Update on Presence and Witness in the Middle East

Update on Presence and Witness in the Middle East

Thursday, November 6, 2003 

It is indeed a privilege to participate in this “College of Mission” session with you this morning. Over the past few weeks, I have had the chance to teach two sessions of a couple of courses at Baldwin-Wallace College, a small historically Methodist school nearby, so the idea of teaching in a college setting is not something foreign to me this fall. In those two sessions, I was impressed by the interest and interaction of those college students on crucial matters of Islamic resurgence, Middle East politics, and the United States’ role in the world. Since I usually don’t get the chance to speak to such a large number of college students, I was pleased by the questions they are asking, but dismayed at the lack of opportunity they have had to engage on these important matters. Nonetheless, it was valuable for me and for them (I think and I hope!) to have had the time together..

Actually, the teaching moment that September 11 provided has been quite long. In some ways, it has been positive. There has been tremendous interest and concern among the churches to learn more about Islam and the tragic situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I think it is fair to say that there has been an increased awareness of the Middle East, given September 11, the ongoing intifada, or “shaking off” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the war against Iraq and the continuing violent conflict there, in which the occupying US soldiers, as well as international agency personnel from the UN and the Red Cross, are at daily risk. The opportunity to learn about Iraq, its people, and the issues they face has been lost, however, on some within the church. While invitations to speak about Islam and Israel and Palestine have been many, Derek Duncan and I can count on our hands the number of requests to speak about the situation in Iraq. That has been frustrating, but it is not my task today to speak about that. I would only raise here that the matter of presence, which is our theme this morning, includes our presence in the churches and church settings where education and advocacy can and must take place.

I appreciate the opportunity to be with you this morning, and to update you on the situation in the Middle East. I use the singular form of the word situation very deliberately because, even though there are two most urgent situations facing the U.S., the Middle East, and the churches in both places, they are in many ways similar. The crux of the matter in the Middle East continues to be the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the center of this conflict is Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Over the past two years, Israeli army reservists have pledged not to participate in military operations in the occupied territories; and most recently, a number of Israeli pilots have refused to participate in missions aimed at assassinating Palestinians suspected of complicity in or intent to carry out “terrorist operations” against Israel. These so-called refuseniks are to be credited for their courageous stand against their government. Nonetheless, the occupation and constriction of Palestinian land and people continues. Palestinian unemployment rates stand at 69% in Gaza and over 50% in the West Bank. Approximately 60% of the Palestinian population live at or below the poverty line, $2.10 per day. Tens of thousands of Palestinian jobs inside Israel have been lost due to the more than 100 checkpoints throughout the territories, and curfews prevent the normal movement of Palestinian people in their own land and villages. You have heard much about this situation from various sources, including our office and the missionaries we have serving there. This occupation has continued for over 36 years, and despite flashes of hope that negotiations will finally lead to some tangible result that approximates an eventual peace, there is no easy way out. Prime Minister Sharon’s offer to resume negotiations with the Palestinians comes even as settlement construction continues, and the imposing so-called “security barrier”, also known as “the wall,” reaches as high as 25 feet in some places and reaches far into the West Bank, beyond the “green line,” through villages and fields, destroying homes and livelihoods on the way. The “situation” in Israel and Palestine remains grim.

The parallel “situation” is Iraq, where unemployment is also reaching into the 60% range, electricity and basic infrastructure are not provided as they ought, and the idea of “liberation” is simply not prevalent. While we would have expected the situation there to demonstrate improvement several months after the announced end of the U.S. military campaign, the military campaign continues, and has received a new financial package that will ensure a prolonged presence. The infrastructure is not being repaired, even though some improvement in services has been noted in the provision of electricity–but only because the hot summer months are over and there is less demand for this utility to power fans and air conditioners. One of the challenges the military engineers face–besides a small budget for infrastructure rehabilitation with which to work–is the continuing and increasing rejection that the occupying forces are experiencing. This rejection, unfortunately, has come in the form of violence which has led to the deaths of more US troops since the declared end of the war than during the war itself. This past week has witnessed especially tragic episodes of violence. In our media, however, we don’t get a sense of the suffering of the Iraqi people over the course of the past two decades, and even in the course of the past few months. Did you know that more than 60% of the Iraqi people are dependent on international sources for their daily needs? Basic requirements that some international organizations are providing are food, emergency health, water and sanitation, and education and psycho-social assistance. With attacks on U.S. soldiers, United Nations facilities, offices of the Red Cross in the recent past, and the increasingly alarming lack of security for Iraqis and non-Iraqis alike (even Jordan has withdrawn its embassy personnel from Baghdad!), Iraq threatens to continue to be a center of frustration, fear, and fighting for a long time. Far from being a war waged for the “liberation” of Iraq, the result so far is the disestablishment of a less-than-desirable, but admittedly stable situation. Saddam was a merciless dictator, to be sure; but Iraq today is in desperate need of careful diplomacy and truly international assistance–not the U.S.-led occupation that seems to be leading nowhere. At the Disciples’ General Assembly, the Global Ministries resolution on US Policy in the Middle East was adopted. Among its several recommendations was the one that calls upon the U.S. government to support relief and reconstruction efforts generously working through the United Nations, allowing non-governmental organizations full and unconditional access to provide relief in Iraq, and to work diligently to mend broken fences with countries of the region and the world in order to reduce feelings of animosity and distrust.

So far, the U.S. continues to play the lead role to the exclusion of other actors, and is more concerned with avenging the suffering of our troops than addressing the root cause of their suffering. It should come as no surprise that the Arab world is not poised to accept another occupation, after 36 years of condemning the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. occupation of Iraq, no matter how benevolent the intentions may be, is associated and compared with the occupation of Palestinian lands, and is resisted and rejected out of hand.

