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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

The Peacemaking Palestinian Evangelicals of Israel

Salim Munayer
Salim Munayer

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concludes cantankerous negotiations to finalise his right-wing cabinet, Palestinian-Israeli evangelicals are hoping for something better.

Alienated by campaign rhetoric stigmatising Arab citizens as an electoral threat, they turned in response to the source they know best: the Gospel.

In doing so, they seek to reverse a disturbing trend of isolation from society as a whole, and in particular their Jewish neighbors.

‘Are we not asked to be the salt and light of the earth?’ asked Revd Azar Ajaj, president of Nazareth Evangelical College, in an open letter shortly after the Israeli elections.‘How important, then, to show love to those who have been styled as our “enemies”. In fact we are asked to be peacemakers.’

And from April 16-18, he gathered 60 local and international leaders to discuss how.

The ‘Evangelicals and Peacemaking’ conference was sponsored in part by the Baptist Mission Society UK. It urged participants as Palestinian Christians in Israel to seek justice and reconciliation to create a state for all its citizens.

Present at the conference was Salim Munayer, head of Musalaha, which since 1990 has bucked the trends of intifadas and settlement building to call for peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

The election rhetoric was quite discouraging, Munayer told Lapido Media.

Netanyahu rallied his supporters saying the Arabs were coming out to vote ‘in droves’. His foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List which placed third in total Knesset seats, ‘you’re not wanted here.’

Meanwhile the Joint List – a merger of secular, communist, and Islamist parties – included the symbolic presence of a politician calling for a caliphate in Jerusalem. It received the strong endorsement of Hamas.

Pressed between a regional rise in Islamism, mirrored by the gains of religious Zionism, Christians are being squeezed.

And as a result, they are withdrawing from both.

Separation

Evangelical leaders estimate their numbers in Israel are only around 5,000, among 157,000 Christians and 1.4 million Muslims. Israel’s population is 7.91 million, according to the 2012 census.

‘Most interaction between Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews comes by necessity, not as a result of a relationship,’ Munayer told conference attendees. ‘We see them at school, at the bank, but much more must be done.’

And it has never been worse, according to his research co-authored with Jewish professor Gabriel Horenczyk from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The October 2014 issue of International Journal of Psychology details how Christians have soured toward Jews.

In 1998, the predominant attitude of over 200 Arab Christian adolescents surveyed was of integration with Israeli Jewish culture. By contrast, the attitude toward Arab Muslim culture was one of separation.

But 10 years later, adolescents exhibited a primary posture of increasing separation from both.

‘Many of us have given up on trying to improve our relationship with both the Jews and the Muslims of Israel,’ Munayer said. ‘We say it is a waste of time, they are not going to change, they are becoming more religious, and they don’t want us.’

Munayer’s Musalaha is doing all it can to fight the reality of this withdrawal. It has created a three-hundred-page curriculum on reconciliation between distinct peoples, applying its principles during inter-ethnic summer camps and encounter groups.

But he increasingly aims to influence society as a whole, not only at the grassroots but also in academic engagement. Munayer received his PhD from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies at Cardiff University, and is collaborating with a number of young Israeli Christian and Jewish scholars to further his research.

For example, in a survey of 700 Muslims, Christians and Druze, Sammy Smooha of Haifa University found only fifty per cent of Christians have Jewish friends they have visited at home. But 57 per cent have experienced discrimination, and thirty per cent reported receiving threats or humiliation.

These and other findings were presented at a January conference on Palestinian Christian Identity in Israel, co-hosted by Musalaha and the Hebrew University. It was unprecedented, Munayer said, for an Israeli university to sponsor such an event.

Bridges

And it is an Israeli Jew who is helping Ajaj take his baby steps toward peacemaking, moving beyond his simple convictions.

‘Very little is being done to build bridges with the Jews,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I’m still in the beginning of the journey and I pray that good things come out of it.’

In October last year Ajaj participated in an interfaith dialogue at a Jewish conference centre. A rabbi from the village of Kiryet Tiv’on, ten miles from Nazareth, invited him to speak at his synagogue during Hanukah and explain the Ten Commandments on his radio program.

In May they begin a six-month experiment to bring eight from each community to discuss matters of faith and society.

‘We are classified as enemies, but we don’t accept this,’ Ajaj said of the national political discourse. ‘So we must encourage those who are silent to take action and express respect for the other.’

Ajaj hopes the April conference can empower Nazareth Evangelical College as a centre for theological education in peacemaking. But as a minority within a minority within a minority, there is only so much they can do.

To help, Ajaj recently invited leaders from seven different denominations to a conference on Christianity in the Holy Land. Several said it was their first meeting with an evangelical.

But with Christians withdrawing into a self-imposed ghetto mentality as Israeli Arab citizens are labelled a demographic threat, these evangelicals are calling for a halt.

