Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has restored its sparkling mosaics and marble columns to their original glory for the first time in 600 years.
“It has become such a beautiful church,” Ziad al-Bandak, head of the local project committee of Christian leaders, told the AP. “Every Christian in the world would love to see it now.”
Palestinian Mayor Anton Salman expects 1.2 million tourists will make their way to Christ’s birthplace this year. Among them, following an Israeli reversal, will be those who most long to visit for Christmas—the Christians of the Gaza Strip.
“In Gaza, they talk about the West Bank as if it is heaven,” said Hanna Maher, Egyptian pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church. “People love to go for Christmas; there are so many churches.”
In Gaza, there are three. According to the 2017 census, 47,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories (1% of the population), but only about 1,000 live in Gaza.
Last week the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) reported that nearly all who applied to enter Israel to visit the West Bank for Christmas failed to receive permits, except for those older than 55.
Applicants younger than 16 were also approved, consistent with restrictions instituted last Christmas and maintained through Easter. A previous policy limited travel to those between ages 16 and 35.
The MEC report was confirmed by Maher, who stated that initially just 200 travel permits had been granted, and Christians, sharing stories of the delayed permit applications, began to assume those outside the age limit would not be allowed to travel.
But their prayers were answered this week…
Please click here to read the full story at Christianity Today.
Hanna Maher’s wife is nine months pregnant, due any day now, with only four hours of daily electricity. Her two older boys scurry about in the dark, kept ignorant by parents about the dead at the border.
But it is hard to be ignorant in Gaza.
A Norwegian charity estimates 56 percent of children in the Palestinian territory suffer from traumatic nightmares. Suicide, rarely seen culturally, is a growing concern. Maher, an Egyptian-born Baptist pastor, says some at the border see death as the best option.
Two million people are squeezed into a coastal strip roughly the size of Philadelphia. Exit is severely restricted on one side by Israel. The waiting list into Egypt is 40,000 names long.
Unemployment is over 40 percent. Clean drinking water is hard to come by. And on May 14, as tens of thousands massed near a chain link fence demonstrating for their “Right to Return,” Israeli snipers picked off dozens.
“Monday was a hard day. But at least it is quiet now,” Maher said. “It has been bad for years. But conditions now are the worst I have seen.”
Maher went to Gaza in 2011, and married his local Palestinian wife a year later. His congregation is the strip’s only evangelical church, with about 60 regular members. Overall, Gaza’s Christian population is about 1,000, mostly Greek Orthodox; in the last 10 years, it has declined by a third.
Maher provides food aid to about 120 families. His marriage preparation classes are a crash course in how to nurture a family amid poverty.
And he says local Christians are critical of just about everyone…
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
From al-Monitor, a unique account of a Palestinian Christian in Gaza who daily accompanies his blind Muslim friend to the mosque:
“Growing up, Hatem would always perform prayers at the mosque, but after the incident five years ago, he was no longer able to do so because there was no one available to guide him there. I saw how he would shed tears whenever the call to prayer would come from the mosque. That is why I decided to take him to the mosque to pray as he did in the past.
“The first day I helped him get to the mosque, four years ago, he was so happy. So I told him I would be taking him every day to perform all the prayers. He was thrilled to hear my decision. It was as if he had found something he had lost for a long time.”
Hatem has been friends with Abu Elias for over fifteen years, who also helps him go to market and reads him the daily news. Both explain the service in reference to friendship and national solidarity over and above any particular religious devotion.
But allow also their example to be an inspiration to Americans. No matter how different the context, kindness trumps ideology.
The bombs continue, this time striking a security directorate in the early morning hours with a blast that rattled all Cairo. Several injuries, none killed – it is a marker of taunting more than a message of death.
But from where?
There are problems at the borders, God. To the west, Libyan officials have abandoned a desert crossing. To the east, militants seized Palestinians returning to Gaza, taking four from a bus. And long a guarantor of peace, the United States is considering pulling out peacekeeping forces on the Sinai border with Israel.
