How Can the Church Be Prophetic in Today’s Disorienting Times? Highlights from Middle East Consultation 2017

From June 19 to 23, 200 participants from over 20 nationalities participated in our annual Middle East Consultation (MEC) titled The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically through Adversity.

Each of the first 4 days of MEC focused on one theme. This year, morning sessions have begun with a theological keynote, followed by a local response and two witness accounts. These sessions ended with a participant from the West who provided a global crosscheck.

We are looking forward to the publication of a book based on the consultation proceedings. For now, we will provide you in this post with a glimpse of the presentations and conversations that took place at MEC this year.

Day 1: Suffering and Persecution            

Ramez Atallah from Egypt reflected on the situation of Christians in Egypt today in a keynote entitled “Suffering, Discrimination and Persecution.” Here are some highlights of his talk:

My wife, Rebecca, has ministered for more than 35 years among Sudanese Refugees and Garbage Collectors in Egypt. While these two groups of people are among the most discriminated against and oppressed minorities in Egypt, she finds more joy, love and faith among them than among our middle class neighbours or church members who are not “oppressed” and live a relatively comfortable life.

So while Christians need to do all they can to help correct injustices in society, we need to also realize that this can never be our “ultimate” goal. We need to remember that economic and social “freedoms” do not, in themselves, provide man’s deep yearning for real peace. People need to be changed from the inside by the power of the Gospel to know their true worth as children of the Creator of the universe. Only then can they begin to transform their society for the better.

(…)

It is true that many Christians are discriminated against in Egypt, and some are persecuted. It is equally true, however, that Churches of all confessions are thriving and flourishing more than ever before in recent history. While one can make such a generalization regarding Egypt, I don’t think one could say similar things about any Western country today. (…) having studied and worked in Canada and the USA for 18 years of my life and being familiar with the day-to-day life of close relatives and friends in North America today, and leading a thriving and growing Bible Society in Egypt, I am firmly convinced that the opportunity for serving Jesus faithfully in Egypt is much easier and more fruitful than doing so in any so called “free” Western country. True there are many daily challenges in Egypt but most are not related to our faith but to the complexity of life in Egypt.

In his response, Daniel Bannoura from Bethlehem in the Occupied Palestinian Territories sought to provide some balance to what he felt was Atallah’s insufficient focus on justice. He said,

The Bible, along with a plethora of theological works throughout the ages, has consistently viewed the pursuit of justice as an integral part of Christian living. In fact, “justice” is largely viewed by many Christians as a fundamental aspect of God’s character. Furthermore, the biblical text makes it aptly clear that the “pursuit of justice” is a core aspect of Christian mission and living.

(…)

Yes, the cross represents suffering, but it also represents much more (Christus victor, God’s justice, atonement… etc.). Christians should imitate Jesus in his suffering but also in their tireless effort into making the Kingdom of God a reality on earth “as it is in heaven”. While some suffering is allowed by God to build our character (utilitarian), suffering is also inflicted on the believer unjustly (Job). Sometimes suffering is undeserved and brings with it no redemptive quality (e.g. genocides, earthquakes).

Atallah’s reflection and Bannoura’s response were followed by two witness accounts about suffering and persecution in Turkmenistan and in Syria respectively. The global crosscheck was by Gordon Showell-Rogers, Global Director of One We Stand, who brought into the conversation examples from India, Eritrea, Sri Lanka and Nigeria.

Day 2: Emigration

Elie Haddad, ABTS President, presented Biblical/Theological Reflections on Emigration. After sharing about four inappropriate attitudes or reasons for leaving one’s country in times of hardship, he suggested some things that we can do to adjust our attitudes. Haddad said:

We should never judge those who leave or ridicule those who stay. God is free to call whomever He wishes to wherever He wishes. This is His mission field. However, is it not surprising that God seems to call non-Arabs to the difficult places in the Arab world while He always calls Arabs to the West? Is it possible that we are not hearing God well? Is it possible that our own safety, security, and prosperity are more important to us than God is? Is it possible that our worldview is superseding the Bible’s?

In his response, Harout, pastor from Aleppo, Syria, said:

(…) the [three] wise men made a mistake thinking that a KING would be born in a Royal Palace, where he rightly belongs, and for a moment they had forgotten about the ‘guiding star’. As a preacher, I would say that the Wise Men had relied on their own wisdom and without looking up at the Star they logically went to the Royal Palace in Jerusalem to find the new-born king instead of following the star that had been going ahead of them all along. So the Wise Men, because of their disobedience and reliance on their own wisdom, brought the best and most valuable gifts to Jesus Child and his family and almost brought about the death to the Christ Child and of course to many babies in Bethlehem. So what do we learn from this about the result of disobedience, or the importance of obedience? As a result of this disobedience God the Father steps in by taking the whole family out of the danger zone.

My question now would be: “Couldn’t God have done something about King Herod?” Well, you can think positively or negatively, and “couldn’t God the Father have protected the Holy Family just where they were?” Well, to me I can see that many times we are so lost as human beings, even when we are close to God that He, our Heavenly Father, takes us out of a situation just like this for our security and safety and for a time of preparation. So should we encourage people to leave their country for a while in order to get prepared to come back better equipped to be there and serve there? But then we must admit that arriving in a new country these days doesn’t seem to help in getting prepared for a return to the land of origin for a time of service there. So few do come back!