‘If we want a better future built on respecting and loving the “other”, then let us take part in building it,’ Ajaj wrote. ‘Otherwise, those with other values will determine what this future will be.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Acts of Heroism Keep Sectarian Strife out of the Headlines

From Left: Fr. Musa, Mohamed Ali, and Fr. Daniel

If not for the wisdom of two men, the world would be aware of the village of Sheikh Masoud in Upper Egypt for all the wrong reasons.

This hamlet deep in the rural backwater south of Cairo would have been added to the well-publicized list of Egyptian locations torn apart by sectarianism.

As it is, you do not know about it – unlike Dahshur, Giza, which was the most recent casualty of religious division, and the first village to suffer under the new Islamist regime of Mohamed Morsy.

Located 40 kilometers south of Cairo and home to the famous Red and Bent Pyramids, on 28 July Muslims and Christians in Dahshur confronted each other with shouts and exchanges of Molotov cocktails.  It ended with a death and a devastated population.

The incident started when a local Christian laundryman burned the shirt of a Muslim client while ironing.

A stray Molotov cocktail accidently hit a Muslim passer-by. When he died from his burns a few days later, Muslims surrounded Coptic homes and businesses, setting fire to them. By 3 August, security forces had evacuated 120 Christian families from the village until calm could be restored.

Wisdom

The events in Dahshur however are part of a more complex pattern of sectarian relations that is often missed by the media. Sensationalist headlines and attention-grabbing pictures often start out as ordinary social problems that escalate, feeding on religious difference.

Far more common is local community wisdom snuffing out the tension, as happened in the village of Sheikh Masoud, 160 kilometers south of Cairo.

It could have gone either way in this sleepy countryside hamlet whose population recently surged to 25,000, 80 per cent of it Muslim.

The village also hosts an area church.  Here it was that on 5 August a wedding ceremony took place for Christians of a neighboring village that had no church. All proceeded well and the wedding guests got into cars to drive back home. But trouble developed when the bridal party rearranged the seating in their vehicles to allow the bride and groom to drive to Cairo on their own to begin their honeymoon.

To do so they stopped in the middle of the main street in the village, halting traffic. Only half an hour shy of sunset when hungry Muslims could break their Ramadan fast, an argument ensued.

According to Fr Musa Ghobrial, priest of the St George Coptic Orthodox Church in Sheikh Masoud, the street in question lies thirty meters from the church and is a public gathering area for local Muslim youth.

Muslim drivers tossed insults at the bridal party, shouting especially at the sister of the bride getting out of the car, unaware that she was blind.

Flustered, her uncle, unable to shout back as he happened to be mute, spat upon one of the youths. Within moments the argument spilled over into the church compound, with more than a hundred Muslims gathered inside.

Sheikh Masoud Church Grounds

‘I was absent at the moment of the event,’ said Mohamed Ali, a 43-year old power station manager and father of the youth who was spat upon.

‘I heard that Christians were attacking us, and came after five or ten minutes with my relatives and neighbours to stop the insults,’ he told Lapido.

Fr Musa states there was no violence in the church, but that the atmosphere was charged.

‘Muslims in our area look for opportunities to stir up trouble, especially the younger generation. We keep good relations with them, but other Muslims consider this village to be weak because it has a church,’ he said.

It was these good relations which averted the crisis.

‘What happened was a reaction from the Muslims,’ Ali said. ‘I told them to go home because this is a place of worship and there should be no problems here.

‘Then I saw Fr Musa and the other priests leaving the church and told the crowd, “I know these priests. They will take care of this.”’

As the scene quieted and the church courtyard emptied, Fr Musa sped off after the bride and groom, persuading them to return. He spent the next day sitting with Christian villagers convincing them of their need to apologize over the spitting.

The third day Fr Musa gathered the Christians in Ali’s home, and all drank tea together.

‘Nothing happened,’ Ali told his guests, ‘We are all one.’

According to Fr Musa, neither side issued a public apology, but the gesture in Upper Egyptian culture signified both sides owned their wrong and extended forgiveness.

If Mohamed Ali had been an extremist, or if Fr Musa had angrily shouted at the Muslims in his church, the situation in Sheikh Masoud could have escalated like Dahshur.

Instead, the village remains as unknown as thousands of others throughout Egypt. In each, Muslims and Christians negotiate the status quo, despite the increasing trend of religious polarity nationally.

At times the mixture leads to combustion, but more often than not, contrary to assumptions carried in the press, wisdom prevails.

Fr Musa and Mohamed Ali are courageous – but mercifully not unique – peacemakers.