What does all of this political and social discussion have to do with presence as church, and the principle that mission is what the church is all about? Stated another way, “God, when did I visit you?” In the context of the Middle East, we have heard the term “martyr” discussed quite frequently recently. Most often, we have come to learn through the secular media that suicide bombers are considered martyrs. We have come, therefore, to associate the word “martyr” with apparently senseless death of the actor, and the tragic deaths of innocents around him or her. “Martyr” has become a term that is repulsive to us as we read and watch the “situation” in the Middle East. In his book Witnessing for Peace, Palestinian Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan recovers a meaning of the word martyr that is often forgotten. That meaning is “witness.” Giving witness and presence go hand in hand. My colleague Derek Duncan makes that connection in a paper he delivered last Saturday at a seminar called, “Peacemaking in the Middle East: The Role for U.S. Christians.” In his paper, “U.S. Christians and ‘Critical Presence’ in the Middle East,” Derek expounds upon presence as “the grace of ‘being there'” and “the responsibility of ‘giving witness.'” In Israel and among Palestinians, Global Ministries is engaged in many diverse ways. It is probably important to state that much of what the Middle East and Europe office does is motivated in some way or another by the reality of the occupation of Palestinian lands. Given that resolution of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered the key for a renewed and more peaceful Middle East, and indeed a better world, it is right that we give so much attention to it, and offer our presence in many ways. First, two Disciples missionaries serve with Palestinian partners. As you know, Marla Schrader serves with Palestinian Quaker Jean Zaru, a dedicated activist and gifted speaker and writer. Cathy Nichols serves the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Their witness is indeed a tangible form of our presence with the Palestinian Christian community. Additionally, Global Ministries participates with other denominations in the U.S. and throughout the world in endorsing and contributing to the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, a part of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence. Members of the Christian Church and the UCC have gone to Palestine and have experienced presence and witness as ecumenical accompaniers, and Global Ministries has contributed generously to the North American coordination of the program both financially and in the form of Derek’s dedicated presence as Chair of the Peaceful Ends through Peaceful Means ecumenical coalition. There are a number of resolutions and statements on the books of the Common Global Ministries Board and its two denominations concerning Israel and Palestine. Our office has recently produced a new video and accompanying study guide called, This Holy Place, which offers voice to Palestinians. In the first year and a half following September 11, 2001, Derek and I were asked to speak about Islam and Israel-Palestine in upwards of 75 settings of the church. We have been present in many ways with Palestinians, and Palestinians have been present with us, too, when it is possible. The Rev. Mitri Raheb from Bethlehem’s Christmas Lutheran Church was the keynote speaker at the Middle East and Africa Advocacy Days in Washington, DC earlier this year. The Middle East will be a prominent track in the next advocacy days session in March, 2004. The Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Cathy’s supervisor and director of Sabeel, was the keynote speaker at the UCC’s General Synod this past summer. Palestinians do not always have an easy time of it, though. The director of Common Global Ministries’ partner the YMCA in Beit Sahour, Nader Abu Amsha, was denied by the Israeli government the requisite permission to leave when he was planning on participating in an event organized in part by Common Global Ministries board member Bill Land in Cincinnati this summer. Presence is not always easy, but it is something to which we are committed with regard to the “situation” of the Palestinians and the quest for a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Is our presence enough? Probably not, but it is an attempt to respond to the priorities of our partners.

We are challenged, however, when it comes to presence in and around Iraq. What kind of presence do we content ourselves with demonstrating? We are not in relationship with any of the churches of Iraq, except through the Middle East Council of Churches. We do not have a physical missionary presence there. In fact, the issue of missionaries following the U.S. invasion in March has been very problematic for the Iraqi churches, whose members number between 650,000 and 1 million, of a total population between 22 and 25 million people. Churches and church agencies of a more conservative ilk–mostly from the U.S.–have felt that the “liberation” of Iraq has also meant the opportunity to “liberate” Iraqis from Islam. Christians in Iraq suffer as a result because their relations with their Muslim compatriots are centuries-old and have been threatened by association with these aggressive missionaries. Further, I have not had the opportunity to travel to Iraq since 1998. I have been part of an ongoing discussion among Middle East office colleagues at the PC(USA), the RCA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the Middle East Council of Churches about a trip to express presence and solidarity with Iraq’s Christians, but various plans have been put off as a result of the violence and insecurity that country is experiencing. What kind of presence to the people of Iraq can we offer? “When can we visit them?” I find much consolation in our principle of mission: that we engage in mission through partnership relationships. The MECC has had a visible presence in Iraq for more than 12 years, responding to the needs of the Iraqis in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing decade of sanctions, and that presence continues to this day, responding ecumenically and across faith lines to the great needs following the 2003 Gulf War. While our visible presence in Iraq could be dangerous–not only to ourselves but to Christian sisters and brothers there–we are present through our partner, the MECC, whose ministry we hold up and whose requests for assistance we try to heed. Our presence can and must be an attempt to answer the question, “God, when did I visit you?” The Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, General Secretary of the MECC and member of the Church World Service board, concluded a letter of apology for his absence from the CWS Board meeting in Chicago last week with the following invitation–one I see as an invitation to make a non-traditional visit. I will conclude my remarks with Riad’s request for our presence. Riad writes,

I bring this message to a close with a warning that these two forces of violence and disaster–Iraq and Palestine–are feeding into other and broader confrontations…. As you deliberate together, I urge you to find the resources to strengthen the voice of truth and empower all those who see a vocation in educating our world for peace.” Amen.