Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October 22 Lettter from ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton to President Obama on Israel

On October 22, 2014, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued a letter to President Barack Obama on concerns related to peace and justice in the Middle East. The letter can be retrieved on the ELCA website and the full text is shown below.

October 22, 2014

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

As the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church which calls for a cessation of all settlement activities and withdrawal from settlements on Palestinian territory to the 1967 boundaries, I commend your Administration for urging the Israeli Government to reverse its recent declaration as “state land” the estimated 988 acres in the Gush Etzion Jewish settlement bloc in the occupied West Bank. We hope your Administration will continue to pursue this reversal.

Similarly, we share your Administration’s concern regarding the Israeli Government’s reportedly recent move to advance the settlement planning process in the sensitive area of Givat Hamatos in East Jerusalem. This plan for a new neighborhood, comprising 2,610 housing units, would cut the territorial continuity between the Palestinian neighborhoods in South Jerusalem and the future Palestinian state.

We also share your Administration’s assessment that the recent occupation of six residential buildings, consisting of approximately 20 housing units in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, is a provocative act that only serves to escalate tensions at a moment when those tensions already have been high. This new occupation, the largest since 1991, could expand the settler presence by about 35% from the number of settlers currently in the area.

It is deeply distressing to us that these kinds of actions, which seek to create new “facts on the ground,” continue unabated. Along with Jewish organizations like Peace Now and B’Tselem, we fully agree with your Administration that such actions are counter-productive to achieving a comprehensive and sustainable peace based upon a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, where international human rights and humanitarian law are respected and upheld. Moreover, such actions reinforce despondency among the Palestinian people, limiting optimism that a political solution will be found.

Therefore, we urge you to call upon all parties to the conflict to refrain from violent or provocative actions that could lead to more casualties and further exacerbate the existing barriers toward a return to negotiations and a just final status agreement that results in two viable, secure states living side-by-side in peace.

Yet, as a church grounded in hope (1 Peter 3:15), we pray that the current truce, following the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, will hold so that hope might begin to be restored. It is imperative that, with the help of the international community, both Palestinian and Israeli leaders return to negotiations to identify and constructively address the underlying causes of continued tension, so that God’s peace and justice will prevail.

We re-commit ourselves to this vision, and continue to pray for you and all people of good will for their efforts to this end.

Your Sister in Christ,

Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop

Cc: The Honorable John F. Kerry, Secretary of State; The Honorable Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs; The Honorable Michael Ratney, Consul General and Chief of Mission, Jerusalem; Mr. Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff, Executive Office of the President; Mr. Philip Gordon, Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region, National Security Council

Related posts

In August, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton was interviewed on the Al Mayadeen TV network, based in Beirut, Lebanon. Al Mayadeen claims a viewership of about 20 million in the Middle East and beyond.

(See Sunday, Aug. 10 - Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton interviewed on the Al Mayadeen TV network )

Other related links

On November 26, 2012, then-Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Mark Hanson joined other religious leaders in calling for the U.S. to stop arms sales to Israel that are contributing to violence against Palestinians. (See "Christian Leaders call for end to unconditional US military aid to Israel") "Accordingly, we urge an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of U.S. weapons to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.” . . . (While this letter focuses on US-Israel relations and the Israel-Palestine conflict, these are laws that we believe should be enforced in all instances regardless of location. All allegations regarding the misuse of US supplied arms should be investigated.) . . . More broadly, we urge Congress to undertake careful scrutiny to ensure that our aid is not supporting actions by the government of Israel that undermine prospects for peace. We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance, and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - September 27-28, 2014

This week we continue our recommendations for Metropolitan Chicago Synod congregations.

PRAY – At a time of near unequaled violence in the Middle East, continue prayers for brothers and sisters in Gaza who live with a very fragile break in hostilities, and to observe one minute of silence during Sunday worship as requested by ELCA Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. You might also consider using this prayer from Shelley West, Church of the Brethren.

Peace be still and know that I am God.
I have known that You are God, but not through a peace of stillness.
Sometimes peace is loud. Often peace is messy.
But that’s what makes it beautiful.
The conflict in our lives will remain forever still if we leave it in the corner unbothered.
We can pretend to turn a blind eye, to march onward.
Peace be still.
Or, we can choose the challenge. The rewarding challenge.
To know that You are God is to know that You are with us in the storm.
Stirring the waters seems frightening. The thunder roars and the rivers are swift.
But we’ve got peace like a river, especially when the ripples spread and oscillate
And we can look at one another and know that we have survived.
We have thrived in the peace that comes from confronting conflict and working through it.
Pray that we might continue with such a boldness
To be able to identify areas in our lives where we can be the ground-shakers,
The confidence in Your plan and us as Your instruments to blow away the dust,
And the reassurance that the peacemakers will be called Your children.
We will be called Your children.
And then, we can be still and know that You are God.
-Shelley West, Church of the Brethren

With the devastating conflict facing Arabs and Christians in the Middle East, we suggest that there is no one more reliable source to direct our study and prayer than Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) and President of Lutheran World Federation. Please find his response to the violence at "Ecumenical Response to the Present Middle East Crisis - by Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, ELCJHL".

ADVOCACY - Continued advocacy is needed on behalf of Augusta Victoria Hospital and the other East Jerusalem hospitals. Please consider sending another note to your representatives with a link and invitation to watch the video called “Sanctuary, Healing in a Holy Land, Augusta Victoria Hospital”: . It gives a great overview of the work of AVH and the Lutheran World Federation in Jerusalem. The hospital continues to provide life-saving health care to Palestinians but is facing a critical financial situation. The essential medical services provided by the hospital are currently threatened by a financial crisis caused by the non-payment of fees for patients that are referred to the hospital by the Palestinian Authority. The debt is now EUR 18 million.

ACT – An invitation from Bishop Wayne N. Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA:

On Thursday evening, October 2, 2014, the ELCA congregations of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, in partnership with our churchwide ministries staff, will host a revival to pray for peace in our homes, peace in our communities, and peace in our world. The event will be held at the Kroc Center of Chicago (1250 W. 119th St., Chicago, IL 60643) at 7:15 p.m. The date has been chosen specifically to coincide with the fall meeting of the ELCA Conference of Bishops. The 66 bishops of our church will be present and will participate in a prayer ministry at the revival. In a time when the whole creation cries out for peace with justice, please join us as we make this public witness, commending ourselves and our lives to God, so that we may become the instruments of God’s wholeness, respect, and reconciliation.

Rev. Joanne Fitzgerald, WGME Convener

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ecumenical Response to the Present Middle East Crisis - by Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, ELCJHL

Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

September 10, 2014

Cairo, Egypt + Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Christians

Your Beatitudes,
Your Eminences,
People of God,
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Jesus Christ says to us today, “Get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you.” (Acts 26.16–17)

Today, as I come before you to discuss the crisis facing the Middle East and especially the crisis facing Arab and Middle Eastern Christians, these words of the risen Christ to the Saul resonate for us and for the communities we represent. “Get up and stand on your feet!” “I will rescue you!” There is work to be done in my name.

