Meaningful engagement by American Christian in the Holy Land in the hopes of contributing towards a sustainable, just peace is both necessary and possible.
One chilly Minnesota Saturday in the early months of 2002, I found myself listening in on a conversation between parishioners in my small Orthodox church while we made candles. The radio was reporting news of what became known as the Nativity Church Siege in Bethlehem, and my fellow parishioners were weighing in on their thoughts about the crisis. None of us had ever been to the Holy Land, but this faraway event in a place we only knew through Gospel readings and icons still had an impact in our humble little parish and its parishioners.
More than sixteen years after that morning of melting down paraffin wax in a church basement, my life and the welfare of the Palestinian Christian community of Bethlehem so impacted by that Siege have become forever intertwined. I spent ten years living and working in the city of Bethlehem district, finding a place in the community of my Palestinian Christian wife and sharing in the struggles of the local people. Yet even with the very unique set of circumstances, I feel that my fellow American Christians do not need such a significant personal connection to become engaged in the pursuit of a sustainable, just peace in the Holy Land.
In this article I will directly and indirectly refer to “the Holy Land Christian presence” on several occasions. By “Holy Land Christian presence,” I essentially mean three components:
• The indigenous Palestinian/Arab-Israeli Christian community of the Holy Land (meaning, the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, Israel and the Golan Heights) which can trace their family and cultural heritage back until the time of the early Church and through the present, whose total number approaches approximately 180,000. (Note: these numbers have been taken from a July 2019 article of the Latin Patriarchate with Archbishop Pierrebatista Pizzaballa, also Custos Emeritus of the Franciscans).
• The “new” Christian communities; specifically within Israel, that includes Hebrew-speaking communities of migrant workers, Israeli citizens from the states of the former Soviet Union as well as other central and eastern European nations. Estimates include 80,000 migrant workers and an unknown number of naturalized FSU/Eastern European Christians; let us say with a core base of approximately 50,000 who would in some way, shape or form at least nominally identify as Christian.* (*Author’s approximation based on research and conversations with members of the Russian-speaking community of the Holy Land).
• The international Christian presence, including both clergy, monastics and laypersons who live and work alongside the local Christian populace in church administration, social and civil society services, and monastic communities. These individuals live and serve in the Holy Land; coming from virtually every corner of the world and represent every confession of Christianity. This community numbers in the tens of thousands, is highly transitional, and above all else cannot be measured in the actual numbers of “souls on the ground.” It is also at present the only common bond between the Arab-speaking and non-Arab speaking Christians of the Holy Land.
For this article, I will be primarily focused on the first and third category mentioned; in particular, the Christians of the Palestinian Territories, whom I know and understand best out of all mentioned. In addition, the points that I will mention in this article are more specifically directed towards American Christians interested in the question of how to answer the call for engagement in the Holy Land.
There is perhaps no other place in the world as the Holy Land that is simultaneously a focus of pilgrimage, a region of such intense Christian ministry, and also a center of interest for those working towards conflict resolution. In the Holy Land, Christians these respective forces merge and intersect within a kaleidoscope of denomination, national and ethnic identities, vocational callings and ideological beliefs.
But what should a concerned Christian be most concerned about? Should Christians be concerned more with direct support of the local Christian presence – the Churches as physical structures and their administrative needs, the “Living Stones” of the Palestinian Christians, the newly arrived – or should more effort be put towards pursuit of a broader regional peace?
I assert that these two respective concerns are very much intertwined.
Recognizing that the preservation of the Holy Land Christian presence is directly tied to the pursuit of peace, and the pursuit of peace is directly tied to the well-being of the Holy Land Christian presence.
While the exact number of Holy Land Christians cannot be easily ascertained due to migration, dual citizenship and methods of documentation, they remain less than 3% of the regional population with uncertain, often worrying, projections of its future percentage and overall count. The future of the Palestinian Christian population in particular has been a prominent focus of international concern. Yet in general, the consensus has been that Palestinian Christian numbers are stable but at zero population growth in Israel, stagnating in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and declining quickly in the Gaza Strip. But the significance of Christianity in the Holy Land is not, or has never been, the actual size of the local congregations, but rather in both its symbolic and actual presence.
Take, for example, the example of the Protestant Churches. The two established Protestant communities of the Holy Land – the Lutheran Church and the Anglican Church – at best collectively represent approximately 2-3% of the Palestinian Christian community across the Holy Land, which in turn is approximately 2-3% of the total population of the region, and dropping. Yet the impact of both faith communities in terms of education, health care, civil society development and advocacy for basic civil rights in Israel-Palestine is vastly disproportionate to their modest size, as is their role in acting as gatekeepers for the international Christian communities that by and large fund these initiatives and raise awareness.