How much of Egypt’s trouble is imported, God? Most of the Gaza tunnels have been destroyed. But instability still reigns in Libya, as the Arab League debates arming the internationally recognized government. Will more war bring peace, or more weapons to smuggle?
Secure the borders, God, though with Egypt’s deserts the task is formidable. Ideas have wings, but keep out the men and means of violence.
Of those already here, may they be found, disarmed, and prosecuted.
But most belong here. Egypt has long been an exporter of violent ideology. Give winning flight to better ideas.
Help men of religion to lead the charge. Help them also to stay out of the way. Religion can inspire, it can also impose.
Help Egypt find the balance. Help her craft a society of welcome and tolerance, humanity and peace.
For those tempted to radicalize where these are absent, God, give them a stronger inner core of righteousness. May they fight for justice, but transgress not.
May humility rattle the region, and decency taunt the darkness. May the borders be secure because the center is whole. A marker of encouragement, a message of life.
It is not as if this is the first time. Mutual acrimony between Israel and Hamas leads to the exchange of rockets, with deeply disproportional suffering. Now a land invasion is poised to begin.
Egypt has been the historic mediator, but this time – so far – unsuccessfully. Two years ago President Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has ties with Hamas, brokered a ceasefire and relative lull in hostilities. This time the violence continues despite Egypt’s efforts, and peace is as far away as ever.
Meanwhile Egyptian society is torn. The people of Gaza lack their standard sympathy due to widespread sentiment Hamas has been destabilizing Egypt through the Sinai. But an anti-Zionism is always present, and as the Palestinian casualties mount the Egyptian frustration mounts with it.
God, is there an answer? Must Hamas be destroyed? Must so many people of Gaza die? Must rockets rain down on Israel? Must the Zionists be driven back to where they came from?
God, there must be a better answer. Help Egypt have a share in finding it. Help world sympathy for all not falter. But help Palestinians and Israelis to reconcile. Help justice to be done.
For justice is a sticking point. The terms are not equal. Palestine is under occupation. Stand with all who suffer, give them relief, and help them to honor moral convictions and call out to you.
Feeling triumphant, too many rejoice in the suffering of others. Feeling aggrieved, too many strike out at innocents. Feeling in need of world opinion, too many manufacture propaganda. Feeling in need of domestic support, too many dehumanize their enemy.
But if they call out, God, answer them and give repentance and forgiveness. Answer them and give initiative and creativity. Answer them and give a just political solution. Answer them and give social peace and mutuality.
Help them find the way, God, first through their own hearts, and then through the hearts of their enemy.
This is not the first time these prayers have been necessary; in man’s estimation it is unlikely to be the last. Remove acrimony and exchange love, God, however impossible it may seem. The sins of all are infinitely disproportionate to your grace, so have mercy.
There is much wrong on both sides. The situation is complex and begs for thorough analysis. All this is granted but within this debate, here is a well-researched article from Jadaliyya exposing a false rhetoric that seems eminently logical:
On the fourth day of Israel’s most recent onslaught against Gaza’s Palestinian population, President Barack Obama declared, “No country on Earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” In an echo of Israeli officials, he sought to frame Israel’s aerial missile strikes against the 360-square kilometer Strip as the just use of armed force against a foreign country. Israel’s ability to frame its assault against territory it occupies as a right of self-defense turns international law on its head.
A state cannot simultaneously exercise control over territory it occupies and militarily attack that territory on the claim that it is “foreign” and poses an exogenous national security threat. In doing precisely that, Israel is asserting rights that may be consistent with colonial domination but simply do not exist under international law.
The article was first published two years ago, under near exact circumstances. It continues by detailing the legal arguments that invoke the right to national self-defense, and finds they come up short – even as judged by the Israeli High Court:
Since the beginning of its occupation in 1967, Israel has rebuffed the applicability of international humanitarian law to the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Despite imposing military rule over the West Bank and Gaza, Israel denied the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (the cornerstone of Occupation Law). Israel argued because the territories neither constituted a sovereign state nor were sovereign territories of the displaced states at the time of conquest, that it simply administered the territories and did not occupy them within the meaning of international law. The UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, the UN General Assembly, as well as the Israeli High Court of Justice have roundly rejected the Israeli government’s position.
