Patriarch Sabbah: Palestinians are crying for justice. How long can Christians ignore them?

Palestine Update 434

Patriarch Sabbah: Palestinians are crying for justice. How long can Christians ignore them?

Israel’s military occupation of Palestine continues in its 53rd year. In particular, Palestinians in Gaza are suffering under a callous siege. The U.S. administration has withdrawn aid for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem and for the United Nations’ humanitarian work in the occupied Palestinian territory.

President Trump’s so-called peace proposal is little more than a justification for the occupation and a false promise of prosperity to Palestinians at the cost of their freedom and independence. In spite of promises to the contrary in recent peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land and resources continues with the recent approval of 3,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank.

Palestinian Christians join the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk in his cry for justice:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?”

It is a question of humanity in the Holy Land. Human beings continue to kill or be killed. The power of the stronger, not the power of God, continues to prevail. Moreover, in regarding the state of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Christian Zionists believe that Israel should receive special status, thereby using the word of God to support policies and practices that privilege one people over another—with deadly consequences. It is a question of humanity in the Holy Land. The power of the stronger, not the power of God, continues to prevail.

Encounter the Holy Land: Christmas Message from Mitri Raheb
For Palestinian Christians Christmas is a bittersweet experience. So close to Manger Square and Shepherd’s Fields, yet most often restricted from travelling there. And the oppression and violence of the Occupation the other 364 days of the year takes a toll that cannot be left behind on Christmas Day. 2020 has been a particularly challenging year and the Christmas message we received from Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, long-time pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem reflects this. It also brings to us the faithful hope that Christmas holds for all Christians. This resource, third in the Virtual Liturgies series, is distinct from the others. We invite you to share it with your faith community in the way that suits you best. Perhaps you would like to integrate it into the homily or sermon of a virtual liturgy. If the images in the video seem a bit too jarring for this context, we encourage you to consider playing the video before the service or posting it online as part of your Christmas resources. Alternatively, playing the sound without the images produces a softer message. Sometimes the opportunity to listen attentively without the distraction of visual images draws us closer to the message of the speaker. However you use this special resource, we hope that within it you will find an invitation into the heart of Christmas.
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Abbas sends a message to the world on the occasion of Christmas
President Mahmoud Abbas said in a televised message to the world last night that it was painful and sad that for the first time, we were not able to participate in the Christmas celebrations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions on public life.

“Christmas comes this year as our world is going through difficult circumstances due to the pandemic that has imposed on all of us restrictions and an exceptional lifestyle. It is painful and sad that because of that and for the first time, we were not able to participate in the celebrations of the Merry Christmas,” said the President. He added, “Thousands of pilgrims and Palestinian visitors who used to flock to Manger Square in Bethlehem to celebrate this happy occasion every year were also unable to do so this year.” Abbas recalled the aggressive policies and practices of the Israeli occupation against the Islamic and Christian sanctities in Palestine, the latest of which was the attack on the Church of the Gethsemane in Jerusalem, in addition to the ongoing attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the city. Despite of all of these Israeli practices, “We are steadfast, and are confident of victory and freedom. We deserve justice for our cause, a decent life for our people and the end of the occupation. Our people deserve freedom and independence in their state with East Jerusalem as its capital, a state that is not separated by segregation barriers such as the one that separates the holy city [of Jerusalem] from Bethlehem, the city of the Nativity.”

In reference to the pandemic and the restrictions imposed on public life as a result, the President said: “In this year, we will keep the Christmas message in our hearts, and its joy in our homes, with our families and loved ones, for the sake of health and safety that will remain our priority.”

As we celebrate the birth of Christ we need to remember the message of the angels wishing people peace and goodwill. Yet in the very place of the miraculous virgin birth, injustice prevails for the people of Palestine.
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Bethlehem Mayor of asserts will for a better freedom, justice, and better future
A few weeks ago, as Mayor of Bethlehem, sent a letter to all diplomatic missions in Palestine asking them to take urgent measures to stop the construction of 1,400 housing units in the illegal Giv’at HaMatos settlement. By approving these homes Israel is attempting to connect settlements north of Bethlehem, ending any territorial contiguity with Jerusalem; in other words, the perpetual strangulation of Bethlehem and the end of any possibility of contiguity in an independent Palestinian state. He said: “The Palestinian government exercises only limited control over 13 percent of our territory; the rest remains off limits for Palestinian development, while serving as a reservoir for the continuing expansion of Israel’s illegal colonialist enterprise. How could anyone claim that this is not tantamount to annexation? A city that represents a universal message of hope and peace has been turned into a symbol of apartheid.

Such developments are taking place as our city goes through a deep economic crisis. To the annual costs of the Israeli occupation, which denies the sovereign access to natural resources and international borders that are among the basic components of any economy, we have to add the end of tourism, whether foreign or local, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bethlehem represents a message of hope and resilience that we are proud to present to the world. There are no shortcuts, though, to a prosperous future: The path goes through the end of Israel’s illegal colonization of our land. The Israeli occupation and its continuing process of annexation and COVID-19  have deeply affected the city. But we are aware of the responsibility placed upon our shoulders as the guardians of a cultural heritage that is not going to disappear.

Christmas, our city’s soul, is both a Christian religious occasion and a Palestinian national celebration, so we shall continue moving forward, hoping and working for a better future of freedom, justice, and peace.
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The Middle East is having a challenging Christmas
A Christmas tree in Beirut bearing the names of those who died during an August explosion that injured thousands, with some of the damage seen in the background. Reuters 

Today marks the anniversary of a story that began 2,020 years ago in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. It was a very different Middle East from the one we live in this Christmas. But the communities, in Palestine and throughout the region, who are inspired by the birth and life of Jesus endure.

This year, they have endured a great deal. Bethlehem suffers from a lack of tourists and pilgrims due to Covid-19 and continued Israeli occupation. In the twin Levantine capitals of Damascus and Beirut, economic crisis has cast huge numbers of citizens into poverty. In the former, the proximate cause is an ongoing civil war. In the latter, it is a failure by state institutions trapped in the swamp of sectarianism to govern effectively.

A Christmas tree erected last week in Beirut, which has the largest Christian population of any Arab capital, bears the names of victims of an explosion of a store of ammonium nitrate in August. The blast killed nearly 200 people, and injured more than 6,500 others. The city’s historic Christian quarter along with several churches and hospitals were left in ruins.

Iraq’s Christians, who have seen their population plunge from 1.5 million to 400,000 in the past two decades, have seen other hardships. One is the struggle to revive the city of Mosul. Once a paragon of diversity and co-existence, it was emptied of its entire Christian community when the terrorist group ISIS invaded in 2014. Mosul is back in government hands now, but barely 100 Christians have returned, citing a lack of jobs or other prospects.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Christmas is rendered more difficult not by war and politics, but by circumstance. A chance mutation in the coronavirus caused the sudden closure of international borders in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and Israel this week. Hopes for many who live and work in these countries of spending Christmas with loved ones abroad have been dashed.

In Jordan, home to 600,000 Christians, a weekly total lockdown has been enforced every Friday since September, including today. In Egypt, where the mutant strain has already been detected, a surge of infections has resulted in the government banning New Year’s Eve celebrations. The country’s Coptic Christians, who along with Orthodox communities celebrate Christmas on January 7, worry that the situation will not ease before then.

The story of Jesus, however, for Christians and Muslims alike, has always been one of hope. And there is much to be hopeful for in the Middle East this Christmas.