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Christianity in the Middle East - Contemporary Explorations in Politics and Theology
Heythrop College, University of London - 11 December 2003

11 December   |   2003   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

The Political Challenges to Christian Jerusalem


As someone who has been proactively involved with the Holy Land, I have been invited today to talk briefly about the political challenges to Christian Jerusalem. So let me start off promptly by quoting to you the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, the Rt Revd Riah Abu El-Assal, who spoke a few weeks ago about the reality of Palestinian misery under occupation. Bishop Riah stated, We have to do something that is seen and felt and not just heard. In an emotional appeal to the world that also echoed the deep frustration of all Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, he added, What is happening in the occupied territories is worse than apartheid in South Africa. Why should people wait until the Palestinian people turn black so that they will rush to help them the way we all helped the people of South Africa?

Catholic Diocesan Theological Commission

A crucial reflection on the presence of the Church in the Holy Land came out of the Catholic Diocesan Theological Commission in Jerusalem on 3 December2003 . This document, signed by HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah and a host of Christian theologians, focused on violence and terrorism, as well as relations with the Jewish and Muslim peoples.

To start with, the document condemns all acts of violence against individuals and society. It condemns especially terrorism, acts of extreme violence, often organised, which are intended to injure and kill the innocent in order that such terrorism yield reluctant support for one’s cause. Terrorism is illogical, irrational and unacceptable as a means of resolving conflict. Indeed, terrorism is both immoral and a sin. However, the document also clarifies that terrorism has two guilty parties: first, those who carry out such action, those who plan and support them, and secondly, those who create situations of injustice which provoke terrorism. Among both peoples, helplessness, frustration and despair unleash emotions of anger and revenge in a never-ending cycle of violence.

Talking about a pedagogy of non-violence, the Commission affirms that God is always calling the disciples of Jesus to be a community of reconciliation, called to be prophetic bearers of the good news of peace. This God-given and difficult vocation of the Church and of her members requires a specific pedagogy of non-violence in attitude, word and action. After all, peacemaking is not a tactic but a way of life.

The document later focuses on relations of Christians with Jews and Muslims. Taking into account some fearful realities on the ground, the document concludes with a re-affirmation of its deep consciousness of the vocation of the Church of Jerusalem to be a Christian presence in the midst of society - be it Muslim Arab or Jewish Israeli. Christians seek to be a presence that promotes reconciliation, helping all peoples towards a dialogue of understanding and peace.

The Situation Today

But what is the situation today that this document so very eloquently addresses? It is obvious that both Israeli and Palestinian societies are applying Hamourabi’s code of laws that advocates ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’! Yet, this zero-sum game does not even take into account of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent teaching that the application of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth simply leaves the world blind and toothless!

The MECC VIII General Assembly

But the situation is awful for Christians as much as for Jews and Muslims. But this sense of awfulness does not have its genesis in vacuum! It is real, it is painful and it is discriminatory! No wonder then that the Middle East Council of Churches, at its VIII General Assembly last week, addressed its international, regional and local partners in its Closing Statement by calling upon them to demand of world decision-makers to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. It said, At present, this occupation denies the Palestinian people their rights, breaks up the inter-connectedness of Palestinian land with hundreds of military checkpoints, closures and curfews, and continues toward completing the construction of the apartheid wall, the wall of shame, that has now gobbled up thousands of dunams of Palestinian land and founded yet more settlements and devotes itself to Judaising Jerusalem, emptying it of its legitimate citizens

What Action?

So if we agree that violence and terrorism are wrong by all modern standards, should we then not also go one step further and probe in a genuine and faith-based manner why this bloodshed has gripped this land? And in so doing, should we not also remember that understanding the roots of terrorism, and therefore tackling them, is not the same as condoning them? For me, the answer is stupidly simple! Occupation remains the primary obstacle toward peace, and it is a fact that terror and occupation go together and have to be dealt with together. From Madrid to Oslo to the roadmap to the Geneva Accords last week, occupation by Israel of Palestinian land has been the consistent feature of this conflict.

