From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East offers ministry of hospitality

Date Fri, 28 Jun 2002 15:07:24 -0400

June 28, 2002


Episcopalians: Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East 
offers ministry of hospitality

by James Solheim

(ENS) As one of the 38 provinces in the Anglican Communion, the 
Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East is highly 
unusual, straddling several continents and many different 
cultures, offering a ministry of care and hospitality within the 
Muslim countries of the Middle EAst.

"We are a very young church," said Bishop Clive Handford 
during a briefing at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. He 
was elected to head the province at a synod last February, 
succeeding Bishop Iraj Mottahedeh of Iran on May 1. Formed in 
1976, the province includes dioceses in Cyprus and the Gulf, 
Egypt, Iran, and Jerusalem, serving as a bridge between Asia, 
Europe and Africa. "It is about 3,000 miles from Cyprus in the 
north down to Eritrea in Africa, and probably as many miles from 
Algeria over to Iran," Handford said. "That means a lot of time 
in airplanes."

While many of the governments in the region are conservative 
Islamic governments, "they are not hostile," Handford said, "as 
long as we are understanding and sensitive." Seeking converts, 
for example, is strictly forbidden, "although conversations 
about faith are permitted." 

In one or two of the more conservative Islamic countries the 
church must remain inconspicuous and clerical garb can't be worn 
in public. In most of the Gulf states, on the other hand, the 
government provides land for building churches. Handford told of 
 recently dedicating a new church in Dubai with over a thousand 
people in the congregation. "As many as 30,000 people a week use 
our facilities." And dialogue between Christians and Muslims in 
places such as Egypt have been quite productive.

"In almost every case, among work colleagues and religious 
leaders, it comes out of a personal relationship," he said. "An 
important example is the friendship between the rector of Al 
Azhar University in Cairo and the archbishop of Canterbury. A 
few weeks ago, Bishop Kenneth Cragg, author of such books as 
The Call of the Minaret, was engaged in dialogue with 
over 800 students at the university.

"It's almost impossible to avoid our identification with the 
West, even though most of our church members are more often 
Asians than Westerners," Handford noted. "And they still think 
of the Western nations as Christian, using what seems to be a 
convenient stereotype." In the wake of the terrorist attacks on 
September 11, most of the Islamic countries in the region 
condemned terrorism. "Many in the local population see the 
American attack on Afghanistan as an attack on the family," he 

With the Christian community spread so thin in the region, 
Handford admits that there is a certain fragility and 
vulnerability to life in the province. That brings some 
difficulties in holding the churches of the province together 
but he is convinced that there has also been "a gradual growing 
together" in recent years.

Given the minority status of Christians, Handford said that 
the Anglicans practice "a ministry of hospitality," sharing 
their facilities with as many as a hundred other groups in some 
places. "We serve as an umbrella, embracing every shade of 
Christian, from Egyptian Copts to Filipino charismatics." He 
said that migrant workers in the region have a very difficult 
life and "the church is a place where they can be themselves and 
affirm their identity."


--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service.

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