Welcome Speech at Antelias Consultation
24-27 January 2012
Your Holiness, Your excellencies and eminences, brothers and sisters, a warm welcome to all of you! Thank you for taking the time to be with us at this consultation here in Lebanon. It is, we believe, a significant meeting at a crucial time in the life of this region. I am, together with my colleagues, honoured and humbled to be with you as you discuss the way towards the future for the churches in the context of what happens now here with the significant changes of the Middle East.
The World Council of Churches is committed to do what it can to work towards peace with justice for all in the Middle East region. What leads to just peace was at the heart of our International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica last year; and, it is our perspective as we prepare for the 10th Assembly of the WCC next year in Korea, with the theme: God of life, lead us to justice and peace! We not only discuss, we work, together with you and all people of good will, to give our contribution to make just peace.
The WCC has a considerable number of our member churches based in this region. At our Central Committee meeting in February last year, the World Council of Churches made clear that since its beginning the WCC has viewed the Middle East as a region of special interest and concern. It is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For Christians, this region is the place where our Lord was incarnated and born, preached, suffered crucifixion, and was resurrected. It is also the land from where the Good News was spread to the entire inhabited world. Our living faith has its roots in this region and is nourished and nurtured by the unbroken witness of the local churches who have their own roots from the apostolic times. Without this Christian presence, the conviviality among peoples from different faiths, cultures, and civilisations, which is a sign of God’s love for all humanity, will be endangered. The Central Committee also expressed the sober sentiment that if the Christian community were to become extinct in the Middle East, it would be a sign of failure of the ecumenical family to express the Gospel imperative for costly solidarity.
The Arab spring, not least through the contributions from young people like some of you present here, has been driven by a desire for justice and peace. Long before these changes, the WCC has addressed the negative consequences for Christians of war and occupation in Iraq. You know that our warnings against the war in Iraq have become a reality; Christians are suffering greatly from it; and, a substantial emigration has happened. The emigration of Christians as a consequence of the occupation of Palestinian territories and the very difficult political and financial situation for Palestinians has been a concern of the WCC for many years.
We know that the changes in the Arab world over the last year – and changes still to come – have also left many Christians, along with many Muslims, feeling uncertain and even afraid for their future. Whether they are right or wrong to fear is not the question. Information reaching us – perhaps not proven but still undoubtedly real – suggests that considerable numbers of Christians are planning to leave their homelands and either migrate within the region or further afield.
One of the key concerns that Christians face as the different countries of this region shift and change in a variety of ways is ‘what it will mean for us as Christians to be citizens in this new dispensation--this new world that is emerging’. The present and future models of citizenship are therefore the key question which lies at the heart of this consultation. We expect that this consultation will give an opportunity to discuss and develop a common vision together as Muslims and Christians for a common future, offering equal rights and opportunities to all. I also expect that we together can give a clear message that it is a responsibility for any constitution and government to provide that.
Returning again to last year’s Central Committee meeting, we do believe that Christians in the Middle East are both facing unprecedented challenges now but also are attempting to respond through new forms of witness. When they deliver a unified message, their voice is better heard and their presence and impact in their societies are more appreciated. In sponsoring this present conference that is one of our goals.
Of course the World Council of Churches is not the only organisation that is committed to working to support Christian presence in this region. But we do believe that as a global fellowship we have a distinctive and important contribution to make. For our role requires us also to ensure that our member churches in the world outside the Middle East gain an accurate picture of the dynamics and realities of the region, and the way that Christians and Muslims have lived alongside each other peacefully for centuries in the Arab world. We are all aware that a pernicious sort of Islamophobia can all too easily become part of the rhetoric particularly in among certain Western Christians – targeting Islam and Muslims in a way that is inaccurate, divisive and exacerbate the difficulties both Christians and Muslims in this region are facing. We see our role as the World Council of Churches as including the need to share a balanced picture about Islam with member churches throughout the world, and to correct any misapprehensions that may arise. So we are particularly grateful to the Muslim participants at this meeting, for their willingness to join with us in working positively for peace, justice, freedom and harmony. I am eager to hear how Muslim leaders are emphasising their commitment to strengthen the Christian presence in the Middle East. I also am interested in hearing how you as Muslims are addressing the fear we can sense in some Christian communities. We will certainly want to make clear to our wider constituency the WCC’s extensive experience over many years of how Christians and Muslims continue to work together constructively for the Common Good. So we are grateful also to those who have come here from outside the Arab world to listen and to share – because they too will be able to help us in this task.
In planning and organising this event the World Council of Churches has worked closely with the Middle East Council of Churches, and particularly with its newly appointed General Secretary Fr Paul Rouhana. We are glad that so near the beginning of his term of office we can make this public and practical statement of our desire to support the work of the Middle East Council of Churches and to work in partnership with this significant regional organisation. From the perspective of the World Council of Churches we believe that the Middle East Council of Churches exists to be the rallying point that can mobilize churches in the region and provide genuine perspectives on the relations between churches in the region and the rest of the world. The need to maintain and strengthen this ecumenical tool is essential in the face of both the increasing challenges and the signs of hope that are opening up throughout the region.
A few months ago, along with a number of other religious leaders, I had the privilege of being invited by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to participate in and speak at the gathering of religious leaders from many faith traditions, which was held in Assisi in October 2011. We came together as ‘Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.’ I spoke then of the importance of the contribution to a just peace from young people. I also expressed my conviction that events in the Middle East impact profoundly on the peace and well-being of the rest of our world: that we need peace and justice for Jerusalem because it affects the destiny of the whole world. I would want to echo that thought still today. The results of the unsolved problems related to Jerusalem and the interplay between the different religious traditions of the Middle East do not simply affect the people of this region. I mentioned that Christians in Pakistan have reminded me of this very reality.
As I mentioned already in the letter inviting you to this meeting, our time together now is part of a process organised by the WCC, in collaboration with the MECC, which will culminate in a large scale international ecumenical gathering, to be held probably in late December. Planning for that event has already begun, but I invite you, as you meet over the next few days, to reflect on and share with us any particular ideas you may have to ensure that larger meeting is as effective as possible.
I conclude by offering my thanks to His Holiness Catholicos Aram I, and the clergy and staff of the Catholicossate for their welcome to us for this meeting. We are gathering in the Christian season of Epiphany which is one of the most solemn festivals of the Armenian Church. At this season, Christians remember particularly the baptism of Christ. Within Christian theology and tradition, the baptism carries many significances – but I want to mention just one. It is that in his baptism, Jesus chose to identify himself with the dark waters of our world--its messiness, its pain. He chose to be in solidarity with those who suffer, who are oppressed and weighted down by the world’s woe. In turn we too express our solidarity with suffering humanity – yet we know too that through such solidarity there can be the beginning of a new day and dawn, and that the dark waters can become a spring gushing forth to give abundant life to God’s new creation.
Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary