Friday, 9 October 2015

Armenians and Other Christians at the end of the Ottoman Empire and 100 years later

Thursday 8th October 2015

Len Harrow presented an overview of the history of the subjugation and persecution of Armenians and Syriac speaking Christian groups on the boundaries between Persia and Ottoman Turkey. The genocidal 'cleansing' of Armenians from Turkey after the first World War played out against the background of the power struggles between Russia, France and the UK. Between 500,000 and 1.3 million Armenians perished in that period. The Kurds were also part of the militias terrorising local Christian populations in the period where the Kurds were vying for statehood with Turkey and the surrounding powers.A Syrian civil war and the dislocation of central government in northern Iraq also caused the displacement of whole communities in this region one hundred years earlier. It was instructive to learn that the mass displacement of populations including Christians in this region has a long history that underlies the tensions in the Middle East today and has contributed to the contemporary mass movement of refugees towards Europe.

A lively discussion drew on personal stories of Christian families today who had lived in Mosul and  had been driven out eventually. They were now living on charitable handouts in Northern Iraq, now an aspirational Kurdistan.  Referred to as Internally Displaced Persons rather than refugees they live in a political black hole without the protection of international recognition as refugees which they clearly are. The Kurds are generous with their protection of Christian minorities. There may be a touch of self interest as an embryionic nation states seeks the skills that it might need. It may be more political expediancy in the hope for international recognition by the United Nations as a nation state given its hospitality to persecuted political minorities.  The selective protection afforded the Chrsitian community in relation to the Kurdish security forces may yet cause further tension between Christians and Muslims but this is a safe port in a storm for the time being. There may be a suspicion that this generosity is only paper thin and could be reversed at a drop of a hat but the Christian community is thankful.

Further threads to our discussion related to the nature of Islam as an orthodox faith tradition compared with Christianity and Judaism. Is it a misnomer to talk of 'theology' in Islam which is more accurately a 'jurisprudence'. Theology is about the nature of God and religious belief but Jurisprudence is about the theory of law; in the case of Islam, God's Law as laid down explicitly in the Koran and intepreted and customarily expanded in the Hadith.  Christianity is about the person of Jesus and implications of the birth, life and death of Jesus for interpretations of God's Love in the daily lives of its adherents. Judaism sits between a jurisprudence and a theology. Judaism, Christianity and Islam track antecedents from Abraham, the mythical father of our faiths and the Judaism of the prophets and of Jesus who is variously interpreted as a prophet, a son of God or the Son of God.

Islam with its jurisprudence locked into the Koran tolerates Judaism and Christianity as 'people of the Book' but is clear that Christianity, at least, is an aberration and a lesser instrument in obedience to God's Law...Islam is the revelation of the final prophet. Christians and Jews must be helped to understand the lesser significance of their faith by the imposition of dhimmi status and payment of the jizya tax in any community holding fast to God's law.

In this context, what is the value of dialogue. What is the outcome of dialogue when parties are not held equal in the conversation. There can be no place for dialogue with followers of that actually the case in practice.? Often it might feel like that but not always so. When Christians and Muslims enter dialogue together, isnt it the case that both would hope that the other will eventually see sense and convert but more realistically there is hope that both parties will have an accurate understanding of each other's position and find respect for each other at a new level which might allow them to live peacefully together.

Orthodox views of Islam or any other faith tradition blank out the reality of the experience of most adherents of a more nuanced interpretation of their faith. Whether they are true followers of a particular faith or merely weak charlatans may be a matter of interpretation and a usurping of God's ultimate judgement. However, the fact is that there is an experience of the numinous among some Muslims, an experience of reality of God's presence, a personal encounter. The Sufi tradition for example is one such rich human story. Personal experiences of dialogue are not felt fruitless on every occasion and sometimes help each party deepen their own faith....I can think of a personal example where Muslims in Ramallah who send their children to Friends School, Ramallah (a Quaker School) describe their experience as making their children 'better Muslims'.

A rich and varied discussion among a committed and informed group of people...what a blessing. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Zionism,  Anti-Semitism and the Bible.   

June 24th 2015

Rev. Dr. Duncan Macpherson presented this paper to us on June 24th. Duncan has an impeccable pedigree academically and theologically in a discussion of this topic. He was a personal friend of Michael Prior who was a scholar who tackled head on the legitimacy of a modern Israel founded on the biblical promise of land and, of course, one of the founding members, like Duncan, of Living Stones of the Holy Land Trust. Duncan too has an informed interest in the growth of quasi-political religious movements arising out of the historical, sociological and economic drivers in recent centuries.

Who better then to track the various ambiguities around the notion of return to a ‘promised land’ by European Jews and its relationship to interpretations of the responsibility of ‘Jews’ for the persecution and death of Jesus Christ and for persecution of the early Christian Church?  Who better to explore the synergies that from time to time bolstered relationships between Zionism and Semitism and Zionism and anti Semitism?