In education, Holy Land Christian schools, which as often as not have either a substantial Muslim student body, if not outright comprising the majority, are known for helping promote and foster understanding of “the other,” however gently the subject is broached. However modest results these efforts may yield, the Holy Land would be a far more disturbing place without them.
In short, removing “the Christian factor” from the Holy Land – indigenous and international – would be a blow to more than just the Christian faith. Small in number as it may be, the erosion of Christianity from the region into a symbolic and static collection of safe-guarding places of worship for pilgrims would lead towards greater sectarian and national strife, making it easier to frame the Israel-Palestine conflict as one between Judaism and Islam, and further accelerating the process of violent global religious extremism.
Paradoxically, the very Christians who are helping avert this global crisis are generally more inclined in their more immediate personal and community needs. Many international Christians who chose to focus on social justice concerns quickly discover that most local Palestinian/Arab Israeli Christians are far more enthusiastic about getting support via development projects and other initiatives, such as promoting tours and selling handicrafts that will show a direct impact. Others prefer social projects to avoid tap-dancing through a political minefield in their own parish, diocese or community, where reactions to Holy Land concerns is quite sharp and often far more unforgiving than other equally worthy ministries. Yet even those engaged in say, helping a parish of the Latin Patriarchate with a fair trade goods product scheme or providing funds and visa sponsorship for teenagers take part in a summer camp in the US will quickly discover that Israeli policies regarding right of movement, import and export of goods from the West Bank, and the simple difficulties of getting to an olive grove or herding sheep near a closed military zone or by a settlement becomes an example of injustice and hardship that can be shared. The projects in of themselves tell the story of injustice and structural discrimination, now illustrated through direct experience.
As with any advocacy and support work, selecting and focusing on such Holy Land concerns – be it advocacy or development aid – and determining what results are hoped for is particularly crucial.
The most obvious challenge is how to gauge the most effective means of frequently limited resources, and how to avoid unwanted results.
Helping individuals and families from within the Christian community sell olive wood products, promote pilgrimage tours and assist with direct-assistance support such as scholarships can certainly be positive and beneficial endeavors for all involved, but can also lead towards the same families bottle-necking initiatives to help other communities and individuals in an effort to maintain their own personal interests. Sponsoring student visas for Palestinian Christians to engage in international study, for example, can be a double-edged sword, in that a remarkably high percentage end up permanently emigrating after acquiring citizenship, often leading a spouse and other family members to join them; further depleting the Holy Land Christian community.
Inversely, too broad or abstract of initiatives can be counter-productive as well. Over-reliance on interfaith organizations as a vehicle for Holy Land conflict resolution is a common issue. A panel of interfaith speakers who all agree in principle on the importance of Abrahamic peace and harmony in Jerusalem may make for a good photo and offer some insulation against accusations of promoting anti- Semitism or anti-Islamic agendas, but can rarely offer anything further. Many of the existing interfaith networks in the United States and elsewhere are simply not designed to engage in both domestic and Holy Land concerns, nor is it necessarily their interest. Likewise, cherry-picking advocates from Israeli- Jewish communities who show an enthusiastic but isolated point of view regarding support of “the Palestinian perspective” can be equally counter-productive. To use an extreme example, and invitation of the prominent and highly controversial clique of the Neturei Karta movement known for its anti-Israeli activities to a conference or to sign on to an initiative all but guarantees a highly charged and polarizing episode around any initiative involving Palestinian advocacy, wanted or otherwise, but it also isolates larger individuals and social networks within Jewish-Israeli communities who for multiple reasons, not all of which are immediately linked to the Palestinian question, will absolutely refuse to engage in contact with any Christians who offer Neturei Karta members a platform.
Even in far less controversial settings for an advocacy campaign t runs of the risk of being mercilessly scrutinized by opponents to any criticism of the policies and current dominant status of the state of Israel, especially those of the Christian Zionist slant. Practical considerations for finding such speakers, however, may not be as easy as it may initially appear to be.
Many of the Palestinian Christians who are at the forefront of advocacy concerns for Palestine are nominal members of a Holy Land Church community, whose connection to their faith is far more cultural and family-oriented than a personal conviction, and is just as often reflected in a sense of cultural superiority over Palestinian Muslims. And again, for other Palestinian Christians, their primary objective in engaging the international community is to advance their own immediate interests.
