Christians, stand up/sp/for peace in Holy Land

May 09, 2002|By Sherrilyn A. Ifill

PERHAPS NOW that images of the Church of the Nativity on fire have been seen on televisions around the world, prominent Christian leaders will begin to act as though Christians, as well as Muslims and Jews, have a stake in bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For nearly a year, Christian leadership, both national and international, has responded with deafening silence to the bloodshed and violence in the Middle East in which, according to the Reuters news agency, more than 1,300 Palestinian and 450 Israeli lives have been lost since the second intifada erupted in September 2000.

The Israeli military attack in Bethlehem and the siege at the Church of the Nativity are not just ironic and disturbing reminders of how hopeless and entrenched the battle between Israel and the Palestinians has become. They represent the brutal violation of an important societal code, one that recognizes the importance of sacred spaces and monuments to the cultural memory and cohesion of a community of believers.

When the Taliban blew up ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan last year, much of the world reacted with horror. Even those who were not Buddhists recognized the destruction of the monuments as an attack on the collective history and culture of Buddhists.

And yet Bethlehem -- a city whose very name conjures feelings of peace and love in the heart of every Christian believer -- and the Church of the Nativity, built over the place where it is believed Jesus was born, have been violated in the most brutal way by the Israeli military while the world watches in virtual silence.

President Bush, who declared and promoted his Christian conversion to strategic advantage during his campaign for the presidency, has not identified the violence in Bethlehem and at the Church of the Nativity as having particularly painful and disturbing dimensions for Christians worldwide. Nor did he aggressively promote a plan to end the siege there.

Christian leaders, who should use this opportunity to identify the interests of Christians as stakeholders in the drive for peace in the land that is of such significance for Jews, Muslims and Christians, appear to have abdicated any public or prominent role in helping negotiate a peaceful and humane solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Of course, the pope has been preoccupied with his public response to the very serious unfolding scandal involving pedophile priests. But surely the military violation of the city where Jesus was born and the human rights tragedy at the Church of the Nativity warrant a coherent and forceful public condemnation by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church should not alone bear the responsibility for representing Christians' interests in this conflict.

All Christian denominations should be united in their revulsion for the military aggression and bloodshed that have ravaged Bethlehem and in their desire to protect the spaces and monuments that are sacred to Christians worldwide.

Hugely popular American evangelical preachers such as T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer and Robert Schuller would have been welcome voices in a united and strong message demanding a cease-fire in Bethlehem and humane treatment for all wounded and for all those legitimately seeking sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity.

Earlier this month, one Christian leader, Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and a spiritual warrior in the fight against apartheid, delivered a speech published in the Guardian April 29 decrying Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Bishop Tutu forcefully declared that "peace is possible."

The virtual silence of prominent Christians in the wake of the terrible suffering and loss of life in this conflict during the past year cannot be erased. But now that we have seen the monument built over the birthplace of Jesus on fire, Christians worldwide must recognize and take up our obligation to work for an end to the cycle of aggression and violence in the Holy Land.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, a civil rights lawyer and a Christian. She lives in Baltimore City.

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