Updates

We seek to keep you literally "updated" on movement in terms of truth and justice in the Middle East in general with a particular eye on Palestine. The links below will take you to various articles and websites that offer the perspective of leaders in the religious, NGO, and human rights communities. Additionally, Al-Bushra, ever vigilant, provides links to regular reporting as well as opinion pieces by journalists. The dates given here indicate when the link was posted; the most recent posting is at the top. Check the article itself for the date the information was released by the source.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Kairos Southern Africa: Churchwide Assembly Votes to Affirm ELCA Commitment to Justice in Palestine and Israel

Source: http://kairossouthernafrica.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/evangelical-lutheran-church-in-america-resolution-on-justice-in-palestine-and-israel/

Middle East Network Newsletter
August 22, 2011

Churchwide Assembly Votes to Affirm ELCA Commitment to Justice in
Palestine and Israel

The Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, meeting in Orlando on August 18, voted to continue the ELCA’s strong commitment to justice in Palestine and Israel. The Assembly decision demonstrates that the church has remained steadfast in its commitments, in keeping with the original strategy for engagement in Israel and Palestine adopted in 2005.

The action of the Assembly related to the Middle East – the full text of which is copied below – includes an official reception of the Kairos Palestine document, the foundation of an initiative launched in December 2009 in Bethlehem by Palestinian Christians. Referencing Bishop Hanson’s statement from the day the document was first unveiled, the Assembly called Kairos Palestine, “an ‘authentic word from our brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community’ that ‘warrants our respect and attentiveness.’”

The vote for this action was overwhelmingly positive: 868 to 73. Important and affirming floor statements were made by several assembly members, including Bp. Richard Graham of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod and Bp. Bruce Burnside, of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin and chair of the bishops’ Middle East Ready Bench.

This renewed mandate is an encouragement to ELCA members, congregations, and synods to redouble efforts among our network of committed volunteers throughout the church, as well as among staff in the churchwide offices, to raise awareness throughout the ELCA and to work for changes in U.S. policy that promote a just and lasting peace for our neighbors in the Middle East.

Rev. Robert O. Smith, Ph.D.
ELCA Global Mission
Area Program Director for the Middle East
Coordinator, Peace Not Walls Campaign


Action of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly
Passed August 18, 2011

To receive with gratitude the memorials of the Northeastern Pennsylvania, Lower Susquehanna, and Metropolitan Washington, D.C., synods related to investment for positive change in Palestine;

To encourage members, congregations, synods, and agencies of this church to:
1. seek ways to achieve a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the perspectives of other faith communities, and receive, read, and discuss the Kairos Palestine document as an “authentic word from our brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community” that “warrants our respect and attentiveness”;

2. affirm this church’s commitment to non-violent responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Peace Not Walls campaign’s efforts toward strengthening accompaniment, awareness-building, and advocacy; and

3. consider making positive economic investments in those Palestinian projects and businesses that peacefully strengthen the economic and social fabric of Palestinian society;

To commend the policy, “ELCA Economic Social Criteria Investment Screens,” to the members, congregations, synods, and agencies of this church; and

To decline to undertake a review of the investment of funds managed within the ELCA but to commend these recommendations to the Office of the Treasurer, the Office of the Secretary, the
Congregational and Synodical Mission unit, the Mission Advancement unit, and the ELCA Board of Pensions for consideration.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Reverend Stephen Sizer: Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions

Source: http://www.stephensizer.com/2011/08/seven-biblical-answers-to-zionist-assumptions/

Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions

Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions

1. God promises to bless those who bless Israel and curses those who curse Israel

This popular ‘red herring’ is based on Genesis 12:3. It shows how vital it is we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. First, the original promise was made to Abraham and no one else. Second, there is nothing in the promise to indicate God intended it be applied to Abraham’s physical descendants unconditionally, or in perpetuity. Third, in the New Testament we are told explicitly that the promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ and in those who acknowledge Him as their Lord and Saviour. God’s blessings come by grace through faith, not by works or race (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Promise Fulfilment
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:16, 28-29)
“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore… and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed…” (Genesis 22:17-18)

2. The Jewish people are God’s “chosen people”

The assumption that the Jewish people are God’s “chosen people” is so deeply ingrained, to question it sounds heretical or anti-Semitic. Yet both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures insist membership of God’s people is open to all races on the basis of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 56, we see the Lord anticipate and repudiate the rise of an exclusive Israeli nationalism. In the New Testament the term “chosen” is used exclusively of the followers of Jesus, irrespective of race (See also Ephesians 2:14-16 and Colossians 3:11-12 concerning the unity of God’s people).

Old Testament New Testament
“Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:7-8) “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)
“I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me— Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush— and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’” Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.” The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.”
(Psalm 87:4-6)
“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.”
(Romans 9:6-8)
“Let no foreigners who have bound themselves to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” … And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants … who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain… for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”” (Isaiah 56:3, 6-7) “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:11-12 – see also 1 Peter 2:9-10)

3. The “Promised Land” was given by God to the Jewish people as an everlasting inheritance

Contrary to popular assumption, the Scriptures repeatedly insist that the land belongs to God and that residence is always conditional. For example, God said to his people, “‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” (Leviticus 25:23). In Ezekiel, it seems the Lord anticipated the reasoning of those who arrogantly claimed rights to the land because of the promise made originally to Abraham.

“Son of man, the people living in those ruins in the land of Israel are saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he possessed the land. But we are many; surely the land has been given to us as our possession.’ Therefore say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Since you eat meat with the blood still in it and look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you do detestable things… Should you then possess the land?’ … I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end.’ (Ezekiel 33:24-26,28-29)

The scriptures insist, residence was open to all God’s people on the basis of faith not race. Indeed, the writer to Hebrews explains that the land was never their ultimate desire or inheritance any way. The land was only ever intended as a temporary residence until the coming of Jesus Christ. Our shared eternal inheritance is heavenly not earthly.

Old Testament Command New Testament Explanation
“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 47:21-23) “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God… These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
(Hebrews 11:9-10; 39-40)
“…the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”
(Ephesians 3:4-6)

4. Jerusalem is the exclusive and undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people

The Christian Zionist assertion that God intended Jerusalem to be the exclusive and undivided eternal capital of the Jewish people has no basis whatsoever in Scripture. As we have already seen, God insists in Psalm 87 that Jerusalem must be a shared and inclusive city. Nations specifically mentioned as having residence rights include those living in what is today, Egypt, Iran and Lebanon. Even the hated Philistines are mentioned as “…born in Zion” on the basis of faith not race. Likewise, the vision of Isaiah 2 associates Jerusalem with the end of war, with peace and reconciliation between the nations.