As daunting as a task that it may be – possibilities to either or both support the Christian community and raise awareness about the Holy Land abound.
Finding constructive ways to work within faith communities concerned about the treatment of migrant workers and the adverse effects of the US-Mexico Border Barrier to expose the realities of the West Bank Separation Wall, for example, may lead to some interesting possibilities for advocacy and engagement within receptive audiences. Faith communities fighting the global effects of climate change are well aware of the direct correlation between the rise of ecological impact and existing conflicts between peoples and nations. The looming ecological disaster in Gaza, with the West Bank not far behind, may not be solely attributed to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it can only be resolved through mediation of the conflict and partnerships at all levels. And back to our interfaith example; protection of the holy places in Jerusalem and the West Bank is certainly within the realm of meaningful interfaith dialogue and relationship-building, and reinforces the universal concern peoples of all three Abrahamic faiths share for the future of the land that is so integral to their faith.
Fortunately, there is a substantial and growing supply of available resources within America that will help individuals, communities and smaller organizations increase their knowledge base, Holy Land contacts, media and more.
Referring to my own starting point of concern or Holy Land Christians, the Nativity Church Siege was not only important in my own growing awareness of the importance the Christian presence in the Holy Land had in pursuing a lasting peace, but it was also a watershed moment for the need and methods to disseminate information on the crisis to a global audience. It also led to a substantial increase in the amount of direct aid given to organizations working on behalf of Palestinian Christians, and in general, raised the awareness of their existence amongst Western communities, many of whom were completely oblivious to the existence of Palestinian, let alone Arab, Christians.
US-based organizations such as the Telos Group and Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) are at the forefront of lobbying efforts within the US Christian community as well as within the American political system. Both have heavily invested into building networks of informed, educated Palestinian Christians who are capable of communicating to American Christians their need to become engaged.
Other initiatives have both helped local Christian communities and increased awareness of the plight of Holy Land Christians throughout the world.
The Christ at the Checkpoint Conference series organized by the Bethlehem Bible College is an excellent example of how the discourse within the Evangelical community has dramatically shifted since its initial 2010 event. Catholic charity organizations such as Caritas and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre have both managed to raise funds for charitable projects and also raise awareness of the plight of the Holy Land Christian community. Representatives of the Jerusalem Greek Orthodox Patriarchate frequently visit Orthodox parishes in the United States to both visit the faithful and raise awareness of the importance of Orthodox Christians to remain engaged in helping resolved the conflict in the Holy Land.
In addition, any number of Palestinian organizations offer experiential pilgrimages and fact-finding tours, and frequently directly or indirectly partner with American Churches, mission groups and faith- based pilgrimage companies. A visit to the village of Taybeh near Ramallah to see the efforts to maintain the Christian community through housing projects and the Taybeh Beer Brewery, or an evening Bible study in Nazareth with local Christians organized by Sabeel are all approachable ways to expose Christians on pilgrimage to those proactively working towards a sustainable, just peace.
Answering this call to action within America’s Christian community is not simply an ethical decision benefitting the future of the Holy Land; it is also a necessary step towards keeping Christianity alive outside of Sunday mornings in an increasingly secularized society. The crisis of the Holy Land may not be solved by faith alone, but nor can it be resolved without it. The history of faith and action in America extends back to the founding of the nation, and continues today. An argument may be made that it is precisely for both reasons that it has become more important than ever to do so.
Whether it is urging their Bishop and members of Congress at the National Prayer Breakfast and urging them to work critically on peace in the Holy Land, or just constructively contributing to the conversation on the topic during your next Saturday service project at the parish hall, American Christians have an important and necessary role to play in this important task, for “…be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58.
Lord God, thank you for individuals like Dan who are dedicated to seeking justice for the Holy Land and the encouragement that the American Church can become an instrument of peace in the land where our faith was founded. Let us take this encouragement and recognize the unique role we hold as believers in drawing attention and engaging with efforts for change in the Holy Land. Amen.
Dan Koski lived and worked in the Holy Land from 2009 to 2019 in the Bethlehem-area city of Beit Jala with his Palestinian Christian wife, Sofia. He worked extensively within both the local and international Christian presence in a variety of roles, including media, non-profit and civil society development, and tourism. From 2018 to the spring of 2019 he was confined to Bethlehem district while unsuccessfully attempting to acquire a residency visa before having to leave the country. He can be reached at DanKoski1979@gmail.com, Dan Koski on Facebook and @DanKoski on Twitter. 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.