The Middle East: passion and compassion

Sermon by The Rt Revd Michael Lewis, Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Did you hear St Paul’s real anguish in the letter to the Romans? “I’m telling the truth in Christ. It’s no lie. I swear by my conscience. There is such great heaviness, such unremitting sorrow, in my heart.” Heaviness and sorrow and anguish at what? For whom? For people, especially his own people, getting religion wrong, missing the point, misrepresenting God.

Iraq visit with Bishop Mouneer 2013When I visit Baghdad I almost always call on a Shi’a Muslim Grand Ayatollah. He’s about my age, 61 or so, but looks at least twenty-five years older, mainly because under Saddam Hussein his body was revoltingly tortured. Now, with the Shi’a in the ascendant at last in Iraq for eleven years, you could imagine he’d be exultant at a redressing of the balance of power. But far from it. He could speak verbatim St Paul’s words in Romans 9. “I tell you the truth. It’s no lie. I swear by my conscience. There’s such heaviness, such unremitting sorrow, in my heart – for my co-religionists who are Sunni Muslims but really for all Muslims, Shi’a too; and for all believers, Muslims and Christians and Jews, who make free with ‘religion’ and ‘God’ but miss the point; who get him wrong; who traduce his nature and his will.”

There are four dioceses in our Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Between us we cover a region where at this moment anguish is acute. Not every country is in turmoil, but we’re certainly full of heaviness and sorrow and anguish for those that are.

In Egypt an inept and partial Muslim-Brotherhood government squandered its chances, and we hold our breath to see how the military strongman who swept it away intends to rule. Frankly it looks ominous. Somalia remains as weak a state as you could imagine, and the vicious Al Shebab terrorise everyone who baulks at their puritan Sunni fundamentalism. Libya, violently freed from the Gaddafis, now seems to be on the verge of being split and enslaved by militias with aims unclear apart from grabbing ports and oil. On Iran, the jury is out. Under a new president is it finally taking steps in from the cold, or, under its more powerful supreme religious leader, is it bluffing? Meanwhile in that country the active harrassment of Christians, Anglicans among them, amounts to state persecution – a big word, and not one that we like to use so readily as some do. Syria, a nation of mostly gentle, cultured people, is going through the most prolonged agony, and now it’s years, not months. A much feared dynasty isn’t giving up easily, and its opponents turn out to be a mixture of the reasonably well intentioned and the positively dangerous and fanatical, and, of those last, many are not Syrians. Most topically, what’s happening in Gaza – a pathetically unequal and unconscionable conflict in which ordinary non-combatants are apparently calculated to be tolerable collateral in the pursuit of war aims – is only part of a wilful humiliation of the Palestinian people and a shocking neglect of hard-headed,  adult, sustained diplomacy.

All these are in our wider province. In my own diocese, the Yemen drifts in and out of the news as the years roll on: a dictator gone, but not really gone; and three separate insurgencies for the few good politicians and soldiers to contain, let alone disperse. And lastly and so painfully Iraq, where the stated ambition of the ultra-extremists of ISIS is a restored Sunni Caliphate far harsher, far more frightening, far more blinkered and absolute, and in fact more deeply unIslamic, than anything in Haroun al Rashid and the Thousand and One Nights, never mind the last actual Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire.

In our region at this time Christians aren’t the aggressors. At this time, it’s some of those who profess to follow one of two other great monotheistic world religions who are at the forefront of terrorising and killing. In some places Christians are specially singled out, but mostly they take their place among the poor of the land, Muslims and Christians and Jews, who long and sigh for peace.

But of course at other times, too many times, Christians also have killed and terrorised; been puritans and fanatics and absolutists.

Whenever and wherever the point is missed, whenever and wherever religion is perverted, God is traduced: God’s will, God’s nature. Our hearts should be heavy and sorrowful.

The collect for today most movingly asks God to increase in us true religion and to nourish us with all goodness. Just so.

Faced then with cruelty and injustice that’s mostly allied to, if not explicitly in the name of, bad religion, what can we do? What do Christians do?

Certainly we can go back beyond Romans 9 to Romans 8 and at least find the comfort of solidarity. Here’s St Paul again: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long.” We can echo too what Paul says at the start of his great peroration: “What – who – shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Answer: “Nothing. No one. Therefore the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that shall be revealed.” But perhaps they and we should also watch what Christ does in today’s Gospel at Matthew 14:13. The passage follows straight on from the tragic beheading of St John the Baptist, an atrocity no less cruel for being whimsical. Those who knew John are full of anguish and sorrow, and wonder what their world is becoming, and where hope might be. But Jesus goes into retreat. “When he heard this, he withdrew to a desert place by himself.”

