Holy Land

Left Behind, Failed Peace, and the Human Implications of (Bad) Theology

kak2s and ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com
We often fail to look at the Middle East's inhabitants as humans loved by Jesus. kak2s and ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com

Through my work with The Global Immersion Project, I have spent a significant amount of time over the years cultivating relationships among both Israelis and Palestinians as we partner together in cultivating a narrative of reconciliation. As is often the case when we approach a people or place with the hopes of being/bringing the needed change, I have been the one most changed by my friends and colleagues who reside in the Middle East. Behind so many of the subconscious stereotypes and prejudices I had acquired earlier in my life I began to experience the richness of friendship and brotherhood among people I had previously “known” only through the latest sound bite.

Something I have learned in the classroom of real life relationships with Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land is that our theology in the West has direct implications for the everyday lives of those in the Middle East. Often ignoring the remarkable movements of peacemaking, reconciliation, and collaboration that are sprouting like mustard seeds of hope across the Holy Land, we often choose only to amplify of the violence, discord, and disintegration of the region.

Pope Francis Eyes Religious Reconciliation on Trip to Holy Land

John Paul II places a prayer in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during a trip to Israel in 2000. Religion News Service file photo.

It sounds a little far-fetched and for some purists perhaps unthinkable: A pope, a rabbi, and a sheik decide to travel to the Holy Land and follow in the steps of Jesus.

But that is just one of the groundbreaking aspects of Pope Francis’ three-day visit to the Middle East that starts on Saturday, a visit in which he hopes to shore up interfaith dialogue, strengthen diplomatic relations, and find new ways to build peace.

The Argentina-born pope will be accompanied by colleagues Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, both from Buenos Aires. It is the first time a pope’s official delegation has included members of other faiths on an overseas trip.

7 Lessons About Peace From My Time in the Middle East

Photo courtesy Jon Huckins
Photo courtesy Jon Huckins

Having just gotten home from guiding another The Global Immersion Project Learning Community deep into the lives of the unheralded heroes in the Holy Land to learn from their often untold stories, I am processing emotions, thoughts, and reflections that will soon bud into a renewed set of practices at home and abroad. I have now been to Israel/Palestine quite a few times, and it would be easy to think the experience becomes mechanical or normal or whatever. Well, for me, that simply hasn’t been the case. We encourage our participants to enter the experience in the posture of a learner rather than a hero. I try to do the same, and in doing so, am continually convicted, challenged, and inspired by our remarkable friends and peacemakers embedded within this conflict.

Here are 7 learnings that have risen to the surface since landing back on home soil:

Evangelical, Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine

Todd Deatherage is the executive director and co-founder of the Telos Group. Photo courtesy of the Telos Group. Via RNS

Secretary of State John Kerry brought his argument for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace to the annual AIPAC conference this week, and whatever else we might know, we know this: Many evangelical Christians didn’t like it.

Or at least that’s what we’re told by some Christian leaders and their political allies. Supporting Israel’s government by opposing compromise with the Palestinians is a permanent plank in American evangelical political thought. “God told Abraham that he would bless those who bless him and the nation of Israel,” the thinking goes, “and curse those that curse Israel.”

But could it be that the truth is more complicated?

What if the loudest evangelical voices don’t represent the complexity of our community? I raise these questions as an evangelical who is fully committed to supporting the struggle for security, dignity, and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians. And I’m not alone.

U.K. Minister Sayeeda Warsi Calls on West to Protect Christian Minorities

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, U.K. minister for faith. Photo: Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations. Via RNS.

The highest-ranking Muslim in the British government on Friday called on Western governments to do more to protect besieged Christian minorities across the world, particularly in the Holy Land where they are now seen as “outsiders.”

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the government’s minister for faith and the first Muslim member of a British cabinet, said religious freedom is a proxy for human rights and must not be an “add-on” to foreign policy.

“A mass exodus is taking place, on a biblical scale,” she said in a speech at Georgetown University. “In some places, there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct.”

VIDEOS: Just Vision

In “Stories Worth Telling,” from the August 2013 issue of Sojourners magazine, Lynne Hybels discusses the work of filmmaker Ronit Avni.

As the founder and executive director of Just Vision—an advocacy and media organization—Avni helps generate awareness and support for those in the Holy Land who pursue freedom, dignity, security, and peace without violence. Stories of Palestinians and Israelis engaged in nonviolence and peacebuilding come to life in Avni’s award-winning films.

If you want to be inspired, read Avni’s story. And be sure to watch the trailers below to preview the latest films by Just Vision.

Budrus
It takes a village to unite the most divided people on earth.

My Neighbourhood
A remarkable nonviolent struggle in the heart of the world’s most contested city.

Encounter Point
A true story about everyday leaders who refuse to sit back as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalates.

