in the south of the country. Hamas strongly asserted its Islamic identity over Fatah, which was felt to have become too secular; and it took a stronger stance against Israel because it believed that Fatah had already made too many concessions in negotiations with Israel. It is argued by some that in the early years Hamas was actually encouraged and supported by Israel as a way of dividing the Palestinian resistance. Hamas won in democratic elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, and many believe that the US and the EU made a disastrous mistake in refusing to recognize this victory and to work with Hamas. Western governments are therefore accused of hypocrisy for saying that they support the spread of democracy in the region but then refusing to accept the results of democratic elections.

While Hamas has maintained its Islamist stance, it’s thoroughly misleading to say that Palestinian enmity towards Israel is motivated primarily by Islam. Palestinian Muslims are bound to turn to their religion to find motivation in their struggle. But the root cause of the conflict is dispossession rather than religion. Hamas has often showed that its ideology can be modified by its pragmatism, and has at many stages indicated its willingness to negotiate with Israel. If Israel continues to label Hamas a ‘terrorist organisation’, isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? There was plenty of terrorism directed against the British Mandate and Palestinians in the decades leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel, and how many of Israel’s previous prime ministers were engaged in terrorist activities in their earlier years? A state can engage in terrorism just as much as a resistance movement.

If some Palestinians have not been supporters of Hamas and blamed it for the escalation of the fighting in the last two weeks, the ferocity of Israeli attacks on Gaza has probably had the effect of rallying widespread support for Hamas and its demands. One of the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process was that there was no significant breakthrough until all parties – including those regarded as being extreme – were brought into the political process.

It’s easy to criticize and condemn Hamas for the way it has engaged in its resistance. But don’t the Palestinians have good reason to be angry both about the blockade and the continuing occupation? And isn’t it time for the world to try to understand the roots of this conflict and try to resolve it in a more even-handed way?

As we watch this terrible tragedy unfold, therefore, we should be praying for all who, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, ‘hunger and thirst to see right prevail’ and seek to be peace-makers. At the same time, as well as lobbying our own government, there are things that we can do to support the people of Gaza through Christian organisations like the following that are working on the ground:

MEC 2012 - Day 1 (9)

Colin Chapman currently serves as Lead Faculty for the MENA Islam Module of IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program. Chapman worked with CMS in the Middle East for 18 years and he previously taught Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. He has taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and was principal of Crowther Hall, the CMS training college in Selly Oak, Bristol. His books include: Christianity on Trial (Lion, 1971-73); The Case for Christianity (Lion, Tyndale, 1981); Whose Promised Land? The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine (Lion and Baker, 2002); Cross and Crescent (IVP UK and USA, 1988 and 2007); Islam and the West: Conflict, Co-Existence or Conversion? (Paternoster, 1998); Whose Holy City? Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Lion and Baker, 2004); and “Islamic Terrorism”: is there a Christian response? (Grove, 2005) 

*This post originally appeared on the website for Fulcrum: Renewing the Evangelical Center and is used with permission.

A Plea to My Christian, Muslim and Jewish Friends

By Martin Accad

Israeli assault on Gaza. IS(IS) assault on everybody. US assault on Iraq, still vivid in everyone’s memory. Self-proclaimed Muslims attacking the NY twin-towers. Self-proclaimed Jews burning alive a young Palestinian teenager. Self-proclaimed Christians promoting the apocalyptic heresy of “Christian Zionism” to justify the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Spurts of Hindu violence against Muslims in India and Buddhist violence in Myanmar. These are just examples from recent memory. The rest of history is no-less littered with bodies of women, children and men in the name of God and religion. Although I’m talking here about the horrors committed by religious zealots (particularly those priding themselves in belonging to one of the three Abrahamic religions), Atheists and Agnostics are not off the hook either. What of the disastrous a-religious experiences of Nazism, Stalinism, and other secularist and nationalist fiascos of the twentieth century, as well as the ongoing horrors and brutality of the Communist North Korean regime? What’s wrong with the human race?!

