Bethlehem, Palestine—“The Reality of the Church and Christians in the Middle East” opened with talks by the heads of the two co-sponsoring organizations.
The Al-Liqa’ 29th Annual International Conference, which was co-sponsored by the Universal Peace Federation, was held on November 25 and 26, 2022.
There were approximately 60 people attending the conference in person at the Convention Palace in Bethlehem. In addition, there were about 25 online connections.
The conference of the Al-Liqa’ Center for Religious, Heritage and Cultural Studies in the Holy Land had two sessions on the first day.
Dr. Yousef Zaknoun, the director of the Al-Liqa’ Center, opened the conference with welcoming remarks.
Dr. Zaknoun said that what is required of all Christians in the Middle East is that they stay in their homeland as witnesses of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. Without them, the Middle East would have no taste, no color, no diversity, he said. This is especially true for Palestine, where the number of Christians is dwindling. Holy places such as the Church of the Nativity have become major tourist sites, but where are the Palestinian Christians? Genuine Christians are needed who uphold their faith and commit themselves to the Holy Land.
George Bassous, the general manager of the Convention Palace (the conference venue), asked for God’s blessing on the conference organized by the Al-Liqa’ Center and all the efforts made for the Church and the homeland.
There is a great need to study about the reality of the Church, and Christians in particular, in the face of the political, demographic, economic, social and educational challenges, Mr. Bassous said. Which vision does the Church have in this regard? We need to remember that we all belong to Christ, he said. Part of this life is to bear the challenges and to be ready to pay the price, to believe and to love.
Suad Younan, the wife of Bishop Munib Younan, Palestinian emeritus bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land – Jerusalem, was the session moderator.
Bishop Rafic Nahra, the Latin patriarchal vicar of Galilee – Nazareth, spoke on “Conscience and Responsibility in the Church.”
Political conflicts, local or abroad, create tensions with sometimes dire consequences. There has been mass emigration in the Arab-Israeli society in recent years caused by terrorism linked to fundamentalism, political ideologies, or sometimes criminal communities, as well as abject poverty, for which local authorities do not always have solutions. We all know about the brain drain to the West and the problem of refugees and human traffickers. Many also have been challenged by the restrictions due to the Corona epidemic.
Israel, a secular society, gives preference to individualism and has seen the deterioration of the family. Many of the challenges affect the Middle East.
Christians of different denominations have to live through the Bible, however difficult the circumstances. The Church as a registered institution should make responsible choices in these troubled times, and should reinforce love, truth, justice and peace. However, the truth should be told lovingly. We believe in the power of words rather than the power of arms. Verbal violence, though, does not serve justice.
Moreover, we should have a heart for the victims and those who suffer, as well as for those who inflict suffering onto others. There is rarely a clear answer to the question of who is responsible in a conflict. In the Middle East, people tend to see themselves as victims and indiscriminately hold their adversaries or foreigners responsible for their problems. Yet the responsibility to solve conflicts usually resides in the two parties.
Recurrent violence complicates matters. Those who have suffered violence often respond with violence, which perpetuates the circle. Insisting on our own responsibility in search of solving conflicts does not mean that others do not have any responsibilities.
The mission of the Church is to develop our inner voice to distinguish evil from good. We need to become more aware of our identity and preserve our dignity, because we are born in the image of God, as many of our forefathers, such as Thomas Aquinas, have taught us. We need to share this insight with Muslims, Jews and non-believers. Our Christian belief does not make us senior to others.
The Church in the Middle East must reinforce cooperation and friendship with Muslims, Jews and all people. The Church has to instill awareness among Christians of some basic values that distinguish them as Christians, such as honesty, generosity, openness toward foreigners, immigrants and refugees. Also, parents need to educate their children to be committed to the Church and the Bible. They should not be concerned only about moneymaking and careers for their children.
Dr. Thomas Walsh, the chair of UPF-International, spoke on “The Position of the Church on Human Rights.”
Dr. Walsh first gave a background on the development of the modern system of human rights, going back as far as Aristotle and Plato. A few milestones he mentioned were the Magna Carta in England and the Constitution and Bill of Rights in the United States. Subsequently, many countries worldwide emulated aspects of the US Constitution, in particular in the 19th century in response to the evil of the slave trade.
Two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century gave rise to aspirations to avoid future wars and to create a better world. In light of this, the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions, and the idea of establishing the League of Nations saw the daylight. The UN charter included an emphasis on human rights and a reference to religious freedom. Governments, as well as NGOs and numerous faith-based organizations, offered their insights and perspectives for the drafting of this charter.
In 1946 the idea of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took shape, although there were difficulties due to the nascent Cold War. There were also issues about the binding nature of human rights. It was not until 1966 that the UN General Assembly approved the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Even today there is still debate about the declaration—for instance, whether human rights are universal or culturally determined.
