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We wanted stronger backing from Welby, Palestinian Christians say

24 October 2023

Lambeth Palace

The Archbishop of Canterbury (right) with the heads of churches in Jerusalem earlier this week

The Archbishop of Canterbury (right) with the heads of churches in Jerusalem earlier this week

PALESTINIAN Christians living in the West Bank have said that they are “utterly perplexed” by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s public statements about the “situation in Palestine”, which they describe as “a genocide of the Palestinian people and a serious threat to extinguish the Christian presence”.

Their complaints focus on Archbishop Welby’s strong condemnation of Hamas attacks, without — in their view — sufficiently articulating the context of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

Archbishop Welby has spoken of the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, saying: “I plead that the sins of Hamas are not borne by the citizens of Gaza, who themselves have faced such suffering over many decades” (News, 15 October).

In another statement, he said that “Israel has a legitimate right and duty to defend itself”, but that “the rules of war are there to safeguard civilians and the value of every human life. They must be upheld to the highest degree possible amidst the chaos of conflict, otherwise the cycle of violence will continue for generations to come.”

On Sunday he called for a “humanitarian ceasefire so that aid can safely reach the innocent civilians of Gaza”.

The end of Archbishop Welby’s four-day visit to Jerusalem was also marked by his expression of regret for remarks — not those to which the Anglicans in the West Bank objected — in which he suggested that certain criticism of Israel could amount to “another blood libel”.

In a letter to Archbishop Welby dated 21 October, a group of Palestinian Anglicans wrote: “It has become clear to us that our voices as Palestinian Anglicans are not being heard in Canterbury and our interests are being relegated.”

The letter is attributed to the Anglican congregations in Ramallah and Birzeit, both of which are parishes in the diocese of Jerusalem, and are situated in the occupied West Bank.

“Our community is small but extremely significant. As members of our Palestinian society, we Anglican Christians are fighting for our identity which, along with the Palestinian identity, has been under constant attack ever since the onset of the Israeli State,” they write. “We would expect that our existence and struggle for justice and liberation as Palestinians, Christians, and Anglicans would be accurately portrayed and more publicly supported from your side.”

They suggest that “domestic British ecumenical and political considerations” have been prioritised in the Archbishop’s pronouncements on the conflict, at the expense of an “accurate recognition and implementation of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in general, and of the Anglican Palestinian community in particular”.

They complain that a statement from Archbishop Welby last Wednesday referred to “Anglicans in the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza” rather than referring to them explicitly as Palestinians.

“These matters might, for some, seem as mere semantics, but for us directly concern our identity and the steadfast struggle to fend off against attempts to ethnically cleanse our presence from Palestine,” they say.

In a statement, Archbishop Welby referred to the Hamas attacks of 7 October as “evil and heinous crimes”. The letter writers do not take issue with the description, and state that they “unequivocally oppose all attacks against civilians”. But they suggest that the Archbishop did not use similarly emotive language to refer to the “crimes of the Israeli occupation . . . even when Anglicans have been affected. . .

“What we would expect from our Church is to fully condemn the systematic denial of our rights, and calls to annihilate our people, especially as these are being publicly expressed by the current fascist Israeli government, rather than attempting to create a balance between the oppressed and the oppressor,” they write.

No specific individuals are named as signatories, and the Rector of the churches in Ramallah and Birzeit, the Revd Fadi Diab, confirmed that he was not involved in writing the letter.

The authors, he said, were “a group of parishioners in Ramallah and Birzeit, representing Anglican grass-roots; a voice we should always listen to and support”.

A spokesperson for Lambeth Palace confirmed that Archbishop Welby had received the letter, and said: “It’s essential that we listen to our Palestinian Anglican brothers and sisters, and remain in solidarity with all the Christians of the Holy Land.

“During his recent pastoral visit to Jerusalem, the Archbishop heard stories of faithful and courageous Christian witness in service of their communities. He also heard the yearning for justice and peace, and the commitment to non-violence and reconciliation, of Palestinian Anglicans and other Palestinian Christians.

“Archbishop Justin continues to call for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire, and for aid to reach the civilians of Gaza. He urges a just peace that gives freedom and security to all peoples in the Holy Land, with particular care and concern for Palestinian Christians who are too often overlooked.

“He hopes that the small solidarity of his recent visit can be built on in the coming months. He urges Anglicans around the Communion to continue to listen to the voices of Palestinian Anglicans, and to stand with them in prayerful solidarity in the immensely difficult time to come.”

 

ARCHBISHOP WELBY spent four days in Jerusalem, starting on Thursday (News, 20 October), in what was described by Lambeth Palace as a pastoral visit. He met heads of the Churches in the Holy Land, visited hospitals and schools in the city, and met the families of some of those who were killed or kidnapped by Hamas on 7 October.

In an interview with the Times of Israel, published on Monday morning, Archbishop Welby was asked about the cause of a missile strike that killed hundreds of people at the Anglican-run Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City (News, 18 October).

The cause of the blast is disputed. Israeli officials assert that it was the result of a misfired rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, and this explanation has been judged the most plausible by independent observers. The Hamas-run government in Gaza continues to claim that it was caused by an Israeli airstrike.

In the interview, Archbishop Welby said that he was not an expert on ballistics, and could not give an answer. “What I have said publicly to people is, don’t assume it was Israel: you have no proof that it’s Israel. Many people have made a clear case it’s not. At the very best, do not start propagating another blood libel,” he said.

In a statement later on Monday, Archbishop Welby said that he regretted using the phrase “blood libel”, which refers to an anti-Semitic trope that Jews murdered Christians to use their blood in rituals.

The Archbishop explained: “I was attempting to articulate that many Jewish people are deeply conscious of a long history of accusations that trace back to the darkest times of their history. That must be borne in mind when we respond to events in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Especially here in Europe, the vast increase of the profound wickedness of anti-Semitism must be resisted, and that must involve being aware of that history.

“At the same time, the people of Gaza, and all Palestinians, must be able to express their trauma, anger, and horror at the profound suffering being endured by innocent people living under Israeli bombardment and siege. There must be space for that trauma and grief to be expressed and heard.

“We must not silence it, dismiss it. or rush to judge it. As those who are not directly involved, we need to hold space for the suffering of all innocent people to be expressed, and to grieve with them.”

In an interview with Channel 4 aired on Sunday, after meeting the families of some of those killed by Hamas on 7 October, Archbishop Welby said that “lament” had to come before protest and blame. “I am not pointing fingers; I am lamenting and mourning those who suffer so much,” he said. “I do point fingers at Hamas, and say that this is terrorism at its most extreme and most evil.”

Asked if he was “prepared” to point fingers at Israel as well, for airstrikes on Gaza that have killed an estimated 4000 people, Archbishop Welby said that sometimes a statement that might in another context be “useful” could in certain circumstances “make everything worse”.

“Killing of civilians in war is always an evil thing,” he said, but “we have to be very, very careful about who and how we blame. Of course Palestinian families cry out in protest. Who wouldn’t when they’ve lost children? Let’s not run to judgement and blame straight away, let us lament and mourn with them,” he said.

Asked what he would say to those who describe the bombardment of Gaza as “Israeli genocide against the Palestinians”, Archbishop Welby told Channel 4 that he would tell them: “You’ve no understanding of what you’re saying. Think, wait, listen, mourn, cry out for peace.”

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