By Sam Townsend
“How have I ignored this situation?”
Five years ago, Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago asked that question when she saw the AIDS crisis firsthand in Africa. On a warm October evening in Amman, Jordan, she asked that same question again, this time about the growing danger the Middle Eastern Church faces.
Miles south of Amman, the climbing cliffs dropped a cool shadow on the river of bodies as they entered the narrow ravine, escaping from the harsh Jordanian sun hanging in a clean, blue sky. Necks craned skyward at the sheered steepness, anticipation pulsing through the dry desert air. Finally, there at the end of the chasm, hewn into the rock wall by rude tools, was a monstrous faade: a dozen ornate pillars, majestic statues and a giant door, all in one continuous piece. It was the treasury of Petra, the city of rock.
Petra had been an impenetrable stronghold that enemies had attempted to breech, but they had failed against the towering landscape. It was only when the antagonists cut off the city’s water source that these undefeatable people gave up their territory.
It was a fascinating history to the group of fifty Americans speckled with several Europeans and about 20 from Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries. While the Friday hiatus was a welcome trip, it was not why so many had gathered in Amman on a still-warm October week.
During the two days before and the day following the Petra visit, Church leaders from both sides of the Atlantic met in a quiet conference center to talk about the crises facing Middle Eastern Christians, issues that Westerns have too long ignored and, at times, perpetuated. “We began (having these conferences) because of a concern that the Church was not being helped by our ignorance in the West. We had people who were evangelical who thought that every Arab was a terrorist or a fat oil sheik or something and didn’t know that we’ve had Christian churches here for 2,000 years or that we’ve had missionaries here for 200 years,” said Ray Bakke, who is chair of the board for Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, the organization that hosted the event.
“We felt we should come together with 50 to 70 people… who would come as a listening group.”
Those who came to listen had no shortage of sights, facts and heartbreaking stories to take in. Dr. Bishara Awad is the founder of Bethlehem Bible College in Israel, an institution focused on raising up Christian leaders in the Middle East. He opened his session by briefly telling a story that defined his life. At age 9, he helped his mother drag a limp body to their kitchen. The wound in the man’s forehead made plain the truth that he had been hit and killed in the Israeli crossfire. The man was Awad’s father. But in the years to follow, his widowed mother taught him not to seek revenge but, instead, to forgive.
It is a unique story, because in the Middle East, forgiveness is far from the minds of most. Palestinians are being driven from their land and are exchanging their thrown rocks with bullets from Israeli troops. And in return for bullets, Muslim extremists are building bombs. And westerners are seeing bombs on the news and assuming they know everything about Islam.
But Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, an author and teacher, says there is much more to Islam than hijackings and jihad. He explained that Muslims fit into several categories, from the secular, non-practicing bunch all the way to the extremist sect, but many fall in between. Ultimately, his message was that Christians must view Muslims as individuals in need of salvation.
When one morning in 2001, buildings in New York crumbled under the impact of fully fueled 767s, Jabbour struggled with strong emotions, among them, worry. He wondered, “Are Christians who have been praying for the 10-40 Window going to react by saying, I hate Muslims. I don’t want to pray for them anymore. Let them go to hell; they deserve it’?”
Jabbour shared a story a woman had once related to him. While driving, this woman pulled up to a light behind a car with two stickers fixed to its back window. On the left was a full-color American flag. On the right was a black and white picture of Osama Bin Ladden framed in cross hairs. The message was printed out clearly: “WANTED DEAD.” A couple weeks earlier the woman would have applauded the message, but for the past weeks she had made a commitment to pray for Muslims, and the sticker embarrassed her. The woman had allowed prayerful compassion to rule her heart, and Jabbour encouraged attendees to also join in prayer for the lives of Muslims. If Christians treat Muslims as enemies, said Jabour, “it will no longer be the Great Commission, it will be the Great Omission.” For Palestinians – Muslim and Christian – “omission” is a painful word. The Zionist movement has taught Americans and Christians to throw their weight uncritically behind the Jewish people in support of the Israeli state that many believe will fulfill biblical prophesy. Some Zionists believe Jews are heirs of salvation simply through heritage and are exempt from the need of redemption through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.
