We greet you in the peace of Christ, and pray this will find you well. It has been quite some time since we have written a general letter; yet, with gratitude for your love and prayers, you have been in our thoughts. In addition to some rather challenging health issues in the last twelve months, we have been kept quite busy with our assignments as well as informal, but pleasant, duties that present themselves in the course of living here.
Herewith, we share a few details by way of an annual update:
Primary Assigned Responsibilities:
As one of a series of conferences, workshops, training events and consultations in the course of the “Religion and State – Middle East” program of the Diyar Consortium, we have just concluded an international, intergenerational Christian interdisciplinary academic conference, in which some 52 Middle Eastern and international professors, scholars, researchers, strategists, media executives and postgraduate students took part. The conference theme was “Shifting Identities: Changes in the Political, Social and Religious Structures in the Arab World.” Participants included law professors, legislators, political scientists, sociologists, theologians, and Middle East/Interregional program executives of church denominations and ecumenical structures. Why academics? In the Arab world, these are the only category of citizens who are freer to express their analyses without calculating too cautiously their negative consequences. The conference was another step forward in the progress made following the formation of the Christian Academic Forum for Citizenship in the Arab World (CAFCAW), and the publication of its document titled “From the Nile to the Euphrates: The Call of Faith and Citizenship” that took a year of conferences and consultations to develop and finalize. It identifies ten critical challenges that confront the Arab world today. It also publishes a Statement of Commitment on the part of Christians, on the basis of their faith, to engage in proactive efforts that aim toward the reform and renewal of societies to assure the rule of law, the full rights of all citizens, the preservation of sanctity and dignity of life and the enhancement of its quality for all persons. (You may download the full text of this 26-page document at www.cafcaw.org by clicking on the English title at the lower left-hand corner of the main page.)
Victor’s continuing role for this conference and previous events was/is in the preparation, coordination, background leadership, and follow-up. Sara has also participated by editing the papers presented for a previous conference which were published in a book, and will be doing so again for this latest conference – in addition to editing various publications for the Diyar Consortium.
Other Obligations and Activities Concurrent to Our Assignment:
Aside from the formal/informal aspect of church relation-building between the structures of our appointing boards and local church denominations, ecumenical agencies and non-governmental organizations, we have the privilege and the pleasure of assuming other duties in Israel/Palestine.
- Regular participation in the life (and liturgy) of the worship community at Christmas Lutheran Church is a constant. It is mutually supportive as we receive the benefit of Christian fellowship with Palestinian Christians, and reciprocally offer the “critical presence” to which our appointing board is committed. From time to time, we worship with other congregations in the area as we believe this will expand our vision of the catholicity of the Church and also deepens our own Christian faith.
- Most important among these duties is our ongoing, on-site interpretation of the context in which we live to visiting groups. Perhaps unlike in any other region of the world, there is a constant flow of pilgrims and visitors, including numerous church groups and leadership delegations from many different countries, various denominations, short-term volunteers, and college and post-university interns, who join us in worship or meet for dialogue. We seek to help them understand some of the dynamics of life within this walled city, and other aspects of the current situation that are not immediately visible to passers-through.
- Related to the above, and to the extent possible, hospitality in our home is a focused part of our calling here. This provides for in-depth conversations, relationship building and nurturing long-term friendships.
- Opportunities for pastoral care, mentoring and occasional guidance counseling to volunteers of various ages who find themselves in a process of career discernment, often present themselves and are hopefully useful.
- Consulting on specific issues relative to our appointing churches is an increasing task. This includes, for example, offering perspectives on “positive investment,” “inquiries re the ‘two-state solution’,” and general tips on cross-cultural communication.
It is the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims. Devout neighbors observe it with reverence and humility. Besides fasting from dawn to dusk, individuals observe the five daily prayers and, those who are able to get Israeli permits, go in droves to the Friday noon prayer at al- Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest city for Islam after Mecca and Madinah. The State of Israel is “generous” with permits for Palestinians to go outside the siege of the occupation during religious holidays. You can imagine, however, the number of confrontations at military checkpoints, with Israeli police and with armed settlers in the Old City. But Israel, albeit with exaggerated wariness and consequent intensified security measures, sees a huge advantage in granting thousands of permits at this time: because large crowds of Palestinians flock to the big city malls, the beaches of Tel Aviv/Jaffa (but not Eilat!), or to holiday resort hotels in the Galilee. This is good for the Israeli economy!
