Sunday, August 10, 2014

Living stones: The plight of Christians in the Middle East and north Africa (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 10, 2014)

The Christian church is going through its most important change since the Reformation of the 16th century.

But before I go into details, I want to say something about Christianity and change.


It may sound strange to say that a religion is changing, especially the Christian religion. After all, we’re supposed to be about timeless truths. We worship a God who is eternal and unchanging. If God is changeless and God’s message is timeless, how can we change? Surely, our job is to represent a changeless God and the eternal truths of God’s message.


But the Christian church has been changing since its very beginning.


The first big change was Paul’s decision to drop the requirement of circumcision for non-Jewish Christians. The second big change was the separation between church and synagogue which was complete by the beginning of the 2nd century. Those two changes enabled Christianity to become a universal faith.


The church changed when the Greek-speaking Jews of the 1rst c. were replaced by Latin-speaking non-Jews in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.


The church changed when a persecuted church, a church of martyrs, became the official religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century.


The church changed when the eastern and western branches of the church mutually excommunicated each other in the 11th century.


And the church changed profoundly when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and declared, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”


The church must change because it exists to mediate between a God who is timeless and eternal and a world that is always changing and developing and is full of people like you and me, and – let’s be honest about it – we need a lot of improvement! Harry Emerson Fosdick said it best, “Theories of astronomy change but the timeless stars abide.”


The church is now in the midst of another great change. You may have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating. In 1900 the vast majority of Christians lived in the northern hemisphere. Today the vast majority of Christians live in the southern hemisphere. The heartland of Christianity today is no longer Europe and north America but Africa and Latin America.


In 1900 the vast majority of Christians were of European ancestry, but today the great majority of Christians are of African or Latin ancestry. They don’t look like me or most of you any more!


This is going to have profound consequences for the churches in the United States. Many of the Episcopal churches in the northeast are full of immigrants from the Caribbean. And we know from our own experience that churches in the southwest are full of immigrants from Central and South America.


There is great promise in these developments. Christians who come here from the developing world bring with them great vitality and a deep commitment to the faith.


But these changes also create tensions. It is very difficult to merge the cultures and traditions of people from very different parts of the world. We know a little bit about that at Christ Church.


But there is another problem with the remarkable growth of the Christian faith in the developing world: In many places, especially in Africa, the Christian faith and the Muslim faith are growing in precisely the same areas; both Christianity and Islam are proselytizing faiths, that is, they seek converts; so in many places in the developing world, tension between Christianity and Islam  is increasing.


A report from the Pew Forum and the Templeton Foundation says, “The vast majority of people in many sub-Saharan African nations are deeply committed to one or the other of the world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam... And while many Muslims and Christians describe members of the other faith as tolerant and honest, there are clear signs of tensions and divisions between the faiths.”

But the tensions and divisions between Christians and Muslims in Africa are nothing compared to those in the Middle East.


Last week, I talked about the recent upsurge in anti-Semitism, primarily in Europe but to a degree also in the U.S. Today I’d like to talk about the plight of Christians in the Middle East.


I hope you understand that I don’t want to be an issues-driven preacher. I don’t write my sermons based on the headlines in the New York Times. I want to be a gospel or good news-driven preacher, a biblical preacher.


But there are times when I have to speak out, and this is such a time.


Until the rise of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Middle East and North Africa were the heartland of the Christian faith. From the 2nd century until the 6th, the greatest Christian cities in the world were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople (present day Istanbul) and Rome.


All but one of those cities was in the eastern end of the Mediterranean, so picture that part of the world in your mind. Only one – Rome –was in the western Mediterranean. Jerusalem is in present day Israel, of course, but until the end of the First World War it was ruled by the Ottoman or Turkish empire. Antioch is in present day Syria; Alexandria is in Egypt; and Constantinople is today Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey.


In the first century Christian missionaries not only spread their faith westward as far as Spain and the British isles, they also spread it eastward to Babylon in present day Iraq and Persia, which we know today as Iran. Christianity once flourished in all the countries between the eastern end of the Mediterranean and the borders of China and India. There were even great centers of Christianity in medieval China.


With the coming of Islam the Christian communities of North Africa simply disappeared. Sometimes Christians were converted by the sword; sometimes they were peacefully assimilated into Islam.


But even after the advent of Islam, great Christian communities remained in the Middle East. There were long periods during which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together peacefully.


The great centers of Christianity in the Middle East included Aleppo which has been much in the news because of the Syrian civil war. The Maronite and Syrian Orthodox churches flourished there.


The headquarters of the Syrian Orthodox church is in Damascus. In other words, Damascus is their Canterbury or Rome.


Djezirah, another Syrian city, is important to Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Christians.


For centuries Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, had large groups of both Christians and Jews. Even though Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, his government included many  Christian officials.


In 2011, the Pew Forum estimated that there were almost 13 million Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, but that number is now drastically smaller.


Since the 2nd Gulf War, it is estimated that the number of Christians in Iraq has declined from 1.5 million to around 200,000.


At one time not that long ago, most of the people of Lebanon were Christians, but most of them have fled.


A few years ago when Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury, he and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster launched an appeal to support the Christians of the Holy Land. Williams referred to them as a “witness which has gone on throughout Christian history...often in conditions of great trial and stress...Christians in the West...need to be aware that the Christians of the Holy Land are an intrinsic part of our Christian family"


Williams also referred to the people in these ancient Christian communities as “living stones.” I want you to think about that. These people are “living stones” in a bridge that links us with the earliest centuries of the Christian faith. Losing these communities in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq deprives us of a vital link with our past, not to mention the devastation it causes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women and children.


A few years ago I met with a group of Coptic Christians in Jerusalem, a Christian group that can trace their history back to the apostle Mark in the first century, who told me of the persecution they face in Egypt, their homeland. . Not that long ago the Copts were a large minority in Egypt. At one time Copts accounted for as much as 10% of Egypt’s population, but their numbers have declined by almost 50% in recent years.


What can we do?


First of all, we can pray. Prayer is probably the most important thing we can do. I urge you to remember the Christians of the Middle East in prayer. Remember them by name: the Christians of Aleppo and Damascus; the Christians of Iraq. Remember the names of their churches: the Syrian Orthodox church, the Assyrian Christians, the Chaldean Christians, and so on.


Secondly, we must put our prayers into practice, so I encourage you to contribute to American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The Diocese of Jerusalem is an Anglican diocese that supports churches in Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. I asked Bp Dan about it, and he assured me that it is a responsible organization. The website for it is in your leaflets today.


Thirdly, stay informed. Read responsible publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.


Fourthly, I want us to consider partnering with a Christian community in the Middle East, such as the Anglican churches in Nazareth or Bethlehem. I would love for us to send a group of our people to visit them and encourage them to visit us. We could perhaps provide materials for their Sunday School program or altar supplies. I hope some of you will become interested in this and help me figure out how to make this a reality.


It is fitting that today’s Old Testament reading is the story of Joseph and his brothers.


Joseph’s brothers hated and despised him because he was their father’s favorite, so they sold him to slave traders who took him to Egypt. But Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt, and when famine came upon his family, they turned to him for help, and he saved their lives.


Like Joseph’s brothers of old, our sisters and brothers in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere are reaching out to us, imploring us for help. The question is, Will we, like Joseph, hear them and respond to their need or will we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear?


Make no mistake: The situation in the Middle East is desperately bad. But Christians are never without hope. In the midst of the storm, there is one who says to us, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” No storm, no matter how fierce, can overcome the Master of wind and wave who told us that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.