Saturday, April 6, 2013

Volos Conference on Christianity in the Middle East

Below is a summary of the conference that was held in Volos, Greece last week about Christians in the Middle East.

The Present and Future of Christians in the Middle East in
Light of the Recent Developments in the Arab World.

  On Saturday, March 30, 2013, the Volos Academy for
Theological Studies successfully concluded its roundtable discussion
entitled “The Present and Future of Christians in the Middle East in
Light of the Recent Developments in the Arab World.” The event, which
was held at the “Thessalia” Conference Center in Melissatika, Volos,
was part of the Academy’s broader program of events for the current
academic year, entitled “Theology in Dialogue.”

The speakers (who came from countries or Christian communities of the
Middle East) presented timely perspectives on the ongoing discussion
not only about the difficulties facing Christians’ very survival, but
also the new challenges posed by the so-called “Arab Spring.”

The roundtable began with introductory remarks by the Director of the
Academy for Theological Studies, Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, who
moderated the event. Dr. Kalaitzidis began by noting the Volos
Academy’s enduring interest in the question of the presence of
Christian in the Middle East, highlighting the Academy’s previous
events on the topic, especially the major international conference in
Volos, organized in conjunction with the World Council on Churches, in
June 2011.

The first speaker, Bishop Elia (Toumeh) of Marmarita (Patriarchate of
Antioch, Syria), described the dramatic consequences of the ongoing
civil war in Syria, which has already last two years, for both
Christians and Muslims, while focusing particularly on the
difficulties, dangers, and painful dilemmas faced by Christians in
Syria. As His Grace emphasized in his remarks, Christian religious
leaders are called to correctly interpret the signs of the times, so
that, with the help of prayer, they are able to understand coming
events. The Orthodox Church, after the difficulties pass, must be able
to participate in the new Syrian society that will emerge. That is why
all Christians must play a constructive role in the reconciliation of
opposing factions. Everyone, he noted, Christians and Muslims alike,
fear fanatical Islam, and this is why Islam must demonstrate its
respect for minorities and present its plan for the future governance
of Syria, providing a positive and peaceful solution to the people
demonstrating on the streets. Christians’ role is to remind Muslims
that they should not behave with the arrogance of the majority, but
according to the logic of patriotism, in which all are equal citizens.

Next, Dr. Hanna Grace, Coptic Christian and Member of the Egyptian
Parliament, gave a historical overview of the position of Christians
in Egypt during both the Ottoman period and the most recent periods of
governance by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, eventually focusing his
attention on the treatment of Christians today by the Islamic
government authorities in Egypt. Based on the latest developments and
the results of the recent referendum, Dr. Grace expressed his belief
that the Islamists will ultimately fail to hold onto power in Egypt,
due to the growing frustration with their governance, as well as to
the more democratic and liberal bloc of voters, as well as the Copts,
especially of the younger generation, who increasingly support the
secular, non-religious parties and movements with a view to building a
pluralistic and democratic Egypt that respects human rights and
religious freedoms.

Dr. Antoine Courban, Professor at the Saint-Joseph University of
Beirut, and an Orthodox intellectual from Lebanon, then spoke about
the hopeful signs that have come out of the upheavals in the Arab
world. The speakers stressed that the core of the message that has
sent people rushing into the streets is freedom and democracy, dignity
and respect for the human person. He also argued that, as Christians,
we must recognize Christ himself in the face of every victim of the
uprising, regardless of religion or confession. With the revolt,
Arabs—both Christians and Muslims—are attempting, albeit very late, to
enter into modernity and defend the values of freedom, human dignity,
tolerance, diversity, and peaceful coexistence, values that are
quintessentially Christian.

The final speaker was Fr. Georges Massouh, Director of the Center for
Christian-Muslims Studies at the University of Balamand in Lebanon,
who—without neglecting the risk posed by extreme Islamic
fundamentalist movements to Christians but also more broadly to all
citizens—maintained that the uprisings and revolutions taking place in
the Middle East also contain many promising signs, first and foremost
being the people’s thirst for political and religious freedom,
democracy, egalitarianism, solidarity, and tolerance of difference. He
argued, however, that only a secular—and not religious or
theocratic—government can provide a guarantee for the above, while
recalling that Christians in the Middle East have always been in favor
of secular brand of government and law which bridges the religious

These presentations were followed by a fruitful dialogue and exchange
of views with the attendees, and the event concluded with remarks by
His Eminence Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, who thanked the
speakers for their participation and extremely enlightening
suggestions, while also noting the Metropolis of Demetrias’ enduring
interest in and support for Christians of the Middle East. He also
recalled the important ecclesiastical, theological, and pastoral work
carried out within the Patriarchate of Antioch and the fruitful
exchanges between Orthodox from Greece and the Orthodox Youth Movement
(MJO) in Syria and Lebanon.

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