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Middle Eastern Christians Add to Diversity of SPI

Posted on June 24th, 2004

By Rachel B. Miller Moreland

MCC-sponsored Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) participants
The MCC-sponsored Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) participants from the Middle East, from left: Suzanne Dababne, Bassem Thabet, Rita Sawaya, Nabil Korieh (Father Daniel), and Rev. Radi Atalla Iskandar. This year, MCC provided scholarships for 17 of the 170 SPI participants from all continents.
Photo by Joel Fath

“The Middle East wouldn’t be itself without the Christians,” says Rita Sawaya, a Lebanese archaeologist and human rights worker.

But in the land where Jesus was born and where churches trace their history to the first centuries following his death and resurrection, the number of Christians is declining steadily. They are struggling to define their role and envision a future.

Sawaya was one of five Middle Easterners sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to attend this year’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU in Harrisonburg, Va. The others came from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Their backgrounds highlight the diversity within the Middle Eastern Christian community, but all five also speak eloquently on a common theme: the unique role that Christians can play as peacemakers in the Middle East.

Nowhere is the declining number of Christians in the Middle East more dramatic than in Palestine, Jesus’ birthplace. In 1950, Christians made up 15 percent of what is now the West Bank and Gaza Strip; today, they are less than 2 percent.

Bassem Thabet, who works with MCC in Jerusalem, says Palestinian Christians are in an extremely difficult position. Squeezed by the Israeli occupation and attempts to “divide and conquer” on one end, and by the growth of Islamic extremism on the other, many are choosing to emigrate.

“Emigration is open to me,” says Thabet, whose brother lives in England. “But I feel that I need to stay.” While Christians’ minority status makes them vulnerable, it also lends credibility to their calls for both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to work for peace, he says.

In Lebanon, Christians’ numbers are also dropping. Once a majority, with more access to wealth and education than their Muslim counterparts, Christians now make up some 30 percent of the population. The country was torn apart by civil war during the 1970s and ’80s.

Sawaya, a former refugee, remembers the horrors of that time.

“When you’ve suffered a lot, you sense the real meaning of peace, both within yourself and with others,” she says.

Her dream is now to create a conflict transformation program in Lebanon similar to the one she saw at EMU. Influencing her country in this way is part of her duty as a Christian, Sawaya says, pointing out that Christian thinkers and leaders have long played a key role in shaping the culture of the Middle East.

For Radi Atalla Iskandar, a similar conviction developed as he grew up in an area of Egypt split evenly along Christian-Muslim lines. The region was volatile, with Muslims resenting Christians’ great economic prosperity and power. But Iskandar observed how his father, a village official and a Christian, was able to maintain peace by building good relationships with Muslims.

Now a Presbyterian pastor in the city of Alexandria, Iskandar is an enthusiastic promoter of Christian-Muslim dialogue. Religious leaders with whom he works have begun to cooperate on addressing social problems, such as poverty, that create the conditions in which religious extremism flourishes.

“This dialogue is a journey, not something that’s finished,” he says.

His commitment and that of other Christians in the region give Sawaya hope. She draws a cross and labels each of its four points with one of the Middle East’s major religions: Islam, Judaism, Druze, Christianity. Christians are at the bottom of the diagram, she says, “because I see them as holding up and supporting the peace process.”

Rachel B. Miller Moreland is a writer/editor for MCC Communications.

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