The World Council of Churches consists of 345 churches representing over 500 million Christians in more than 110 countries and territories. Inevitably with so many denominations represented there has to be some prioritising in where it focuses its efforts.
Nevertheless we are forced to question its stance concerning the Middle East’s persecuted Christians. In the last decade Muslim violence has driven half the Christian population of Iraq into exile. In Syria towns and villages have been emptied of their Christian populations by al-Qaeda. After President Morsi’s overthrow almost one hundred Coptic churches were attacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. 100,000 Copts have fled Egypt since the downfall of President Mubarak.
Apart from a few boilerplate statements on its website condemning violence there is little indication the WCC is aware that Christians are targeted in the Middle East and elsewhere by Muslim mobs. The only area of the Middle East where the WCC evidences practical concern is Palestine.
According to the WCC, the overwhelming concern of Christians in the region is the issue of Palestine. Earlier this year the WCC held a conference near Beirut on ‘Christian Presence and Witness in the Middle East’. The closing statement claimed: ‘Palestine continues to be the central issue in the region. Resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine in accordance with the UN resolutions and international law, will greatly help resolving the other conflicts in the region.’
How is it possible, given the terror inflicted upon Christians throughout the Middle East following the Arab Spring, that presumably sane people can believe that if only the Palestine people were given all they demand the problems facing Christians would evaporate like dew in the sun? The statement above was made in Lebanon, a country teeming with refugees from Syria, many of the Christians.
The Revd Dr Olav Fyske Tveir, WCC General Secretary did send a 234 word letter of solidarity to WCC member churches in Egypt. In it he regretted the ‘attacks against several churches’. Given the word ‘several’ covers fifty churches destroyed and a thousand Christian businesses set on fire on the day President Morsi was ousted perhaps Tveir had something to regret.
He did, however, add later that ‘I hope that this will not be interpreted as a conflict between Christians and Muslims’. Amnesty International titled their 16 page report on the situation, ‘Egypt’s Christians Caught between Sectarian Attacks and State Inaction’. A determinedly secular body could see that Muslims were attacking Christians because they were Christians. The WCC cannot acknowledge this fact.
In the Middle East the WCC is concerned overwhelmingly with Palestine. That is where it places its resources, where it wishes its member churches to focus their attention, efforts and prayers. In 2001 the WCC founded the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. The EAPPI brings Christians to the West Bank where they live for three months amongst Palestinians and then return home to tell others of their experiences.
EAPPI’s core publication, Faith Under Occupation, jointly published with WCC and the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre (2012), places sole blame for the difficulties faced by Christians in the Holy Land on Israel. It also seeks to ‘disprove’ what it calls ‘unfounded Israeli and Christian Zionist propaganda that Palestinian Christians are depopulating due to Muslim fundamentalism in Palestinian society’.
Did the WCC ever consider setting up a similar programme for those countries where Christians are being persecuted and churches destroyed? Of course not, for Palestine is the ‘central issue’ and all will be well in the Middle East once it is sorted out. In the meantime the perishing Christians of Iraq, Egypt, Syria and the other Muslim nations of the Middle East will just have to be patient and bear their persecution with grace and the occasional statement of concern from the WCC.
Members of the Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic Church have faced real danger in providing aid to persecuted Christians of all denominations in Syria and Egypt. The Russian Orthodox Church has assumed a real financial burden on behalf of Syria’s Christians. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is providing aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan. The WCC issues statements.
This year the Church of Scotland had to rewrite a report on Palestine about to be presented to its General Assembly. The initial version ‘caused worry and concern in parts of the Jewish Community in Israel and beyond’. Even the rewritten report has been described as saying that Israel has a right to exist, just not in Israel.
Such is the focus on Palestine as being the only real problem in the Middle East pervading the bureaucrats of the Church of Scotland that the Convener of the Church’s World Mission Council could respond to the attacks in Kenya and Peshawar with a statement including the sentence, ‘This is not about religion, but about people who are seeking to do wrong’.
As Mahboob Masih a Palestinian minister of the Church of Scotland remarks in this November’s issue of the Church’s magazine Life and Work, ‘It may not be about religion for the Convener of the World Mission Council but it is about religion for the perpetrators of the Peshawar bombing and Kenyan attack.’
The Convener’s response is, ‘In one sense he is quite right. These attacks are about religion – from the point of view of the Christians.’ Somehow not about religion from the point of view of the people who shouted Allahu Akbar as they selected non-Muslims to murder.
The Christian Church is under attack throughout the world. Unfortunately ecclesiastical bureaucrats are so focussed on the one issue which concerns them that they cannot listen to Mahboob Masih’s advice, ‘We should have the moral courage to acknowledge the reality without any fear of offending someone’