Again, there is much wrong on both sides. But do recall the essential foundational fact: Gaza and the West Bank are occupied territories. A just solution has escaped the international community since 1967. Proportion of fault can be debated, but Israel bears responsibility for the land it holds.
There is no winner, there is only more destruction. Unfortunately both sides seem more than willing to engage.
From my recent article at Arab West Report, describing an interview with a former security officer in the Sinai, who wished to remain anonymous. In light of the current accusations leveled against the Muslim Brotherhood, his comments, issued in May 2013, are very pertinent:
These known political figures, including leading Salafi-Jihadis such as ‘Adil Shahātah and Ahmad ‘Ashūsh, are currently playing a political role and not in charge of the operations on the ground, he said. But they still indirectly administer their policies and act as a go-between for the jihadists and non-violent political Islamist groups, and even the Mursī administration.
The Islamists, the advisor says, have divided up roles between themselves – this one to be violent, this one to be political – and having multiple entities helps fill the political space. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular is the head, and their deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shātir is one of the chief beneficiaries of the tunnel economy. They have three main uses for Salafi and jihadist entities.
The first is to win elections. In keeping a unity among real groups that do compete with each other, they ensure better results at the ballot box. The second use is as a threat for their competition, liberal and secular minded Egyptians who might find it necessary to cooperate with a ‘moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood to ensure they do not side publicly with the more extremist Salafis. The third use is similar, but aimed at the West. By being in league with jihadist elements, the Muslim Brotherhood can demonstrate they are the only ones capable of deterring their violence.
And while the military is currently destroying the aforementioned tunnels, here is how the state used to deal with them:
But if Bedouins were frozen out of official state business, they thrived in the unofficial business of the tunnel system to Gaza. The advisor numbered tunnel totals around 1200, and at their height during the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead a single tunnel could earn up to one million US dollars per day. The tunnel could be rented for one hour at a cost of $20,000 US, with administrative taxes taken on the other side by Hamas.
Before the revolution, Egypt used the tunnels as a foreign policy tool. Whether for pressure on Israel or Gaza, or indirectly on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar via their Sinai proxies, the flow of goods into Gaza could be variously eased or restricted. The nature of goods, also, could serve the state’s unofficial international policies. Technically, the Bedouins ran the tunnels, for all crossed through their land. But the government watched, which also provided an additional incentive for the tribes to cooperate.
The article also describes the demographic features of the Sinai and estimates the violent, jihadist elements. But given the severity of current political accusations, two lines from the conclusion are vital:
In reference to the information therein he assured its veracity. ‘This is not analysis,’ he said, ‘it is intelligence.’
Arab-West Report has not verified his assertions.
Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.
Rarely do men try to speak in your name, but there are many burdened to represent what they believe you have spoken. Now, in Egypt, some of these will be denied.
Give them wisdom in responding to this development.
The government has taken new steps to ensure only licensed imams may preach on Friday. They are also preparing to close the small neighborhood mosques which populate most city streets. They feel this combination is ripe for extremist messaging. Others complain it is only extremist in rejection of a current military order.
Likely, both arguments have merit. The Azhar, the centuries old mosque and institute of learning, is a state-backed organization with a history of moderation. Often, the vitriol issued against Copts, Israel, the West, or the Egyptian establishment come from self-studied scholars specializing in Wahhabi thought. That is, if they specialize at all.
But, at times Azhar scholars have either veered off course or played sycophant to the state. And many a self-studied scholar deserves full respect for dedication and erudition.
The new proclamation ensures that all stay within bounds and on message. Part of that message, admitted openly, is to keep politics out of the mosque.
Oh how dangerous, God, are both sides of this coin. Government restricting religion displays empty hypocrisy. Religion seeking government invites empty hypocrisy.
But the argument is fair that the government should protect against incitement to hate and violence. And the role of religion in holding government accountable is worthy of every argument.