Averred to  are the political intrigues that established the State of Israel and the vested interests of the protagonists in the First World War and the Second World War in the growth towards the reality of a nascent state.  With a serious look in are the Christian Zionist enthusiasts who would have Jews return to biblical Israel to hasten the second coming.

So who are the anti Semites, the Jew Haters and the pro Zionists and where do the Palestinians fit in to a world history which does not seem to care much for the person of the Palestinian or the Jew in the historical, political, social, economic and religious argument.

This was the stuff of the lecture presented to us and it led to a stimulating and thoughtful debate about many issues including the role that a State plays in delegitimising and marginalising groups of people  that it sees as a problem in its own society.

Colin South

Monday, 11 May 2015

Modern History of the Maronite Church

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Joelle Richa, a research student of the Centre for Eastern Christianity, Heythrop College spoke on the modern history of the Maronite Church especially concerning the development of spirituality among the laity since the Second Vatican Council.

Joella provided an introduction to the history of the Maronites from their origins in the Levant to the contemporary period. Of especial importance to Maronite identity were the links maintained with the Holy See and Latin church communities in the medieval period --- such as during the Crusades --- and the Syriac liturgical and spiritual traditions which informed the lay and monastic Maronite communities.

Today, although there is a general awareness about the Maronite spiritual traditions and the monastic life this is not necessarily well understood either within or outside the Maronite community with the need for greater sources of information to increase knowledge and practical engagement with the spiritual heritage. As the Maronite tradition retains significant examples of eremetical and coenobitic religious life it is something with which other Christian traditions should engage.

As the Maronites have incarnated their faith in the Lebanon and through the use of Arabic and Syriac languages for much of their history so this faith has also spread further throughout the Maronite diaspora to South America, the USA and Europe. Joelle noted that in this international context that not only do vocations to the eremetical life come from the Middle East but also as far afield as Columbia.

This is important towards a sense of maintaining the particular spiritual life of the Maronites in a globalised environment which is not always welcoming to local traditions. The hermits offering an example of how to live a complete Maronite Christian life giving oneself entirely to God. As they are perceived as such examples the ``people" seek to a strong bond with them: evidenced strongly in the retreats which Christian political leaders make to the Qadisha valley in the Lebanon which are facilitated by the hermits.

Maronite social and religious contributions should not just be seen in and for their own communities, however. Through establishing schools throughout the Lebanon Maronites strongly supported the modern Arab renaissance in concert with the Druze, Sunni and Shia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This process of building up the Lebanon arguably resulting from their access to Western ideology and philosophy through their long standing links with the Holy See. Yet into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the ease with which the Maronites engage with the West has complicated the direction of the Maronite Church as whole as many young Maronites travel abroad to pursue business opportunities and to gain higher and further education. Whilst many return many also choose to stay in their new location and continue their entrepreneurial efforts.

The trend for migration expedited in many instances by the effects of the Lebanese civil war and the wider instability which has affected the Middle East especially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The difficulties of conflict causing often physical and mental scars to the population but also creating opportunities for people to rise above and out of their comfort zone obliging them to reconsider their faith and as to how they can contribute to wider society and the Church through becoming peacemakers.

Joelle concluded her paper by noting the very active engagement with the spiritual life which many young Maronite laypeople pursue. This considered to be a very important hope for the future development of the Maronite church as a whole and to the broader recognition of the Maronite contributions to Christian spiritual life through the recognition of the saints in the global Christian community especially through the mediation of the Holy See in encouraging such a procedure in the Catholic churches.

Summary prepared by Kristian

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Being there/Being with: Reflections on interntational accompaniment in Palestine.

Thursday 22nd January 2015
It was good to have the reflections of Alwyn Knight on ten years of association with Hebron in the West Bank with visits to the small village off At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. Alwyn first visited through the accompaniment programme of theWCC Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Israel and Palestine and then more substantially through many sustained tours of duty with the Christian Peacemaker's Team.

Many readers will be familiar with the political situation in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills . Both communities have experienced the general effects of prolonged occupation but also the particular effect of living in close proximity to Israeli settlements.20% of the settlers in both places could be described as 'ideological' as opposed to 'economic' settlers. With the ideology of the minority comes a propensity for violence, protection by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and almost total impunity.

The World Council of Churches' EAPPI and CPT programmes both provide 'accompaniment seeking to provide an effective presence whose functions are three fold; deterrence by 'being there as a witness' and thus inhibiting or constraining abusers from carrying out attacks, encouragement by encouraging civil society's capacity to protect itself non violently and influence by supporting progressive voices inside abusive or negligent institutions.

