Arab Christians Have Lost Easter Before. Here’s What They Learned.

In this Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, photo, a Christian visitor takes a picture of a wooden relic believed to be from Jesus’ manger inside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. .(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed]

Christians around the world are about to lose their usual Easter celebration—the highlight of most congregations’ annual life together.

Yes, there will be a livestream. Their pastor will likely call them. They may even chat on Zoom with friends and family.

But it will be different. The community of believers has been sundered by the new coronavirus. And threatened with it is Christ’s body, his bride, his temple for his presence in the world.

If there is any consolation, it is that this is not the first time.

“There are forces of nature—and forces of man—that challenge our ability to experience the presence of Christ,” said Gregory Mansour, the Maronite bishop of Brooklyn.

“[COVID-19] is different from persecution. But it is the same.”

A born-again Catholic led into personal relationship with Christ by the Navigators, Mansour later reconnected with his ancient Lebanon-based church. His clerical colleagues there received thousands of ISIS-fleeing Christians from Syria and Iraq.

“There was a deliberate desire to obliterate churches, hymnals, prayers, and people,” he said. “The only thing we had left was a spiritual communion.”

Though his own diocese is far removed from those events, it remains in the epicenter of America’s COVID-19 outbreak. One female doctor in his church is serving on the front lines, reminding Mansour of the plague of St. Cyprian (249–262 AD): that when all others ran away, Christians ran in to help the suffering.

Trying to find solace for his people in light of losing Easter, Mansour turned for inspiration to St. John-Marie Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests.

Vianney grew up during France’s anti-clerical Reign of Terror (1793–1794), when priests risked their lives after the French Revolution to visit the frightened faithful and serve Communion in private homes.

“When we cannot go to the church, let us turn towards the tabernacle,” Vianney later wrote. “No wall can shut us out from the good God.”

Even if the walls are covered with Islamist slogans.

In 2014, a coalition of al-Qaeda–linked rebel fighters overran the mostly Armenian city of Kessab in northwest Syria. Holy Trinity Evangelical Church was among those ransacked, as militant fighters destroyed its crosses. Many believers fled in their pajamas.

“In the midst of these circumstances, they kept their eyes upward,” said John, a US-naturalized Syrian, who requested his last name be withheld as he continues to travel in the region.]

“Our identity is in Christ, and not about our gatherings.”

John fled Syria in 2012 and now oversees Ananias House, a Texas-based gospel and leadership training ministry network primarily serving evangelical churches in the Middle East and North Africa.

About half of those churches are in Syria and Iraq, and they lost 60 percent of their original membership during the war. The loneliness for those remaining was terrible, said John, as friends and family emigrated elsewhere—likely to never return.

“It felt like imprisonment, trapped, and not knowing if we would live to the next day,” he said, describing services held despite missiles raining overhead.

“But it was beautiful, because we stuck together and networked for survival. It was not about our personal needs but the hope we had in Christ and in each other.”

The Kessab fellowship found refuge among the Orthodox and evangelical churches in nearby Latakia and was able to go back home a year later. And since the return of relative stability, John says churches in his network have seen their attendance boom.

Their hope was contagious.

“There was something different about the Christians; they were not afraid,” he said. “The church had a God of relationship, and a sense of peace.”

For the Assyrian Church of the East, this peace came from two directions. Like the Armenians, its Iraqi members found cross-denominational spiritual shelter in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.

It was not completely natural, said Mar Awa Royel, bishop of California. The church has no formal communion with any other Christian body.

Tracing its heritage to the preaching of the apostle Thomas, the Assyrian Church of the East spread the faith to the borders of China. But by only accepting the first two Christian councils—Nicaea and Constantinople—and not later ones, the disputed label of “Nestorian” keeps them from full fellowship with the Eastern Orthodox and non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox churches, while the rejection of papal primacy separates them from Rome.

“It was an ecumenism of displacement,” Royel said. “Official dialogues don’t always go well. But refugees force church leaders to put aside their age-old differences and come together.”

Building off of agreements for “limited communion in cases of pastoral necessity,” established after Iraqi displacement following the first Gulf War, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox priests all agreed to serve the Eucharist to the Assyrian faithful. They also loaned their altars to visiting Assyrian mission priests.

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today