Restoring human dignity where people suffer most is the ultimate calling for churches in the Middle East and their partners worldwide, stated an annual partners meeting of the Middle East Council of Churches held in Ain el Qassis, Lebanon this week.
Prayer, theological dialogue and diakonia – or service to others – have been fundamental concepts of the council’s work, healing divisions and building bridges in the fragmented region of the Middle East today. Around 40 partners of the Middle East Council of Churches – churches and church-related organizations from around the world – gathered in Lebanon to discuss how the work of the council can be supported and strengthened.
The Department of Services to Palestinian Refugees, part of the council’s work since its founding in 1974, now works in 23 refugee camps across the region. Altogether 5.15 million Palestinian refugees have been registered in the region, with highest influx in Jordan and Lebanon.
Contributing to the healthy lives and economic sustainability for Palestinian refugees, the department coordinates vocational training, health services, education and business loans, including encouraging women to start their own businesses. “If the situation affects human rights or human dignity – we have to be there”, said Dr Bernard Sabella, director of the council’s Department of Services to Palestinian Refugees, urging the council’s partners to work together for a greater good.
“Our faith is not blind. We see around us so many situations of conflict and hostilities, of hardened enmities, of violent extremism masquerading as religious devotion”, noted World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit in his message to the meeting.
Whether we look to the ongoing conflict in Syria, the misery of millions of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and around the region, the unlivable conditions in Gaza and the growing encroachments of the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, or the monumental challenges of restoring communities and the fractured Christian presence in Iraq – “we see that today’s threats to human well-being in the region are different not just in scale, but also in kind, complexity, and intractability.”
Carla Khijoyan, WCC programme executive for the Middle East, delivers the message of WCC general secretary to the Middle East Council of Churches.
“That is why the continued witness of the churches of the Middle East and your stalwart partners is so important. Your Easter faith lightens the darkness”, said the WCC general secretary, mentioning Ecumenical Accompaniers in Israel and Palestine as an example of how churches can sustain human dignity and rights of Palestinians already for more than thirty years.
Pastor Habib Badr reflected on Matthew 16:18, “You are the rock I build my church upon, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” He pointed out that gates are not the means of attack, but rather defence. “Hell is everywhere where there is suffering, hunger, indignity, sickness, discrimination… Our call is to go there and barge in the gates of hell without fear – because they will not prevail against us, as Christ has already crushed them in His resurrection”.
“When engaging in such situations, we are not asking questions on our theologies or doctrines– we are concerned with how to restore the dignity of people from whom it has been taken away”, said Badr, senior pastor of the National Evangelical Church of Beirut. “Going to places where there is hell, suffering, is not easy. We are risking our lives. But that is exactly we are called to do”.
The Middle East Council of Churches brings together four families of churches in the region – Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic, convening 27 member churches from 8 countries across the Middle East and North Africa region. Strengthening the Christian presence and witness in the Middle East, the council serves as a bridge builder between churches in Middle East and the churches around the world, and contributes to the common Christian voice in the region. In 2018, Dr Souraya Bechealany was appointed as its first female secretary general.