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The Burden of Palestinian Christians’ Oppression

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

The first time I met Danny* and his wife and their firstborn (still in a stroller), we were eating together at a monastery at the base of Mount Sinai—it was a little like a pilgrimage for us: one of the special benefits of attending a seminary in Egypt. Both possessed a wonderful sense of humor, a great appetite for food and people, and that night-owl habit that is so prevalent in all of the cultures of the Middle East. We laughed and talked then, and my wife and I have kept up and visited with them on other occasions since.

Pastor Danny hails from the folds of the Christian Bible belts of Upper Egypt, where boys and girls of his generation grew up in a ceaseless rhythm of nightly worship meetings, of frequent church conferences, of constant review of Scriptural stories, and of the competitive memorization of hundreds of key verses from the Bible. He’d lived with a cultural heritage of nearly 2 millennia of Egyptian/Arab Christianity to call his own, and with this rich knowledge of Christian traditions. With such a backdrop, it’s no surprise that both Danny and his brother entered ministry at a young age.

Like Ruth of the Old Testament, Danny made his Beloved’s people his own people.

What became Danny’s special ‘cross,’ to bear, upon his graduation, was that his wife is Palestinian.

It’s not that the Arab inhabitants of the holy land are inherently hard or difficult. In fact, they’re sweet and generous at heart, like most Arabs—the ‘cross’ to bear is that Danny’s wife’s people have been occupied, the land sits in a state of perpetual potential hostility: it can feel a little more like a prison than a country. So, when Danny became a pastor, and subsequently made the difficult decision to join his wife’s family within their Christian minority community near her beleaguered Gazan village, with a calling from God to build up a local church, he identified himself with the persecuted and powerless. Like Ruth of the Old Testament, Danny made his Beloved’s people his own people. Even though he might just as easily have stayed in the relative stability of Egypt, he chose to carry her people’s burden, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ. But unlike Ruth, for Danny, there would be no Boaz, no kinsman redeemer, no person to give him or his wife’s family presence, power, or legitimacy in Palestine.

The spiritual and emotional devastation in Gaza is palpable. Theirs is a state where people have endured decades of attacks, sanctions, and internationally-permitted oppression; where every family has lost at least a handful of young men, friends and family, to the war, and to terror; where the people have lost hope in any peaceful solution. Their borderlands are neighborhoods where the families continue to lose homes that had been theirs for generations to the illegal settlements of a large, powerful, land-hungry ‘big-brother,’ and where that same ‘big-brother’ prevents funds or legal status from being given even to legitimate NGOs or religious organizations (including local churches) serving the Palestinian people.

He can’t work and be supported officially as a pastor, and he can’t enter or leave with ease.

Today, because of the hardship of living in Palestine, Danny is forced to live in a state of limbo. He can’t work and be supported officially as a pastor, and he can’t enter or leave with ease or freely, even though he is a citizen of a neighboring country. Recently, when his mother was sick with cancer, Danny and his family stood in a line with a thousand others, within sight of Egypt, waiting for days at the border for the permission to leave Palestine. In the end, Danny’s mother passed away and was buried before he could make it home to see her. This isn’t considered persecution, but it is painful, it is mistreatment, it does humiliate, it is disrespectful of humanity, and it is imposed by an uncaring oppressive government.

Border-crossing is just one example of the ills and systemic injustices that plague the Palestinian people. Another relates directly to Danny’s efforts to build up the church. Although the continuous presence of Christians in Israel and Palestine goes back to Jesus’ time, it is impossible for Danny to get official papers for his church, and this is the case even though the need for church leadership is stark and provides a social service and support to those in need, and pastoral work is Danny’s area of specialization and training. The only way for him to be a pastor officially would be for him to enter Israel and find a local organization that would stand behind him in support of the Palestinian church—an impossibility.

These days, Danny feels alone and disqualified. Despite the company of his wife and children, when he’s in Palestine heeding his God-given call he misses his family in Egypt, and all the laughter and freedoms he knew there. And when he’s in Egypt, he is frustrated by the fact that he cannot freely enter the land that God has put on his heart to serve—knowing that, while work of other kinds would be a distraction, and could steal jobs from others who so desperately need a livelihood, his status as an ordained pastor there would be illegal, and any hope of being employed in such a capacity remains ever out of reach.

The light-heartedness that Danny used to enjoy has been whittled away by the dismal life that he and his family face in a land surrounded by a concrete wall, filled with broken and decrepit structures that have been repeatedly bombed and rarely, if fully, rebuilt. (The means and material for building is as hard to acquire as work permits). Permanence is hard to come by. Nothing is guaranteed. Peace is pretended at.

The fact is: here, in the neighborhood of Jesus’ birth, fulfilling Christ’s law is a risk.

This is Danny’s injustice: to be a Christian from a Middle Eastern background, to have a mission-worker’s heart, language and proximity to culture, and be equipped and located to serve and pastor, but to be cut down and hard pressed, and prevented from every legal side, from strengthening and further supporting a floundering faltering church. It is an injustice that cries for a response. While Christian organizations in the “Holy Land” flourish, who will stand with the first peoples? This is much easier imagined than done.

Bearing one another’s burdens isn’t popular or politically correct in Gaza. The fact is: here, in the neighborhood of Jesus’ birth, fulfilling Christ’s law is a risk. It’s only by God’s grace and with the encouragement of God’s people that Danny carries on.

 *Danny’s name has been changed to protect his and his family’s identities.

Article 2 of the Belhar Confession, a Contemporary Testimony of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, is a beautiful reminder of God's call to unity with followers of Christ around the world. 

Image adapted from original by Flickr user Bradley Howard

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