The Bible calls it “human fallen-ness” – this natural human inclination towards evil that each individual needs to conquer for themselves by taming the darkness in their own soul. What I will say from here on will sound “preachy” to some. But as much as I try, I am incapable of finding any intelligent “humanistic” narrative to make sense of the despair that I feel towards the current situation of my region and of the world. For in fact, a fundamental teaching of the Bible is that, as humans, we don’t possess in us the required capacity to conquer this darkness in our soul. It is not our natural human inclination, and we have the facts on the ground, as well as an entire history, to prove it. Our humanity is not inclined towards good. The human race is not on a victorious ascent to greatness. Clearly, we are altogether descending an irresistible spiral towards doom and self-destruction.

The problem is that our common understanding of religion does not seem to cut it either, even for those best-intentioned among us. I have many well-meaning Christian and Muslim friends for whom I have deep respect and love. I even have a few Jewish friends around the world, and I would have many more if the 65-year old Israeli-Arab conflict had not made them nearly obsolete everywhere in the region outside Israel. Each of us continues to claim that our religions are the solution to the human predicament. We all denounce our religious zealots as “unchristian,” “unislamic” and “unjewish.” When we sit together, we highlight the most lofty teachings of our founders and their books and brush the more “embarrassing” stuff under the carpet. But the skeletons of our religions keep springing back at us like a jack-in-the-box through the trails of cadavers that our religious fanatics leave behind them. I want to say to all my well-meaning religious friends, it is time to change strategy:

  1. I call us to more honesty. I know it is disturbing, but let’s face it: those of our coreligionists who stack proof-texts from our religious scriptures to support their fanaticism are not quoting from Machiavelli or Nietzsche. Whatever we think of their hermeneutic (method of interpretation), they are finding in those same scriptures that we read all the inspiration they need to justify their violence and hatred. They are also finding models to emulate from within their religious tradition, which means that their zealotry is not an isolated modern phenomenon. We will become far more credible to each other, to the youth in our religious communities, and to the rest of the world, if we start to acknowledge that this diversity exists in our traditions, rather than simply brushing certain difficult passages that everyone knows about under the carpet.
  2. I call us to greater courage. After acknowledging the existence of this diversity in our scriptures and traditions, we need to adopt a robust self-critical approach. As religious people, we far too easily shift the blame on others. Some of my “friends” on Facebook are constantly crying “foul!” against others: the “Great Satan” is America, the Arab World, Israel, Muslims, Christians, Jews… I seldom see religious people being as critical of self as of others. But if all of us accuse “others” of being at blame for all the mess we are in, if we don’t stop on the conspiracy theories (even when some have kernels of truth in them), we are simply sinking deeper and deeper into religious self-righteousness and denial. If there is any hope to overcome religious fanaticism, it’s going to take far more than the strategy of denial. We need to start grabbing these tough and often embarrassing scriptural passages by the horns and wrestling with them. Simply emphasizing the beautiful does not make the ugly disappear.
  3. I call us to more love. Are we willing to consider loving our worst enemy? Loving our enemy does not mean condoning evil systems. As Martin Luther King, Jr. affirmed, “When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.” King’s insight into Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies is matchless. His sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” is worth reading, listening to, and even memorizing in its entirety. “If you hate your enemies,” King affirms, “you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.” He continues: “That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

I am not calling for more “religiosity”; God knows how I hate religiosity! I am not calling for secularism either; that too miserably fails our deeper spiritual longings. What I am calling for is more “Christlikeness,” of the kind that loves one’s “enemy” to the point of laying down one’s life for them. Jesus’ teaching in his “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) has often been viewed as “impractical” and at best as a high moral standard by which we can measure human behavior but which we can never achieve. His staggering teaching about loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44) is proclaimed from our pulpits but generally considered unrealistic. When it comes to practice, our ethics become thoroughly situational, and we take great pains to uphold the necessity of balancing grace and love with justice and retribution. But even that highest fathomable human goal is not working anymore. It is not working in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not bringing long-term reconciliation between communities in long-term conflict anywhere.

Jesus’ most unnatural (to our human nature that is) and seemingly most impractical teaching about loving our enemies in the final analysis is the ONLY starting point that can begin to bring a solution to our self-defeating world. It is immensely paradoxical, yet fully demonstrated in practice through his own life – and death on the cross.