Kamel Shalhoub from Lebanon and Ash Abuatieh from Jordan provided the witness accounts. Greg Butt from Canada delivered the global crosscheck, which was a reflection on the immigration flowing into Canada. He said that a pastor from Aleppo who moved to Canada “actually finds ministry harder. Whereas in Aleppo his ministry was primarily to Muslims and sharing love, here it has been much more about trying to help lukewarm Christians wake up.”

Day 3: Hopelessness and Despair

Yohanna Katanacho from Nazareth delivered his keynote in live video streaming, entitled “A Theology of Tears: Cry with Us”, in which he said,

No doubt that the Book of Lamentations is a place full of sorrow, sadness, and salty tears. This book is very relevant to our Middle Eastern situation. It can be a founding stone for our theology. My assumption is that the destruction of Jerusalem during the times of Jeremiah is similar to Al Nakbah (the Catastrophe) war in 1948 and to the series of catastrophes that some Middle Easterners experience today. Based on the Book of Lamentations, I will highlight three areas: there is no comforter, there is no prophet, and there is no hope.

After affirming that “Good hope cannot exist without faith and love”, Katanacho concluded,

Middle Eastern Christians are walking in the footsteps of the early church advocating faith, love, and hope. Hope is accessible to all those who call upon the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21). Our witness is indispensable if the church is going to continue to embody the power of biblical faith, love, and hope to Muslims, Jews, and other faith communities. The multiethnic church continues to be God’s hand to help the poor, challenge oppressive powers, fight discrimination, and spread the comfort of God to the ends of the earth. We are a sign of hope.

Nahla Issac from Syria provided a response to Katanacho’s paper, reflecting on the Syrian war and the role of the Church amid despair and hopelessness. Nadia Khouri from Lebanon and Rebecca Atallah from Egypt provided witness accounts on ministry to the poorest of the poor,  in Beirut’s Southern-Western suburb slums and in Cairo’s Garbage City respectively. Atallah said, “If the lack of hope is absence of imagination, then you will definitely find hope in the Garbage City in Cairo. They are some of the most creative people that exist.”

Shane McNary from the United States, serving as United Nations Representative for the Baptist World Alliance, provided the global cross-check. Reflecting on his work experience namely in Central Europe, he shared:

Hope has two daughters: anger and courage; anger at the injustice that exists in this world, at a church that is more interested in empire than it is at serving, and courage so we will reach out and find that last string, and we shall play a song of praise, a psalm of thanksgiving. And to work in solidarity with brothers for justice, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence.

Our faith compels us to seek the transformation of oppression into liberation, of slavery into freedom, and of hopelessness into hope. We do this through the proclamation of the good news and seeking justice. The response of Baptists is not to turn away in despair about the injustice of atrocity, but to strive for justice and reconciliation for all.

Day 4: Minoratization

Martin Accad, ABTS Chief Academic Officer, delivered a keynote entitled “The MENA Church from Minoritization to Prophetic Calling”. He said:

If the state of being a numerical minority is different from the process of minoritization; if the first is an accident of history while the latter is a process of victimization, then the only way to act, for the minority Church in majority settings, is to refuse to accept being a victim, by challenging the minoritization process prophetically.

Based on these definitions of “minority” and “majority,” I would argue that we must work towards a paradigm shift in self-perception as a new starting point for the Middle Eastern Church’s missional thinking in the context of Islam. If Arab Christians begin to reject this “minoritization,” imposed on them both by those who mean them well and want to “protect” them from the outside, as well as by those who mean them harm by wanting to make them feel as outsiders to the region, then they may begin to reintegrate as an essential part of the social fabric once again.

Ehab el-Kharrat from Egypt provided the response to Accad’s theological reflection. Kharrat suggested that some of the pillars to fight minoritization were Presence, Proclamation, and Persuasion. This means that the Church needs to engage all aspects of life – Education, health, business, sports, politics, media, the Arts, science, etc.

Haitham Jazrawi, Presbyterian pastor from Iraq, and Elias Habib, Christian Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, both provided witness accounts. Habib who lives in a Palestinian Christian refugee camp in Lebanon shared about the minoritization and discrimination that they suffered, primarily at the hands of Lebanese Christians. He reflected that “Minoritization happens when stakeholders meet together to decide on your fate without involving you.”

Philip Halliday, from Scotland and living in France, provided the global crosscheck on minoritization in France. He shared that in the 1980s, both Islam and Evangelicalism grew, and things became more tense. Concern grew around religion. Rather than dialogue, the French state adopted an attitude of abstentions and suspicion. Neutrality was replaced with laicité, and in laicité, we saw prejudice. One example of this tension is last year’s prohibition of the full-body wet suite (Burkini).

MEC 2017 included several workshops, roundtable discussions and two interfaith forums. The forums featured, on day 2, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zeid and Father Gabriel el-Hashem, and on day 4, former Minister of State, Mr. Ibrahim Shamseddine, and Professor Michel Abs. On both occasions, the week’s themes were explored from non-Evangelical, multi-faith perspectives. On Day 5, a number of consultation participants led the group through a reflective process of Looking Back at the intellectual, practical, and spiritual harvest of the week, as well as Looking Ahead as we seek to develop appropriate responses in thinking, feelings, and practice.

As a conclusion for this brief report, we share with you what one speaker asked the audience at the conclusion of MEC 2017:

If hope means prophetically to seek an alternative reality to the current one, what alternative reality might God be inviting you to imagine for your own situation?

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