Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Christians of Gaza & questions

The Electronic Intifada on April the 17th had this news report, “Gaza’s Christians like birds who will always return to their nests”. The article begins with a statement by Dr. Anton Shuhaibar, a physician, “When someone asks me what my identity is, I answer that first and foremost, I am a Palestinian Arab with Arab roots and then last comes my Christian religion.” The author of the article, Rami Almeghari, is seemingly unfamiliar with Christianity. And Shuhaibar is either afraid of his Islamic leaders or does not understand what it means to be a Christian.

No faithful Christian would put his ethnicity and nationality above his Christianity. Christ is either Lord or ethnic identity is lord. (That was one of the problems facing Christianity during Nazi Germany.) The Christian’s first obedience, no matter how hard, must be to Christ and his word. Many Christians in the Middle East are suffering because of their faithfulness.

I am interested in the article because there is an on going argument about whether the Palestinian Christians are leaving the Middle East because of Israel or because of persecution by radical Islamic groups. The author of the article seems to be making a case for the former. His reference to past offences by Islamic groups is rather weak. Almeghari, quoting Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights, writes:
“For example, in 2008, we recorded a number of incidents, in which a Christian man was killed and some Christian [-owned] buildings were bombed by suspected Islamic extremists in the territory,” Abu Shammala said at his Gaza City office.

Abu Shammala suggested that for Christians, as a minority, the main issue is psychological pressure.

“For instance, over the past few years, many Christian women in Gaza have been forced to put on a headscarf, something that can be attributed to the change since 2007,” Abu Shammala explained. “But in general, I can assure you that we as a rights group have not received any formal complaint by any Christian group or individual about any kind of harassment or violence by individuals, groups or authorities in Gaza.”
A little more information about the Christian killed and the bombings is helpful. An article, “My Heart is in Gaza” published in Christianity Today in 2008 begins:
Gaza Baptist Church used to draw hundreds of Palestinian worshipers to its two Sunday services. But on a recent Sunday in January, less than 10 people risked attending the only evangelical church in the 25-mile coastal strip.

Palestinian evangelicals, a group of hundreds living among 1.5 million Muslims, have been fleeing the Gaza Strip for the West Bank in response to increased violence and threats from Islamic extremists. In October, Rami Ayyad, the 29-year-old manager of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, was kidnapped and murdered. Then on February 15, a group of 14 masked gunmen forcibly entered the ymca offices and set off a bomb in the library, burning thousands of books.[1]
These two events happened after Hamas took control of Gaza. And it is true that both Muslim citizens as well as Christians have suffered because of Israel’s security features. As the author, Jeremy Weber, put it, “Conditions have also worsened due to Israel's security efforts, which have constricted the incoming flow of food, electricity, and fuel. Israel tightened security in response to ongoing Hamas rocket attacks and the first suicide bombing in Israel in three years [In 2008].” But many Evangelical Christians left Gaza because of radical Islamic persecution.

"Suffocating the Faithful” written by David Aikman, a year earlier, covered the problems of many Christian communities in the Middle East. Aikman had this to say about the Palestinian Christians:
In Bethlehem, now under Palestinian authority, Christians have shrunk from 85 percent in 1948 to around 15 percent today. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Christians are caught between growing Islamic fundamentalism and Israel's quest for security. In Palestinian-controlled areas, Christians number about 60,000, less than 2 percent of the overall population of 3.9million. Many of these believers live in Christian villages with debilitated economies.
But going further afield and looking at the whole situation for many Christian communities in the Middle East, an atheist gives the clearest report and the greatest plea for tolerance. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has written an eye opening article, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World.” Written in February 2012 it looks carefully at every area in the Muslim world where Christians are persecuted. Hirsi Ali calls it Christophobia, writing, “… we also need to keep perspective about the scale and severity of intolerance. Cartoons, films, and writings are one thing; knives, guns, and grenades are something else entirely.”

In another place she writes:
No, the violence isn’t centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. In that sense the global war on Christians isn’t a traditional war at all. It is, rather, a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.
And for this reason alone, “a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions and ethnicities,” all Christians in the Middle East must be feeling wary and perhaps alone. While Hirsi does not mention persecution of Palestinian Christians it behooves the West including mainline denominations to speak with care toward and about Christians in the Middle East. Sunday night CBS’, “Sixty Minutes” will be televising a show about the shrinking Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. I am praying that they are honest with their questions, understanding the hard situation of the Palestinians.

[1]See also


Anonymous said...

>No faithful Christian would put his ethnicity and nationality above his Christianity.

