The Bible Society in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and the British and Foreign Bible Society, in collaboration with the Middle East Council of Churches hosted a dialogue conference among Church leaders entitled “The Magi Initiative: East ⇆ West” from 10to 12 October 2019 at Bethania, Harissa, under the theme: Bringing Christians together, through God’s Word, to support their communities during critical times.
The attendance comprised of around 100 participants from clergymen, church leaders, leaders of faith-based organizations and Christian universities and seminaries coming from all the Middle East and North Africa as well as those representing the “west” mainly from Europe, UK, and USA.
The conference commenced with an opening ceremony. Dr. Mike Bassous, General Secretary and CEO of the Bible Society Lebanon, started with a word of welcome and shared the purpose of “The Magi Initiative.” This initiative, explained Dr. Bassous, aims to achieve a better East-West understanding of state-religion relationships, to build bilateral and mutual support for communities under pressure, and to agree on a common understanding on reading and venerating the Holy Bible.
Dr. Souraya Bechealany, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) Secretary General, also added that the meeting is a stop to meet, pray, think and work together on the meaning of Christian presence in this East, in the light of the Word of God.
His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, President of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), said that fifty years ago one would have died not having known other than their close community; however, today the opposite is true and because of that, the challenge for the Church today is serving in this new paradigm with this new complexity. “There is no east and west in the Church, we are one,” said Angaelos, and added that we must freely join to journey together in genuine fellowship.
His Excellency Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon, shared on behalf of His Eminence Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches that “The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people who, in listening to it, move from division to unity.” He also added his own reflections, citing Pope Francis, who has just published a Motu Proprio (an Apostolic Letter giving specific guidelines), called Aperuit Illis, in which he established an annual “Sunday of the Word of God,” which signifies the importance of God’s word in the life and mission of the Church.
The keynote speech of the opening ceremony was by His Holiness Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Armenian Church Holy See of Cilicia. His speech title was: Our response to the call of God through the Bible and talked about the importance of the Bible in Christianity and its four major calls: unity, mission, service, and love. He then moved on to reflect on the Church’s response to these four calls. His keynote speech, which was described by the audience as a manifesto, concluded with following statement: “The Bible is the source of our faith and hope, courage and commitment.”
The opening ceremony concluded with the presentation of the conference program and a dinner to all the participants. The following topics were presented and discussed in the following two days of the conference:
Topic: Better understanding of respective Christian communities
Overview of pressures and opportunities for Christian communities
Chair: Fr. Dr. Ibrahim Dabbour, Secretary General of the Council of Heads of Churches in Jordan
Archbishop Dr. Youssef Touma, Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Kirkuk
Fr. Dr. Marjan Paloka, Professor of World Religions at Gonzaga University
Bishop Selwanos Boutros Al-Nehme, Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Homs, Hama, Tartous and Environs
Ziad El Sayegh; MECC Policies and Communication Advisor
Oldi Morava, BFBS Director of International Mission
Reading the events based on God’s word
Chair: Fr. Dr. Gaby Hachem, Director of the Theological and Ecumenical Department at MECC
Bishop Dr. Joseph Naffah, Patriarchal Vicar for Bsharri, Zgharta and Ehden Maronite Church
Rt. Rev. Dr. Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington in the Diocese of London
Metropolitan Dr. Nicholas Antipa, Bishop Emeritus of Bosra–Hauran of the Greek Catholic Melkites
Rev. Dr. Habib Bader, President of the Evangelical Family at MECC
Carla Khijoyan, Programme Executive for the Middle East at the World Council of Churches
Topic: Biblical perspectives on Christian communities under pressure
Exilic literature as model for church under pressure
Sr. Dr. Rose Abi Aad, Professor of Biblical Theology Old Testament
Prof. Alexander Schweitzer, United Bible Societies Director of Global Bible Translation
Apocalyptic literature for Christian communities today
Dr. Johnny Awad, New Testament Professor at Near East School of Theology
Dr. Kostake Milkov, Founder and Director of the Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture
Wisdom literature as inspiration for contemporary churches
Sr. Dr. Bassima El Khoury, New Testament Professor at Holy Spirit University
Rev. Dr. Wilbert van Saane, Professor of Social Theology and Chaplain at Haigazian University
Early Church models of engagement
Fr. Dr. Tanios Khalil, Dean of the Religious and Theological Sciences Faculty at Sagesse University
Dr. Jutta Henner, Professor for Biblical and Ecumenical Theology
Topic: Practical ways of engaging with the Scriptures in a sustaining way
Middle East case-studies
Chair: Metropolitan Georges Bacouni, Archbishop of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut and Jbeil
Rev. Dr. Rima Nasrallah; Professor of Practical Theology at Near East School of Theology
Gergis Saleh; Coordinator between Coptic and Middle Eastern Churches
Fr. Dr. Youhanna Yasmine, Priest of St. Barbara Orthodox Church, Jbeil
Rev. Canon Faeq Haddad, Episcopalian Church of Jordan
Dr. Cristian Romocea, Senior Bible Advocate, International Bible Advocacy Center
Western European case-studies
Chair: Fr. Dr. Edgard El Haiby, Director of the Higher Institute of Religious Sciences at Saint Joseph Univeristy
Rt. Rev. Dr. Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington in the Diocese of London,
Rt. Rev. Dr. Gerold Lehner, Superintendent of the Lutheran Church of Upper Austria
Joseph Rida, Representative of HH Pope Tawadros II
Fr. Wissam Mansour, Director of Latin Patriarchal schools in Jordan
Rev. Russell Winfield, Director of Development at St. Mellitus College, London
The conference concluded with a communique which summarized a joint statement of the participants and appointed a follow-up steering workgroup, and ended with lunch.
The Bible Society’s vision is to holistically meet the needs of communities through the transforming Word of God. As a Christian inter-confessional, ecumenical, non-profit organization, it works to spread the Holy Bible’s message and culture to all generations through translating, publishing, and distributing the Scriptures using visual, audio-visual, readable, and digital formats, encouraging people to read and engage with God’s Word, advocating the Bible cause to uphold human dignity, and partnering with all Churches and Christian institutions.