I have been asked to speak on the ecumenical response to our present crisis. Therefore, my message today is both internal and external, speaking to Christians in the Middle East as well as to the global Body of Christ. An ecumenical response—a response by the entire household of Christian faith—is necessarily global. But the response must first begin with us. As Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3.25). In the presence of these pressing challenges, it is time to get our Arab Christian house in order.

Speaking to Arab Christian Leaders

1. We Need Greater Unity

My brothers and sisters, the challenges we face today demand that we practice with one another the disciplines of unity. I am not speaking of complete confessional unanimity, but unity of voice as we together confront the linked challenges of 1) religiously-sanctioned extremism, 2) new forms of religious persecution, and 3) weak national governments unable or unwilling to protect all their citizens. In this time, the unity of our witness is more vital than ever.

We are taking important steps toward this unity. It is heartening to see important steps being taken by international church bodies—including the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation—to address our situation. Some good statements have been issued, and important efforts like the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) have been implemented. As the global body of Christ, we are in greater conversation with one another than ever before. This helps us, especially in the areas of humanitarian response. Regionally, we have all benefited from ecumenical organizations like the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) and the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC).

But we must admit that ecumenical cooperation in the Middle East has never been easy. Since 1948 until today, any discussion about Christian life in the Middle East has been complicated by various tensions. This is especially the case for western Christians. But we also have been fragmented among ourselves. There is a long history of competition among Churches for members, with some evangelicals taking people away from historic churches and historic churches accusing evangelicals of proselytism. We have worked to acknowledge the offense of such practices and overcome that difficult history.

Unfortunately, it can feel that we are more interested in playing games with one another or competing with one another for international funding than we are in building unity. In those competitions, we are tempted to assert our identities in ways that denigrate or marginalize other Christians. Some of us can appear to be more interested in running businesses and collecting outside funding than in benefitting the whole of the Christian community. In short, we are tempted to refuse God’s call to be our brother’s keeper, to be a neighbor to the one who is wounded. These ways of being with one another must come to an end! There is no other possibility at this stage than unity. Unity for the diverse Body of Christ in the Middle East.

2. Unity in Baptism

Without a unified voice, our witness is weakened and our people are endangered. We must remember that unity does not require unanimity. Even in this room there are different views of the current situation and what should be done about it. Such disagreements can be honest and healthy. But that does not change the outcome we are seeing. Da’esh1 and Nusra2 do not differentiate whether we are Orthodox or Catholic or Presbyterian. To speak against these movements, we must be unified.

I must stress, however, that it is not Da’esh that unites us, but Christ alone. Our unity is grounded in Holy Baptism, where we have been united with Christ in both death and resurrection. Even though the present crisis demands unity, it is not the source of our unity. While we do not seek martyrdom, our shared baptism gives us the courage to sacrifice. In baptism, we claim our vocation to live and work as integral parts of the fabric of our societies, sharing their sorrows, dreams and aspirations. As Arab Christians, we reject ghetto mentalities and minority complexes. Joined with Christ in baptism, we build our societies, bring hope to hopeless situations, and work to develop civil societies that respect human rights, freedom of religion, gender justice, and freedom of expression. This process of reform continues to be on the heart of every Arab and Middle Eastern Christian until today. Our hope will not end until we see the Middle East transformed into the values we cherish. Our goal is not merely to survive, but to thrive.

Part of that thriving is to better comprehend the challenges we face with our neighbors who are Muslim. Facing this challenge means not succumbing to simplistic anti-Islamic thought; it means, rather, adopting a compassionate and empathetic approach with our Muslim neighbors who are struggling to see what is happening in certain sectors of their community and how they might work against extremist impulses. Because anti-Islamic attitudes are common in the West, part of our witness as Arab and Middle Eastern Christians is to be a voice for Islam. We are called to defend the religion itself against claims that groups like Da’esh and Nusra and the Ikhwan3 represent the suspected “true face” of Islam. It may sound strange that we would be the voice of Islam, but we cannot be shy about this. We need to not bear false witness against any of our neighbors so that other do not take false revenge.

Each of us dearly loves our own church. This can be healthy as long as it does not negatively impact others. While everyone wants to preserve their church or denominational presence, we sometimes forget other churches that are filled with brothers and sisters in Christ. Our institutional allegiances and loyalties can sometimes lead us to pursue benefits for our own communities while failing to see the whole.

This temptation has long been present in churches and related agencies that raise money for themselves and give only to themselves. In the present crises of the Middle East, we have seen similar things. I could not help but notice, for instance, that when the Oriental Patriarchs recently issued a very good and meaningful statement, they failed to invite the Evangelical family to join them. Soon after, the Higher Council of Evangelicals in Lebanon and Syria issued their own very good and important urgent appeal. This is a situation in which the Oriental and Evangelical churches are speaking, but are speaking separately. Again, while I was happy that the Vatican invited Evangelicals to attend the special Synod meeting in 2010, the resulting 44 Propositions made it appear that the Vatican cared for Catholic presence alone. Many other good efforts could be named that have the same problem.

All of this creates confusion for international partners. They do not want to divide the Body of Christ or choose winners and losers among us. Who will they hear, one or the other? Is it our desire that one group receive empathy and (potentially) funding, but the other should not? Our common voice helps all of us in the end! I raise these points not to make accusations, but to explore how we can work to strengthen each other. As fellow members of the Body of Christ, sharing in one another’s suffering and rejoicing, how can your presence be an extension of my presence, and vice versa?

3. Strengthening the MECC

Our unity must not be made up of good feelings alone. We need a common street address if we are going to speak effectively. Our ecumenical address is the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). For too long, we treated the MECC as an optional institution. International partners were right to withhold their funding until we recommitted to it. Now, with the MECC nearly absent in these years of crisis, we see what a strong benefit it can be. This institution must be revived in order to offer a shared, ecumenical witness for Christians throughout the Middle East. We are happy that FMEEC is strong. But we cannot give up the MECC. Our strength as FMEEC is in the MECC; the strength of MECC is in the four families of churches. This is the reason the four presidents of the MECC are calling for a meeting of all the heads of churches in the Middle East during the week of prayer for Christian unity in January. Our aim is to develop a common strategy and common Christian voice to address the present crisis.

