The Middle East Council of Churches

MECC Presidents
History and Mission

Page Contents:
1. History and Character
2. Council Leaders (1974-1996)
3. Introduction to the M.E.C.C.
4. The M.E.C.C. Logo
5. Christians Common Message Today
6. The Council Five Themes

1. History and Character

It is difficult to pinpoint when the search for reconciliation between the strands of the unraveled Church began. In the Middle East, the release of churches trapped in the Ottoman ‘millet’ system played a part. Certainly the uneasy conscience of many sensitive Christians over the centuries prepared the way for true metanoya, and gave access to the spiritual tools for taking up the task.

In 1902 the Ecumenical Patriarch, Yoachim III, Patriarch of Constan-tinople, issued an encyclical. In it he raised the issue of Christian unity and Orthodox relations with Roman Catholics and Protestants. Eighteen years later the Patriarchate issued another encyclical entitled, “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere.” It encouraged the spirit of reconciliation, drawing upon the scripture, “Love one another earnestly from the heart.” (I Peter 1:22) From the highest seat of Greek Orthodoxy, these expressions echo a deep and broadening Christian longing in the Middle East, an ‘ecumenism before ecumen-ism,’ to set aside the acrimony and contention between Christian brothers and sisters, and seek those things which make for peace. This readiness in the region resonated to developments within the younger churches of the West. Their international engagements through the missionary movement they had launched broadened their vision. In 1910 the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh gave birth to three complementary movements: The International Missionary Council, Faith and Order, and Life and Work. In them the main Protestant churches declared their intention to move toward unity and reconciliation, an intention which matured in 1948 and 1961 in the formation of the World Council of Churches.

Even before 1910, Protestant missions in the Middle East had been seeking ways to relate more closely to each other. In 1924, missionaries met in Jerusalem and organized two United Missionary Councils. These laid foundations for what became the Near East Christian Council in 1956, a coordinating body supplying commonly needed services and reflecting the desire to temper self-interest with a commitment to cooperation and united witness. Eventually the ‘NECC’ brought together thirty-six Christian agencies, and involved the churches related to those agencies in full partnership.

The history of the first NECC shows missionary paternalism yielding to a more profound understanding of ecclesiology and witness. The mission agencies eventually stepped aside. In 1962 a fellowship of middle eastern Protestant churches known as the Near East Council of Churches (still NECC but with a profound difference) came into being.

Ever since the 1930s, amicable contacts between Protestant groups and the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches of the region had been cultivated. These already had a responsive chord to strike in Orthodox spirituality, but decades of exploitation, competition and tension had to be overcome. Much healing had to take place.

In 1964 these informal efforts were amplified into an intentional dialogue. By 1972 sufficient progress had been made to charge a drafting committee to bring forward a constitution and by-laws which would organize a council having full ecumenical dimensions in the region. At the end of May 1974 the Middle East Council of Churches was brought into being at its First General Assembly in Nicosia, Cyprus. But the task was not yet done. Among those issuing the landmark Pastoral Epistle of the Heads of Churches in the Middle East in 1984 stood Catholic prelates. This gave evidence to the continuing dialogue between the See of Rome and the churches from which it had been divided. From the outset Catholics had been observers of the middle eastern councilliar process, and significant individuals had become deeply involved with the council. At the Fifth General Assembly of 1990, after much dialogue and negotiating, the seven Catholic churches of the Middle East joined the council as its fourth family. This symbolically completed a square of wholeness, and made of the council a fully inclusive body.

Looking forward toward the Year 2000, there remain several small non-councilliar Protestant churches in the region with links to non-ecumenical western churches and mission agencies. Dialogue with them (and with their partners) continues.

But among the principal councilliar churches still not fully within the middle eastern ecumenical stream is the Ancient (Assyrian) Church of the East. The Sixth General Assembly, in 1994, took action to accelerate the process whereby this ancient community, representing the strongest Christian presence in war-torn Iraq, should be admitted to full membership in the MECC. The MECC Executive Committee at its Fall meeting in 1995, acted to approve the membership of this church within the Catholic family under the name ‘The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East.’ The dream shall have become a reality, therefore, at the MECC’s next General Assembly.

2. Council Leaders (1974-1996)

Over the years, the MECC has been gifted with remarkable leaders. We now note only those who have served as Presidents and General Secretaries. But it must be borne in mind that others have made profound contributions to the progress of this ecumenical organization, both from within its structures and as friends encouraging it from other vantage points.

