223rd General Assembly: Overture 12-09
RESPONDING TO THE CURRENT SYRIAN CRISIS
Overture 12-09 was approved by the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis on Monday, June 18. CLICK HERE to view or download the Overture and rationale.
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Presentation to the Middle East Committee
By Philip Woods, Area Coordinator, Middle East and Europe, Presbyterian World Mission
June 18, 2018
Philip Woods presented a brief overview of Christianity in the Middle East at the beginning of the first session of the Middle East Committee at General Assembly. Below is the text of his presentation.
Some Perspectives on the Middle East
I am going to begin with the obvious, not because you don’t know, but because we often overlook the things we take for granted.
Christianity began in the Middle East and spread out from there, becoming a significant and dominant presence. This has had a lasting impact on the culture of the region. Here you will find Christian communities that date back to the first century and have been continuous centers of Christian life and witness since their origins.
Islam arrived later, taking root and becoming dominant in the mid-seventh century, but not to the complete exclusion of other religions.
At various points and in different places Christians, Jews and Muslims have co-existed peacefully together. So, this region is no more a region of continuous religious strife than Europe, which even until recently was caught up in its own religious conflicts … remember Northern Ireland.
Protestant missions were late arrivals in the region, only making their presence felt from the early 19th century.
PC(USA) Partners in the Middle East
American Presbyterians were significantly involved in these missions so that the ….
- Presbyterian Church in Egypt, also known as the Synod the Nile
- The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon
- The Presbyterian Church in Iran, and
- The Presbyterian Church in Iraq
… all look to us [the PC(USA] as the “mother church,” and we have passed on a rich legacy, especially in educational institutions, including many of the best schools in the region and institutions such as the Lebanese American University.
PC(USA) Partners in Palestine and Israel
In more recent times we have added church partners in Palestine and Israel
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and
- The Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East
And many other partners in Palestine and Israel, both Christian and Jewish
A Passion for the Oppressed
There is nothing new about Presbyterians’ concern for justice and human rights.
- In the early part of the 20th century, witnessing the persecution of Jews in Europe, Presbyterians advocated for and facilitated the resettlement of Jews in Palestine.
- And then witnessing the displacement of Palestinians in the second half of the 20th century, Presbyterians began advocating for the rights of Palestinians.
These different perspectives were finally brought together in 1975 in the assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the US in a carefully crafted statement that has informed our thinking since then:
… the church must reaffirm without hesitancy its identification with the Jewish people … as Christians, (though) we must not let our historic identification with the Jewish people blind us to the reality of our ties to Arab peoples as well. Not only are many Arabs themselves Christians, but the followers of Islam also revere the Old Testament prophets, share with us and with Jewish people a love and care for the Holy City, Jerusalem, and claim Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as fathers in the faith …
… The increasing recognition by Christians of the very real and just claims of the Palestinian people that the government of Israel has too long neglected, should not be taken as insensitivity to the Jews … it is healthy that a major focus of the effort to achieve international justice in the Middle East be focused on the rights of Palestinians …
… we feel that sooner or later Israel must negotiate with the Palestinians and the sooner this happens, the sooner there will be overcome a major hurdle to justice and peace (in the region)
… We believe the United States has a commitment to help Israel as a nation to survive, but that this is not and must not be a commitment to support Israel in the defense of its present boundaries, or in pursuit of political settlements that do not take seriously the claims of the Palestinians.
Focus of Partnerships and Work Today
As we journey with our partners in this region today our work focuses in three broad areas
- Responses to the various conflicts
- Reconciliation and reconstruction
- Supporting the Christian presence
Israel, Palestine and the Regional Context
You will have heard that there are two proxy wars currently going on in the Middle East, one is in Yemen and the other is in Syria.
Yemen is relatively simpler. A coalition of Sunni majority Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, is supporting the government in a civil war with the Houthi population, backed by Iran, which is predominately Shia.
In a much more complicated dynamic -- because there are also other actors, notably Russia, Turkey and to a lesser extent the USA -- this Sunni/Shia or more particularly Saudi Arabia/Iran tensions are being played out in Syria.
Iran and its ally Hezbollah has supported the Assad government in the civil war, with Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States backing some of the Islamist factions, like the Al Nusra Front, which are particularly strong in Southern Syria.
Israel, not wanting to see an unbroken supply chain from Iran to Lebanon, through Iraq (which while majority Sunni is currently dominated by Shia politicians and militias) is trying to disrupt the Iranian influence by attacking Iranian positions inside Syria. It is also, according to UN monitors, providing aid to Saudi-backed Islamists in Southern Syria to prevent Hezbollah advancing down to the Golan Heights.
With Iran as the common enemy, new, previously unthinkable alliances have been formed between Sunni majority Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Israel, which does not bode well for Palestinians, whose rights seem apparently, in the eyes of these Arab nations, worth sacrificing for this confrontation with Iran.
Which is where I pass this over to you to do your work and discern what it is that the Presbyterian Church should be saying on these matters today.