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Clinging to hope in the Holy Land

23 December 2022

Beleagured Palestinian Christians need churches to take their side, argues Richard Sewell

Richard Sewell

A Christmas tree on Mount Scopus, with a view over Jerusalem

A Christmas tree on Mount Scopus, with a view over Jerusalem

IT SEEMS that hope is scarce in many parts of the world. I cannot be alone in feeling a sense of foreboding about what lies ahead. Advent is the time to kindle hope, and I have been clinging on as best I can; but it is a struggle.

I am having my fifth Christmas living in Jerusalem, and the hard edge of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians feels sharper now than ever. Israel has just returned its most right-wing government, with undoubted extremists taking up Cabinet posts under a returning Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is teetering on the edge of collapse, which would unleash many hues of trouble.

In Advent, Christians in the Holy Land come out of the shadows and make their presence felt. Flashing lights, Christmas trees, and inflatable Santas are put up early, and stay up late into January. It is an opportunity to show that this now small minority of the population is still here, and that they have something to say.

The message seems to be “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Christians are a diminishing number throughout the Middle East; for this to be true in the Holy Land — the birthplace of Christ and of Christianity — is especially shocking. For a few weeks in December and January, it feels as though Christians are not marginal, but are centre-stage. The presence of tens of thousands of pilgrims (returning for the first time since the pandemic) bolsters this impression.

YET the glitz of Christmas cannot obscure the truth that Christians are experiencing greater pressure on their lives and on their very existence, now possibly more than ever before in this nexus of the Abrahamic faiths.

The causes are both religious and political: religious, because Christians experience discrimination from Jews and Muslims; and now, registering under two per cent of the population in both Israel and Palestine, they exert little influence.

But the most significant factor that is squeezing Christians most harshly is their Palestinian identity. In this, Muslims and Christians are united in suffering at the hands of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and in suffering discrimination in Israel, even though they hold citizenship.

Richard SewellThe place identified by tradition as that of Jesus’s birth in the grotto of the Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

There is nothing new in this. The effects have been observed for decades, and voices from countries in the West, East, and Middle East have been raised to object to the denial of rights and aspirations to the beleaguered Palestinians. What is occurring in the present is a tightening of those effects from Israel, combined with an increasing loss of competence of the governance of the Palestinian Authority.

The number of people killed on both sides is higher now than for many years — and this brutal statistic alone is a cause of deep grief and anger. The worsening situation is measured not only by deaths, however, but by multiple aspects of Israel’s occupation, which assaults the safety and welfare of Palestinians in numerous ways. In response, militant armed groups are organising in Palestinian towns and cities, and the situation seems ready to boil over in what may already be a third intifada.

HOW do we cling on to and kindle hope in a situation such as this, when the facts on the ground are more likely to give us cause for despair?

Christian hope is not a feeling of optimism that things are steadily going to get better; it contends with the evil and the suffering in the here-and-now, and provides an alternative narrative.

Jesus’s birth did not appear to change the facts on the ground in first-century Palestine. Our hope that there is a route to a just peace in 21st-century Palestine is not based on perceiving improvement in front of our eyes: it is based on the knowledge that God has promised always to be with us, and, in Jesus Christ, to contend with evil, which, in cosmic terms, has already been defeated.

When we align our actions with the ultimate victory of good over evil, of truth over deceit, then we are living out hope. The Pastor of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, the Revd Munther Isaac, said recently: “Despite everything, we are hopeful people. Hope today is our ministry, our mission. We are not just waiting for something to happen. We believe we create something hopeful by our actions.”

He called on churches around the world to abandon the neutrality that refuses to take sides and simply prays for peace, and, instead, to support the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, in the struggle for freedom from tyranny. He argued that, for churches, the days of quiet diplomacy were over, and the need for action was urgent, before it was too late.

The Palestinian liberation theologian Mitri Raheb said: “Hope is what we do today.” So, for me, struggling to perceive a light in the darkness, Advent is a call to action. The message of Advent and Christmas, for all Christians, is: Do not simply look for hope, but let your actions be the hope that is needed.

The popular Arabic Christmas carol, “Laylat Al-Milad” captures this message beautifully in its words:

When we offer a glass of water to
    a thirsty person, we are in
When we wipe tears from
    weeping eyes, we are in
On the night of Christmas, love is

The Very Revd Richard Sewell is the Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem.

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