a good article about Bethlehem

There was an article on Bethlehem in the December National Geographic which really tried to play up the "tension between Christians and Muslims" that has largely been manufactured by the media. Here is a better article from the Independent in the UK. It also makes reference to Banksy's return to Bethlehem and his new murals. One of them, the one of the donkey getting his ID papers checked, was actually painted over by the locals because to THEM it meant that Palestinians (who get their IDs checked all the time by Israeli soldiers) are like donkeys, which is a pretty big insult 'round these parts.

Anyway, see the Independent article here:



Bethlehem-focused Advent and Christmas events

I'm trying to put together a list of events going on this Advent/Christmas season that are raising awareness about what's going on in Bethlehem today, as the world is focusing on the "Little Town" of Jesus' time. Do you know of any? Here are three that I know of, through communication with our Area Reps in the US:

1. The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Michigan are going to lead an Advent event on Bethlehem and the Wall. They asked for a copy of the film "Sacred Space Denied" to use in the event.

2. A Methodist minister in Northeast England intends to focus on Bethlehem in his congregation's Advent liturgies. He also wants to show the film as part of the events.

3. In Madison, Wisconsin, a congregation is having their annual Cookie and Craft Bazaar to benefit and raise awareness about Christians and churches in Bethlehem and throughout Palestine.

Any more? Please let me know if you know of congregations who are using the Wheat Ridge "Bethlehem We Care" materials this Advent season, or having craft bazaars that are either selling goods from Bethlehem or focused on raising funds for or awareness of Christians and churches in Palestine.

Denver Event: Sun, Dec. 2, 3:00 pm: O, Little Town of Bethlehem: A City Besieged


For those in the Denver area: 


Friends of Sabeel-Colorado presents:


O, Little Town of Bethlehem:

A City Besieged

Sunday, December 2, 2007, 3:00 pm

Conference Center, Regis University, Denver
3333 Regis Blvd, Entrance 1, Parking Lot 5

Free and Open to the Public


Panel Discussion: Jeff and Janet Wright have traveled to Bethlehem frequently in the past several years. Janet trains Palestinian therapists in a technique developed to help traumatized people. They will show slides and present a current update of the situation in Bethlehem. Janet will discuss her work with therapists. Several Palestinians from the Bethlehem area will be on the panel to respond to the presentation and answer questions from the audience.


Hand-made olive wood carvings from Bethlehem will be available to purchase - nativities, Christmas ornaments, rosaries, and more! New items just arrived!


Co-sponsored by: Regis University Justice Education Program
For more info: 303-494-2338;

For additional information and advocacy resources on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

Sign up to receive weekly reports of your representatives' votes in Congress: http://www.congress.org/congressorg/mlm/signup/



A Visit from the Secretary of State

We were in the news this month when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Manger Square and met with our president, Abu Mazen (link). While the city was glad to welcome her here behind the Wall, where many American politicians are reluctant to come (Hillary Clinton visited Israel in 2005 and complimented the Wall, but did not venture beyond it), we will wait and see whether her visit is ultimately more significant for her or for us. We look forward to seeing how the conference in Annapolis plays out, and whether any just, genuine progress can be made through good-faith discussion and negotiation. Here in Bethlehem, we have learned that politicians come and go, but we still believe that for those who are truly interested and invested in bringing about a peaceful solution to the conflict in Palestine and Israel, there are people on both sides who are willing to be partners.


Hearing Muslim Voices - Dr. Jack Renard

Hearing Muslim Voices

Something truly remarkable in Muslim-Christian relations happened this month, and yet few Americans are aware of it. 138 Muslim religious scholars from over 20 countries signed an open letter to Pope Benedict and to some two dozen leaders of Orthodox and Protestant churches. Overwhelmingly conciliatory and non-polemical, the document simply lays out evidence from the Bible and Qur’an that all three Abrahamic faiths share a common focus on the “two great commandments,” love of God and love of one’s neighbor as oneself. But this most noteworthy development has been almost totally ignored. It has received virtually no electronic media coverage and been consigned to back page blurbs of major newspapers.