Author and educator Rev. Colin Chapman says Christians must have other priorities than the reoccupation of the Jews in Israel. “Our message to the Jewish people must be that it is in the person of Jesus the Messiah that their hopes have been fulfilled, not in their return to the land and in the creation of the state of Israel,” he said. “When I see how Jesus has already fulfilled so many of the hopes and dreams of Israel in the Old Testament I can see how… the followers of Jesus today can… both hunger and thirst after righteousness, justice and be genuine peacemakers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
But peacemaking is a difficult thing. America has played no small role in supporting Israel’s return to the land of their heritage. In doing so, however, they have displaced the Palestinian people, making their land allotment as diminutive as their rights. In one discussion at the Sounds of Hope conference, this dislodgment of the Palestinian people from the land they had occupied for centuries was compared to the injustices colonials dealt the Native Americans.
Bakke shared a conversation he had once had with a Jewish Rabbi. He had asked the Rabbi about the current state of the Israeli nation from a theological perspective. The Rabbi replied, “Every people, to be a whole people, must somewhere in their history be stewards of power. We Jews have always been victims of power. The state of Israel is our first opportunity to be stewards of power.” Then with a big tear rolling down his cheek, he concluded, “If God is just, he will have to remove us one more time for what we have done to the Palestinians in this land. We are treating them the way the Nazis treated us.”
According to Chapman, the theology behind Israel’s reoccupation is a matter with which every Christian must struggle. He said how each person responds will reflect their biblical interpretation, theology, view of contemporary international politics, interfaith relationships and proclamation of the Gospel. The credibility of the Christian Church, said Chapman, is at stake.
In the middle of the Middle Eastern conflict remains a hurting outpost of believers. In Iraq, Christians flee from slaughter, cutting the number of believers there in half… and then in half again. In Palestine, Christians struggle for their rights, and they
struggle to forgive. In Israel, Messianic Jews fight to overcome stereotypes of Arab believers. And across the sea, a “Christian nation” is too often ignoring and too often misinterpreting the events taking place in the cradle of Christianity.
Perhaps Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Mar Avak Asadorian of Iraq summed up the urgency of the Middle East crises best: “If the present state of affair continues in the region of the Middle East and Iraq, then the Eastern manifestation of the Christian Church – the churches that saw the birth of the Lord and worshiped him in his own tongue, giving millions of martyrs throughout 2,000 years – yes, these churches, are already at peril. (This is) a matter not to be taken lightly, otherwise we are going to lose the Eastern manifestation of the Christian Church.” It was a call for help that some hadn’t heard before. “How have I ignored this situation?”
Hybels asked at the close of the conference. “What’s happened this week is that I’ve seen the pain… I’ve heard the anger. I think Christians and the Church in the West have really betrayed (the Middle East Church) by our lack of concern, by supporting global policies that have very much hurt the Middle East as a whole and our Christian brothers and sisters here.”
What was apparent to Hybels was apparent to many at the conference that week: As basic as water to an impervious city is unity and support within the global Body of believers. Just as the Middle East Church needs the support and prayers of the western Church, the West needs the cradle of Christianity to be a beacon of God’s faithfulness to a broken people. Fifty westerners went home after the Sounds of Hope conference to share with others what they had heard and seen in the hopes of helping them understand the urgency of the situation. But after all the speeches, the discussions, the sharing, the question Hybels left lingering at the end of an interview is, perhaps, the question that would most help in the Middle East Church’s crises if many more were to ask it in one voice:
“What am I to do now?”
Sam is a part-time youth leader, a full-time employee of YouthWorks, and an in-between-time freelance and creative writer. From his home in North Minneapolis, he values community, seeks beauty and enjoys the open road.
This article was originally published in Prodigal Son Magazine.