United Methodist Advocacy and Action for Religious Freedom
and Protection of Persecuted Christians:
A Global Ministries Update
The United Methodist Church has a long-standing commitment to religious freedom as a civic and theological right and to advocacy and action on behalf of persecuted Christians worldwide. This commitment has increased in recent years in response to escalating incidents of the denial of religious liberty and growing reports of the persecution of Christians. The focus of the latter has been on countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria and areas such as the Middle East, including Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.
Concern for religious freedom and persecuted Christians is shown in the November-December 2016 issue of New World Outlook
, the mission magazine of The United Methodist Church, published by the General Board of Global Ministries, the church’s worldwide mission agency. Articles cover the biblical grounding of religious freedom, historical perspectives on the topic, current facts and figures on religious freedom, case studies on religious restrictions in Pakistan and Palestine, and reports on Global Christian Forum consultations on the persecuted church held in 2016. Global Ministries enthusiastically supports this ecumenical forum.
A Forum on the Persecuted Church, convened by Christian Churches Together, an ecumenical organization in the United States, will be held in Newark, NJ, March 2–3, 2017. The United Methodist Church participates in Christian Churches Together through the Council of Bishops Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. The agenda for the forum has not been announced but will be posted online closer to the meeting dates. Use this website
to keep up to date.
Prayer is a major component of United Methodist concern for religious freedom and for persecuted Christians. Discipleship Ministries (formerly General Board of Discipleship) maintains a website
of worship and prayer resources on persecuted Christians, and the General Boards of Church and Society (GBCS) and Global Ministries often issues calls for prayer for the general theme and particular situations. For Good Friday, 2015, GBCS published a prayer highlighting Christian persecution in Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. In February, 2016 Global Ministries issued “A Call for Prayer and Peace in Syria” that also protested the kidnapping of two Orthodox Christian leaders from Aleppo.
Prayer and advocacy on behalf of peace in Syria was a major Global Ministries theme in 2016. The agency joined two international humanitarian statements urging respect for a ceasefire and safety for the distribution of relief and medical supplies. On September 21, 2016, United Methodists joined with others in several prayer vigils as part of a Global Day for Peace in Syria. Part of the related advocacy efforts is to cut off the flow of arms into Syria and the wider region.
Photo by Paul Jeffrey
The capacity of the church to provide direct assistance to deprived people and persecuted Christians depends in large measure on the situation. Global Ministries has been able to provide educational and legal support to the beleaguered Protestant minority in Pakistan because we have a partner church, the Church of Pakistan, inside the country. This united denomination has an historical Methodist component and is a part of the World Methodist Council. This provides access for providing leadership development and school security grants directly through the church relationships.
Direct Christian-to-Christian action is less likely, for example, in the Syrian crisis where we have no direct Methodist/Wesleyan ties and where emergency assistance for displaced persons is needed on a large scale. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), a unit of Global Ministries, has provided considerable assistance to Syrians, Iraqis, and others displaced by the ongoing active military conflict in the region since 2010. To date, the agency has expended $4,290,170 in this cause, primarily assisting Syrians rendered homeless inside their country as well as in adjoining nations. This work is accomplished in collaboration with reliable regional partners and is available to those in need regardless of ethnic, national, and religious identity, as is necessary for all humanitarian relief services recognized by national and international organizations that deal with internal and external displaced persons. Since 2010, more than 470,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, 4.8 million have fled the country and 6.6 million are displaced within Syria.
Photo by Mehmet Akdemir, IBC
UMCOR engages in assistance to Syrian and Iraqi people displaced inside those countries and in adjoining Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. There are an estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and between 1 and 1.5 million in Lebanon. One out of every four people in Jordan is a refugee. There are one million displaced persons from the region in Europe. Fifty percent of these are children.
Some of the specific grants include:
• Housing and food assistance to displaced Syrians in Damascus.
• Response to food and hygiene support for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Sad El Baushrieh area in Mount Lebanon and Akkar Mountains of Lebanon.
• Food support for Syrian refugees and vulnerable host community families in Jordan.
• Cash assistance to internally displaced families in Iraq, notably Kurdistan and the Shekan District in Dohuk.
• Response to urgent needs of refugees passing through South Serbia on the way to Europe.
• Food and hygiene support for Syrian refugees in Armenia.
The most recent grant (December 16, 2016) was for assistance to refugees fleeing the city of Aleppo.