The MECC must be fully revived for at least three priorities:

a. Muslim-Christian engagement

One vital role for the MECC is organizing and encouraging Muslim-Christian engagement. Arab Christians today have no choice but to be in conversation with our neighbors. This engagement is not just for religious understanding, but to shape our shared political future. We must engage with our Muslim neighbors on the question of the proper relation between religion and state. We must advocate for equal citizenship with equal rights and equal responsibilities that can be secured by stable and secure states with reliable constitutions. We must advocate for religious freedom, freedom of conviction, and freedom of conscience. While it is helpful for our churches and groups to engage Muslims separately, we also need to do so together, as a group. In this way, we make it clear that each church and organization is seeking the good for all communities, not just cutting deals for themselves alone. The MECC is a vital institution for presenting a unified Christian voice.

b. A Common Christian Prophetic Diakonia

The MECC can be a convening forum for coordinating diaconal work by and for Christians throughout the Middle East. I again stress that, in this crisis, many of our churches and related agencies have done fine work. My sense, however, is that we could much stronger if we were able to have a unified voice and a coordinated approach. The MECC and, especially, ICNDR can be helpful tools. Our diakonal work is prophetic because it is intended to help the whole society, not simply our Christian communities alone. We help all persons in need regardless of how they might identify. Our witness is found in our schools, our hospitals and clinics, in our commitment to psychosocial wellbeing, in whatever our societies need to be served.

c. Indigenous Arab Christian political theology

I would to suggest one priority for the MECC as a coordinating body. Recent events have shown us that we need to develop an indigenous Arab Christian political theology. This is a challenge for every church in the Middle East, in every family. We need to creatively engage the changing political landscape of the Middle East with contributions drawn from our experiences and our values. Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, many of our communities have relied on secular autocrats who limited the religious impulses of other communities. We have seen what has happened to us when those suppressed religious impulses erupt. At the same time, “democracy” is a damaged concept in the Middle East. We do not do enough to fully promote the voices of evangelicals and others working to address the full complexities of the region. We need to revive our constructive political engagement. “Get up,” Jesus says, “and stand on your feet!”

Christians in the Middle East are being threatened and challenged like never before. Partly, this is because we are seeing innovative forms of Islam manipulated for certain political and economic purposes. But our challenges also stem from our lack of unity. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4.12). The four families of Churches in the Middle East must stand together and must be a strong voice for Christians.

Speaking to Christian Sisters and Brothers throughout the World

1. Unity and Accompaniment

Many churches in the Middle East are privileged to have good relationships with sisters and brothersin Europe and North America. These churches are located in areas of the world where Christianity has informed the dominant culture and where economies are historically more stable. This has strengthened our partner churches and allowed them to share resources with their sisters and brothers throughout the world. In Europe, these churches are even able to access governmental funding so it can be distributed.

It can be easy to forget, however, that our relationship is not grounded primarily in sharing money. Just as it is with the many churches of the Middle East, our relationship is grounded Baptism, in the unity provided by Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. As fellow baptized members of the Christian community, we accompany one another as equals. This does not change if one is rich and the other is poor. Therefore, we cannot allow our different financial situations determine our relationship. Moreover, Arab Christians refuse to allow our relative poverty to oppress us our limit our voice. We must claim our dignity. In this time of crisis, we must be willing to stand as equals with our partners, not being afraid that the funding tap will be closed if we voice an opinion they do not want to hear. As Josiah Kibira, one of my predecessors as President of the Lutheran World Federation, was fond of saying, “There is no church so small, so poor, so young in age that it would not have something to give to other churches; and there is no church so old, so rich, and so old in tradition and history that it would not depend on these gifts from others.”

Instead of relationships of dependence, we ask that you accompany us as equals. Take seriously our own assessment of our situation, an assessment that will likely differ from those provided by your governments or by NATO. In our relationship of accompaniment, we ask that you strengthen us financially and theologically so we can preserve our presence in Christianity’s historic home. In order to achieve this goal of sustainability, we need partners around the globe to support not just special projects and NGOs, but the churches themselves. While institutional churches may seem unfashionable, it is the churches that provide anchors for Arab and Middle Eastern Christian communal presence and witness. While we appreciate humanitarian assistance, we need institutional strengthening as well.

2. Take Care in Your Speech

Arab and Middle Eastern Christians often express disappointment with churches and church-related organizations in the West. We are tired of their speeches. We want action. We face continual challenges in working together for supporting Christians in the Middle East. Middle East churches bear responsibility for building relationships with the global Body of Christ. But there is also responsibility in the West to not abandon Christians in the Middle East.

Western churches do not always understand us when we speak with them. In this time of crisis, many western Christians are taking the opportunity to claim Arab Christians as their children, treating us as damsels in distress who need to be rescued from our Muslim neighbors. We must stand strong, rejecting this paternalistic, neocolonial approach.

There are many reasons one can name in order to explain or comprehend the eruption of different forms of extremism in the Middle East. At its basis, extremism (especially religiously-sanctioned extremism) is a symptom of frustrated political possibilities. When there is no horizon for political possibility, extremism grows. This despair has grown for several reasons. First among them is the inability of the Arab world to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While this conflict may indeed be out of the hands of leaders in the region, they also have not been able to demonstrate confidence that it will be resolved. Secondly, the collapse of pan-Arabism has created a vacuum leading to the political fragmentation of the political order. All of this was exacerbated by military attacks from regional and global powers which weakened governments still further and helped sustain anti-western sentiment. Finally, the events known as the Arab Spring have provided even greater space for non-state actors. Together, all of this history has led to the present point in which religiously-sanctioned extremism is dominating the common life of the Middle East.

Your Arab Christian sisters and brothers ask that you be especially careful in your speeches and statements about our situation. We have heard many of you expressing various forms of sorrow or lament. While such statements are not necessarily harmful to us, they do nothing to help our situation. We can be offended when you speak only to help yourselves feel better while ignoring steps that can be taken. In many ways, statements expressing lament neglect the fact that decades of your governments’ Middle East policies and your military actions have helped create the current chaos. Western churches considering statements of lament or empty appeals to peace should consider statements of confession for themselves on behalf of their societies.

3. Defending Arab Christians

We are especially concerned with statements suggesting that our problems stem from Islam and Muslims rather than religiously-sanctioned extremism of all sorts—Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. Such statements harm us because they separate us from our neighbors, neighbors with whom we are facing the same struggles. We have noticed that your newspapers are filled with opinions that use Arab Christians as tools in some sort of civilizational struggle. We have seen many recent articles using us to perpetuate western competition with the Islamic world. This is not just Islamophobia, but virulent hatred of Islam. We have also seen specific arguments using the plight of Arab Christians as a tool to justify support for the State of Israel. The argument we see growing in western media is that al-Nusra and Da’esh represent the “true” face of Islam and that all “civilized” groups are in battle with “savage” or “barbaric” Muslims. Because of centuries of western intervention based on “protecting” Christians, such arguments harm our ability to survive in the Middle East. Instead, these arguments strengthen extremists on all sides, in your countries as well as in the Middle East.