Accompaniers live in the Old City of Hebron.  IDF soldiers are posted on the roof of derelict buildings opposite. CPTers seek to respond quickly with news of house invasions by the military, arrests,especially of children, clashes at vital checkpoints and protests by Palestinians which invariably result in the use of tear-gas and percussion grenades, oftne escalating inot the use of rubber-coated bullets, and even live ammunition. All of this taking place in an urban setting where children are trying to go to school, and adults are tyring to go about their everyday lives.

CPTers used to live in a simple block built, tin roofed dwelling in At Tuwani drawing water from the well, relying on no more than  four hours of electricity a day and accompanying  children from Tuba and Maghayir al-Abeed to shcool, spending hours on the hills with Palestinian shepherds - eyes and ears alert to the ever-present threat of attack by masked and armed  setlers usually carrying heavy wooden staves, or stones. CPT no longer has a presence there but this description is not untypical of similar situations in placements with EAPPI or CPT.

Such is the stuff of accompaniment. Mennonites provided the intiative in the founding of CPT. A characteristic of Mennonite spirituality is non resistance. Historically  they had suffered persecution by other Protestants and Catholics in the 16th Century. Thousands were killed and some burnt at the stake, drowned or beheaded. Many died in prison. This was the seed corn to a rejection to all forms of force or coercion and of military service...indeed many Mennonites had historically as little to do with the 'world' as possible.

John Howard Yoder in publishing 'The Politics of Jesus' in 1972, helped address the theological challenges faced by Mennonites as they adapted to the world of the twentieth century. Jesus was characterised as ' a model of radical political action' amd this was endorsed by the Mennonite community as the model that they felt they had practiced for some time. This activist stance now owned and celebrated could be considered to be a driving force behind the foundation of CPT. Dianne Row, CPTeer, accompanying Paelstinian children to school in Hebron a those very first beginnings in 1995, in response to settler violence experienced by herself and her colleague, Wendy Lehman,  created a banner depicting a pair of sandaled feet walking along the barbed-wire strewn path with the slogan 'Getting in the Way'. This declared that their witness was travelling the path Jesus trod, given that Jesus' ministry was increasingly understood as non-violent restistance to the powers-that-be, religious and political, of his own day. John Vincent of the Seffiled Urban Thology Unit said 'Christian discipleship is mainly a question of what you do with your feet!' Get your feet moving in the right direction and heard and head are bound to follow.

Liam Mahony in 'Protective Presence: Field Strategies for Civilian Protection' published in 2006 points out that 'every decision is affected by a series of calculations and perceptions' and that a field mission 'can influence these decisions by creating circumstances in which perpetrators recalculate the consequences and make a different choice'. International presence moves the border and tends to shrink the space in which the perpetrator feels he or she can 'get away with' his or her actions.

The being there and seeing and sometimes experiencing first-hand what is happening, is a vital resource for what Mahony calls the most traditional tool of protection; advocacy. ' 'Public exposure is a political cost to an abuser' he suggests. So one of the tasks of the accompanier is to monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

The second function of effective presence, Mahony suggests, is encouragement by encouraging civil society's capacity to protect itself. One of the most impressive facts of the experience of accompaniment is illustrated by the arabic word 'samud' or steadfastness. In the face of oppression, Palestinians have many strategies for keeping safe without accepting the normalisation of the occupation.  The decision to 'stay put' regardless of the intimidation to do otherwise. The determination to find a way around senseless barriers and a determination to lead as normal a life as possible despite the obstacles to that put in their path.  So Palestinians are no inept by any means at protecting themselves but as the head of a village council stated ' Harassment has decreased...the reason is that foreignoers are in the village. The presence in Yanoun of people from peace groups is what changed the situation'.

The third function was influence by supporting progressive voices inside abusive or negligent institutions.  CPTees and EAPPI both concur with a statement made by EAPPI of principled impartiality, ' we do not want to take sides in this conflict and we do not want to discriminate against anyone, but we are not neutral in terms of prinicples of human rights and international humanitarian law. We stand faithfully with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. We want to serve all parties in this conflict in a fair and unbiased manner, in word and action.'.

Alongside the work of many progressive individual voices within Israel and especially within Israeli organisations seeking reform, CPT and EAPPI ask both sides to do a reality check seeking to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian popuation on a daily basis, and are in engaged in the control of that population's everyday life.

The Sermon on the Mount provides many a proof text, some of which have become proverbial such as 'turning the other cheek', 'going the second mile' but also 'love your enemy', 'pray for those who persecute you', and perhaps more controversially 'do not resist the evildoer'.  When you have just seem an eighteen year old Israeli soldier humiliate a seventy year old Palestinian, it is difficult to just 'pass the time of day' and ignore what has happened. It's at times like these that it is worth remembering what the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, George Fox, said about 'answering that of God in every person'.

CPT's challenge is to 'devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war' Its members are now drawn form many Christian traditions. There are Muslim and Jewish members and those with no religious faith but who are committed to CPT's values.