Of course, will the government enforce its ruling at all? Is it able to?
God, give discernment to Egypt’s preachers in all religions. Help them to lead the people toward peace, mercy, and righteousness.
Help them to see the injustices in the land, and to speak powerfully against them.
Help them to pray for those who lead the nation, that they might encourage all the above.
Many, God, are sincere but misguided in their ministries. Lead them to the right path. And some, God, manipulate freely and willfully. Rebuke them; silence them if necessary.
But it is not just the now-non-Islamist government that seeks to corral preachers. Pro-Brotherhood Hamas is doing the same, asking imams to tone down their criticism of Egypt. Poor relations with Cairo choke the economic life of Gaza.
As Egypt battles terrorism in the Sinai, it has also moved to close the expansive network of tunnels into Gaza. The transfer point for drugs, weapons, and jihadists, the tunnels also are Palestinians’ black market for everything from basic supplies to luxury goods. Many get rich off the trade.
Here, God, there is much to pray for. Eliminate the threat of those who will use wanton violence to achieve their ends. Hold back those tempted to inflate or exploit this threat. Bring real equity and prosperity to Sinai to curb the attraction of smuggling. And establish peace between Israel and Palestine so that borders may be opened and tunnels obviated.
God, in the desert or elsewhere, may preachers handle your will correctly. Lead them, for the sake of all.
Not long ago of course Osama bin Laden was assassinated, and the whole world rejoiced. Thousands have died in drone assaults. What is your response to such killing?
I have been speaking in meetings in America, and part of my sermon was, “Have you prayed today for bin Laden?” People were rather shocked, and some people said, “I must confess. I have never prayed for bin Laden, but now I do it.”
Bin Laden was on my prayer list. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to tell him who is the real boss in the world. But then he was murdered, I call it. Murdered, because he didn’t shoot back. He had no resistance. That’s not warfare. And I have had too much of that. A good number of my own friends in Gaza have been assassinated. Liquidated they call it in their terminology. I call it murdered.
We must witness to people. And all the people that I now talk about in Gaza that were murdered were people that I met in their homes and I gave a Bible. I prayed with them.
The title of this post is taken from Christianity Today, and is the part of this interview the magazine chose to highlight.
Let us suppose there was certainty about the object of a drone attack being a self-confessed, proud, and practiced terrorist. The reality is that this certainty is often lacking, and many otherwise innocent people die in the process of targeting them. But let us suppose.
One of the tensions of Christianity – a very positive one – is that it encourages fidelity to both country and creator. As an American, a case can be made that drone killings are cheaper, more effective, and save more lives than traditional warfare. Certainly they keep the lives of our own soldiers from risk.
But as a Christian? The appeal to Genesis – he who sheds the blood of man, let his blood be shed – only applies if you give America jurisdiction over the rest of the world. That such a terrorist be killed may represent justice, but that anyone assume the right to kill him is another matter.
The words of Brother Andrew are poignant, because he is not just an armchair theorist. He has met with such people, and loved them. Perhaps this distracts him from the necessary cold-hearted calculation required of a nation.
But let it tug at the heart strings of Christians, who must be merciful, as God is merciful. Who must love their enemies, and do good to those who hate them. Who must from love keep no record of wrongs, refuse to delight in evil, and always protect, trust, hope, and persevere.
Dear Christian, dear citizen, live in this tension, but remain whole.
Yet from my perspective in Egypt, I wonder if the Israeli motivation is to test Cairo more than Hamas. Of course, domestic factors always outweigh international ones. But at the least Tel Aviv may wish to discover what sort of president it faces in Mohamed Morsy, if not seek to discredit him altogether.
Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric during the Mubarak administration was always to harshly condemn the state’s refusal to take decisive action against Israel vis-à-vis Palestine. Yet Mubarak was not shy to issue strong verbal condemnations against Israel, nor did he refrain from withdrawing his ambassador to Tel Aviv. Morsy’s government, to prove consistent, must do more.