“In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

The Old Testament vision of Jerusalem is of an international, shared, inclusive city of faith, hope and love. But what of Luke 21:24, “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”? Many Zionists like to think this prophecy came true in 1967. This is problematic since, Revelation 11:2 says the Gentile ‘trampling’ of Jerusalem would last only ’42 months’. The context of Luke 21 shows Jesus was referring to the events of 70AD and God’s sovereign use of foreign tyrants to fulfil his purposes (see Isaiah 63:3-6 for the meaning of ‘trampling’). It is more likely Jesus means deliverance will come at his return and not before. The focus of the New Testament instead moves away from the earthly Jerusalem toward the new, heavenly Jerusalem as the home of all who trust in Jesus (Hebrews 12:22-23; Revelation 21:2; 22-27).

5. The Jewish Temple must be rebuilt before Jesus returns

Prophecy pundits like to quote Daniel 9 and Matthew 24 to suggest a future temple will be built and desecrated by the anti-Christ, before Jesus returns to Jerusalem in order to set up his kingdom.

The only problem is, Christian Zionists require a 2,000 year gap between Daniel 9:26 and 9:27 and between Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:1-2 and 24:15-16 in order to explain why, after the destruction of the temple in 70AD, another temple is needed. But there is absolutely nothing in either text, or anywhere else in Scripture, to suggest a gap of 2,000 years, or that a future temple is predicted, let alone needed. Just the reverse – the old temple was declared redundant the moment Jesus died on the cross when the curtain was torn in two from top to bottom (Hebrews 1:3; 10:1-3, 11). The true and lasting temple is revealed to be the Lord Jesus himself and his followers.

John 2:19-21 Ephesians 2:19-21
“Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.”

The true temple, therefore, is under construction. Quoting Old Testament temple imagery, the Apostle Peter writes, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5-7)

6. Believers will soon be ‘raptured’ to heaven before the ‘end-time’ battle of Armageddon

The rapture is a popular idea that Jesus will actually return twice: first of all secretly, to rescue true believers out of the world, then later visibly with his saints to judge the world. There is, again, no basis in Scripture for this novel idea. The Bible is emphatic: the return of Jesus will be personal, sudden, public, visible and glorious.

Matthew 24:30-31 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth[a] will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

The idea of a secret rapture is actually based on a misreading of Matthew 24:40-41 and Luke 17:34-35 where Jesus warns that one person will be taken and the other left behind. Rapture proponents insist it is the believers who will be taken and that unbelievers left behind. However, in the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13, Jesus provides the key to interpreting the later parable, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:30).
So it will be unbelievers who are ‘taken’ first and believers who are ‘left behind’ to be with Christ.

However we understand the ambiguous apocalyptic language of Matthew 24, or Revelation, about the future, we must hold on to the clear promises of Jesus. He will never leave us nor forsake us (John 10:27-30; 14:14-27). The biblical vision of the future is of paradise restored and healing of the nations.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:1-2)

Our mandate is to be peacemakers not widow makers (Matthew 5:3-10). We are ‘God’s co-workers’ entrusted as ambassadors with a ministry of reconciliation not speculation (2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2).

7. God has a separate plan for the Jewish people apart from the Church

Christian Zionists typically believe that God has a continuing covenant with Israel, separate from the Church. They usually base this on passages like Romans 9-11, although they invariably ignore the context. In Romans 2:28-29, for example, the Apostle Paul defines the word ‘Jew’.

“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)

That is why in Romans 9, the term ‘Israel’ is limited to those who acknowledge the Lord Jesus.

“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Romans 9:6-8)

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul explicitly identifies the church as the true ‘circumcision’ (Philippians 3:3). This is entirely consistent with the Old Testament, where, as we have already seen, citizenship of Israel was open to all ‘those who acknowledge me’ (Psalm 87:4). And here is the clue to understanding Romans 9-11. Of course God has not rejected the Jewish people. His covenant purpose for them, as with every other race, has always been ‘that they may be saved’ (Romans 10:1), to create one people for himself, made of both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 11:26). God’s covenant purposes are fulfilled only in and through Jesus Christ. This is most fully explained in Ephesians 2.

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” … remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2: 11-16)

The following passages show that there is a harmony between God’s purposes for his Old Testament saints and for his New Testament saints – a clear continuity between Israel and the Church.

Israel: The Church in the Old Testament The Body of Christ: The Church in the New Testament
Righteous live by faithfulness (Habakkuk 2:4) Righteous live by faith (Romans 1:17)
Holy people (Deuteronomy 7:6; 33:3; Numbers 16:3) Holy people (Ephesians 1:1; Romans 1:7)
Chosen (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2) Chosen (Colossians 3:12; Titus 1:1)
Called (Isaiah 41:9; 2 Chronicles 7:14) Called (Romans 1:6-7; 1 Corinthians 1:2)
Assembly (Psalm 1:5; 89:5; 149:1) Assembly (Acts 7:38; 20:28; Hebrews 2:12)
‘Church’ = Assembly in Greek (Micah 2:5) Church (Matthew 16:18; 18:17; Ephesians 2:20)
Flock (Ezekiel 34:2, 7; Psalm 77:20) Flock (Luke 12:32; Acts 20:28)
Holy nation (Exodus 19:6) Holy nation (1 Peter 2:9)
Treasured possession (Exodus 19:5) Special possession (1 Peter 2:9)
Kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) Royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)
Children of God (Hosea 1:10) Children of God (John 1:12)
People of God (Hosea 2:23) People of God ( 1 Peter 2:10)
People of his inheritance (Deuteronomy 4:20) Glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:18)
My dwelling place = tabernacle (Lev. 26:11; Ezekiel 37:27) Dwelling among us = tabernacle (John 1:14; 2 Corinthians 6:16)
I will walk among you (Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 32:38) I will… walk among them (2 Corinthians 6:16-17)
God is a husband betrothed ( Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; Hos. 2:19) Christ is a husband betrothed (2 Cor. 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-30)
Twelve tribes (Genesis 49:28; Revelation 21:12) Twelve Apostles (Mark 3:14; Revelation 21:14)

The most important question to reflect on is this: Does the New Testament teach that the coming of the Lord Jesus was the fulfilment or the postponement of God’s purposes for the Jewish people?