How ironic that Jesus’ death on the cross has been such a point of contention between the three “Abrahamic religions.” The early Christian accusation against Jews of having “killed our Lord” has justified unimaginable hatred, violence and killing against Jews, when the cross precisely should have been our greatest model of love and self-sacrifice. Muslims continue to deny Jesus’ crucifixion and death based on a Qur’anic verse which – in my respectful opinion – they misinterpret in solemn repetition of their Qur’anic commentary traditions. Jesus was not a helpless victim of religious violence and zealotry. As he put it himself: “No one takes (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). The apostle Paul had already recognized that the cross was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It will likely continue to be so. Yet my hope is that at least a growing core of men, women, children, and youth who seek to be pleasing to God, will be willing to embrace the true and profound implications of the cross. May they be willing to lay their lives down, to redeem not just their friends, but more importantly their enemies. If at least those of us who claim to love God were willing to do this, perhaps we would start a movement of peace to conquer our bleeding world.

Note from IMES: Over the summer, IMES blogging will be suspended, except for possible occasional posts. We will revert to our regular weekly blogging in the month of September.

When It Gets Personal

By Arthur Brown

Like many concerned with the news in and around Lebanon I receive regular updates from The Daily Star, one of the English language news providers in Lebanon. Almost daily, I receive via my phone a brief news feed with updates on the latest road side blast, suicide bomber or government attack, along with the fatality and casualty statistics:

Mortar shells hit Northern city of Idlib, killing 14…4,500 Syrians flee to Turkey in three days…20 surrendered fighters killed in Homs…7,500 confirmed cases of women being raped during the Syria’s 3-year-old conflict…At least 50,000 Syrian children in Lebanon are working, often for 12 hours a day…Strong blast in Syrian town near Iraq kills 8…ISIS militants accused of killing 15 Syrian Kurds, nearly half of them children…12 year old Syrian boy killed and three others wounded as Syrian warplanes carry out attacks on the outskirts of Arsal in East Lebanon…[1]

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates the death toll between 15 March 2011 – 17 May 2014 to be 162,402! According to the Washington Post:

  • Every minute: Three Syrians become refugees.
  • Every two minutes: Eight children inside Syria are forced to flee their homes.
  • Every 10 minutes: One person dies.

The lists could go on…and on….and on. And, the numbers only increase. It seems as if each time my smart phone bleeps, it is as likely to be news of more fatalities as it is my wife asking me to pick up some groceries on the way home.

I was sitting in church last Sunday trying to worship when my phone [which was fortunately on silent] vibrated. I know I should have ignored it, but like many others, I failed to subdue the temptation to look. As I subtly looked down to my screen, I read about the latest loss of lives as a result of the latest attack. I don’t remember where this particular tragedy took place. I don’t even remember how many people died. However, what I do remember is how I felt as I looked up from my screen and saw the people around me.

At that moment, I was literally surrounded by Syrian and Kurdish brothers and sisters who have not only sought refuge in Lebanon, but have found a place in my church. These people, some of whom I know personally, some of whom I have taught in our teen Sunday School classes, were my brothers and sisters.  They are also the brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and colleagues of the people who were not able to escape and who have paid with their lives. They have names. They have stories, stories often shared with me. They have hopes and dreams. And, they have nightmares and despair.

On that Sunday morning it was personal. On that Sunday morning it hurt more than it normally does.

Don’t get me wrong, there will be [and have been] countless other news feeds that do not provoke such a reaction in me. However, that Sunday I found it hard to sing. I found it hard to hold back tears of sadness, of anger, and of despair. I found it hard to listen to the sermon. To be honest, I didn’t really know how to respond.  All I knew was that it hurt.

And maybe that was not such a bad thing.  In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I know that this is what I was meant to feel. To feel the pain of those around me. If I had not felt such pain that morning, my ‘worship’ would have been mere parody.

I’m no fan of ‘Christian platitudes,’ found so often on T-shirts, bumper stickers, church signs, and the like. However, I once read the following words, words that have continuously stuck with me.

Jesus came to comfort the disturbed…

And to disturb the comfortable.

There is no doubt that on that Sunday morning, and many others like it, Jesus was comforting those Syrian and Kurdish refugees who had found a place of welcome and love among their Lebanese Christian brothers and sisters. It is also true that many Lebanese Christians have been disturbed by what God is doing in their midst – bringing ‘the enemy’ into their homes, breaking down long held enmity, fear and hatred. I too have been disturbed, and I am thankful that I have – though it can hurt. When we choose not to let ourselves be disturbed by events around us we lose something of our common humanity.