The ideas of human dignity, human rights, natural rights and freedom of religion did not simply originate in the Enlightenment but date back to the book of Genesis, where one can read that the first human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. John Witte Jr., the director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University School of Law, wrote: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the theory and law of human rights are neither new nor secular in origin. Human rights are in no small part the modern political fruits of ancient religious beliefs and practices.” Leviticus 19:18 reads: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” By our God-given rational nature, we are able to know that we should do good and avoid evil.
In the 19th century, Catholicism generally was opposed as it resisted the secular ideas of human rights linked to individualism, modernity, the Enlightenment and secular society in general. The late 19th century and 20th century brought a dramatic change of attitude toward human rights, shaped by the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the horrors of the two World Wars, and the growing need to be engaged in world affairs, social justice and human rights, rather than social and economic rights. A number of social encyclicals, such as Rerum Novarum (1891), began to include human rights language. In 1979, John Pope II spoke at the UN with a strong focus on human rights.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis, restrictions on Christians are most severe in the Middle East and North Africa. This may be due to clan oppression, dictatorial paranoia, religious nationalism, Islamic oppression, communist repression, secular intolerance, etc. The persecution of Christians comes from both state and non-state actors. There is an increasing awareness that Christians are persecuted the most, alongside Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and new religious movements such as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, an organization that is affiliated with UPF.
Christianity no longer should be seen as a manifestation of white Western privilege, as it is now increasingly a church of the global south and the global poor. The persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is one of today’s crimes against humanity. According to a Pew Research Center report, fragile failing states have difficulty in managing their populations and enforcing human rights laws.
Some more recommendations:
- Religious and interreligious literacy must be increased.
- There should be more intercultural, intra-faith and interfaith dialogue and engagement.
- Call on the United Nations and intergovernmental organizations.
- Call on religious freedom organizations, NGOs and faith-based organizations.
Ziad El Sayegh, the CEO of the Civic Influence Hub, Beirut, spoke on “The Influence of Social Media on Christian Character.”
Firstly, he said, the social media are an interactive space in which we intend to communicate with each other. Some may call it PR. In fact, social media allow different mentalities and behavior, different cultures, religions and communities to crystalize, based on brotherly relationships. For that reason, any attempt to put a frame or ideology to protect values should be avoided.
Secondly, the social media are somehow complex. It is an illusion to think that we should build bridges out of fear of being superior, given the fact that the social platforms and social media operate regardless of hierarchical levels. To spread hatred and exclusion boils down to violating Christian values and the idea of building bridges of diversity.
Thirdly, social media platforms are not monopolized by a social contract of fundamentalism, politics or economics. To respect the Christian ideology based on citizenship, dialogue, building bridges and accepting differences is most important.
Q & A
Question: Is it possible to establish a database to document all abuse and violations of human rights against Christians in Palestine, in order to find solutions?
Dr. Walsh: Many resources exist, such as a report commissioned by former British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Jeremy Hunt, which addresses especially the persecution of Christians globally. Apart from the Middle East, there are also deep challenges in countries like China, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Pakistan. Another fount of information is the Pew Research Center.
Question: How can the local Christian Church in Palestine raise awareness among the millions of privileged Christians visiting Israel and Palestine so that they do something about the plight of Christians in Palestine?
Bishop Rafic Nahra: We cannot assume that only Christians in Palestine are affected by persecution. Other churches are aware of the situation in the Middle East and always try to help morally and financially. The Church always supports human rights. We are not alone; we have to tolerate and convince the others.
Question: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and earlier conventions seem to apply only to the “white” and are used to wage wars and destroy the Third World countries. How can we protect the Church against the neocolonial ideology that is prevalent in the West?
Dr. Walsh: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has always been regarded by some to be a form of Western cultural imperialism. However, the declaration was drafted by a committee of representatives from various countries, and it was approved by the General Assembly, which represents the majority of UN member states.
Understandably, many religions struggle with human rights, as they understand human rights alone will not create a world of perfect justice and goodness. There is a need for people of character, of love, who are living for others. We have not yet reached a level of solidarity that transcends nation-states, governments and even religions. Therefore, the declaration is the best we have for the moment.
Question: Looking at the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, is there a way for Christians to defend themselves? Is St. Augustine’s just-war theory applicable to Christians in the Middle East at the spiritual level?
Dr. Walsh answered that he thinks the idea of defense is extremely important. Our biggest weapon, however, is to raise awareness through education. He believes there should be more religious literacy. All citizens in all states should be informed, without prejudice, of the beliefs and basic doctrines of both the major and minor religions of the world, with an attitude of mutual respect. Governments have the power of coercion, while relying on moral persuasion. Religious believers have to trust that with God and with one another, they can make a difference in this world.