This is a problem especially for life in Israel and Palestine. The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Who will Stand Up for the Christians?” He claimed that the world was silent while Muslims were slaughtering Christians. Western Christians must understand that Lauder’s commitment to speak about Arab Christian suffering was directed more at you than to us. His argument is that the “bond between Jews and Christians makes complete sense” and that “Christians can openly practice their religion in Israel, unlike in much of the Middle East.” For years, the Israeli government has been working to craft a narrative that it is best suited to protect Christians. Recently, the Israeli Knesset has passed laws granting Christians special privileges over Muslims in Israeli legal structures. One element of this effort was to assert that Christians, unlike Muslims, are not Arabs. We are being severed from our cultural and ethnic heritage. The occupier of our land is now seeking to occupy our minds. Any concept that Arab Christians are somehow set apart from broader Arab society threatens to undermine our participation in those societies. While we are concerned about extremism, we are equally concerned about such paternalism. Who will stand up for the Christians? Grounded in the unity we have in Baptism and in the bond we have as Arabs Christians, we will stand up for ourselves!

As I speak, the United States is building a global coalition to fight against Da’esh, which calls itself the Islamic State. In the course of one week, President Obama said that there was no clear strategy against Da’esh; one week later, he said that the goal was degrading and destroying it. When paired with the inability of the United States and other western countries to limit the actions of the State of Israel, such efforts reinforce the impression that NATO countries are engaged in a global war not just against religiously-sanctioned extremism but against Islam itself. Arab Christians know that the US-led efforts in Syria and Iraq has almost nothing to do with us. They are engaging in strikes for their own interests alone. It is for oil, not for the protection of vulnerable groups. All of this makes us weaker. Here, I am concerned not just about Christians but about all groups in the Middle East. Christians cannot be used as an excuse to promote military strikes against Muslims!

4. Unintentional Indifference

We are seeing fundamental threats to Christian presence in more than one part of the Middle East. If they have the resources to do so, our people are leaving the region at an alarming rate. Once they leave, they rarely return. Even while we are experiencing this crisis, we are observing among other church partners—especially in the West—what one might call an unintentional indifference. The situation in the Middle East is so complex, so culturally complicated, and so politically charged that it can feel like the domain of governments alone. So it feels that, in some cases, churches have given up on trying to comprehend the region. The church voice is then reduced to empty statements of concern or lament, hoping that someone else will come up with a solution.

I have heard some Arab Christian leaders express great frustration with western governments and churches, wondering if they would be satisfied if there were no Christian presence in the Middle East. This is of course not true, but we have not seen actions to back up that sentiment. The actions we have seen hurt our communities rather than help them stay in their land. When, for instance, the Yazidi people were dismissed from their land, the government of France issued eleven passports. Arab Christians do not want to be evacuated out of our lands. What we want is for people to stay in or return to their own communities. We need to be protected not by foreign powers but by equal citizenship and equal rights guaranteed through a common constitution. Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities should be able to return to their own villages with the security provided by their own society and governments, not the violent protection of international troops.

A Strategy toward the Future

As difficult as it is, we must look beyond the present moment. Arab Christians must develop a common voice that will be able to speak to our neighbors and to our governments in the Middle East. We must also be able to speak with one voice to the global Body of Christ, especially churches in countries now being organized to launch yet another war in our region. We must seek to avoid this war at all costs.

Some have called for arming minority communities in Syria and Iraq. We cannot accept this option. Defense should be achieved through official armies, not informal militias. We have seen the chaos that can erupt when people take matters into their own hands. Extremism thrives when these conflicts are fed by greater violence.

The present crisis demands an ecumenical response from the global church. It cannot be addressed by Middle Eastern Christians alone. Western churches need to work with us to develop the ways they seek to inform their societies and influence their governments. The key to this challenge is to strengthen civil society through education. Churches in the Arab world need to be accompanied as they seek to maintain their long-standing ministries of education. Education is the focus that will build our civil society and help all of us combat every kind of extremism.

One of the challenges we must face together—churches in the Middle East along with our international partners—is that local churches are struggling with administrative and financial issues. Again, we deeply appreciate the accompaniment we have experienced with international partners. Still, many of us feel that we are too focused on our partners in the West; we want to please our partners, but are not spending enough time challenging our society. This is a form of alienation. The assistance we need is not just about money. It is about strengthening our sense of accountability to one another—between our churches and within our churches—while strengthening accountability to our societies. At this point, the administrative and financial challenges we face make us into birds flying with a broken wing. If these challenges were removed or decreased, we could soar like eagles.

We can do this work together because, in the Middle East, we are not strangers. We have been carrying the Gospel of Jesus Christ for 2000 years. For 2000 years, we have been in what is now called the Middle East, residing in and contributing to the countries that have grown up around us. Although we are small in numbers, we refuse to have a minority complex where we seek our own protection alone. Instead, we must understand our presence as a witness. Arab and Middle Eastern Christians together—all four families here in the region—must understand that our role in society is to be instruments of peace, brokers of justice, builders of civil society, promoters of human rights (including women’s rights), defenders of freedom of speech and conscience, initiators of dialogue, ministers of reconciliation, and apostles of love. It is our task to contribute toward a Middle East of blessed diversity that promotes equal citizenship with equal rights and equal responsibilities.

In the longer term, we need to develop strategies for reducing the appeal of religiously-sanctioned extremism. Some would argue that religious extremism is the natural outworking of religious commitment. My response is that religious extremism is, in fact, a perversion of religious commitment itself. I must be clear: no religion has a monopoly on extremism. In addition to violent expressions of Islamic extremism which harm Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims alike, we are seeing a growth in Jewish extremism, especially among some settler groups. While Christian Zionism can seem less directly harmful to human flourishing, Arabs are very aware of how Christian Zionists justify and promote state violence by “blessing” wars against certain enemies as reflecting the will of God. All of these forms of extremism drive us away from relationship with one another, harming our shared capacity to draw create a sustainable future in which all human communities can flourish. All religious leaders—both in the Middle East and around the world—have a responsibility to identify and challenge the many ways religion is abused in their societies.

In the short term, churches must have the courage to challenge their political leaders and not to simply follow the governmental line. We must all be aware that events in the Middle East have caught governments by surprise. Recent wars in the Middle East have unleashed cultural forces and long-suppressed tensions many governments do not fully understand.

We have two options in the Middle East: we either die separately or live together, witnessing in unity. We opt to live together, witnessing in the unity of Christ.

As integral parts of our societies, Arab Christians can make vital contributions toward understanding and resolving the present tensions. But this can only be accomplished through the disciplines of ecumenical unity. Listen again to the words of Jesus: “Get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you.” (Acts 26.16–17)

May God bless us, rescuing us and the people we serve.

1 The pejorative Arabic word referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (IS or ISIL).

2 Referring to the al-Nusra Front, the Qaeda-linked extremist group operating in Syria, rebelling against Bashar al-Assad, but also in conflict with rebel militias like the Free Syrian Army that are primarily motivated by nationalist rather than sectarian concerns.