Morsy is not the Muslim Brotherhood, officially, which allows for an undefined relation of influence and agency:
Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood called for massive protests on Friday, as did every other political force rallying behind Gaza. Opposition to Israel has always been a hallmark of every Egyptian political movement, but it is ironic to see liberal parties now in condemnation of an Islamist presidency’s failure to stand up to Israel. But the Brotherhood is not falling behind: It has called for cutting all ties.
Do they mean it? How much effort will they pour into protest mobilization? Are they forcing the hand of the president? Or are they simply covering themselves should Morsi’s obliged inaction have to be explained away later?
But maybe Israel is seeking more definition:
Perhaps Israel is nudging at one of these contradictions. Morsi and the Brotherhood built their power base on anti-Israeli rhetoric. Yet seeking the approval of the international community and commercial interests also pledged to respect all treaties. There is little wiggle room. If they imitate Mubarak’s outrage they risk losing the people. If they take decisive steps against Tel Aviv they risk losing credibility. Such are the demands of leadership; can they step up to the plate?
The full text notes also the domestic considerations of Israel’s actions, and notes as well certain conspiratorial factors involved. Please click here to read the article at EgyptSource.
Above all, bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Stop rockets, stop killing, stop assassinations, and stop injustice. Allow all sides to argue over who most deserves these accusations, but draw them to a halt.
As for Egypt, where these arguments are few, give wisdom to the president and political leadership on how to intervene for peace. May he stand with victims and against oppression. Help him to mediate between his allies in Hamas and his oft-political targets in Tel Aviv. Help him to encourage the Americans to play a positive role. But guide him to the transcendence of politics to the resolution of conflict. May he do what is right, whatever that is.
Egypt needs unity and solidarity, God, but caution the people about rallying against an enemy. Bless all those who express concern for innocent Palestinians, and who seek to condemn the asymmetry of the strife. But for those who are angling for political gain, cause their efforts to come to naught. Grant Egyptians legitimate outrage over what has befallen their neighbors, and discernment to weigh injustice against propaganda.
And as Israel and Palestine confront their internal issues, limit the repercussions from spilling over into Egypt. Guard the border, God, and keep militancy from spreading to Sinai and beyond. For would-be militants already here, honor their sense of resistance and sacrifice. But direct their devotion to the cause of peace and justice, not to arms and invectives. May they harm no lives, be they Egyptian, Israeli, or their own.
Beat swords into plowshares, God. May those who love you lead the way.
Once again Egypt is bloody. When manipulations are political it can be understood as the nature of politics in times of transition. Yet this manipulation is evil. Sixteen soldiers were killed on the border with Gaza, by as yet unknown assailants.
Early reports blamed terrorist Islamist groups based in the Sinai. Then links with Hamas or other Palestinians were proposed. Some turned the other direction, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and alleged Israeli involvement.
The political fallout has similarly been all over the map. Some try to link the inefficient Morsy government to lax security and Islamist emboldening. Others nudge at the military council as proof they should leave transitional oversight and get back to protecting the borders. In the background is a budding new and anti-MB revolution planned for August 24, as well as moves to replace editors-in-chief of state newspapers and reorganize spy and security leadership.
The nation is abuzz, all while mourning.
In it all, God, who represents evil? Who would kill to advance their political goals?
How much longer must Egypt suffer, God? Encourage those who believe what has happened in the revolution is good, even if there is much wrong to overcome; even if there is much wrong in store.
May good men prevail. May those who have committed this atrocity be brought to justice. May those behind them be exposed.
May good men shoulder responsibility, God. May they find the truth and tell it. Cause all secrets to come to light; cause all rumors to dissipate. May Egypt be built again, but on a firmer foundation that what was.
Give strength, God. Give Egyptians faith to seize their nation and participate in shaping it. May that which was beautiful not be lost, as they discover now the road is hard and long.
Make it shorter, God, but more importantly, make Egyptians into the kind of people who can endure it. On the other side, may they be whole.
