The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) is the regional ecumenical council charged by its member churches in the Gulf with the task of supporting ecumenism in the Gulf Countries. In 1986 the MECC established a regional office in the Gulf. The MECC staff of the regional Gulf office made significant progress over the years in forming an ecumenical network of denominations and church leaders. Due to the highly transient nature of leadership in the Gulf, these relational networks need an uninterrupted and concerted effort to be maintained. One of the primary responsibilities of the MECC Gulf office in the past was fostering the shared diaconal and social justice work with Migrant workers in the Gulf Countries. The MECC Gulf office was originally located in Bahrain and launched in 1986. The MECC Gulf officers in order of service were Rev. Lewis Scudder, Rev. Dr. Rolf Pearson and Bo and Karina Hansson. The MECC office in the Gulf was discontinued in 2009.
The first officer was Rev. Lew Scudder. Rev. Scudder was a life-long missionary of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), born in Kuwait and fluent in Gulf Arabic. He was very well connected to the governments and societies of the Gulf through the RCA’s network of hospitals and schools. In the 1980’s Rev. Scudder started the Gulf Church Leader’s Conference that was held biannually in Cyprus through the late 1990’s. The Gulf Church Leaders’ Conference was funded by the sending churches and a grant from the MECC. The churches gathered every two years to share best practices and to initiate sub-committees that continued shared ministerial projects between sessions. The conference provided a significant retreat for the pastors of Gulf churches. The program included shared worship, Bible studies, country and church presentations, workshops in relating to Gulf governments, keynote speakers and plenary sessions with small group discussions. The Gulf Churches Conference was also valuable in fostering fellowship and relational connections among the ordained church leaders of the Gulf. (link: Interview with Rev. Dr. John Hubers, former Reformed Church in America supervisor in the Gulf. November 21, 2012.) This was an occasion where churches could come together to discuss problems and opportunities in a safe environment.
Rev. Scudder was followed in Bahrain by Rev. Ian Young for a short time, then Hans and Åsa Dagerman from the Church of Sweden spent four years as MECC officers in Bahrain. They were invited to take part in a pioneering ecumenical charity group in Bahrain and the Ecumenical Conference of Charity was formed. The Bahrain ECC became the model for a similar charity council among the churches to form in other Gulf countries.
During the Bahrain years a good relationship developed with the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church and the Indian Orthodox Church. The National Evangelical Church in Kuwait has also played an important role in the introduction of the MECC in the Gulf. Rev. Amanuel Ghareeb has aided the MECC with many essential relational connections in the Gulf Arab societies.
From 1997 to 2007 Rev. Rolf Pearson served as the MECC Gulf Liaison Officer. The office was relocated to Dubai in 1997, considered to be the emerging hub of the Gulf. Funding expanded to include participation from the Anglican Church, the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Church of Sweden.
The purpose of the MECC Liaison Officer was to visit the various church leaders of the Gulf, build relational connections and to explore collaborative ecumenical ministries and social programs for migrant workers. The Ecumenical Group of Dubai (EGD) was formed for the purpose of ecumenical diaconal ministries to migrant workers including prison visitation, labor camp visitation, hospital and safe house visitation.
During Rev. Pearson’s tenure the Week for Christian Unity was also established in the Gulf, designed to bring the churches together for an ecumenical worship event.
In 2003, the MECC Gulf Liaison Office was moved to the Al Amana Centre in Oman. An ecumenical group the Ecumenical Council for Charity (ECC) was formed in Oman providing a fund for migrant workers, labor camp, prison and safe house visitation and a network of doctors, social workers and clergy to provide medical and counseling support for migrants in Oman. Two consultations with the WCC and the MECC were held in Bahrain and Oman and two international workshops on migrant worker issues.
In 2006, the National Fellowship of Churches in Kuwait was revived under Catholic Bishop Camillo Ballin and Rev. Ghareeb. This was the first and only ecumenical national council in the Gulf.
