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Take heed of Eastern Christians in the Middle East, ex-Aleppo vicar urges

It is a mistake for the West to impose its values on every country, says former chaplain in Syria Revd Dr Andrew Lake.

PHOTO: iStock

February 10 2016A Melbourne vicar who was working among English-speaking congregations in Damascus and Aleppo as Syria began its plunge into civil war five years ago says the Western churches would do best to listen to Eastern Christians if they are to understand and respond to the challenges facing the world in the Middle East.

The Revd Dr Andrew Lake (pictured left), the Vicar of St Augustine’s Mentone, was the last of the Anglican chaplains in Syria until the conflict forced him to leave in 2011, after almost two years there. He maintains weekly contact with Syrian friends still in the country.

Last year, he completed a doctoral thesis on 24 Church of England priests who served as chaplains to the English Levant Company in Aleppo from 1597-1782 (the Levant is a majority Sunni but multi-faith region covering modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and parts of southeastern Turkey). He says their lives and ministry offer valuable lessons for 21st century Western Christians.

“These 24 Oxbridge-educated clergy lived in the most cosmopolitan city of the Arab world,” the citation for his thesis, The First Protestants in the Arab World: the contribution to Christian mission of the English Aleppo chaplains (1597-1782), says.

“Once forgotten, their time, and contribution, has now come as the Western church critically seeks to understand the nature, status, and predicament of its eastern brethren; not least with regard to Islam. This is one of the greatest challenges facing the Western Church today.”

Dr Lake was more blunt about the impact of Western blunders in the region when speaking to TMA recently: “Every time the West has intervened in the Middle East, going back to the Crusades, it has been disastrous for the Middle Eastern Christians.

“It became clear to me that one of the mistakes the West is making is to impose our values on every country on the assumption that they are universal values… The Western churches would do best to listen to what the Eastern churches are saying.”

Dr Lake has previous experience living through turbulent times in a predominantly Muslim country much closer to home. From 1996-2004, he was Vicar of All Saints’ Jakarta as the long rule of President Suharto collapsed and three of Suharto’s successors came and went in little more than six years after the strongman’s departure in 1998.

“When you have a dictator, you don’t have radical Islam.”

When Dr Lake and his wife Pam arrived in Syria in 2011, the country had the same population as Australia then – 23 million – including 500,000 secret police.

He said in the Arab-speaking world, family honour and religion rated more highly than the values espoused in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights put together by the victors of World War II.

Ordained for Armidale diocese, Dr Lake has also worked in Tasmania. In October 2011, two months after returning from Syria, he told a forum at St David’s Cathedral in Hobart that there was “a nauseating inconsistency in the way Western countries and the Western Press deal with human rights issues”.

“For instance, the Saudi Arabian regime, which has easily the worst human rights record in the Middle East in terms of treatment of women and religious minorities, has avoided condemnation and punitive measures by the Western countries. By contrast the Syrian government, which has an excellent track record in protecting religious minorities, such as Christians, and empowering women, is vilified because they do not tolerate dissent. Yet the religious minorities and many women’s groups know that if regimes like Assad’s Syria fall, then they may be replaced by regimes which seek to implement aspects of Sharia law which will discriminate against them.”

Dr Lake writes in his thesis that the greatest achievement of the English chaplains in Aleppo was “to encourage the hard-pressed Eastern Christians” and that their cooperation with other Christians in the region “even more pressingly provides an example of ecumenical cooperation and fraternal respect that is a key to the survival of Christianity in an increasingly polarised Middle East”.

Dr Lake’s thesis may be read on the St Augustine’s parish website

See also “One refugee’s story: from Syria to France”