Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reflections on Israel and Palestine, Part Two:

(This is another of a series of reflections from my recent study tour with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to Israel and Palestine.)

What the Israeli’s call the Separation Barrier and what the Palestinians call the Wall winds its way on a convoluted path through Bethlehem, Palestine. We walked along the Palestinian side of the Wall in Bethlehem on our way to visit the Wi’am (Wi’am is Arabic for Agape) Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. (Please check out their excellent English language website.) The Wi’am Center, by a strange irony of geography, is now located immediately next to the Wall, which was built along the border of their property. The Wi’am Center is a small, local Palestinian Christian peacemaking ministry trying to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis in personal and local ways. The Center is particularly focused on empowering women and girls. The fact that the Wall was built immediately next to their office both inspires their ministry and seriously hampers their efforts.

When we met with Zoughbi Zougbhi, the executive director of the Wi’am Center, he at first smiled graciously and quickly apologized that their office was in a bit of turmoil and confusion. During a disturbance just days earlier on the street in front of the Center, an Israeli tear gas canister, shot off to disperse the crowd of young, rock throwers, landed on top of their electric panel. The initial heat from the canister burned up their electric box; they were now working to restore full electric service and get their internet service up again. This was all explained in a sort of matter-of-fact, casual tone like we would explain the hassle of a plugged drain in the kitchen sink at home. This is life in the little town of Bethlehem today.

I asked Mr. Zoughbi about his church connection and what support their Center receives from American churches. He mentioned that he also worked closely with the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and is grateful for the Presbyterian support in Palestine. There is also a long list of American churches that partner with their work. But he also made a point that we heard from other Palestinian Christian leaders. When he meets with American Christian groups either here in their office in Bethlehem or in Jerusalem, since many Americans are afraid to travel into Bethlehem, he is often asked when he converted to Christianity. A hint of anger flashed in his eyes. “Why do you American Christians always believe that we Palestinian Christians converted to Christianity? Sometimes I think you Americans are convinced that all Palestinians are Islamic terrorists. If you learn anything here, please know that this is a Christian ministry founded by Christians and supported by Christians. My family has been Christian and has lived in Palestine for many, many generations. My family has a Christian heritage that is older than your United States! Our Christian heritage goes back directly to the disciples of Jesus.” We, American Christians, need to check our perceptions and carefully evaluate our own deep stereotypes about the complex and confusing reality of the Middle East today. There many different expressions and historic distinctions among all the religions of these peoples. This is Holy Land where our great religions are originally rooted. The depth of religious conviction and identity is profound and powerful. History is so much deeper and longer than in our American culture.

There are Christians and Churches in Palestine and throughout the Middle East. But given generations of conflict the numbers of Christians have seriously declined. But as the Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem told our group, the influence of the Christians in the Middle East is much, much larger than their small numbers would suggest. We need to support these Christian brothers and sisters.

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem."