05/12/2018, 14.04
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Middle Eastern Council of the Churches so that Christians do not disappear

by Fady Noun

After 10 years, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox representatives meet on the theme "United in mission and vision". The warning from the patriarchs: "In the East, either we are united or we will cease to exist”. A century ago, Christians represented 25% of the population of the Middle East, now they are no more than 4%. Need to avoid fear. Collaborate with non-violent Muslims to build a modern state based on citizenship and inclusion.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The greatest service that can be given to the Arabs is to understand and help them understand themselves. Today the destiny of a whole civilization is at stake: a civilization that seeks, that tries to adapt to a 21st century that invades it from every part, from a political, economic, but above all cultural, point of view, and that it must accept in selective way protecting its precious faith in God, which constitutes its identity, faced with a West that has built its contemporary features on human rationality, the non-relevance of God in public affairs, namely "the death of God".

With the defeat of the caliphate in the aftermath of the First World War and  the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Arab Islam also lost the historical basis of its eschatological hope. Its attempt to regain it is natural.  But this multifaceted search will remain unfinished until a critical approach of the historical basis of this hope is developed, consolidated and approved by a sufficiently large part of the Umma [the Islamic community]. Several Arab-Islamic foundations and institutions are moving in this direction, such as the Azhar, the King Abdallah center for intercultural and religious dialogue, the foundation of Arab thought, etc.

Being a valid and acceptable interlocutor of Islam in the Middle East means facing Islam in its two dimensions, material and spiritual. It is necessary for the Arab Muslim to perceive the empathy that the Church leaders have for them and their civilization. It is not enough to bring them Christ in a cardboard box labeled Caritas containing rice and sugar. What gives the Christian merit for a Muslim is what challenges the noblest part, the highest level: this thirst for abandonment to God who lives within us, in front of whom great seekers of God have bowed like Louis Massignon, Charles de Foucauld, Jacques Berque or Youakim Moubarak.

These are some of the considerations raised by the Middle East Council of Churches (CEMO), gathered on the theme "United in mission and vision", after the opening of the annual assembly, quite unusual, last May 8, at the convent Notre-Dame du Puits, in Bqennaya. Unusual because it is held at the end of a painful absence of about ten years, which the CEMO is attempting to courageously overcome, in search of a new impetus.

Speaking at the beginning, CEMO secretary general  Souraya Bechealany, and member of the Catholic family of the Council, which includes four other churches (Orthodox, Evangelical, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), reminds those present of an injunction from the assembly of the patriarchs of the East in the early 1990s: " In the East, either we are united or we will cease to exist ". In an echo of the intuition of Fr. Jean Corbon on the Church of the Arabs, Bechealany reminds the members of the assembly of the primordial importance of ecumenism and unity for a full and complete effectiveness of interreligious dialogue and Christian witnesss.

The emptying of the East of its Christians

The presentation was followed by three exhibitions by George Sabra, president of the Near East School of Theology (evangelical), by Fr. Gaby Hachem, professor at the Usek faculty of theology and editor of the "Proche-Oriente chrètien" magazine, and former Minister of Culture, Tarek Mitri, director of the ISUB Institute Issam Farès [American University of Beirut], all on the theme "Reflections on the current situation of Christians in the Middle East". The three interventions attempt to trace, each in their own field, the ecclesial, socio-political and geopolitical frontiers within which a significant action of the CEMO should take place.

George Sabra, in his presentation, shows that of the prophetic injunction quoted by Bechealany at the beginning, especially the second part - "or we will cease to be" - seems to have come true: Iraq has lost three-quarters of its Christian population; Syria is on track to do the same, and economic conditions will do the rest. "Is there still room for Christians in the Middle East?" Asks the theologian in one of those rhetorical questions that already contains the answer. This is a pertinent question, because in a century the Christians who represented 25% of the population of the Middle East are now no more than 4%.

In his speech, Sabra recalls the twilight warning of Jean-Pierre Valognes's work: Vie et Mort des Chrétiens d'Orient (Life and Death of Eastern Christians). Monsignor Georges Saliba, Syro-Orthodox bishop of Beirut iwas present - with other Maronite and Orthodox bishops - to confirm this indirectly. Msgr. Saliba actually believes that the Christians of the East, including those in Lebanon, have one or two decades at most before they will lose the critical mass that would allow them to weigh on political decisions.

But not intimidated at all by these predictions, the Prof. Sabra concluded his presentation by stating that the Christian mission does not rest on the figures, but on the real witness that the Churches can offer.

The principle of synodality

In a strong and passionate prayer, Fr. Hachem spoke of the hope he has invested in CEMO, an incarnation of the principle of synodality, an ecclesial and ecumenical sanctuary of dialogue with Islam in this part of the world. This professor of ecclesiology deplores "the superficiality and unconsciousness" that - in a transitory way - have prevented believers in recent years to listen to "what the Spirit says to the Churches" and to respond to it; and that slowly transformed it into an NGO ... what it is not, and should not be.

The CEMO must equip itself with an "united vision", insists Fr. Hachem, who risked going a step to far: "This goes much further than the date of the common Easter ...". Of course, of course, but why have the religious leaders of our time not granted the people of God in the East the common date of Easter, which they have been asking for decades? Would not this be the most basic ecumenical decision, waiting for the great theological agreements on primacy, which feed so many human susceptibilities?

Mitri: resist fear

In his exposition, Tarek Mitri, beyond the indispensable development of the historical context on the "democratic transition" missed by the Arab Spring, invited the Churches to sobriety of vision, indispensable for adapting their discourses and their actions to the different situations that they cross.

Next to the Muslim Brotherhood, theses in their thirst for power, next to the Salafi quietism hypnotized by a moral of religious violence anchored in the 7th century of the Christian era, there is – according to Mitri - the immense mass of Muslims aware that violence emerged from Islamist matrix does not represent them; the immense community of believers that a long familiarity with Christianity has opened up to the peaceful acceptance of the other in their difference.

The former minister therefore invited the Churches of the CEMO to take account of these differences, resisting the temptation of amalgam and continuing to play the role of transmitter of culture and civilization that has been theirs since the beginning of Islam; putting the future of the Arab world in the hands of the Muslims themselves, entrusting them to their ability to build a modern state based on citizenship and inclusion.

Mitri also asks Christians to resist the reflection of the fear that affects some leading to their acceptance of  dictatorial regimes as the only alternative to Islamism. If disappointment is sometimes encountered, disappointment - he explains in practice - is why we cannot [calculate] the economics of the time necessary for the transformation of mentalities and education, while the tendency to crumble and regression, or to closure within a religious identity, seems to prosper.

On the afternoon of May 10, members of the executive committee and CEMO partners' assembly, who came from a number of Western countries (Germany, Canada, United States, Denmark, Great Britain, Finland and Cyprus) were received by the Head of State, President Michel Aoun (see photo).

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