The Episcopal Bishop of Washington DC, The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, delivered a powerful sermon Sunday, October 5, at St. Columba Church, the largest Episcopal church in DC, on the topic of his recent trip to Palestine/Israel.
Karen and I recently returned from a 10 day journey to Palestine, Jordan and Israel. This trip was not your usual pilgrimage to the Holy Land but rather an opportunity to spend time with the new Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Duwani whose diocese has jurisdiction in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Palestine. Some of you may have spent time visiting sites in the Holy Land but I can assure you that what I saw, heard and experienced has brought me to a place where I can no longer sit back and assume that in time all will be well in that troubled part of the world.
Looking backwards for a moment to 2003, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and I, along with two Anglican Primates, five Church of England bishops and leaders from four mainline US Christian denominations met with Prime Minister Tony Blair at #10 Downing Street urging him not to support the United States effort to undertake a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq. We urged patience, the use of soft power and the further support of high level diplomatic talks. We were not successful. But the Prime Minister begged us to return to the United States and urge President Bush to aggressively move forward with leadership in engaging the Road Map for Peace, an effort to solve the Israeli Palestinian conflict. All of us agreed that without solving this conflict, the Middle East would forever be a seething caldron of war, discontent and would also be a breeding ground for the growing forces of indiscriminant, global terrorism. Upon our return to the US, the President refused to meet with this broad, representative religious community to discuss the Road Map and the rest is a history that we are living with today.
We as a nation pride ourselves on being a great democracy, a "city built on a hill." And we generally focus on several key ingredients that define a democracy; living by the rule of law, respecting and upholding human rights, and the freedom to worship as one chooses. My trip to the Diocese of Jerusalem and the current condition of Palestinian Christians in particular makes me deeply concerned about the universal understanding of basic democratic principles that our nation holds as sacred and that we as a democracy should hold Israel accountable to as our trusted, democratic ally in the Middle East.
The West Bank, as occupied Palestinian territory continues to experience the illegal building of Israeli settler housing. Almost 1000 new units are being built in Maale Adumim. In Givat Zeev which is a settlement that rings Jerusalem, a new 750 unit building project has been approved. Requests are on the table with the Israeli government to build 350 new homes in Beitar Illit very near Jerusalem. Literally hundreds of new homes are being added to already existing settlements in the West Bank; all illegal, all on occupied, Palestinian land, and all built while the Israeli Government casts a blind eye. These settler houses are visible by their handsome construction, their stout, red tiled roofs, their manicured lawns and their suburban feel that resembles a California housing sprawl. Driving between Jerusalem and Jericho, huge apartment complexes can be seen, rising high on a hill in occupied Palestinian land; again a painful reminder of broken promises. These settler houses and apartment buildings, constructed by Israel on occupied land are a violation of international law. The 1907 Hague Convention clearly states that; an occupying power may expropriate land only for the public use of the occupied population. Taking West Bank land indiscriminately as Israel has done is a clear violation of international law. I ask the question; "is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by and cherishes the rule of law?"
Karen and I visited the land owned by Daoud Nassar and his family; over 100 acres that have been in his family since 1916 when purchased by deed from the Ottoman Empire. The Nassar family has legal right and claim to the property located about 6 miles southeast of Bethlehem in Palestinian occupied territory. It is now in the middle of an area that in 1991 was declared by the Israeli Government as State Property. A large illegal Israeli settlement less than 1000 yards away has emboldened Israeli settlers to come onto the Nassar's property brandishing rifles and shotguns, firing them and threatening the owners with death if they do not move out. Settler bulldozers have plowed a road through a portion of the Nassar's olive grove, and have blocked the only road entrance to their house and property with huge boulders. And with the support from the Israeli authorities the settlers have prevented the Nassars from being able to drill wells for water, or connect to available electricity. The settlers say the land is theirs because God gave it to them, and not to the Palestinians. Known as The Tent of Nations, the Nassar's small farm is a now a center where pilgrims gather to support the Nassar family in their quest to end Israeli harassment and the daily threat of a land grab. Having spent an afternoon at the Tent of Nations and hearing the story of abuse and constant harassment over property that is legally owned and deeded, I ask the question; "is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by and cherishes the rule of law?"