Had the letter been a venomous diatribe against Christianity and the leaders of the many churches, it would almost certainly have grabbed banner coverage. The letter is historic in many ways, and marks the anniversary of a letter seeking deeper understanding and reconciliation, from some three dozen Muslim scholars in the weeks following Pope Benedict XVI’s address at the University of Regensburg. No direct response was forthcoming from the Vatican at that time, and press coverage virtually disregarded the Muslim voices then, too. Why is it so difficult for us to hear Muslim voices for moderation and peace, and so easy to hear only voices calling for indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam?

Print and electronic media coverage of events in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to be slanted toward “bad news” – spectacular violence apparently perpetrated by “Muslims,” infighting among Muslim politicians in the Middle East and South Asia, quests for suspected weapons of mass destruction, and alleged pervasive plotting to undermine and overthrow “Western Civilization.” Increasing availability of cable TV programs and books that purport to offer the “truth” about Islam and Muslims reflect an American populace increasingly adamant in its suspicion of all things “Islamic.” Hardly surprising, since the purported “truth” – that Islam is inherently violent and bent on world domination, and that no Muslim can be trusted – provides a clear, black-and-white, know-your-enemies narrative that’s frighteningly easy to sell.

Here’s the problem: that narrative is constructed, beginning to end, of pumped-up stereotypes, half-truths, ideological assumptions, and outright bigotry. Truth-tellers blithely toss around oversimplifications like “Clash of Civilizations” and “Return of the Caliphate” as descriptors of a global state of unfolding religio-cultural conflict. Blended with various versions of Christian end-time scenarios, such expressions dovetail nicely, if ironically, with a growing belief that Islam and Muslims are the very embodiment of the apocalyptic horrors foretold in biblical prophecies.

The problem is exacerbated by the widespread but unfounded perception that Muslims have remained silent about the horrors that have been visited on so many people here and abroad beginning with September 11, 2001. Where are the Muslim voices denouncing terrorism, many ask. Why have Muslims, both here and abroad, apparently given at least tacit approval to the grim work of suicide bombers?

The straightforward answer to these questions is that Muslim religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike have, in fact, been energetic in responding to the outrages that have been the scourge of Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Hundreds of counter-fatwas (legally advisories issued by Muslim jurists) have been issued, explaining in unambiguous detail Muslim abhorrence of all forms of suicide (whether rationalized as “self-selected martyrdom” or not), mass murder, and the destruction of life and livelihood perpetrated against innocent people of every faith and culture. Readers who would like to sample some of this pervasive yet un-reported Muslim outrage need only visit http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/, a St. Louis-based web site, for a most enlightening tour of responses of every sort in various media. Why are so few Americans aware of all this activity? Because it does not support the acceptable narrative – the one in which Muslims are unredeemed and unredeemable perpetrators of violence. Period.

Most troubling of all, the voices that purport to tell the “truth” about Islam and Muslims are again shouting from electronic and print soapboxes that this recent remarkable Muslim outreach to the leaders of Christian groups is no more than a ruse, a smokescreen to cover their sinister designs. They are, after all, followers of the nefarious Muhammad and constitutionally incapable of either telling the truth or relenting in their mandate to conquer the world for their fascist faith. In short, when it comes to being informed about Islam, most Americans hear only voices from the ideological extremes: non-Muslims espousing hatred and suspicion of Muslims, and Muslims distorting their tradition beyond the recognition of most of their co-religionists.

Willingness and ability to hear Muslim voices begins with the simple acknowledgment of our shared humanity. That openness can flourish only with the further affirmation that, like most other people, the vast majority of Muslims abhor all forms of violence and long for peace and justice.

