Thursday, January 27, 2005

Holy Land Christians Tell NCC Delegation They Long for Western Christians' Solidarity

By the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar
NCC General Secretary

A few days into our National Council of Churches USA Delegation visit to the Middle East, in meetings with Christians and Muslims in Lebanon and Egypt, we already have heard repeatedly that Christians in the Holy Land need and long for the moral support of Christians in the West.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the center of the problems facing Christians in the Middle East. As the conflict continues to be seen in terms of Jews and Muslims, indigenous Christians, with very long histories in the region, are neglected.

One reason for the NCC delegation visit is to demonstrate solidarity with Christians in the Middle East, as they continue to be disproportionately affected by the ongoing violence in the Middle East. Certainly the ongoing instability and violence affect all people here. But the effect on the Christian community is a growing diminishment of Christian presence in the region.

Christians here feel that, if there is no peace, there will be no place for them here in the future. There is a lament that the United States does not care about Christians in the region, and the evidence pointed to is the neglect of historic Christian communities in Iraq as the violence continues there.

Christians, because of their natural ties to the West, find it easier than others to emigrate to the West. The violence and related instability are the main cause for emigration. Because their numbers are smaller than those of the Jewish and Muslim communities, this emigration affects the Christian community the most. There is no future seen for young people, and thus they seek their futures elsewhere.

Christians in the region see U.S. policy as the main reason for Islamic extremism. In the past, Christians and Muslims here lived peaceably side-by-side. Increasing tension between Christians and Muslims here is the direct result of the perception that Christians here think like Christian fundamentalists in the West, who support U.S. policy based on their own Christian Zionist theology and on their view that traditional Christian communities are negligible at best and targets of conversion at worst. The NCC delegation is striving to give an alternative picture of Christianity, and to strengthen a legitimate Christian witness together with our brothers and sisters in the region.

While Christians in the Middle East are part of the same Arab family as Muslims, they are increasingly confused with fundamentalist Christians in the West. The Christians here have difficulty in convincing their Muslim neighbors - who traditionally have been friends - that Christians aren't with the West as a dominating power, and conversely that their concern for peace, and for things such as human rights, is meant for all people of the region. While many Islamic leaders know this, there is a feeling among Christians here that these Islamic leaders can do more to voice this fact to their followers.

One message of the NCC delegation is to voice Christian concern for all people of the region - Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Though the Middle East’s Christian community is small, and despite years of repeated disappointments, there remains a hope that peace among Muslims, Jews and Christians will one day be a reality. Christians here all want peace. All see it as up to the United States.

The NCC delegation is exploring the opportunity for peace that now exists with the change of Palestinian leadership, the seeming willingness by the Israeli Government to take constructive action, and the second Bush term. Christians here state that real peace needs to be home grown, and not just the signing of treaties. For this to be nurtured among the people, real change needs to take place. Christians in the region are a presence of moderation. If Christians disappear from the Middle East, a moderating presence will also disappear. Christian leaders here see their churches as bridge-builders. They seek to facilitate peace for all, so that all may live in peace together.

Shiite, Sunni Muslim Sheikhs Talk to NCC Delegation About Violence, Jihad, Peace

By Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos

Violence, Jihad and peace were among topics of NCC delegation conversations with two Muslim leaders -- one with the head Shiite sheikh in Beirut, the other with a leading Sunni sheikh in Cairo.

The Grand Sheikh of the Shiite Community in Beirut expressed his conviction that all religious communities have not done enough to avoid violence by their respective members. He reiterated the statement that Islam is a religion of peace; he also stated that those who go beyond this are not true Muslims. He speculated that many might be manipulated by others in power.

With specific reference to the subject of teaching tolerance, the Grand Sheikh stated that religious leaders don't have to defend their respective faiths. Instead, they need to teach the faith and morals, and try to inculcate the faith in their adherents. He laments that people have gone astray. What is needed is to teach the faith so that people grow in faith.

In Cairo, we heard similar views from a leading Sunni Muslim sheikh, who is one of the most prominent and respected Islamic authorities in the world. The Jan. 27, 2005, Egyptian Gazette, covered the meeting. Here's the Gazette's story:

"'Peace is fundamental to Islam, which condemns all sorts of aggression and terrorism,' Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi, told a visiting American religious delegation yesterday.

"Sheikh Tantawi regretted that certain people attempt to associate Jihad (holy war) with terrorism.

"He told the 11-member delegation, representing the US National Council of Churches, that Islam allows Jihad in defence of one's life, honour, property and homeland, as well as for restoring one's usurped rights or for the sake of justice.

"However, Islam denounces terrorism because it is an aggression on human life and people's rights and homelands, Sheikh Tantawi told the delegation, led by NCC President Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr.

"Mr. Girgis Amin Saleh, Secretary General of the Council of Middle East Churches, also attended the meeting."

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Mission Statement: National Council of Churches USA Delegation to the Middle East

This official visit by the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) to Lebanon, Egypt and Israel / Palestine is a mission of peace, and as a visit to churches in the region, it is a visible sign of solidarity between Christians in these two very interrelated parts of the world.

