CHRISTIANITY AND THE MIDDLE EAST: Friends of Sabeel Hold Major Conference in Washington, DC
"Jerusalem -- The Things That Make For Peace: An Agenda for American Christians" was the overall theme of the conference convened by Friends of Sabeel -- North America in Washington, DC Thursday and Friday, June 5 and 6, hard on the heels of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue conference at nearby Georgetown University. Sabeel is the Jerusalem-based organization of Palestinian Christians which, among other things, is responsible for the ecumenical Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.
Its programs encourage women, men and youth "to discern what God is saying to them as their faith connects with the often hard realities of their daily lives: occupation, violence, discrimination and human rights violations." In dealing with those realities, it works for justice and mutual respect and understanding across religious community lines. Its next conference will be in Jerusalem, Feb. 10-15, on "The Challenge of Jubilee: What Does the Lord Require?"
The June 5-6 conference was designed particularly for North American Christians who are working for peace through justice in the Middle East. Both it and the Georgetown conference welcomed participation by adherents of other faiths who are also working for peace and justice. For general information, contact FOS-NA at Box 4214, Ann Arbor, MI 48106; phone (evenings): (313) 665-5773.
The Thursday portion of the Sabeel conference opened with a training session for delegates at Washington's Reformation Lutheran Church on how to deal with legislators and government administrators with whom advance appointments had been made. In the evening a video produced by the Palestine Housing Rights Organization on "Jerusalem: An Occupation Set in Stone?" was presented by its director, Marty Rosenbluth. He and Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of the Ramallah Friends Meeting (Quaker congregation), answered questions and led a discussion. The evening closed with denominational groups meeting to assess opportunities. These sessions were held, like those the following day, at the National Presbyterian Church.
The two Friday morning sessions were on "American Policy and the Perpetuation of Injustice." Jonathan Kuttab, Palestinian human rights attorney, Yvonne Haddad, professor of Modern Islamic History at Georgetown University, and Dr. Sara Roy, noted for her books and articles on Gaza, gave their insights on the first theme. The second was addressed by Prof. Rosemary Ruether of Garrett-Evangelical Seminary; Fr. Elias Chacour, Melchite priest and founder of Mar Elias School in Ibilin, Galilee; Rev. Mitri Raheb, of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, and Jean Zaru.
Afther lunch and regional meetings the delegates spent 2 1/4 hours pondering the theme "Working for Justice: An Agenda for Americans." They were led successively by Prof. Marc Ellis, noted Jewish theologian and author; Dale Bishop, Middle East executive of the Common Global Ministries Board; Gabriel Habib, former executive secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, now in New York with the National Council of Churches; and Naim Ateek, canon at St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem, and president of Sabeel.
Prof. Haddad criticized Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's description of U.S. foreign policy as "different strokes for different folks." We penalize other nuclear countries that don't sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Pact, but not Israel, Haddad noted. We denounce other countries that discriminate among their citizens on the basis of religion, but not Israel; we condemn countries that colonize other people under an apartheid system, but not Israel. Haddad termed "disastrous" the expected appointment of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk as U.S. assistant secretary of state: what we need, she concluded, is a whole new U.S. foreign policy team.
Attorney Kuttab pronounced the peace process completely dead. What's needed now, he insisted, is a radical alternative that is not political. For too long, he charged, Christians have succumbed to the assumption that all we need to be effective is to have realizable goals toward which to influence policymakers. We must abandon that limited approach and, trusting in God, speak bluntly to power, even if that means being marginalized. We must say bluntly that we do not accept Israel as a Jewish state; that we do not accept Israeli -- or Palestinian -- violations of human rights and that we do not accept Israeli settlements or the apartheid system that is being put in place in the occupied territories.
Dr. Roy offered documentation that the economies of Gaza and the West Bank are now worse than in 1993. This is due to Israel's border closures and its economic isolation of non-Jewish residents of the territories. Killing local businesses also is price fixing by 15 Palestinian monopolies -- all done with Israel's military approval. The U.S. government tolerates this because some of the money from the monopolies goes to pay the Palestinian Authority's security forces and other social services. The PA, said Roy, has no interest in any economic reforms that challenge Arafat's system of patronage, just as it has no interest in challenging Israel's policy of closure.
Prof. Ruether labeled liberal Christians "spineless" for their failure to condemn Israel as an "ethnic-religious-racist state." They are intimidated, she said, by liberal American Jews. Many U.S. Christians have experienced such intimidation -- and she alluded to a few -- but their stories are not being told. "The story of the silencing is being silenced," she charged. Those stories, she concluded, need to be told.
Fr. Chacour argued that what we need now is less a "theology of liberation" than a liberation of theology," including a liberation from Holocaust theology. Abraham, he pointed out, was an Iraqi goy from whom we are all descended. Preaching liberation from theologies that permit one people to oppress another is dangerous to one's health, as Jesus well knew. The problem today, said Chacour, is that too many Christians want to jump from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday's triumph without undergoing the anguish, penitence and transformation of the disciples on Good Friday and Black Saturday.
