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Shepherd watches his flocks in Middle East

20 December 2013

Gerald Butt, Middle East Correspondent quizzes the Archbishop of Canterbury on Western inactivity in the face of regional conflict

geoff crawford

WALKING down the steps of Lambeth Palace after listening to Archbishop Welby's views on the Middle East, and the plight of Christians there, I realised that I had been left with one strong impression: he is a firm believer in the art of the possible.

To put it the other way round, he will not, at the cost of disappointing people, be tempted into actions that look to him to be impossible.

It is, perhaps, wise to adopt a pragmatic attitude towards such a complex and dangerous region, where the minority - and shrinking - Christian community is under threat from militant Islam, territorial wars, and economic woes. The conflict in Syria, the instability in Egypt and Iraq, and the long-running Israeli-Palestinian crisis are among the many apparently insoluble problems of the Middle East.

Furthermore, the region must compete with other foreign issues for the time and attention of the new Archbishop, still in his first year, not to mention the vast range of contentious domestic matters with which he has been presented.

Yet Archbishop Welby, who spent his honeymoon in the Holy Land, and has long been involved in the region through the reconciliation work begun when he was a canon of Coventry Cathedral, says that the land where Christ was born continues to be at the forefront of his mind: "There is this extraordinary power about the place, the whole of the Levant, which I find both fascinating and gripping."

But, despite his interest in the region and knowledge of it, Archbishop Welby says he likes to take special care when speaking out on issues in an area such as the Middle East. The first thing to learn "is that you are deeply and profoundly ignorant, and therefore often the less said the better, at least in public, because most times we say something in public, we tend to put our foot in it".

Reversing the received wisdom, he says that, having had more experience with Nigeria and West Africa, "I have a much profounder sense of my own ignorance there than I do in the Middle East; so I say more about those. But the Middle East I do watch very carefully."

ARAB Christians may feel reassured to know that they are being watched by the Church in the West. But, in my experience, they are likely to derive more comfort from public prayers or messages of support. In the nearly two decades of covering the Middle East for the Church Times, I have noticed that, in general, Roman Catholic churchmen are much less reticent than Anglicans in this respect. Pope Francis, in particular, takes every opportunity to express publicly his views on the region, stating forthrightly the other day, for example, that the Roman Catholic Church would "not accept a Middle East without Christians".

The Archbishop paused before reacting to this. "Historically, Christians have [played], and to this day, play an absolutely integral part in the cultural, political, social, educational, financial, and commercial life of the Middle East - as well as the religious life, which is obvious. Without them, the Middle East would be a totally different place. They've been there for 2000 years."

He agrees, too, that the idea of a Middle East without Christians is unimaginable, but he is not as pessimistic as many others about their future. Christian communities in the region "are going through an atrocious time, but probably not the worst they've ever gone through. At the heart of it, there has to be a trust in the providence of God who has guided them, and kept them and protected them over two millennia, and will continue to do so. So I am very conscious of the pressures on them, but not frightened or worried."

Accurate as this may be, the thousands of Syrian Christian families affected by war will hardly be comforted by the Archbishop's long view of history.

There can be no doubt that Christians in the Middle East have a strong desire to hear from Western church leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. A week before my interview with Archbishop Welby, I asked the Anglican Bishop in Egypt, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, whether his congregation wanted me to ask any questions on their behalf. They did. At the top of the list was: "What kind of support can Canterbury and the rest of the Anglican Communion give to the Christians in the Middle East at this time of uncertainty?"

Archbishop Welby suggested three ways of helping them. The first was through "consistent, persistent, and fervent prayer". Middle Eastern Christians, he continued, "are prayed for across the Church in the West daily - certainly here every single day. It always sounds, when you say that, like a cop-out. But actually prayer is not a cop-out: it's engaging with a God who changes history. The core of our belief is that that makes a difference."

The second area involves assuring Christians in the Middle East that they are not forgotten, by going on pilgrimages to the region and engaging with the communities there. Third, the Church of England, away from the public gaze, will go on raising key issues with the British Government and others.

ANOTHER related question submitted by Christians in Egypt asked how the West could help them without imposing Western values, such as those of particular brands of democracy, thus exposing Christians to Muslim accusations of complicity.

"It's a lesson we've got to learn," the Archbishop said. "All over the world, not just in the Middle East. One of the great challenges in the time of the internet, when everything is so instantly visible, is that there is much more of a sense of cultures being imperialistic. We've got to be extraordinarily careful and respectful about that."

But there were sound theological reasons why Western Christians should speak up for democracy, among them "the benefits of a society that imitates the freedom that God gives us to make choices, good and bad. Freedom of choice springs out of the nature of God and what he has put into the spirit of the human being. It's a theological point. How that is expressed will be different in different cultures. But the idea of freedom is very, very important."