The first MECC General Assembly in May, 1974, elected as its leaders the pioneer ecumenists, Rev. Dr. Hovannes Aharonian, His Eminence Metropolitan (now His Beatitude Patriarch) Ignatius IV Hazim, and His Eminence Anba Samuel. Between them, they laid strong foundations and articulated the vision for the MECC’s life and witness for years to come.

Along with President Sadat of Egypt, Anba Samuel was tragically assassinated on October 3, 1981. His reconciliatory spirit and broad vision have been sorely missed in ecumenical circles since. His colleague, His Eminence Metropolitan Anba Athanasius of Bani Sweif, stepped in to fill the breach and serve out Anba Samuel’s unexpired term. Along with Anba Athanasius, Dr. Aharonian, in failing health, stepped down at the General Assembly of 1985. Dr. Aharonian’s death on August 18, 1986 was deeply felt in the ecumenical community.

In 1985 Patriarch Hazim was re-elected. He was joined in the presidency by His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II Sarkissian of Cilicia, a visionary man with strong ecumenical commitments, and by His Grace the Most Reverend Bishop Samir Kafity, a man with a strong record of ecumenical involvement. At the General Assembly of 1990 Catholicos Karekin, in his turn, stepped down. He was succeeded by His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas. The newly joined Catholic family was represented among the MECC’s Presidents of 1990 by His Eminence Bishop Yousef el-Khoury. Sadly, Bishop Yousef died in mid-term on February 5, 1992. He was succeeded by His Beatitude Patriarch Jeane Pierre XVIII .htmlarian in that same year. Patriarch Hazim and Bishop Kafity continued in their presidential responsibilities until, along with the other two serving Presidents, they stepped down in 1994 and, joining Catholicos Karekin in that dignity, were elected Honorary Presidents of the MECC. They were succeeded by four new presidents, each a remarkable individual committed to the MECC’s ecumenical mission: His Holiness Pope Shenoudah III, His Holiness Patriarch Parthenios III, His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah, and Rev. Dr. Salim Sahiouny. With a great sense of sorrow the Church in the Middle East and the Council sustained the loss of His Holiness Parthenios III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa. He died on Tuesday, the 23rd of July, 1996. In his ecclesiastical office he has been succeeded by the ecumenically active Cyprus-born Patriarch Petros VII Papapetrou, and as president of the MECC by Metropolitan Chrysanthos of Limassol, a deeply committed ecumenical figure.

The General Secretaries of the Council, while fewer in number, are also servants with distinguished records: Carrying over from the Near East Council of Churches, the first General Secretary of the MECC from 1974 to 1977 was Rev. Albert Istero. He was succeeded by the ecumenical visionary, Mr. Gabriel Habib, from 1977 through 1994, a remarkable seventeen years of service. In November, 1994, Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, a veteran ecumenical servant in the Middle East Council of Churches, was elected General Secretary and currently serves.

3. Introduction to the M.E.C.C.

The Middle East Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches relating itself to the main stream of the modern ecumenical movement, the same which gave birth to the World Council and other regional ecumenical councils throughout the world.

The first and most remarkable feature of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) is its setting. It was through the Middle East that Abraham, his children and grandchildren migrated. Here the ancient Hebrew tribes wandered; the judges, prophets, priests, kings, singers and sages who gave voice to scripture were nurtured here. And it was here that the Incarnation took place, and the redeeming ministry of Christ fulfilled. The Church was born in the Middle East, and here the early controversies played themselves out and the first divisions in the Church occurred. The people and churches which form the council are the direct heirs of all of that. And the vibrant ecumenical movement to which the council gives expression in this region is a profound healing process. A glimpse of the Tree of Life whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2) is somehow not so distant here.

