From the Worldwide Faith News archives

ACNS3269 Week of Christian Unity in the Middle East

From "Anglican Communion News Service" <>
Date Wed, 22 Jan 2003 13:39:47 -0000

ACNS 3269     |     MIDDLE EAST     |	  22 JANUARY 2003

Week of Christian Unity in the Middle East

[Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem] Their robes may look different, but when it
comes to working on behalf of the Holy Land's dwindling Christian
population, the Heads of Churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem
have become increasingly unified.

Next week, these leaders and their churches plan to celebrate their common
bond in Christ during the annual Week of Christian Unity. This weeklong
series of prayer and worship services will commence at St George's Cathedral
on Sunday evening.

"Being a minority in the first place in a time of real difficulties, it
seems the differences start to fade away," said the Rt Revd Riah Abu
El-Assal, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. "For hundreds of
years, Christians of different denominations closed the doors in the face of
each other. Today, we're all under the same roof, and the doors are quite

The heads of churches in Jerusalem meet once a month to discuss issues that
impact their congregations. Church leaders say cooperation is on the rise
among churches in Jerusalem and it is becoming increasingly important
because of the difficulty of life in the Holy Land.

"We need the support of [local clergy] to try with all their abilities, and
all their minds, from the deepest of their hearts, to find a way to stop all
these acts of violence," said the Revd Shemun Can, a Syrian Orthodox priest
at St Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem.

The heads of churches have worked together for this purpose in various ways.
In August, they organised a week of peace prayers, with services taking
place at churches throughout the city. In addition, some church leaders have
talked to political leaders about working for peace.

This summer, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem met with Bishop Riah, the
Lutheran bishop and Roman Catholic priests in Gaza and Beit Sahour to talk
with the spiritual head of the Hamas movement. Later that evening, the group
met with President Yasser Arafat.

The three heads of churches who met on that occasion - Latin Patriarch
Michel Sabbah, Bishop Riah and the Rt Revd Mounib Younan of the Lutheran
church - are the only Palestinian heads of churches in Jerusalem. As a
result, they often work together on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Palestinian Christians are flooding out of the Holy Land at alarming rates,
according to George Awad, secretary at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.
In 1967, there were close to 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem. Today, various
heads of churches estimate that figure has dropped into 8,000-9,000 range,
or less than 2 percent of Jerusalem's population.

"The dwindling Christian presence is just one of several issues that local
churches have worked together to solve," said Fr Athanasius, secretary of
the Franciscans' status quo commission in Jerusalem.

He mentioned that Christianity often is fragmented into different groups
with different interests, but those groups have joined together locally when
they have common goals. "For example, the Franciscans are concerned about
the preservation of holy sites, and they have worked together with other
Christian leaders in Jerusalem to accomplish this task," he said.
"Ecumenical work in Jerusalem particularly has improved since the heads of
churches banded together three years ago for Jubilee year activities."

Furthermore, he believes interchurch unity in Jerusalem is much better than
it was 50 years ago, noting a greater spirit of cooperation in the Church of
the Holy Sepulcher alone.

"I don't want to paint too many rosy pictures, but I think things have
improved enormously," he said. "We still have a long way to go."

Ecumenical cooperation is particularly important in Jerusalem, he said,
noting that it's a bad witness for churches to fight in the holy city. "It's
also important that churches work together to curb the violence for the sake
of the pilgrims," said Fr Shemun. "People are looking for the situation to
get better, so they can come to the Holy Land and see the salvation of our
Lord from heaven."

The Week of Christian Unity is an annual event celebrated by churches
throughout the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, it generally takes place
during the week of January 18-25 to cover the feasts of the Confession of St
Peter and the Conversion of St Paul.

Each year, the World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order
comes up with a theme for the event. This year's theme, "We have this
treasure in clay jars," comes from 2 Corinthians 4:7. Materials were
prepared for the event by Argentinean churches, which placed a special
emphasis on the issue of migration.

Jerusalem's event is typically well attended, attracting more than 100
people annually. However, most people involved in the Jerusalem campaign say
a one-week campaign is not enough. Interchurch unity needs to be a way of
life, especially during this difficult time, they say.

"When the floods start rising up, animals seek refuge on top of the closest
hill and help each other," Bishop Riah said. "If this is true of animals,
how much more should it be true for human beings."

The ACNSlist is published by the Anglican Communion Office, London.

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