01/14/2010, 00.00
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Synod of Middle East Churches: mission and a return to dialogue

by Louis Sako*
According to the Archbishop of Kirkuk (Iraq), one of the main driving forces behind the Synod, to save the Christian presence in the Muslim Middle East, a renewal of the identity of the original Church is needed: not as a cultural and "ethnic" group, but a mature adhesion to the faith. We need more unity among Christians, divided into countless groups and traditions. And a mature dialogue with Islamic communities, showing them the important contribution of Christians in the past and present history of Arab culture.

Kirkuk (AsiaNews) - Christians in the East are decreasing in numbers due to wars, migration, low birth rates, the expansion of Islam and divisions within the community itself. The threats and pressures to sell land and houses, bought by Muslims and with the support - including economic – of fundamentalists, suggests that the Christian presence in the Middle East is destined disappear.    

The Synod of the Churches of the Middle East can help us avoid this fate if we go to the roots of the crisis.  

The early Church (which was Middle Eastern) was close to people and presented the Gospel message conforming to the culture of the people, proclaiming the faith in their own language, so that the message was attractive and effective. The prophetic role of the Church was manifest and worked in the truth and from it, people were able to derive meaning for their lives and a sign of great freedom and dignity. For this reason, many converted and decided to embrace Christianity.    

Today, the Christian presence is a cultural one, a historical and tradition-bound presence, an ethnic identity according to the millet system, which is a perfected form of the Institute of Islamic dhimma [the pact of "protection" for non-Muslims, which made Christians and Jews second class citizens - ed.] The Apostolic Churches, however, have lost the enthusiasm of their origins in the work of witness: the role of prophecy, love and zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel to others.    

The future of the community depends on several factors, two of which are of fundamental importance: the relationship between Christians, i.e relations between the different Churches and the relationship with Muslims.  

The relations between Christians    

Christians today need to promote, in a continuous and influential manner, a culture of love and dialogue, openness and diversity. Current divisions leave a strong and negative mark on their presence and their testimony. The relationship between the various churches is going through difficult times and seems to move backward.    

The Church is the community of believers who look to Christ and testify to the announcement of Good News, which is continuously renewed. The Church can not merely limit itself to being a sociological, ethnic or cultural entity... Preaching the Gospel means welcoming the Good News with the commitment to live it and correcting erred behaviour. Baptism becomes the culmination of the journey of faith. This should be done not only with the elite, but also with simple people.      

Most churches in the Middle East are small churches and live with an identity crisis because of their dual membership (i.e.: ethnic identity of a political, social and cultural nature and the one linked to the universality of their mission). And groups of evangelical churches: do we call them churches in the nominal sense or are they rooted or tradition?      We need a serious self-criticism and to reconsider our reality and our mission. The future depends on our cooperation, our service and our witness. We are one family, we must overcome the barriers that divide us. We are united in the Word of God, we have the same profession of faith, despite the differences in form, and generally, the same sacraments. We must strive for mutual enrichment and deepen all the peculiarities of our faith in God's love, forgiveness, the joy that comes from welcoming.    

We all need to be patient and learn to read history, to assess the facts impartially without emotion. The real strategy is to work together Christians of Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Even the Christian political parties are divided and in conflict, they must unite to support the Christian presence, otherwise our fate will be of wailing and lamentation in front of our land.    

Dialogue with Islam    

Today the affirmation of political Islam is clear. It has made this religious identity the central one in the Middle East. This identity has overshadowed the Arab nationalist ideology (the umma) and political participation derives from the principles of Islam.    

Together Christian churches and not isolated, must talk to face this reality and establish rules of civil coexistence.    

Dialogue with Islam is the only civilian rule, effective for interacting with everyone, taking into account all that has been achieved over the course of history especially during the periods known as the Ommiad (7th - 8th century) and Abbasids (8th - 13th  century).    

Christians have an obligation today to offer theological approaches to the faith in a new and understandable language, the line of biblical theology rather than in a classic, philosophical language.  

In this dialogue, they must be allowed to demonstrate the contribution they have given to the Arab and Islamic civilization, the history of these regions is not entirely Muslim, but pluralistic, and make sure it is recognised that the Christian Arab factor is a source of enrichment rather than depletion . They must clearly state that they had no relation with the Crusaders when they invaded the East; nor with the colonial powers that invaded the Arab countries without taking the national charter into account; nor with the occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; they have always supported the cause of the Palestinians. These points are very important at the level of Muslim public awareness.    

Dialogue is the only way to resolve differences and restore security and stability. The opening up of Christians, their qualifications and skills may be useful for Muslims. For this we must encourage:    

a) adoption of new programs of religious education, based on tolerance and acceptance of others, refraining from all forms of violence.    

b) ensure that all are equal before law with equal rights - without any discrimination of race, religion or sex - which creates trust and improves coexistence, strengthening the sense of responsibility of each individual.    

c) a commitment to promoting and encouraging solidarity with the poor and marginalized, whatever their race, colour or religion, overcoming injustices and wrongs.    


* Archbishop of Kirkuk  


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