Middle East Christians hang tough in tough circumstances

Worldwide Faith News (press release)
June 30 2004

Middle East Christians hang tough in tough circumstances

by Alexa Smith

RICHMOND, June 30 – It was a history lesson in four parts.

The first to speak was the Rev. Younan Shiba, a pastor from a
Presbyterian church in downtown Baghdad. Mary Zumot stood at his side,
translating, as he told about the Iraqi denomination that came into
being in the 1920s as a product of the work of Presbyterian
missionaries from Iran.

Then came the Rev. Amanuel Ghareeb, a Presbyterian from Kuwait, who
spoke of the approximately 300,000 Christians in his country.

Then the Rev. Hendrik Shanazarian, of the Armenian Evangelical Church
of Iran, who recounted 175 years of Presbyterian history there.

And finally the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem,
the very birthplace of Christ.

Gathered in a corner of the General Assembly exhibit hall, the men
spoke one by one, surrounded by maps of Palestine, photos of
Palestinians and a gigantic Middle Eastern tapestry whose threads are
intertwined like the history of Christianity in that troubled part of
the world.

The Rev. Victor Makari, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s liaison to the
Middle East, spoke of a “continuous 2,000-year history of
uninterrupted witness.”

Admittedly there are problems aplenty. Severe legal restraints. Testy
political climates. War. Poverty. Economic instability.

But each man gave thanks to the international church for speaking up
for them in times of trouble – while giving the U.S. government mixed
reviews, for its action and inaction in their homelands.

Said Raheb: “I wish I could say what Amanuel Ghareeb said: That
American troops came to liberate us from Saddam and the Iraqi
occupation. Unfortunately, I cannot say that about American
troops. And you know why? Kuwait is oily. Palestine is only holy.”

Raheb went on: “We continue to live under the longest ongoing
occupation in history,” referring to the 57-year-long Israeli
occupation – and now, the 27-foot security wall the Israeli army is
building across the West Bank, which is swallowing up Palestinian
orchards, farms and homes as it goes. Both subsidized by U.S. dollars.

In the same breath, Raheb told his audience not to stop speaking up,
but rather to raise its voice. “I wish you would challenge both Bush
and Kerry to be as courageous as Ronald Reagan,” he said, recalling
the former president’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate during the Cold

“Tell them to tell Sharon to tear down this wall that is surrounding
the little town of Bethlehem,” he said

Shiba said he’s looking forward to deepening ties with the U.S.
church as Iraq begins to rebuild.

In a press conference later in the day, he said the church in Iraq –
like the churches that opposed the war elsewhere – hoped violence
would be averted. But while Iraqis are grateful for the troops who
toppled the Hussein regime, he said, it soon became clear that there
was no plan for stabilizing Iraq. Instead, he said, the U.S. presence
was “like blind bats banging against the walls.”

Now, Shiba said, the role of the international church is to work for
peace and help rebuild – and to remind the U.S. government of its
responsibility. He said U.S. Christians should not stop speaking,
even if the Bush administration still refuses to meet with mainline
leaders, as it did before the war.

“I believe this is a challenge for the church,” he said. “Even if you
are turned down by the administration … You must respond to the
calling of (your) Master to engage in the work of rebuilding. While
your voice may be smothered, your actions can be loud. And it is our
privilege to partner with your church.”

Shanazarian said church unity is critical for Christians who are
minorities in their home countries. He said the Fellowship of Middle
Eastern Evangelical Churches has helped relieve the isolation of
Iranian Christians, many of whom are leaving Iran in search of
economic security.

Shanazarian presented a small Persian rug bearing the image of Jesus
to the PC(USA)’s Worldwide Ministries Division, calling it “the image
that unites all of us.”

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