Hope in the midst of violence. Aid to refugees. Spreading the message of Christ in ancient lands. This is just some of the work the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) has undertaken in the region – providing, in a troubled place, a ministry of peace and presence.
The MECC is a fellowship of churches in the Middle East, the region believed to be where the church was born – and where Orthodox churches have existed since the beginning of Christianity. The MECC originated in 1974 as part of the modern ecumenical movement that also gave birth to the World Council of Churches, and it remains affiliated with the WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.
MECC is home to 27 member “churches” (what most Americans think of as “denominations”) that span 12 countries and represent 14 million Christians. Member churches include the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and Sudan, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt Synod of the Nile, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Iran. Other Protestant members include Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox member churches. Several denominations in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Evangelical families are connected as associate members.
During times of division and conflict in the Middle East, MECC has worked to be a sign of hope for Christians in the region. The churches have used their alliance in MECC to build spiritual renewal, unity and a common witness. Together, they have worked for justice and peace in the Middle East. For example, MECC has worked as an agent of mercy and reconciliation in war-torn Lebanon; has provided refugee assistance to Palestinians; offered support to the people and churches of Iraq; and supported peace initiatives throughout the Middle East (including Muslim/Christian dialogue).
I participated in a press tour of religion bloggers in the fall of 2016, with our travel costs paid for by the Jordan Tourism Board and Royal Jordanian Airlines. During our time in Jordan, we had a chance to visit with Wafa Goussous, director of MECC, at her office in Amman. Here is some of the activity of MECC that Goussous shared with us.
The last MECC General Assembly met in September 2015. It was the first time the leaders of all member churches attended. The assembly lasted two and half days, with guests who weren’t participants only invited to the opening ceremony. The rest of the assembly consisted of closed sessions dedicated to discussing issues of concern, including the crisis in Syria that is pushing MECC to develop more extensive constructive partnerships, Goussous said.
“Jordan is playing a very important and serious role” as the region deals with the influx of Syrian refugees, she said. In the Holy Land, a Christian presence is important, Goussous stressed, and MECC is trying to rise to that challenge.
For example, in Christmas of 2015, MECC engaged a four-month process with refugees temporarily living in Jordan. The refugees were asked: What are you good at? Then they were given raw materials so they could create according to their talents. At a Christmas celebration, the refugees shared what they had created and were seated with guests of MECC. Their creations were not for sale, but all present were “invited to choose and cherish” gifts to take with them.
The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is at full capacity with 80,000 “refugee guests,” Goussous’ designation for the inhabitants. These guests are working to build relationships with local communities and groups. For example, the Jordanian Youth Scouts are encouraged to include Iraqi and Syrian children in their clubs. An ongoing need is for long-term projects within the camps to assist with education and to help with efforts to lessen the refugees’ discomfort and bolster their dignity, Goussous said. The hope is for the refugees to be able to return home when conditions improve and it is safe, but for now, Goussous believes it is critical to tend to not only the physical needs, but the mental and emotional needs as well.
Goussous noted that some larger international aid organizations have come to the camps in Jordan, but have chosen not to partner with local Jordanian organizations. She believes this decision is “a big mistake.” She said that these outside groups need to understand “it’s not about material funding. … Partnership is far beyond money.” In fact, she said the idea of donors is finished; instead, “we are all implementers.”
Goussous believes God is leading the MECC and noted, “we reach everywhere.” She said, “We are keeping the symbol of the cross among all the people” and strengthening the Christian presence in the region, although MECC doesn’t serve only Christians.
Instead of using the term “refugees,” the MECC prefers the word “guests.” Goussous said MECC hires guests to work with their projects, and hopes that model becomes “contagious for other organizations.” Many guests are educated and some are doctors, she said, so it’s valuable to put their skills to work.
Another mission of MECC has been to bring color to the desert in the refugee camps, by bringing in tents, tables and chairs bright with color to furnish the camps.
Some of the refugees are Syrian Bedouins from Al Gouta al sharkia who sought refuge in Jordan because they did not want to be a part of the fighting in their homeland. But, because of their history of being traveling farmers, the Bedouins were not comfortable living in a large camp so close to others. These Bedouins walked until they reached an area with a few farms. Now they live in that area, paying rent to the farmers to gain access to water and electricity.
In years past, many Jordanian families traveled on the weekends to Damascus, Syria, where the markets had appealing prices. Goussous remembered that “even in my childhood, my dad would drive the Dodge” to Damascus. Now, Goussous said that Jordanians tend to relate more to Syrians than to Iraqis because Syria was traditionally part of their daily life and because Syria provided many of the products sold in the local markets.
Goussous posed this question: How do we convince the world to set aside their fear of Muslim extremists when encountering refugees? Without a safe home and without welcome anywhere else, many Syrian refugees headed in desperation to the sea, Goussous said. “You saw ugly pictures,” she said referencing the many refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean trying while trying to cross into Turkey from Greece in mid-2016. William Spindler, spokesperson for the United Nations’ refugee agency, later confirmed the 2016 fatalities. “On average, 14 people have died every single day this year in the Mediterranean trying to find safety or a better life or safety in Europe,” Spindler said.
Speaking of these reports, Goussous said no one was prepared for the suffering the refugees endured.
Despite that, she acknowledged the difficulty the refugee crisis has caused to Jordan. “We also panicked – but we received the people,” Goussous said. Eventually, however, Jordan closed the border, something its leaders felt had to be done “or the country will explode,” she said.
When asked how Presbyterians in the United States can help, Goussous said all efforts must respect the dignity of the refugee.
MECC, for example, gives refugees vouchers so they can go to a supermarket and shop, rather than having to rely only on food the camps provide.
For those in the U.S., helping is not as simple as donating one’s cast-offs, Goussous said. “When a crisis happens, people send containers and fill them with I don’t know what – used teddy bears and used I don’t know what. You feel great, but what you’ve done is unclutter your house. The refugees have given you an excuse to clean your garage.”
Goussous said the conversation surrounding assistance needs to focus more on dignity. “Whatever you bring to your own child,” she said, is what should be offered to a child in the camp.