February 1, 2013 Volume 27, Number 02
Forgotten ancestorspraying for the Arab Church
By Glen Shepherd | ChristianWeek Columnist
Photo by james_gordon_losangeles/Flickr
Many North Americans have been riveted by the events that have unfolded in the Middle East over the past 18 months. The Middle East is a complicated web with a 5,000 year-old history and strong convictions on all sides. With the rise of democracy, the overthrow of dictatorships should be cause for rejoicing. But the results seem to be mixed, and problems persist.
I won't attempt to get into Middle Eastern politics. But there are other dimensions to consider.
Not long ago my wife and I had two couples visit our home for an evening. Both were from Egypt and were committed Christians. The evening's discussion started with the standard issues of life, family and a superficial discussion of Middle-Eastern events. Later on, we moved into asking questions about culture and the differences in our faith traditions. Some of us fast regularly. Some of us abstain from alcohol. Some of us observe neither discipline. Much of the discussion was about the ways we live out our faith. I found the discussion enriching.
For me, the real takeaway was the reminder of how indebted we are to the Christian Church in the Middle East. Read the book of Revelation and its letters to the churches. It's like a travelogue of Turkey.
Today, in a population of 79 million people, only 0.2 per cent are Christian. Look at the map of Paul's missionary journeys, an investment in building the Church in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Or, consider that Saint Augustine was Algerian and serving as Bishop of Hippo when he wrote The City of God and the "Arab" thread in our faith becomes a little more recognizable.
Much of what we believe and the shape of our mission was hammered out in the Arab world. Two of our great creeds have Arab origins. The Athanasian Creed was developed in large part by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria. A church council in Bithynia (Turkey) worked out the Nicene Creed.
Today, according to the 2012 CIA World Factbook, the strength of Christians in the Arab world has diminished to 10 per cent of the population in Egypt and Syria, eight per cent in the West Bank, six per cent in Jordan, three per cent in Iraq, two per cent in Iran and one per cent of the population in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. That Christian population totals more than 14 million.
Living as a Protestant in France, I was part of a two per cent minority, so I know how minority status conveys uncertainty, incites certain behaviours and engenders faith.
How does all this fit together? My experience with our friends heightened my awareness of my connection in the Body of Christ to fellow believers who live in a much different and a much more challenging context than I do. I owe their ancestors so much. As part of the body I share their joy and their pain. That's why my prayer journal has repeated entries for the Arab Church.
Glen Shepherd is the president of Health Partners International Canada.