Irish Inter-Church Meeting considers plight of Christians in the Middle East
Gathering from 24th-25th November at Mount St Anne’s Retreat and Conference Centre in Co. Laois, representatives of the member-Churches of the Irish Inter- Church Meeting (IICM) – part of the Churches in Ireland Connecting in Christ ecumenical grouping – addressed the theme, ‘Forsaken? The suffering of the Churches in the Middle East’.
The two main visiting speakers were Francis Campbell – formerly UK Ambassador to the Holy See, whose diplomatic posts have also included working with the EU as well as the UN Security Council, and who is now Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London – and the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, the Most Revd Suheil Dawani.
CHRISTIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
The recent Irish Inter-Church Meeting provided an opportunity for representatives of the Churches involved in the ecumenical grouping, Churches in Ireland Connecting in Christ, to reflect together on what is a truly devastating situation facing Christians in the Middle East region (report, page 1). Both former British diplomat Francis Campbell and Archbishop of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani stressed how the very presence of the Christian Church in many parts of the area is in serious jeopardy. Quite apart from the brutality being meted out to Christians by so-called Islamic State, there is the problem, highlighted in particular by Archbishop Dawani in a Gazette interview, of young people leaving to make their lives elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Archbishop voiced hope and, at one point during the two-day gathering, said that when once asked what he prays for every morning he replied: “Wisdom, patience and courage.” Such is the measure of a man who is ministering across a region where there is so much suffering and conflict.
It might be asked just what the point is in Irish people setting aside time to discuss a situation about which they feel helpless. Yet, there is much benefit to be gained for all concerned through encouraging both prayer for those in need and support for humanitarian groups and aid organisations – such as Christian Aid and Trócaire, both of which were represented at the IICM event – and raising greater awareness of the somewhat distant tragedy that is unfolding day by day. It is only when we are properly informed about situations that are indeed far off that we can begin to make it a priority actually to do something in response.
Archbishop Dawani cited how while the Christian presence in the Holy Land was 27 per cent of the population in 1948, today it is only 1.5 per cent. He also said that while there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem in 1967, today there are fewer than 7,000. Can such a decline be reversed? For the Christian, of course, there must be no abandoning of hope but realism will mean taking the decline seriously and actively seeking ways to encourage mission and outreach, no matter how challenging the local situation may be.
It was Francis Campbell who spoke at the IICM rightly of the importance of local solutions to local problems but there is also no doubt that, particularly through diocesan links, the Church in one place can be truly supportive and inspiring for the Church in another place. Given what Archbishop Dawani said in his interview with us, it is clear that the link between Jerusalem and Dublin and Glendalough Dioceses means a very great deal to him and to the clergy and laity in his diocese.
The Church is never simply a local gathering. It is always both local and universal as Christians across the world share their faith in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and remember one another in prayer and in offering spiritual, material and financial support. This is always a two-way process because those who are enduring suffering have so much to teach those whose life is materially, and from a security point of view, more secure. We need one another and we must support one another as much as we possibly can.
The Irish Inter-Church Meeting is an important gathering in itself because it brings people together from across denominational divides to pray and reflect together as well as to share in a joyful fellowship. We need this very much in Ireland today, indeed as much as ever. The ecumenical life which the Churches share in this more formal way, at national level, is a real encouragement for the Churches themselves and bears witness to wider society of our fundamental unity in Christ.
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