This article was first published at Lapido Media on August 29, 2012. Please click here to access it.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A Priest’s Opinion on Nag Hamadi

During our stay in Maghagha for Coptic Christmas, we got to see Christian reactions first hand as the news about the killings in Nag Hamadi began to spread. We discussed this somewhat in our reflections on Day One and Day Two of our Christmas celebration. There was shock, discouragement, and resignation. Sadly, many Copts believe that they lack the necessary concern of the authorities to prevent such atrocities, and even to respond by arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators.

I do not wish to comment about the validity of these perceptions, but they are widely held. One of the results is that many Copts suffer from a disengagement with society; having been let down so many times they are reluctant to participate anew, and put no trust in government to intervene positively. Though these reactions can be seen as natural and potentially legitimate, it can also be said that this will lead to only further rupture between Muslims and Christians, and between Christians and the state. Many Copts recognize this, and are fervently urging their fellow believers to re-engage.

In the wake of such despair it is difficult for many Copts to find a positive vision. We were fortunate, however, to be staying in the home of one such priest. I asked Fr. Yu’annis (John in the Coptic language) what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. He answered in three parts, addressing the government, Muslim leaders, and the Christian community. A summary of the conversation which followed has resulted in a report, and is now presented here…

During the Coptic Christmas celebrations I had the opportunity to stay with my family in the home of Fr. Yu’annis in Maghagha. Fr. Yu’annis is a priest for the Coptic Orthodox Christian community in Qufada, but maintains his residence in Maghagha, the seat of the bishopric, about fifteen minutes away by car. We were able to witness with him the events of January 6, in which gunmen waited in ambush outside a church in Nag Hamadi, Qena, and shot dead six Christians as they exited Christmas mass. One Muslim police officer was also killed in the attack.

Fr. Yu’annis has been a longstanding friend of Arab West Report, which has noticed his exceptional manner in relating to government officials and Muslim neighbors. He has been instrumental in securing permission to build or expand over twenty churches in the bishoprics of Maghagha, Beni Mazar, and Mattai, during a time in which many Egyptian Christians complain of difficulties in this regard. Based on this background, I asked Fr. Yu’annis what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. How should a Christian leader respond to such a violent act against the community?

Fr. Yu’annis answered in three parts. The first and immediate action would be to go to government officials, ask questions, and listen. These would include the governor, mayor, and leaders of the police force. He would ask them, simply, what they plan to do about this. He would not interfere, but he would continue to inquire. It would be hoped that through these interactions he might craft good relationships with these officials, but also signal to them that he is following the events and will not let the matter drop. Ultimately, authority and responsibility lie in the hands of the government, and it is best to remain in good communication with all its representatives.

The second action should be directed toward Muslim community leaders, including the mosque preachers but not limited to them. The point here is not to level accusations but to strengthen relationships. Even so, a rebuke could be in order, though it must be properly delivered.

Fr. Yu’annis remembered the Biblical story of David, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed by sending him to the front lines of battle. God sent to him the prophet Nathan, who told him of a poor villager whose one sheep was taken from him to be slaughtered for the guest of his rich neighbor, even though this man had many sheep of his own. David was outraged and ordered that this man be taken and put to death. Nathan replied promptly, “You are the man!” David was caught in condemnation through his own words and made conscious of his sin, for which he then repented.

Though the parallel is not complete, this is the manner with which Fr. Yu’annis would approach Muslim leaders. Nathan came to David as a friend; so would Fr. Yu’annis approach the Muslims. Nathan refrained from displays of anger and outright accusation; Fr. Yu’annis would similarly recognize the futility of such an effort. Instead, like Nathan he would ask a question: If we had done this to you, killed your worshippers exiting a mosque, what would be your response toward us? In seeking to help these leaders understand the event from the perspective of the other, he would also seek to establish their own claim of responsibility for the climate in which this atrocity was committed. Accepting this responsibility, he hoped, might lead not only toward initiatives of rapprochement, but also toward personal and community repentance.

Finally, Fr. Yu’annis would direct his third action toward the Christian community. He would urge the people toward patience and forgiveness, but would also give a harder command. Though it would be easy to retreat in frustration at the tensions present between the two communities, the Christians of Nag Hamadi must resist this temptation. Instead, they must make certain to preserve the normal and natural relationships they have with individual Muslims of their community. Where these do not exist Christians should be active to craft them. The atrocity was committed by one to three individuals, who may or may not have been connected to other elements in the area. Regardless of a possible wider scope, they do not represent the majority Muslim sentiment, which would condemn this crime. If Christians retreat, however, they would give Muslims cause to doubt them, and where there is little relationship, there is little concern. Instead, by preserving and strengthening the relationships that do exist they send a powerful statement of community unity in the face of difficulty and potential sectarian strife.

Fr. Yu’annis was powerfully affected by the events at Nag Hamadi, and as we discussed them and listened to the incessant media reporting from which it was impossible to turn away, his eyes welled up with tears. Not only were these for families torn asunder, but also for a community which appears about to suffer the same fate. In such cases, it is far better for policy to be determined by sadness than by anger; may his thoughts also be conjured by the priests of Nag Hamadi.

