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Archbishop Welby, apologetic, reverses decision not to meet Palestinian pastor from Bethlehem

29 February 2024

Christian Aid

The Revd Dr Munther Isaac speaks in a video for Christian Aid, last month

The Revd Dr Munther Isaac speaks in a video for Christian Aid, last month

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has apologised to a Palestinian pastor, the Revd Dr Munther Isaac, for refusing to meet him earlier this month.

Dr Isaac is the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, in Bethlehem, and has been one of the most prominent Palestinian Christian voices calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war (News, 30 November 2023). He has referred to the war as a genocide, and Israel as a coloniser guilty of apartheid.

The Archbishop’s decision was described as “appalling” by members of Christians for Palestine — UK in a letter in this week’s Church Times. “Dr Isaac speaks prophetically, with moral authority and clarity. In contrast, the Church of England’s position on Gaza has been equivocal and misguided,” it says.

On social media on Thursday morning, Archbishop Welby wrote: “Recently I declined to meet with Rev Dr Munther Isaac during his UK visit. I apologise for and deeply regret this decision, and the hurt, anger, and confusion it caused. I was wrong not to meet with my brother in Christ from the Holy Land, especially at this time of profound suffering for our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters. I look forward to speaking and praying with him next week.”

In a reply, Dr Isaac wrote: “Thank you Archbishop Justin Welby. I welcome this statement, and I look forward to meeting next week as brothers in Christ.”

It was Dr Isaac’s decision to address a pro-Palestine rally in London on 17 February, an event also attended by the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which prompted the Archbishop to withdraw from plans to meet. He had been advised that meeting Dr Isaac would caused significant problems for the Jewish community.

Members of the Jewish community have described how the rallies that have gathered in London in recent months — gathering hundreds of thousands of people — have been a cause of fear and anxiety (News; 17 November; 1 December 2023).

Dr Isaac told The Guardian that the Archbishop’s decision was “shameful. It’s not my type of Christianity not to be willing to meet another pastor because you don’t want to explain why you met him. This sums up the Church of England. They danced around positions and ended up saying nothing. They lack the courage to say things.”

Addressing the rally, Dr Isaac quoted from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, for they shall be satisfied.” Those gathered were “on the right side of history”, he said. “We either side with the logic of power and ruthlessness and with the lords of war, or with the oppressed.”

During his visit, he delivered the address at a vigil, “Christ Under the Rubble”, organised by Embrace the Middle East, Sabeel-Kairos, and Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church. He was scathing about the response of many Christians to Gaza. Palestinian Christians had been crying out, “Where is the Church?” he said.

“Honestly, we should not be surprised. How many times did we, as Palestinian Christians, experience rejection from the Western Church? How many times were invitations sent to us to speak in global venues, and then these invitations were cancelled. Why? For fear of controversy. There are church leaders who are willing to sacrifice us for the sake of avoiding the hassle of having to explain to outsiders why they are meeting with us Palestinian Christians. They’d rather not do that; so they don’t invite us. They don’t meet with us. They sacrifice us for comfort. It happened for me even on this trip. . .

“Over my life I’ve met many people, and I met many people who ended up becoming influential — either church leaders, or even politicians, in very influential positions. When we first met them, they were with us, they understood, they were for justice: ‘We will do everything for you.’ But along the way, as they become more and more important and influential, they sacrificed Palestine. . .

“I am tired and fed up of church leaders who share with me behind closed doors in confidentiality that they support us 100 per cent, but that they are confined in what they can say in public.”

He warned: “Many Christians love to hide behind charity, to look like good ones, while being silent when the genocide is happening. Piety, religiosity, true spirituality means the active participation in loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the straps of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, and breaking every yoke.”

Dr Munther attracted international attention after an infant Christ swaddled in a keffiyeh and lying amid stones was placed in the crib scene at his church (15 December, 2023). “If Jesus were born today, he would be born in Gaza under the rubble,” he said.

Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, and Israeli retaliation, the Archbishop’s response been criticised by Palestinian Christians (News, 27 October 2023). Among the complaints was a claim that “domestic British ecumenical and political considerations” had 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”.

The Archbishop has called for a ceasefire (News, 17 November 2023). He has also expressed deep concern about rising anti-Semitism in the UK (News, 4 December 2023). This included a recorded meeting discussing the problem with the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, during Mr Corbyn’s time as leader of the Labour Party (News, 14 September 2018).

He has also been criticised by Jewish leaders, however. In December 2021, the Board of Deputies wrote to complain about a newspaper article that he co-wrote and that said that Christians in the Holy Land had become the target of “frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups” (News, 31 December 2021).

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