This study can be downloaded and is based on, Zion’s Christian Soldiers: The Bible Israel and the Church (IVP). A more comprehensive Bible study guide can be downloaded from the website www.withgodonourside.com

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: Churchwide Assembly Votes to Affirm ELCA Commitment to Justice in Palestine and Israel

Source: http://capwiz.com/elca/issues/alert/?alertid=53175326&queueid=[capwiz:queue_id]

August 22, 2011

Churchwide Assembly Votes to Affirm ELCA Commitment to Justice in Palestine and Israel

The Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, meeting in Orlando on August 18, voted to continue the ELCA’s strong commitment to justice in Palestine and Israel. The Assembly decision demonstrates that the church has remained steadfast in its commitments, in keeping with the original strategy for engagement in Israel and Palestine adopted in 2005.

The action of the Assembly related to the Middle East – the full text of which is copied below – includes an official reception of the Kairos Palestine document, the foundation of an initiative launched in December 2009 in Bethlehem by Palestinian Christians. Referencing Bishop Hanson’s statement from the day the document was first unveiled, the Assembly called Kairos Palestine, “an ‘authentic word from our brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community’ that ‘warrants our respect and attentiveness.’”

The vote for this action was overwhelmingly positive: 868 to 73. Important and affirming floor statements were made by several assembly members, including Bp. Richard Graham of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod and Bp. Bruce Burnside, of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin and chair of the bishops’ Middle East Ready Bench.

This renewed mandate is an encouragement to ELCA members, congregations, and synods to redouble efforts among our network of committed volunteers throughout the church, as well as among staff in the churchwide offices, to raise awareness throughout the ELCA and to work for changes in U.S. policy that promote a just and lasting peace for our neighbors in the Middle East.

Rev. Robert O. Smith, Ph.D.
ELCA Global Mission
Area Program Director for the Middle East
Coordinator, Peace Not Walls Campaign


Action of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly
Passed August 18, 2011


To receive with gratitude the memorials of the Northeastern Pennsylvania, Lower Susquehanna, and Metropolitan Washington, D.C., synods related to investment for positive change in Palestine;

To encourage members, congregations, synods, and agencies of this church to:
1. seek ways to achieve a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the perspectives of other faith communities, and receive, read, and discuss the Kairos Palestine document as an “authentic word from our brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community” that “warrants our respect and attentiveness”;

2. affirm this church’s commitment to non-violent responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Peace Not Walls campaign’s efforts toward strengthening accompaniment, awareness-building, and advocacy; and

3. consider making positive economic investments in those Palestinian projects and businesses that peacefully strengthen the economic and social fabric of Palestinian society;

To commend the policy, “ELCA Economic Social Criteria Investment Screens,” to the members, congregations, synods, and agencies of this church; and

To decline to undertake a review of the investment of funds managed within the ELCA but to commend these recommendations to the Office of the Treasurer, the Office of the Secretary, the Congregational and Synodical Mission unit, the Mission Advancement unit, and the ELCA Board of Pensions for consideration.

Vatican Message to Muslims for Ramadan


Source: http://www.zenit.org/article-33228?l=english

"Working Together for Mankind's Spiritual Dimension"

VATICAN CITY, AUG. 19, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a text published today by the Vatican of a message sent to Muslims by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The message was sent on the occasion of the end of Ramadan, Aug. 29.

The message is titled "Working together for mankind’s spiritual dimension."

* * *

Dear Muslim friends,

1. The end of the month of Ramadan offers the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue a welcome occasion for sending you our most cordial wishes, hoping that the efforts you have so generously made during this month will bring all the desired spiritual fruits.

2. This year, we have thought to give priority to the theme of the spiritual dimension of the human person. This concerns a reality which Christians and Muslims consider to be of prime importance, faced as we are with the challenges of materialism and secularization. The relationship that every human person has with the transcendent is not a moment in history, but is part of human nature. We do not believe in fate; we are convinced – moreover it is our experience – that God guides us on our path!

3. Christians and Muslims, beyond their differences, recognize the dignity of the human person endowed with both rights and duties. They think that intelligence and freedom are indeed gifts which must impel believers to recognize these values which are shared because they rest on the same human nature.

4. This is why the transmission of such human and moral values to the younger generations constitutes a common concern. It is our duty to help them discover that there is both good and evil, that conscience is a sanctuary to be respected, and that cultivating the spiritual dimension makes us more responsible, more supportive, more available for the common good.

5. Christians and Muslims are too often witnesses to the violation of the sacred, of the mistrust of which those who call themselves believers are the target. We cannot but denounce all forms of fanaticism and intimidation, the prejudices and the polemics, as well as the discrimination of which, at times, believers are the object both in the social and political life as well as in the mass media.

6. We are spiritually very close to you, dear Friends, asking God to give you renewed spiritual energy and we send you our very best wishes for peace and happiness.

Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran
President

Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata
Secretary


Monday, August 15, 2011

America Magazine: The Peace Front

Source: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=12979

Religious groups stake out a wider role in violent conflicts.

by William Bole

AUGUST 15, 2011

On Sept. 11, 2001, a cadre of young Muslim men hijacked planes and, perhaps with visions of black-eyed virgins in Paradise, crashed them into the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center, acting supposedly in the name of their religion. Within hours of these atrocities, Top 40 radio stations across the United States began playing John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine,” which supplied what many saw as a soundtrack of hope and harmony in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The lyrics longingly envisioned “all the people, living life in peace.” But with a disquieting relevance to the suicide attacks, Lennon had also pondered, “Imagine there’s no heaven...and no religion, too.”

Since then commentators have fleshed out this contemplation of a religion-free world. “Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11...no Crusades...no Israel/Palestine wars...no Taliban,” wrote the prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins five years after the towers crumbled. This past December, 30 years after the ex-Beatle was gunned down by a deranged fan, the comedian and television personality Bill Maher, alluding to religious strife in general, sent a message to his fans on Twitter: “Remember Lennon said ‘Imagine NO religion.’ Honor what he wrote—it holds up.” These and other secularist screeds have tapped into a larger feeling that religion usually is a cause of violence rather than an agent of peace helping to resolve and heal conflicts.

This perception is not hard to substantiate. On any given day, religious rivalry is likely to combust into deadly street violence somewhere. In March, for instance, Muslims and Christians clashed mercilessly in Egypt, leaving a dozen dead and 140 injured after the torching of a Coptic church near Cairo. Apparently a love affair between a Muslim man and a Christian woman sparked a feud between the couple’s families, which escalated into a street fight between Copts and Muslims. Just a month after the nonviolent campaign that toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak, religion was again dividing rather than uniting. And yet some of the more profound images of the anti-Mubarak uprising were those of Muslims and Coptic Christians rallying together in Cairo’s Tahrir Square—young people holding crosses and Korans with raised hands joined, Christians forming a circle around prostrating Muslims to protect them from police during their Friday prayers and other scenes of interreligious amity.

