Only justice will bring Mideast peace

By  Jennifer Henry, Catholic Register Special
  • October 14, 2010
Jerusalem TestamentJerusalem Testament by Melanie A. May (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 190 pages, softcover, $24.99).

Ecumenical statements can be dry. Words of consensus crafted by many minds, from many different traditions, are thoughtful, often insightful, but can lack the emotion that comes from one voice. Not so in Jerusalem Testament, a compilation of 20 years of statements from Palestinian Christian leaders. Their emotion is palpable.

As the narrative winds through the events of the Holy Land between 1988 and 2008, and progress towards peace rises and falls, an array of feelings come through: anguish at the lives destroyed, joy at glimmers of possibility, frustration at calls unanswered, determination to persevere. What also comes through is a sense of steadfast hope, a firm and deep faith in the child Jesus, who was born in the Bethlehem of their struggle.

In Jerusalem Testament, Melanie May explains how, in 1988, the once-divided Christian churches of Jerusalem begin to speak with a common voice. May strives to reproduce for the reader all of the Palestinian Christian statements or fragments of statements from 1988 to 2008 — 68 in total. She provides an historical introduction for each period, documents her points through extensive end notes, providing ample context for readers unacquainted with the critical events of this span.

Perhaps the most consistent assertion, that peace in the region cannot come without justice, is underscored by the frequent use of Jeremiah 6:14: “They say, ‘Peace, peace,’ whereas there is no peace.” On this point, the Jerusalem heads of churches are definitive. “We stand for justice. We can do no other. Justice alone guarantees a peace that will lead to reconciliation with a life of security and prosperity for all the peoples of our land.”

{sa 0802864856}The leaders are crystal clear that violence, from either side, cannot lead to peace — but neither can discriminatory policies and unilateral solutions. Their message stands in sharp contrast to what they hear from the Israeli government, an approach which in 1996 the church leaders characterized as “security first and then peace.”

A clear framework for understanding the region as two peoples and three religions — “Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike” — emerges in the statements in 2000. This concept is repeated in the years that follow and frames the leaders’ messages about the city of Jerusalem.

They assert the holy nature of the city for Jews, Christians and Muslims and consistently call for full freedom of access to Holy Places and freedom of worship. While affirming that different solutions are possible, they declare that the city must be open to the world. Its holy and universal character requires international involvement or guarantees. “Jerusalem First” becomes their priority for peace negotiations.

Words are married with action. As May points out in her afterword, the church leaders themselves took, and continue to take, action.

“The Heads of Churches gathered to pray, and went to pray with their people. They led ecumenical prayer services and days for fasting. They joined boycotts, organized relief convoys and marched in solidarity from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They closed churches in protest and rang bells on occasions of crisis and at times of celebration.”

Their words and action are an appeal for help from the international community, particularly the global community of churches, an appeal which, as the years pass, is tinged with exasperation. By the Easter message of 2006, they ask a pointed question: have you done all that you could do?

May’s style, like the struggle she documents, is relentless. But the book is well worth the read. Her record of faithful testimony ends in 2008. Between then and now, the situation has deepened in its gravity. There appears to be no end in sight to what the church leaders refer to as a “spiralling drama of reciprocated violence.”

Recent gestures to ease the Gaza blockade reveal protracted suffering. The expansion of Israeli settlements and the separation barrier belie any quick end to the occupation.

In the absence of a clear political way forward, the church leaders’ question to the international community remains: “Have we done all that we could have done to bring justice and human dignity to the human beings and to the believers who live around the Holy Places, wherein lie the roots of our faith and of the redemption of the world?”

(Jennifer Henry works for KAIROS, the Canadian ecumenical justice coalition, on human rights and community outreach.)

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