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Comment > Opinion >

Listen to their voices of pain

The C of E should be a servant in the Middle East, says Justin Welby

NADER HANNA/EAPPI

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Going there: Archbishop Welby and Mrs Welby with EAPPI observers at the checkpoint at Qalandiya in the West Bank, last Thursday

Credit: NADER HANNA/EAPPI

Going there: Archbishop Welby and Mrs Welby with EAPPI observers at the checkpoint at Qalandiya in the West Bank, last Thursday

THE gathering with Muslims and Christians at a reception in Cairo all went well, until near the end, when the host said: "Everyone here is afraid. Say something to encourage us."

There I sat, ticket to Jordan in my pocket, no risk to me, called on to speak to a group of people who were talking with some of the deepest fear and tension I have ever heard.

Much of the press attention has focused on the last 48 hours of the trip, in the Holy Land. But the first three days were in an Egypt full of stress, meeting Pope Tawadros (whose ministry of leadership also began this year, about four weeks before that of Pope Francis), the Grand Imam at al-Azhar, a former Grand Mufti, and a whole host of others. It was deep immersion in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and all I know is that I know very little.

THE Anglican Communion is extraordinary - a wonderful gift to the world Church. I say that from the bottom of my heart. Both the diocese in Egypt (which includes the Horn of Africa and North Africa) and the diocese in Jerusalem punch far above their weight, and do it by love expressed in action.

Both dioceses have more institutions (including a full-size, full-range hospital in Egypt) than churches - institutions through which the love of Christ pours unconditionally to all who come. There are schools, clinics, advice centres, and all manner of general care. Both dioceses have effective relationships with governments, other Churches, and with the Muslim majorities. Both maintain a passionate and profound spirituality, and a commitment to the whole Anglican Communion.

But what challenges they face! Egypt is on the edge: everyone says that; and one person said to me, unconsciously imitating Shakespeare: "I foresee much blood."

We can and must pray fervently for peace and justice in Egypt. I was very glad that, at such a time, half the visit was there. I am trying to visit all the Primates by the end of 2014; to see the President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis (who is also the Bishop in Egypt), and to hear his views on both the local and the global was a vast privilege.

THE Holy Land is another place of great tension and suffering. I was invited by the Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rt Revd Suheil Dawani, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. The aim was partly personal pilgrimage, partly meeting Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, and partly being taken round by Bishop Dawani.

The contrast between West Jerusalem and Ramallah is shocking, however often you see it, as I have done so often. It is a smaller contrast than in many of the cities such as Bethlehem (which I have also visited and stayed in), Jenin, and Nablus.

On the way in, we stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, and listened to some observers from EAPPI (the Ecumenical Accompaniement Programme in Palestine and Israel). Seeing with them the indignity that so many Palestinians suffer on a daily basis was an education.

The visit was mainly to take part in the dedication of a diabetes clinic set up by the Anglican Church. The imagination and enterprise of this diocese of 9000 worshippers inspires me. In the Church of England, we must do all we can to serve them, those in Egypt, and people across the whole region. They are our neighbours.

IN THE Holy Land, it is impossible to say anything without treading on toes, or to go anywhere without some people feeling that you should not have, or that somewhere else was more important.

Let me echo here what many others have said: Israel is a state that has the same rights and obligations as every other state in the world, including the right to security and peace within internationally recognised boundaries. The people of the region, without exception, whether Palestinian, Jewish, Druze, or any other, have the right to peace, security, and justice, especially over land, and increasingly over water. But how can these things be achieved?

In a region where a civil war is raging to the north in Syria, and insecurity is pervasive, it is absurd to imagine that there are simple solutions to the total absence of trust that prevents progress towards peace. As one person said to me: "Mistrust means that every action is seen as part of a zero-sum game, and I can only gain by making someone else lose."

Both sides are eloquent about the reasons for the fear and insecurity. Going through checkpoints and hearing of the indignities suffered daily by many Palestinians explains much. So does visiting Yad Vashem, or hearing from those who have endured rocket fire.

All communities are suffering; the Christians are reduced in number to a small proportion. I would have loved to visit further afield, and to have gone to places such as Damascus, or Aleppo, Sidon, or Beirut. I wanted to stay with the people in Egypt, not leave as the political temperature rose. Over time, I hope and pray that this will be possible.

As the Church in England, we must take great care to listen to the voices of pain, and to contribute as servants, not coming with some grand idea of solution. The issues of justice and fear must be con- fronted (as we were trying to do last week), but in keeping with these wonderful dioceses, confronted with love, humility, and service.

To read more about the Archbishop's trip to the Middle East, visit www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/holyland.

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