3 The Ikhwan Muslimiyya, or Muslim Brotherhood.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - September 20-21, 2014

This week we continue our recommendations for Metropolitan Chicago Synod congregations.

PRAY - As we see a reduction in the violence in Gaza, let us turn to the question: will we remember to keep working for peace even when the conflict is NOT in the headlines? (Why do we forget so soon?)

LEARN - Many congregations are planning Adult Education activities for 2014-15. Please consider using one of the excellent resources about Israel / Palestine, described on the WGME website:

ACT - Help support the participation of a young person from MCS in the Metro Chicago Young Adult Holy Land Trip 2015. (See ). Your support of this program can help plant the seeds for a peaceful future!

Rev. Joanne Fitzgerald, WGME Convener

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - September 13-14, 2014

We urge churches to continue Bishop Eaton’s recommendation for a moment of silence at congregational prayer times. Maybe some think that prayer doesn’t answer quickly enough for our “modern society” that, when flicking a switch on a light plate or swiping a finger across a smartphone, brings immediate response. But our promised prayers for those who have asked for them mean all the world to their hope for life.

At the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, Bishop Younan spoke:

“We are tired of wars and hatred. We continue to be committed to the vision that our children and grandchildren will experience peace based on justice and reconciliation based on forgiveness. I ask you to pray for the Middle East. Please pray for Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Israel. Pray that God may open the eyes of our leaders to say “no more hatred, no more weapons, no more bloodshed—only dignity for every person and justice for every nation.” Please pray for the LWF and the ministry of the ELCJHL.”

This holds true for 2014 as the bloodshed continues. We pray for an end to the anguished cries and mourning sighs.

The Rev. Mitri Raheb has said that “hope is a call to action”. Part of that action must be one of the most sacred actions of all faiths: prayer. We must never miss an opportunity to be a part of putting our partnered faiths and conversations with God into action by not only solitary prayer but by communal, community, national and international prayers for an end to futile conflicts and outright wars that do nothing but denigrate the humanity in all of us.

Continue your moment of silence time and plan for a rich prayer experience for Israel and Palestine on the 28th of this month.

Also, please encourage members of your congregation to set their DVR to record the show on ABC 11:30-noon on September 14 in CHICAGO: "Augusta Victoria Hospital for Palestinians in the East Jerusalem, East Bank, and Gaza."

Rev. Joanne Fitzgerald, WGME Convener

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - September 6-7, 2014

The Working Group on the Middle East (WGME) encourages Metro Chicago Synod congregations to continue Bishop Eaton’s recommendation for 60 seconds of silence for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land.

This minute of silence might be prefaced with the following comments: “Bishop Eaton has encouraged all ELCA congregations to participate in a minute of silence as we together pray for peace in the Holy Land. Although the rockets from Gaza and the Israeli military action have apparently stopped, the whole Middle East is boiling. Bishop Younan, Bishop Eaton’s colleague in Jerusalem has stated, ‘If we cannot take steps toward peace, we will continue to be held hostage by extremism. We need your prophetic voice and support so that peace built on justice and reconciliation built on forgiveness will prevail.’”

We also recommend each Metro Chicago Synod congregation use all communication channels to encourage members to watch YouTube videos from the August 24, 2014 event that was sponsored by the WGME. The event was titled “Two Lutherans report their recent on-the-ground experiences in the West Bank.”

Pastor John Holm spoke about his 5-week experience as a Reservist for Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. View the YouTube video of John Holm. (See

Ed Thompson spoke about his 1-week experience interviewing more than 20 Palestinian business-related organizations that are succeeding in spite of the obstacles they face. View the YouTube video of Ed Thompson. (See

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - August 30-31, 2014

We will be continuing Advocacy recommendations through September.

This week we continue our recommendations for Metropolitan Chicago Synod congregations.

PRAY - As Israel and Palestine seek to bring a halt to the violence in Gaza, please offer prayers for all of us to search our hearts: what is our role in being peacemakers? how do we contribute, through sins of commission and omission, to the perpetuation of the conflict there?

LEARN - Turn to the recent lectionary reading from Psalm 124 ("If the Lord had not been on our side / let Israel say / if the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us . . . ."). Use or other learning resources to explore the distinction between historical Israel and 21st century political Israel. Think about what Psalm 124 suggests to us about "whose side God is on" in the current conflict in Israel/Palestine, and other conflicts taking place in the world.

ACT - As our thoughts turn to the start of a new academic year and the academic plans of the young people in our communities, MCS congregations are encouraged to look at the description of the Metro Chicago Young Adult Holy Land Trip 2015, and to think about encouraging someone from your congregation to participate: online at . Your support of this program can help plant the seeds for a peaceful future!
Rev. Joanne Fitzgerald, WGME Convener

Adult Education: Learn More About the Middle East During 2014-15

The Working Group on the Middle East is encouraging Metropolitan Chicago Synod congregations as they do their education and faith formation planning for 2014-15 to include at least one book study about the Middle East.

There is a tremendous array of materials to choose from. Below are four representative possibilities.

We will be gathering information about what various congregations are planning, and sharing that information via this website, to encourage resource-sharing and networking.

If you have information about your plans, or would like assistance, please email Joe Scarry - jtscarry [at]

Resource recommendations

Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes - "In this concise work that blends both academic and pastoral understandings, Raheb shows how the history of Palestine, ancient and modern, is one of diverse and unique contexts and yet recurring patterns. Raheb spells out Jesus' gospel in relation to the Roman empire of his time, and the biblical values relevant for the Middle East—then and now. This approach sheds a new light on the biblical texts within the context of imperial domination, and it introduces a new perspective and culture for a 'New Middle East.' . . . Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb is the President of Bright Stars of Bethlehem, President of Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem, and President of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. He is also the Senior Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine. He is the author of several books including I Am a Palestinian Christian and Bethlehem Besieged."

This book was the subject by a book group sponsored by several Evanston and Wilmette congregations in the past few months.  One of our WGME members was a part of the book group and recommends the book highly.

Watch Mitri Raheb discuss Faith in the Face of Empire on Youtube.

Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, (U.S.A.), Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide - "What role have Zionism and Christian Zionism played in shaping attitudes and driving historical developments in the Middle East and around the world? How do Christians, Jews, and Muslims understand the competing claims to the land of Palestine and Israel? What steps can be taken to bring peace, reconciliation, and justice to the homeland that Palestinians and Israelis share? . . . Zionism Unsettled embraces these critical issues fearlessly and with inspiring scope. The booklet and companion DVD draw together compelling and diverse viewpoints from Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel, Palestine, the US, and around the globe. By contrasting mainstream perceptions with important alternative perspectives frequently ignored in the media, Zionism Unsettled is an invaluable guide to deeper understanding."

Zionism Unsettled raises difficult issues and has resulted in controversy. See, for instance, "Presbyterians remove controversial ‘Zionism Unsettled’ from denomination’s website".

