The Middle East: a valedictory despatch
In my former career as a British diplomat, the ambassador’s ‘valedictory despatch’ was something of an institution. It was the custom for British envoys to write a candid and witty ‘warts-and-all’ report on their host nation at the very end of their posting.
Always addressed to the Foreign Secretary in London, the despatch enabled the outgoing ambassador to say what he or she really thought about the country and its government, in contrast to the starchy language of the usual diplomatic reports. The journalist Matthew Parris has published two anthologies of such letters (it was their availability under UK Freedom of Information legislation that led to their demise around ten years ago) and they make amusing reading, the older ones often shot through with political incorrectness.
A few years ago, the outgoing British Ambassador in Beirut briefly revived the practice, this time by means of a blog rather than a letter to Whitehall. He was more flattering about the country and its people than its largely corrupt governing classes (‘Bullets and botox. Dictators and divas….Guns, greed and God…When we think we’ve hit bottom, we hear a faint knocking sound below.’). He also expressed his regret that he had been unable to accept a Lebanese offer of a free ‘buttock lift’, its value apparently exceeding the FCO’s £140 gift limit.
I too am in valedictory mode, as I am shortly to step down as Chief Executive of Embrace the Middle East after over seven years. As a result, this will be my final blog for Embrace.
My valedictory thoughts begin with a Lebanese hue as I was in the country a couple of weeks ago to say farewell to some of Embrace’s Christian partners, many of them dear friends.
I visited a Baptist church in the Bekaa valley, providing desperately-needed assistance to impoverished Syrian refugees, as well as a Beirut slum where the only source of hope is a small Christian community and health centre. I also saw some great Christian-run projects helping children and adults with disabilities.
It was a humbling experience, and it prompted me to reflect on how the Middle East – and the Christian presence in the region - has changed during my time as Embrace CEO.
The last seven years have been tumultuous for the region. The so-called Arab Spring, which began in 2011 brought about the downfall of regimes in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia; The terrible war in Syria, the most violent and catastrophic conflict for at least a generation; Another brutal, unnecessary war in Yemen.
A succession of wars in Gaza and the effective collapse of any meaningful peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The apparent abandonment by President Donald Trump of the ‘two-state solution’ in Israel/Palestine, without any obvious plan for what alternative solution to put in its place. The ongoing violence in Iraq and the emergence, seemingly from nowhere, of extreme Islamism in the form of ISIS, or Da’esh as many prefer to call it.
Meanwhile the historic Christian communities of the region have suffered: Persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, subjected to attacks on their churches and cathedrals in Egypt, humiliated and oppressed by occupation in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The situation in Gaza is perhaps a microcosm of the wider region. When I arrived as CEO of what was then BibleLands in 2009, the tiny Christian community in Gaza totalled around 1,500. Today that community numbers barely 1,000, as Palestinian Christian families emigrate to escape the blockade and violence, and possibly also Islamist rule in the form of Hamas. At this rate of attrition, the last Palestinian Christian will leave Gaza in just over a decade.
Over 2,000 years of Christian witness in Gaza, going right back to Acts chapter 8, when Philip the Evangelist was sent by the Angel of the Lord to preach the Gospel in Gaza, could come to an end. Who then will manage the Anglican hospital in Gaza, or the health clinics run by the Near East Council of Churches, or the schools and the other Christian projects which Embrace supports?
Often in the last seven years I have been asked: where, amidst all this chaos and suffering in the Middle East, is the hope? As I prepare to step down as CEO of Embrace, I give thanks to God that there is every reason for hope.
On one of my very first visits to the region, to Egypt, I remember meeting the Christian principal of a church-run school for children with severe disabilities. Most of the children were Muslims. The principal explained to me that when she was asked by Muslim parents why the Christians showed the love and care that they did to the children, she always pointed to the compassionate example of Jesus. This was the only time her faith came into the conversation. It reminded me of that great verse in 1 Peter 3:15, which almost sums up the Christian witness in the Middle East: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…’
My hope for the Middle East is rooted in the belief that Christians want to remain in the region, and by God’s grace will continue to do so. They have been there for over 2,000 years. They have lived through the advance of Islam, the Crusades, empires, occupations. They have been through much worse than now. Yet they have remained faithful, and have continued to be ‘salt and light’ in their communities.
But we in the West have our own role to play, as we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. That is my other reason for hope: the existence of organisations like Embrace, whose supporters have, for over 160 years, encouraged, supported and prayed for Christian witness in the Middle East. I know from talking to my Lebanese Christian friends last week just how much this support is treasured.