Religious Peacebuilding

In struggles around the globe, religious believers are showing that they can bow in either direction: toward entrenchment and extremism or toward solidarity and compassion. Untold numbers of faith communities are exploring the latter option, using both spiritual and worldly tools to lessen conflicts and prepare a way for lasting peace and stability. In doing so they are pressing their inherent advantages, which include having a foothold in many fractious societies and adherents at many or all levels of those societies, as the Catholic Church often has. In her 2006 book The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state during the Clinton presidency, went further to say that faith-based organizations “have more resources, more skilled personnel, a longer attention span, more experience, more dedication, and more success in fostering reconciliation than any government.”

Increasingly these religious works are being assigned to the broader category of “peacebuilding,” a movement with no clear definition of itself but a growing movement nonetheless. The compound word came into play during the 1990s, as the international community grappled with post cold-war conflicts in places like the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which, unlike the superpower rivalry, derived from centuries-old religious and ethnic grievances.

The intractability of these conflicts called for strategies beyond simply hammering out cease-fire resolutions. In 2005 the United Nations inaugurated its Peacebuilding Commission, an advisory body that seeks to improve international support for countries emerging from violent conflicts, helping with peacekeeping, mediation, reconstruction and long-term development programs. Beginning in the administration of George W. Bush, even the U.S. military spoke the language of peacebuilding in its “post-conflict” efforts to rebuild Iraq’s political institutions and physical infrastructure, notwithstanding that president’s famous aversion to “nation-building.” Non-governmental organizations and projects with peacebuilding in their names have proliferated almost as visibly as AK-47 assault rifles in African conflict zones.

According to its practitioners, peacebuilding is different from traditional peacemaking, in part because the work is continual and not simply a reaction to the onset of war. “Peacebuilders strive to address all phases of...protracted conflicts, in which pre-violence, violence and post-violence periods are difficult to differentiate,” writes R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, referring to the cyclical nature of long-running conflicts in countries like Colombia, the Philippines and parts of Africa. Another mark of peacebuilding is that it “engages all sectors of society and all the relevant partners,” ranging from business and political leaders to religious communities and even perpetrators of violence, Appleby reports in Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis (Orbis Books), a fresh collection of studies produced by the Catholic Peacebuilding Network at Notre Dame. Peace-treaty negotiators and “Troops Home Now” banner carriers are no longer the only players in the peace arena.

“Peacebuilding is a growth industry” is a favorite expression of Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor of international politics at The Catholic University of America and a member of the steering committee of the seven-year-old Catholic network that has been identifying, studying and bolstering this work within the Catholic Church worldwide. She refers principally to the secular peacebuilding community, which features such heavy hitters as the United Nations and the U.S. Institute of Peace, a quasi-governmental body that promotes international conflict resolution. The faith-based component of this movement is less recognizable—more like a startup company or a multitude of such ventures, often operating below the political radar. By most accounts, religious peacebuilding has barely begun to gel into an international movement of its own, whether ecumenically or within such a large and socially engaged institution as the Catholic Church. Still, much is happening in many places.

As Madeleine Albright intimated, religious peacebuilders can do things their secular counterparts cannot do, like respond directly to the spiritual need for personal healing and reconciliation. But the resources that religious communities bring to violence-wracked societies are more basic: they are there, on the ground, operating parishes, schools and social services. This is a significant asset because, as Professor Love points out, one-third of the world’s nations are failed states, meaning they have no central government to speak of and lack such institutions as educational and health care systems.

Peaceful Transition in South Sudan

The Republic of South Sudan is now an incipient state, following a referendum earlier this year in which voters chose overwhelmingly to secede from the government in Khartoum, splitting up Africa’s largest country. Most analysts had predicted that the referendum in January would be thwarted or tainted by violence and chaos, in a land where millions of people had been killed in decades of civil war between the mostly Arab and Muslim north and the mostly black Christian and animist south. But Sudan’s churches, which have institutional assets in the south (including radio stations), spearheaded prayer campaigns for a durable peace, aimed especially at encouraging voters to turn out despite fears of northern-backed militia violence during the seven days of balloting.

Parish volunteers confronted other obstacles by showing illiterate people how to cast the ballots. Faith-based humanitarian agencies like Caritas Internationalis helped foster a sense of stability, providing a stream of vital services including potable water and sanitation. Against long odds, the elections turned out to be free, fair and relatively tranquil. The churches (Catholic and Anglican, mainly) not only carved out a nonviolent path, with guidance from the international community but, in view of the institutional vacuum, are considered the only indigenous institutions that could have done so. Reversing course, Sudan’s government in Khartoum accepted the outcome of the referendum.

In other countries, physical infrastructure and governmental institutions may be largely in place, but there may also be gaps in what Kenneth R. Himes, O.F.M., a theologian at Boston College, calls the “human infrastructure for peaceful communal life.” As he has described in several articles, such an infrastructure would include the requisite “social space” for people to come together and contribute to stability and reconciliation. In dozens of countries ranging from Colombia to Sri Lanka to Uganda, religious leaders have attempted to fill this particular vacuum by forming civil-society organizations to address common concerns. These local initiatives are often assisted by international groups, including the New York-based World Conference of Religions for Peace and the Washington-based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. One important tool has been interreligious dialogue, a term that to Westerners may suggest a prosaic activity, an obligation undertaken by theologians and local clergy associations. In other parts of the world, however, there is drastically more at stake in these dialogues, particularly where talking to one another is an alternative to mutual slaughter.

Interreligious Dialogue

On the large island of Mindanao in the Philippines, where Islamic insurgencies are scattered around the southern region, distrust between Muslims and Christians is palpable. In 1995 a Catholic peace group commissioned an opinion survey of Catholic priests and religious in southwestern Mindanao. Most of these leaders would not trust a Muslim with their valuables, would not want a relative to have an “intimate” relationship with a Muslim and would prefer to avoid physical proximity with Muslims altogether, according to the findings by the sociologist Grace J. Rebellos of Western Mindanao State University, who helped conduct the study for Peace Advocates Zamboanga. The Catholic group had been formed in 1994 by activist laypeople, religious and clergy—as was a similar Muslim association, the Salam Peace Foundation. Soon after, the two faith contingents merged into Paz-Salam, which has since facilitated a plethora of low-profile, small-group conversations involving Christian and Muslim young people, schoolteachers and even soldiers. Paz-Salam has made its biggest splash with the Mindanao Week of Peace, which began in 1997 as a local interreligious peace festival in the town of Zamboanga. It was taken islandwide a few years later by a larger interfaith partnership, the Bishops-Ulama Conference, sponsored by Catholic prelates and Muslim ulama, or clergy and scholars. The sheer numbers are impressive. The peace week, held annually in late autumn, opened grandly this past year with a parade through Zamboanga that banded together 20,000 Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Lumads or indigenous people.