Rev. Raheb spoke of the "mythology" of the "peace process" and the "two-state solution." Palestinians don't talk about the peace process any more, he said, and they see the so-called "two-state solution" as simply the legalization of apartheid.
Dr. Bishop said that, in working for durable peace, Christians should not sacrifice the principles of justice to get a negotiated compromise. He noted that in 1982 the framers of the National Council of Churches Middle East Statement accepted Israel as a "Jewish state" as a compromise to make the overall statement more acceptable to the Jewish community. That compromise, he confessed, was nonetheless a surrender of the principle of justice as it applies to the non-Jewish population of Israel. So, too, with the Oslo agreement: For the sake of a negotiated compromise and in order not to be seen by others as obstructionists, many Christians accepted the Oslo accords even though they represent an abandonment of the basic principles of justice for the Palestinians as embodied in U.N. resolutions.
MECC Issues Iraq Report
Back in 1991, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain had for too long been directing his military and economic resources to the domination or destruction of rival oil-rich Gulf countries, the U.S. led the military coalition to try to shoot and bomb him out of occupied Kuwait. They missed him but destroyed, among other things, the Tigris-Euphrates bridges and water systems and other infrastructure essential to the industrial, agricultural, commercial and general economic wellbeing of once healthy and prosperous Iraq. The fact that Saddam Hussain remained in power even after his army was "grievously ejected" from Kuwait has led, instead, to a six-year embargo to starve his people into a possible insurrection, of which they are less and less capable.
Consequently, as writer Robert Hazo put it in an article in the January 1997 issue of this magazine, "What the Iraqi people have been suffering is a continuing hell on earth." Carol Bellamy, head of U.N. Children's Relief, put it a bit more specifically when she stated that in Iraq "approximately 4,500 children under the age of five die every month from hunger and disease." Altogether, added Hazo, as many as 100,000 Iraqis "may be dying every year for lack of food and medicine." The pollution of drinking water also has been a contributing factor.
The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) is struggling to devise ways in which its member congregations can help the Iraqi churches struggle through their related crises. Among other things it sent a delegation to interview church leaders inside Iraq to try to assess the nature of the problems and devise initial solutions. The most recent MECC NewsReport, a bimonthly magazine with a format and journalistic style comparable to Time or Newsweek, gives excerpts from statements by four of those leaders, from which we have extracted the following:
Avak Asadourian, prelate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Iraq, responded, in part:
"The embargo and sanctions against Iraq over the last 6 years have created a problem of security -- actually, a lack of security, a lack of work and a lack of basic human necessities. These three have combined and have forced the people -- or some of them -- to leave the country. This involves Christian and Muslim populations alike in Iraq
"It has created a vacuum in our diocese because our people get involved in the affairs of the church and we grow from their abilities. Now we don't have that many young people to help us work for them -- for their spiritual and human needs.
"The country as a whole is experiencing a brain drain. Many of the university professors have taken jobs in countries around Iraq. Many of the good doctors have left the country, which depletes the services available...."
Father Louis Shabi of the St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad noted further:
"We have many different activities in our church to try to help our people during these difficult times. We also do a lot of visitation with the sick men and women of our parish. There are many refugees in the country and we try to help as many as we can, both Christian and Muslim.
"Before the war, the situation was very very good and there were very few poor people in Iraq. Now the majority of the population is poor....
"My biggest hope for the future is that God will give us peace and security. I want to be freed from these material issues..."
Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Severius Hawa of Baghdad and Basra added:
"We are making a big effort to improve the economic situation of the needy families. In general, the standard of living has fallen and we need to try to limit this trend.
"We have felt believers drawing nearer to the Church in the recent moments of crisis. They seem to be drawn to the fellowship and to their beliefs.
"As far as relations are concerned, Christian-Muslim relationships vary from one person to another. Some people have good relationships. Some do not because of their links to work. There has been no change in these relations since the war. Generally we have no problems living alongside the Muslim community."
Archbishop Gewargis Sliwa of the Church of the East in Iraq emphasized:
"Our biggest challenge has been taking care of the children. They are suffering from a lack of food and medicine and in the future -- if they grow up in this situation -- they will face many difficulties if they don't have the necessities of life.
"The other thing is that as a church we have a very important duty toward those who were raised during this situation, starting in 1980 during the beginning of the Iran/Iraq war and then again after the sanctions. Those who came to life during this time are now about 18-19 years old. So the church has work to do from a psychological point of view. It's not just an issue of food and clothing, but how to take care of these human beings. That's a very big job really.
"Besides all of this, as a church we have so many projects to do which we cannot do because of the sanctions. We have had to cancel them all because it is not a suitable time for people to give donations to the church."
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