When prayers are not enough

Special Report

An open letter to my friends at The United Church of Canada

By Alan Simons

I have read many published comments that reveal your church’s obsession with asking its members not to buy products produced in the Israeli West Bank settlements and  the recommendation that “congregants and United Church people across the country engage in prayerful discernment about personal action.”  Sadly this makes me realise more than ever that the 50 voting members of your Executive General Council have become unctuous and weak.

About 14 million Christians make up four per cent of the people of the Middle East and North Africa. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, compared to any other major geographic region, this region has the smallest percentage of Christians. Many of these people live in fear for their lives.

Yet, in your advocacy efforts to support a ‘just peace’ in the Middle East you have become obsessed with West Bank issues and you have clearly not seen the need to demonstrate strongly for your own children who are suffering, being killed and put in prison in many countries in the Middle East, simply because of their Christian beliefs.

Simon Wiesenthal once said: “For your benefit, learn from our tragedy. It is not a written law that the next victims must be Jews.”  You, by this evasion, have now become the victim.

Salim Mansur is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western University in Ontario. Last month in Canadian media he described how the Arab Spring has become a Christian nightmare:

In the Arab-Muslim world, the so-called Arab Spring has hurt most seriously the dwindling Christian minorities of the Middle East. While Arab despots in the name of secularism paradoxically provided some protection to Christians, the situation has worsened with Islamists taking power.

William Dalrymple, the well-respected historian and author of From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1998), recently wrote, “Wherever you go in the Middle East today, you see the Arab Spring rapidly turning into the Christian winter . The past few years have been catastrophic for the region’s beleaguered 14 million strong Christian minority.”

The decline, probably disappearance, of Christians from the Middle East is an ominous sign of a tragic future for the region.

 Ancient communities face extinction

Without hesitation, many of you are only too willing to support a society whose founding document stresses its commitment to the destruction of the State of Israel through a continued, violent campaign to annihilate Jews, and turn your head when your Christian brothers and sisters pray for your help as well.

In Bethlehem, Christians of the West Bank city once made up 90 percent of its people; now it’s 14 percent. Pierre Whalon, Bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, has said Bethlehem’s Christian population could be zero in 10 years. And Elias Freij, former Christian mayor of Bethlehem, has said, “Bethlehem will become a town with churches but no Christians.”

Earlier this year, Bethlehem’s First Baptist Church was informed by the Palestinian Authority that the church lacks the authority to function as a religious institution. The PA government will not recognize any legal documents from the church. That includes birth certificates, marriage certificates and death certificates. The officials’ decision not to recognise church certificates will affect the legitimacy of Christian children.  

It’s been reported that there is a sense among some Christians in Bethlehem that anti-Christian animus has increased in the city over the past few years. “Convert to Islam, convert to Islam; it’s the true and right religion,” your brothers and sisters are used to hearing.

Hisham Jarallah is a respected journalist based in the West Bank. This past June he wrote about the West Bank village of Taybeh:

The village of Taybeh in the West Bank is 100% Christian. It is surrounded by a number of Muslim villages, some of which are extremely hostile. The number of Christians living in Taybeh is estimated at less than 2,000. Over the past few years, the Christian residents of Taybeh have been living in constant fear of being attacked by their Muslim neighbors. Such attacks, residents say, are not uncommon. They are more worried about intimidation and violence by Muslims than by Israel’s security barrier or a checkpoint. And the reason why many of them are leaving is because they no longer feel safe in a village that is surrounded by thousands of hostile Muslims who relate to Christians as infidels and traitors. . .

This was not the first time that Taybeh had come under attack. In September 2005, hundreds of Muslim men went on rampage in the village, torching homes and cars, and destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary, after learning that a Muslim woman had been romantically involved with a Christian businessman from the village. The 30-year-old woman had been killed by her family. The next time anyone wants to learn about the true problems facing the Christians of the Holy Land, he or she should head to Taybeh and conduct off the record and private interviews with the villagers.

Executive General Council, take note!

“Let us be honest with ourselves and courageously say out loud that Palestinian Christians are taking many severe blows, yet are suffering in silence so as not to attract attention,” wrote Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar in the P.A. daily Al-Ayyam.

Last October, Al-Najjar, who is himself a Muslim and a regular contributor to the official P.A. newspaper, criticized the Muslim persecution of Christians in Arab countries, particularly in Palestinian Authority-administered areas.

Christians attending church in Bethlehem

“Muslims and most Christians in Palestinian areas tell journalists that they are all Palestinians. Publicly, they usually deny that there are any problems or differences between them.” 

Al-Najjar said Christians are suffering, not because of the Israeli ‘occupation’ but because of the confiscation of Christian property, especially in the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Al-Birah.

He adds, “Privately, however, some Christians admit to job losses, land seizures, attacks on churches, intimidation, torture, beatings, kidnappings, forced marriage and sexual harassment of Christian women. Some Christians have been killed.”

One year ago Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinian Authority would not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He told a Jordanian newspaper: “Don’t order us to recognize a Jewish state. We won’t accept it.”

The Mukhtar of Hebron, Sheikh Abu Hader Jaabari, confirmed this viewpoint which holds that Islam forbids Arab leaders from ceding any part of the land that is considered holy and therefore, any kind of land compromise with Israel was not valid from a religious point of view.

I wonder if your General Council’s naive and idealist young members have the ability to recognise what the real issues are in the West Bank. Combating the persecution of Christians would seem to be the top priority.

Recommending to your fellow congregants not to buy products produced in the Israeli West Bank settlements isn’t helpful to anyone except the Palestinian Authority, certainly not the Christians in Taybeh.

To quote Job 30:20I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me.”

(Photo credits: vinieno.com | kidsofcourage.com)

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