Less peaceable forces, however, are contending. There have been bombings in shopping malls by Islamic separatists and harsh crackdowns by the Filipino military, constantly countered by acts of interreligious solidarity. The U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services and its Mindanao partners have added materially to the goodwill by setting up interfaith economic ventures in Mindanao, including a cooperative Christian-Muslim bakery. (In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, C.R.S. took particular care to distribute prayer rugs and veils to Muslim women following the devastating tsunami that struck off northern Sumatra in December 2004; it was an interfaith gesture and a deliberate first step toward building trust between Christians and Muslims there.)

In almost every region with a major conflict, faith-based agencies, including the evangelical-sponsored group World Vision, have mounted peacebuilding initiatives that range from grass-roots mediation and trauma healing to economic development and the resettling of child soldiers in places like Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Such programs date to the 1990s, when relief agencies saw their best-laid plans for development in Rwanda unravel in the genocide there and realized that peace work had to be incorporated into humanitarian work. C.R.S. is running peacebuilding programs in 50 countries.

Armed Actors

Faith-based peacebuilding makes room for a prodigious array of participants or actors, as they are called in this field—bishops, priests, lay staff, catechists, scholars, relief workers, regular parishioners and others. Not excluded are the people holding the guns, who are, in the nomenclature, armed actors.

One participant is General Raymundo Ferrer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which has waged counterinsurgency campaigns in the southern islands since the 1970s. During the past decade he concluded that a final military victory was unlikely and began repairing ties with long-aggrieved Muslims in little ways. He ordered his troops to point their guns down and smile at Muslims when passing them on the streets, as Professor Love spotlighted in a detailed case study of military-religious peace collaboration in the Philippines she conducted for Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. General Ferrer himself began striking up conversations on the streets near his post in Basilian, Mindanao, meeting the locals, among them a Catholic social worker who wasted no time linking him up with interfaith peace activists. They, in turn, persuaded him to sign up for peacebuilding training conducted jointly by C.R.S. and the Mindanao Peace Institute, a Mennonite-Catholic collaboration. He did so in 2005, in the face of resistance from both the army’s top brass and church human-rights activists who distrusted the military.

Since then the general has enrolled his colonels in classes dealing with nonviolent communications, mediation, religion and culture, community relations and more. Professor Love reports that the training has helped enlighten members of the army command while also teaching officers practical skills that can be useful, for example, in mediating disputes between feuding Muslim clans. Disunity among Muslims is a complicating factor. The Filipino government has frequently made conciliatory strides together with Islamic insurgencies, only to see members of those groups splinter off to renew fighting.

Sometimes peacebuilders refer to “bad actors,” like the so-called narco-guerillas in Colombia or the Maoists fighting in the Philippines (usually separately from the Muslims). These are extremely violent characters who, nevertheless, have been engaged in dialogue by church representatives through peace-and-justice offices. Peacebuilders are not purists.
The roles of armed actors throw light on a sobering dimension of peacebuilding—that the work is fraught with risk, pitfalls and ambiguity, as John Paul Lederach of the Kroc Institute emphasizes. (Many of the “bad actors” appear on the U.S. terrorism watch lists that have proliferated since Sept. 11, 2001, which could make dialogue with them illegal.) Prominently situated within the messiness is the Catholic Church, which, as Lederach points out, tends to be the only institution with adherents on both sides of polarizing divides. As a result, church representatives often find themselves building relationships with different groups of armed actors, including bad ones, many of whom are accessible in part because they cling to the symbols and imagery of the Catholic faith in which they were raised. Mr. Lederach, who has facilitated peace training in 25 countries, is one of the most influential figures in both the secular and faith-based peacebuilding communities. “The church has an ubiquitous presence” in many societies, he says, meaning that its representatives can reach out to co-religionists at society’s higher echelons as well as into local communities. A Mennonite, Mr. Lederach jokes that he has a case of “hierarchy envy.” He marvels at the ability of bishops to mobilize the church for peacebuilding purposes across various sectors of society (when they are so inclined).

Secularist Blindspot

The global scale of faith-based peacebuilding is difficult to measure, partly because of definitional questions about what qualifies under the heading. A fair indication of the scope would be C.R.S. and its peacebuilding operations in 28 of the 35 conflict-weary nations, programs conducted almost always in collaboration with other groups, Catholic and non-Catholic. The impact is real, but reality has not changed perceptions within the “imagine no religion” choir or among secular experts in international relations who tend not to discuss religion except as a source of intergroup violence. “It’s the skunk at the garden party,” as Ms. Love puts it, referring to religious intrusions into those discussions. Attitudes are beginning to shift (one sign being former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s contention that religion is part of the solution), “but it’s a slow movement,” Love adds.

This is not to say that faith-based peacebuilding is a coherent, well-conceived enterprise. Many of its practitioners would admit they are making up much as they go along and that there is a shortage of moral and religious reflection to guide them. Catholics in the movement seem especially concerned about the missing theological frameworks. The Catholic Peacebuilding Network has been bringing ethicists and theologians together with grass-roots peacebuilders in a number of countries to generate a clearer account of this work in light of Catholic faith. Gerard Powers, the network’s coordinator and a noted international affairs analyst at the University of Notre Dame, explains that Catholic just-war doctrine may speak robustly to questions about when it is right to go to war and how to conduct the intervention morally, but the teaching is far less incisive when it comes to wars that are seemingly without end and to post-conflict situations.

How does the church engage the bad actors while also demanding accountability for their crimes? Mr. Powers asks, articulating one moral quandary. “That’s a peacebuilding question, not an ethics-of-war question,” he says. These are the issues faced by a religious community that has entered the fray and that is searching for a way through the ambiguity, intractability and belligerence to make peace possible.

Learn more about the organization Religions for Peace.

William Bole, a journalist in the Boston area, is a co-author, with Drew Christiansen, S.J., and Robert T. Hennemeter, of Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace (U.S.C.C.B.).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

National Catholic Reporter: Editorial: Holy Land's Christians need our action and advocacy

Source: http://www.ncronline.org/news/global/editorial-holy-lands-christians-need-our-action-and-advocacy

Aug. 01, 2011

French intellectual RĂ©gis Debray, a committed progressive who once fought alongside Che Guevara, has observed that the embattled Christian minority in the Middle East represents a "blind spot" in the West's view of the world -- too Christian to concern the left, too foreign to engage the right.

