On any given day, recent headlines pulled from stories on the Middle East paint a grim picture of the region. Rocket launches and retaliatory strikes. Kidnappings and executions. Peace talks stalled or derailed by violence and tenacious idealism. The advancement of extremism. Entire people groups displaced from their ancestral homes.
Yet a different story emerges when speaking with the Rev. Scott Parker, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) staff member serving in the Middle East. He and his wife, the Rev. Elmarie Parker, World Mission’s regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, have been in Beirut, Lebanon, for the past two years working to build bridges between Middle Eastern and U.S. congregations.
Though life for Christian workers in the Middle East is a somewhat complicated affair, Parker believes their presence in the region is essential and respected. “Christians, and specifically Presbyterians, were part of the people who brought hospitals and universities into the Middle East,” he says. “The work is highly regarded by most people.”
Introducing Americans to the richness of the church’s history in the Middle East, and its continuing mission, is a large part of the Parkers’ work. In her work as regional liaison, Elmarie provides what Scott calls “the connective tissue” that helps build relationships between U.S. and Middle Eastern Christians. She’s also created an academic-level overview of the context of their work, which focuses on emerging issues such as extremism in the region.
Additionally, Elmarie often serves as interpreter and guide for visiting groups, which involves a bit of everything—from ensuring group safety, organizing church partner visits and coordinating the efforts of agencies like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to making sure that people arriving for a Middle East learning and discovery trip are well supported.
Scott says his role is turning into that of storyteller. With a dual background in writing and chaplaincy, he believes telling people’s stories is a powerful means of building connections and fostering dialog about the region.
“I started the work one and a half years ago, investing in relationships with regular people on the ground, like shopkeepers and cab drivers,” he says. “I try to tell people’s stories on Facebook and the Synod [of Syria and Lebanon] website. Those stories have a big impact in helping people in the [United] States have an idea of what life is like here.”
He relayed one such story recently, telling how a Muslim neighbor in Syria helped a church continue its ministry to those in need:
Elmarie and I will never see the Aleppo that our Syrian friends grew up in. It was a beautiful city, with about 4 million people and lots of industry, but four years of war has taken its toll. People are still trying to live there, but the water infrastructure has been destroyed, and this makes daily life an even greater ordeal.
It’s the Christian churches—the religious minority—that are addressing the water problem in Aleppo. Churches have taken it upon themselves to drill wells on their property and make the water available to the community. Yusef, the pastor of an Armenian church in Aleppo, tells us that the water lines at his church begin around four in the morning and keep going until after 10 at night, every day.
Last fall, while making his way to the pump one morning, Yusef was praying. He had no idea how he was going to run the pump that day. Everything in Aleppo runs on fuel generators, after the city’s electrical grid was destroyed in the fighting, but fuel is expensive—if you can get it.
When Yusef checked the church’s generator, he discovered that the tank was full. One might think this was a “loaves and fishes” miracle, but what actually happened is even cooler. It turns out that there is a Muslim man who owns a fuel station across the road from the church. He was always someone who kept his distance from the church, but Yusef learned that it was this man who filled the tank.
Later in the day Yusef found the station owner, thanked him and offered to pay for the fuel. But this Muslim man refused.
He said: “No. I have been watching you. Every day you provide free water for anyone who needs it—whether they are Christian or Muslim, regardless of what political party they belong to. You have loved our community. This is my way of saying thank you.”
This is how Christ’s church is fighting extremism in the Middle East.
Displaced peoples and the future of Christians in the Middle East
For all the positive stories he tells, Parker remains concerned about the long-term sustainability of the relief efforts helping internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and the resilience of Christians in the region.
Talking with, and telling the stories of, people experiencing great loss has become a more common occurrence for Parker since the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) began its campaign of terror and displacement in the region last summer. He recently returned from five days in Syria, where he heard from partner churches about their work with Muslim widows and mothers of soldiers killed in the fighting. He’ll spend two weeks in northern Iraq this fall working among the estimated 1.7 million displaced Yazidi and Christians, telling their stories as well.
Parker is beginning to see evidence that a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are running out of money responding to the increased number of IDPs and refugees. Syria, Turkey, northern Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have all seen a dramatic increase in the number of displaced people seeking refuge from conflict, including those who have been driven from their homes by ISIS.
“We’re expecting a huge crisis if new sources of funding aren’t found to help these displaced people,” he says. “There’s a huge need for more information in the U.S. One of the most common responses I receive from folks about the condition of people here, especially IDPs, is that ‘I’ve never heard that before.’ That’s why the storytelling aspect of my job is so important.”