While visiting Gaza, on an Israeli permit issued to the Bishop of Jerusalem, I was exposed to a Palestinian territory cordoned off like a prison for those who live there. I have visited many countries in Africa and Latin America steeped in poverty. Gaza is equal to them all. Donkey carts now are beginning to outnumber motor vehicles, as gasoline and diesel fuel is rationed by the Israeli's through the Hammas government to ten liters by permit every two weeks. Our Episcopal Hospital in Gaza is short of medicines because of Israeli prohibitions, and the hospital can only operate on electricity for 8 hours a day because of shortages. I celebrated the Eucharist in a church next to the hospital that still has a gaping hole in the roof left by an Israeli rocket that exploded in front of the altar and left the interior strewn with lathing and plaster. In my protest to the Israeli embassy I was informed it was an unfortunate accident of war. There would be no compensation for damages. The hospital administrator informed me that last year 8 patients from the hospital waiting to cross from Hammas controlled Gaza into Israel for emergency medical care died while waiting hours for clearance from Israeli immigration to cross the border for treatment. I ask the question; "is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by upholding and cherishing human rights?"
If you are a non Jerusalemite Palestinian Christian wishing to enter into East Jerusalem for religious worship or pilgrimage you must have a permit and those permits are difficult to get. Because of prohibitions against Muslims as well to visit the TempleDome of the Rock and Al Aksa Mosque, three million Christians and Muslim Palestinians are being denied rightful access to their holy sites in Jerusalem even during religious high holidays. Because of restrictions and the obscenity of the building of the wall, Bethlehem has become a ghost town, with shops and businesses shuttering their doors and with religious pilgrims from other countries the majority of those who walk the streets and eat in the restaurants. I ask the question; "is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by protecting and upholding religious freedom and the right to worship as one pleases?"
I am appalled that the Palestinian Political movements of Fata and Hammas play off against each other at the expense of Palestinians and their welfare. And their power struggle to control so much of so little is short sighted and certainly not the way to raise up and strengthen Palestinian political leadership in order for Palestine to be an active player in negotiating a fair, two state peace settlement with Israel. The fracturing of Palestinian political leadership and the failure of the United States to work with Israel in brokering a two state solution, claiming Jerusalem as a shared holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims and supporting land swaps for the Palestinians in places where illegal settlers have moved is a moral failure of the human heart and will.
Jews, Christians and Muslims have the moral obligation to denounce violence as a solution to any and all disputes between Israel and Palestine. No one has the right to take the life of another in the name of God, and no one has the right to take another persons land in the name of God. Palestine must have the right to be established as an independent state that is in possession of territory that is contiguous with Israel. And Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state contiguous with Palestine. Israel must return to the 1967 land borders established by the United Nations with appropriate compensational territory granted to Palestine for land not returned to Palestine in the peace agreement for reasons acceptable to both parties. The holy city of Jerusalem must be a shared holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Anything less violates the ancient traditions of these three Abrahamic faiths and violates their histories as contained in their holy books.
Politicians seeking the highest office in the land who wait on the results of the November 4th Presidential election must have the courage to not just speak out in their unequivocal support of Israel but must also speak out and condemn violations of human rights and religious freedom denied to Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
I support with conviction the right of Israel to exist as a free state, unencumbered by indiscriminant violence and the threat of attack engendered by those who would wish to do her harm. But I am appalled that there has been little or no discussion by politicians seeking the highest office in the land about the devastation of the Palestinian economy as a result of the construction of the security Wall by the Israeli government. I am as a Christian unwilling to remain silent as Palestinians are humiliated, their human rights are violated, their lands taken from them and are too often forced to immigrate to other countries because they feel that they and their children have no future in their ancient homeland. For faithful Jews, Christians and Muslims and our politicians not to speak out on these unacceptable conditions is to find them guilty--guilty of the greatest crime of all--the crime of silence!
There is contained in the Gospel lesson for this morning an ominous reflection. The parabolic teaching of Jesus about the landowner and the vineyard contains not only a message about the stone that the builders rejected but calls us all to remember the following; Matthew 21:43-44. "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom. The one who falls on the stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."
The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane D.D.
Bishop of Washington
October 5, 2008
Click here to listen to his sermon online.
(This is an online audio that may take a few minutes to load.)
Cross-posted at Booman Tribune and Street Prophets