That's often depressingly accurate, and especially in that light, a recent ecumenical summit on the fate of Christians in the Holy Land, cohosted by the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, is commendable.

The outlook for the tiny Christian community in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is bleak, having plummeted from 30 percent of the population in 1948 to a nearly invisible 1.25 percent today. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and formerly Pope John Paul II's top diplomat, describes where things seem headed: the Christian centers of the Holy Land as "archeological and historical sites, to be visited like the Coliseum in Rome … museums with entrance tickets, and guides who explain the beautiful legends."

That prospect should engage the imagination and effort of Christians everywhere, not merely because the disappearance of Christianity from the land of its birth would sever a vital link with the wellspring of Christian identity, but also because it would undercut the vision of the Middle East as a pluralistic society at the heart of the recent Arab Spring.


The ecumenical summit identified a number of concrete ideas about how to bolster the Christian communities of the Holy Land.

For instance, Christian entrepreneurs in the West could reach out to Christian-owned enterprises in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, crafting partnerships and helping their products reach Western markets. Parishes in the West could adopt communities in the Holy Land. Catholic universities in the United States and Europe could encourage young Christians from the Holy Land to spend a semester abroad, using their presence as an opportunity to educate audiences in the West about the realities on the ground.

Christians in the West can also promote pilgrimage and tourism to the Holy Land, employing local Christian agencies, guides, hotels and restaurants, and making sure that pilgrims encounter living faith communities and not merely historical sites.

Those initiatives, of course, must be bundled with political advocacy for a just peace.

In the meantime, the political resources of Western churches should be deployed in favor of small-step improvements, such as easier freedom of movement between the West Bank and East Jerusalem. No matter where one stands on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the fact that a Christian from Bethlehem, where Christ was born, finds it nearly impossible to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christ was buried and where he rose from the dead, is an outrage.

Seen through Western eyes, the recent summit at Lambeth Palace in London is intriguing for another reason. It demonstrates that when faced with a truly urgent global challenge, Catholics and Anglicans remain capable of joining forces despite recent turbulence in their relationship -- and not merely as a sort of pragmatic sanction, but in a spirit of real friendship. Almost without trying, the event thus offered a badly need infusion of ecumenical hope.

In other words, coming together in support of Christians in the Holy Land isn't just good for them. It's good for the rest of us, too.

National Catholic Reporter: Christians nearly absent in Holy Land

Source: http://www.ncronline.org/news/global/christians-nearly-absent-holy-land

Aug. 04, 2011

America Magazine: Syria in Crisis

Source: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=12970

As protests continue, the specter of sectarian strife looms.
Margot Patterson | AUGUST 15, 2011
the cover of America, the Catholic magazine

A lmost five months after the Syrian uprising began, the regime of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and the protesters seeking to bring it down remain locked in a mortal and painfully protracted struggle. The current military attacks on the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zour mark another bloody turn in the stalemate. Since they erupted in March, the protests have grown and spread. The regime has not been able to suppress them, but neither have the protesters brought down the regime.

In Syria, a French religious who has lived there for many years describes this fraught period in the country’s history: “Information is very contradictory and each person recounts what he has seen and heard and has a tendency to generalize: an incident or attack is presented as if it is like that everywhere. There is nothing clear, either in the news or in its interpretation. Who shot first? Who responded? Who is aiding the conflict from outside?”

Concerns about the future are particularly keen among religious minorities, who have supported the Assad regime since it came to power in 1970.

If those in Syria find it hard to discern what’s going on, observers outside the country are at an even greater disadvantage. The scarcity of independent reporting, the contradictory information that comes out from the government and the protesters, and the fluid, chaotic events on the ground make for a confused and confusing picture of what is taking place in Syria. Western news media have focused on the courageous defiance of the protesters and the violence of the government crackdown, but relatively little attention has been paid to the context in which the protests are taking place or their effect on a country that has prided itself on its secular government and its tolerant, pluralistic society. Inside and outside of Syria, some wonder if it will remain so.

Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, visited Syria recently and reports that many Syrians are “terrified of the morning after.”

“The silent majority, more than 50 percent, remain on the sidelines,” he says. “The silent majority worries about descending into all-out war like neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. That’s what the Assad regime is capitalizing on. It’s capitalizing on the fact that the silent majority will not only remain passive but basically support the existing power structure.”
Assad and Religious Minorities

Syria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society; it include Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Armenians and a variety of faiths and sects. Concerns about the future are particularly keen among religious minorities, who, together with a prosperous Sunni merchant class, have supported the Assad regime since it came to power in 1970. The Assad family are Alawites, a historically poor and disenfranchised minority in Syria comprising about 12 percent of the population. Another 10 percent of the Syrian population are Christian, who range from Greek and Syrian Orthodox to Melkites, Armenian Catholics, Assyrian Catholics, Maronites, members of the Armenian Apostolic Church and a smattering of Protestants. Druze account for about 3 percent of the population, with smaller number of Shi’ites and Yazidis. About 74 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims.

With protesters calling for the downfall of the Assad regime, religious minorities are nervous of what will follow should the regime fall—and what kind of treatment they will receive in the interim.

“The regime has positioned itself as the protector of minorities. There are fears within Christians, Druze, Alawites that if the regime falls, there may be vengeance,” says Mohamad Bazzi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “There may be Islamists or Islamist-learning figures who take power; there may be score settling.”

Members of the Syrian opposition say that such fears are unfounded. They point to the fact that the opposition draws from all sects, including Christians and Alawites. They emphasize Syria’s long tradition of religious pluralism and speak of the spirit of unity prevailing among the demonstrators. The Friday protests have been given different names to express the inclusivity of the protesters and the diversity of their backgrounds. Thus, Azadi Friday was named for the Kurds, after the Kurdish word for freedom. The Friday protest on Easter weekend was called Azime Friday, “Great” or “Good” Friday, in honor of Christians. Protest organizers have been quick to suppress signs of sectarianism among the demonstrators. At one point the Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, which has more than 200,000 followers and has played an important role in the uprising, listed a code of ethics against sectarianism.

Like other Arab countries roiled by protests this year, Syria has a young population and high unemployment. Since coming to office following his father’s death in 2000, Bashar Al Assad has liberalized Syria’s command economy, a move which has led to increased corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor. Neither the opposition nor the government is talking much about what could be done to improve Syrians’ economic prospects, however, and the economic grievances fueling protests across the Middle East have received relatively little attention in the West.

