Protestant Christians in the Middle East: Maintaining good relations with Muslim neighbors

Despite persecution and terror, the Protestant Churches in the Middle East strive to continue working for a better future alongside their Muslim neighbors. In particular, they want to work towards more education and democracy in their societies.

The moderator, Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour of Beirut, flanked by Sheikh Muhammad El Din Afifi of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and the (Muslim) Lebanese former minister Ibrahim Shams El Din. Photo: C. Amstutz-Gafner

Two years ago, the Protestant Churches in the Middle East held their first conference on the future of the “Christian Presence in the East” against the backdrop of numerous threats and increasing emigration. In the face of the atrocities committed by jihadist militia Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, the situation of Arab Christians seemed that much more hopeless during the second conference, held September 9 to 13 in Cairo. Nevertheless, the conference stated: “We want to continue to work for peaceful coexistence with our neighbors and let ourselves be guided not by fear, but by faith.”

Fear and hope
The conference participants knew exactly what they were talking about. The Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC) also includes member churches from Syria and Iraq. Their communities and parishes have many victims to mourn. Fear and hope ran like a common thread through the conference, which was mostly held in Arabic. But the participants’ central focus was not on bemoaning the present situation, but on developing a self-critical analysis of their own role for the future. More ecumenical freedom among all Christians in the region, even more efforts for peace, justice, education and economic progress, even more reliance on faith – this was the motto. Only education and a secure livelihood can protect against extremism, only freedom and a lively spirituality can prevent the Christian minority from leaving the region en masse.

This land also belongs to Christians
The Protestant conference in Cairo was the first Christian conference of church leaders in the region that was also attended by high-ranking Muslim representatives. Scholars and clerics discussed issues of religious coexistence and new political concepts in the Middle East. They all emphasized the important contribution of Protestant Christians in building democratic civil societies and distanced themselves from the atrocities committed by Islamist terror groups such as Isis. “These people are not Muslims, they are murderers,” said Professor Muhammad El Din Afifi of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the teaching institution of Sunni Islam. And he emphasized: “This land belongs to Christians and Muslims alike.” On Wednesday, a delegation of the conference, along with the principal of Al-Azhar University, Grand Sheikh El Tayyib, was welcomed by Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab for a long talk.

Several international partners of the FMEEC also attended the conference. The Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches was represented by Serge Fornerod, Director of External Relations.

A lesson for all churches
“Through the initiative of the FMEEC of giving official and high-ranking representatives of Sunni Islam the chance to speak, the Protestant Churches take up a position that needs ecumenical support and solidarity right now. The trust and faith these churches have in their future is a lesson for all churches,” Serge Fornerod summed up his thoughts.

Regarding the sister churches in Europe and the USA, the conference participants expressed concerns about the increasing hostility towards Islam in the west, but also about the partial indifference in the fate of persecuted Christians. One of their requests was: “Help us to make the wealth of the coexistence with our Muslim neighbors as visible as the spiritual wealth that we as Arab Christians bring to you all.” And the Protestant churches of the region also called upon believers all over the world to join them in prayer.

About the FMEEC
The Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC) is a cooperative association of 16 Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed Churches from 12 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Founded in 1974 and based in Beirut, the fellowship’s key members include churches from Egypt, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

The FMEEC was founded based on the insight that good ecumenical cooperation also needs denominational unity. With the “Amman Declaration” of 2006, the fellowship agreed on the mutual recognition of baptism, eucharist, ministry and ordination among all of its members. The FSPC maintains close ties with the FMEEC, which also is a partner organization of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE). Regular relations are maintained between the two organizations.

Link to the official communiqué of the conference (in English)