A letter from Nuhad Tomeh in Lebanon
Advent and Christmas Greetings from Syria.
Read with me Isaiah 11:1-10: “... but with righteousness he shall judge the poor ...”
From November 6 to 18 a combined meeting of two PC(USA) mission networks, the Syria-Lebanon Mission Network and the Iraq Mission Partnership, took place. We gathered at Dhour Choueir Evangelical Center, a conference center for the Synod of Syria and Lebanon in the Lebanese mountains, overlooking the highest peak of Mount Sannnine. It was an amazing setting for the encounter and a spiritual retreat.
More than 45 people came from the United States, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. We began our time together with worship and Holy Communion on Sunday morning at the Rabieh Presbyterian church, another great encounter with Presbyterians in Lebanon.
The Rev. Haitham Jazrawi preached, using John 16:1-4 as the text, emphasizing verse 2, “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” Jazrawi was referring to what happened the previous week in Baghdad when 56 Christians were killed and over 65 were seriously injured when a Muslim radical group attacked the largest Catholic church and started shooting the worshipers. Jazrawi quoted verse 3, “and they will do this because they have not known the Father nor me.”
It was a very touching service, especially when all participated in Holy Communion. Our service included an Iraqi pastor preaching, a Lebanese pastor administrating communion and American and Lebanese elders serving communion. This great encounter brought tears of joy and a real sense of unity in the One Lord and Savior.
The purpose of the consultation was to receive updates on each other’s ministries and learn of each current context as well as share challenges and opportunities and make plans for future ministry together. A huge blessing was connecting PC(USA) congregations with their Presbyterian sisters and brothers from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This was a unique opportunity to strengthen a partnership that started more than three years ago.
The consultation and the extended visits to congregations and church-related institutions in Lebanon and Syria was a unique and wonderful way to celebrate our common ministry and emphasize how Presbyterians do mission in partnership. One of the participants shared, “In this place that is close to heaven, we came together to celebrate our faith and ministries, and also share how parts of the body are hurting, and how they all are in need of our understanding, love and prayer.”
We were meeting with 12 Iraqi Presbyterian sisters and brothers who came from the five Presbyterians churches in Baghdad, Basra, Mosel and Kirkuk. Only a week prior to our meeting, as I mentioned above, one of the largest Catholic churches in Baghdad witnessed a massacre of Christians. Imagine the spiritual and psychological challenges facing these sisters and brothers! Many of us take our worship and religious freedom for granted. The question for these Iraqi Presbyterians and many other Christians in their country is: “What is next for us?” I could feel this all though the days of our gathering. The challenge for all of us was, how can we be in total support and solidarity while we are so far from them and their situation? A few days after the Iraqi Presbyterians left, there was another major threat against all Christians in Baghdad, which has forced a decision for the pastor of the church there to leave.
The last session of the consultation was very emotional; as we sang, our tears were a mixture of joy and sadness. A voice was heard saying, “Our hope is not in human beings, church leaders or churches, nor our governments, but only in our risen Lord.”
In the Isaiah text mentioned at the beginning of this letter, one of the lectionary texts for the second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah shares his prophetic vision of the just reign of the Prince of Peace, a time when the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. As participants reflected together on this text, they could not but ask: “Where and when will this take place?” After all, they see that the Christians in Iraq are being killed or have left their homes, villages and cities. All were reminded of the sermon of the previous Sunday, when Jazrawi preached and emphasized the last saying of Jesus in that chapter, “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Again, back to Isaiah: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song and he has become my salvation.”
In spite of all this, I am not sure how easy it is for these sisters and brothers to believe in these promises while their lives are in danger each day. They are not even sure if they will live to celebrate Christmas. They are challenged to hold onto the hope of the resurrection. The Church in Iraq has given many martyrs, and it is time for the Prince of Peace to stop this.
As we all prepare ourselves to remember the incarnation of our Lord, let us ask him to visit the church in Iraq this year and bring His Peace. Pray for Peace; Work for peace; Give for peace ... and may the Prince of Peace bring you His Peace.
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 360