Then, emerging, he sees the presenting needs of many, among whom doubtless are not a few traumatised by the killing of the Baptist. He feels their sickness of mind as well as body, their restlessness of spirit. “And he had compassion on them.” When they need it, he feeds them; not just his committed disciples but all who come into his view. Just how much more eloquent can he be about the true nature and will of God? Just how much clearer can he be about who God is, what God does, and how God wants us to be? Just how much more touching, and revolutionary, can he be about good, not bad, religion?

Tragic passion is answered by infinite compassion in a proto-eucharist of love, mercy, sharing, inclusion, and revelation. May believers in Gaza and Hampshire, in east and west, in bad times and good, always have the grace to join Jesus Christ in such a celebration, such a holy communion.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached by Bishop Michael at Winchester Cathedral on Trinity 7, Sunday 3 August 2014.

Provincial Synod

The Synod of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East met in Cairo on Saturday 7 December 2013.


Members of the Provincial Synod


The Provincial Bishops

L-R:  +Mouneer (Egypt and President Bishop), +Michael (Cyprus and the Gulf), +Azad (Iran), +Suheil (Jerusalem)


The Installation of Patriarch Ibrahim in Egypt

Dear Friends,

The following came through to us a few days ago. It seemed timely, topical and very heartening, and we thought you would appreciate it.

Best wishes
Peter and Nancy

The following is reproduced from the Bible Society of Egypt e-Newsletter dated 13 March 2013

Yesterday a new Patriarch for the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt was installed.

New Catholic Patriarch Installed

Following his ordination, Patriarch Ibrahim shared that upon his election to this task, he had chosen II Corinthians 5:18 as the theme of his ministry: “He has given us the ministry of reconciliation”. It was a very encouraging beginning as this young leader explained that his call is to help people be reconciled with God, with man and with society. The Catholic Church in Egypt, though small in number, has tremendous impact through its schools and extensive social service program for Christians and Muslims across the nation.

Many church leaders attended, including Pope Tawadros of the Orthodox Church. Half way through the event the audience was stunned when the newly elected Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros, walked in with five Coptic Orthodox Bishops. Never in the history of Egypt has an Orthodox Pope attended the installation of a Catholic Patriarch. The mainly Catholic audience was hysterical; clapping, cheering and weeping for joy at this historical unprecedented gesture of good will by the leader of the majority church in Egypt.

At a time when Egyptian Christians are extremely discouraged by the fundamentalist Muslim leadership of the nation and feel marginalized and threatened, it was wonderful for two of the key leaders of the Egyptian Church to express their solidarity for one another and share a common vision for effective witness and the co-existence of all in Egypt.

In his moving address, Pope Tawadros congratulated the Catholic Church for the appointment of the new Patriarch and affirmed his solidarity with them at this time. Over the years there has been much tension between the Orthodox Church in Egypt and Catholics and Protestants who feel disregarded or even snubbed by that church. But yesterday was proof that the new leader of the Orthodox Church in Egypt is intent on reversing this trend. As a Bible Society we were delighted that Patriarch Ibrahim wrote an Introduction to the Gospel of John which we had specially printed for that occasion and which was distributed to everyone in the church including all the Government and Army officials and the political party leaders in attendance.

So as you continue to hear bad news from Egypt in the media, please be reassured that God is still at work in this country. There are committed, creative and bold leaders in our churches who are determined to continue to witness for Jesus Christ and to remain in this country as faithful citizens and devoted followers of their Lord. Our context reminds us of the people of God exiled in Babylon being exhorted by the Prophet Jeremiah “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).

With thanks to God and much praise,

Ramez Atallah, General Director, Bible Society of Egypt
Ramez Atallah
General Director
Bible Society of Egypt
Copyright © Bible Society of Egypt, 2013  All rights reserved.

Pray for our region

Bishop Michael Augustine Owen Lewis - Bishop in Cyprus and the GulfI know that all will already be joining with me in interceding daily for the people of our region in these times of unrest and uncertainty. We are praying for Christians, Muslims, and all our neighbours in this part of God’s created world.

I am able to tell you that, at the time of writing, all our congregations and clergy in areas of especial concern are safe and well. In Bahrain, as things stand at present, the Dean, the Very Revd Chris Butt, is remaining at the cathedral, not least to pastor those who have little option of leaving easily. In Aden in the Yemen the work of the Ras Morbat clinic, always staffed mainly by locals, is continuing to serve the immediate locality and all who need its services. Of course in Baghdad danger is always present; we certainly hold the people of St George’s and of Iraq before the Lord. read on