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An unvarnished look at the Middle East opens the Presbyterian Week of Action

First day of virtual event includes panel discussions, story time and bilingual worship

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Scott Parker, a mission co-worker based in Beirut, Lebanon, participated in Monday’s Presbyterian Week of Action as a storyteller. (Screenshot)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Rev. Ashraf Tannous introduced himself to viewers of the first panel discussion of the 2021 Week of Action Monday by saying, “I am a human being.”

It might have seemed to be stating the obvious until he detailed other aspects of his identity.

“Secondly, I am an Arab Palestinian Christian, from the first Christians,” Tannous said. “I am from the Semites, and a refugee, and I’m a Lutheran pastor, saying at the beginning that I’m a human being, because this is what unites us all. Because we are all created in the image of God, in God’s own likeness, male and female, Black and white, Africans, Americans, Palestinians, Israelis, Chinese, Korean, Spanish people from all over the world, we are created in the image of God in God’s own likeness. So, this is what unites us all, that we are all human beings.”

The Rev. Ashraf Tannous (Screenshot)

He was speaking on a panel, though, that detailed the dehumanizing experience of being a Palestinian living in Israel, as well as the disorienting experience of being a Palestinian Christian.

The Presbyterian Week of Action launched its second edition with a day focused on the Middle East. Titled “Middle East Peace … Our Peace,” the day examined the plight of many people living in the region, its relationship to the United States and other Western nations, prospects for peace and the role American Christians can play in that through two panel discussions, a vespers service, and a gentle story time geared toward children.

The Rev. Scott Parker, a mission co-worker based in Beirut, Lebanon, gave a sample of “Strong Kids, Strong Emotions,” a play-based program designed to build spiritual resilience in refugee children in Lebanon. In a tone reminiscent of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he talked about challenges refugee children face, including poverty, chaotic environments, and not much opportunity for school, to name a few.

“Being a refugee kid is kind of tough,” he said in the lesson that included a craft designed to help children deal with emotions such as fear, anger, and insecurity.

The insecurity that faces many people in the Middle East, particularly Palestinians in Israel, was discussed in more explicit detail in the panel discussions.

The day started with a discussion of Israel-Palestine, “From Shades of Oppression Towards Ways of Resistance,” and the systematic oppression Palestinians feel living under the authority of the government of Israel. Moderator Yusef Daher, Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center, started the conversation asking for panelist observations about the causes of the escalation of violence between Palestinian and Israeli forces in May.

Yusef Daher (Screenshot)

Manal Hazzan, a broadly experienced human rights lawyer, said, “the Palestinians in May this year were simply defining injustice and battling for their own rights and defending their presence in Palestine.”

Like all speakers, Hazzan pointed to a history of discrimination against Palestinians, but pointed specifically to July 2018 legislation passed by the Knesset that stated Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Hazzan said the legislation had “distinct apartheid characteristics,” defining privileges enjoyed by only Jewish citizens of Israel and denying basic collective rights of 1.5 million Palestinians. She said the law was “the last straw for the Palestinian population in Israel.”

Dalia Qumsich, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, said a key element of human rights violations by the Israeli government is “annexation,” which she pointed out is prohibited by international law but continues to be “a menace” for Palestinians living in occupied territory.

“Israel knows that its policies in the occupied Palestinian territory constitute grave violations of international law,” Qumsich said. “It also knows that annexation of occupied territories is completely prohibited under international law. … But it also knows, judging from past experiences, that it had annexed already occupied East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan before, with zero consequences beyond international calls and condemnation. So, Israel’s annexation policy is in fact in line with its consistent contempt of international law and legitimacy with complete impunity.”

Both Hazzan and Qumsich said that support for the Israel government from former U.S. President Donald Trump and his “Deal of the Century” Middle East peace agreement accelerated violations.

Tannous noted that the Israeli government enjoys widespread support among Christians in the United States and other Western countries because of a belief the “God is on the side of Israel, and to oppose Israel is to oppose God,” a statement he attributed to the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.

“As a Palestinian Christian, I feel insulted,” he said.

It is important for Christians to understand there are differences between Israelis and Palestinians of the past and now. And, detailing his own descent from Jews who converted to Christianity, he said many people do not understand there are a lot of Palestinian Christians who suffer human rights violations at the hands of the Israeli government.

“This is a political issue,” he said, and quoted the Kairos Palestine document stating, “any use of the Bible to legitimize or support political options and positions that are based upon injustice, imposed by one person on another, or by one people on another, transform religion into human ideology and strip the Word of God of its holiness, its universality and truth.”

The afternoon panel, “Stories of Resilience, Peacebuilding and Resistance,” expanded the day’s view of the Middle East, including perspectives from Iraq and Syria, in addition to Palestine and the United States.

The Rev. Mathilde Michael Sabbagh (Screenshot)

Rev. Mathilde Michael Sabbagh, a pastor in the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Al-Hasakah in Syria and identified as the “only female pastor in Syria,” by moderator Doug Dicks of Presbyterian World Mission, spoke about leading a church in a nation where “people are kidnapped and killed for being Christians.” She recalled an explosive landing in her home the night she was installed as a pastor of her church.

But she said it is important for Christians to get out and meet needs in communities suffering extreme poverty and violence, pointing specifically to a school of 1,000 students supported by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), a Presbyterian World Mission partner.

“Supporting the broken community is what helps,” she said.

Yasmina Haddad, granddaughter of Palestinian refugees and the daughter of Lebanese and Colombian immigrants who is a long-time member of the PC(USA), recalled a college professor whom she admired stating matter-of-factly that there is no hope for peace in the Middle East.

“I thought, what privilege to be able to say that without being completely heartbroken,” Haddad said.

Like the first panel, the afternoon group was asked how people in the United States could support people in the Middle East and efforts for peace and justice. Learning more about what is happening in the Middle East is important, they said, even visiting the region.

A few speakers noted the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s Mosaic of Peace Conference, currently scheduled for next spring in Israel-Palestine, is a great opportunity to visit and learn.

“You need to be in the midst of people to give them hope,” said Rifat Kassis, a Palestinian advocate for more than 30 years and a widely-published author. “Come and see.”

Vian Ahmed Sadiq, an Iraqi-Kurdish activist, humanitarian leader, and women-empowerment advocate, said education needs to be followed by advocacy, as the United States has a huge role in the region.

“Your voice counts,” she said, “Please use it.”

The day ended with a vespers service in Arabic and English.

“As night falls on this day, we are reminded about mortality and our limits,” Martin Akaram Jazrawi prayed. “We have conversed with Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese and Americans. Yet this only touches the surface of the complexities in the context of the region called the Middle East. So we pause tonight to pray with our siblings in the Middle East and all its countries. … Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.”

The Presbyterian Week of Action continues through Sunday. Visit the event website for programs and schedules. Recordings of sessions described here and other events of the week that have already occurred are available on the PC(USA) Facebook page.

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