Middle East

Presbyterian Church (USA) voted June 20 to divest from 3 American companies. RNS photo courtesy Danny Bolin via PC(USA)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted Friday to divest church funds from three American companies it cited for profiting from the oppression of Palestinians within Israel’s occupied territories.

The 310-303 vote of the church’s General Assembly in Detroit marks a victory for divestment supporters both within and without the 1.8 million-member PCUSA, now the largest American church to embrace divestment as a strategy to pressure Israel to return its illegally held lands.

The divestment resolution targets companies that divestment supporters say supply electronic and earth-moving equipment that help Israel violate Palestinian rights. Presbyterians in support of the resolution described it as a long overdue stand on behalf of Palestinians suffering under the occupation, which began in 1967 when Israel pushed back attacks from neighboring countries.

The issue has roiled the church for the last decade, and during a more than three-hour debate, many lamented the divisiveness and noted how many around the world — in the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinian territories – would be watching.

Jon Huckins 06-18-2014
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.

General Audience with Pope Francis. Via Flickr © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

Pope Francis dived into the Middle East peace process on Sunday, urging the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to act with courage and end what he called the “spiral of hatred and violence” during a historic prayer meeting at the Vatican.

Before the solemn ceremony, Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, warmly embraced and joked together inside the pope’s Santa Marta residence as a smiling Francis looked on.

The Middle East leaders were joined by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, and proceeded to the Vatican gardens for a tightly orchestrated 90-minute ceremony that was notable for the absence of any religious symbols.

Earlier, in St. Peter’s Square, a handful of protesters waved Palestinian flags in a bid to send a stronger political message to what the Vatican previously described as a “pause from politics.”

Pope Francis greets people during a meeting on Nov. 9, 2013. Photo by Alessia Giuliani, courtesy Catholic News Service.

Pope Francis will be accompanied on his first visit to the Middle East by Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud — two friends from Buenos Aires.

It is the first time a pope has made an official visit accompanied by members of other faiths, and it underscores the interfaith focus of Francis’ trip to the Holy Land, the Vatican said Thursday.

“This dimension of interreligious dialogue has great significance,” the Vatican’s official spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told the media.

05-14-2014
The group include civic society leaders and includes Robert George of Princeton University, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, journalist Kirsten Powers, George Marlin, chair of Aid to the Church in Need-USA, Lynne Hybels of Global Engagement of the Willow Creek Church and Mark Tooley, President, Institute on Religion and Democracy.
05-09-2014
Signers of the statement include Cardinal Donald Wuerl, National Association of Evangelicals’ chair Leith Anderson, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, Secretary General Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe of the United Methodists, and Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Oshagan Cholayan. Among lay civic leaders, signers include Robert George of Princeton University, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, journalist Kirsten Powers, George Marlin, chair of Aid to the Church in Need-USA, and Lynne Hybels of Global Engagement of the Willow Creek Church.
05-08-2014
They include many lay civic society leaders, including Robert George of Princeton University, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, journalist Kirsten Powers, George Marlin, chair of Aid to the Church in Need-USA, and Lynne Hybels of Global Engagement of the Willow Creek Church.
Todd Deatherage 03-04-2014

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.

Tom Getman 12-12-2013

Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East. North Atlantic Books.

Danny Mortensen 11-08-2013
Keith Tarrier and spirit of america / Shutterstock

Obama has personally ordered drone strikes. Keith Tarrier and spirit of america / Shutterstock

For centuries, followers of Jesus have wondered how they should relate to states and governments. Recent documents from Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, and the United Nations bring such concerns to the fore, highlighting the cruel collateral damage of many of President Barack Obama’s personally ordered drone strikes — strikes that according to the president, are legal and in accord with international law, use technology that is precise and limit unnecessary casualties, eliminate people that are real threats, and prevent greater violence.

Rather than considering the humanity of our (perceived) enemies and seeking reconciliation and restorative justice, we default to catching and killing. In doing so, we give the widest berth possible to Jesus's teachings and examples of self-sacrificial enemy love. In both Matthew 5 and Luke 6, Jesus tells us that to love our enemies is to be children of God, for radical love and kindness are his nature and his perfection. Loving enemies is essential to anyone who would claim God as his or her Father. Jesus said, "Love." Not, "Love unless you happen to be the ones in charge and in possession of firepower. In that case, kill the bastards."

We are charged with loving our world indiscriminately, self-sacrificially, and with great humility, and that should always inform our relationship with the state and government.

Lynne Hybels 10-02-2013

A young woman prays for peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo by Christine M. Anderson

"The alternative—not having negotiations—is guaranteed to fail."

Stephen Starr 09-24-2013

View of Maalula village with Muslim Mosque and statue of Virgin Mary. Photo: Via RNS/John Wreford/Associated Reporters Abroad

A huge statue of the Virgin Mary towers over churches, monasteries and mosques in the Syrian city of Maaloula, where a dialect of the Aramaic language of Jesus is still spoken.

The town has managed to stay out of the Syrian conflict between Sunni Muslim rebels and the regime of dictator Bashar Assad, as have most of Syria’s 2 million Christians.

But worsening violence has forced the community into a corner: Continuous clashes between the rebels and the regime in this isolated town of 2,000 people as well as other Christian towns over the past two weeks have many Christians worried that they will no longer be allowed to stay neutral.