Rabbi Brant Rosen, Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity - "In 2006 Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves a Jewish Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, Illinois, launched a blog called Shalom Rav, in which he explored a broad range of social-justice issues. The focus of his writing-and his activism-changed dramatically in December 2008, when Israel launched a wide, 23-day military attack against Gaza, causing him to deeply question his lifelong liberal Zionism. Unlike the biblical Jacob, who wrestled in the dark of night at a crucial turning point in his life, Rabbi Rosen chose to make his struggle public: to wrestle in the daylight. Over the two years that followed, Shalom Rav became a public and always highly readable record of his journey from liberal Zionist to active and visionary Palestinian solidarity activist. Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity is Rosen's self-curated compilation of these blog posts. . . . In his Preface, Rabbi Rosen writes, 'I've come to believe that too many of us have been wrestling in the dark on this issue for far too long. I believe we simply must find a way to widen the limits of public discourse on Israel/Palestine, no matter how painful the prospect. It is my fervent hope that the conversations presented here might represent, in their small way, a step toward the light of day.'"

Read about the book event with Rabbi Rosen sponsored by WGME in February, 2014. (Great video!)

Noam Chayut, The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust  - a "deeply moving memoir of Chayut’s journey from eager Zionist conscript on the front line of Operation Defensive Shield to leading campaigner against the Israeli occupation. As he attempts to make sense of his own life as well as his place within the wider conflict around him, he slowly starts to question his soldier’s calling, Israel’s justifications for invasion, and the ever-present problem of historical victimhood."

Read the review by Jimmy Johnson on Mondoweiss.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - August 23/24, 2014

The Working Group on the Middle East has several  recommended actions for Metro Chicago Synod congregations to take for the weekend of August 23-24. Please use all of your church communication channels to publish these two actions.

 We pray that the one minute of silent prayer is making a difference in your congregation and community. This is a continuing request from Working Group members.

The monetary crisis for Augusta Victoria Hospital grows with each passing day. Bishop Eaton’s February 14, 2014 letter to John Kerry regarding the Palestinian National Authority (PA) payments has not alleviated the need for on-going support. If each family in your congregation would donate $5 to Augusta Victoria Hospital, it would be not only monetary support but personal encouragement for the hospital personnel who suffer daily with their patients.

Or consider financial support for a missionary to Jerusalem or to Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

Reading material: “The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust” – Noam Chayut (an Israeli soldier)
And, in case you want to read more:

But mostly for this August 24 Sunday, we strongly encourage representatives from each of the churches to attend the meeting at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 1133 Pfingsten Road in Northbrook from 3:30-5:00 pm where Ed Thompson, co-founder with Sam Bahour of ‘Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy’, a nonprofit organization promoting economic partnerships between Americans and Palestinians and Rev. Jon Holm, a reservist with Christian Peacemaker Teams will share his personal experiences of spending the last three out of five summers in Hebron (Al Kahlil) to help us understand the reality of life under siege and to see where hope and help can be shared.

Also, please go to this link to join the Facebook Event and share with others:

Rev. Joanne Fitzgerald, WGME Convener

Sept 14 on ABC in CHICAGO: "Augusta Victoria Hospital for Palestinians in the East Jerusalem, East Bank, and Gaza"

Watch "Sanctuary, Healing in a Holy Land,
Augusta Victoria Hospital" on Youtube

 Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries
And Tim Frakes Productions Present

A documentary on
The Augusta Victoria Hospital for Palestinians in the East Jerusalem, East Bank, and Gaza

Watch on Youtube

Originally broadcast:
Sunday, September 14, 11:30 a.m. - noon
ABC-7 Chicago

In this upcoming documentary, we will journey to the Holy Land and the Mount of Olives through the doors of Augusta Victoria Hospital, a program of the Lutheran World Service, serving Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the East Bank, and Gaza.

The summer of 2014 has seen a renewal of fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, resulting in more death, destruction and hardship. Throughout the insanity of armed conflict, the Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital has served in partnership with the United Nations as a major medical facility for Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

Join us for their stories of faith, courage, and healing in a holy land that will challenge what you think about your politics, and your faith on Sanctuary, ABC-7 September 14, 11:30 am – noon.

Watch "Sanctuary, Healing in a Holy Land, Augusta Victoria Hospital" on Youtube

Broadcasting on Chicago Television Since 1956

Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries is a Tax Exempt, Illinois not-for-profit Corporation Carrying on the Communication Ministry of the Protestant, Orthodox and Episcopal Churches in Greater Chicago in cooperation with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago

77 West Washington Street, 2nd Floor, Chicago, Illinois 60602

Related links

ELCA Presiding Bishop calls on U.S. government to honor funding commitments in Palestine:

"It is the political responsibility of the U.S. government to preserve the status quo in East Jerusalem and to ensure that a humanitarian crisis does not develop," Eaton wrote. "A humanitarian issue will most certainly arise if Augusta Victoria Hospital is unable to meet the needs of patients seeking treatment. The lives of patients at (the hospital) must not be placed in jeopardy because of this situation." (See full February 10, 2014 letter: "ELCA presiding bishop asks U.S. government to support hospital in Jerusalem")

Additional thoughts on . . . Augusta Victoria Hospital . . . 
From The Messenger (blog of St. Luke's Lutheran Church Logan Square, Chicago)
On Sunday, December 1, a small group of us met to learn more about Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH), and to think about the ways in which proclamation, service, and advocacy are present in the work they do.

We learned that AVH operates an extremely modern hospital in Jerusalem, with specialties in oncology (cancer), diabetes, and gastroenterology.  Their focus is on providing world-class medical care, particularly to the Palestinian community.  Many of the doctors and other service providers at AVH are Palestinian.

We learned that, in order for Palestinian people to obtain health care, they need help surmounting many obstacles, particularly obstacles to movement.  Thus, providing health care there involves staunch advocacy.

We watched several videos: a video about AVH (Augusta Victoria Hospital: A Sign of Hope in a Troubled Land ) as well as a World Health Organization video about the difficulties of getting health care under occupation:  Fatenah (Part 1Part 2Part 3).

All of this led to a lot of discussion, including discussion about how unequal access to health care is often encountered as a justice issue — including in many parts of Chicago.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - August 16-17, 2014

The Working Group on the Middle East has two recommended actions for Metro Chicago Synod congregations to take for the weekend of August 16-17. Please use all of your church communication channels to publish these two actions.

First . . . have you been reading the newspapers … the Internet?

Do you want to know more… about something new and something old?

About what is truly happening in Israel and Palestine?

About something promising?

There is good news and not-so-good news and we'd like to tell you more!! Come to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 1133 Pfingsten Road, Northbrook, IL on August 24th, 3:30-5:00 pm. to hear and learn more about the “word on the street”.

Recently returned from the Holy Land, Ed Thompson and the Rev. John Holm will be the presenters to help us understand this good and not-so-good news. Come join us from 3:30 pm to 5 pm. Light refreshments and conversation to follow.

