Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Plight of Palestinian Christians -- who know no peace

As we ponder this ongoing battle between Israel and Hamas, one that seems to be headed toward a lengthy foray that will likely do nothing more than further radicalize the Palestinians, make martyrs of Hamas and further undermine the security of the Israelis. As we American Christians contemplate this situation in the Middle East we often forget that this isn't just a Jewish-Muslim issue. There has been a small but significant Christian presence in Palestine for centuries, one that goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Today it takes a number of visages, from Orthodox to Catholic to Protestant. These are the people who worship in the historic churches of the region. But the ongoing conflicts, especially as a result of the ever tightening grip of the Israeli occupation, have led to a continued exodus of Palestinian Christians out of the region. Many of them live in the Metro-Detroit area.

Julie Schumacher Cohen, a Christian and daughter of Jewish Israeli converts to Christianity, and a staff member of Churches for Middle East Peace, writes in a Sojourner's God's Politics essay about her own enlightenment as to the plight of these Christians, who know not peace in their own homeland.

She writes:

Palestinian Christians, particularly Dr. [Bernard] Sabella, have provided me with a special window into the Palestinian experience and the search for Holy Land peace. A small, forgotten community enmeshed in what is often viewed as a Jewish-Muslim conflict, Palestinian Christians play a critical role in maintaining a pluralistic Palestinian society and in contributing to Palestinian peacemaking efforts. However, Christians are leaving the Holy Land at an alarming rate, caught in the violence, political upheaval, economic hardship, religious extremism and social decay that are the bitter mill of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Senators Kit Bond (R-MO) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said in a Christmas letter to President Bush a year ago, “If this trend does not change, the sacred sites of Christianity will soon be reduced to museums for visiting tourists — and Jerusalem, with its universal and sacred importance, will cease to be the home of three living faith communities.”


Timothy Weber notes in his book On the Road to Armageddon that America's dispensationalist Christians have shown virtually no interest in the Palestinian Christian community. These are the "'living stones' that cry out a continuous Christian testimony throughout the centuries but now face near dissolution due to a massive Christian exodus from the middle east" (pp. 246-247).

Why are American dispensationalists so neglectful of their Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters? One reason is that American evangelicals do not seem to have much in common with them. Most Palestinian Christians belong to one of the Eastern Orthodox families -- Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and even Russion. Roughly one-third of Palestinian Christians are Roman Catholic (called Latin Catholic in the Middle East). The uniate churches, the Marionites and Melkites, recognize Roman primacy but retain their own distinctive Eastern rites. In the minority are Protestant Christians of various kinds, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, and other independent evangelicals. Thus, American dispensationalists would find only a small number of Palestinian Christians whose style and beliefs are similar to theirs. As a general rule, American evangelicals do not engage in ecumenical enterprises. Therefore, they steer clear of the Middle East Councile of Churches, which attempts to speak with a united Christian voice in a conflicted and dangerous context" (Timothy Weber, On the Road to Armageddon, Baker Books, 2004, p. 247).


Weber notes that even Palestinian evangelicals would not find much in common with their American siblings. Indeed, Palestinian Christians are befuddled as American Christians come and treat their holy sites as museum pieces rather than living communities of faith.

It is important that we who are Christians see the full picture, and recognize that we have brothers and sisters in Christ living under great duress in this region. Their voice is crying out to us, hoping that we will hear it.

1 comment:

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Exactly! I cannot think of "Middle East conflict" for instance, without seeing the faces of Sami and Alex Awad who are my friends. Alex is pastor of the Baptist Church of Bethlehem and Sami, his brother, is head of Holy Land Trust, an ecumenical movement for nonviolent resistance of the occupation. There have been Palestinian Christians since the 1st C.--while my ancestors were still worshipping Woden on the Frieburg or sacrificing virgins in a Druidic ritual in Ireland! But American Christians completely abandon our Palestinian sisters and brothers shamefully!