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Meeting with a Pope

A Web Log by RCA Mission Supervisor John Hubers

From October 5 through 16, 2003, a delegation of ten RCA leaders is traveling to Egypt, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Syria. Delegation member John Hubers is maintaining a "web log" to keep readers informed about the trip.

Arrived in Beirut at 2:30 this afternoon. Recognized that we were going to be given VIP treatment here the minute we got off the plane. A Middle East Airlines rep was there to meet us. (Us, that is, as an official delegation from the Reformed Church in America.)

"Are you a minister?" she asked Wes Granberg-Michaelson. "Yes," he said. "I wasn't sure," she replied. "You don't have a collar!" Clergy dress is standard equipment in Lebanon. He assured her that he was. Why was she there to meet us--more security, perhaps? Not this time.

When we were all gathered in the connecting tube, the airline rep led us out a special exit to two waiting limousines, which whisked us over to a VIP waiting lounge. There an MECC (Middle East Council of Churches) rep met us, took our passports and baggage claim tickets, and, while we waited in air conditioned ease on comfy sofas, went over to the main terminal to purchase visas for us and pick up our bags.

Then it was out the VIP lounge towaiting taxis, which took us to our hotel. In thispart of the world a visiting delegation of Americanchurch leaders have a status we obviously don't have inthe States! (I tried to convince the group that I hadarranged this for them, but they weren't buying it--don't know why.)

The meeting with CEOSS was around a table withindividual microphones (to counter traffic noiseoutside the open windows) in their new office building.The size and sophistication of their operation are quite impressive. CEOSS is what they call an NGO inthis part of the world--a non-governmental organization.(World Vision would also fit this bill.) CEOSS gets a lot of funds from Europe and America, including from Church World Service. We had seen some of their work yesterday morning; now we were able to hear about its breadth as well as something of the biblical vision that drives it.

It's an organization that attracts the best and brightest from the evangelical church. Sharp operators, all of them. Highly committed. Visionary. Action-oriented. And they're doing great work, in terms of building positive relations with the Muslim community (a must in a society where Christians are a sometimes besieged minority), primary health care and education, women's empowerment, and children's education. They have been instrumental in helping to make a dent in the wide-scale use of children in unsafe work environments, persuading parents and the community to let them go to school. And that's just one of many areas they work on with often amazing success. Impressive organization, any way you look at it.

In our discussions after the presentation we got a question that is going to dog us this whole trip: "How widespread is Christian Zionism among American Christians?" and "Don't these people know how much damage they are doing to our life and witness by their anti-Arab bias?" We're going to get this even more here in Lebanon. Already tonight Wes was hit with it when members of the Lebanese press interviewed him. And that's just the beginning. But more about that later.

The most amazing visit of our most amazing time in Cairo was reserved for last. Last night at 9 p.m., in a meeting that went on for over two and a half hours, we had an audience with the presiding pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which at 12 million in Egypt alone (and many more in what the pope calls "the lands of immigration") is by far the largest communion in Egypt as well as in the entire Middle East.

Pope Shenoudah is a youthful eighty-four. Well, actually he does show some signs of aging beyond the obvious physical ones. His responses are measured and slowed by lapses into silence as the processes of his aging mind take in the question being asked. But while it may be slow, there's nothing wrong with his mind. Sharp as a tack, to use a tired cliché. Sharp enough to narrate the whole history of the church in Egypt, the sometimes tragic yet always faithful story of what is recognized to be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

He spoke of persecution, first at the hands of other Christians, then sporadically at the hands of Muslim governments that took advantage of their growing majority status. It wasn't always this way. Up until the Arab armies stormed into Egypt in the seventh century, Egypt was a Christian country. Slowly, over the years, primarily through economic pressure and the marginalization of the Christian community, Islam gained the upper hand to the point where they are now the overwhelming majority. (Estimates put the Christian population of Egypt at 10 percent.) And sometimes, despotic rulers abused their power, turning a slow squeeze into open persecution.

That's not true now. All Christians we spoke to said things are much better now than theyhave been for a long time. But persecution has in oneform or another been a part of this church's story,enough to make the cross a central identifying symbolof who they are.

The pope told this story as though it all happenedyesterday. The pain of those early Christians was his pain; such is his pastoral heart. That was clear. Even more clear was his compassion for the people under his care now. This is a man of deep faith operating out of a strong, biblically pastoral vision. The Bible, in fact, is his passion, something we noted as he not only quoted Scripture regularly in his conversaton, but at one point opened the large English Bible in front of him (there because of our presence--normally he would have an Arabic Bible with him) to read long passages to us.

The most amazing tale told by the pope was of the spiritual revival he has presided over in his thirty-two years of . . . popeship??? At its heart was the establishment of a strong Sunday school and youth program, which he sees as the backbone of the church's survival. "Without youth the church has no future," he said in words that would resonate well with any RCA youth director. What was most interesting here is that the pope himself was a Sunday school teacher in his youth, as was every bishop in theroom with us (about four or five).

At the end of our time together, which included Q and A, Wes presented Pope Shenouda with an RCA-logoed Bible. He opened it and immediately began poring over it. We must have sat there for ten or fifteen minutes in silence as his elderly eyes were transfixed on favorite passages. Later I found out from our MECC host that he loves to check new translations of the Bible over against his own favorite, which in English is the New King James, particularly those verses that point to the divinity of Christ.

An amazing meeting with an amazing man.

And now we're in Beirut.

Met with a group of Muslims and Christians representing a dialogue group begun by Riad Jarjour, the present general secretary of the MECC, this evening before dinner. Interesting meeting with some very well spoken and perceptive men. They spoke of the apparent ignorance in America of Islam and the realities of the Middle East. We noted the importance of doing exactly what we are doing: sending groups to the Middle East to see for themselves what's happening here. We spoke of theneed for Middle Eastern people to visit the States as well. We hope to help arrange something like this in the future.

But more about that later, as this will be a recurrent theme.

--John Hubers

Posted 10/08/03

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