image of jerusalem 2013

Living Stones or Deadened Sites?
Do not rejoice in the cross in time of peace only, but hold fast to the same faith in time of persecution also. Do not be a friend of Jesus in time of peace only but also in time of persecution - St Cyril of Jerusalem - 315-386

5 April   |   2004   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

I was reminded once again of the plight of Christians in the Holy Land a few days ago when reading the annual Message for Lent 2004 from HB Michel Sabbah, the Latin-rite Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem. His resonating message was full of compassion and concern for the suffering of the indigenous Christian communities in the Holy Land. It ended with a quotation from St Cyril, a contemporary of Epiphanius, Jerome, and Rufinus, encouraging his fellow believers to be less à la carte Christians with anaemic and lily-livered faiths and to show instead resoluteness and fortitude during times of adversity.

But the Lenten message from Patriarch Sabbah was not the only reason why I was reminded of the Living Stones of the Holy Land. A couple of weeks earlier, I had also met with Rateb Rabie and Julia James from the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF). The HCEF is an US-based states-wide ecumenical organisation whose primary objective is to help the Christians of Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Their help assumes multiple and manifold facets. It is not steeped in theology or politics, for instance, but rather attempts to strengthen the presence and witness of those local Christian communities in the Land of the Resurrection through concrete, hands-on and practical partnerships or programmes.

When I first met Rateb and Julie, I was admittedly discomfited by the way their mandate strove to help Christians only. I had often stated that it is not politically correct to support Palestinian Christians to the exclusion of Palestinian Muslims. After all, both Muslim and Christian Palestinians are suffering the ravages of the conflict. Besides, and with the rampant political nationalism of our world, such selective trends could easily be misconstrued and would surely not be wise or appropriate.

However, I am gradually beginning to look at things more laterally. I no longer insist that the concept and practice of helping Christians is necessarily inimical at all with the larger political configuration and demographic realities in the Middle East. After all, don’t Jews rightly and deservedly help their fellow men and women just as Muslims rightly and deservedly help theirs too? Today, it is clear that the whole Middle Eastern region is in the flux of instability, turmoil and change. The Holy Land itself is also witnessing an ever-escalating range of tit-for-tat unconscionable murders that are making life unsustainable for the two peoples and three religions of the Holy Land. Bereavement and pain no longer carry identity cards or confessional affiliations, and it behoves surely to tend to the scars of one’s own - and in so doing also help one’s larger community.

It is evident that the local Christian communities and Churches have always been vocal ambassadors for the Palestinian cause abroad, and their strength has reinforced the justice of the Palestinian claims. But today they are buffeted by the winds of their own reality. A survey in January 2004 by Dr Bernard Sabella, Associate Professor of Sociology at Bethlehem University and Executive Secretary of the Department on Service to Palestine Refugees, underscored the dwindling numbers of Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It estimated that they now stood at49 ,702, or far less than2 % of the overall population. Sabella also suggested that the decline reflected a dearth in socio-economic and political vision for Palestine. From an Israeli occupation that has devastated Palestinians, spoliated their lives and splintered their lands, to a deplorable lack of responsiveness by an enfeebled Palestinian Authority to the haemorrhaging wounds from both sides to the stunted role of the Universal Church, the situation has become palpably critical. No surprise then that committed people would wish to help these communities in their ancestral land cope with the painful challenges of ever-shifting times.

I often come across Palestinian men, women and children - Christian and Muslim alike - facing severe existential hardships and pressed to make hard choices. Listening to their trials and tribulations, I recall St Cyril’s exhortation to be a friend of Jesus in times of persecution as well as peace. I also remember the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation and their untiring efforts to make a difference with projects that would generate work opportunities and ultimately place a loaf of bread with some olives on the table. I appreciate finally the labours of those Palestinians like Bernard Sabella who are living their Christian faith through the ministry of diakonia or service. As fellow Christians, we should spare no effort in reaching out to those quarantined Living Stones who face the daily vagaries of life in the midst of human suffering and unholy conflicts. Our faith does not call for apathy, nor does it pander to hyper-inflated political correctness or jaundiced cynicism. What it exacts from us all can perhaps be best summed up by St Paul’s Letter calling upon the Ephisians ‘to seek the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:3). Surely, that bond of peace becoming manifest depends on our achieving the unity of spirit first. Can we therefore take on the duty of encouraging unity amongst our own wider Christian fellowship so we could then also build peace in the Holy Land? Can we try to ensure that the Living Stones do not become the deadened sites of the Holy Land?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   5 April


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