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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Exporters of an ancient faith...and modern peace

“Every time I smell tear gas, it reminds me of my happy childhood.”

Jenny Baboun, a 26-year-old Palestinian, did not have the peaceful childhood every parent hopes for. Some of her other childhood memories include the sound of missiles going over her house, taking photos with Palestinian police, and playing in the streets at night despite a state-ordered curfew.

When she was four years old, Jenny’s father was handcuffed in front of her and taken away in an Israeli military jeep. He was released the same day, but the incident is engrained in Jenny’s memory. 

Despite the circumstances, Jenny said that her community and family helped make her growing up years special, and even happy, despite constant violence and fear. 

“When the situation was bad, as a child I used to look up to my parents who used to make me feel everything was normal by their steadfastness and their strength in keeping us safe. Living in Palestine, especially Bethlehem, may not be ideal compared to living in other places. However, I would say that I would never want to live anywhere else.”

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis has raged for over 60 years, with heavy losses on both sides, especially in underprivileged areas of the Palestinian territories. Recently, the conflict has gained new notoriety as Hamas and Israel exchange rockets and death tolls. 

Stories like Jenny’s are not uncommon- but there is a part of the picture that remains largely untold by the Western media. Jenny’s father was not arrested for illegal acts, but simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is not a jihadist, a terrorist, or a Hamas supporter. In fact, he isn’t even a Muslim. Jenny, her father, and her family are Christians, members of the oldest community of Jesus followers in the world. 

“I come from a Catholic family and was raised to love the Lord,” Jenny told me. “I may have not been so religious, but I have faith and trust in Jesus! I'm currently reading through the whole Bible and I go to church almost every Sunday.” 

In the West, Jenny’s community may be relatively unknown, but there are those working to change this. Philip Farah is one of them. As a Palestinian Christian living in the United States, he is part of the Palestinian diaspora working to shift the West’s understanding of Palestinians and their conflict with Israel. He is involved in two organizations- the Palestinian Christian Alliance and the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace- that push for peace in Palestine. Every year at Christmas, Philip and his colleagues organize a joint service broadcast over the internet between that National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and a church in Bethlehem, Palestine. They also run interfaith (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) services advocating peace and understanding between Israel, Palestine and the West. Through these activities, Farah says, he hopes to educate people about Palestinian rights, as well as promote justice between Israelis and Palestinians living together. 

Philip is based in the United States, but he is intimately aware of the daily struggle of his family and friends in Palestine. One of his friends, Daoud Nassar, a Christian farmer, owns a plot of land completely surrounded by Jewish settlers. He is not allowed to build structures on his property and is constantly harassed to give up his land. Over the years he has paid a fortune in legal fees to save his farm over and over again. 

But Nassar has turned that struggle into a fight for peace and understanding. On his farm he hosts the “Tent of Nations”, a project that uses the farm to build bridges between people, and between people to the land”. A stone on the property proclaims “We refuse to be enemies”. People from every country, including Israel, are welcome to come to the farm and bond together in awareness campaigns and work camps. Despite the constant threat that the land will be confiscated by the Israeli military, the camp continues to attract attention and support from all over the world, especially with the youth who attend the workshops.

Palestinians of both Muslim and Christian faith are working together to build peace and solidarity in their community. Many famous Arab political leaders have been Christians, and have inspired Arabs of both faiths to fight for their cultural survival. Some of these include renowned Middle Eastern scholar Edward Said, Constantine Zreik, one of the fathers of Arab nationalism, and George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Such heroes of the Arab culture are looked up to and emulated by both Muslims and Christians. 

Still, tensions between citizens of different faiths do exist. Local Christian and Muslim Palestinian communities react harshly to members converting to the other religion. Baboun mentioned an incident where a young Christian converted to Islam, leading Palestinian Christians to “accuse Hamas of abducting him.” Tradition and loyalty to faith and family run deep in the Arab community, and any breech of these values is dealt with harshly. 

