Some may refer to the wall Israel built as a security fence, but when it segregates people from each other, there is no way to describe it other than by separation; a physical barrier to families, an impediment to freedom of movement. In episode five of Women behind the Wall podcast, listeners are introduced to some of the legal status issues facing Palestinians in East Jerusalem and those in the West Bank. Sara is a Christian Jerusalemite Palestinian with an Israeli identification card and residency status. Her family house ended up 10 meters from the route of the separation wall but was excluded from its previous designation in Jerusalem. So while she has a Jerusalem ID, her children, all of whom were born in Jerusalem, were not granted the ID cards at birth.
“We all have a sun inside, we all have a light.” The idea of an inner light is reflected in “Beit Ashams,” the appropriately named yoga studio and community center which translates to “House of the Sun.” In episode three, listeners meet co-owner and yoga teacher Eilda Zaghmout, a Palestinian Christian who believes that strengthening the mind-body connection is essential for developing resilience and she pours this belief into her work.
On this episode, Eilda discusses the shadow of the occupation and how that affects a person. “When you live under constant trauma, you are disconnected from your body, from your emotions, and also your thoughts.”
On March 29, 2002, the Israeli military rolled into northern Bethlehem on a mission inside the occupied West Bank city. Two days prior, a suicide bomber killed 30 Israelis and injured 160 during a Passover Seder dinner nearly 100 kilometers away in the northern Israeli town of Netanya [Times of Israel]. Men fleeing the military invasion took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, joining 46 clergymen and 200 civilians sheltering in the church at the time. Amira, a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem was in sixth grade when the scenes unfolded during the 40-day siege.
In episode three of Women behind the Wall podcast, Amira, now age 26, recalls how the violence and occupation impacted her daily life. The army incursions were not limited to the church or directed solely at armed militants but reached into her neighborhood and even her own house. At one point, soldiers came in the middle of the night going door-to-door and ordered all of the males, including the young boys, out of their homes, where they were to stay all night outside. Movement restrictions were imposed so strictly that she and other children were unable to go to school regularly during that period. Her mother worked as a nurse and would stay at the hospital for days at a time because, otherwise, she would not be able to get to work. “It wasn’t like a normal life,” Amira remembers.
Layali is an eleven-year-old girl who in many ways, sounds like a typical sixth-grader anywhere in the world. She likes painting, drawing, and swimming. However, as a Palestinian child from the West Bank, she has experienced life beyond her years and has grown up knowing she had limited rights compared to others. She expresses sadness about not being able to jump in the car and go to the ocean to swim as easily as Israelis or other common activities due to the occupation. “I can’t go to the zoo, and to the ocean, and to my aunt’s house.”
Layali’s experience, along with her mother’s, Hind, is featured on the first, full-length podcast episode of Women behind the Wall. Listeners are introduced to the mother and daughter who live in Bethlehem, and as a Christian Palestinian family, long for the situation on the ground to change. This episode introduces listeners to movement restrictions created by the system of checkpoints, walls, and permits for those in the West Bank and how that interrupts everyday life.
Research suggests that standard peace and security processes routinely overlook the inclusion of women, even though a growing body of analysis shows that higher levels of gender equality are associated with a lower propensity for conflict, both between and within states [Council on Foreign Relations, 10/2016]. With that in mind, the Women behind the Wall podcast not only highlights female voices from the Holy Land but is hosted and produced solely by women who live and work in Jerusalem. The podcast seeks to amplify minority voices and perspectives, especially women’s experiences in the private sphere as it is affected by the public sphere.
One of the most stunning things to me about living here is that despite the injustice, oppression, and hardship the people face, there is still so much life. Life goes on, in spite of the occupation. There is joy, and love, and laughter, and dance, and music, and celebration. And make no mistake about it: Palestinians know how to have a good time.
Last weekend, I was invited to come along with my host family to one of these celebrations: the baptism of the youngest member of the family, Zain. I have to admit, part of the reason I was so excited about this invitation was that many Greek Orthodox families still practice full immersion baptism of infants, something we Lutherans don’t do much of. My spirits were cowed only the slightest bit when I learned “just his hair” would be dipped.
I asked where this baptism would take place – in the Greek Orthodox Church in Beit Sahour, near where my host family lives? My host mom looked at me like I was a little crazy. “No,” she responded, “in the Church of the Nativity.” Her tone indicated that this was an obvious and totally unremarkable fact. In my head I thought, oh of course, just going to go baptize cousin Zain at the church that stands on the location of Jesus’ birth, no biggie.
This past Thursday, a few of the Jerusalem/West Bank Young Adults in Global Mission (JWB YAGM) and I were invited to gather at the Tent of Nations, a 100 acre farm just outside Bethlehem owned by the Nassar family. That night, the family received the 2017 World Methodist Peace Award, honoring their creativity, consistency, and courage in peacemaking and non-violent resistance.
The 100 acres of land that comprises the Tent of Nations farm was purchased by the Nassar family in 1916 and since then has been used to grow grapes, olives, almonds, and many other crops. The land remained in the Nassar family’s possession throughout the rule of the Ottomans, the British, and the Israelis. In 1991, however, the Israeli government declared the Nassar farm and the land surrounding it “Israeli State Land,” and began their efforts to confiscate the land. Since then, the family has continuously struggled to maintain possession of their familial land. (You can read more about their legal struggles here.) Today, the farm is surrounded by the Gush Etzion Settlement Bloc. You can see Israeli settlements from almost every vista on the farm. According to the Geneva Convention and the United Nations, these settlements were built in contradiction to international law.
