BEING A PEOPLE OF HOPE DURING TIMES OF CRISIS
In two powerful interviews, Coptic Orthodox Archbishop and Maronite Catholic Cardinal discuss the critical role Christians have in crisis-hit societies, and address questions of millions of MENA viewers about God, the pandemic and political instability.
“Dare to Believe” was the title of SAT-7’s NETWORK conference for international partners and supporters that was planned for March this year. The event had to be cancelled because of COVID-19, but SAT-7 CEO Rita El-Mounayer recently caught up with Archbishop Angaelos, who was due to be a keynote speaker.
In a new video interview Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London and chair of SAT-7’s international board, stressed how daring to believe and being a people of hope is more important now than ever. The point was echoed, in a televised SAT-7 ARABIC interview, by the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai.
“At the moment, we’re so overtaken by news and statistics and science and expectations,” Arcbhishop Angaelos told Rita. “The frustrating thing is that many of the questions don’t have conclusive answers at this stage… With many things [even] the most expert of experts don’t know. So we come back to what we really know, which is our faith – that we are in the hands of a mighty God who is loving…so the daring thing is holding on to what we believe.
“As Christians we have an incredibly important role at the moment,” the archbishop stressed. “It’s not to be delusional. It’s not to be always smiling, because people don’t want to be reminded that someone else is happy when they’re not. But what’s important is that there is hope.”
In the two weeks since the Coptic leader spoke to Rita his home country of Egypt continued to see rising coronavirus infections and a health system under severe pressure. He acknowledged the deep suffering the pandemic is causing and asked what does it mean for us to be “the light of the world”?
Breaking the darkness
“Light breaks darkness,” he answered, “So what is the darkness we need to break? Is the darkness fear, in which case, we give reassurance. Is the darkness bereavement, in which case we need to give comfort, is the darkness sickness – we need to pray for healing and help where we can. Is the darkness poverty… then we need to provide graciously and with generosity, whether its financially or doing social work where we are allowed to.”
Archbishop Angaelos said Acts 1:8 is a favourite Bible verse and one that shows the different ministries in which the Holy Spirit will equip us. In the present situation, “in Jerusalem” can mean supporting believers at times of challenge. “In Judea” could mean serving those who have stopped believing or attending. “In Samaria” might mean reaching those with no church connections, but who need a hopeful witness, shown in “gracious and practical” ways. “To the ends of the earth” could include care for refugees and believers in lands where they are persecuted for their faith.
Although many questions about the pandemic by westerners centre on decisions made by politicians, Rita said that MENA viewers are asking different ones: why has God allowed the pandemic? Is it a judgment sent by God? Is it a sign of the imminent return of Christ?
Archbishop Angaelos admitted he “has trouble with people who try to psychoanalyse God” especially when they make categoric statements about what He is doing at any particular time: “No-one has that insight,” he said. Instead, the pandemic should cause us to ask ourselves individually, “Does my life need to be different?”
The episode in the Gospel when the disciples feared for their lives in a storm on Galilee shows that crises are times to show empathy and reassurance, he stressed. They saw Jesus asleep in the boat and accused Him of not caring if they drowned. Instead of rebuking them, he saw them “frantic, afraid and anxious”. Only afterwards did he challenge them and ask ‘Why do you have so little faith?’”
Asked what was his message for SAT-7 and its supporters, the archbishop pointed to Jesus’ words in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”.
“We will face hardship, we will face pain; that doesn’t change,” he said. But this crisis will pass and “we need to be vessels and recipients of hope.”
Echoes in Lebanon
Interestingly, the leader of the largest denomination in Lebanon, the Maronite Catholic Church, quoted the same verse when he was interviewed by SAT-7’s ARABIC channel. “War, displacement, crises, and tragedies cannot and must not destroy faith. They must strengthen our faith,” Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai said, before quoting this verse.
His interview, which aired 31 May for the 24th anniversary of SAT-7’s broadcasting, came amidst Lebanon’s worst crisis since the 2006 war. Its currency has fallen 60 per cent in value, COVID-19 has sparked massive lay-offs and many are going hungry.
“Economically, half of the Lebanese people are poor as a result of the political crisis,” the Maronite leader said. He pointed to the church’s social services – from hospitals to orphanages – and mentioned a new relief committee to offer medicines and other essentials. “It’s not enough just to encourage those displaced and living on the streets to have faith,” the cardinal said, “That’s the role of the church: to preserve both faith and lives.”
In a nation where, uniquely in the region, around 40 per cent of the population have a Christian faith or background, the Maronite Patriarch’s words carry some weight. And Cardinal Rai was blunt in challenging Lebanon’s divided political leadership.
“We tell the leaders of the country you are responsible,” Rai said. “You are responsible for the people. You must unite, clean your hands, and stop accusing one another.”
Many thousands of Lebanese in October 2019 took to the streets, blaming the government for mishandling the country’s wealth. Many are weary, too, of politicians prioritising their sectarian support bases, whether Christian, Sunni, Shia or others.
Rai explained: “We have a political problem where loyalty isn’t for the nation but for the political party or leader or religion or denomination. Loyalty must be for the nation first.”
With both ordinary citizens and leaders in mind, he stressed the need for a right vertical relationship with God for good horizontal relationships in the country.
“There’s a spiritual crisis now in Lebanon,” he said, “That’s why there’s a crisis between the people. We need to return to God through prayer, accepting God’s will, and read the signs of the times in light of God’s word. Our society needs unity.”
Bring both Egypt and Lebanon to the Lord with their different needs. Pray that Christians may be “recipients and vessels” of Christian hope and remember the region’s national and local leaders as they seek to support the Christian community and be a positive voice in wider society.