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Personal

Press Review of Nag Hamadi

We hope you have enjoyed our accounting of Coptic Christmas; there is still one more day to come, and hopefully some pictures to be shared thereafter. In the background of our Christmas stories, however, has been the events of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians and a Muslim policeman were killed in a drive-by shooting while exiting the Christmas Eve mass. The incident has received international attention, and has dominated the Egyptian media consciousness in the days which have followed.

Our work at Arab West Report translates articles from the Egyptian newspapers and provides detailed summary thereof. In addition, we review these articles as necessary to provide fact checks and analysis. Due to the sheer number of articles on this topic, however, we have instead provided a press review, which we often do when there is a topic which dominates the news. This press review summarizes all the relevant articles from the major newspapers and combines them in one report. This manner of summary allows all voices to be heard, no matter how contradictory. This sampling may not clarify our understanding—our minds prefer a simple sound bite we can digest and process—but it does establish the complexity of the situation. It is hoped that by beginning from complexity clarity can emerge.

I have provided a link here to the press review. The assembly and analysis you will read is not my personal work, rather, it is that of my colleagues. The larger question for us here is what can we do about this? Do we have a role in encouraging reconciliation in the area? If so, how and when? I cannot say we have the answers to these questions yet, and even when we do, it may take a while to share them. I will look to link to further press reviews as we develop them, however, that you can follow along. If you care also to pray for peace in this region, and wisdom for us on how to contribute, that would be greatly appreciated.

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Personal

A Protestant on Peacemaking

A little while ago I had an opportunity to dialogue with Rev. Safwat al-Bayyadi, who is the President of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. My summary of this conversation has been published on Arab West Reports, which you can access by clicking here.

As I remarked once before, it is a great benefit of my work that I get to meet such influential people. Rev. al-Bayyadi was able to provide me with a bird’s-eye perspective on Christianity in Egypt, encompassing all but especially from a Protestant perspective. While the title for the reverend is correct – President of the Protestant Churches of Egypt – it is interesting to note that generally speaking the Protestant churches here all go by the name of ‘Evangelical’. I haven’t yet asked enough questions to know why, but it may be that within Egypt ‘Protestant’ could seem like a foreign entity, brought from the West, and therefore suspect, while ‘Evangelical’ is more of Biblical terminology. Though this decision was made long ago, in recent years the ‘Evangelical’ title may result in negative association with the Bush administration and the general support the American Evangelical Christian community gives to foreign policy in Iraq and Israel.

If only from a small outsider’s perspective, I would note that in calling their denomination ‘Evangelical’, Egyptian Protestants may have done themselves a disservice. While the motivation I have briefly come in contact with is laudable, it may have unfortunate consequences. In America, ‘Evangelical’ is an adjective, describing a certain understanding of Christianity. While my rendering here is off-the-cuff, it generally refers to an understanding that is centered on the Bible above tradition, focused on a personal expression of faith, and accepts the necessity of communication of the Gospel message. Thus in America while ‘Evangelical’ is generally understood to be Protestant but not mainline, and has also acquired conservative political associations, in terms of the definition given it is not unusual to find evangelical Catholics, Orthodox, or otherwise. I wonder if in naming themselves ‘Evangelical’ Egyptian Protestants may unwittingly limit the description of the definition from being applied also to the larger Orthodox community. Like I said, I haven’t explored this much yet, but I wonder.

In any case, though Protestant and Orthodox relations here seem mainly positive, there have been recent examples of accusations thrown cross-denominationally. Specifically, at times Orthodox leadership sees Protestants as ‘sheep stealers’, conducting organized efforts to ‘turn Egypt Protestant’ by winning over the youth. You can read a press review on this topic by clicking here.

On the other hand, in my personal interactions with individual Orthodox Egyptians, almost everyone has expressed appreciation for the Protestant Church here. While they hold to their distinctive doctrines, they commend the Protestants for their skills in Bible memorization, vibrant sermons, praise music, and youth ministry. They emphasize that there is only one faith, shared by all denominations, though particular understandings of faith differ, and may reflect the truth closer or farther from correct Biblical understanding. Many families have members in each denomination, and many others worship in both churches. Julie has also found that Emma is not unique in attending the Sunday School sessions of both the local Protestant and Orthodox Church. 

In any case, I am making comments that could be better developed into another post later. For now, please accept my encouragement to read what Rev. al-Bayyadi has to say about the vital task of peacemaking in Egypt. His perspective is both noteworthy and gained from personal experience. If you didn’t do so earlier, you can click here for the text.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

‘Massacre’ in ‘Assiut’

Did the title of this post get your attention? If so, that is part of the problem of journalism in general, and of the press in Egypt in particular.