Thank you for the work of individuals like Sara Aurorae and the energy they invest in sharing the lives of people living in challenging situations around the world. Please touch the hearts and minds of everyone who sees this documentary and encourage them to work towards justice and peace in their own lives and in the lives of others.
CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.
Iraqi Christians: A Complicated Past and Uncertain Future
Much of the focus around peace in the Middle East revolves around conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians. However, day-to-day discrimination and persecution against Christians in other middle eastern countries, such as Iraq, also paint a picture of instability and unrest.
Iraq’s Significant Christian History
Iraq brings a wealth of history regarding Christianity in the Middle East. While many people perceive Iraq as a predominately Muslim country, that was not always the case. Although Iraqi Christians have not been in the majority of the population since the 7th-century, they constitute a significant and culturally influential minority.
Since a few hundred years after Christ, Christians have been in Iraq, tracing their history back to the first century when Assyrian Christianity was introduced. Iraqi Christians make up one of the world’s oldest continuous Christian populations.
Historically, they could be found throughout the country, although the heaviest concentration is in Northern Iraq. They believe their connection to this land reaches back before Christianity. Christianity is their identity and way of forming their communities, but they also see themselves as a people and nation. That connection to a national identity reaches back before Christianity and forms the basis of their claim to being the original people of Iraq.
The Iraqi Christian Community
Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognize the Pope’s authority. They are an ancient people, some of whom still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The Chaldean Catholic community’s identity is inextricably tied to the land due to their belief that their homeland is at the heart of what it means to be a Chaldean Catholic.
The other significant community is the Assyrians, the descendants of the ancient empires of Assyria and Babylonia. Assyrians also belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Church, and various other Protestant denominations. They embraced Christianity in the 1st Century AD, and their Ancient Church of the East is believed to be the oldest in Iraq. They scattered throughout the Middle East after their empires collapsed in the 6th and 7th centuries BC.
Persecution of Christians is Not New in Iraq
A brief review of Christians’ plight in Iraq confirms that Christian persecution has a long and sad history.
Conquests of large Christian communities came about with the rise of Islamic rule in the seventh century in the Middle East. Christian practices were limited, forbidding them to display the cross on churches or ring a bell to summon worshipers. Christians were viewed as inferior to Muslims and were required to pay a tax.
- The 20th Century
The 20th century included both hard times and relatively peaceful periods for Iraqi Christians.
In 1932, when Iraq became independent, large-scale massacres of Assyrians were carried out in retaliation for their collaboration with Britain, the country’s former colonial power.
Before the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi Christians numbered about one million. By the time of the US-led invasion in 2003, that figure fell to about 800,000. Since then, the numbers are thought to have fallen dramatically. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions, many Iraqi Christians, who had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors for decades, left to join other family members in the West.
The secular government of Saddam Hussein did not persecute Christians in the way it did the Kurds and some Shia areas. Still, it did subject some Christian communities to “relocation programs.”
The rise of some Christians to high-level government positions during the Saddam Hussein regime, most notably Deputy Prime Minister Triq Aziz, provided relief from anti-Christian violence.
- The 21st Century
By 2014, shortly before the rise of ISIS, over eight hundred thousand of Iraq’s Christians had fled abroad, with many making new homes in the United States and Western Europe.
The establishment of the ISIS Caliphate drove the few remaining Christians out of the region to avoid living under a regime that gave them an ultimatum: pay a special tax for non-believers or leave or be killed. Most chose to leave and head to the Kurdish north.
Hope prevailed in December 2020, when the Iraqi parliament unanimously passed a law officially declaring Christmas a national holiday, with annual frequency. Although it was pronounced a one-time holiday in 2008, the new law makes it permanent.
Although ISIS no longer has a stranglehold over the country, the legacy of Christian persecution continues. Islamic extremists remain active in Iraq, attacking and kidnapping Christians. The government discriminates against Christians in various contexts, from the workplace to checkpoints, and blasphemy laws can be used against those trying to spread the gospel.
Pressure and threats from extended family members, clan leaders, and society often force Christians to keep their faith secret. Christian converts also risk losing inheritance rights or the right to marry—and are forbidden to marry Christians, as the law still considers them Muslim.
Iraq’s Conflicting Government Directive
Iraq’s Constitution establishes Islam as its official religion and requires that no law contradict Islam. Yet, religious freedom is also guaranteed due to Iraq’s attempt at a federal parliamentary Islamic democracy founded on pluralism’s ideals.
Join Us to Support Religious Freedom in Iraq
Churches for Middle East Peace encourage peaceful resolutions to Iraqi Christians’ treatment and throughout the Middle East. We recognize the Middle East’s religious importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims and focus on protecting religious freedom for all people.
I can relate to the prophet Elijah, when he stood in the wilderness waiting for God. The story, found in 1 Kings 19:1-18, tells of the unusual way that God met him. Having just helped Elijah defeat Queen Jezebel’s spiritual team in a “made for TV showdown”, we would expect God to communicate in another dramatic way.
God sent powerful winds, a ground trembling earthquake, and a roaring fire that all got Elijah’s attention. But He was not in any of these. It was actually in a final, gentle whisper that the Lord spoke.
My first trip to the Holy Land was a little like this. I was on the typical pilgrimage with my church. I was so excited to “walk in the footsteps of Jesus” and actually see all the places I had always read about in the Bible. And like Elijah, I too, was praying that God would reveal Himself to me.