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Christmas in Palestine: ’tis the season to pretend we care

2013/12/23

It has become tradition: every year around Christmas, we Christians in the West send up pious thoughts on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. We comment on the Christmas tree in Manger Square. We chat about the church services in the place of Christ’s birth and the logistics of getting there. Some might quietly lament the seemingly never-ending Israel-Palestinian conflict. There is usually a New York Times or Washington Post article–such as this one about a matter of grave seasonal importance. Well-meaning conversations are had on Facebook and in the comment sections of blogs. Our annual expression of caring for Christian Palestinians is usually brought to a close by a collective shoulder shrug and a despondent sigh, after which we stow them away together with all the other Christmas clutter, to be dusted off again a year hence.

Is this seasonal solidarity really better than no solidarity at all? I doubt it, and here’s why: the brevity and shallowness of our annual care-fest for Palestinian Christians  obscures, rather than promotes any actual understanding of their reality. It misses nearly every point relevant to their lives for the rest of the year. Year round roadblocks, ongoing land appropriations for settlements, olive groves destroyed, homes bulldozed, and a six-decade long refugee crisis–these are the real issues of oppression, injustice and indignity facing the Palestinian people, of which Palestinian Christians are an integral part. Too real, perhaps, since instead we choose to focus on things like the logistics of getting a spruce through the checkpoints to Manger Square. When Epiphany is behind us, the Christmas trees have been tossed out, and the incense in our churches has dissipated, the tear gas remains, the death toll will continue to rise, and the refugees will still be without hope. While our act of caring is seasonal, oppression and despair are perennial–but it seems that we don’t want to know.

Dbayeh_R_C___needs_verification_-37056Moreover, Palestinian Christians do not live in Bethlehem and Nazareth only. They live in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan. They live in Gaza City. They live scattered around the globe–in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and elsewhere. The season’s personal interest stories never focus on these people. Far away from the spotlight, they are unable to return to their homes, their properties, their ancient churches because, like the rest of the Palestinian population, they are of the wrong race. Ethnicity, not religion, was at the heart of the mass expulsions from Palestine in 1948, and at the heart of the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, but Christian Palestinians have felt the impact to no lesser a degree than their non-Christian compatriots. Yet, with exception for the week around Christmas, Western Christians seem to not care one bit. “After all, they’re not victimized as Christians, but as Palestinians… the Palestinian thing is complicated, you know… it’s not as if the Arab states have treated these people right…Israel must be allowed to live in security… did I mention it’s complicated?… wow, is that the time–I’ve got this thing I have to do, we’ll talk more later… how about next Christmas?

I am aware that “Western Christians” is a broad generalization, but think back: when did you hear your pastor, elder, or bishop stand up to condemn the expulsion of Christians from Palestine? When did you hear a statement of solidarity with Palestinian Christian refugees? When did your bidding prayers ever include the safety, well-being and rights of Palestinian Christians (except possibly around Christmas as part of a general prayer for the peoples of the Holy Land)? When did your Church bulletin mention their situation, as a news item or in the prayer line?  When did your pastor, elder, or bishop ever say: “Enough is enough, we have to do something to aid the suffering Christians of Palestine!” I am guessing that for most Western Christians, the answer is “never.” Many regular church-goers do not even know that there is such a thing as a Christian Palestinian, believing all Palestinians to be Muslim (as if that would somehow justify complacency in the face of oppression, but that is for another post…).

SYRIA-CONFLICT-REBELS-TEENAGERWhat a difference from the way in which we approach Christians in other parts of the Middle East! For the Christians of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, Western Christians are virtually gushing with solidarity 24/7 and have taken to standing up in unison to plead for their cause, demand their safety, advocate for their rights, including the right to return safely to their homes. Solidarity with Middle East Christians is the new byword, and we behave as if  were the most natural thing in the world–our duty as Christians, an integral part of what we are called to do. In the case of Palestinian Christians we pretend that we need to be above politics, that “the Palestinian problem” is simply too political, but on behalf of all other Middle East Christians we rush headlong into politics, demand policy changes, write to members of Congress, organize demonstrations, praise world leaders who are considered defenders of Christians (most commonly Putin and Assad), and God only knows what else.We are all over this one: “This  aggression will not stand! Christians have a right to live in the region where Christianity was born! Christians are an integral part of the sociocultural landscape! Christians have lived and worshiped there for millennia!” That is to say, all the sorts of things that were and remain perfectly true also for Palestinian Christians. Only this time we choose to care.

Haifa_Exodus_1This sudden burst of interest in the fate of Christians in the Middle East is welcome, of course. Better late than never. But reality is that as many Palestinian Christians were driven out of their homes in the Holy Land in 1948 as have now been driven out of their homes in Syria. Some 50,000 individuals, 35% of the Christian population in Palestine, were removed in a matter of months, together with three quarters of a million of their Muslim compatriots. When they were forced away, when their ancient churches and convents, their schools and seminaries were bombed or otherwise demolished–Western Christians expressed virtually zero solidarity. Over six decades of these poor souls living in refugee camps or leaving the region altogether, and Western Christians still have a solid track record of virtually zero solidarity. On the contrary, those of us who do raise the issue are accused of everything from naïvete to malice. Many Christians even seek to justify the expulsion of the Palestinians (carefully avoiding any mention of the Christians among them) as a necessary price for a greater political good. “After all, they had to make way for the region’s only democracy with which we Christians have a special, Bible-based relationship… besides, there really wasn’t any civilization to speak of in Palestine before the desert was made to bloom in 1948…”

Palestinian misery, 1948

It would be disingenuous to pretend that the identity of the violator, as well as the surrounding political and cultural issues do not matter to us. The Christians in the Holy Land were not attacked by Muslim extremists. The Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate, the monastery of the Benedictine Fathers on Mount Zion, St. Jacob’s Convent, and the Archangel’s Convent were not mortared by al-Qaeda. Those who  drove them away from their homes did not brandish a Quran.  9/11, the War on Terror, fear of Islam, clash of civilization narratives, disaffection with our elected leaders, unhappiness  with their policies–these and a myriad other factor are involved. It is not surprising–it is human–but it is nevertheless a glaring double standard.

Syrian misery, 2013

As Christmas is upon us and we pray for peace in the land of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the Middle East at large, we will no doubt feel moved to pray for an urgent end to the ongoing and terrible persecution of Christians. Might we include a prayer for those who have lived as refugees in the region and around the world for over six decades, even though their homes might be in Haifa and Yafa rather than Baghdad or Damascus? Might we include a prayer for those who live in fear of house demolitions and collective punishment, even though they sojourn in Gaza City or Hebron, rather than the infamous flashpoints of the Syrian civil war? Might we be so bold as to begin thinking about them all as people who truly belong in the places whence they were expelled?

But here’s the thing: there is equality in suffering, not just among Christians, but among all human beings. The Church of the martyrs is a church that does not monopolize, but shares in the human condition. It is not special in its travails, but it has a special mission–to reach out, even in the midst of persecution, with a message of hope and love. Might we be so bold as to approach all God’s children, all the poor banished children of Eve, all our brothers and sisters in the human family, as equals in suffering? Might we raise up the same prayers for all who suffer innocently, for all whose voices are never heard:

Rise up, LORD! God, lift up your hand!

Do not forget the poor!

The LORD is king forever;

the nations have vanished from his land.

You listen, LORD, to the needs of the poor;

you strengthen their heart and incline your ear.

You win justice for the orphaned and oppressed;

no one on earth will cause terror again.

(Psalm 10:12, 16-18).

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