For those of us fortunate to be living in Lebanon in these days [and I do not say that ironically], we cannot avoid the tragedy of the Syrian conflict. It is in our face every day, as the ever increasing number of refugees continue to flood into our already ‘stretched-to-breaking point’ country. We see young children daily begging in the streets and women selling sex for $5 just to survive and feed their families. Nevertheless, it is still possible to ignore an individual’s personal suffering. It is easy not to know the names and stories of such persons, because, let’s be honest, the situation is “just too big.”

How much harder must it be for those living overseas and far away to grasp the personal anguish these individuals, created in God’s image like me and you, are experiencing? How much harder must it be to know their names and their stories?

Many of us do not want to personalize this conflict, because it hurts when things get personal. It is much easier to protect ourselves from suffering by not engaging in it. Yes, there is so much suffering going on in the world that we personally cannot engage all of it and I admit that I don’t have many answers. But perhaps we, the global church, must try and make at least some of it personal. Perhaps we must personalize this conflict in the same way that God decided to make things personal, by experiencing the suffering and death of His son, “The Word who became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” [John 1:14, The Message].

For the first time since World War II, the number of global refugees this year exceeded 50 million. This is a truly horrific and unimaginable number. So, perhaps your task today is to get to know the names and stories of at least one family who help make up this number.

I remember being deeply moved when I first read Rachel Held Evans’ reflection on Syria, “When It’s Too Big.”  It continues to resonate with me. So with many thanks to Rachel, I offer in conclusion:

When It’s Too Big (A Reflection on Syria)by Rachel Held Evans

When you’ve tried your best to educate yourself, When the more you learn the less clear it all becomes, When images of disfigured children creep into your dreams,

When you watch as things get politicized and theologized and shoved into 140 characters, When you want to love your enemies but don’t know how, When you’ve sent money for the refugees but feel foolish for the smallness of your efforts,

When you’d like to think you would open your doors to them, but aren’t really sure you would, When you catch yourself worrying about what to wear, what movie to see, When you doubt yourself, doubt your government, doubt your pastor, doubt God,

When you hate how the news has made graphics and theme music, When you realize that your opinion will do nothing to change the matter, When your utter helplessness follows you around like a dark presence and laughs at all the empty things you say,

When it’s just too big….

All that’s left is prayer and fasting. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

All that’s left are tears and ash. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

 All that’s left is to acknowledge your smallness. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

All that’s left is to sit in quiet with the world and beg for peace and wisdom and clear paths. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s enough because it’s all that’s left to do. So be faithful, and do it.  Be helpless for a while. Be at God’s mercy and pray.


[1] Examples shown are for illustrative purposes, but are reports from The Daily Star.

Tearing Down Walls to Build up Bridges

By Sara Obeid

Loose-fitting Mottos

I have often found it difficult to reconcile the seeming (yet ultimately superficial) contradiction between interfaith work and personal religious conviction. On the one hand, I have always held to such noble mottos as “tolerance,” “celebrate difference,” “openness,” and “Christ-like love.” On the other hand, I have often questioned how I can truly apply this in my own life when I hold such strong convictions that Christ is the only way towards having a deep relationship with God and that my central mission on earth is the proclamation of the gospel.

Does there exist, therefore, a central contradiction between proclaiming Jesus as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and a commitment towards openness and tolerance? Does Christian mission necessarily conflict with interfaith cooperation in a multi-religious world?

1233628_10152437299847456_4921297218859234583_nLast month, I had the (agonizing) opportunity to examine the sincerity of my mottos and personal convictions at a workshop by local NGO Adyan promoting the Amman Message. The Amman message seeks to raise awareness about the “real Islam,” contribute to good governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to counter the root causes of terrorism and violence. Being Lebanese, I might have thought I already knew everything I needed to know about Islam, but at the workshop I was reminded that I do not in-fact know everything about the 1.57 Billion Muslims in the world.

At the workshop, there were 12 participants from Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, all from different religious backgrounds. Dr. Nayla Tabara, the Vice-Chairman and Treasurer of Adyan described the workshop by saying:

“This is not an invitation for inter-faith dialogue, but an invitation for us to think together in solving problematic issues that face us in the Arab world and in a multi-religious world.”

