Global Engagement

Fighting the Real Enemy: Fear

Siham Abu Awwad grew up in a Palestinian family in a small West Bank village. When Siham was 14, her mother was imprisoned for six months for demonstrating against the military occupation of the West Bank. Siham became the woman of the house, caring for her four brothers—Khaled, Youssef, Ali, and Maha.

With their mother in jail, Siham and her brothers became very close. “We had a special place in each other’s heart,” she told me. Missing her mother, and with little time for friends, Siham became especially close to Youssef. “I told him everything. He was kind and sensitive. He was like a sister!”

When Siham’s mother returned from prison, she continued her political activism and was soon arrested again, but she maintained a sense of humor and challenged her children to be kind and good.

The establishment of a nearby Jewish settlement led to ongoing seizures of land from Siham’s village, and there were frequent protests. By the time Siham was 17, her mother and all her brothers had been in and out of jail for participating in the protests that are illegal under Israeli law. Knowing she would likely be imprisoned again and concerned for her daughter’s future, Siham’s mother encouraged her to marry. Siham did, and eventually gave birth to five children.

Youssef and Ali both married too, but happiness was short-lived. Two months after his wedding, Ali was shot in the leg by a settler. Doctors wanted to amputate his leg and feared he would not survive, but his mother arranged treatment in Saudi Arabia, where Ali’s life and his leg were saved. While preparing a celebration for Ali’s return, Youssef was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. “Youssef was our angel,” said Siham, “always with a smile.”

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Stunned and Hopeful

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is often seen as a conflict between Jews and Muslims. But there are also minority communities of evangelical and other Christians who are caught up in the conflict. This includes Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel who call themselves Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians in the West Bank. Sadly, the chasm between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians is deep. The end-times theology espoused by Messianic Jews can be interpreted in a way that supports the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. At the same time, Palestinian Christians can become so focused on the hardship of living under oppressive military occupation that they forget the justifiable fear of violence that haunts Jewish residents as well.

International Christians, even those who try to honor the dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians, tend to be labeled as siding with one or the other—either with Jews as God’s chosen people or with Palestinians as victims of injustice. In recent years I have been judged by some as leaning too far toward the latter perspective.

 In fact, I was severely criticized for speaking at the March 2012 “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference in Bethlehem. Because it was sponsored by Palestinian Christians, some people assumed it was anti-Israel. Prior to the conference, a writer for The Jerusalem Post called me a threat to the state of Israel; and some American Messianic Jews called me a heretic and an anti-Semite.

To be honest, as the conference approached I regretted having agreed to participate. Was it worth the controversy? And what if the conference inadvertently fueled hostility and division? Rarely have I gone into an event so fearful of outcomes and so earnest in praying for God’s intervention.

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The Common Bond of Blood

Robi Damelin has always fought injustice. Growing up in South Africa, she spoke out against apartheid and worked actively for co-existence. In 1967, she moved to Israel—“to solve the conflict,” she says with self-deprecating humor. She ended up working on a kibbutz. “Ever since then,” she told me, “I have had a love-hate relationship with this country.” She loves the reality of a homeland for the Jewish people, but she hates the oppression of Palestinian people that results from the Israeli military occupation. “Israel will never be free until the Palestinians are free,” she says.

Robi’s son, David, shared her perspective about the occupation. Robi claims he “would rather have gone to jail than serve in the military, but he knew that as soon as he was released, he’d just be posted somewhere else. In the end we agreed it would be better for him to serve as an officer and set an example to other soldiers by behaving like a human being.” David fulfilled his required service, but in 2002 he was called up to the reserves. Again, he and Robi decided he should serve and set an example.

But as a soldier “he was a symbol of an occupying army.” On March 3, 2002, 28-year-old David Damelin was killed by a Palestinian sniper.

“I was beside myself with grief,” says Robi. “I had all the good things in life, but it all became totally irrelevant. I just wanted to prevent other families from experiencing this.” Robi was invited to a meeting where she met Palestinian mothers who had also lost children. “I saw there was no difference in our pain. I realized that through our joint pain we could speak out and make a difference.”