Among our work at Arab West Report is the translation of articles from the Egyptian press from Arabic into English. These are then put online, but while the summaries are generally only available to subscribers, occasionally I will be able to share some full text reports.

I have selected this link today about an incident which took place in Dayrut, in Upper Egypt several hours south of Cairo. While the articles we select often, though not always, have to do with religion, they represent the whole spectrum of life in Egypt in both Muslim and Christian thought and identity. Sometimes, however, the articles have to do with conflict between the two groups, and I have chosen this story both because it affected me personally and because it illustrates some of the realities about our life and work.

Please click on this link first.

Here you see illustrated the often sensationalist journalism that easily damages interreligious relationships. The author called this incident ‘a massacre’. Granted, it is a sordid story, but only two people died, though the gunfire was intense. The word ‘massacre’ however takes your attention. Indeed, I selected it first from among the thirty or forty articles we translated last week simply due to this title. The place-name in the title is also of consequence: Assiut. This is a large city in the south of Egypt with large concentrations of Christians, moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and extremist Muslim splinter groups. Recent history has witnessed violent conflict in this area. Daryut is a village in proximity to Assiut, but is not even on its outskirts.

Once read, however, the author has done his job, even if the story does not measure up to the lead-in. Unfortunately, however, the title plays up the idea of sectarian conflict – Muslims ‘massacred’ Christians in ‘Assiut’. While the incident was nothing of the kind, this is the impression that is left in people’s mind, especially if they, like many of us, do not continue to get the whole story. It is a much more interesting headline than a revenge killing in some obscure village. In fact, such a story would likely not even warrant a headline.

But now read this link.

I paid attention to this story not just because of the word ‘massacre’ but also because our work involves the difficult goal of peacemaking between communities in tension. After reading the first story my mind moved on, but then the next day this report was issued, and my heart sunk.

There is so much I do not understand. After having lived in the Arab World for some time I do understand the concept of an honor killing. The first story made sense to me, though it is a world removed from our experiences in the West. Still, certainly someone who would violate the honor of my daughter would stir within me the desire for revenge acted upon in Dayrut. This second story, however, is incomprehensible.

Why would this incident escalate to the point that it did? It was a horrible crime, an honor killing came in response, and the matter should have been settled. What did the failure to release the killer incite in the community at large? Why would they respond this way against their innocent Christian neighbors?

I realize that sectarian conflict exists, but it should not have been ignited here. In our work we strive to understand the root issues involved, doing our best to always make the worst incidents understandable in context, even if justification is impossible. We also strive to remain neutral; we do not represent the church, we do not side with the Christians, we do not proclaim persecution. In reading this story, however, I was dumbstruck. The Christian identity in me, which is true and undeniable—its cancelling is not requested in our work, either from us or from our Muslim colleagues—proposed the word ‘barbarism’. Burning houses, destroying shops – what could cause this act of rage? Or was it an act of intentionality or opportunism? Either way, it calls out for the label of ‘barbarism’; the only question is the matter of degree.

Still, there must be some qualifying factors. It was clear from the first article that the author was sensationalist in choosing the word ‘massacre’. Here, the word better applies, though thankfully no one was killed. Surely they could have been; does this suppose that this was a targeted message and not a simple act of rage? Or can we picture it in appreciation of the culture that will allow violence but stops short of the taking of life? Our own culture can learn a lesson here, even in the midst of such ‘barbarism’. 

I wondered further, what does it mean that they burned houses? The picture in my head is of my parents’ home being reduced to ashes. Is that the reality? Or were the fires from smaller scale Molotov cocktails? Or of the shops which were destroyed; does this refer to rocks thrown through the windows? The reporting is full of detail, but especially as a foreigner the context is lacking. Though surely this is a regrettable occurrence, might it be the random activity of disenfranchised youth? From the article this could be the case. Or, it could be simple barbarism. Or, it is more likely something in between.

I have no picture yet of what that in between might be. This, however, is much of our work. This article succeeded in stimulating within me the type of Christian reaction which only worsens the situation. My immediate assumption was one of barbarism, and though this will not poison within me my estimation of Muslims, it may color my perception of the Muslims of Upper Egypt. But why should I allow a journalist to dictate my reactions?

Our work must move beyond our emotions to get at the true story, inasmuch as this is possible. We must look for the benefit of the doubt, but in the end, we must also call a spade a spade. Yet our work intends to go beyond good reporting, as necessary as this is. We wish to aim for peacemaking, but if we cannot without prejudice approach both sides in a spirit of understanding and in a commitment to truth, we will fail. We may fail anyway, but with spirit and truth, we may at the very least, hope.  

