From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Palestinian Christian Cleric Asks of Jerusalem,
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 PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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