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Gratitude for the 'Better Men'

Recently I watched “I Came to Testify,” the first program in a PBS series called Women, War, and Peace. The documentary focused on 16 Bosnian women who were brutally raped by Serbian soldiers during the war in the Balkans in the early 1990s. When the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal tried three of the perpetrators of these “crimes against humanity,” these 16 women told their stories.

The three men listened to the women without showing one hint of emotion or regret. All were found guilty of hundreds of counts of rape, but their sentences seem light: 26 years for one, 20 years and 12 years for the others. I traveled twice to Bosnia during that war; I met women like the 16 who testified about the rape camps. I was surprised by the light sentences and disheartened to know that most of the perpetrators will never even be brought to trial.

I cannot hear stories like this without being shocked anew by how often women suffer at the hands of men. But something else struck me as I watched this program. The narrator was a man, actor Matt Damon. “As a man raising four daughters, things like this matter to me,” Damon said. “But it would have mattered anyway … It’s important to understand the experience of women.”

As I listened to Damon, I thought of Nicholas Kristof, co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a book that compellingly highlights the suffering of women. One chapter focused on rape as a weapon of war in the Republic of Congo, where, according to the American Journal of Public Health, women are victimized at a rate of nearly one every minute. Two years ago in the Congo, I talked and wept and prayed with some of these women. I also talked with local pastors, mentored by a Congolese man named Marcel, who raise money and create care groups to help bring these violated women “back to life”—that’s how the women describe what the pastors and the care groups do for them.

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'Please Welcome Them'

Two years ago in Jordan, I met an Iraqi doctor whose father, a pastor, had recently been killed by Iraqi insurgents because he refused to close the doors of his Baghdad church. "It's God's church," the pastor told the rebels. "I can't close it." So they shot him and threatened to do the same to his son if the son didn't leave the country. The young doctor began his presentation with video footage of Iraqi citizens being lined up against a wall and executed.

I asked my Jordanian friends what they would say to Americans. "Pray for Iraqi citizens who are suffering," they said, "and care for refugees." They explained that Detroit has one of the the largest Arab populations outside of the Middle East and that many Arab refugees are now settling in the Chicago area as well. "Please welcome them."

The more than 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced in recent years have created one of the "largest humanitarian crises in the world today," according to Michael Kocher, a refugee expert at the International Rescue Committee. Millions of Iraqis who fled their homes to escape violence remain in desperate conditions in Iraq. Over 1.2 million more live in squalid camps or rundown neighborhoods in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

As in most wars, women in Iraq have been uniquely victimized. In just the first four months of the war, 400 women and girls were abducted and raped. Armed groups target women in order to terrorize families and to force husbands, fathers, or brothers to yield to their demands. Sadly, the terror doesn't end when women flee the country.

Most Iraqi refugees don't have legal status in the countries to which they flee, so they can't work. Economic hardship leads to frustration and tension. Domestic violence is common. Even worse, widows who can’t feed their children are forced into prostitution.

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When People Become a Commodity

I was not looking for another cause to care about. Besides, human trafficking wasn't new to me. I've long supported Gary Haugen's work to break systems of enslavement through International Justice Mission. Recently I've been following Christine Caine’s anti-slavery work called the A21 Campaign. And I’ve been well aware of David Batstone's Not For Sale movement.

So I don’t know why my soul went numb while I recently sat through a workshop on human trafficking taught by a passionate, fast-talking young woman who works for World Relief. Maybe the rapid-fire barrage of shocking statistics and horrifying stories were too much for my mind to filter, so they went straight to my heart.

Some authorities estimate that there are more than 27 million slaves in the world today. The trading of humans, according to some sources, has become one of the largest criminal industries in the world -- with a market value in excess of $32 billion, according to the U.N. Approximately 80 percent of human trafficking victims are women and girls, and up to 50 percent are minors.