Unfortunately, the number of IDPs is not decreasing. Parker doesn’t expect relief anytime soon for the problems caused by displacement and mass migration. In the face of mounting pressure by extremist groups such as ISIS, he sees even more people giving up on the idea of staying in their homeland.
“The first thing is, people here just want to be free,” says Parker. “They have families they want to take care of, land they want to preserve, homes. Leaving their homes and land is a huge statement; it means they have no hope to stay. Even in Lebanon, most Lebanese Christians don’t see a lot of future in terms of jobs, education, raising children or [in being] a professing Christian.”
“Land and place are so important to people in the Middle East,” he continues. “I met a couple from Kirkuk [Iraq], and the man told me, ‘I have been turned from my soil.’ It breaks your heart, but we can be present with them as they mourn and consider their next steps.”
Beyond the trauma of leaving one’s home, Parker says there is an ongoing need for psychosocial support for displaced persons—what he calls a “ministry of presence.”
“It comes down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: we need to meet those basic physical needs—food, water, shelter—then we can address other needs,” he says. “We have to address the essential physical needs before we can get to the deeper stuff. I’ve seen so many great examples of aid workers who understand this—that they just need to be present.”
A displaced dentist in Erbil, Iraq, told Parker a story of how important the relief supplies, generally delivered in large mesh bags, are to displaced persons. “He said: ‘The first bag helps the body. The second bag helps the heart,’ knowing that the concern is ongoing.”
Parker says he’s constantly amazed at the generosity of the people in the region, noting that it isn’t uncommon for people to open their homes to traveling or displaced strangers.
“Sometimes it’s hard to take the educational and pilgrimage groups into these situations,” he says. “I wonder if having visitors come into their relocation camp is the best use of their time—and [the time] of these churches [that] host and entertain us. But these visits are a huge ministry to them. These are hospitable cultures—to entertain, feed and serve coffee to people in their homes makes them feel normal again. Part of their resiliency and self-care is to offer hospitality.
“Still, it’s hard to let a displaced person cook lunch for us.”
But these home and tent visits open up conversations that Parker believes are important to the healing processes, even when the talk turns political.
“As Americans, it’s been important for us to hear them wrestle with their feelings about what our government may or may not have done in the Middle East,” he says. “It gives them time to work through those feelings, some powerfully pro-American and others questioning the reason for certain actions. … Even when there are frustrations expresses about the U.S. government, it is always respectful and there is an element of gratitude.”
Extremism and the role of the Christian church
In trying to understand the appeal of religious extremism that has led to the formation of groups such as ISIS, Parker sees education and economic opportunity—or, more poignantly, the lack thereof—as the largest contributing factors to the rise of radicalization.
“I think, in the conversations I’ve had in the past two years, there is a connection between poverty and the appeal of extremism,” he says. “It’s not 100 percent the case though. Many of the people fighting [with ISIS] are Muslims who don’t have other opportunities to take care of their families.”
“Education is a big issue too,” continues Parker. “A Chaldean priest told the Canadian prime minister, when he asked what Canada could do to help reduce extremism, ‘Give me books and I will defeat ISIS.’”
Parker admits there is a sense of fatigue among people in the region—displaced people, those who remain, aid workers, church workers, police, government officials. All are stretched, stressed and taxed from years of ongoing conflict and uncertainty.
“I spent two days in a camp for IDPs [in Erbil, Iraq], and there are still so many people suffering,” he says of one of his story-gathering trips. “I was told, ‘We don’t need stories; we need solutions.’”
“You also can’t escape the fact that the second Gulf War caused big problems in the region,” he says of the U.S.-led coalition effort to displace Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. “The consensus among people in the region is that by removing Saddam from power, [the U.S.] contributed to destabilization in the area. It gave ISIS a foothold—it’s just a reality and one of the consequences of leaving a power void in the region.”
Although there are lingering and long-term concerns, Parker says he’s still hopeful for the work they are doing and for the people whose lives will be transformed by his and Elmarie’s work.
“I think, the strange thing is—we seem to be restored every time we go to Iraq,” he says. “When we take these trips and spend time with church people in the towns trying to help [IDPs], we see the church being everything Jesus wanted the church to be.”
“For me, when I get to write up the stories of those who choose, instead of taking their families and getting out of the country, [to take] care of those in need,” he says, “that keeps us going—seeing the bravery of the church in action. It helps us focus on getting more people involved in caring for the people of the Middle East.”