Join the Facebook event and invite friends!

Second, remember still to have the one minute of silence for the end to the conflict and for the safety of all Christians in the Middle East. (See Bishop Eaton’s recommendation for 60 seconds of silence during the prayers of the church and additional language in last week's recommendations.)

On behalf of the WGME,

Rev. Joanne Fitzgerald
Martin Luther Lutheran Church

Monday, August 11, 2014

August 24 in Northbrook: "Two Lutherans On Their Recent On-the-Ground Experiences in the West Bank"


Sunday August 24, 2014
3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
1133 Pfingsten Road
Northbrook, IL

Fresh from their recent visits to the West Bank, presenters Ed Thompson and John Holm will share experiences not found in the US media.

Ed Thompson
Ed Thompson has been active with the Working Group on the Middle East since 2007. He recently co-founded Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy with Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business leader. He visited over 20 business organizations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in June of 2014.

View the YouTube video of Ed Thompson. (See


Rev. John Holm
 Rev. John Holm is a Lutheran pastor who works as a church consultant with TAG Consulting. He is a reservist with Christian Peacemaker Teams serving three of the last five summers in Hebron.

View the YouTube video of John Holm. (See

The church is located at 1133 Pfingsten Road (at the corner of Cherry Avenue), Northbrook IL 60062, Tel: 847-272-0400. Questions?

Related posts

When I met Sam for dinner on Sunday night, June 15, 2014, in Ramallah, he said, “Things are tense.” I had been on vacation with my family in Greece for the previous two weeks and had not heard anything about the three missing Israeli teenagers. Over the course of the following week, however, I experienced first-hand the consequences for Palestinians living in the West Bank when Israel finds a pretext to unleash their military might.

(See "No Immunity Bubble Required" by Ed Thompson)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday, Aug. 10 - Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton interviewed on the Al Mayadeen TV network

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton was interviewed on the Al Mayadeen TV network, based in Beirut, Lebanon. Al Mayadeen claims a viewership of about 20 million in the Middle East and beyond.  

Watch the full interview on Youtube.

Some excerpts:

"There must be a viable, contiguous, Palestinian state and a secure Israel."

"We are contacting Congress and the President and saying that the illegal settlements [on the West Bank] must stop."

"Since 2012 we've given $3 million in aid to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land . . . . Just lask week we sent $100,000 to Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jeruslame to send medical teams to Gaza to help the people down there."

The interview includes extensive discussion of the ELCA posture toward BDS vs. "positive investment," as well as exploration of the situations in Iraq and Syria, especially the fate of religious minorities there.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Recommended Congregational Actions for Peace - August 9-10, 2014

The Working Group on the Middle East has two recommended actions for Metro Chicago Synod congregations to take for the weekend of August 9-10. Please use all of your church communication channels to publish these two actions.

First, we encourage each congregation to continue Bishop Eaton’s recommendation for 60 seconds of silence during the prayers of the church. These seconds of silence might be prefaced by the following:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land raises its voice to ask all people of good will to intervene in the present situation of unacceptable violence and bloodshed. Your intervention and action will create hope in a hopeless situation. If we cannot take steps toward peace, we will continue to be held hostage by extremism. Please do not leave us alone in this moment of struggle. The whole Middle East is boiling. We need your prophetic voice and support so that peace built on justice and reconciliation built on forgiveness will prevail.

Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

Second, we encourage members of Metro Chicago Synod churches to participate in the Chicago March Against World Silence on Gaza Massacre scheduled for 2:30 PM on Sunday, August 10 starting at Michigan & Congress in Chicago. Awad Hamdan, the organizer, is asking for 25,000 people to participate. The two marches that Hamdan and several groups sponsored in July had thousands of people participating with announced numbers of 10,000 at the first march and 15,000 at the second march. Please announce this march at services and in other communication channels that your congregation uses.

Join the Facebook event and invite friends.

On behalf of the WGME,

Rev. Joanne Fitzgerald
Martin Luther Lutheran Church

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chicago Lutherans' Advocacy for Palestinians Featured in "The Lutheran"

This month, Chicago area readers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) publication The Lutheran will see an an article about the Working Group on the Middle East's advocacy for Palestinians.  The full-page article profiles the WGME participation in the 8th Day Center Good Friday Justice Walk in April. (See Palestine: The Women Weep (34th Annual 8th Day Good Friday Justice Walk) )

The Lutheran is distributed monthly to all ELCA congregations, and the Chicago insert will be seen by recipients in over 200 Metropolitan Chicago Synod ELCA congregations and worshiping communities.

Related posts

"Inhumane treatment of young men and boys, arrests under cover of night, unjust torture while in police custody, missing husbands and brothers and sons, children stripped of internationally agreed upon human rights. For these Palestinian boys and men, we weep with the women."

(See Palestine: The Women Weep (34th Annual 8th Day Good Friday Justice Walk) )

Sunday, July 20, 2014

No Immunity Bubble Required

by Ed Thompson
Member, WGME

Downtown Ramallah
When I met Sam for dinner on Sunday night, June 15, 2014, in Ramallah, he said, “Things are tense.”

I had been on vacation with my family in Greece for the previous two weeks and had not heard anything about the three missing Israeli teenagers.

Over the course of the following week, however, I experienced first-hand the consequences for Palestinians living in the West Bank when Israel finds a pretext to unleash their military might.

On the ground in Ramallah

Sam Bahour had arranged my stay in Ramallah. He is a Palestinian-American business leader with whom I have co-founded a nonprofit organization named Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy. Sam had arranged interviews with over 20 organizations from the Palestinian business community. These interviews would provide background as we establish our plans for action over the next couple of years.

I stayed in a small hotel a few blocks from Sam’s home in Al Bireh – a town adjacent to Ramallah. On Monday at dinner, Sam told me that Israeli military vehicles and Israeli soldiers had been on his street in the early hours of the morning, evidently looking for someone in connection with the case of the missing hitchhikers. I thought to myself, “How could that be as Al Bireh is part of Area A-a location where Israeli troops have no place?”

For those who are unaware, the meant-to-be temporary (now 25 years old) Oslo accords divided the Palestinian West Bank into three areas: Area A is fully under civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, Area B has Palestinian civil authority, but Israeli security authority and Area C which while extending throughout the West Bank is fully under Israeli military and civil control.

Area A covers a tiny fraction of the West Bank – just 3% -- and a handful of cities: Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and 80 percent of Hebron. Under the Oslo II Accord, Area A was supposed to expand progressively as additional parts of the West Bank were turned over to Palestinian control, but this has never happened. As such, that handful of cities – the precious area of full Palestinian control – has enormous symbolism for the people there.

Access to Area A

Entry into Area A is forbidden to all Israeli citizens – or at least is supposed to be. The missing hitchhikers had last been seen in Area C, and there was no suggestion that they were in any Area A location at any time.