Jon Huckins 09-06-2013
Photo by Jon Huckins

Photo by Jon Huckins

I have read countless articles from political, religious, and ethical perspectives on why or why not the U.S. should militarily intervene against the Syrian regime. Most do a decent job evaluating the situation, but I have yet to read one that really puts the human element on the table as a deciding factor.

A few months ago I was going to bed in my hotel room in Tel Aviv when I saw the breaking news alert that there was rocket exchange between Hamas and Israel in and around Gaza. While I have been to many places in "conflict," there is something much different about being somewhere that is only miles away from live fire. 

I started playing out the situation in my head: "What if this expands into a major conflict? Can I catch a flight back home to be with my family before it gets worse? I'm only 30-40 miles away from the active conflict, am I already in range sitting in this hotel room?"

Anxiety. Fear. Uncertainty.  

Now let me be clear, that experience of anxiety and fear is NOTHING compared to what most Israeli's, Palestinians, Egyptians, or Syrian's have felt in recent years (and MANY other populations). But — even if only in some small way — I could immediately feel the weight of pending war. It is palpable. It is crippling. And if I had my family with me, it would have potentially been unbearable.  

Jim Wallis 08-29-2013
ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Image

Demonstrators protest against potential British military involvement in Syria in London Thursday. ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Image

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, there must be “international consequences.” The president is right. But what should those consequences be?

The issue here, again, is one that we have not decided how to deal with: terrorism. The definition of terrorism is deliberate and brutal attacks upon innocent people — whether by individuals, groups, or heads of state. By that definition, Assad is a terrorist. And terrorists who possess weapons of mass destruction and demonstrate their willingness to use them are most dangerous ones. But how should we respond?

I am in in the U.K., where political leaders last night backed off the decision to make immediate “military strikes” while the U.S. and other nations are considering them. The feeling here is that international and legal legitimacy need to be established first, that the U.N. inspectors should finish their examinations in Syria before any actions are taken, and that all other means of response should be fully explored first. These are good decisions.

Why is there such public “war fatigue” in the U.K. and the U.S. in light of Iraq and Afghanistan — and why is that creating reluctance to more military action? Because wars and military solutions have FAILED in response to terrorism — failed to achieve what they were purported to do.

Photo courtesy Mariia Savoskula/Shutterstock.com.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Middle East United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy Mariia Savoskula/Shutterstock.com.

People who hoped the Arab Spring would lead to greater religious freedom across the Middle East have been sorely disappointed, and a new Pew study confirms that the region has grown even more repressive for various religious groups.

“In 2011, when most of the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring occurred, the Middle East and North Africa experienced pronounced increases in social hostilities involving religion, while government restrictions on religion remained exceptionally high,” according to the report by the Pew Research Center.

The study shows the number of countries in the Middle East or North Africa with sectarian or communal violence between religious groups doubled from five to 10 during 2011, a year that coincided with most of the political uprisings of Arab Spring.

Gregg Brekke 06-05-2013

Arab Christians are vital to a thriving Middle East - and their numbers are dwindling.

Jim Wallis 06-05-2013

Religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response.

Matthew Skinner 02-27-2013
Newspaper headlines, justasc / Shutterstock.com

Newspaper headlines, justasc / Shutterstock.com

Current events, like much about our lives, frequently leave us hopeless, fearful, and uncertain. Religious faith isn’t a matter of wishing away these experiences; it involves perceiving God in the midst of our hardships.

I still remember one Friday night when I, an overly sensitive preteen, made a conscious decision to stop watching the nightly news with the rest of my family. I found what I saw too depressing and threatening: crime after crime, yet another house fire, economic challenges, too much Cold War.

I don’t recall how old I was when I mustered the willpower to face the news again on a regular basis. But a quick scan of the latest headlines makes me wonder why I still subject myself to it: the imminent and potentially crippling sequester, American drones flying in and out of Niger, Iran’s growing nuclear capability, recurring bloodshed in Syria. Maybe I had it easier back in middle school.

WASHINGTON — It’s an idea that feels particularly poignant this Thanksgiving: American Jews and Muslims banding together to help the homeless and other needy people.

The interfaith collaboration has been going on for five years, but the recent exchange of rockets between Gaza and Israel is weighing especially hard on both communities this week. That's why a joint session of sandwich making or a group visit to a nursing home has taken on added significance.

“In this time of warfare it was a beautiful experience to see the two come together,” said Haider Dost, a Muslim student at Virginia’s George Mason University who worked with Jewish students to feed the homeless Sunday in Franklin Park, just blocks from the White House.

Jon Huckins 11-08-2012
Photo by Jon Huckins

Photo by Jon Huckins

Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount time in the Middle East. I no longer approach the time as a tourist, but instead seek out relationships and experiences as a listener who has much to learn about the way God is at work in contexts much different than my own. In that posture, it has been remarkable how much I have learned and begun to integrate into the way I live, love and lead back in my neighborhood. Theologian Paul Knitter describes it well when he refers to ones inherited worldview as a telescope. 

"No matter how objective we may think we are or desire to be, we all see the world through a specific telescope/worldview. When we choose to look through the telescope of people who are “different” than us, we begin to get a more comprehensive picture of the world and the way God is at work within it."

Leading our first Learning Community to the Middle East apart of The Global Immersion Project I recently co-founded, I was invited to take a look through the lens of friends’ telescopes who live amid conflict in Israel and Palestine. Here are some of my key learnings:  

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