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Interview: The Middle East Church Must Resemble Salt, not Rabbits

Image: Courtesy of The Middle East Council of Churches

Pope Francis will make the first papal visit ever to Iraq in March to encourage the dwindling faithful. War and terrorism have hemorrhaged the nation’s Christians, but he hopes they might return.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, Michel Abs, recently selected as the new leader of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), agrees with the pontiff. But in an interview with CT, he said that schools and hospitals have distinguished Christians, who he hopes might even increase in number—and quality.

And Protestants, he said, have a lever effect that raises the whole. Representing only 7 percent of the regional Christian population, they have a full one-quarter share in the council.

The MECC was founded in 1974 by the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox denominations. Catholics joined in 1990 to complete its diverse Christian mosaic.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Global Christianity report, Orthodox believers represent 65 percent of the Middle East’s Christians, with Catholics an additional 27 percent.

But it was the Protestants who helped give birth to the ecumenical movement that joined them together. The 1934 United Missionary Council became the Near East Christian Council in 1956, and the Near East Council of Churches in 1964.

It was renamed the Middle East Council of Churches when the Orthodox joined 10 years later. Today it includes Protestant church associations in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Iran, Kuwait, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Council leadership rotates between the four denominations. Last September, Patriarch John X. Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church nominated Abs for the Eastern Orthodox four-year term. (Protestants are next in line.)

“Despite the difficulties we face today, being one is the solution,” Abs said in his acceptance address last October.

“This vine that the Lord planted two millennia ago will continue to spread, to include ever-growing areas of the planet.”

A Lebanese Orthodox, Abs represents the ecumenical diversity of the Middle East. His father was educated by Protestants, and married a Catholic. An economist and sociologist, he is a lecturer at the Jesuit St. Joseph’s University in Beirut.

CT interviewed Abs about the regional influence of Christians, the nature of persecution, and the witness of the gospel in the Middle East:

Congratulations on your election as general secretary. From this position, how do you describe the current situation of Christians in the Middle East?

It has been a difficult decade. The emerging movement of fundamentalism has harmed both Christians and Muslims. Everyone is in danger. We have to deal with turbulent times with much wisdom and solidarity. We need a long-term vision.

But I don’t think we will be eradicated from this area. Maybe we will diminish in numbers, or increase later on, but numbers are not the most important thing, despite their importance and their psychological effects.

The quality of their presence is important too. Christians are known for the quality of what they do. With respect to others, they developed efficient institutions, like universities, schools, and media. This helps, but I am still concerned with…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.


The Deeper Meaning in Oriental Orthodox Colors

If you’d like a look at me in action, a friend found this video from a few months ago. I simply stand, and mouth the words to the Nicene Creed along with the rest of the Syrian Orthodox congregation.

The occasion was the installment of Pope Tawadros; representatives of this sister Oriental Orthodox Church were in attendance. Before traveling back to their own countries in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, they had a joint service together in downtown Cairo.

My appearance is at about the 7:00 minute mark. It is worth a few minutes of your time, just to enjoy the different and vibrant color schemes of each church. In attendance with me was the former head of the Middle East Council of Churches, who I’m sure could explain the differences.

I remember at the time thinking I would write about the experience, but other projects placed it on the back burner until it was forgotten. But now I recall the fun, the boredom, the familiarity, and the small differences between these ancient adherents of the faith and their Coptic brothers I have come to know.

On the one hand, they seem utterly irrelevant. They are small, declining churches surrounded by violence and conflict. They have funny hats and peculiar beards. They did have a good time together, as did the small congregation of a hundred or so worshipers.

But of what value are these churches, these dresses, these colors, to the people of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq? What difference does this faith make to those suffering, to societies in collapse, the remaining faithful?

Perhaps the question can be what good is this faith anywhere? Does it transform, does it serve, does it save? There is no peculiarity to the Arab world.

But this faith is ancient, and those privileged to existentially wonder about it from the comforts of Western experience would do well to learn. I only wish I knew what the lesson is.

Is that the point? There are Christians in this world in the lap of luxury, and others in the deepest poverty. There are some who preside over the greatest military power in history, and others who are stomped upon by the weapons of war.

The world has made it possible for these worlds to connect, only adding to the complication. But for centuries it was such, and each slice of the Christian world had only slight knowledge of the extended family.

So what good does it do Syria to have a Christian costume party in Cairo? What good does it do America to have a Christian rock concert in a movie theater? What good does it do you to see a transplanted American in their mix, who assaults you with these questions?? What good does it do them that I was there at all?

Of course, each of these questions presupposes the ‘good’ of Christianity is for this world. It is, right? I would so like it to be.

But the Oriental Orthodox churches remind amid their colors and pomp and circumstance that worship probably has very little relevance to what good this world needs. More poignantly for me and probably most readers here, what I as an individual need.

But with God you cannot say it is what he needs, either. So what is the point?

Still, I have no lesson. Can faith and humility be ok with this? They must, lest you throw it all away.

Here, there is no certainty, there is no peculiarity, there is no victory. God can grant them each at other times if he wishes.

Instead, we wonder, we reflect, we appreciate. If all is well, we share, we worship.

If we like, we wear funny colors, or do interpretive dance.

And if he leads, we welcome marauding militias, or sign petitions against hovering drones.

And if he leads, we fight against oppressive regimes, or lobby against oppressive taxes.

But in the end, together, we mouth the Nicene Creed.

We believe in one God…

And we trust, in the end, it will be good.