Hazem Farraj knows the pain and fear of converting first-hand. When he was 12 years old, his father moved their family from Brooklyn, New York, to a suburb of Jerusalem “with the intention to become better Muslims”. Farraj studied the Quran, went to the Mosque, and did everything on his “checklist”, as he calls it, to get deeper into Islam. But he wasn’t satisfied, and had a deep “crisis of the heart.” He explains, “Because the crisis was so deep and so devastating, I ended up getting mad at God. And I said, ‘If Jesus is God, then I am going to find him’”. Through the support of local Christians, Hazem made the decision to convert in secret in January of 2000 at 15 years-old. His decision was risky, for him and his friends. “They (the Christian Palestinians) told me ‘We will answer your questions if you keep your mouth shut.’” For three years, he kept his faith under wraps till, almost three years after becoming a Christian, he left home and went into hiding. Soon after that he got the courage to tell his father that he was a Christian. He was rejected by his family and has not been able to reconcile with them for eleven years. 

The heartache of losing his family pushed Farraj away from his roots towards the modern American evangelical community. “I wanted to run from everything Palestinian and Arabic because of the trauma of leaving Islam.” But God spoke to Farraj through a pastor and told him, “Stop running from your culture.” Now, Farraj hosts a popular television talk show where he speaks in English and Arabic about God’s love to “400 million viewers” (according to his website) in North America, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. He shares as a member of the “minority, minority”, the small, and usually secret group of Palestinian believers that did not grow up in the Orthodox or Catholic church.  

Though his TV program speaks about faith, not politics, Farraj is deeply aware of the daily struggle of the Palestinian church, who are often caught between both the oppression of the Israeli government, and the radical Islamists who give his people a bad name in the West. 

“The reputation Palestinians have is not great,” he admits. “But God has told me that is going to change.” Farraj said that his hope is in this younger generation of Christian and Muslim Palestinians, who are “tired of war and...tired of killing each other.”

One of the ways that reputation is changing is through the leadership of Palestinian Arab Christians around the world. Like Farraj, many Palestinians have emigrated to Europe and North America, taking up positions in churches, Bible colleges, and ministries. According to Jack Sara, the President of Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank, “God is using Palestinian Christians in a way that they are becoming, really, leaders for the Arab church worldwide.”

Sara says that Palestinian Christians are a paradox to many Western believers, because there is a lack of understanding about the Middle East and the diversity of the people who live there. Many Western evangelical communities, he says, hold to the idea that the state of Israel is a fulfillment of prophesy, and that they must oppose anyone who is opposing the “people of God.” This idea, he says, is a stumbling block to the Christian message in Arab cultures, because many Muslim communities see Christians as “haters of the Arabs” for opposing Israel. “They equate evangelicals as Zionists,” he claimed. And to most Arabs, Zionists are responsible for the worst kind of atrocities committed against Palestinian children. When such political connotations are attached to the Protestant faith, is it any wonder, then, that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim communities in Palestine are wary of converts?

To combat the negative aspects of Christian zionism on the Arab church, Sara is involved in a program called Christ at the Checkpoint, which seeks to offer an alternative vision of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. 

“It’s about time that they see Israelis and Palestinians through an equal lens,” Sara said.

Another challenge facing the Palestinian church is migration. During the beginning years of the war with Israel, some accounts say that up to 30% of the population of Palestinian Christians fled to safer ground in Europe and North America. Muslim Palestinians escaped too, but since Christians were already a minority, their community feels the losses to a greater degree. Sara says that now only around 2% of the Palestinian population within Palestine/Israel consider themselves Christians. 

Palestinian Christians are, in Biblical terms, “hard pressed on every side.” The Christian community, according to Sarah, has been present in Palestine since the first century. Farraj, in speaking about his brothers and sisters in Christ, said, “The Palestinian Christians have kept the faith. It is a miracle that there are even churches and believers in Gaza, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The minority has kept the faith.” Philip told me, chuckling, at the beginning of his interview, “Palestinians can claim Christianity as their most successful export!” 

These original Christians, who face challenges in every aspect of their lives, embody not only the beginning of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, but especially the end: “...but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” 

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