,” a video introduced before Christmas 2015, encourages viewers to support the work of UMCOR with displaced Syrians and other refugees and migrants fleeing harm. It was developed in collaboration with Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, which uses its annual Christmas offering to assist those in critical need. “Christmas is not your birthday,” is a Ginghamsburg motto, putting the emphasis on the birth of Jesus as God’s gift to the world.
Beyond Bethlehem video.
The Bethlehem Bible College, an Advance project, and United Methodist missionaries there have reached out to Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan, serving both Christians and Muslims as they are welcomed in the cities of Amman and Mafraq.
The Syrian Orthodox Church, in cooperation with the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), provides services to refugees from Syria and Iraq who are now in Lebanon. While these programs serve all who are in need, many of the refugees self-select and seek programs along faith-based lines. Christian refugees in Lebanon, in particular, tend to seek support from church-based programs. There are several Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, first populated in 1949 by Palestinian refugees, that still host refugees displaced from Syria today.
United Methodist churches in Europe, notably in Germany, Austria, and Italy, are doing their part in response to assist Syrian and other refugees (from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Eritrea) arriving on that continent. For example, in the village of Messstetten in southwestern Germany, a café welcoming refugees is run by the Red Cross with volunteers from local churches, including the United Methodist Peace Church. In 2016, the café began offering ecumenical Christian worship on Thursday nights, inviting everyone while being open about the fact that it would be Christian in nature, which is possible because it is not a government event.
A New Denominational Caucus
A new Middle Eastern United Methodist Caucus was organized in November 2015. Global Ministries is in dialogue with this evolving movement. The caucus describes itself as “advocating on behalf of and connecting the rest of the church with the Body of Christ in the Middle East and its diaspora communities.” The formation of caucuses along ethnic or geographical lines is an established United Methodist practice.
Global Ministries supports the work of the MECC, comprised of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox member communions from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. The MECC has a number of programs in Syria in partnership with Syrian churches. Churches offer food and hygiene supplies, English classes, as well as counseling sessions to refugees and also a Bible study for male refugees in Beirut. While UMCOR has supported some humanitarian work of MECC, the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), and others in the region, Global Ministries also provided a small annual grant for the overall work of MECC, across the region. Staff members maintain ties with the National Evangelical Synod of Lebanon and Syria, a Presbyterian denomination.
Since 2013, Global Ministries has participated with Christians from across the Middle East in several ecumenical consultations on the violence, extremism, and persecution faced in the region as well as peacebuilding efforts. While these are not monetary programs, they do express critical, yet quiet support for the Christian communities there.
Much of MECC’s work and that of its respective member communions is quiet as they are working in the midst of violence and extremism. Global Ministries has not done more public advocacy around Christian persecution in part to respect requests from our Middle East Christian partners on the ground.
In the United States, Global Ministries’ staff joins with other NGOs that quietly meet with governments and United Nations agencies to urge all parties to participate in negotiations and to reduce conflict in Syria. It is slow work and needs to be done quietly to encourage belligerents to turn from the battlefield and come to the negotiating table. This concern is covered in United Methodist Women seminars at the Church Center for the United Nations. Global Ministries staff participate in, a variety of briefings and events such as with the Council on Foreign Relations, Open Society, Institute for Policy Studies and other peace groups that are addressing religious freedom issues, peacebuilding, and diplomatic efforts affecting Syrian Christians and other vulnerable communities in the Middle East.
In Washington, D.C., Global Ministries and GBCS participate in the Faith Forum that has a working group on Syria. The group meets monthly to share in ecumenical efforts of advocacy among churches and with Congress and the State Department. Some of these efforts are in the quiet diplomacy category and some involve meetings with administration and congressional officers to lift up the situation of persecuted minorities in the region.
The World Council of Churches and Norwegian Church Aid in November 2016, released a report on “Protection of Religious Minorities in Syria and Iraq,” a document now being shared with both U.S. government officials and congregations. It is available online here
Virtually all United Methodist work in the Middle East is ecumenical, humanitarian, and nonviolent. Global Ministries maintains a Jerusalem Liaison Office in collaboration with the World Methodist Council and the Methodist Church in Britain. The purpose is to represent Methodist interests and concerns in the Middle East and to provide linkages and educational briefings for Methodists visiting the Holy Land.
It is the church’s goal to help to end the violence and end the persecution of all communities. This includes opposition to the various religiously defined militias, be they Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, or Christian. The church works to find nonviolent ways to end violence and persecution.
This update was compiled by the following: Elliott Wright, information consultant and David Wildman, executive secretary for human rights and racial justice, both with the GBGM, and Jack Amick, senior director of Disaster Response for UMCOR.