10373751_663027390419186_4112661529738854043_nThe moment I entered the room, I was naturally able to tell who was Christian, who was Sunni, and who was Shiite; I assumed that by simply knowing the religious identity of others I am then able to predict their actions and thoughts. In truth, I also felt like a misfit because I noticed within myself the fear of being labelled “a Christian”, because I tend not to think of my faith in Christ as “a religion.” I feared the label, because I felt people would just assume things about me, without understanding what my faith truly means to me. And in the process, I found that what I was afraid of being done to me is exactly what I was doing to others!

I paused… I needed to reexamine my attitude, because I realized that I should stop seeing people from this very narrow, sectarian angle and start seeing them simply as humans, the way Christ himself had done.

We humans, especially us Arabs, enjoy labeling others: Muslim, Christian, non-religious, sacrilegious! It’s as if one’s religious identity can encapsulate the entirety of one’s life experiences, the culture and history of the person in question, and predetermine his or her life choices and preferences. As a result of our presuppositions, we assume, without ever engaging with others, things which may or may not be true. Of this, Dr. Amer Hafi, Deputy Director of Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies – Jordan, said at the workshop:

“Our lack of willingness to know the other makes us think that Christians worship a piece of wood, and Muslims worship a stone, and Hindus worship cows”.

Openness to Oneself10334280_663025607086031_3229820762770729734_n

In one of the sessions, Father Agapious Kfoury of Adyan, said:

“How does one open up to the other? It is by sitting down with them and hearing from them”

I didn’t know if I possessed this ability until I actually found myself in a situation where I had to sit and listen to a Muslim scholar promote human values in Islam. My reaction to his talk determined my attitude, and hence the success or failure in my mind of interfaith dialogue.

IMES Director, Martin Accad categorizes common perceptions towards dialogue in his article “Attitudes and Approaches to Islam.”

The conservative will view [dialogue] as inevitably leading to syncretism, whereas the liberal will fear that it be used as a vehicle for polemics. The religious will fear to engage in dialogue, lest it forces them to compromise, whereas the secular will shun it as a platform for the assertion of exclusion. The relativist will use dialogue to flatten out differences, whereas the absolutist will use it to demonstrate the superiority of their own views.

To be true, I did find a few aspects of the Amman Message to be challenging. As much as the message calls for tolerance, respect and mercy, I still find it very challenging that “apostasy” hasn’t been abolished in Jordan, even while this message is being supported by the Royal office! But I at least learned that by changing how I view Islam and Muslim scholars, there was a chance that I could actually communicate my concerns without the other needing to defend himself or his religion.

I was really touched by one of the Christian participants who said that she expects to come out of the workshop able to defend Islam as she does Christianity. She was able to put herself in the shoes of the Muslim who feels like s/he is responsible of every act of violence in the name of Islam, and should therefore write a blog or make a statement to defend his/her faith.

The Other-Phobia

As a devout follower of Christ, I have a mission to approach others with the intention of connecting them to God through Christ. But sometimes we evangelize and are taught evangelistic approaches in such a way that it seems like we are tearing down bridges and building walls.

We have reached a point as churches where we want to build bridges with other communities, yet we have erected huge walls amongst ourselves, between evangelicals, and even between churches of the same denomination. We might fail at our mission because we are approaching the “other” just as we approach those like us. We claim that Christianity is “a relationship not a religion,” yet we act just like “a religion.”

The obstacle in the interfaith dialogue is not Islamaphobia, but the fear from the “other”, no matter who the other is. To a Baptist, the other might be a Pentecostal.  It is the lack of Christ-like love which results in a lack of love for others.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”

I am made one with others not by my convictions, the church I belong to, or the religion I follow but I am made one with others in Christ Jesus. The same God I worship created the veiled girl who sat next to me at the workshop and loves her exactly the same and wants to make His love and salvation known to her (through Christ).

Middle East Consultation 2014: Real Stories of Discipleship in the Middle East and North Africa

Last week marked completion of the Middle East Consultation 2014Discipleship Today: Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa that took place from 16 – 20 June. This year we were pleased to have an unprecedented number participants, 170 in total, who came from all over the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, and North and South America.