Postcript: Since these incidents took place there has been more reporting about Dayrut. Click here for a more detailed account of the atrocities, published by a Coptic newspaper in Egypt, Watani International. (‘Watani’ means ‘my country’ or ‘my homeland’ in Arabic). Finally, click here to read a press review of several newspapers, which provides a more even-handed treatment of the issue, including the most recent information.

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Personal Reconciliation

Scuffling

Back when I was in high school my dad would take us boys on occasion to watch Rutgers University soccer games. They were always fun—for soccer aficionados we even saw Alexi Lalas play—though I was often troubled by the degree to which fans in the stands would berate the referees. Perhaps back then I had a sensitive conscience, but there was always an air of tension surrounding the game. Rutgers was good back then—I have no idea if they are good now—but they often won and everyone went home happy.

One afternoon, however, they lost. Grumbling was expected and the referees were lambasted, but on our way back to the car in an open space of grass behind the playing field two people were yapping back and forth very vehemently. I can only imagine they were opposing fans, perhaps one a student at the rival college, but my memory is that they were both adults, however young. Their raised voices attracted a lot of attention, and the attendees paused in their descent to the parking lot and duly circled around them. There was no “fight, fight!” chanting like you might have with boys on a playground, but the yapping had escalated in the meanwhile and the two had come to blows. Like rubbernecking at an accident it is impossible to look away, but Dad quickly pushed us along and we went our way home.

Before leaving though my conscience had another message. I was struck not only by the wrongness of what was going on, but also by the feeling that something should be done about it. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” is fine to recite, but hard to act upon. Yet I had the urge that I should do something about it. Sometimes in such cases you can imagine yourself the hero; I had no such picture in my head. The only images that came were wandering, alone, into the scuffle, and getting caught in the crossfire, thrown to the ground, and doing no good whatsoever. Perhaps there was a scenario in which this broke the tunnel vision of their rage, but even so the price to pay was the chief element in my mind. I put up no resistance to Dad’s motioning.

That day within me something was either born or died. I’m not sure which. Since then I have been filled with the idealism that calls us to put our lives nonviolently in the line of fire for the sake of ending conflict, even if it is fruitless and painful. I watched with admiration as the people of Christian Peacemaker Teams went to Iraq and, as their motto states, looked to “get in the way.” There story is told here on Wikipedia.Yet the world soon cast their scorn as they were captured by the very Iraqis they went to protect, and then heroically, yet ironically, rescued by the American soldiers they were seeking to obstruct. It says much about our military, but what does it say about them?

Such a group is prepared to pay the same cost in nonviolence that a soldier is prepared to pay in violence. They believe peacemaking calls for sacrifice, commitment, and strategy. In their ordeal the American member of their team died. Another of their group was 74 years old. Yet what is remembered of them? That they put the lives of American soldiers in danger. That they put their noses where they did not belong. They played the part of the fool in the drama which justified the war. What good came from their idealism? Was there any impact in Iraq? Was there any impact anywhere?

Perhaps it could be said that these thoughts here represent growth from the birth of the original experience. Yet if instead the focus is on life, and not thought, it may better be described as death. I have never intervened to bring peace to a situation. I have often nodded in that direction, but never once have I risked suffering in order to reconcile others. I have stood with others around the incident, felt the ping of conscience, and moved on.

 

Coming home late one evening the other day I was riding the metro and the sensation returned. The car was not overly crowded though there was a small but sizeable group of youth—high school to college—joking around, jostling, drawing attention to themselves but not quite crossing the line in the manner of which their age is so adept. Someone, though, took offense. He was about the same age, but was standing in the corner with a young lady covered in a head scarf. I have no idea what came between them, but before too long one of the group in particular and he were locked in the level of raised voices that precedes a conflict. As per custom, and perhaps per wisdom, I slinked backwards a few steps.

The outcome itself is perhaps not surprising, though it is different. The two became more and more animated, displaying their bravado in closer and closer proximity. Immediately others stepped in. Older men sitting around them reached out to grab the near-combatants by the arm, speaking words of calm. The group of young men rallied around their member, but to pull him back. The yapping continued for a little while, but eventually dissipated as each side separated, and they young men exited at the next stop. Crisis averted.

Having lived in the Arab World for some time now, I knew exactly how this scenario would play out. In this respect my withdrawal was not from cowardice but simply from allowing those who knew how to diffuse tension to play their role. Yet I will not excuse myself from cowardice; I, after all, knew the playbook, and chose not to participate. Still the criticism is not quite fair; though I have seen and could plausibly imitate the role I had seen so many times before, no one else was playing a role.

No one thought, “I should get involved.” The older men did not think, “This word of caution would be appropriate.” They all simply acted, and they acted as one group with one mind. Whereas the mentality back at Rutgers was to circle around and let them fight, the mentality here was to intervene. Whereas the one with a sensitive conscience in America wonders what he might do to change a bad situation, the one here does not exist—the group conscience decidedly takes over.

