WASHINGTON — A Christian pastor from Bethlehem says that just as Israel has a powerful lobby, Christians in the U.S. should unite to make sure money sent by their government to Israel will not be used to the detriment of Christians and other inhabitants of the Holy Land.
The Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem, spoke in Washington Sept. 20 about the diminishing number of Christians in Bethlehem, their life in an occupied city and lack of opportunities for Palestinian Christians who want to remain in the ancestral home for Christians.
His lecture “Within and Beyond the Wall,” at Washington’s Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, addressed the need for Christians outside the Holy Land to advocate for Christians there.
That can mean educating themselves about those living there, Raheb said, or by calling out politicians who advocate for the U.S. to give money to Israel, which affects the way Palestinian Christians and Palestinians of other faiths are treated by the Jewish state.
The U.S. government announced in mid-September a $38 billion package of military aid for Israel — or $3.8 billion a year — over the next 10 years. Palestinian Christians and others are “paying the price” of that aid, including Christians in Bethlehem, which has become “a walled city” and one that is becoming a “like a ghetto,” Raheb said.
“And Jewish (people) know what the ghettos are like from their history,” he said.
Without being able to expand because of Israeli control, Palestinians face lack of places for commerce, which brings lack of employment and a lack of places to live, Raheb said.
In the future, these conditions will bring a parade of even worse social maladies, he said. Raheb is pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and president of Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a nonprofit that says its aim is to have Christianity survive and thrive in the Holy Land.
The nonprofit sponsored a variety of events in Washington Sept. 19-25 that focused on the culture and arts and daily lives of Christians in the Holy Land.
Pat Labuda, a parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Derwood, Maryland, and also a member of the Holy Land Committee in Washington, was in the audience. She said as an American Christian, it’s difficult to hear about some of the hardships faced by those in Palestine — Christian or otherwise.
“We as Americans are complicit in this,” she said. “We are responsible if we don’t do anything. We really have a moral responsibility and our church leaders need to say it whether people like it or not.”
She encouraged other Christians to call their elected representatives, see where they stand on aid to Israel and whether that aid has any conditions and let them know they won’t stand for harm to Palestinian Christians and others in the Holy Land.
Raheb said that he sees a number of Catholics make an attempt to understand the situation, including an annual visit by European and American bishops who visit in January and he has seen them issue statements.
“But I think we need more, even from the Vatican, we need more,” he said. “You know, sometimes churches, sometimes when it comes to Israel and Palestine, they are very careful and many of them do self-censorship all the time.”
In a fragile situation, people worry about saying the wrong thing or what others will say, and “they are afraid of being attacked because being prophetic comes with a price tag,” Raheb sad.
Labuda said it’s important to make inroads with Jewish friends who also oppose some of what the state of Israel does and said the issue is more about being “pro-people,” not against something.
As a pastor ministering to a community living within Israel’s security wall, including young people without employment, being unsure whether they can dream, and uncertain about the future, can be daunting, Raheb said. Figures from the World Bank in 2014 said one out of six Palestinians in the West Bank and nearly every second person in Gaza are unemployed.
Oppressing a community is “something that is very dangerous and the thing is, this is not a natural disaster that comes from heaven, it’s not an earthquake that we have no control of. … This is a man-made catastrophe,” he said.
He also worries about the dwindling number of Christians in a place where the faith was born and first took root and said he wants to see a thriving Christian community, not just a group of religious people with keys to open and close holy sites.
“I wish we had an American president that had the guts of Ronald Reagan who was able to sometime ago tell Gorbachev, ‘Mr. President, tear this wall down,'” Raheb said. “I really wish we had (a U.S. president) who had the guts to tell Israel that.”
Though at times the situation may seem hopeless, Raheb said, he believes that unity among Christians, and perhaps a Christian lobby to advocate for others in the Holy Land, can bring about change.
“There is no serious Christian lobby. We don’t have a Palestinian (Christian) lobby maybe because we don’t have enough funds for it,” he said. “A Christian lobby was never part of the way of our way of working. I think there are very good Christians who care, but we are not organized.”
And perhaps that’s an area that others outside can work on, he said.
“What keeps you going? What gives you hope?” asked Father Jim Gardiner, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement.
Raheb answered: “What keeps me going is when I see young people … how their lives have been transformed and how they became agents of change. It’s worthwhile to live for that community, it’s worthwhile to invest in that community, it’s worthwhile to put time and energy and resources to make sure that this community will thrive because this community is facing immense challenges but they also have endless possibilities and great potential.”