by Christine Sine
Last week I cleaned out a cupboard that has not been touched since Tom and I were married over 30 years ago. It was a trove of long forgotten treasures. Amongst them was this beautiful plaque inlaid with mother of pearl. It is written in Arabic and says Christ/Messiah Saviour of the World. A couple of days later I met with a friends who spent several months working on the West Bank amongst Palestinian Christians. I too remember meeting many Palestinian Christians during my own visit to Israel/Palestine, especially in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
My heart aches these days for the Palestinian people and this plaque has triggered not just many prayers for the horrors of what is going on in Gaza at the moment, and for the Palestinian Christians caught up in the conflict but also a strong desire to know more about the people of Palestine and especially the Christian heritage of the area.
According to the Palestinian Portal, a site that I find is a great meeting place and resource for the churches organizations and faith-based communities – local, regional, national and global – committed to the justice movement for Israel/Palestine:
Palestinian Christians are often called the ‘living stones’ of Christianity as they can trace their history to the birth of the Church in this land 2,000 years ago. Ancestors of some families have been in the Holy Land ever since, while others migrated there in later centuries. Therefore they should be understood to be indigenous people of the Holy Land, not immigrants and not recent converts. In fact, they are the oldest Christian population on earth.
Unfortunately many Christians in other countries do not even know there are Christians in Palestine and view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews, rather than the struggle over land it truly is. Yet Christians around the world owe much to these indigenous believers and their faithful stewardship of the holiest sites of Christianity.
That is what I remember from our time in Jerusalem and Palestine. The Christians we met with, mainly Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican, are very sincere in their faith and proud of their amazing heritage and the impact it continues to have on their lives and in our lives as well. They have often been the ones who helped maintain and protect the most holy sites including the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and other sites in Bethlehem. Many of us have olive wood Christmas ornaments and creches made in Bethlehem by some of these Christians. Bethlehem is on the West Bank, and is freely accessed by Palestinian Christians, however:
One of the most painful restrictions of the occupation are the limits on their freedom to worship. Tourists from around the world can visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, believed to be the site of Jesus’ burial tomb, yet Palestinian Christians who live only a few miles away cannot reach it without a special permit that they can rarely obtain, even during the Easter season.
Christians in Palestine now only constitute 2% of the population, down from almost 10% in 1922. There are also many Palestinian Christians who are descendants of Palestinian refugees from the post-1948 era who fled to Christian-majority countries and formed large diaspora Christian communities. Worldwide, there are nearly one million Palestinian Christians. I well remember meeting with several here in Seattle and hear the stories of injustice, not from the Muslim Palestinians who supported and encouraged their presence, but from the Zionists who pushed them out of their homes and their country.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do not condone the violence that Hamas perpetrated at the beginning of this current conflict, but the ongoing atrocities and violence, the devastation caused by the Israelis is just as bad, if not worse.
Interestingly, St George, the patron saint of England, was a Palestinian. Palestinians also reverend celebrate the early Christian martyr. For them he is a local hero who opposed the persecution of his fellow Christians in the Holy Land. “We believe he was a great martyr for his faith who defended the Christian faith and values,” says Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna. St George was a Roman soldier during the Third Century AD, whose mother was Palestinian. It is said that he once lived in al-Khadr near Bethlehem, on land owned by his mother’s family. The saint is remembered for giving away his possessions and remaining true to his religion when he was imprisoned and tortured before he was finally executed. There are many churches in the West Bank and Israel that bear the name of St George – at al-Khadr, Lod and in the Galilee.
As we gather in church each week, we share a call to worship followed by the lighting of a Peace Lamp and a prayer before passing the peace. A couple of weeks ago Peter Lagerwey at our church composed the liturgy below. It is my prayer for all of us as we move towards Advent and Christmas and live in expectation of the coming once again of Christ/Messiah, Saviour of the World. It is my prayer especially as we look at Israel/Palestine and the many other place of violence today. It is a prayer of longing and hope:
As we gather this morning,
The Mighty One invites us to be quiet; to come near.
As we witness yet another week of unrelenting violence in a broken and fractured world,
The Mighty One invites us to remember we are beloved.
As we feel surrounded, suffocated, and seduced
by the false promise of security through military might,
The Mighty One invites us to remember we are indeed God’s own.
We cannot worship both the Mighty One
and the false gods of consumerism, militarism and nationalism
We must choose.
The Mighty One is our God. The mighty One is our God.
(Here we pause to light the Peace lamp. You might like to light a candle too.)
We long for a just peace, we pray for a just peace, we choose to live for a just peace. Peace be with you, and also with you.