A monthly update from World Mission, a ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency
The Mission Matters column addresses the impact of Presbyterian mission in the world and the issues that affect mission co-workers, the people we walk alongside and assist in service to God, and our partners around the globe.
June 2018 — History, people and hope in the Middle East
Philip Woods, Area Coordinator, Middle East and Europe
Presbyterian World Mission
So much is said and written about the Middle East that inevitably it all becomes a blur. Indeed, the very term “the Middle East” for some seems to equal all the world’s problems and threats. This does a grave disservice to its many peoples and rich cultures. At very least it is a misleading term, lumping together a region that is as rich and diverse as any continent. Furthermore, not everyone, least of all the people in the region, view it from the same Western perspective that we do. For some, the region we call the Middle East is known as West Asia, a more geographically accurate description of its location. And because of the pejorative overtones that “the Middle East” now echoes with, the term “West Asia” liberates us from such assumptions.
I will stick with the familiar, though, and try to open up as simply as possible some of the issues that have come to characterize for us the Middle East today. But I invite you to learn more through the stories of our partners and mission co-workers in the region, which go far deeper than this simple look into this complex region.
To start with the obvious, Christianity began in this region and spread out from here, ultimately to the whole world. We know this, but when we talk about the Middle East, we often forget its rich Christian heritage, which continues to this day. Islam arrived in the region in the period 632–655 AD. Prior to this, Christianity was the dominant religion in the region. In fact, some communities in modern-day Syria have been continuously Christian since the first century, with churches that date back to the beginning of Christianity. This is part of the rich fabric of the Middle East that we should not overlook.
While the region became predominantly Islamic, it was not always at the expense of Christians and Jews. At different stages in history there have been places in the Middle East where Christians, Jews and Muslims have coexisted peacefully. It is no more a region caught up in endless strife than Europe, which has its own tumultuous history marked by seemingly endless religious wars, even in recent times (remember Northern Ireland).
Indeed, some conflicts that we too easily characterize as eternal are in fact quite recent (at least in terms of the grand sweep of history). The struggle over Israel and Palestine dates back only 70 years, if we return to the naqba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 that paved the way for the creation of modern-day Israel (not to be confused with biblical Israel, although we frequently do, which quite wrongly gives us this sense of eternal struggle). Even if we go back to the Balfour Declaration, the British declaration that offered a homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people, the struggle dates back only 100 years.
These perspectives are important because they color how we see, hear and read the stories that are continually before us. Christians feel overlooked, because while being only a minority today, they are still a significant presence in the region, with their own history and stories that are quite distinct from the “Middle East equals Islam” story that we are presented with today. So within the Palestinian community, there are still many Christians, who inevitably are our closest partners in this troubled land.
By the same token, not all Israeli Jews support the policies and actions of the Israeli government. Indeed, not all Jews are religious — many are secular — and not every Israeli supports Zionism. Yet often we believe that to speak against the actions of the Israeli government is to be anti-Jewish. Are we anti-American when we criticize the policies and actions of our government? I know that some today would say so, but the reality is that when we get exercised on such matters it is because we have a different vision of what society should look like. Labeling and demonizing are no answer to the diversity of opinion that exists in any society and across the world.
So deep down we know that not all Arabs are terrorists, but rarely do we delve deep enough to consider that they are people like you and me, going about their lives as best they can, sometimes in far more trying circumstances than we could ever imagine. Consider these two street scenes in Damascus. Sure, there is a military checkpoint in one (actually a rather informal one, not like the ones I remember from the Belfast of my youth), but there is a war going on; if you were there, you could hear it in the background.
Because they are people like us, they are also doing the things that we would do in the same circumstances. They want to protect their families and seek a better future for them, so given the opportunity — or all too unfortunately, the necessity — they leave. Research by Diyar, one of our partners in the Middle East, shows that roughly equal percentages of both Christians and Muslims would like to leave the region to make a better life for themselves. What would you do in those circumstances?
This makes our militarized answers for the region’s problems all the more questionable, because they only drive more people to leave and more people into the hands of extremists. The extremists use our actions to bolster their ugly narratives, and their own actions force more people to want to leave. This is a senseless, destructive spiral that is doing tremendous damage to the region, creating fear and uncertainty all around, and not just in the places most directly affected.
Take Lebanon, for example, sitting between Syria and the Mediterranean and stretching north from the border with Israel. While not currently directly affected, it sits at the epicenter of the region’s woes. Home to a refugee population of Syrians and Palestinians equal to over half of its population, it is also the home of Hezbollah, the Shia political and military organization, many of whose leaders are proud of the education they received in the schools of our partner church, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah, an ally of Shia-dominated Iran, is feared by Israel, just as Iran is by the Sunni Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia. Lebanon, though, is also home to a sizable Sunni population. In addition, Christians make up about a third of the population. Such are the nuances of the region that our sound-bite culture often glosses over. Today the Lebanese celebrate their diversity. It is a rich and vibrant society that knows the perils of sectarian conflict and does not want to return there. But events and actors beyond their control could undo all that they have achieved since the end of their disastrous civil war.
In hoping for peace and stability they are not alone. The peoples of the region are like us; they want the best for their families and themselves. Please pray for them and follow their stories of the joys and woes of life in the Middle East.