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The Real Peace Brokers

The Christian community in the Holy Land is disappearing, and with it maybe the last best hope for peace in the Middle East.

Zoe Romanowsky


When I think of the Middle East, I think of conflict and war, of terrorism and problems between Muslims and Jews. I picture angry men in bandanas waving rifles and shouting words I don't understand.

But I don't think of Jesus.

I forget that the Middle East is first and foremost the place where Jesus walked and taught and lived and died. Neither do I give much thought to the Christian community there who continues, year after year, to celebrate his birth, death, and resurrection. These are the descendents of the first disciples—the true living stones who have refused over the centuries to convert to other religions. They have persevered, and they have preserved for all of us the holy places of Jesus and the early saints.   

Feras Qumseya is one of those Christians. He's a 24-year-old Palestinian Catholic and one of the most impressive young men I've met. He tells me how he's watched the Christian community slowly disintegrate in his homeland and the tragic consequences already in rapid progress.

A 24-year-old Palestinian Catholic, he tells me how he’s watched the Christian community slowly disintegrate.
Feras's father was a professor at a Catholic school in Jerusalem but eventually found it impossible to get to his job because of Israeli checkpoints and road blocks. To support the family, he turned to a trade he learned at his father's knee-olive wood carving. But when the tourism died, so too did the sales, and he was forced to join his son, already studying in the United States.

"It was good timing as things were very bleak with my father's work, and my brother was having a hard time getting to high school," explains Feras. "They arrived just in time to attend my wedding."

Butros Qumseya, is now a full-time student and continues to promote the handicraft industries of the Holy Land. The senior Qumseya is also founder of the Holy Land Christians Society, an organization dedicated to supporting the Christian communities in the Holy Land. 
 
The Qumseya family joins thousands of other Christians who've left the Holy Land since 1948. The exodus in the past 10 years has been particularly dramatic. Christians used to comprise almost 30% of the small area's population. Now fewer than 1.8% reside there, and the numbers continue to drop. At this rate, the Christian population will be extinct in 20 years.

Most of the Christian families—almost exclusively Palestinian-—live in the West Bank and Gaza. Every day they deal with the restrictions and poverty imposed by the Israeli occupation, and at the same time, the rise of Islamization—political and religious militancy among Palestinian Muslims.

According to Feras, Christians and Muslims used to live in harmony in the Holy Land. Two things have changed that: an influx of individuals from other Arab nations like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon after the Oslo Accords in 1993, who weren't used to harmonious relations with Christians and caused frictions; and the Israeli occupation which elevated tensions to the point where many of the social welfare agencies and programs closed shop, making room for extremist groups like Hamas to offer assistance to families in need.

Every day they deal with the restrictions and poverty imposed by the Israeli occupation, and the rise of Islamization.
Now, the Christian remnant in the Holy Land has been brought to a new state of discouragement with Israel's security wall. If completed as planned by the end of 2004, the more than 400 mile wall will isolate and encage all Palestinians—and some Jews as well. Though Israel claims the wall is a protective measure for self-defense, it's being built not on Israel's borders (known as the Green line), but through neighborhoods and private properties—separating farmers from their olive groves, children from their schools, workers from their jobs, and even nuns from their convents and the people they serve.

When Sister Marie Dominique opens the front door of Our Lady of Sorrows Home for the sick and elderly she now stares at a 30 foot high concrete wall that splits the neighborhood in two. Cut off from staff, family, supplies, and transportation for their patients to hospitals, the sisters' work has grown incredibly difficult.

"We want to (help) these voiceless people here who each day have to fight their way to reach their workplaces, schools and families, to say nothing of all the sick who die for want of medical treatment," wrote Sister Marie Dominique in a recent email.

The same wall will soon block all access to the Emmanuel Sisters' convent in Bethlehem. They were offered an olive branch when they complained—the Christian homes next to their convent can be demolished instead so the sisters can have their pathway.

Further north, the wall is creeping closer to a school run by the Rosary Sisters. A 24 foot high barrier is rumored to be going up next to the school playground. A bit of a problem, considering the area around the wall is considered a military zone and anyone found near it can be shot.

The wall is making it increasingly difficult for Christians to maintain the daily functions of life. The Church—particularly the nuns, priests, and dedicated staff who run schools, hospitals, churches and social services—has been especially heroic in its efforts to help the people; faithfully maintaining a presence in the midst of violent and extreme conditions, including the confiscation of their own church property.

The Christians are, in a real sense, brothers to both Israelis and Palestinians.
The Christian community has always been a voice for peace and reconciliation, of moderation and mediation in the Holy Land. This isn't just part of their faith, it's part of this community's tradition. The Christians are, in a very real sense, brothers to both Israelis and Palestinians. They provide a bridge, made credible by their relationship with both Jews and Muslims over many years.

No agreement or treaty will solve the problems of the Middle East—there have been too many broken treaties and agreements. Logistics won't fix it, and neither will governments. They can help, but lasting peace must come from and through the people.

Feras believes it's possible. "We can't look merely at short-term solutions, we must look at solutions that help the peoples of the Holy Land understand each other as brothers," he says.

If Christians maintain an important place in the Holy Land, they can help facilitate the process of bringing the sons of Abraham together—for meetings and reconciliation and communication—step by step.

