From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Palestinian Christian Cleric Asks of Jerusalem,

Date 04 May 1996 20:53:52


96037    Palestinian Christian Cleric Asks of Jerusalem,  
                       "Whose Land Is It?" 
                     by Elaine Ruth Fletcher 
                      Religion News Service 
JERUSALEM--"Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their 
beds!" says the biblical prophet Micah. "At morning's light they carry it 
out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize 
them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a 
fellowman of his inheritance." 
     If the Old Testament prophets were walking the streets of Jerusalem 
today, they would be denouncing Israeli policies of land confiscation, 
house demolition and unreasonable taxation of Palestinians, asserts the 
Rev. Canon Naim Ateek, a Palestinian cleric and prominent Anglican 
theologian known for adapting the liberation theology of Latin America's 
barrios to the Arab refugee camps of the Middle East. 
     "In terms of the debate over solutions for the future, we feel as if 
the Christian community has been marginalized," says Ateek, pastor of an 
Arabic-speaking Anglican parish in Jerusalem and director of Sabeel (The 
Way) Liberation Theology Centre. 
     Ateek was the key organizer of an ecumenical Christian conference on 
the future of Jerusalem [that began] here Jan. 21. The conference brings 
together liberal Christian theologians from the West with Palestinian 
clergy and laypeople of all denominations to discuss their vision of the 
city's future -- both religious and political.  
     Ateek argues that Christians, who have traditionally stressed biblical 
themes such as stewardship and universal redemption, can make an important 
contribution to peacemaking in the region.  
     "In Leviticus 25:23, it is written,  The land shall not be sold in 
perpetuity, for the land is mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with 
me,' notes Ateek, author of the 1989 book "Justice and Only Justice: A 
Palestinian Theology of Liberation."  
     "The land of Israel, as Jews see it, and Palestine, as Palestinians 
see it, all belongs to God. And if God has placed us here, we need to share 
it. We are stewards in looking after the land."  
     In relation to Jerusalem as well, modern Christian theology is fairly 
unique in that it rejects the exclusivist claims to the city [that] have 
been promulgated both by mainstream Jews and Muslims, says Ateek.   
     While both Jews and Muslims anchor their claims, to an extent, on past 
eras when they enjoyed absolute political control over the city, Christians 
"willingly accept the movement of history," asserts Ateek -- a history that 
saw numerous nations and faiths dominate the city in different periods, 
each leaving its own rich legacy.  
     "Instead of wanting Jerusalem to belong exclusively to us, we should 
recognize that we all belong to Jerusalem," he says.  
     Christian Zionists, who are not taking part in the upcoming 
conference, argue that liberation theology dances too glibly around the 
connection between Jews and the land of Israel. 
     "Even Jesus himself talked about the centrality of Jerusalem to his 
own faith," says Stan Goodenough, a staff member of the International 
Christian Embassy. "The Bible makes a very strong emphasis of how the 
Jewish people should treat the strangers in their midst. But the stranger 
in Israel, in order to warrant that good treatment, has to respect the 
sovereignty of the people in their land and the God of Israel."  
     But Ateek takes a different view of the land. 
     Sites where Jesus preached and walked are certainly important to 
Christians as a living witness of his ministry. But, Ateek suggests, 
Christian theology, unlike Muslim or Jewish thinking, places less emphasis 
on the intrinsic holiness of land per se -- and more emphasis on the 
holiness of all creation.  
     "For Christians, the whole world is sacramental," he says.  "Jesus and 
the writers of the New Testament are not at all preoccupied with the issue 
of land. Jesus' emphasis is on the Kingdom of God.  And the gospel is a 
universal message, no longer linked with any one people."  
     Holiness is expressed in Christianity in the form of Christ rather 
than in sacramental worship sites, Ateek says. "The holiness of the 
[ancient biblical] Temple is replaced with the holiness of Christ." 
     Holiness, moreover, must be linked with concepts of ethical behavior, 
he says. "We cannot in the name of the holy commit the unethical or the 
     Jews who want to rebuild the temple, whose ruins sit on a hilltop in 
the heart of Jerusalem's ancient Old City, should not perpetuate further 
injustice by seeking to displace the Islamic Al Aksa mosque, which now 
occupies the bedrock summit, Ateek argues.  
     "I do not deny that 2,000 years ago there was a Jewish temple built on 
that site, but history has moved on and for the last 1,300 years this area 
has been sacred for Muslims, and now the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa are 
there," he says.  
     "Would God be so very angry if they were to build the temple adjacent 
to the Western Wall, a few meters away from where the temple was built 
     Ateek's personal history has been marked by the traumas of 
displacement that now preoccupy him theologically.   
     As he relates in his book, his family was evicted by Jewish forces 
from their home in what was formerly the Arab town of Beisan. The date was 
May 1948, less than two weeks after the State of Israel was declared.  
     Although as Christian refugees the family was allowed to relocate to 
the Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth, rather than being transferred to Jordan, 
the upheaval left a lifelong mark on Ateek. 
     Ateek criticizes Western evangelical Christians for the "unconditional 
support" they award the Jewish state.  
     "Most of these Christian Zionists have not taken seriously God's 
impartial demand for justice," says Ateek. "Their love for Israel has 
prevented them from seeing the oppression of the Palestinians and the human 
rights violations they have suffered," he says.   
     Christian Zionists such as Goodenough deny such claims, however. 
     "We do see the suffering of the Palestinians," Goodenough says.  "It's 
very visible. We just don't blame Israel for it; we blame the Arabs for it 
because they refused to recognize Israel and provoked the wars [that] led 
to the Palestinian problem in the first place." 
     The six-day Sabeel conference is scheduled to include sessions on the 
political problems facing Jerusalem's Christian communities under 
present-day Israeli rule, plus environmental problems facing the changing 
city, whose ancient beauty has been undermined by traffic congestion, air 
pollution and overdevelopment.  
Editor's note: Alexa Smith of the Presbyterian News Service is covering the 
Sabeel conference.  Her reports from Jerusalem begin in this issue of "NEWS 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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