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Stories Worth Telling

Ronit Avni, photo courtesy of Changemakers

IN HER JEWISH school in Montreal, Ronit Avni learned the tragic history of her people. Her Canadian mother and Israeli father had met in the ’60s when her mother was living in Israel and working as a folk singer, often performing for Israeli troops. Her older sister was born in Tel Aviv, but the family settled back in Montreal in the mid-’70s before Ronit was born.

Not strictly religious but committed to the values of Judaism, Ronit couldn’t help but ask probing questions as she listened to the stories of the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Am I hearing the whole story? How do Palestinian perspectives differ from what my educators and community leaders are teaching? How can we transform this situation from a zero-sum equation to one that respects the dignity and freedom of all?

Years later, having graduated with honors from Vassar College with a degree in political science after studying theater at a conservatory in Montreal, Ronit trained human rights advocates worldwide to produce videos as tools for public education and grassroots mobilizing.

By the time I met Ronit a few years ago, she had narrowed her worldwide focus to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where her heart was most deeply drawn. She is the founder and executive director of Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli efforts to end the occupation and conflict without weapons of violence.

During the last several years, my engagement in the Holy Land has been significantly shaped by Ronit. Her film Encounter Point, about Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members, land, or liberty to the conflict yet choose forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge, gave me hope that peace can emerge from pain.

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AUDIO: The Cosas, an Iraqi Christian family

Iraqi Christians are commonly believed to be the oldest continuous Christian community in the world – the direct result of the apostle Thomas’ evangelism efforts. But as Gregg Brekke writes in the July issue of Sojourners, Christians in Iraq and throughout the Middle East are leaving in a mass exodus.

Sojourners editorial assistant Dawn Araujo spoke with a Christian family that left Iraq in 2012. Before leaving the country, Laith Cosa and his wife Awab Khoshnaw had fled—along with their daughters, Linda, 17; Lilyan, 12; and Lobna, 6—to the relative safety of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

They stayed there for six years before coming to the U.S., in part to seek better medical care for Lobna who had blood cancer.

The Cosas say Christians in Iraq have lived perilously for decades. Both Awab’s father and brother faced persecution long before the U.S. Iraqi invasion, her father fleeing briefly to Poland.

But they harbor no ill-will toward Muslims. They emphasize that Islam is not the problem, but rather a tradition of fear and dislike of “the other” that is passed down from generation to generation. A tradition, they say, can be fought with love and better understanding.

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A Holy Land Without Christians?

LIKE MANY Palestinians forced from their homes during the 1948 war, relatives of Jordan’s Sen. Haifa Najjar carried the keys to their Palestinian homes with them as they fled. These keys, passed down through generations, are powerful symbols of Palestinian ties to the land that international law considers theirs—even as their hope for return wanes.

As a Christian appointed by King Abdullah II to Jordan’s upper house of Parliament, Najjar is active in the education, environment, cultural, and legal sectors of the government. She is also superintendent of the Anglican-run Ahliyyah School for Girls and Bishop’s School for Boys in Amman, Jordan.

Within the mix of the 500,000 Palestinians who relocated to Jordan because of the Israeli War of Independence—or Nakba, “the catastrophe,” depending on who you ask—was a vocal minority of Palestinian Christians who joined their ranks with the existing Jordanian Christian community. Prior to 1948, Christians accounted for nearly 20 percent of the population of what is now Israel/Palestine. Today that figure is less than 2 percent. Even more dramatic are declines in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem. Christian populations are nearly extinct in these locations compared to their respective majorities of 90 and 80 percent prior to 1948.*

“They moved not as immigrants; they were initially thinking it was a temporary thing,” says Father Nabil Haddad of the Melkite Catholic Church in Amman. “It is similar to what Syrians are thinking right now when crossing the barbed wire, not the checkpoints, between south Syria and north Jordan.”

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President Obama, You Are Welcome in Bethlehem

ryanrodrickbeiler.com
Bethlehem-area Palestinian Christians hold a weekly prayer vigil to protest the Israeli separation wall. ryanrodrickbeiler.com

Mr. President, just like the many other visitors that we receive here in this land, we would do our best to overwhelm you with our cultural hospitality and our traditions. I would seize this opportunity to not only welcome you to visit Bethlehem, but also to welcome all U.S. citizens to visit my small city.  

I invite you, Mr. President, to be in my city within the nation that has a dream of liberty — a dream that goes in rhythm with all nations’ right of self-determination. We have embraced, as other nations, our pursuit of democracy, human development, and security. We have tumbled through our pursuits and have made mistakes, and because like all humans, as part of our human nature, we slip. We have built, learned, developed, and made our existence known to all nations.

Mr. President, I hope that in your visit you would not only enjoy the blessings of the Holy Land, but be encouraged to return and experience this city to its fullest. After you finish your presidency you will be able to visit without a big security escort and you will enjoy wandering the old streets and spending time in the old city of Bethlehem when you come back with your family.

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