Since the protests began, Assad has made some concessions to demonstrators’ demands—lifting emergency rule, for instance—and has promised more even while his government continues to respond to the protests with lethal force. In addressing Syrians, he emphasizes unity, security and stability, warning that if Syrians divide along sectarian lines, they will fall prey to Saudi fundamentalists or to the “Zionist agenda,” to civil war and to outside powers that will then have their way with Syria. The choice he outlines is between Syria becoming a political football, like Iraq and Lebanon, or being an active player on the regional and international scene.

It’s an argument that still holds purchase for a lot of Syrians.

In response, members of the opposition accuse the government of promoting the very sectarianism it condemns. “The regime is playing on sectarian fears, especially among the Alawite community,” says Radwan Ziadeh, the founder in Syria of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Concerns in Washington, D.C.

Ziadeh says the diversity and unity of the protesters guarantee that Syria will not fall into sectarian conflict after the Assad regime falls: “The uprising in Syria is across the sects. Christians have been killed in the uprising. Alawites have been killed. This is why it is clear there will not be any religious clashes.”

But fears of sectarian strife remain, and while members of the opposition play down this possibility, many observers warn that it is still a threat.

“I think the risk is real, particularly for the Alawites in terms of vendettas and retribution for the crackdown in recent months and for past actions,” says David Lesch, the author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria. “It could be potentially dangerous for other minorities, Christian minorities and Druze, who have tended to side with the regime and whom the regime has courted over the years and co-opted into supporting the government.”

The opposition wants to de-emphasize the risk of civil strife because it wants international support, Lesch says. Conversely, he argues, the Syrian government has a motive to play up the risk of conflict so that the international community will not support regime change.
The Fate of Christians

Those who work with Christian communities in Syria report that Christians are anxious. Vivian Manneh, the emergency regional manager for Catholic Relief Services, works with churches in Syria to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees living there. She visited Syria in June and again in July.

“It’s very sensitive the whole situation for Christians,” Manneh says. ”They feel that minorities are protected under the current regime. They are worried about what is happening and how this is going to affect them. A lot of people I talked to were saying the demonstrators are not coming with a clear agenda of what they want. If they want to change the regime, okay who is the alternative? What is the request? It’s not clear what their demands are.”

An old saying in Syria—that the Christians run between the legs of the Sunnis and the Alawites—describes the cautious behavior Christians usually have adopted in steering their path through Syrian society. But the middle road is not necessarily a safe one in revolutionary times. That some Christian bishops and clerics in Syria have expressed public support for the Assad regime has already evoked criticisms from some Syrians warning that the Sunni majority will remember Christian support for Assad’s “misrule.”

How Sunnis would treat Christians in a post-Assad Syria is an open question.

“On the surface, we say there are excellent relations between all Christians and Muslim groups, but if the regime is not there anymore, would that be sustainable?” says Michel Constantin, who helps direct the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s programs for Christians in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. “We don’t really know the feeling of the Sunnis towards the Christians. We know relations between Christian in general and Alawites will sustain because they are both minorities.”

On both sides of the conflict, views have hardened. Just four months ago, Bashar Assad was seen as a young and popular leader whose country was unlikely to see the kind of turmoil affecting Egypt and Tunisia. The initial demands of the protesters were for reform, not for revolution. But the many killings and arrests by the government have radicalized the demonstrators and the ongoing turmoil has had a similar effect on regime supporters. A posting on the blog Syria Comment by a young American living in Syria testifies to the extreme views each side is developing of the other.

In his post, the American writes of a Christian couple who supports the government crackdown in Dera’a. For the wife, Najwah, “the city of Dera’a has become a single entity containing one kind of people: bad. For her, the terrorist persuasion of the people in that community now justifies virtually any action against them.” In talking to Najwah, her American friend realizes he is witnessing “the kind of passive approval for massacres that one reads about in history books, when individuals or groups become convinced of the evil of another and of the necessity of wiping them out. Najwah is not an evil woman, but the people of Dera’a have become completely vilified in her mind, and she fears them.”
Radical Divide

As this blog post underscores, polarization along sectarian lines is growing in Syria, expressed in subtle and not so subtle ways. The opposition is accusing the government of using Alawites to kill Sunnis, a charge that is incendiary yet not without truth, as the Alawites hold key positions in the military and security forces and the regime has often used predominantly Alawite forces to confront the protesters. With Iran and Hezbollah supporting the government, the opposition has turned against both and burned the flag of Hezbollah as well as the Russian flag—an attempt by the opposition to demonstrate it rejects the entire foreign policy of Syria.

Particularly alarming to Christians and Alawites was a chant heard among protesters on the outskirts of Damascus: “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the grave,” a slogan that could hardly help from sending a shiver of apprehension through both communities.

In fact, though they publicly abjure sectarianism, both the opposition and the regime seem at times to be playing to sectarian undercurrents. As a minority regime, the government cannot risk offending the Sunni Muslim majority; however, in a move that seems aimed at scaring secular Sunnis as well as religious minorities, the government has highlighted the presence of extremist Islamist groups among the protesters. For its part, the opposition sometimes makes use of freighted language that plays on anti-Alawite or anti-Shi’ite sentiment, thereby capitalizing on Sunni-Shi’ite hostility that has worsened throughout the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

As hopeful signs, however, Syrians can point to both the remarkable discipline and unity the protesters have shown so far and to Syria’s history as a welcoming community to many different sects and faiths. A large Armenian Christian community lives in Syria, the descendants of refugees forced out of the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide. Assyrian Christians persecuted in Iraq in 1933 sought shelter in Syria. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, about a million Iraqi refugees have found safe haven in Syria, including most of the Iraqi Christians forced to flee. Syrians point out that Syria’s first post-colonial prime minister was a Christian.

Syria does not have any history of sectarian violence or religious conflict,” Radwan Ziadeh says. While true, others say sectarianism is never buried too far below any political question in Syria. While Syrians may wish to see themselves as superior to their Iraqi and Lebanese neighbors, whose political conflicts have spun into sectarian civil war, the same sectarian division threaten to tear at the communal fabric.

The important question, Fawaz Gerges argues, concerns not so much the degree of sectarianism in Syria as why it is on the rise now. Syria has always been one of the most nationalist and least religious societies in the Middle East, he notes. But in moments of tension, people fall back on familiar affiliations, whether it is the church or the mosque. The sectarian divide in Syria is real but masks the greater fault lines that are economic and political—divides that in the last six or seven years have become particularly pronounced.