There is an underside to this: going through a month of fasting, in the heat of summer, without food or drink (or smoking) for 16 hours, traffic lawlessness within the walled towns and a besieged West Bank reaches extremes. Tempers rise. Frustration with confinement accruing from nearly fifty years of military occupation (with all kinds of side effects not readily visible to visitors – such as a depressed economy, high unemployment, inflation, shortages of services, and general complexity of living and deterioration in the quality of life) begets aberrant, and abhorrent, human behavior – even some flare-ups of violence, both domestic and public. As one perceptive Palestinian Christian – a former diplomat - recently observed, “We are heading for the abyss.”
A few days ago, a tragic incident occurred here in Bethlehem. An argument between two men over a petty issue broke out into a fight resulting in one of the men stabbing the other to death. The two families apparently had some old vendetta. The killing incited revenge and counter-revenge. Four multi-storied residential and office buildings and several shops were burned down. Numerous persons were severely injured, one woman escaping for her life jumped to her death.
During the Ramadan Eid, many young boys were dressed in their new clothes and playing in the streets with plastic toy guns, the most popular toys here. What else can be expected when much of that to which they are exposed is images of war, movies of violence, armed soldiers and civilian settlers …?
Meanwhile, the Israeli government has just approved a law that imposes a 20-year jail sentence on anyone who throws stones (at soldiers, military tanks or settlers). The “perpetrators” in this scenario would be mostly children and teenagers; which means incarcerating and depriving a generation of their young adulthood. This begs the questions: would this law apply to settlers who live in illegal colonies on the West Bank who, indiscriminately and often without cause, throw stones at and harass Palestinian children? And if it is argues that, yes, they would apply, would they ever be enforced? Yesh Din, an Israeli organization of Volunteers for Human Rights, publishes documented reports of non-enforcement of Israeli laws upon settlers and soldiers who abuse or harm Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Or, does anyone ask why Palestinian youth throw stones at tanks that uproot olive trees and soldiers who stand guard?
A June 2015 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights described various forms of constraint on Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories, and their physical and psychological impact on the lives of people. One cannot help pondering the toll of human damage on both the occupied and the occupier – individually and the two peoples as a whole.
That leaves us with the question of the role and the purpose of our being here. First and foremost, we are constantly reminded of our Christian vocation as peacemakers. We believe this is best expressed primarily through a mission of “critical presence.” As we are, in fact, continually, on a journey of understanding, our faith requires us always to listen to the genuine concerns of Palestinians and Israelis. An active faith demands that we accompany our fellow Christians in witness to the love of God to all people, and to practice that love ourselves even when it is challenging to do so. And, as the Spirit gives occasion and utterance, to “speak the truth in love.”
Sara continues in physical therapy, under a highly skilled therapist in Bethlehem, for the two corrective surgeries on her feet (the first being done last October and the second in March). She is making slow but noticeable progress while still experiencing considerable pain and difficulty with walking, or even sitting or standing for any appreciable length of time. It is anticipated that therapy will take some months yet. Victor’s blood pressure, which had for the better part of half a year hit a critical high, was brought down to a reasonable level after bilateral vascular surgery in April at the Cleveland Clinic, which involved the insertion of three stents in the renal arteries. We both give thanks to God for the miracles of healing, and for our astute Bethlehemite physician who pinpointed the issues, and the highly skilled surgical teams that performed the procedures.
Daily we continue to thank God for the privilege, the joy and the blessings we feel we are given by living and serving here, despite some enormous challenges. We are thankful for our church partners in this area who have opened their arms and hearts to us, and for all our family and friends, far and wide, who support us with their love and their prayers. We also pray that you may continually be blessed in every way with the riches of God’s abundant grace.
In Christ’s peace,
Victor and Sara Makari serve with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the Diyar Consortium of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. Victor serves as Regional Consultant for the Religion and State in the Middle East Program. Sara serves as editor of publications of Diyar.