It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinian abductors to move Israeli captives into Area A. There would have been multiple check points along the way to prevent movement. In addition, since Israel has total control over Area C, had the abductors attempted to move their captives within Area C, they could hardly avoid detection by Israel’s extensive network of video cameras and other electronic detection equipment.

What, then, were Israeli soldiers doing in Area A?

The small white cars in the middle of the night

On Tuesday morning at about 2:30 a.m., I was awakened by what sounded like an explosion. I got up and looked out my window. Initially there was nothing visible but then four small white cars with flashing lights appeared on the road, traveling very close together. Who is in these cars, I wondered? They are quite obvious with their flashing lights so they are not trying to sneak around. The cars stopped near a large building with an open area that faced the street. As figures emerged from these cars, it was obvious they were soldiers. I pulled the drapes together and stepped back since I feared that whoever was out there might not like me observing them – even from the third floor.

The soldiers walked up the road as it turned to the left while their vehicles remained with lights flashing. I noticed a kid in a white t-shirt walking up the street, probably a teenager. When he saw the cars, he suddenly turned and ran. Nobody yelled or followed him so I concluded that no soldiers were left to guard the vehicles. It occurred to me that I could go down and drive away one of the vehicles -- if driven by a death wish.

After several minutes, maybe 10 to 15, had passed, the soldiers returned and got into their cars. One car went around the left turn on the road and disappeared. The other cars backed out and returned down the road behind the hotel the way they had come in with their flashers going and traveling close together.

I assumed that this was probably the Israeli military but I kept saying to myself, “This is Area A, how could this be Israeli military?” And yet this seemed consistent with what Sam had told me – that the Israeli military had been on his street the night before.

During the rest of the week, it appeared that the Israeli military invaded some part of the Ramallah area every night. I learned on Tuesday that Sam and his daughter had counted at least six Israeli military armored vehicles on the street in front of his house. They were careful not to get too close to the windows. Evidently a dozen or two kids had been on the lookout for Israeli invaders so there were many rocks thrown and some sound bombs used in Israeli military retaliation for the rocks.

In the coming days, we turned our attention to our schedule of meetings – easier for me, as an outsider, to do than for the local people. For instance, despite our intense focus on our meetings, I would hear Sam express concern from time to time that his car, which he had left outside his house but off the main street, might be damaged by the altercation between the stone throwers and the Israeli military.

As for those small white cars, in the course of the week, I learned that they had probably belonged to Israeli military intelligence. I learned that in the past Israeli military vehicles had entered Area A, and Israeli soldiers had seized Palestinians and delivered them to Israeli intelligence. The Palestinian detainees would be delivered to the little white cars, to be taken off for detention and interrogation.

Evidently, this kind of military invasion had not occurred in Ramallah since the second intifada over 10 years earlier. Even though refugee camps in some Area A cities were frequently invaded by the Israeli military, surrounding Palestinian cities were generally left alone as per the agreement.

Although appointments had been scheduled for visits in Hebron, a major Palestinian business center, they had to be cancelled because the Israeli officials closed all entry to and exit from Hebron checkpoints for the duration of my visit. We also had a visit to Nablus cancelled by closures.

Sam was unable to join us in Jerusalem or Bethlehem because his Palestinian ID would have required us to go through the Kalandia checkpoint. Because of the tightened security, this checkpoint would have added several hours to our trip. Israeli soldiers at checkpoints that are permanent fixtures for local Palestinians were being especially intrusive with Palestinians following the kidnappings. After waiting for several hours, he might have been detained and not permitted to exit even with a permit.

As I was leaving for home on Sunday, I talked briefly with Sam from the airport. He indicated that there had been a terrible battle on Saturday night between Palestinians armed with rocks and the Israeli military in central Ramallah. Two Palestinians were killed and dozens of Palestinians were injured in the clash.

Sam also told me that Israeli forces invaded Birzeit University. Evidently, the Israeli military went into the middle of campus, broke into buildings, destroyed property and then drove off with Hamas flags. Birzeit’s leaders were shocked at the military actions as an invasion to the center of campus had never before been undertaken.

Time to reflect

I returned to Chicago on June 22, and began to watch the news. I saw large assemblies in cities across the country -- of Jews and others – all of whom were in anguish about the three young Israeli settler hitchhikers.

I too was distressed about the abduction. But, the aftermath for Palestinians was far worse. I now understand that I was witnessing a military invasion of a land controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I can think of no justifiable rationale for the Israeli military to search for the teens in Ramallah. The more I reflected on the situation, the more distraught I became. “The three young Israeli settler hitchhikers are the only thing the media talks about,” I thought. “And this is the only thing the American people seem to be aware of.”

Where is the outrage about the invasion of Ramallah and other Palestinian cities? Where is the outrage about Israel’s assault on academic freedom at Birzeit University?

Do people need to be on the ground in Ramallah – as I had been – in order to know that the Israeli military had invaded that city, as well as many other Palestinian cities? Do they need to know people in the area in order to learn about the destructive assault on Birzeit University? How does this happen without a peep from the media or from governments around the world?

I considered two possibilities:

• Israel counted on the horrific fate of the missing hitchhikers as an excuse for the West to give them a pass on violating the Palestinian territorial autonomy represented by Area A, or

• Even the minimal notion of respect for territorial sovereignty and autonomy represented by Area A is something the West doesn’t care about in the first place.

Actually I believe it may be even worse. All of the mainstream media focused on the missing Israeli young settlers. There was little to no reporting of the deadly military invasions that took the lives of 9 Palestinians in the week following the reported kidnappings. The incidents that I observed firsthand were simply not discussed in the U.S. media. No American government officials commented about these violations. Silence by the media and American government officials meant that there was nothing to be explained or justified. The silence was a jarring contrast to reporting on and American officials responding to what Putin did in Ukraine.

What Palestinians suffered became even more Kafkaesque after reading an article entitled, “Was Israeli public misled on abductions?”

Ed Thompson is a member of Gloria Dei, Northbrook, and the Working Group on the Middle East (WGME), Metropolitan Chicago Synod, ELCA. He is co-founder of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy, and travels frequently to Israel/Palestine.

Related posts

On August 24, 2014, fresh from their recent visits to the West Bank, presenters Ed Thompson and John Holm shared experiences not found in the US media.

(See August 24 in Northbrook: "Two Lutherans On Their Recent On-the-Ground Experiences in the West Bank" )

There is no question in my mind that justice in Israel/Palestine is fundamental to peace and justice throughout the Mideast, and in the world. And there is also no question in my mind that, just as it was a group of people who considered themselves very serious about the Bible that got us into the present situation in Palestine, it is those of us who have inherited that tradition of seriousness about the Bible that need to "own" the consequences of our tradition, and work for a rectification of wrongs we have inherited.

(See Palestine: enough with 'the Lutheran both/and' already . . . ! on the Scarry Thoughts blog.)