Visiting the Sukar Family - In Larnaca, Bishop Geoff visited the Syrian Refugee family that have been waiting to get to Canada. Pictured are (left to right): Bishop Geoff, Ammar Sukar, Mahina Sukar, Samira Sukar, Archdeacon John Holdsworth, and Reverend Christine Goldsmith.
Letter from Larnaca
February 10, 2017
I write these words from Larnaca, Cyprus, at the end of a journey I will always remember. I am here with Kathy and we have come to attend the annual Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. Representatives of Anglican Churches from the ten countries making up the diocese (Cyprus, the Persian Gulf states, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Yemen) gathered in Larnaca to pray and share and take counsel for their church this week. The Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf is one of four episcopal dioceses across the Middle East that are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The others are the Diocese of Jerusalem (Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon), the Diocese of Egypt (Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria), and the Diocese of Iran. Together, they make up the Province of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. Many of these churches are very ancient and date back to the very earliest days of Christianity (some still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus) while others are more recent and comprised of guest workers and expatriates from various countries. The Anglican and Episcopal Church across the Middle East supports schools, medical clinics, hospitals, vocational training programs, institutions for the deaf, disabled and elderly, missions to seamen, and various micro-enterprise ventures. I am especially inspired by St George’s School in Baghdad, Iraq, operated by the diocese. Over 90% of the students are Muslim, boys and girls, and the diocese desperately needs new financial support to continue this ministry. Among the most pressing work today for the diocese is in the area of refugee support and care.
The theme of synod this year was “Intentional Discipleship” and the past week has been very much about what it means to be disciples in our world today. The Bishop of the diocese, Michael Lewis, in his “Presidential Address,” reflected upon that theme deeply. In reflecting upon discipleship, he had this to say:
“Last year we explored the five marks of mission. This year we dig deeper to discover what’s prior and primary, even to mission: our identity. Our identity as Christians today is exactly what it was for Andrew and Peter, James and John, Matthew and Thomas and all the rest and ever since: disciples first. Disciples, if they stay still and listen, are taught. Disciples, by grace, learn. Disciples, if they accept the challenge, walk the road Christ walked. They make his journey of life – and death – and on the road they realize who they really are. They also learn that eternal life isn’t for later but begins now.”
Kathy and I are here at the invitation of Bishop Michael and the kind and generous hospitality of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. The Diocesan Archdeacon, John Holdsworth, is a good friend and for some time we have talked about ways that our different churches may serve and learn and grow over the next few years. The Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, like our own, runs the Exploring Faith program, and they have asked to register their students at Queen’s College. With many small and widely-scattered congregations they need a program that can be delivered in the local setting and Exploring Faith works well for them. They might even send some students to Queen’s College full-time in the future. I am humbled that a faraway church like the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador and our venerable Queen’s College can offer support to the Christians in this part of the world. It is a new beginning for them and a new beginning for us. You need to know that these struggling Christians of the Middle East are so grateful that we are able to walk alongside them in this way.
My other reason for being here has to do with the work the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador has been doing in refugee sponsorship. The three refugee families we have brought to Canada recently have all come from Syria. Another family we are trying to help has made it as far as Cyprus and on Tuesday Kathy and I shared lunch with Ammar Sukar, his wife Mahina and their precious daughter Samira. Our parishes of All Saints, Goulds, Holy Innocents, St. Lawrence and St. Philips have been trying to bring them to Newfoundland for some months now. As we broke bread together we talked about their reasons for leaving Syria and they told me of the deaths of their nine-month-old twin daughters, Badiaa and Helen, when their house was bombed in an air raid. They fled to Turkey and from there to Cyprus. They have lost everything in life and their dream is to begin a new life in Canada. Please hold all refugees in your prayers this day, and especially Ammar, Mahina and Samira and remember before God little Badiaa and Helen.
On Wednesday Kathy and I visited the “Reception and Accommodation Centre for Applicants of International Protection” at Kofinou. This is a refugee camp set up by the Cypriot government to hold some of the refugees coming to their shores. Over 400 were in that camp when we visited, representing a dozen different countries, although most are Syrian, as Syria is less than a hundred miles away. It was difficult for us to see so many children and families living in such basic conditions. In talking with some of them there was great fear that they would be sent back to where they came from. They were so grateful for our visit and felt comforted from us as we walked among them. Most were Muslims but their love and affection for the Christians who have done so much to help was powerful. The Anglican Priest working among the refugees there is Christine Goldsmith (an Exploring Faith graduate!) and it was a joy for me to see her in action. A former police officer, she has made the camp part of her parish and seems to know everyone by name. I saw face after face light up when they saw her and was so humbled to walk beside her in her deep ministry of care to those in great need. Christine has been a powerful advocate for their needs. One beautiful young man, a Palestinian Christian, acts very much like her Deacon, bringing to her attention those in need, gathering others for worship and translating for all. He touched my heart with his simple love and I cannot forget his kind face. A young Muslim father asked us to visit the tiny space he shared with his wife and three children. Like the Sukars, they got out of Syria after their house was bombed. He asked us to have coffee with them and for a precious half-hour we sat in their home and shared strong Syrian coffee with cardamom. They had almost nothing in their whole world and yet wanted to share what little they had with us. And it was more than enough. I asked them if they ever wanted to return to Syria and without any hesitation they told me “No.” They only want a new life somewhere safe.
In a few hours, I will be back somewhere safe in Newfoundland. But I return home unsettled by what I have seen. It has left me wondering if perhaps I could do more to help those in such need today. In a world that seems insane (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] states there are 65 million forcibly displaced persons in our world), our little corner of Newfoundland and Labrador really is a place of great peace. I know we have our problems at home but they are all problems that can be fixed. And our problems are small when compared to those of many. On Tuesday when I met Ammar, Mahina and Samira, he thanked me for my “good face.” Someday I hope to show him that where I come from there are many “good faces.”
I don’t have much hope that the statespersons and leaders of our world will ever solve their problems with each other any time soon. If there is to be peace it must be built heart to heart, good face to good face, until we all recognize our shared humanity. Christians must also learn to recognize Christ in each other. Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim a common father in Abraham. Why is it sometimes hard for us to recognize a sister and a brother when we meet?
The Very Reverend James Atwell presented a series of four talks to Synod this week and I end with a prayer for Inter-Faith Partnership from his book, The Gate of Heaven:
“O Creator God, we honour you whose image is hidden deep in every human being and whose fingerprints of love are evident in creation’s order. All creatures serve your purpose and all human beings are equidistant from your love. To you who are one, yet called by many names, we give thanks for those who have been alive to your presence, named your truth in a language we may not understand and honoured you with their lives. Help us always to respect the faith of other witnesses, and to find a companionship with all who know that without a vision the people perish. This we ask: that all your children may be safe and the world may be one. Amen."