Freedom and democracy are notions still far from the surface in Syria, where Christians find themselves trapped and powerless in a horrific conflict, pitting not only the Syrian army against rebel fighters, but also jihadist Islamists against Kurds and other groups that oppose the Assad regime. If reconciliation cannot be achieved, Christianity's survival in Syria is not assured.

A Carmelite nun, Mother Agnes Mariam al-Salib of St James's Monastery at Qara, in Syria, recently visited Lambeth Palace to urge the Church of England to play a part in reconciliation. The Archbishop's face became pained at the mention of Syria, and his gaze shifted momentarily towards the ceiling. We were about to enter the territory of the "impossible".

Syrian Christians, he said, "are unbelievably threatened at the moment, by both sides, and in great danger. We would be delighted to play a reconciliation role if there is one we can play. If someone in a viable position on both sides says come and help, we'll be on the next flight."

Without the existence of a magic wand, however, "nothing can be done until people are willing to let something happen. If people want to fight, they fight. When both sides think they can win, they will go on fighting." Churches will confine their efforts, "with enormous risks and considerable impact", to the vital part of supporting the victims, the wounded, and refugees.

ANOTHER subject in the Archbishop's "impossible" category is the Israel-Palestine question, where he also believes that the scope for the Church's intervention is limited. He does not, for example, plan to take the Israelis to task for settlement expansion on the West Bank - widely regarded as one of the key obstacles to peace - as many Palestinian Christians would, doubtless, like him to do. It would be wrong, he said, to approach the issue with a partisan agenda.

Instead, one should proceed "with a great deal of humility, and a recognition of ignorance, a recognition of how essential it is that the people of the area do the reconciliation. You cannot impose reconciliation."

The Church's view, he continued, was that Israel had the same rights as every other state. At the same time, all the peoples of the region, including the Palestinians, "have the right to security and peace within internationally agreed boundaries, and the right to justice over issues of land, as do the Israelis. And that's a circle that's incredibly difficult to square.

"All we can do as religious leaders, particularly with the complexities of the history of the British in the Middle East with the [Palestine] Mandate, is to go in with humility, follow the situation very closely. Staff from Lambeth are in there almost every month, talking to people - above all, listening to people - seeing how we can add our own little bit to what is happening from other people. You don't go in saying: 'It's OK: we're in here now - you can relax.'"

Archbishop Welby was also keen to put to rest criticism in the British press of his visit to the Holy Land when his itinerary failed to include Bethhlehem. Did he now regret this omission? "No," said. "I can't be everywhere. We were there for three days. That was the longest I could get there without not going until probably 2015. I was there as the guest of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil, who is a great person, and he set the programme for the visit. It would have been grossly discourteous for me to turn round and say 'Actually, I'm an outsider, but I know a lot better than you do. This is how we're going to do it.' He set the programme; we spent a lot of time in Ramallah. Doubtless, if I'd gone to Bethlehem and not Ramallah, we'd have had the same thing from other places." The Archbishop said he would have loved to go to Jenin and Nazareth, while "Bethlehem is a place I'm gripped by. We tried very hard to get there. It just couldn't be done."

AS ARAB Christians wait to hear when the Archbishop next plans to visit the region, they may feel a sense of disappointment at his caution over Syria and Palestine. But they will be pleased that he intends to work towards Christian-Muslim reconciliation by encouraging a focus on Christianity's Middle Eastern roots, thus addressing the frequent accusation that these have been forgotten in the West.

"Christ is not a middle-class Englishman or American," the Archbishop said, "but a first-century Jew in his humanity, and God himself in his divinity." By emphasising this point, he continued, it would be easier for the West to find common ground with both Muslims and Christians in the Middle East.

"I think it's very important to emphasise the roots and the context of the life of Christ, because that's the only way of beginning to make any sense of what you hear him saying in the Gospels."

The Archbishop recommends, for further reading, Kenneth Bailey's Poet and Peasant, to understand how differently from us Arabs react to and interpret the parables. The more one looks at the New Testament through these eyes, Archbishop Welby says, "the richer you find the texture and the depth of what Jesus is saying. When you do that with a church congregation, people get wildly excited. They begin to see that this is world-changing, not just traditional English."

The Archbishop's final words, as Christmas approaches, were addressed to Arab Christians, many of whom are under fire in Syria, freezing in snow-covered refugee camps, or facing an uncertain future in the face of expanding Islamist influence: "We remember you; we love you; we will do everything we can to help you - whenever we are given an opportunity to do so in a way that can make a difference." Thus speaks a true practitioner of the art of the possible.

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