The two primary forms of slavery -- forced labor and sex trafficking -- are driven by deception and coercion. Victims of forced labor face brutal conditions in rock quarries, rice mills, brick kilns, fisheries, garment factories, and other industries around the world, earning only enough to keep them alive for another day of unending labor. Sex traffickers trade in rape; whereas drugs and guns can only be sold once, human bodies can be raped for money over and over again -- every day.

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Cooking Up Peace

Six Christian women from an evangelical church in Texas invited six Jewish women from a local synagogue and six Muslim women from a local mosque to form a cooking club.

When the event was hosted in the home of a Christian, the evangelical women wore "cowgirl" boots and folded bandanas for napkins. Together the multi-faith women cooked a traditional Texas meal.

When a Jewish woman hosted the cooking club, she taught about historic Jewish festivals and the significance of food. "Traditional foods bring back memories of significant events in our history," she said. She described the festivities surrounding the story of Esther and Haman; together the women worked the dough used in the filled "Haman cookies" prepared for the festival. "The Muslim women especially loved it when we filled the cookies with Nutella!" said the Jewish host.

When the communal dinner was prepared in a Muslim home, both Christian and Jewish women were a bit envious of the two separate kitchens -- one used when the women were cooking together, and then a "dirty kitchen" used to prepare food "behind the scenes."

One woman said her favorite part of the cooking club was when the Muslim women felt the freedom to remove their headscarves and coat-like outer garments. "They rarely get to ‘dress up’ outside their homes," said one of the Christian women. "So when they came to our homes and our husbands were gone, they took off their 'coverings' and let their beauty show."

But it wasn't just the Muslim women who had to be uncovered. The unifying beauty of each of these women of faith had been hidden behind coverings of misunderstanding and fear. As they unwound layer after layer they discovered that they were all … just … women.

"What do you have in your purse?" Thus began the "purse game," and the laughter.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2011
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Jesus' Best Work

In February 2009, I attended a conference in Egypt taught by Arab Christians from throughout the Middle East.

During a break in the conference, I met in a small conference room with a dozen Egyptian Christian leaders. I said to them, "I find myself dreaming and praying about peace in the Middle East. Am I naïve to entertain that possibility? From your perspective, what are the biggest issues standing in the way of peace?"

They said that by far the most serious hindrance to peace in the Middle East is U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine. "Americans don’t know what they're doing to us," they said. They explained that when Americans ignore the plight of Palestinians, this inflames the entire Arab world against the "Christian West," and against Arab Christians as well.

The second problem, they said, is Muslims in the Middle East. "The number of extremist, violent Muslims is growing," they said. "That trend must turn around."

They said the third major hindrance to peace is Christians in the Middle East: Too many of them hate Muslims. "We're working on loving them," they said, "but we have a long way to go." I appreciated their honesty. Throughout the world, it seems, both Christians and Muslims "have a long way to go" in learning to love one another.

That evening, the final meeting of the conference was a celebration of what God had done in the previous year. Men and women paraded into the room dressed in the traditional clothing and carrying the national flags of their countries, then told story after story of spiritual transformation in unexpected places. In every way, it was a celebratory atmosphere.

But the longer we sat there, the sicker I felt. I sensed God’s calling that night with such force and weight that I -- literally -- felt like I got kicked in the stomach. It was a spiritual encounter, but it was so strong I felt it physically.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2010
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The Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a beautiful, lush country, with fertile soil and rich minerals. But it has suffered from an ongoing civil war that is fueled by greed and corruption and inflamed by outside forces that exploit the DRC’s natural resources at the expense of the Congolese people.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2010
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Following Jesus in the West Bank

As a Christian committed to justice, I am glad the Jewish people have a homeland. I long for the day when they can live in Israel—or anywhere—in security. I don’t hold to a theology asserting that the modern State of Israel represents a divinely mandated return of ancient Israel to the Promised Land, but I do wholeheartedly support its existence as a national homeland for the Jews.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2010
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