Many Christians who support Israel out of a fundamentalist Zionism forget that they have Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer under the occupation. Collective punishments through fences, walls, checkpoints, and curfews fail to distinguish between the violent and the nonviolent. Israeli soldiers often do no better, as civilian casualties mount in their war on terror.
"We are all traumatized," said Elias Mishrawi, a Christian Palestinian businessman and political activist from Beit Sahour. "We no more know what is normal life.... Not only do I not see a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't see a tunnel."
While such despair is prevalent among Palestinians, following are the stories of three Palestinian Christians living and working in hope of peace while confronting the violence of occupation.
On April 4, 2002, Rev. Mitri Raheb was detained by Israeli soldiers as they ransacked the compound of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, smashing windows, computers, and artwork. That attack, and the curfews that followed, have set back, but not squelched, a vision rooted in nonviolence and "contextual theology."
After a seminary education in Germany gave him answers to questions his people weren't asking, Raheb asked himself: What is good news for people who hear bad news every day?
"And this is where we had to learn to develop what we called later contextual theology,'" says Rev. Raheb. "It means, What does faith mean to people living in such circumstances?'" One aspect of that faith, according to Raheb, is a unique vision of nonviolence that can speak to both Israelis and Palestinians. He believes both will soon realize that violence is destroying not only the other society but their own. Part of his answer to that violence is to provide training in art, music, Christian ministry, and even journalism to help Palestinians tell their story.
"Imagine all of the future artists, musicians, and journalists of Palestine being challenged with all of these ideas and being able put an expression, an artistic expressionfor example, with an issue like nonviolencethrough their art, through their music, through their journalism," says Raheb. "This is how we can shape a whole society and community...reaching out to the children on the street who are throwing stones."
CHARLIE HADDAD was the first principal of the Dar al-Kalima Lutheran school in Bethlehem, which was vandalized by Israeli troops in April. He is now the director of the Lutheran schools for the entire region.
His suggested response to the collective house arrest known as curfew: "At a certain time of the day, on a certain day, all of us, exactly at the same time just leave our houses and go into the street." He brings that same vision to the classroom where he seeks to empower students with the "freedom to think for themselves, to be able to have constructive dialogue."
"And," says Haddad, "our theme since we started was nonviolence, because in our community people are not aware of that [philosophy]."
"It's not easy because when they go home, they are subjected to certain ideas. When they come to school, we try to teach them and have them learn new ideas," says Haddad. "Sometimes you feel the conflict. But I think we can play a much more effective role if we have a school also for the parents, for the community. Over the long term we may have to do that."
ZOUGHBI ZOUGHBI is the director of Wi'am, a Palestinian conflict reconciliation center with programs for job creation, trauma healing, and individual and family counseling. He also organizes demonstrations and vigils.
Out of a nonviolent ethic that he owes partly to a Christian upbringing and the influence of figures such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, César Chávez, and Dom Helder Camara, Zoughbi too hopes to educate Palestinians in a new way of responding to the violence of the occupation.
"All of what is going on is a recipe for violent behavior," says Zoughbi. "Deprive me from work. Deprive me from freedom of movement. Deprive me from dignity. This is the occupation: It is not only land, it is trying to conquer your spirit, to kill your hope. I don't want to say that we are angels, that we don't have conflict if we don't have occupation, but most of our conflicts are due to the occupationthe deterioration of the economy, the socio-political situation. Of course we are against all kinds of terrorism. But how can you explain to someone whose life and death are equal? We need to give people hope."
And indeed, Zoughbi is quick to assert that within such a terrible situation there are glimmers of hope. During the 40-day curfew in April and May 2002, when dozens of Palestinians, some armed, were besieged inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Wi'am staff became community organizers. Their activities included popular education, facilitating discussions on various topics, and cross-cultural activitieseven street cleaning when there was no garbage collection.
And though defying the curfew to do such work was dangerous, Zoughbi says with a laugh, "We are kind of rebellious. We try to not let them take us hostages. It is a risk. Talk to my wifeshe will tell you how many times Israelis shot at us."
"But again," emphasizes Zoughbi, "despite the acute darkness, there will be dawn. This is after all our faith in the resurrectionthat Christ is no longer in the tomb, he's resurrected. And we believe in the theological resurrection, but at the same time, we need a current resurrection."
Such a resurrection, Zoughbi believes, will come from the cooperation of three forces: Palestinians struggling nonviolently, Israelis opposing their government's oppressive policies, and the international communityespecially the United Statestaking seriously its role as a mediator and being guided by principles of justice and human dignity. Perhaps with models of faithfulness and perseverance such as these as challenge and inspiration, that resurrection will move a little closer to reality.
Ryan Beiler is Web editor at Sojourners. He visited Bethlehem in June 2002 with a delegation sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Seminary and the Virginia Mennonite Conference. Visit Christmas Lutheran Church and the Dar al-Kalima School (www.annadwa.org) and Wi'am (www.planet.edu/~alaslah) on the Web.