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Hallo again to all.

An ancient monastery in Tur AbdinNot long ago, we attended the betrothal dinner for a cousin who is marrying into a Lebanese-Syrian-Jordanian Christian family, some of whom are Orthodox, some of whom are Maronites, and some of whom are Latin Rite Roman Catholics. It was a joyous, lovely event, the food at which caused us both to gain several kilos and to look forward eagerly to the wedding feast and the return of some of the same delicious food. Until this celebration, most of our knowledge of Arabic-speaking Christianity had come from books and websites rather than direct personal encounters. The feast-day and writings of St Ephraim the Syrian, commemorated on many major Anglican liturgical calendars, were the sole regular reminder for us that there was a time when water from the Tigris and Euphrates were used for baptisms quite as often as water from the Tiber, Thames, Niger, Hudson and Amazon is used today.

During breaks between dinner courses, our conversations turned off and on to religious matters in the Middle East, and particularly to the rapid acceleration of the rate at which Christians are leaving places where they have lived and worshiped for 18 and 19 centuries. One of our new friends related in a mixture of English and French that there is not enough room in the large local Syrian Orthodox church for all of the families who could attend it, but that back home there are now hardly enough people to hold services at all. Another friend said that sermons in Lebanese and Iraqi churches have a constant refrain: 'Don't leave. Don't go to America. Stay here.' It was only slightly ironic that the gist of these sermons was being retold in a small town in the United States; their message is obviously difficult or impossible for many to follow. A recent visit to southern Michigan confirmed the general tone of the conversations: in response to economic and social pressure, as well as outright intimidation and persecution, vast numbers of Chaldean Catholics now live in Detroit and its suburbs, perhaps more than are in Baghdad and its environs.

These personal encounters have made us particularly upset about two recent clusters of stories in the news about our Christian sisters and brothers in the Middle East: the first centering on the murder of several Iraqi nuns, and the second surrounding the ongoing struggles of the Anglican congregation of St George's Church in Baghdad and its vicar Canon Andrew White. In both instances, people who have devoted their lives to the service of others in Christ's name have found themselves the victims of violence and intimidation. Less than a year ago Canon White—previous director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral—summed up his convictions for a fruitful way forward in just one word: talk.

What is clear is violence begets violence. It does not matter who commits it, it is never the way forward. So the missiles rained down on Sederot in Israel with increased intensity. The danger to Israel is now increased. If these lives were not the lives of people in Gaza the response would have been much greater. Do lives in Gaza not count? Are they worth less than Western lives? Does the death and destruction of these precious people really not matter? The pain is great, the anger is great and I am convinced more than ever that the only way forward is to talk. This too is difficult, painful and not without risks but if it only saves one life it is worth it. (A day of immense tragedy and joy, 9 November 2006)

Decorative painting at a church in Tur Abdin The rich and important stories of Middle Eastern Christians need not be unknown to us, even if they are not covered widely in the news or we do not live near their communities. J.F. Coakley has chronicled the wonderful and surprisingly long story of Anglican relations with Middle Eastern churches in his The Church of the East and the Church of England. William Dalrymple has written about the decline of Christian life in its cradle in his masterful From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association produces fine publications with responsible, up-to-date information. The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East likewise provides a wealth of information about people very much in our prayers of late, and soon to be part of our family.

Our recent online survey showed—among many other things—that most AO readers willing to respond to our survey live in places where Christianity can be practiced without threat of violence or economic disability. The greatest number of our respondents are from places where we have the luxury of church controversy. As we enter the dog days of summer in one hemisphere and the colder end of winter in another, it occurs to us that it might be worthwhile for us to reflect on church controversy being what it is: a luxury that saps our strength and makes it easier for us to avoid the hard work of peacemaking, prayer, reconciliation, and in Canon White's memorable imperative, talk.

See you next week. And thank you for responding to our survey!

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Last updated: 15 July 2007

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