It has been a very exciting week in which we have been able to listen to stories about discipleship in the context of our region. Please find below a sampling of what participants have been saying of their consultation experience and its significance them and their ministry settings.

Dr. J. Andrew Kirk, UK:

“Each community should develop its own contextualized theology which submits to the global theology of the Body of Christ, and this is exactly what this consultation is allowing us to do. Keeping lines of communication between different churches and movements open to the global church, allowing us to have insights and look at parallels in different contexts but all resembling the work of God on earth and the one Body of Christ.”

Alex, West Africa:

“The most significant part of MEC this year was the opportunity to listen to testimonies from various parts of the world and the exchange of stories about what God is doing in different parts of the world, which one doesn’t always get the chance to know about from a local’s perspective and experience. Each story and experience was truly unique. This will help me a lot in my work which involves contextual ministries, as it has provoked my mind to adjust my ministry as there is more than one way to share the gospel with others. I could see people from other cultures at the consultation who were challenged by what they heard, because for some it was the first time they got an insight of what is going on in this part of the world, but these stories will be food for thought for them.”

Gail, USA:

“We have a saying in the states: ‘Measure twice, cut once’ – I would say MEC 2014 taught me one important thing as a religious worker: we need to listen twice before we speak in order to better serve others and help the church be prepared to disciple believers. I thought I knew enough about the region, but listening to personal stories showed me how the discipleship experience is unique in each Arab country.”

Tamer, Sudan:

“This consultation confirmed the need for discipleship training for those who have a discipleship ministry. One of the ideas that was important to me was that the church and believers have a role in being the buffering zone between church and the original community of the new believer – helping them remain in their indigenous environment while also helping them become rooted in their Christ-centered identity. This consultation made me realize how much discipleship is like raising up children, each with his or her unique identity but all from the same family.”

Zack, Algeria:

“It is the first time that I met with followers of Christ from so many different countries and cultures. Before the MEC 2014, I never knew Christians and new believers had different problems in different areas of the world. I have never personally faced a crisis with my identity in Christ vs. my culture and community; however, I discovered that Arab believers from other Arab countries are going through a great identity crises stage because of a lack of one-on-one discipleship and that it is harder in their countries than it is in mine. This has made me realize that we cannot set up a uniform discipleship program for the Arab world as a whole because each country and community is unique and needs its own program which respects the individualistic needs of the group.”

Amir, Egypt:

“During this week, I was able to see the work of God spreading all over the Middle East and North Africa. This has enabled me to thank God because I have been able to see the positive aspect of this hardship and turmoil that our region has been going through which is contributing to the growth of the gospel. I have also seen the great need for the church to live up to its role in encouraging its congregations and motivating them to be part of God’s work. The participation of so many different cultures enriches the cultural exchange and gives a fuller picture about discipleship in this region through people’s experiences and not just theological theories. It has opened up many discussions without giving a methodology for discipleship, but instead giving case-studies that make us pause a little and reconsider our approach to ministry. And, it has inspired us to take responsibility for new believers.”

Dr. Rosalee Velloso Ewell, Brazil:

“What is unique about this gathering is the way it has blended and brought together both theological reflection and stories from the grassroots. This has made it quite a unique consultation. Usually, theoretical and practical are not in such a conversation. It is an excellent way to equip and include the participants in what is going on in the region. The participants are hearing from one another. The table groups makes it a working consultation, instead of passive listening – and that is very important.”

We praise God for such a blessed week of hearing exciting stories from all over the Arab world, and we look forward to next year’s Middle East Consultation wherein we will continue this important and groundbreaking discussion.

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You may also be interested in the following link from our friends at Ethics Daily Interviews IMES Director Martin Accad about MEC 2014.

The Theology of Living in the Saturdays of Life

By Rupen Das

The IMES blog is meant to be a prophetic voice from within the Arab world. It highlights issues of injustice, as well as challenging non-Arab perceptions of events in the region. Being a prophetic voice, there is often anger at the injustices that we see, and this is undergirded by a sense of sadness in understanding that this is not the way God intended the world to be. However, there is value at times in stepping back from the harsh realities of life and the sense of righteous anger and ask whether there is a theology which explains the realities of the refugee and the poor, and allows the people of God to minister to them.