The NCC, a community of 36 US-based communions, founded in 1950, is above all a demonstration of the Christian quest for unity. The NCC has a long commitment to peace with justice. In recent years, this has led the members of the Council among other things to support the right of Palestinian people to self-determination, to affirm the right of Israel to exist with security, and to oppose the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003.

The Council has actively promoted interfaith dialogue as a means to peace, while also affirming the Christian presence in the Middle East, and the contribution of Middle East Christians to peacemaking in this volatile region. The Council affirms its concern for Christians, Jews and Muslims, and its desire to live peacefully as neighbors in the world that God has created.

There are other churches in the United States that support U.S. policy in Iraq, interpret Scripture to the benefit of one side in the conflict in Israel / Palestine and to the detriment of the other side; minimize the importance of interfaith relations, and even ignore the longstanding Christian presence in the region. This delegation presents an alternative perspective.

The NCC, believing that every moment is the moment for the peace of God, has chosen to visit the Middle East now because new political developments in the region seem to suggest new possibilities for peacemaking. The delegation has come to ask:

- Do the people of the Middle East see such an opportunity for peace?

- What can people of faith, from all religious communities, do together to nurture this opportunity for peace?

- What can the NCC do to assist our brothers and sisters here in our common mission to work for peace?

The member churches of the NCC, as part of the one body of Christ, pray for sisters and brothers who suffer violence in Lebanon, Egypt and Israel / Palestine. As the delegation has seen, the dwindling number of Christians in the region is directly related to the conflict in the Holy Land. In addition to prayers, it is of great importance to be present with one another. In this sense, the visit is a living letter of solidarity at a time of fragile promise.

Friday, January 21, 2005

National Council of Churches USA Delegation to the Middle East to Urge: Make Peace a Reality

January 21, 2005, NEW YORK CITY – The question “How can we make the current opportunity for peace a reality?” will be central to the mission of a National Council of Churches USA official delegation to the Middle East Jan. 21-Feb. 4.

Bishop HoytThe 11-member group, led by the NCC’s President, Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., left, and NCC General Secretary Robert W. Edgar, below, right, will press their conviction that Bob Edgargovernments and people of faith must seize the opportunity presented by recent developments – for example, election of new Palestinian leadership and Israeli government movement on the settlement issue – to get the Middle East peace process back on track.

“We will ask the question, ‘Is this the opportunity for peace?,’ state our conviction that it is, and explore ways communities of faith can help,’” Dr. Edgar said.

Added Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC Associate General Secretary for International Affairs, “During and following the delegation visit, we will be exerting our moral pressure for peace.”

The delegation leaves the United States on Jan. 21 for Beirut, Lebanon (Jan. 22-24), Cairo, Egypt (Jan. 24-27), and Israel/Palestine (Jan. 27-Feb. 4). Along their way, they will meet with the Middle East Council of Churches and senior Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and with grassroots and interfaith organizations working for peace.

Meetings have been confirmed with senior members of the Israeli government and have been requested with officials in the Palestinian Authority.

Along with peacemaking, the group’s other top concern is the situation of Christians in the Holy Land, and the ongoing exodus of Christians from the region. “Many in the United States aren’t aware that there are indigenous Christians in the Holy Land, from all Christian traditions, including Orthodox, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and others,” Dr. Kireopoulos said.

“During these increasingly difficult days, and even as we express our hope in the new opportunity that exists for peace,” Dr. Edgar said, “our visit will be important because it demonstrates our solidarity with our brothers and sisters who live in the Holy Land.”

The last two NCC delegation visits to the Middle East were in May 2003 and April 2002.

Members of the 2005 delegation are:

* His Grace Bishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate and Ecumenical Officer, Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, Washington, D.C., and NCC Secretary.

* Dr. Sylvia Campbell, Adjunct Professor, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; a speech-language pathologist in private practice, and a member of the Alliance of Baptists. She serves on the NCC Justice and Advocacy Commission.

* The Rev. Dr. Thelma Chambers-Young, an NCC Vice President; Director of Christian Education, Holy Temple Baptist Church, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., Oklahoma City, Okla; Former President of the PNBC Women’s Department.

* The Rev. Seung Koo Choi, General Secretary, Korean Presbyterian Church in America, Anaheim, Calif., a member of the NCC Governing Board.

* The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, General Secretary, National Council of Churches USA, New York City, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.

* The Rt. Rev. (Bishop) C. Christopher Epting, Ecumenical Officer, The Episcopal Church, New York City, a member of the NCC Governing Board.

* Ms Ann Hafften, Weatherford, Texas, Coordinator for Middle East Networking Division for Global Mission, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

* The Rev. Dr. Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., President, National Council of Churches USA, and Bishop, Louisiana and Mississippi, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Shreveport, La.

* The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, Professor of Mission, Peace and Ecumenical Studies, Eden Seminary, St. Louis, Mo., an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Chair of the NCC Justice and Advocacy Commission.

* Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace, New York City, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church.

* Mr. James Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C.