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February 25, 2004

ZOE ROMANOWSKY writes from Washington D.C. She is a freelance writer and
the development director for Crisis Magazine. She is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

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READER COMMENTS
05.04.04   alexander caughey says:
If the problems of the Near East and the Middle East were as simple and as understandable as cityofgod would have us believe, then why does the world have to continue to face such a multitude of seemingly unsolvable disputes, in an area which does not represent more than the willingness of its peoples to engage in tribal and religious intolerance, long harboured by those who would exercise control, in their own interest, rather than the interests of its peoples. That both the local political and religious centres of influence and power engage in the practise of divide and rule, would suggest that the interference of the Great Powers was in order to create chaos, when their original ideas, were to create harmony amongst the various tribal and religious allegiances, be it, for the purpose of ensuring a smooth flow of oil to the developed world. That the Great Powers and the Jews are to be blamed for all the ills of that truly chaotic region might also suggest that there has been a plan by these two self-serving groups to exploit the historical divides, to further their own interests, when history would suggest that the British, in particular, recognised the need to address the ambitions of the peoples of that region to develop their natural resources, enabling them to grow their economies. That the present day prevailing anarchy is the responsibility of the Great Powers, would again suggest that the United States Government and the United Kingdom Government are the causes of the inability or unwillingness of the peoples of the Near and Middle East to cooperate in finding common cause to bring peace and stability to the region. I would suggest the author of the previous letter, read a lot more on this subject before penning more examples of blatant partisanship in favour of any side to this tragic unwillingness of so many people, in this region, to look to the future by removing their view of vision from the past. A re-visit to David Lean"s film "Lawrence of Arabia" might assist by taking special note of Anthony Quinn's character, when he rightly refused to recognise the tribe called "Arab". He was willing to accept the existence of many named tribes but "who are these Arabs?". Today, the people of Palestine can refer to their history books, and remember a time when the perfidious British created the State of Palestine, giving all the ethnic groupings of that new state the benefits of land and property rights, schooling, hospitals, police service (local and British officers), defence force (local and British), roads, bridges, and all the mod cons that the 1920's and 1930's could produce. That the war of 1948 and subsequent wars have robbed the Palestinian people of their progress, is a tragedy for both them and the human race but let us remember that there are no angels in this dispute with the Jews and the self-serving interests of surrounding middle-eastern states, including that great example of a contemporary theocracy, Iran, where the clearly demonstrated voting power of its people is so ignored by a self-serving religious clique of power and money hungry fanatics, might suggest that the West is not the only centre of self interest on planet Earth.When the Palestinian people can speak with one voice; when the surrounding regional states stop imposing their own "final solution" on the Jews, we may then expect progress to develop to the point where not just Arab Catholics, Arab Orthodox, Arab Muslims can sit down together but they may also share their friendship with Jews, who are also part of the human race, with Jesus of Nazareth, being their finest example of what the Jews can do for the common good of the human race.

02.26.04   cityofgod says:
I totally agree- the long standing policy of the United States to unconditionally support Israel is the root cause of much of the hostility between Arab Muslims and ourselves. I spent three months teaching in a Palestinian village in Galilee, where one-third of the Arabs were Catholic, one-third Orthodox Christian, and one-third Muslim- the result was a good one- you can even check out the fruits at Mar Elias University- (m-e-c.org). The fact is that much of the Arab/Persian Muslim world has very real reasons for being upset with the Western world. "The Great Game" of international imperialism led by Great Britain, France, Turkey, Germany, Russia et al was essentially a game using real people as pawn pieces- the pawns being the average Arab and the average Persian. A good read on this subject is David Fromkin's -A Peace to End All Peace- it details how this 'Game' combined with the Puritan-type Christian Zionism of Lloyd George and other British elites to bring a situation of bringing a full-on, militant Jewish State into Palestine. Many will excuse this colonization and resultant ethnic-cleansing (700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948 alone) by saying that the surrounding Arab states did nothing to truly help the Palestinians- yes, but those Arab 'leaders' were and are now still the creation of Western elites. The Kings of Jordan, the Sultans, the autocrats, the Shahs..these were elites set up and kept in power by our elites- so we have to come back to the Euro-Turk-American responsibility for the mess in the Middle East. There is no way around our US responsibility . Take the CIA coup in Iran, 1953. We took out a democratic leader, a moderate, intellectual Muslim, and set up the Corrupt SAVAK system run by the Shah- why? I suggest you read Stephen Kinser's - All the Shah's Men- it details how the British were so enraged by Iran's democratic new leaders' attempts to nationalize their own oil industry- even after they won a world court decision, Churchill wanted to simply invade and teach the little people a lesson- but America, who was seen in a positive light by Iranian intellectuals- ultimately betrayed them by giving the go-ahead to a CIA coup- the Dulles brothers began the immoral foreign policy practice of American pragmatism, which said basically like Kissinger believed- the ends justify the means- and we could and should do anything to keep the balance of power in the favor of large multinational banks and corporations- good or bad- sweat shops, living wages be damned! Pragmatism leads to all kinds of moral compromises- and we should know by now that you overcome evil through good, not more and 'better' brutalizations....

02.25.04   Godspy says:
The Christian community in the Holy Land is disappearing, and with it maybe the last best hope for peace in the Middle East.

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