The second feature is geo-political. Powerful forces swirl and eddy in this region. They break out from time to time in violence. Death, misery and exploitation are no strangers. Economic forces, ethnic movements, big power pressures, religious passions … they make for a heady mix of variables drawing in influences and interests from around the world, and predators abound. In the midst of this, for the past quarter century there has been the MECC, commited to witness and serve in Christ’s name. The circumstances of human dysfunction place upon it an overwhelming burden. People in the Middle East have reason to be suspicious of those who say they want to do them good. Wolves in sheep’s clothing have been plentiful. In a region overwhelmingly Muslim in complexion, it is remarkable that the council, an indigenous Christian agency, should retain the credibility rating it does. It has worked quietly and effectively as an agent of mercy and reconciliation in war-torn Lebanon; it has interceded in the delicate dialogue between the Palestinians and the world, preparing some of the more important pathways that led to the peace process; it was early on the scene in post-war Iraq; it initiated discussions within Arab society to engage both Muslims and Christians in the examination of what should go into building a just and peaceful civil society; and it has participated in some momentous initiatives of Christian reconciliation. There is a pivotal quality to the MECC, and that pivot has integrity. Having a legacy directly tied into the early days of the ecumenical movement, the Council has served in another remarkable way. Because of its long-standing partnerships with churches and Christian agencies both in the West and in the East, it depicts as no other body in this region that the love of Christ transcends barriers and makes of humanity one people. By the sheer fact of its existence it is a testimony to the fact that healing can happen.

Finally, there is the intimacy of the Council. The twelve to fourteen million souls who claim Christ’s name in the Middle East are few in number when compared to the constituents of similar ecumenical associations elsewhere. But being small means that people know each other, and there is a bond of kinship that is rather special. It is no accident, therefore, that the Council chose to organize itself as a family of families—the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Catholic and Protestant families. Each makes its contribution to the witness of all. This, then, is the Middle East Council of Churches. We invite you to become better acquainted with it.

4. The M.E.C.C. Logo

The logo of the Middle East Council of Churches is composed of four major elements: the cross, the ‘Chi-Roh,’ the fish, and the oval. The cross is central to the figure. It controls the form of the second element, the ‘Chi-Roh,’ an ancient Christian symbol formed of the first two Greek letters of the name, ‘Christ,’ meaning, ‘the Anointed.’

The fish is another early Christian symbol. The Greek word for fish, ICQUS, can be seen as an acrostic standing for ‘Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.’ The oval, like the circle, is meant to represent unity, the main purpose of the Council’s existence – the churches working together, trying to fulfill Christ’s prayer for God-given unity among his disciples. The oval shape also suggests the colored eggs which are distributed in eastern churches as a symbol of the Resurrection at Eastertide.

5. Christians Common Message Today

Since its founding and first General Assembly in May 1974, the Middle East Council of Churches has kept true to its conviction that the Church’s ministry in the region is relevant and crucial. Celebrating and using its diversity of traditions and gifts, the Church is entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation—cornerstone of the Kingdom, fountainhead of hope and the binding force which draws Christians toward each other in the Spirit’s fellowship. It breaks down walls of enmity between themselves, and between them and other people of sincere faith. In the end, in a divided and violent world, it forges links of peace and wholeness whose strength is Jesus the Christ, the Prince of Peace.

6. The Council Five Themes

This seminal outlook continues to deepen as the MECC discovers how increasingly significant its role becomes in the Middle East and worldwide. Five key themes characterizing its program and activities:

  1. The MECC is committed to strengthen a sense of unity, confidence, continuity and purpose within the fellowships of its member churches. The activities and programs of the council seek to encourage Christians to remain in the region and to make positive contributions towards its new and better future.
  2. The MECC encourages its member churches to support and uphold each other as they help their people understand their faith and witness. Within the MECC Christian dialogue takes place on all levels, from the pastoral grass-roots to academic halls, from formal dialogue among church leaders to the day-to-day fellowship among Christians on the street. With greater maturity, they respond to the demands of their faith and witness.
  3. The MECC builds bridges of understanding and mutual respect between Christians and people of other faiths. The council believes that Christians have a vital role to play within the Middle East’s pluralistic society. Although numerically small, a self-confident and committed Christian community knows how to respect and celebrate diversity. The MECC is therefore well positioned to be a bridge between people of different faiths.
  4. The MECC nurtures within the churches the spirit and resources for service (diakonia). The Middle East is an arena for economic, political and often violent conflict. In this environment the legions of the poor, the down-trodden and exploited, the sick and suffering, the deprived, disenfranchised, and displaced grow more numerous every day. What guides the council in its ministry of compassion and service is the realization that Christ died for all people. To heal, to transcend barriers, and to touch the spiritual as well as the material, social and physical needs of people is to imitate Christ.
  5. The MECC is a mediator not only between Christians and churches in the Middle East, but also between them and their brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere. Social and cultural gaps often impede or undermine understanding. But with its historical heritage, the council is uniquely equipped to bridge these gaps, to nurture trust in partner relationships, and to focus broad Christian concern for justice, peace and the relief of human suffering in the region.

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