The MECC Gulf Support Group was viewed by the MECC Gulf Liaison Office as the unofficial board for the work of the MECC in the Gulf. The MECC Gulf Support Group met once a year, usually in Abu Dhabi under the patronage of Bishop Paul Hinder of the Catholic Church. The group was made up of the Church leaders and ecumenical lay people active in the many of the Gulf churches. In this group the ecumenical agenda for the MECC Gulf office was set for the year. Here also the Gulf Church Leader’s Conference was decided. The conference moved from Cyprus to the Gulf in the last years, in order to be more contextual. Conferences were held in Bahrain and Kuwait.
The MECC Gulf Work Group was formed by the Support Group. This was a smaller group consisting of Bishop Paul Hinder in Abu Dhabi, Catherine Graham Miller and Steve Miller of the Anglican Church in Dubai, Ashaia Haroun of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Abu Dhabi and Babu Kurian of the Indian Orthodox Church in Dubai. Together with the MECC this group was an executive board of the support group and planned for a future more official position of the MECC office in the Gulf office.
In 2008, the MECC Gulf Work Group invited the MECC to move the Gulf ecumenical office to Abu Dhabi with the task of organizing a Gulf Council of Churches. Bo and Karina Hansson were hired in 2008 as the MECC Liaison Officers in Abu Dhabi.
Also in 2008 a delegation headed by then WCC General Secretary Rev. Dr, Sam Kobia, Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe General Secretary, Ms. Doris Peschke, MECC General Secretary Guirgis Saleh, Church Council of Asia General Secretary, and WCC staff visited the Gulf and endorsed the need for a greater Gulf-specific ecumenical response to the needs of migrant workers. These ecumenical organizations confirmed their commitment to support the formation of an ecumenical platform of Gulf churches to collaborate and cooperate together.
This visit to the Gulf by WCC, MECC, CCME, and CCA leadership was followed by a very important meeting organized by the MECC, the WCC and Al Amana Centre in September 2009 in Bahrain where more than 30 church representatives gathered and recommended the formation of a Gulf Churches Fellowship under the auspices of MECC with the following three priorities:
Priority 1: To have a coordinated approach to serve migrants and migrant workers by forming small groups in different places and link to a bigger regional ecumenical body that will have a common voice.
Priority 2: Building knowledge, skills, and networks, an alliance of churches would become the center of a network that relates to the essential elements one needs in addressing migration issues.
Priority 3: To have a ‘liaison’ in each country to develop relationships with the government and work on behalf of churches. (Final Report of The Gulf Church, Migrant Workers, & Muslim Society: A Conference of Gulf Leaders. 14-16 September 2009.)
However, this initiative remained in its embryonic stage, because of lack of personnel to follow up and MECC administrative and financial difficulties at the general secretariat level that hindered the development of the process.
Over the years, the MECC Gulf office (1986 – 2009) had regular contacts with the WCC, the churches of the Gulf, various regional ecumenical organizations and a range of international human rights organizations both from Asia and Africa. These organizations provided support in lobbying and advocacy for migrant issues which could not be conducted from the Gulf. The MECC Gulf office also organized conferences and workshops on the rights of migrant workers, and partially covered the expenses of repatriating migrants stranded in prisons or detention centers. The MECC Gulf Office also gained international recognition and was invited to the first UN general Assembly on Migrants rights in 2006 in New York.
The Gulf Office had also produced a newsletter to the churches in the Gulf and to partners outside the Gulf on the current situation of the churches.
Unfortunately the MECC Gulf Office closed in 2009 due to a lack of funding.
In December of 2011 the World Council of Churches hosted the annual meeting of the Global Ecumenical Network in Lebanon to resume exploring support for a Gulf Churches Fellowship, and again in November of 2012 the Middle East Council of Churches, with support from the World Council of Churches, held a consultation with several Gulf Church leaders to continue to explore next steps in the formation of a Gulf ecumenical body. It was at the November 2012 meeting that the drafting committee for this exploratory concept paper was formed.
This effort of the MECC and the WCC to support the formation of a Gulf ecumenical fellowship coincided with a meeting of Gulf churches in March of 2012. A small group of bishops and representatives from various churches in the Gulf (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant) gathered in Abu Dhabi to finally implement the formation of a new ecumenical body of Churches in the Gulf in order to more effectively address common concerns with the six Gulf governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including Yemen.