John Renard
Professor of Theological Studies
Saint Louis University


Palestinian Constitution – Dr. Firas Milhelm, Dr. Manuel Hassassian

This session, held in Arabic with simultaneous translation into English, was part of the Friday conference sessions that were open to the local public. One of the aims of having a day of the conference conducted in Arabic was to encourage local participation and foster real discussion – in a way, to allow the international conference participants to see into the internal dialogues of Palestinian society as they discuss critical issues. As one of the speakers remarked, the agendas are different when Palestinians talk to “the West” versus when they are talking amongst themselves, and it was very interesting for the internationals present to be privy to these internal discussions.

Dr. Firas Milhelm spoke on the development of the Palestinian Basic Law, formulated by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in conjunction with civil society, and which was, he says, one of the best constitutions in the Middle East, at least on paper. Unfortunately, it was shelved by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat because, Milhelm says, it restricted his powers; however, he later signed it when he needed popular support. Several problematic amendments to PBL (?) include one that grants tolerance to the three monotheistic faiths, but no protection for other faiths which, due to recent immigration, are now present in significant numbers in Israel/Palestine, and one which severely weakens the position of the President, which was passed when Arafat became unpopular but was still undislodgeable, and transferred most of the presidential powers to the Prime Minister, leaving the President in a role similar to the Queen of England’s in the government of the UK. Also, there is a question as to whether Palestinian law is a statement rather than the necessary enforcement of rights, as there is no recourse for suit when rights are not upheld.

Dr. Manuel Hasassian continued the discussion, speaking on the dilemma between Palestinian Basic Law and the drafted Palestinian Constitution regarding executive power, the naming of Islam as the official state religion (with a clause stating that the other monotheistic faiths are to be respected, and have some rights where religious courts are concerned), and checks and balances regarding the judiciary.

Politics in Palestine – Dr. Iyad Bargouti, Dr. Ahmad Majdalani, Dr. Bernard Sabella

This session, held in Arabic with simultaneous translation into English, was part of the Friday conference sessions that were open to the local public. One of the aims of having a day of the conference conducted in Arabic was to encourage local participation and foster real discussion – in a way, to allow the international conference participants to see into the internal dialogues of Palestinian society as they discuss critical issues. As one of the speakers remarked, the agendas are different when Palestinians talk to “the West” versus when they are talking amongst themselves, and it was very interesting for the internationals present to be privy to these internal discussions.

Dr Iyad Bargouti, a leading Palestinian political figure (?), began the session by talking about the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). He said that the PLO was originally secular, according to initial declaration in 1994, in spite of most leaders’ religious ties, but religiosity still existed to a large extent in Palestinian society. This religiosity, along with other factors, led to the emergence of Hamas in 1987 as a resistance movement, opposed to the secularism of the PLO, at the same time as the beginning of the first Intifada.

Dr. Ahmad Majdalani continued the exposition of the relationship between religious and political movements by discussing the history of religious and nationalist agendas. He remarked that Islamists at the time of the beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood were not associated with the Palestinian nationalist agenda. Furthermore, in 1952, he continued, the main organized Islamist movement was struggling against Jordanian rule, and also against the nationalist movement in Gaza and the West Bank, so they actually ended up on-side with the Israeli Occupation forces in the suppression of the Palestinian nationalist movement. The Palestinian national charter in 1969 called for a secular state in historic Palestine, a joint Arab/Jewish state, but this didn’t happen because the Jews were anxious not to give up Israel’s “Jewish” identity, which seems still to be the majority attitude among Jewish Israelis toward a one-state solution today. However, without a solution for a singular, secular state in historic Palestine, there are now two states where increasing religious extremism affects both internal and external politics. With the increasing Islamicisation of Palestine (not just a Muslim state, which it mainly is by virtue of the Muslim majority, but an Islamist state, where Islamic law presides), it only encourages Israel to become a stronger Jewish state in response.