What does it mean to be a peacemaker?

 

It is written about Arab culture that conflict is a normal and accepted fact of life, but that group mechanisms exist to keep conflict from spiraling out of control. The sense of being his brother’s keeper is ingrained in Arab thought, and there is no need to romanticize this. It is not driven by a profound sense of morality but rather a consciousness that protects the group in ever-larger concentric circles. There is an Arab proverb which states, “Me against my brother. My brother and I against my cousins.  My cousins and I against the world.” Conflict is allowed and expected, but at a certain level it must cease.

The system, however, is moral. In the West our sense of personal responsibility will not permit the Arab individual any credit for automatic participation in group think, and we are blind to the structural morality that binds them together. Yet we then in opposite fashion suffer the intense burden of the individual peacemaker and are blind to our own structural immorality. Furthermore, since we know the individual can do no good on his own, we are left in despair, immobilized against undertaking any good.

When some, like the brave yet naïve (?) souls of Christian Peacemaker Teams can finally commit themselves to mobilization, everything is marshaled toward their failure. It is no conspiracy theory; it is a reflection of the fact that the world is organized around the principles of power. If power is threatened by power the rules are clear and the victor presides. Morality determines to what degree the labels of “good” or “evil” are applied, and a preference exists, of course, for good. If power, however, is threatened by nonviolence, it puts everyone ill at ease, for both good and evil in this system depend upon it.

This is the way the world works, and the Arabs are no better. They often receive the “evil” label in our classification scheme, but for us this is a label of convenience. We are the possessors of power in the world today, and like all in this position we are loathe to give it up. They from their group mentality at times will reach the end of their concentric circles, and lash out – we are quick to retaliate in kind. Yet it is the same game and the same struggle. Yet the Arab World is worthy of more praise than it receives, for their circles can expand to include humanity at large. For the past two hundred years they have been under the world order of the West, and they have largely played nicely. Even so, our thumb is strong.

What then can be the place of the individual with a sensitive conscience anywhere, but especially in the West? To what degree are we condemned to act alone? Culture cannot be easily changed, but can the principles of peacemaking become generalized? Can a group mentality emerge which curbs conflict before it escalates beyond repair? Can this be applied to our foreign policy? Can it be applied at a soccer game?

It is here where I run out of vision, though perhaps it is more correct that I am scared of the vision. Until now I have been reluctant to speak of Christianity, for these principles have been practiced, albeit rarely by anyone, by non-Christians around the world. We should learn their lessons and hear their rebuke. Yet our primary example, which we are called to imitate, is profoundly individual. Suffering a sensitive conscience aware of the deep division between man and God, Jesus gave up all power and preached a message of love. He gathered others around him, but in the end the powers that be chose him alone for execution. His mission, noble as it was, ended in failure. Looking to intercede between man and God, he was caught in the crossfire, and put to death by both. Yet he was no victim, for he chose his fate, drinking deeply from the cup he was given. Paradox of all paradoxes, it was from his failure that victory emerged. Salvation can be preached to the world, peace can be extended to all, because one man was trampled upon trying to make a difference.

Can we do any differently?

Categories
Reconciliation

From the Heart the Mouth Speaks

To properly describe the peacemaking work we are trying to undertake here in Egypt would require much background information and many blog posts. It is our hope that over time we can give a proper picture of the many nuances and subtleties which inform our work, but we apologize that this will come piecemeal, and that in our effort to inform we may only further confuse. If this is so, please understand that we ourselves have a lot to learn, and we expect it may be many years until we develop the cultural eyes to appreciate situations as an Egyptian would. Until then, we will stumble along together.

Conflict does not take place in a vacuum. There are many social realities which contribute to a single incident that then is exasperated into a sectarian conflict. Among these is the general poverty of the Egyptian countryside. It has been recommended to us that in seeking to address what may properly be understood as improper mindsets and behaviors, it does little good to simply go to the area and hold a workshop on understanding the other. If such a message is to be delivered with any hope of success, it would be well to wrap it into a project that delivers some social benefit to the area, preferably one which addresses the realities which led to the conflict in the first place.

The benefit of a project in an area in which tension has developed between Muslims and Christians is that it can bring together these communities which, now at odds, have separated themselves. It is a general rule, or at least belief, that people will set aside differences when it comes to the mutual benefit of making money, or educating their children, or securing good health services, etc. Moreover, as people interact they discover their commonalities, realizing the demonized other is not so bad after all, and not so different from myself. Within a project, the message takes hold.

