The World Council of Churches and the Middle East
Not surprisingly the Middle East – the cradle of Christianity – has been an area of particular interest for the World Council of Churches (WCC) since its own foundation in 1948. Indeed I could say that my own life has been profoundly shaped by the willingness of the WCC to engage with the region. For back in 1973 it was a WCC scholarship that initially took me to study in Jerusalem, at the Roman Catholic Ecole Biblique – which in turn eventually led to my being appointed in 1975 as Course Director of St George’s College, Jerusalem. Quite separately my-husband-to-be Alan Amos had, in 1967, received a WCC scholarship to study at the Near East School of Theology, Beirut, which then led to him returning in 1973 to work in Lebanon for the following decade. When Alan and I eventually met in Jerusalem in 1977 it was directly as a result of the generosity of the WCC in enabling our initial experiences of Jerusalem and Lebanon. So now there feels a certain serendipity that my final position before retirement should be working for the WCC in interreligious dialogue.
I would suggest that there are three important and complementary aspects to the World Council of Churches involvement in the Middle East, though they overlap to a considerable extent.
1. Supporting and offering solidarity to Christians and churches in the region
The establishment of the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre a decade or so ago is a practical expression of the commitment of the WCC to supporting the life and witness of the Christian churches in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine – in often difficult circumstances. In February this year the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre moved into renovated offices owned by the White Fathers based at St Anne’s. It is a generous gesture of ecumenical hospitality offered by this Roman Catholic Order. In light of the extraordinarily difficult circumstances currently faced by Christians in Iraq and Syria, the WCC has been working, with financial support offered by the government of Norway, to undertake research and analysis and to generate recommendations for the better protection, in both the short-term and the longer-term, of religious minority communities in northern Iraq and Syria. The overall aim of this project is to promote conditions that would enable a greater proportion of the affected populations to make a reasonable choice to stay in or return to the region in a post-ISIS context, rather than leaving permanently. The initiative is a response to the accelerating loss of religious and social diversity in the societies of the region, and to the current trajectory towards “geographic sectarianization”. In the context of the Middle East today ecumenism is not an optional extra. There is indeed a need for Christians and churches to be willing to work together and with other communities in multi-religious societies, on the basis of equal citizenship and rights, in order to survive and thrive.
2. Working for justice and peace
A flagship initiative of the WCC is EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel) which brings groups of volunteers to Jerusalem and Palestine for a three month period, to monitor locations of tension such as checkpoints, in such a way as to assist the Palestinian population, enabling for example, workers to cross from the West Bank into Israel for their work, or children to get safely to and from their schools. More can be found out about EAPPI at https://www.eappi.org/en As part of its ongoing advocacy for peace with justice in Israel and Palestine the WCC, jointly with the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCCUSA) recently issued a strongly worded plea at the end of a meeting held in Washington DC https://www.oikoumene. org/en/press-centre/news/wcc-general-secretary-reflectson- peace-in-palestine-and-israel In 2017 WCC will convene a conference with the involvement of the churches of the region, marking the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Palestine and East Jerusalem in 1967 and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Over the long years of the Lebanese civil war the WCC was frequently involved (often working alongside the regional ecumenical organisation the Middle East Council of Churches) with relief and rehabilitation work in the country, and offering support to peace-building initiatives. Similarly today, in relation to Syria, the WCC continues to work discretely seeking to bring together representatives of different interest groups for regular intercommunal dialogue meetings which feed in to the work that the UN Special Envoy for Syria is doing.
3. Interreligious dialogue and cooperation
A long-term bilateral dialogue relationship exists with the government backed Centre for Interreligious Dialogue in Tehran (Shia Muslim) and another such relationship with Sunni Muslims is now being established with Al Azhar Al Sharif, as the result of a visit to the WCC made by Dr Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar at the end of September 2016. A similar relationship exists with an international Jewish group. Such high level bilateral meetings often have spin offs, enabling for example interreligious gatherings between young Christians and young Muslims (as recently happened in Cairo) or developing links between the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom and the WCC’s Ecumenical institute at Bossey, near Geneva which regularly runs an interreligious course for young Jews, Christians and Muslims.