How Holy is the Holy Land?
John Bivens Member of Steering Committee Israel/Palestine Mission Network of PCUSA
What makes the Holy Land Holy? Why should we as Christians care about what is happening in the land called Holy? Most Americans – yes, and sadly most Christians – have only a few clues about the current situation “on the ground” in the Middle East and specifically in Israel and Palestine.
Abraham is acknowledged as being the father of three monotheistic faiths; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jews (Israelites) were chosen by God to be his favorite people as long as they were obedient. They suffered greatly and were exiled into slavery in Egypt. Moses led them out of the exile to the “promised land”, Canaan; the land of “milk and honey,” but Moses was not permitted to enter Canaan which was already occupied by Canaanites, commonly known as Palestinians. There were intermarriages between Jews, Canaanites, Moabites, and others. God sent his son, Jesus Christ, as the Messiah to provide salvation, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.
The Holy Land is centered on Jerusalem in the West Bank of Occupied Palestinian Territory. Each of the three faiths has communities and specific sites which have religious significance for them. Of course there are other important communities and areas, as referenced in the Bible, that would be in the Holy Land extended. These include Damascus, Cairo, and communities east of the Jordan River, for example. Jerusalem in Arabic means “Abode of Peace” – certainly not the situation today. For Jews, Jerusalem has been the holiest city since King David first established it as the capital of Israel. Jerusalem for Christians is a holy city because of the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third most holy city.
For Jews and Muslims, the Temple Mount is the most important and highly contested religious site in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock, a Jerusalem landmark, located on the Temple Mount, is the oldest existing example of Islamic architecture. On the west side of the Temple Mount is the Wailing Wall which has been the site for Jewish prayers for centuries. Sacred to Christians is the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Now fast forward to 1896 when a Jewish Zionist named Theodor Herzl called for the creation of a Jewish State. At first it didn’t seem to matter where the Jewish State would be located, but then a deal was made with Great Britain to take over Palestine. The statement “a land without people for a people without a land” really meant a land for Jews only. Palestine was not a land without people since many Arabs had lived in the area for centuries. The Zionists considered the Palestinians irrelevant. Then in 1948 David Ben- Gurion declared that the State of Israel was established and the first Arab-Israeli War began. U.S. President Harry Truman recognized Israel within hours. Israel won this war with the full financial and arms support of the United States. Over 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and became refugees. There have been many more Palestinian refugees since the creation of Israel. So is this Holy Land?
What the U.N. expected in 1948 would be two separate and indepen- dent states is in reality the longest military occupation of our time to date. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a long and rich history of supporting U.N. resolutions seeking peace in the Middle East. The General Assembly of the PCUSA has taken actions and passed signifi- cant resolutions regarding the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as far back as 1967. For example, the 215th General Assembly in 2003 passed a resolution supporting the U.N. resolution “affirming the right of Israel to exist within secure borders, and the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, including the establishing of their own sovereign state and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.” In addition, the Presbyterian Church “Challenges and encourages discussion of theo- logical interpretations that confuse Biblicalprophesiesandaffirmations of covenant, promise, and land, which are predicated on justice, righteous- ness, and mercy, with political statehood that asserts itself through military might, repressive discrimina- tion, abuse of human rights, and other actions that do not do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
In an effort to bring about a lasting and just peace, a group of Christian Palestinians on December 11, 2009, released The Kairos Palestine Document – A moment of truth: a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering. [See: http:// www.oikoumene.org/gr/resources/ documents/other-ecumenical-bodies/ kairos-palestine-document.html] The General Assembly in 2010 endorsed the Kairos Palestine Document and “lifts the document up for study and discussion by Presbyterians; and directs creation of a study guide...” The description of “the reality on the ground” includes:
• The separation wall erected on Palestinian territory ...has turned our towns and villages into prisons, separating them from one another...”
• “Religious liberty is severely restricted; the freedom of access to the holy places is denied under the pretext of security. Jerusalem and its holy places are out of bounds for many Christians and Muslims from the West Bank and the Gaza strip...Some of our Arab clergy are regularly barred from entering Jerusalem.”
• “Jerusalem is the heart of our reality. It is, at the same time, symbol of peace and sign of conflict. While the separation wall divides Palestinian neighborhoods, Jerusalem continues to be emptied of its Palestinian citizens, Christians and Muslims. Their identity cards confiscated, which means the loss of their right to reside in Jerusalem. Their homes are demolished or expropriated. Jerusalem, city of reconciliation, has become a city of discrimination and exclusion, a source of struggle rather than peace.”
Isn’t it time to stand up and be counted? Let’s finally put into action what we’ve affirmed! As Elias Chacour said: “A Vision without Action is a Daydream; Action without a Vision is a Nightmare.” Become informed. Travel, if you can, to the West Bank and Israel and see and meet those who live and work there. Invite knowledgeable speakers and hold discussions and classes in your church. Don’t be afraid to let our visions be known. Let’s work together to seek peace and justice for ALL in what we call “The Holy Land.”