The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) have looked at the complex issue of identity in the Middle East from a Christian Arab perspective at a special conference held in Belfast. The keynote speaker was the author and academic dean of Nazareth Evangelical College, Dr Yohanna Katanacho.
Entitled ‘Hard pressed, not crushed – a window on Christian identity in the Middle East’, the conference is the latest in a series of events organised in recent years where the Church has heard from different Christians living out their faith in the context of the Middle East. This has included the senior pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church in 2015 and the General Secretary of the Bible Society of Lebanon in 2017.
Organised by PCI’s Council for Global Mission, its Global Concerns Committee convener, Rev Richard Kerr, welcomed the opportunity to hear from Dr Katanacho. “In holding this conference we wanted to continue to broaden our understanding of what is a sensitive and incredibly complex region and give people an opportunity to listen to a different voice from the Cradle of Christianity and hear first-hand what it means to be a Christian in an Arab context.”
“Born in Jerusalem, Yohanna lives in Nazareth and describes himself as a Palestinian Evangelical Christian. Of his Arab background he says that his ability to speak both Arabic and Hebrew has pushed him ‘to be a peacemaker and messenger of love as well as justice in a country that is full of segregation and hatred’.”
“In talking about his identity as a Christian, as an Arab, as a Palestinian and an Israeli, Yohanna has enabled us to look at the complex nature of identity in the region afresh and from a very different perspective. It was a perspective that challenges us as a Church to better understand the situation for our brothers and sisters in Christ across the Middle East.”
Dr Katanacho, who is also Professor of Biblical Studies at Bethlehem College, took the 150-plus delegates present on a journey. Starting with the Arabs in the Bible to the subsequent and often overlooked rich Christian Arab heritage and identity that emerged, he went on to talk about the rise of Islam and beyond, and finally to the reformation and recent ‘Arab Spring’.
“I hope that what people take away from today is that Christ is the best starting point for understanding our identity and for designing a politics of love that takes justice seriously without advantage, without stereotyping or discriminating. I can’t separate justice from the logic of love, if it is separate it becomes injustice. The Cross is the ultimate expression of justice and love,” he said.
On his identity as an Arab Palestinian evangelical Christian Israeli citizen, he said that people assume these labels can’t live together. “In reality identity is dynamic, something that is shaped by the reality that you live in. When I say I am a Palestinian I am not making a political statement. I want these elements, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli to be sanctified in Christ.”
Speaking of Christianity in the Middle East, Dr Katanacho said, “We don’t just want to survive, we want to love Jesus and take the gospel to our neighbours. By the grace of God the Arab church has existed for centuries, sometimes it is not easy to take a stand for Christ, but we will continue to survive by the grace of God. If we suffer, let it be. But we want our brothers and sisters around the world to honour Jesus Christ, to honour his will for the Church in the 21st century.”
“People ask me ‘what will happen to Christians in the Middle East?’ It is the wrong question. I ask what will happen to the Middle East without Christians! Our concern is for the Church in Europe. When we kneel down and pray we know we will lay down our lives for Jesus – will you?”
During the morning the Moderator, Dr Charles McMullen, spoke about his visit to Jordan this summer, the people that he met – Christian refugees in particular – and students from Iraq, Egypt and Sudan who were studying at the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary in Amman.
Reflecting on what Dr Katanacho had shared, Dr McMullen said, “It was uplifting to hear someone speak so passionately about their faith and their relationship with Christ in the context of the suffering our brothers and sisters have had to endure in the Middle East.”
“I was struck by the rich Christian heritage, which goes back many centuries, in Arab culture, and the challenges that it continues to face today. I was also struck by what Dr Katanacho had to say about identity, his emphasis on the politics of love rather than hate and his concern for the Church in Europe. An incredible witness for all disciples of Jesus Christ, especially here in Ireland.”
During his visit Dr Katanacho will be speaking to the Church in a number of other venues. These include Second Limavady Presbyterian Church, Lowe Memorial Presbyterian Church and Union College.
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