From the Worldwide Faith News archives


Date 05 May 1996 13:00:57


                          by Alexa Smith 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--When the bomb exploded in Oklahoma City, Victor Makari had 
just arrived in Amman, Jordan, with a Presbyterian peacemaking group. 
     The first prayers he heard offered for grieving families were spoken 
in Arabic by Palestinian Christians. 
     "There was a great deal of sympathy, of sadness everywhere we went," 
and especially so among Arabs, said Makari, the denomination's coordinator 
for the Middle East. "They've had similar experiences:  lost a parent, a 
child, a grandparent in a similar senseless act." 
     The same compassion, Makari said, was extended in Cairo by Sheikh Dr. 
Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Mufti, who is the highest authority on 
Islamic law in Egypt.  
     But back home, few are familiar with the realities of empathy and 
hospitality so common in the very complex Arab world that runs from 
Pakistan to Morroco.  What is more familiar is the stereotype of Arab 
extremists or terrorists who, church sources say, exist but represent only 
a tiny minority of the population. 
     That stereotype reemerged when the Oklahoma bomb exploded.  What 
alarms those who relate to Middle Eastern churches and religious bodies was 
not assumptions that Middle Easterners were behind the bombing but how 
quickly that theory surfaced.  So churches with long ties to partners there 
are trying to tell the rest of the story. 
     "Terrorist acts are perpetrated by very small groups of people," said 
former Presbyterian mission worker the Rev. Ben Weir, who served in Lebanon 
in the 1980s.  "The great majority of people very much want peace." 
     Aline Papazian of Beirut agrees.  She got news of the blast while 
visiting Canadian church partners.  "When you go through an experience like 
that ... maybe you understand.  I felt very sorry for what happened to all 
those innocent victims.  What happened we have lived through, personally, 
in Lebanon during the war. ... 
     "So many in our country lost children, parents, sisters, wives, 
spouses ... and identify very much with [such] strong feelings," Papazian 
of the Middle East Council of Churches told the Presbyterian News Service. 
     She also said she is grieved that whenever extremist acts occur, 
Middle Easterners seem to be automatically accused of being "the authors." 
     K.T. Ockels, former Presbyterian mission worker on the West Bank, 
listed three common assumptions many Americans hold about Middle Easterners 
-- and quickly refuted each one. 
     * All Arabs are Muslims.  "That's not always the truth.  The majority 
of Arabs are Muslim.  But there are also Arab Christians ... in Lebanon, 
Syria, Jordan, Iraq, the West Bank and Egypt.  The largest number is in 
Egypt," Ockels said. 
     * Arabs are wealthy because of oil.  "The oil wealth is only in the 
Gulf states," said Ockels, citing Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and adding that 
many Arabs live in countries with no oil industry. 
     * Arabs love violence and their religion advocates killing people in 
the name of God.  "There are all different kinds of Arabs in different 
countries with different cultures and numerous religions," she said, saying 
even the concept of "jhad," which is understood here as holy war, actually 
means "striving for God" -- a concept that is subject to many different 
     Weir, too, is quick to point out that the Islamic world is not united, 
nor does it speak with one mind.  Islam, according to Weir, is in a period 
of resurgence and religious language is used by its leaders to speak to 
social situations -- something Christians have also done in periods of 
     What is needed is more in-depth understanding, says Papazian, 
stressing how important church contacts are so the whole story is told. 
"Through humanitarian service we are trying to bring forth some justice and 
promote reconciliation ... and therefore work for peace," she said of 
Middle Eastern churches in a world torn apart by military conflict and 
economic instability. 
     Makari agreed.  "It's a human tendency to generalize from particular, 
specific incidents.  To label.  To pigeonhole.  To put people in boxes. 
And to put the burden on others to get themselves out of those boxes. ... 
To label 100 million people is quite unfair," he said.  "We need to open 
ourselves to a gospel of love and justice that liberates us from suspecting 
the other, from putting the other down." 
     PC(USA) budget analyst Elias Sahiouny was 12 when war erupted in 
Lebanon.  The blast brought back bad memories of death and grief and fear. 
What he first felt was fear. 
     "This isn't supposed to happen here," he said, adding how reassuring 
it is to be embraced by his church community in times like these, 
especially when some people of Middle Eastern origins experience more 
isolation.  "Every now and then I share with members of the church the 
experience I had to go through. ... They know my particular experience of 
growing up in war. 
     "And, as they grow to know more of the situation, their overall 
understanding gets better," he said. 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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