Dr. Bernard Sabella then brought the presence of Christians into the discussion, saying that Christians have been here for 2000 years, and don’t need anyone else’s endorsement or approval to live and participate in civic life here in Palestine. He expressed concerns over the possibility of a non-secular, Islamic state in Palestine. Regarding religious freedom for non-Muslims, he discussed a passage in Islamic law that says that actions by any religious group should not “infringe on public order”, saying that depending on how “infringing on public order” is defined and interpreted, the enforcement of this guideline could result in restriction and repression of non-Muslim religious expression. He acknowledged that in Hamas’ 2006 electoral platform, they said that Christians and Muslims would be equal under the law, but he still seems to have reservations about what that will look like in action. Religion isn’t the problem, he says, it’s the interpretation of the religion to the detriment of others.

New Identities, Old Boundaries: Multiplicity in the Middle East – Dr. Salim Tamari

Dr. Tamari’s explanation of the shifting of Palestinian identity was fascinating. He explained that there has been a history of plurality in the Middle East, and that based on the changing religio-political contexts of the region, and depending on who is asking the question, layers of affiliation rise and fall. Historically, local affinities (Bethlehemite, Hebronite, Jerusalemite) have been the primary identifier for people, with neighbourhood, clan, religious and family ties further differentiating or uniting people. In the 20th century, Palestinian identity has shifted from Ottoman, to Syrian, to Arab, and to Palestinian, as political scenes and boundaries shifted, and as the need for new ideas about identity emerged. For example, the emergence of a pan-Arab identity among Palestinian refugees after 1948, when they were seeking support from and refuge in neighbouring Arab states.

Dr. Tamari remarked that it was a “sign of the times” that 20,000 people would show up in support of the reinstitution of the Ottoman Caliphate (defunct since 1923), but demonstrations in support of contemporary political figures like Mahmoud Abbas draw almost no one. This is a huge change from 1967, when themes in Palestinian political culture were secular, nationalistic and class-based.

Around the time of the British Mandate, there was unity between the Christian and Muslim communities, in opposition to Zionism. However, more recently, with the apparent failure of the peace accords with Israel, the efficacy of Palestinian nationalism as a way toward resolution has been questioned, and inter-religious competition or struggle has emerged again.

Dr. Tamari also talked about comparisons between Israel/Palestine and the situation in South Africa, but noted that he felt that a more valid and productive comparison could be drawn with the former Yugoslavia (Croatia and Bosnia). After the bulk of the conflict was over, these two countries were able to move away from territorial conflict by thinking of themselves as part of a larger whole, the European Community, with all of the economic and political implications thereof. With this larger frame of reference, leaders began to think not of how they needed to compete with each other but how they could compete on a regional level, and this became sort of a “back door solution” to what was a very bloody and traumatizing conflict. Similarly, if Israel and Palestine were able to step back from territorial conflict and see themselves as a part of the Eastern Mediterranean region, and if other regional partners were able to make suggestions or apply pressure for things like water sharing, ecological covenants and fair trade practices for goods and services, this could lead to real progress.

Jewish Texts – Dr. Marc Ellis

This presentation was originally intended to be a panel discussion, but the invited representatives from the Shas and Ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel refused to sit at the same table as Jewish liberation theologian, Dr. Marc Ellis. Dr. Ellis remarked that this was their general attitude towards Arabs and indeed any “other”, as well, and shared the story of an Arab diplomat talking to an Israeli official after a meeting, who told him that “his very presence offended him”.

Dr. Ellis remarked that it was “terribly disturbing” that the book he wrote 20 years ago, “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation”, was even more relevant today than when he wrote it. In the book he calls for three things: (1) a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis, (2) a confession by the Jewish people for what they have/had done to the Palestinians, and (3) reparations for what has happened. Then, and now, he wonders what has happened to the Jewish ethical tradition?

Dr. Ellis also talked about the swinging pendulum between the Rabbinic and the Prophetic in Judaism and in power on the ground in Israel or in exile. He talked about a community in exile, and a “new Diaspora” in the Diaspora, of people bringing fragments of traditions from their backgrounds and mixing with other fragments to create a new community in exile, united more by what they have in common with each other than with the “people back home”. He talked about Constantinian religion and Conscience religion, and the Constantinian Rabbinic establishment in Israel that has been a disaster for contemporary Judaism.

