Magnificent Legacy Faces an Uncertain Future: 5th International SiMO Consultation in Beirut on the Reformation in the Middle East

Written by: Katja Dorothea Buck

At the end of June, a conference in Beirut looked back at the traces of the Reformation in the Middle East. Under the title “The Protestant Reformation 500 Years Later in Germany and Lebanon”, around 60 Evangelical and non-Evangelical Christians from Lebanon and Germany as well as representatives from Islam discussed this topic at the Near East School of Theology (NEST).

Protestantism is still very young in the Middle East. It was not until the mid-19th century that Evangelical missionaries from America and Europe brought the Reformation doctrine to societies in the Middle East, established schools and universities, built hospitals and so set the wheels of continual transformation in motion. “For us, the Reformation is a magnificent legacy, especially with regards to achievements in education and social welfare,” said George Sabra, President of NEST. “But what will be our contribution in future?” The question of the future of Protestantism in the Middle East is more relevant now than ever. In all countries of the Middle East, Protestants are only a small minority but it is very badly affected by the phenomenon of emigration. As a rule Evangelical Christians have a very good education. As a result they can easily find their footing in Western societies. “Our historical, theological and liturgical roots lie in the West, not in the East,” said Sabra and described relationships to the West as a blessing. On the other hand, the external perception by non-Evangelical Christians sometimes poses a problem in this respect. “Many regard us as a mistake of the West in Middle Eastern church history,” said Sabra.

Contributions by non-Protestant speakers clearly revealed how much the indigenous Catholic, Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches regarded the rise of Protestantism in the 19th century as a Western import. “The missionaries did not establish new Oriental churches, they imported new Western churches and assimilated Western languages in their liturgy,” said the Maronite priest Gaby Hachem who lectures in theology at the Université du Saint Esprit in Kaslik (Lebanon). Serj Boghos Tinkjian, Deputy Dean of the Armenian Orthodox Seminary in Bikfaya, pointed out that Western missionaries regarded the local churches as their mission field. Presumably it would have been preferable if Evangelical fervour had concentrated more on reforming the local churches and not on establishing new ones.” As a result of their actions the missionaries had sown seeds of discord in the society and even in families.

The Rum Orthodox priest Rami Wannous described how missionaries in the 19th century were not without prejudice towards the local churches. They poked fun at us for kissing icons. They accused us of worshipping images and condemned our veneration of the Virgin Mary,” he said. “For Protestant missionaries, we were the reason why Muslims had not found their way to Christianity.”

All three non-Protestant speakers also made it clear that the Evangelical mission had positive impacts on their churches. For example, it enriched theological discussions in the Rum Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches, said Wannous. Tinkjian also confirmed this for his church. The central role which the Bible plays for Protestants or the emphasis of social work and education also influenced the Armenian Orthodox Church and “opened new doors in theology. Our confrontation with the Reformation strengthened our church,” he said.

In general, the future of all Christians in the Middle East mainly depends on how the situation in the region develops as a whole. Many Muslims are also aware of this. The Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Shaykh Abdul Latif Daryan, pleaded for a renewal of religious discourse at a reception of the consultation participants in the Dar el-Fatwa, the supreme Sunni religious authority in Lebanon. “We do not want religious discourse if it is based on hate and fundamentalism.” Church schools teach the values of Christian faith and Islamic schools teach those of Islam. “Together it is our task to renew religious discourse and preach the spirit of love which is central to both religions.”

Katja Dorothea Buck is a German political and religious scientist working on the topic of Middle Eastern Christianity since more than 15 years. She is also editor of Schneller Magazine – on Christian Life in the Middle East, where this article has been published first



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