Listening, Visiting, and Engaging Arab Christians: Prerequisites for Western Churches Advocating their Rights (part 1)

By Wissam al-Saliby*

Two months ago, I wrote a blog post on the general regression of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. I had concluded by asking “What role, if any, can the churches in the West play to foster the respect of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa?” In today’s blog post (and also in next week’s blog post), I will provide a partial answer to my question by reflecting on how to play a role, rather than what role to play. I will emphasize the importance of listening, visiting and learning, and the importance of allowing Arab Christians to expand your perspective on the complex dynamics of the region.

In August 2014, the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon published an Urgent Appeal calling on Evangelical churches worldwide to advocate in support of Christians in this region. Months later, an influential U.S. Christian nonprofit visited Lebanon and met with several signatories of the appeal, presenting them with a pre-planned advocacy campaign. The title, stakeholders and advocacy elements of the campaign had all been written down. This plan was presented as “the solution to sign up to”. Their plan, and their whole approach, were not well received.

Last month, I took part in a meeting between ABTS and an influential global ministry. The meeting was to discuss a planned campaign to empower Christians to stay in the Middle East. The first of the four elements of the campaign was to listen. During the meeting, we shared with our friends that we can only join a campaign advocating for enduring Christian presence in the Middle East if it’s a joint Christian-Muslim campaign – not a Christian campaign reaching out to the Muslim neighbor. We suggested that even advocacy efforts in circles of power in the West be based on this inter-faith paradigm. We cannot start a campaign based on the paradigm of us versus them. Many Muslim leaders and influencers are allies, and such a campaign would be alienating as a result of its being designed with “us” and “them” in mind. (For more on this issue, I invite you to read a recent policy brief by the UK based Centre on Religion and Global Affairs, titled “The Future of Religious Freedom Advocacy”.)

As such, we felt that the design of the campaign needed re-thinking. However, the starting point of the campaign was humble: to listen to Arab brothers and sisters and to strategize with them.

Visits and dialogue are paramount if the global Body of Christ wants to play a healing role in the Middle East. And, there are many opportunities to come and converse with the brothers and sisters here. ABTS and its parent organization, LSESD, regularly receive vision teams from all over the world. Last month, our Middle East Consultation was an opportunity to gain deep insight into church response to the refugee crisis. Bethlehem Bible College’s Christ at the Checkpoint conference, held in Bethlehem every two years, is another opportunity.

At this time, when an unprecedented harvest is taking place in Lebanon and the region, visits can provoke a paradigm shift for the visitor. Canadian pastor Leanne Friesen experienced this first hand during her time spent in Lebanon last month. She shared about her heart-changing visit to Lebanon through four blog posts that I recommend reading. In her last blog of the series, “I Wanted to Visit Refugees!” (July 11, 2016), she wrote about her visit, and that of her team members, to refugees:

It was a highlight of my trip to learn together and pray with these women.  When I got back that night I said to our team leader: “That was an incredible experience.  I can’t imagine anyone experiencing anything more meaningful than me!”

Later, however, four of the guys from our group came back from the visit that they had chosen. They looked, literally, shell shocked. They had signed up to visit a local church, and when they got there it turned out to be a church made almost entirely of “refugees.”  Forty of them were there to greet them, and for the next five hours they sat in a circle with them and listened to every one of them tell their story. One of the men said: “It was one of the most holy moments of my life.”

However, her second blog of the series, That One About Loving Your Enemies…, informs us of something important. She wrote:

Christians from Lebanon have had to do this. For the last five years, their enemy has come to live in their backyard. I can’t even fathom how difficult this must be! It sounds like it should be a nightmare, and for many, it is. But that is not the story I heard in Lebanon. The story I heard was the story of Jesus-following, heart-changing, life-altering love.

Jesus followers in Lebanon had to make a very real choice in the last five years – the choice between loving or hating their enemies. They had to face a tough reality.

So while I invite Western churches to listen, I need to caution my readers that they need to keep their eyes and ears open to hear about historic wounds, as well as the immediate wounds from Syria’s war, that need healing.

To conclude part 1 of my blogging on this issue, I would like to quote the recommendation of the policy brief “The Future of Religious Freedom Advocacy” (RFA), relevant to human rights advocacy in the Middle East:

All RFA efforts must be glocal: while global in awareness, outlook and advocacy strategies should be engrained locally in their aims, parameters and chosen strategies. Efforts cannot separate what happens at ‘home’ with what happens in far away places.

Listening to local churches and consulting with them will help draw global advocacy strategies that are relevant to the churches’ local context and needs.

 

* Wissam al-Saliby is the Development and Partner Relations Manager at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter @lebanonesia

2 thoughts on “Listening, Visiting, and Engaging Arab Christians: Prerequisites for Western Churches Advocating their Rights (part 1)

  1. Thank you for this post Wissam. I was one of the four Canadians and I can tell you that it was a profoundly transformative moment that continues to inform my thoughts and impressions around engagement.

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