Why “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” – Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb

In this presentation, Rev. Dr. Raheb explained why the theme of “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” was chosen, and gave an overview of the topics which would be discussed during the coming days.

The overall theme of the series of international, intercultural, interdisciplinary, interfaith conferences taking place at the ICB biannually from 2005-2015 is “Land, People and Identity”. The particular idea of shaping communities in times of crisis (such as the current situation in Palestine, where there is not only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to consider, but also intra-Palestinian struggles among Fatah, Hamas, and other political and religious entities) was important when this year’s topic was chosen in 2005, but increases in importance in the context of the drafting of a Palestinian Constitution. Rev. Dr. Raheb reminded us that this week would be not just about having a conference, but about starting a process and having real discussion about the issues which face Christians here in Palestine and abroad. He expressed his hope that from the discussions and debates at the conference, a shared body of knowledge would accumulate, from which the ability and resources to influence politics and society would emerge, and which could, in turn, result in real change.

Rev. Dr. Raheb pointed out that this year’s conference would have a more global context, discussing religion and state in Europe (especially the use/absence of God in the European Constitution), the USA (regarding the experience of African Americans vis-à-vis slavery, sacred texts and the US Constitution), India (the world’s largest democracy, with a large degree of religious plurality), as well as in Palestine (where issues of Church and State are sometimes matters of life and death, as both religious and national identities are in a state of crisis). To increase participation among the local community, Friday’s sessions would be centred on Palestinian issues, and the sessions would be held in Arabic, in order to allow local individuals to join and fully participate in the proceedings.

The meaning of the Arabic for “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” (Haqimiyyeh t’Allah wa Houb Minas) was discussed, highlighting the peculiarity of the first part of the phrase. Translated into English, it does mean “God’s Reign/Rule”, but it has the connotation of society being destined to be governed by God, and the additional connection to the founder of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, a group currently at the center of religious debate in the Middle East for its alleged connections to Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon. What is at stake here, Rev. Dr. Raheb was keen to mention, was pluralism in the Middle East, and values of liberty and equality.

God's Reign & People's Rule: Starting Ceremony

The session began with a musical offering from soprano Valentina Moustafa, accompanied on piano by ICB music director Matt Middleton. Among the approximately 50 people in attendance were His Grace the Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, and Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb.

Opening remarks and prayer were made by the conference coordinator, Ms. Janet Lahr Lewis, and included the “Four Elements Medicine Wheel Prayer” by Ralph Metzner, which corresponded to the beautiful wall-hangings that graced the stage where the speakers and panelists were to sit.

The opening message from Rev. Dr. Raheb welcomed the conference delegates, who joined us from 12 countries, 4 continents, and several religious backgrounds. Unfortunately, the delegates from India were unable to come to Bethlehem because of visa difficulties, and were present with us only in spirit. Also, the delegates from Latin America were unable to attend because of financial constraints.

Rev. Dr. Raheb explained that the conference theme of “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” was chosen two years ago, as the most critical topic for the future of the Middle East. The ways that religious communities, political entities and civil society (or the absence thereof) interact and cooperate will shape how Palestine (in the context of the new constitution, and the continued struggle for power between Fatah and Hamas) and the Middle East at large will develop over the next stretch of time.

Bishop Younan then spoke on God’s will, and the danger of the fatalistic belief that “everything is from God”, which he said is “killing the Arab world”. This belief, he said, strips power from humans and ignores human free will – the capacity to do good or do evil. Another problem is the reversal of the traditional belief that God uses people to accomplish His will; lately, it seems that people are using God to accomplish their will, or as a justification for behaviour which is, in reality, self-serving or unfaithful. It is our vocation as a church to work against extremism and instead work for justice, and for humanity.

Regarding the issue of land, the Bishop said that “God is not a real estate agent”, making deals and giving certain parcels of land to certain people. As Christians, our numbers here in the Holy Land may be small, but mission is not measured in numbers, but in faith and steadfastness.