“One of the major blunders of the current regime is that it has allowed a tiny business minority to suck the blood out of the veins of the Syrian economy. This has fueled the current tensions,” Gerges says. “The sectarian tensions are also fueled by the economic and social tensions. There are many poor Alawites, but most of the poor tend to be Sunnis.”
A Missed Chance

Is a dialogue between the protesters and the regime still possible? Opposition members say a prerequisite for dialogue is an end to violence against protesters. Some opposition leaders say it is too late for dialogue; too much blood has been spilled by the government. Between an emboldened opposition and a government that has acted brutally and clumsily, prospects for dialogue seem tenuous.

“At this stage, I really doubt that there is anything the Assad regime can do to satisfy the appetites of the opposition. The more he offers, the greater the appetite of the opposition because the opposition now is no longer interested in tinkering with the system, they want to overhaul the system,” Gerges says.

Reports of arms flowing into Syria from Iraq and Lebanon, with Syrians crossing the border to stock up on Mi6s, AK-47s and Kalashnikovs, raise concerns that violence could escalate. Sectarian killings in Homs several weeks ago are a disturbing sign of where the conflict could go. On both sides, there is fear. Demonstrators fear that if they stop their demonstrations, the regime will crack down even harder on them, tracking them down and punishing them. Safi says the government’s policy of talking softly and carrying a big stick has sowed mistrust.

The supporters of the regime have their own fears, from worry about political and economic uncertainty to larger fears of social upheaval, economic collapse, ethnic cleansing and war.

Can Syria escape this last fate? Opposition members say it can. Revolutions are unpredictable, and the end game is still not in sight, but they may have the chance to prove their case.

Margot Patterson is a freelance journalist who traveled to Syria in March.

Religions for Peace


Monday, August 8, 2011

Naim Ateek: Who commands our allegiance, God or Caesar?

Source: http://voicesforpeace.blogspot.com/2011/08/naim-ateek-who-commands-our-allegiance.html

Recycling last winter's piles of magazines I [Ann Haften, a Texas Lutheran] came across Sabeel's Cornerstone newsletter and realized that I had not shared with you Naim Ateek's editorial, "Who Commands our Allegiance, God or Caesar?" Here it is for you now. Find the entire publication at this Friends of Sabeel - North America link: Cornerstone


Who commands our allegiance, God or Caesar?
The Rev. Naim Ateek

The Middle East has seen the presence of many empires. Once the art of war began to be refined, the movement towards empire was inevitable. Empires are built on military power. They are created and maintained by the power of arms until the empire grows weak and decadent and is replaced by another empire, more superior in military power.

There is no benevolent empire. When it is threatened or opposed, empire crushes its opponents with vicious force. Some of its citizens might be economically prosperous, but its victims suffer terribly. In essence such is the nature of ancient as well as modern empires.

Israel is a small country that was created by the victorious western powers of WWII after the disastrous tragedy that befell their European Jewish compatriots under the Nazis. Its greatest champion and sponsor at the time was the British Empire that forty years before gave a promise to the Jewish Zionist leadership to help them set up a home for Jews in Palestine. This promise was fulfilled in 1948 at a catastrophic loss for the Palestinians.

As the British Empire waned, the Zionist state cleverly and shrewdly connected itself with the rising American Empire and gradually was able to occupy strategic positions within all of its governing branches – the Congress, Pentagon, State Department, and the White House. Furthermore, the state was able to create links with church groups, such as evangelicals and more particularly Christian Zionists, that, due to their interpretation of the Bible, have become staunch supporters of the state of Israel.

Over the years, the state of Israel has become an integral part of American Empire. In fact, there seems to be an unbreakable bond on the economic, military, and political levels. “As of 2005, direct United States’ economic and military assistance to Israel amounted to nearly $154 billion (in 2005 dollars), the bulk of it comprising direct grants rather than loans.”1 Politically, the United States has consistently protected Israel in the UN Security Council.

Between 1972 and 2006 the United States vetoed forty-two resolutions that were critical of Israel.2 Due to American military help, Israel has become one of the strongest military countries in the world today, and definitely the strongest in the Middle East. Moreover, Israel has itself been manufacturing and exporting arms to various countries of the world; consistently it is rated one of the top five countries in the world in regards to arms exports.

Due to this special relationship between the United States and Israel, it has become impossible for the United States to be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process. At a time when it is in the interest of the United States to find a just solution to the conflict over Palestine, this favoritism of Israel has been one of the great hindrances to that peace. Israel has become indistinguishable and inseparable from American Empire regardless of whether the President is Republican or Democrat.

It is interesting to point out that when I was researching speakers for Sabeel’s 8th International Conference, ChallengingEmpire: God, Faithfulness and Resistance, I discovered that most of the scholars who have published on empire are American. For over twenty years, one biblical scholar after another has written on various biblical themes relating to empire. It is an amazing group of first rate scholars who recognize the hegemony of an American Empire today and are seeking to address it.

As Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation, we have come to realize that Israel in its laws, policies, actions, and treatment of Palestinians, conducts itself like an empire because of its link with American Empire. In fact, its special relationship with the United States allows it to do what it deems necessary for its own interest with little regard to international law because it knows it can get away with it. To a large extent, Israel guides and dictates American foreign policy in the Middle East. It is important to point out that although President Obama has tried repeatedly to make the Government of Israel stop settlement building, he has not been successful. At the same time, the United States’ Administration is unwilling to support a UN Security Council resolution that censures the Israeli Government for repeated violations of international law. On the one hand, the United States admits that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and violate international law; on the other hand, the United States is unwilling to condemn them in the UN Security Council. What contradiction and what hypocrisy! Is the United States so weak that it cannot take a stand for what it knows is just and right?

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Jesus lived all his life under the occupation of the Roman Empire and was killed by the occupation forces. From the beginning of his ministry, he preached about a different empire -- the kingdom of God. Jesus recognized that the empires of the world are built on the ideology of military and economic power. Such an ideology fills leaders with hubris, arrogance, and brutality. Empire might preach peace and prosperity but in reality it suppresses and enslaves its enemies. Empire’s power is shown through domination and exploitation while God’s power is shown through love and mercy, justice and peace.

Like in the time of Jesus, we stand before the presence of two empires – God’s and Caesar’s. The first is built on the power of justice while the second is built on the justice of power. The first preaches peace through justice while the second imposes “peace” through the power of the gun. We know that we live under an empire that dominates, exploits, and oppresses. Can we, though living under this empire, remain faithful to God and continue to challenge and resist the lure and snares of empire – not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters in the world that are crying out for justice, peace, and freedom? May we all keep high before us the vision of God’s Kingdom and continue to work and pray for its realization.


The Rev. Naim Ateek is the Director of Sabeel