07.07.16 | News, Press Reports

Magnificent Legacy with an Uncertain Future

International Consultation in Beirut on the Reformation in the Middle East
International Consultation in Beirut

The participants of the international consultation were guests of the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan. (Photo: EMS/Buck)

From 24 to 27 June, an international conference in Beirut looked back at the traces left by the Reformation in the Middle East. Under the title "The Protestant Reformation 500 Years Later in Germany and Lebanon", around 60 Evangelical and non-Evangelical Christians from Lebanon and Germany as well as representatives from Islam discussed this topic at the Near East School of Theology (NEST).

Protestantism is still very young in the Middle East. It was not until the mid-19th century that Evangelical missionaries from America and Europe brought the ideology of the Reformation to the societies in the Middle East, established schools and universities, built hospitals and so set the wheels of continual transformation in motion. "For us, the Reformation is a magnificent legacy, especially with regards to achievements in education and social welfare," said George Sabra, President of NEST. "But what will be our contribution in future?"

The Bishop of Baden, Jochen Cornelius-Bundschuh, focused his attention on the legacy left by the Reformation and analysed the influence of religion on modern societies. "In view of religious conflicts, we pray that we will be renewed by the strength of mercy and contribute to the transformation of society by reconciliation and building bridges. The strength of religion is not based on our exhaustible human strength but on the fact that God came before us and said "Yes". This is why the Gospel is an inexhaustible source of strength," said Cornelius-Bundschuh.

The question of the future of Protestantism in the Middle East is more relevant now than ever. Evangelical Christians there are only a small minority and are badly affected by the phenomenon of emigration. As a rule they have a very good education and good contacts to the West - as a result they can easily find their footing in a Western society. "Our historical, theological and liturgical roots lie in the West, not in the East," said Sabra and described relationships to the West as a blessing. On the other hand, the external perception by non-Evangelical Christians sometimes poses a problem in this respect. "Many people ask themselves whether we are not Westerners or even foreigners here and many people regard us as a mistake of the West in Middle Eastern church history."

Contributions by non-Protestant speakers clearly revealed how much the regional Catholic, Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches regarded the rise of Protestantism in the 19th century as a Western import. "The missionaries did not establish new Oriental churches, they imported new Western churches and assimilated Western languages in their liturgy," said the Maronite priest Gaby Hachem who lectures in theology at the Université du Saint Esprit in Kaslik (Lebanon). Serj Boghos Tinkjian, Deputy Dean of the Armenian Orthodox Seminary in Bikfaya, pointed out that Western missionaries regarded the local churches as their mission field. "Presumably it would have been preferable if Evangelical fervour had concentrated more on reforming the local churches and not on establishing new ones." As a result of their actions the missionaries had rather sown seeds of discord in the society and even in families.

The Rum Orthodox priest Rami Wannous described how missionaries in the 19th century were not without prejudice towards the local churches. "They poked fun at us for kissing icons. They accused us of worshiping images and condemned our veneration of the Virgin Mary," he said. "For Protestant missionaries, we were the reason why Muslims had not found their way to Christianity."

SiMO consultation Beirut
The conference is the 5. International Consultation which NEST has organised together with the study programme "Studies in the Middle East" (Photo: EMS/Buck)

However, Hachem, Tinkjian and Wannous also made it clear that the Evangelical mission had positive impacts on their churches. For example, it enriched theological discussions in the Rum Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches. The central role which the bible plays for Protestants or the emphasis of social work and education also influenced the Armenian Orthodox Church and "opened new doors in theology. Our confrontation with the Reformation strengthened our church," said Tinkjian. All three observed that the present-day splitting of the few Protestants into many different groups, including Charismatic or Pentecostal movements, posed a problem for Ecumenism. "There appears to be no unity in this diversity," said Wannous. As a result, Hachem from the Maronite Church advised the Reformation churches to play a leading role for Evangelical and non-Ecumenical based movements and guide them in the direction of the ecumenical movement in the Middle East."

In general, the future of all Christians in the Middle East mainly depends on how the situation in the region develops as a whole. Many Muslims are also aware of this. This is why the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Shaykh Abdul Latif Daryan, pleaded for a renewal of religious discourse at a reception of the consultation participants in the Dar el-Fatwa, the supreme Sunni religious authority in Lebanon. "We do not want religious discourse if it is based on hate and fundamentalism." Church schools teach the values of Christian faith and Islamic schools teach those of Islam. "Together it is our task to preach the spirit of love which is central to both religions."

The conference was the 5th International Consultation which the NEST has organised in collaboration with the "Studies in the Middle East" programme (SiMO). SiMO is a member of the Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (EMS) and provides an opportunity for students to spend an ecumenical academic year at the NEST in Beirut where they can become acquainted with the churches in the Middle East within their Islamic context. Not only can upcoming theologians of both genders profit from this - also students of Islamic studies, history, political science and many other related subjects can apply to the EMS.

Press contact:
Regina Karasch-Böttcher, karasch-boettcher@dont-want-spam.ems-online.org, Tel. +49 711 636 78 85

Dr. Uwe Gräbe, graebe@dont-want-spam.ems-online.org, Tel. +49 711 636 78 37