Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Ex-Hostages Urge Stronger U.S. Church Ties with Middle East

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Ex-Hostages Urge Stronger U.S. Church Ties with Middle East

Article excerpt

Ex-Hostages Urge Stronger U.S. Church Ties With Middle East

In speeches at their national church's June General Assembly in Milwaukee and through the pages of their denomination's weekly, Outlook, the Rev. Ben Weir and Elder Tom Sutherland have been urging fellow Presbyterians to strengthen and expand their 150-year involvement with the peoples of the Middle East.

Although they are best known for their harrowing years as hostages of Shi'i captors in Lebanon, both men also have had extensive friendly, cooperative, neighborly relations with Middle Easterners of varied persuasions and affiliations. Before joining the faculty of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Weir and his wife Carol had lived and worked five years in Nabatiyeh, southern Lebanon, on congenial terms with their predominantly Shi'i neighbors.

Sutherland, as a teacher and dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut (founded in 1866 as Syrian Protestant College), had, with his wife Jean, acquired many friends, rural and urban, across the Arab East. Interviewed by writer Alexa Smith, Sutherland observed, "Maybe I'm naive, but among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the differences are smaller than the similarities. But these small differences have been used to promote wars in the name of God."

Part of this ongoing problem, Weir added, is that, even in secular states like Egypt, Iraq and Syria, "political movements to the right and left, as well as in the middle, claim religious sanction as a way to try to appeal" to various citizen blocs. To counteract such abuses, it is essential that Muslims, Jews and Christians try harder to live by the standards and spirit at the heart of their respective faiths. Beyond that, if they are to fulfill their acknowledged duty of "preaching peace in the name of God," Weir said, they must engage more seriously in dialogue and cooperation with each other.

For interested Americans, the Presbyterian Office of Interfaith Relations, 100 Witherspoon St., Room 3412, Louisville, KY 40202, has compiled a free packet of materials fostering Christian-JewishMuslim discussions of Middle East concerns. (If you order one, enclose a 98...-stamped, self-addressed 9x12 envelope.) The packet includes a solid bibliography, a list of involved agencies, and the full text of the Presbyterian Church's 1991 General Assembly call for a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Gabriel Habib's Message to American Christians

Our account in the Washington Report's June issue of Orthodox Christian layman Gabriel Habib's statement on the Middle East at the New York and Chicago conferences on "A New World Order?" and at a special Wisconsin ecumenical assemblage in Madison has brought requests for more of the substance of his presentation.

The Lebanese general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) detailed how that body came to be the vehicle for dialogue and cooperation among the Protestants, Orthodox Christians and Catholics of the region. His description of "the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace" burgeoning among them was heartwarming. Their troubled part of the world calls them, they nonetheless recognize, to even greater effort for the reconciliation under God that the Gospel preaches.

Most enlightening and disturbing, however, were his brief but candid observations on the "Crusader syndrome." Increasingly, he pointed out, Middle Easterners are perceiving the "Christian West" as out to dominate them and their resources politically, economically and militarily. Sadly, American Christianity's image has been changing accordingly. At one time Middle Easterners believed it reflected the emphasis by America's founders on liberty, justice and the dignity and worth of individual human beings. American input into the U.N. Charter had seemed to bear out that judgment.

Now the U.S. increasingly is identified with a "might makes right" philosophy. Publicized official prayers for military victory instead of for peace and justice before Operation Desert Storm, the influx of Bible distributors in its wake and the frequent demonization of Islam along the way have heightened the sense of a crusading churchstate-military collusion. …

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