Undertaking the project, however, is difficult, for how are we to know what projects are beneficial to a community so distant from our own. Even our Egyptian partners and advisors do not understand their needs, for they are educated city people, far removed from the issues of the countryside. Given this, it has also been recommended to us that we actively seek to involve the non-governmental organizations, agencies, charities, and associations which are currently working in the area. They know the situation, and even if they are not currently involved in the village at hand, they are familiar with its context. To date, we have found one such organization which has a very good reputation in the area among both Muslims and Christians, having served many communities with both skill and tact.

There is only one problem, and though it is inconsequential for them, it may be a issue for us. This organization is Christian in its formation. It has been recommended to us that because of the sensitivities of foreigners working in religiously-related matters that we are seen as absolutely neutral in our orientation. It matters little our intentions, or even our behaviors; what counts is our appearance. This organization has a mixed Muslim-Christian board of trustees, and employs only Muslims as its field workers. The office staff, however, is entirely Christian, and they would admit themselves that though they deliver their services irrespective of religion, their motivation and orientation is Christian, and the organization is designed to stay that way. Though they are not connected to the church, they would be seen as Christian. Our advisors have not recommended we distance ourselves, though, for they are clearly capable and enjoy wide local support among all. They recommend simply that we work in addition with an organization that is Islamic in its orientation. This will provide the balance that is necessary for our own proper appearance as neutral. Otherwise, our ability to work in these areas may be compromised.

We have been negotiating a project with this organization, even taking a trip to the area to speak with them directly. The other day they were in Cairo and visited us to continue the conversation, and after many positive signals we explained to them the above, asking their recommendation for a similarly oriented Muslim group with which we could also partner. Now, it is granted that such a question could be seen as a threat, not religiously, but professionally. Projects require funding, and surely based on our negotiations so far they could be expecting our contributions, however limited. With the addition of another partner, their share, their influence, and their involvement would naturally decrease. Though not expecting their resistance to our question—they know the other area organizations, work in conjunction if not together, and recognize the value of partnership across religious lines—for the above reason the resistance could be explained. What was evidenced, however, went far deeper.

Up until this time, their representatives were jovial, full of mirth, life, and spiritual commitment. Nearly instantaneously, facial expressions changed, cheeks flushed, arms folded, and when extended ended in a finger pointing in exclamation, “I swear by the Messiah that there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!” They were accused of hypocrisy, speaking kindly to your face only to adopt their own priorities upon receipt of the donation. It was unfortunate in addition that both we and they had a subsequent appointment approaching which forced the rapid communication of ideas. Had we more time such sentiments could have been expressed with more nuance and explanation. While our partnership was not threatened—we ended with agreement to continue our planning—we were warned about seeking out a Muslim group.

It should be reiterated, this is a group that works closely with Muslims; it employs them and trusts them as influential advisors. They serve Muslims without any question of religious affiliation. Yet our question touched a nerve that, though our (Caspers’) experience is limited, seems to be indicative of many Christians here. They can and generally do have beneficial relationships with the Muslim majority. When it concerns the question of Islam, or Muslims as Muslims, however, the hardened heart becomes evident. There is a mistrust and a frustration that prevents genuine charity, both in its contemporary understanding and its original usage as ‘love’. While this organization is serving all, including Muslims, in a commendable manner, it appears that it is for the objective of creating a viable civil society that is inclusive of all, Muslims and Christians as fellow citizens. This is a noble objective, though it is true that some Muslims oppose it, believing Christians to properly be protected, second-class citizens in the Islamic order. This organization serves Muslims in the hope, at least in part, that they will demonstrate their own good will and valuation of communal life. They hope to win for themselves a secure place in society. As admirable as these goals are, and the means by which they hope to achieve them, are they motivated by love, by true Christian charity? Sad as it may seem, are they destined only to be a resounding gong?

Perspective is necessary. Though in Cairo there are many Muslims who share the ideals of civil society and citizenship rights for both Muslims and Christians, perhaps these are far fewer in the countryside. They may be correct; there may not be any Islamic organizations which also serve Christians. They may have tried to partner with some and been burned in the process. They themselves are affected by the perceived rising of religious tensions, and the rhetoric of some Muslims is downright offensive to Christian sensibilities. They must be commended for rising above their predispositions to serve as ably as they do. Surely we from the West cannot comprehend the difficulty of their position.

Perhaps also I am way off base; after all, I am judging from one response from only our second conversation. It is at times like this the foreigner must remember he does not belong, and therefore does not understand.

But I cannot budge from the ideal that God calls us to more than an overcoming of our predispositions against the other. He calls us to do good, as they are doing, but he also gives us a new heart. Lacking this new heart in its full expression, a condition from which we all suffer, our friends invoked the name of Christ in vain. Yet my words expressed here are no better, for they come not from a new heart, but from a new set of ideals. Though these ideals may come from Christ, they will be proved true only when issued from a heart of love that has experienced also the suffering they perceive. May God spare us all from any suffering, but may he preserve, renew, and employ us whenever it occurs.