16.01.17 | News, A Day to Remember

A Day to Remember...

In Beirut, religious and political scientist, Katja Dorothea Buck, who is also the editor of the Schneller Magazine witnessed in a conference an emotional debate between delegates of the Middle East and the West – showing Ecumenism torn between helplessness and frustration.
Discussions during a conference in Beirut.

During a conference in Beirut, the participants discussed emotionally the relationship between the Western churches and the churches in the Middle East. (Photo: Buck)

The outcry was totally unexpected. The panel discussion had just been talking about the topic of building bridges between the Middle East and the West. Martin Pühn, Member of the Church Office of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) responsible for the Middle East, had spoken about the increased awareness among the German population concerning the plight of Christians in the Middle East as a result of the flood of refugees. Haroutune Selimian was no longer able to contain himself. "I want to finally see action and not just listen to analyses," said the Reverend of the Armenian Evangelical Bethel Church in Aleppo. Over the past few years, his parish had lost two thirds of its members, either through bombs or emigration. "We are living in a state of war. People are crying out for help. They are looking for direction. What we need is not only material help. We need Christians who really feel connected to us."

Neither did Munib Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and President of the Lutheran World Federation, beat about the bush any more. "Politicians and churches in the West are always saying how concerned they are about what is happening in the Middle East. But we see no sign that they are actually doing anything about it," he said. "What we expect from our world-wide partners is that they stand by our side as brothers and sisters."

Helplessness of the Western Churches

The sharp words with which Middle East church delegates deny the ecumenical spirit of their Western partners are expressions of their enormous disappointment and frustration about the hesitancy of Western churches to take action. But what does it really mean to stand side by side as brothers and sisters in times of crisis such as these? Church workers dealing with Middle East matters in Germany have long been wrestling with this problem. Uwe Gräbe, EMS Middle East Liaison Secretary, was at a loss and referred to the so-called Urgent Appeal which the Evangelical churches in Syria and Lebanon published about two years ago, declaring a state of emergency and requesting help from their partners all around the world. "We have repeatedly asked exactly what we should do: whether we should accept more refugees, support a military intervention, or whether there is a need for a protection zone for Christians or how else we can provide help. But we never received a clear answer," he said at the conference in Beirut.

Group picture The participants of the conference of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches in Beirut. (Photo: FMEEC/Badih Koudmani)

This statement alone made many Middle East church delegates furious. During the coffee break between the official discussions, it was mentioned several times that people in the Middle East were no longer prepared to accept the reproach that they were unable to speak with one voice - least of all when the reproach was levelled by someone from Germany. After all, unanimity did not exist all the time in German churches. And ultimately, their very existence was also under threat. It was unfair to blame the victims of the crisis.

Sensitivity on both sides

But what role can Western churches play at all? To find this out, some misunderstandings would presumably have to be clarified on both sides first and no-one else was able to demonstrate this better than Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, Apostolic Nuncio in Lebanon. Born in Milan, he had lived for several decades in the Middle East. He knows better than anyone else the way people think and feel on both sides. "Churches in the West are extremely sensitive whenever it is a matter of granting privileges to a particular group. Christians in the Middle East do not understand this," he said. They saw how other states support the suffering Muslim population, providing aid only to Muslims. And then they asked themselves who was at their side. "On the other hand, nobody in the West understands the frustration of Middle East Christians. They knock on the door of the West and the West does not even understand why they are knocking," said Caccia.

Dialogue between churches in the Middle East and the West
The churches in the Middle East are disappointed about the hesitancy of the Western churches. (Photo: Buck)

In the light of this dilemma, it is no wonder that Western church delegates use dialogue conferences as a forum to justify themselves and to explain to people in the Middle East the constraints which bind them; for example that public money allotted to churches in the West for their work can only be distributed according to humanitarian criteria but not according to religious affiliation. Indeed a lot of time and patience is needed to explain to brothers and sisters in the Middle East that they should not take offence if Muslims and other non-Christians are also supported by Church funds. On the other hand, people in the West should not forget that an explanation about the situation in their own churches is no reply to the question regarding the lack of "protective power" given to Christians in the Middle East.

Misunderstandings have to be cleared up

At times when one side is suffering from war and persecution and the other side is faced with a refugee crisis, the social and political consequences of which are not at all foreseeable, Ecumenism apparently has a hard time. It is all the more important then to clear up misunderstandings and confess to frustration on both sides. It may also be beneficial to remember the long tradition of building bridges, as Paul Haidostian, President of the Armenian Evangelical Haigazian University in Beirut, did at the conference. "Building bridges only brings fruit when someone is prepared to go over to the other side," he said. Even in the figurative sense, bridges needed a solid foundation and strong pillars on both sides if they wanted to bear the burden. "Partnership means placing oneself in the other person's shoes. If we are not prepared to do that, it won't work."

Katja Dorothea Buck