Geoffrey Rowell reminds us of the need for prayer and support for our fellow Christians in the Middle East
‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…and we beheld his glory’ (John 1.14).
Here is the heart of our Christian faith. Here is the reality of the God whom we worship and adore. Here is the God who, as the Lady Julian of Norwich powerfully says, ‘comes down to the lowest part of our need.’ The Mighty Lord, the Creator of the vastness of the universe, does not stand aside from it, but becomes flesh, the very stuff of our bodilyness, and dwells among us. Yet St John’s Greek for ‘dwelling among us’ is not the word, as in the Fourth Gospel it so often is, in speaking of this identification, for making his home amongst us; it is a word – eskhnwsen (eskeenosen) – related to skhnos (skeenos), which means a tent or a tabernacle. ‘He pitched his tent among us’, with all the echoes of the tent of meeting, the tabernacle in the wilderness, where God was with his people in their wanderings and journeyings through the harshness of the desert, and which was the tent where his presence was known and his glory revealed.
At the beginning of December I went on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for a few days to the north of Iraq, to Kurdistan, first to Erbil, the Kurdish capital, and then a three-hour journey to Dohuk. I went to see and know at firsthand the situation of the many thousands displaced by the forces of the Islamic State, which in August last year over-ran Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and then swept across the Nineveh plain, with its many Christian villages.
In one camp, in the grounds of Mar Elias Church, they were putting up their Christmas crib. It was in a tent, a tent like those which had been the shelter for families who had had to flee from their homes, their culture, their churches. As they put up the tent, and placed the nativity figures in it, of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child, with the shepherds and the angels, it was a indeed a reminder of the reality of the Incarnation: God chose to come down into our midst – he pitched his tent among us.
The advance of ISIS forces, with their distorted fanatical interpretation of Islam, and appalling associated brutality, echoes the invasion of the Mongols centuries earlier, which likewise had devastating consequences for the Christian population of what is now Iraq. Christians and Christianity in the Middle East are under threat as never before. They find themselves ground so often between upper and nether millstones – between the conflict between Sunni and Shia, or between Israel and Palestine.
I first went to Syria as an undergraduate many years ago. In Aleppo, now sadly a bombed and ravaged place, there were thriving Christian communities. I remember being entertained by the Syrian Catholic Archbishop who was about to go to the Second Vatican Council, and talked about his hopes, whilst serving myself and the fellow theological student with whom I was travelling excellent ice-cream. Yet the next day there was a coup d’état, two days confined to our hotel, and then a bus journey to Damascus with eleven checks by irregulars with machine guns before we arrived. The Baàth regime of the Assads, with an avowedly secular ideology, strangely gave a greater freedom to the Christian communities.
Being part of the visits by Archhishops George Carey and Rowan Williams, I remember meetings with both Hafez Assad and his son Bashar – on both occasions as we talked about the Middle East we agreed that if religion was part of the problem of the Middle East it was also part of the solution. Later still, leading a pilgrimage to Syria when it was still possible, we were warmly welcomed by Archbjshop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim in Aleppo – I helped him distribute school prizes – a gentle and courageous pastor, who was kidnapped with a fellow-bishop over a year ago and nothing has been heard of him since.
This year is the centenary of the Armenian genocide of 1915. The vast numbers who died (Syrian Christians as well as Armenian) will be canonized as martyrs in April of this year, with commemorative events in July and September. In Deir-ez-Zor on the Euphrates there is – or rather was – a shrine to the Armenian martyrs, with their remains preserved in glass niches in the narthex. This has been razed to the ground by the ISIS forces – as have ancient churches and shrines in Mosul and elsewhere in a deliberate attempt to eliminate the memory of Christian communities, just as in Eastern Turkey you have to search hard to find ruins of Armenian and Georgian churches, and only recently has the great monastery of Sumela – in ruins since the explusion of the Greeks in the 1920s – high up in the Pontic Alps, featured on tourist itineraries.
The desire to return
The exodus of Christians from the Middle East – including the Holy Land – is understandable but deeply troubling and concerning. It is some years since Archbishop George Carey warned that all that would be left for pilgrims to the Holy Land would be the equivalent of a Disney theme park. Of course the West needs to offer asylum in the direst of straits, but the message from my visit to Kurdistan was quite clear: we want to return to our homes, with internationally guaranteed protection. Living in portakabins and tents, with children with little prospect of serious education, is only sustainable as a temporary solution, marvellous as is so much of the work that I saw.
In Egypt, the country with the largest Christian community, the Copts, are relieved that the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government is gone, and they seek ways to flourish. There are often good relations with the great Muslim centre of the Azhar, as there were also in Syria, where on Archbishop Rowan’s visit the Christian community entertained the leaders of the Muslim community to the iar meal which broke the Ramadan fast on one day, and the Grand Mufti and the Muslim leaders reciprocated on the next. The monastic revival in Egypt continues powerfully.
I spent two months in the monastery of St Macarius in 1979, and was welcomed back as a great friend in October last year, following the ecumenical meeting in Cairo where Anglicans and Oriental Orthodox Christians signed an historic agreement on the nature of Christ. We have a long history of ecumenical relations which should not be forgotten. If you want to read one particular account of Tractarian clergy and the Sisters of Bethany living in south-east Turkey and western Iran, J.F. Coakley’s The Church of England and the Church of the East gives a detailed and vivid picture. Our historic ecumenical links are particularly important at this time of crisis in the Middle East, and when Western governments too easily take refuge in the view that religion is a private matter. (And note how much reporting there was about Yazidis – and rightly – and how little in comparison about Christians, at the time when both were victims of ISIS violence.)
An Eastern religion
Let us never forget that our Christian faith is in its roots an Eastern religion. We have been shaped by our Jewish heritage, but also by the Hellenism of the Eastern Mediterranean, and by the continuing Semitic traditions of the Syriac churches, and the monastic tradition which sprang from both Egypt and Syria. Anthony of Egypt, the first monk, has a powerful saying: ‘Your life and your death are with your neighbour.’ From the same monastic tradition comes the reminder of Evagrius – ‘the one who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays.’ The deep and fundamental link between prayer and theology, which was at the heart of the Oxford Movement, goes back to the same concern in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.
This week Archbishop Warda from Erbil will address the General Synod and meet with parliamentarians – a visit to remind us of the urgent needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, which call us to a courageous compassion, of showing that they are not forgotten, of ministering to their urgent needs, and of pressing government for the policies and action which can bring relief. Isaac of Nineveh, one of the great saints of Iraq, wrote of the merciful heart of true compassion embracing the whole if creation:
‘What is a merciful heart? It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled, and he cannot bear to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.’
The same burning compassion leads to continual prayer ‘even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they may be protected and receive mercy.’
The overflowing of compassion in this merciful heart of all-embracing love is rooted in the heart of God himself, who in that love chose to pitch his tent amongst us, entering into our human condition and knowing it from the inside to the point of death. In that self-giving love we behold his glory, and, as St John goes on to say, of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. It is out of that fullness that we are called to be disciples of Christ, and to live out that love in prayer and care and concern for our fellow Christians in need, in the Middle East and throughout the world.
This sermon was originally preached at All Saints’, Margaret Street, Second Sunday before Lent, 2015 ND