I think the truth is more complicated than that. I have been in the Middle East more than a few times and had the opportunity to meet Christians from places that had Christian communities 1500 years before we had any here in the USA. To many of them, Christianity is an element of their being than cannot be separated from their nationality, heritage, ethnic group, family, etc.

My first reaction was to say “that’s not real Christianity”, but I have realized that the individualistic, personal decision based Christianity that transcends all other factors is a fairly recent and mostly western way to understand and approach faith. To many Christians in many lands, their faith is not an aspect of their lives that can be separated from the whole.

I am well aware that this may lead to people being merely cultural Christians, not true followers, but I’m equally aware that not all Christians need to look like 20-21 century western Protestants. This is not a simple matter.

As to Christians in Palestinian Authority areas, I have some personal experience there and as near as I can tell, the honest truth is that Christians are pressured from both sides. It is a tough place for them. They have been the most educated, moderate, and (often) most affluent of the Palestinians and their exodus (most of which happened years ago) has – IMHO – hurt Israel’s ability to find moderates they could work with. They really shot themselves in the foot here.

Al Sandalow

Viola Larson said...

I don’t think you can equate individualistic Christianity with a Christianity that places the Lord above all else—the two don’t really mix. Perhaps there is confusion about what making Christ Lord means. Some people have a certain time when they become a Christian—they know the exact moment; others are baptized as infants and are raised in the Church but still grow into the relationship they have with the Lord. We all are part of the Church universal. You don’t hear the Coptic Christians saying first of all I am an Egyptian and then a Christian. They may say I am an Egyptian why are you treating me like this but they don’t put their faith last. The same with the Iraqis and all of the other persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Add to that that Christians in the United States need to be careful of equating their Christianity with being an American. Interesting I’ve heard people say we have to make sure the church or denomination affirms this or that because it is becoming the law or is culturally relevant. But no, that is putting something else above Christ.

I am not suggesting that all Christians need to look like 20-21 century Protestants. I hope they never do. But the thing that unifies all of Christianity is absolute faithfulness to Jesus as Lord.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. They do indeed need our prayer and loving support.

Regarding your musing about his response, consider the source, Viola. First, this is written on Electronic Intifada - it's hard to find a more focused site for BDS. Not a source for clear-headed objective reporting. Secondly, consider the setting. When some of our brave Christian brothers in Gaza get interviewed, the moment we read a sentence like, "Anyone who dares to say that Islamists in Gaza have been repressing us Christians is absolutely wrong and false, Kamal Tarazi, a Christian man in his forties, told The Electronic Intifada at the YMCA" we must immediately pick up on the signal that the walls have ears, that we are not alone, that what is being said is fully intended for wider distribution. I lived in Gaza for a number of years. You learn to watch people’s eyes while they are talking to see if the dialogue has suddenly started to run on two levels and, more likely, you learn not to ask dangerous questions like "Are Christians here oppressed?"

Regarding the Coptic Christians, Michael Totten ran a piece a while back when he interviewed someone in Egypt and got a similar response.

The Baptist Church in Gaza was a tiny structure but at one point had a huge congregation, relatively speaking. It’s a source of grief to many of us who worshipped there that the Christians of Gaza have fallen on hard times.

Let’s not be hasty in thinking he’s confused about the Lordship of Christ. At the moment, Shuhaibar is talking to a mere journalist, not answering before the local religious authority. The giveaway comes when he uses the word Arab more than once before saying he’s Christian. This man clearly knows when it’s prudent to talk like this, at the very least to prevent trouble for his family. Given the violent death of Rami Ayyad, the bookstore owner, any Christian there with common sense knows that now is definitely a time to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.

They are in the middle of a very different conversation than we are having in the West, and his words suggest that he is not struggling with the same identity question you are raising. If, God forbid, any of these brothers were to find himself in extremis, my impression of them is that observers would see there is no confusion about whom they confess as Lord when it counts! It's just better to pray they are not brought to such a test.

Kyle Smith
Sacramento, CA

Viola Larson said...

Yes, Kyle I tend to go with the fear factor. However there are those who are using Christianity as a weapon against Israel. I have found that Mitri Raheb will be one of those interviewed on the CBS Sixty Minutes program. He even believes that the European Jews are not really Jews.

Anonymous said...

Viola: Where did you see that Mitri Raheb is part of the story on 60 Minutes this evening?

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Viola Larson said...

Hi David go here:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Viola. We don't know whether he'll be part of the story, but just the fact that they interviewed him says a lot about the approach they are taking.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA