A small group of American Baptist leaders spent almost two weeks touring the Middle East, engaged in interfaith dialogue with Muslims and encouraging Arab Christians.
“The visit was an excellent learning experience,” said Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA and leader of the delegation. “We returned with greater understanding of the dynamics in which the churches in the Middle East live. We were deeply moved by the cost of discipleship paid by Christians there for their faith. We are also concerned for the future of the churches in the heartland of the early church.”
The first few days of the tour included several sessions of intensive study at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon, which has been singled out for its efforts in dialogue and for seeking to bring reconciliation between the two faith communities.
The facilitator was a Middle East expert on Christian-Muslim relations, author Colin Chapman. In addition to these lectures, the group learned firsthand about ministry in the Middle East from American Baptist partners in Beirut.
The delegation also met with officials of the Lebanese government and participated in discussions in interreligious settings. These sessions, which included members of the Muslim community, deepened ABC-USA’s commitment to Baptist/Muslim dialogue, a central reason for the study tour.
“I came on the trip with an open mind, wanting to learn as much as I could, but there is much more to learn and much more work to be done in this part of the world,” said June Peters, wife of Mid-American executive minister Marshall Peters.
While in Beirut, Medley was asked to address a predominantly Sunni Muslim audience, hosted by the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian dialogue, on the theme of “Religious Liberty in the American Political Experience.”
Medley outlined the historic advocacy of Baptists for religious liberty that is rooted in Baptists’ understanding of Scripture and their experience as an oppressed minority. He also spoke of the way in which the United States Constitution guarantees religious liberty in a pluralistic context.
Medley concluded his remarks by stating, “As Baptists we would contend that in an era when religious conflict threatens the peace of many nations, religious liberty is a gift of mercy that provides common ground for the common good.”
One of the highlights of the trip was the delegation’s day-long visit as guests of His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi, a member of the royal family of Jordan.
These hours were spent at the recently discovered “baptism site” on the banks of the Jordan River, where some believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus “in Bethany beyond the Jordan,” as stated in John 1:28. The prince gave the group a personal tour of the vast baptismal compound.
A Muslim who has been in the forefront of bettering Muslim-Christian relations, Prince Ghazi probed core beliefs of Baptists and their understanding of personal salvation. Likewise, the prince shared aspects of his own faith and encouraged ABC-USA to continue its dialogue with the Muslim community in the United States.
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“The prince was down-to-earth and intelligent, and it was good to be around him,” said Alan Newton, executive minister of the Rochester/Genesee Region. “I was also impressed that people referred to him as a friend.”
The American Baptist group also had multiple opportunities to interact with Arab Christians in the Middle East.
One of the most challenging issues facing the Arab Christian community in the Middle East is emigration. Christians, especially young adults from all over the Arab Middle East, are responding to the region’s violence and uncertainties by fleeing their lands, whether to South America, the United States or Australia.
Trigger-points for this exodus can be found in the high jobless rate, extreme poverty, lack of educational opportunities, continuing violence against Christians, and the feeling of isolation from and abandonment by the larger Christian community.
“It is clear that what we do and what we say and believe as Christians in the United States affect them,” said James Ratliff, budget review officer for ABC-USA.
“We left the Middle East more keenly aware of the negative impact of Christian Zionism on the life of the church and the complexities our government’s policies have presented in this region,” added Medley.
Medley also had high praise for the ministries of Dan and Sarah Chetti, who serve as ABC missionaries with the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development.
Dan Chetti is dean and a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. Sarah Chetti, who began as the seminary librarian, has taken primary responsibility for prison ministry with women.
“We were all challenged in our personal discipleship by the courage and faithfulness of the Arab Christian community whose life and witness carry great cost,” said Medley. “And at the same time, we also grew in our understanding of the impact of the international dynamics of the unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestinians. We return with a commitment to pray and work for a two-state resolution to the conflict as an essential expression of the hope of peace with justice in the area.”