What about the Christians of the Holy Land?

We Christians are often referred to as the Forgotten Faithful. And we might indeed be so in the eyes of many Christian evangelical individuals or organisations today who would question our very Christian faithfulness! Be that as it may, we must learn to look at ourselves as much as at the ‘other’ in this conflict. As St James teaches us (Jas4 :1-2), one of the efficient ways of preventing wars and making peace is by fighting against the evil within us. Therefore, we also need to examine our own lives and consciences. We must have the prophetic courage to speak out about the rights of all peoples in the Holy Land. We must join hands in order to build the edifice of genuine peace in the Holy Land where local Palestinian Christians would enjoy equal right alongside local Palestinian Muslims and local Israeli Jews.

In the Chinese lexicon, w?ij? denotes both crisis and opportunity! So will this crisis over a small but occupied parcel of land become at long last a kairos for peace in the Holy Land? Will the koinonia of Christian believers manage to pull together across boundaries and make a difference? Will there be a true epektasis for Christians in their lives?

After all, the Living Stones (I P2 :4-5) are Christians like many others across the whole world. But those Christians have the additional onerous responsibility of being guardian witnesses of the Mother Church where the Christian story unfolded some two millennia ago! Mind you, if one reads the Ecumenical Monologues of the mystical philosopher St Gregory of Nyssa who lived at the time of the Early Church, one gets an unflattering picture of sin and debauchery in Jerusalem! St Gregory wrote, ‘If divine grace were more abundant about Jerusalem than elsewhere, sin would not be so much the fashion amongst those that live there; but as it is, there is no form of uncleanness that is not perpetrated amongst them; rascality, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarrelling, murder, are rife.’ But despite those excesses of Jerusalem throughout the ages (and Jerusalem is not the only place with such excesses!), St Paul teaches us (in Col1 :24- 27& 1 Co12 ) that the only hope for the troubled world is the grace of God that should be manifest through the saints. And if it is so, then we are, in Christ, irrevocably tied together across national, ethnic and economic barriers. We are the church, and for one part of the church to be disinterested in another part of the church is a denial of Christ.

Consequently, if we do not help those Christians in the Holy Land today, and if we do not acknowledge our Christ-centred and faith-based responsibilities toward our fellow sisters and brothers who are, as St James reminds us (Jas3 :9), born like us in the image and likeness of God and therefore bear the same stamp of divinity like us, what hope have we then got to help all other peoples in God’s larger economy?

Today & Tomorrow

In an article entitled Beyond the statistics in the International Herald Tribune on 2 December2003 , Timothy Rothermel [UNDP special representative in Jerusalem] affirmed that Palestinian society is thriving despite the gloom. He wrote, ‘… in civil society and in the private sector Palestinians have in recent years developed or improved highly respectable organisations dealing with human rights, transparency in governance and institutions dealing with youth, public health and community participation. … What is remarkable is that most of these institutions [around 1000 Palestinian NGO’s today] are run by the Palestinians themselves, and that they continue to flourish in spite of daily setbacks and tragedies.’

Rothermel expounded his views further, ‘In a world in which there is now a search for a democratic, secular and progressive state in the Middle East, the seeds have already been sown and are ready to blossom in the occupied Palestinian territories - if only given the opportunity. In a world seeking to eliminate what is considered the most persistent irritant leading to terrorism, here is a conflict that, above all others, yearns for a just and rational resolution. And here is where those with the power to do so should not falter, be deterred or be misled in the achievement of peace.’

So can we perhaps now re-focus on this end-goal that is meant to be the culmination of all those peace processes floating on and off on our political radars? I hope this modest conference will be another Christian station toward that lofty goal for peace with justice for the two peoples and three religions [Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims] of the Holy Land who ought to enjoy the unchallenged right to live as peaceful neighbours in the same land of prophets. Anything less from us today, and we are simply remiss in our faithfulness to the integrity of our Christian beliefs.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2003   |   11 December


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