"A commandment of love" was the theme that the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, stressed when I asked him last week about what Arab Christians should be doing to address the many challenges and threats in the Middle East today. I was especially interested in the role of Arab Christians because their plight is highlighted this Christmas week, even as a delegation of United Kingdom church leaders makes a timely Holy Land pilgrimage.
Christians experience the same pressures and challenges as the majority Muslim population living under Israeli occupation, the assault of Western armies, or the incompetent, autocratic mismanagement of their own Arab political leaders. A strangled Bethlehem, though, is likely to catch the attention of Western citizens and church leaders more than a stressed Alexandria, Aleppo or Casablanca. The four British pilgrims are the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor; the moderator of the Free Churches, the Reverend David Coffey; and the primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian.
The focal point of their four-day visit is a pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Their trip and witness will help Christians and other people of good faith around the world better appreciate the impact of the Israeli occupation on all Palestinians, including Christian communities.
Sabbah welcomed the pilgrimage and noted that, "at a time when our communities in the two Holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem are separated by a wall and checkpoints, the visit of the churches' ecumenical delegation is a reminder to us, to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and to the world, that the pilgrims' path of hope and love must remain open."
Hope and love stand in sharp contrast to the Israeli colonization and control policies in and around Bethlehem that have shattered the physical, spiritual and economic integrity of the community, by cutting off the built-up areas from thousands of hectares of agricultural land and water resources. The main culprits are Israel's separation wall to fence in the Palestinians, and an associated system of smaller cement walls, 27 Israeli settlements, and a network of electric fences and apartheid-like "Jewish settlers-only" roads and checkpoints, almost all built on land confiscated from Bethlehem's private owners. The result is a prison-like environment for the people of Bethlehem, 70 percent of whom now live below the poverty line. After Israel's attacks and reoccupation of Bethlehem in 2001 and 2002, some 3,000 Christians emigrated, representing 10 percent of the local Christian population.
Leila Sansour, the Palestinian chief executive of the Open Bethlehem project that works to preserve the city's physical, spiritual, demographic and economic integrity, wrote last week: "A UN report into Christianity in Bethlehem predicts that our community will not survive another two generations. We live from pilgrimages, and our city is closed. We have traditionally stored our wealth in land, and our land behind the wall has been seized. Our lives are intimately bound up, economically and socially, with the Christian community in Jerusalem, yet we are forbidden to enter that city, which lies only 20 minutes away."
He went on to say: "There must be a broad project, a social, economic, political project so that people together can see how they can prepare a country and homeland, and enrich every citizen so that he or she feels at home, content and secure, without any fear of the other. All citizens must have the same place and opportunities in terms of their social and political rights."
In replying to a question of mine about whether Arab Christians could play a role as bridges to the West, he answered: "We Christians can be a true bridge through all the churches that are present in the world. All of us together can have an impact. We have an obligation to understand Islam for what it is, therefore we have the obligation even to have alliances with Muslims, in order to build a new type of society, and bring this as a model of coexistence to the West."
Love, indeed, seems worth a try. In that spirit, I say Merry Christmas to all, and early Eid al-Adha and Happy Hanukkah wishes to my Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters, hoping that all of us together will respond to Michel Sabbah's call for an ideology of love to replace this time of war.
27 decembre 2006
The SOLIDA movement (Support of Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) has for years fought for the principles of Human Rights and the Rule of Law for Lebanon and its people.
We have catalogued the files of hundreds of Lebanese prisoners in Syria and Israel and have lobbied international institutions and governments to address this tragedy as a basis to help the Lebanese people undergo the psychological healing towards a genuine National Reconciliation. After operating for nearly 10 years from France, SOLIDA has moved to Beirut in May 2006. SOLIDA is a registered, independent, non-profit Lebanese organization that is not affiliated with any political party or religious denomination in Lebanon. Its work transcends political and sectarian differences in promoting the international principles of human rights and the rule of law.