Despite desperate times in the Middle East, Christians there continue to worship and sustain their faith, keeping the church alive.
“I think there is no single day we don’t hear about Christians in the Middle East,” said Father Michel Jalakh, secretary general of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), in late May.
He was speaking during a May 22 meeting involving the MECC and the World Council of Churches (WCC) at its Ecumenical Strategical Forum near Geneva in Bossey, Switzerland.
Recent years been exceptionally difficult for Christians in the region, marked by the flight of millions of refugees, economic upheaval, and overt violence against some Christian communities.
That is why ecumenical groups such as the MECC are of even more importance now, says Jalakh.
The Christian faithful have been swept up in the regional conflicts in a way that some see as endangering their very existence in the area where Christianity began.
War in the region not only endangers the people and the places where they life but also ravages the environment.
In addition, the area ranks lowest in constitutional provisions for separation of religion and state. In all 20 Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa, there is no legal separation between religion and state.
The MECC provides the ecumenical thread in the region, with most major churches in the region as members.
It works with the WCC and the ACT Alliance (ACT) through its member churches on issues and projects of development and advocacy.
ACT in turn works with International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and its church partner in Syria, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.
Dr Audeh B. Quawas from Jordan, a WCC central committee member, says, “ACT members seeking to help with the millions of refugees in the Middle East region are aware of the fact that we are all living in one system.”
Quawas belongs to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He cites the negative impact of the Syrian refugee camps in countries neighbouring Syria. The camps have polluted the underground water basins on which they sit.
“But we offer, as an ecumenical world community, to come to the help of the stricken people in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and nowadays Yemen.
“We are always aware that emergency relief and covering the essential needs of the affected population are answers that lead to questions about sustainability into the future, in our case that of social organization and I would say also that of state formation.”
The churches in the Middle East have refrained from setting up national councils of churches in their countries.
They prefer to see the MECC as the one body that expresses their unity and common witness, at the regional level and in their local settings.
The number of WCC member churches in the MECC is 12 and it represents 15 million Christians.
What do the churches in the Middle East need most urgently from the ecumenical family?
“I am afraid that we think in a peaceful way for a stable peace era, while we are living a war…. I think we should move to a more modest scale,” says Jalakh, who is a Maronite priest.
“I don’t think justice and peace are the right words for the Middle East now.… We probably should make a shift in expectations, a shift in expressions from justice and peace to survival and security,” he said.
“Without security we cannot arrive at peace, and without survival we cannot arrive at justice.”
He noted, “The Syrian conflict has triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.
“Humanitarian needs continue to rise, population displacements continue, and an entire generation of children is being exposed to war and violence, increasingly deprived of basic services, education and protection.”