Over the past several years as I have talked with Syrian refugees, I am struck by the fact that most do not wonder why God is allowing the unbearable suffering that they are enduring. All have lost their homes; many, if not most have seen members of their families killed or disappear, and now they are living in poverty and near destitution. They are terrified by their experiences. They seem to clearly understand that their suffering is caused by the war. Yet in the midst of all of that, whether they are Christian or Muslim, many are seeking a God who will comfort and deliver them. I have seen similar reactions as I have interacted with the desperately poor in other parts of the world.

I find this intriguing, as many in the western world (particularly Christians), when they go through times of trial and suffering, invariably ask the question, why is God doing this to me; why is God allowing this to happen to me?

I have wondered how much of this difference in understanding suffering and who God is has to do with one’s worldview, and for the Christians, their theology. The Creeds, which have defined our faith and set the parameters for the Church’s doctrines seem to have a blank spot when they review the key milestones of salvation. Cyril of Jerusalem writing around 350 A.D. about the role of the creeds states, “This synthesis of faith was…to present the one teaching of the faith in its totality, in which what is of greatest importance is gathered together from the Scriptures…[which] brings together in a few words the entire knowledge of the true religion which is contained in the Old and New [Testaments].”

So the “faith in its totality” that the creeds focus on is the incarnation, the Cross, the resurrection, and the ascension. They seem to imply that this is all that a Christian needs to know. They articulate the victory of Christ over evil and of a triumphant God, but are silent on what that triumph means and how we are to live and understand spiritual reality in the “in-between times” that we live in, when the Kingdom of God has come but not yet manifested in all its fullness. They don’t teach us what to believe about this present world and the reality of evil, which is only too real. They have missed the importance of the darkness and disillusionment of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Does this exclusive focus on the victory of Christ set up expectations that His victory protects me from all evil and suffering now in the present? Maybe this is the reason for my challenges to God as to why He allows suffering in my life when supposedly He has conquered sin, suffering and death? Our scientific and technological worldview expects instant solutions to every problem we face. So if Christ has won the battle over evil and suffering and I still suffer, then maybe His victory was not real, or maybe God and the spiritual world are irrelevant to my daily life.

This focus on victory and the sense of triumphalism has little relevance to the Syrian refugee who has lost everything, or the migrant worker who is abused and treated like a slave, or the desperately poor Lebanese whose government ignores him. The Good News that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers forgiveness, and that they need to repent, has little meaning for them when they in fact feel that they have been sinned against and experience the full brunt of evil in society.

I have lately been reading Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall (The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World) and American theologian Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday). Alan Lewis brings a certain poignancy to his writing as he lost his battle with cancer while writing about living in Holy Saturday and not experiencing the reality of Easter Sunday and the healing and new life promised in the Kingdom of God. He died believing in the promise of a future healing and resurrection.

On that first Good Friday the disciples had no knowledge that there was going to be an Easter Sunday, as their teacher, whom they had come to know as the Lord, died on the cross. With His death, their dreams and hopes of a better world and the coming of the Kingdom shattered. It is only later that they understood the meaning of the Cross as being the means of redemption and forgiveness of sins. That first Saturday after Good Friday was a time of desolation and mourning. It is only in this context that the unexpected, stunning, astounding, and unbelievable experience of the resurrection for the disciples on Sunday morning can be understood.

So a starting place for a theology for the global south and even parts of the Arab world is the realization that most of life is lived in the Saturdays of the salvation narrative, when dream, hopes and much of life have died. Unlike the disciples on that first Saturday who felt abandoned, God identifies Himself in Christ as being with us (Immanuel) and says that He will never leave us or forsake us. This is what the refugees, the migrant workers, and the poor understand the Good News to be, that there is a God who cares. It is only as they experience this, do they begin to dream and hope again. Unlike the disciples who did not know that there would be an Easter Sunday, we know that there is a future because of the resurrection. It is only at this point that the promises of Easter Sunday for new life and a new beginning come into focus, that one day in the social, economic and political order of society there will be justice and peace – the promise of the Kingdom of God. They look forward to the day when, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

This is not a theology of triumphalism but one of brokenness and deep humility, where out of the smoldering ashes of life God brings a new beginning.