Bishop Cosman is the presiding bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the diocese of North Sinai, consisting of an area 200km long and 127km deep. This roughly stretches from Port Said to Suez along the west (though these cities do not belong his bishopric).
Bishop Cosman states that the population of his bishopric is roughly 400,000-500,000 people, of whom about 3,000 are Christians, represented by 740 families. By contrast, over 2,000 Christian families live in the urban Cairo district of Hadayak al-Maadi. The bishop relates that the low population density makes for a quiet life, and that Christians have good relations, by and large, with their neighbors.
There are two principle cities in North Sinai, Rafah and Arish, each of which has been in the news recently with regularity. Rafah is the site of the crossing into Gaza, which was reopened following the reconciliation of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. As the reconciliation has sputtered, however, so has the crossing of goods through the border, as many restrictions remain. Illegal tunnels in the area compensate in black market trade, and near here Gaza Palestinians stand accused of crossing the border to infiltrate through Sinai to Eliat, where several Israelis were murdered in a terrorist attack.
Arish, meanwhile, has been the site of internal Egyptian unrest. On Jan. 29 following a massive, peaceful Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi demonstration in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, including Arish, masked gunmen attacked the city police station in a shootout lasting several hours. Flyers were distributed calling for an Islamic emirate in the Sinai, linked to a supposed local al-Qaeda branch. This event that prompted the entry of the Egyptian military, though special agreement had to be secured first with Israel, as much of the area is demilitarized as mandated by the Camp David Accords.
Each of these two cities hosts a Coptic Orthodox Church. Arish is the seat of the bishopric, which was built in 1939 in the neighborhood of Dahya. Rafah, however, hosts the only licensed church, which was built in 1996. This church, however, was destroyed during the lawless initial days of the Egyptian revolution, and has not yet been rebuilt despite promises by the state, according to Bishop Cosman. He states the Christians are waiting patiently to take their rights to pray in Rafah Church. He does not know who committed this crime, as the sixty-plus attackers covered their faces while wielding automatic weapons.
In addition to the two churches the diocese owns three additional ‘service buildings’ that resemble ordinary structures but host regular masses and provide social outlets for the Christian community. Two of these buildings are in Arish itself, with the other in Masa’id, a smaller town roughly 12km to the east. A community of five priests, in addition to Bishop Cosman, serves the Christians of the area.
Only two of these priests, however, stem originally from the diocese of North Sinai. Neither does Bishop Cosman, who hails from Beheira in the Delta region, and was appointed ten years ago from the St. Mina Monastery to the west of Alexandria. That even two priests are local is quite an accomplishment, however, as nearly all of the area Christians originally emigrated from other quarters.
The original inhabitants of the territory of the diocese are native Arishis, some Palestinians, and large Bedouin families which historically roamed the desert. To this number came significant Nile Valley transplants seeking work, beginning in the 19th Century. The Christians of North Sinai belong to this last group, and live mainly in the cities of Arish and Rafah, though some are in the smaller, inland villages of Hassana and Nikhl, and some in temporary worker outposts connected to projects. Like the inhabitants of the area, Christians tend to be poor. They are employed primarily as teachers, employees of government ministries, or in construction.
As stated earlier, Bishop Cosman emphasized the Christians of North Sinai enjoy good relations with all their neighbors, as well as the Bedouins, which is one reason he does not suspect them of involvement in the Rafah church attack. These relations are cemented through mutual visits during holidays and funerals, though the small number of Christians stipulates their reach in the community is not that far.
Yet the real danger in the area comes neither from the Salafis nor the Bedouin, but the lawless and criminal elements hiding in the desert. Even so, the bishop seemed mostly unconcerned. “We trust in God,” was his simple reply.
The region of Sinai is mysterious, beyond the experience of either urban or rural Egyptians. It exists in the nexus of struggle between Egypt and Israel, state and Bedouin, and civilization and tribe. Within this flashpoint is a small community of Christians, mostly imperceptible in each of these conflicts. Yet their faith maintains they are salt and light nonetheless. Further research, including hopeful visits to the area, is necessary to determine if it is true.