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Opinion: The road to peace will be long

10 November 2023

But Christians can and must play their part in the Middle East, says Richard Sewell

Diocese of Jerusalem

The Archbishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum, leads a Good Friday walk along the Via Dolorosa this year. The Revd Sally Azar, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan, carries the cross; behind the Archbishop is Canon Wadie Far, pastor to the Arabic-speaking congregation at St George’s Cathedral

The Archbishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum, leads a Good Friday walk along the Via Dolorosa this year. The Revd Sally Azar, of the Evangelical Luther...

THERE is a contemporary cliché: “We are where we are.” As long as it is not used to avoid tolerating an intolerable situation, it can help us from wasting energy wishing that things were different. Since we cannot change history, we simply have to face the reality of the present moment.

In the situation in Israel-Palestine, however, we have to understand what has gone before in order to chart wise steps forward. Nothing can justify Hamas’s outrage on 7 October, but, if we think of it only as an “unprovoked attack”, we will fail to grapple with the challenges of the present moment.

A fair reading of history has to do justice to both the Palestinian and the Israeli narratives. Perhaps more than any other current geo-political situation, one needs to read from different perspectives.

Whatever the causes, Gaza has been blockaded by Israel for the past 16 years. Israel has its justifications for that, but, regardless, the impact has been to make Gaza an incubator for hatred. Hamas has grown and thrived in the conditions that Israel has imposed upon two million Gazans. The political wing of Hamas, by refusing to engage with Israel in any significant way, or even to recognise the right of Israel to exist, has invested in maximising the conflict. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has taken a different approach, but it has barely led to better outcomes.

IN TERMS of looking forwards, there is so much that we do not know. The destination for the divided peoples remains totally beyond the view of experts and commoners alike (two states, one state, a federation of states).

It is a serious problem that there are currently no significant proposals on the peace table which are not dismissed out of hand by one side or the other. Every word and every step taken by the leaders of both sides can take us either nearer or further from a future place of true peace. The road to peace is going to be extraordinarily challenging.

Christians are a tiny minority in Israel and Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank), but I believe that the global Christian community has a part to play alongside local Christians. I suggest four key steps.

First, they must engage with this eruption of war with deep empathy for all who suffer. Every single Israeli Jew and every single Palestinian, Christian and Muslim, is grieving, frightened, and angry. There is no point in pitting one community’s pain and trauma against another. Both are aggrieved to the core of their being. The Suffering Olympics is futile.

Christians are called to follow the way of Christ. We are challenged to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. We are instructed to reject the dreadful and addictive cycle of tit-for-tat violence.

In 2009, in a previous round of horrific violence, the home of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gazan doctor, was hit by an Israeli missile, which instantly killed three of his daughters and a niece. His autobiography, written shortly afterwards, I Shall Not Hate (Bloomsbury, 2012), is a powerful book of resistance to the usual narrative. Anyone is capable of breaking the cycle of violence.

As the Church, we are called to be a light in the world. But the one per cent of Christians in Israel and Palestine cannot do this alone. They need the global Christian community to amplify this message.

We need all people of good will to stand against the violence that divides Israelis and Palestinians in their shared love of the Holy Land. This can happen only once a ceasefire has been established.

SECOND, support for Christians in the Holy Land is essential. St George’s College is closed now — at least, until the end of this year. Most Christians here are especially dependent on pilgrims and tourists. I plead with the worldwide Christian community not to abandon us: to pray for us steadfastly; to support us through purchasing crafts by internet shopping from Palestinian outlets (Christmas is coming); to give generously through reliable channels to enable us to continue our ministry of healing; to return as pilgrims as soon as circumstances allow.

Third, Christians can engage with pathways to peace in constructive ways. The message of peace entrusted to Christians by the Prince of Peace is not simply a call to endure the oppression that is put on the weak by the strong.

So, simply returning to the status quo of the crushing injustice that existed before the war erupted is not acceptable. It is not a Christian ethic to tell people to endure their oppression passively. It is not anti-Semitic to condemn the actions of any nation that incarcerates a people by controlling their borders or moves its own citizens into the land of another people. Christians should stand against violence, whoever commits it, whether a terrorist group or a state.

Fourth, I also plead with Christians, when talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, not to add words of hatred and intolerance (from whichever point of view) to the hate that already prevails in abundance. Compassion must infuse our desire for justice and truth. We need to build bridges of understanding between people who are deeply divided on this issue. Those bridges cannot be built out of hatred.

Once the war has been brought to a halt, the region needs a new and committed peace process to begin. The absence of this has done untold harm. A new challenge begins now.

Canon Richard Sewell is the Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem.

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