Monday, April 13, 2009

Will the Pope visit Gaza?

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit the Holy Land May 8-13. According to the published itinerary there is no plan for him to visit Gaza. Then why is Deal W. Hudson, a leading conservative Catholic who has been a political ally of George Bush, asking the question "Should Benedict XVI Include Gaza in his Holy Land Visit?" in an article for Catholic Online.
“The Holy Father should not be coming to the Holy Land without visiting Gaza.” The bitterness in his voice was obvious, as Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem University, talked to me about the trip scheduled next month by Benedict XVI. His attitude is the rule, rather than the exception, among Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

In interviews conducted with over twenty Palestinian Christian leaders last week, I was surprised to discover no enthusiasm whatsoever for the upcoming papal visit. “The Pope’s visit here will only legitimize the recent Israeli operation in Gaza and the intentions of the right-wing government elected in February,” explained Dr. Qumsiyeh.
As far as I can tell Mr. Hudson has been a staunch Christian Zionist in the past. And yet in a series of recent articles he is expressing views that one would expect to hear from the followers of Hamas. Can it be that the Christian right is finally awakening to the idea that Zionism is not just an anti-Muslim ideology, but an anti-Christian one as well? Hudson points out in his article that the Israeli government does not discriminate between Muslim and Christian Palestinians.
Palestinian Christians have virtually no access to the holy sites in East Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth. Abu Zuluf, a native of Bethlehem, has not been able to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem since 1993, even though it is a few miles away. His situation is typical for a Christian in Bethlehem and the adjacent, largely Christian towns, of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Christians in Bethlehem expressed fear that their city could become another Gaza. “We already live surrounded by walls and check points. Why shouldn’t we think that what happened in Gaza could happen to us?
Hudson concludes his article with a foreboding quote from an unnamed Christian woman from Bethlehem.
“Tell the Holy Father not to lose his dignity when he comes here.”
Please remember that Deal W. Hudson is a conservative Catholic and is the author of "Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States". With a title like that it's safe to assume that he is about as pro-abortion and pro-Israel as anyone in the Christian Right. And yet his accounts of a recent trip he made to Israel are increasingly critical of Israel's treatment of Christians in the Holy Land. His remarks seem to stem from his fear that Christians are being driven from their homes in Israel and the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories. Here is an excerpt from another article that Mr. Hudson has published in the past few days titled "Palestinian Christians Look Toward the Papal Visit".
One frustrated Christian put it to me bluntly: "The pope must do something for his Christians here in the Holy Land, or there will be none of us here in 20 years." This father of two young children, living in Bethlehem and struggling to keep his family on the West Bank, is considering the option of immigrating for the first time in his life. His attitude, I am told, is becoming widespread among educated Palestinian Christians.
In the past it seems that Mr. Hudson had been inclined to blame Muslims for the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land, but now it seems he has shifted the blame to Israel. In his blog Mr. Hudson published an article titled "An Ugly Story from Palm Sunday in the Holy Land". In this article he describes an email he received from Brother Jack Curran, vice-president of Bethlehem University.
The e-mail from Brother Jack begins with a description of Christian homes presently being bulldozed in East Jerusalem -- an area according to international agreements (including with the U.S.) that does not belong to Israel. [italics are from the original article]
As long as it was Muslim homes that were being bulldozed by Israel, the Christian Right never objected. They were always content with Israeli excuses that the homes belonged to "Arab terrorists". But now that it is Christian homes that are being bulldozed by the Zionists it is a different matter altogether.

First it was the liberal Jimmy Carter, an outspoken Christian and Israel supporter, that spoke out against Zionism, now it is the conservative Deal W. Hudson's turn. Perhaps Mr. Hudson can persuade some of his fellow conservative Christians to rally behind the cause of the Palestinians. He seems to be hard at work at getting none other than the Pope himself to join in the cause by visiting Gaza.


[Update - April 13, 2009: My intent was to make this a relatively short post. But after some reflection, I felt the need to lengthen it by adding the following story.]

I come back to the letter from Brother Jack Curran to Deal Hudson. He is you will recall the vice-president of Bethlehem University which is the only Catholic university in the Holy Land. BU has not been spared by the Israeli occupation. According to the history of the university posted on its website, it has suffered the same fate as the rest of the Palestinian population.
Despite being closed twelve times by Israeli military imposed orders, the longest of which was for three years from October 1987 until October 1990, classes have continually been held on- and off-campus. The curfews, travel restrictions, military checkpoint harassment, and the negative impact of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, are factors faced by the University’s enrollment of 2,936 students, most of whom are full time, and 10,816 graduates, most of whom are serving the Palestinian society in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in various professions and leadership positions. The University’s story is one of people committed to pursuing their higher education – perseverance and courage in the face of adversity and injustice – working together in hope with an ever widening international circle of colleagues to build a better future. 
In Brother Jack's letter is contained a letter from one of the Bethlehem University faculty members -- Dr. Muna Matar -- a graduate of Bethlehem University who earned her doctorate in Computer Information Systems at the University of Ghent (Belgium) and then returned to Bethlehem to join the faculty. Brother Jack felt it was important enough to include in his letter to Deal Hudson. And Deal Hudson thought it was important enough to include in his article. And I also feel that it is important enough that I should include it here in my article.

Here is Dr. Muna Matar's own account of what happened.
After a very long and busy weekend of celebrating Palm Sunday with my family and then attending meetings with some of my academic colleagues reviewing and planning our computer course curriculum, I finally went to bed around 12 midnight - it was Palm Sunday, Sunday April 5, 2009.

Then, in the middle of the night, at about 2:00 am, my brother came into my room and woke me up. He and I were frightened. He was whispering, "Muna get up. The soldiers are surrounding the house and banging on the garage door."

What, I thought to myself as I awoke 'Israeli soldiers here in the middle of the night at my house in Beit Jala?'

Waking up very frightened I ran to the front door of the house and heard the soldiers banging on the main entrance of the house shouting in their very broken Arabic "Open the door. Open the door. Put the lights off."

My brother went into his room to put some clothes on and ran to the main entrance. Four Israel soldiers with their guns stood at the front door pointing their guns at us.

I asked, "What is happening? What do you want from us?"

One of them shouted, "Go inside and do not say anything."

"This my house. You are coming to my house. You cannot tell me to go inside."

The soldier answered, "I am not your friend. I do not come to your house. This is Israel. Do you understand?"

And he pointed his machine gun to my chest.

My sister in-law, who was standing behind me, said to him, "I have two small children in the house. Do not shout. You will frighten them."

The soldier replied, "I do not care" and continued shouting at my brother to give him his ID.

Then they took my brother out of the house. I followed them. The soldier pointed his machine gum at me again and forced me inside the house.

They kept my brother in the street -- in the middle of the night -- in the cold for about two and a half hours.

Those were probably the longest two hours of my life.

When my brother finally came back home he told us that they took him out in the fields. Apparently they were looking for somebody and they wanted some "protection," so they took my brother with them.

After searching the fields and found nothing or no one (they didn’t tell my brother who or what they were looking for), they brought my brother back to the jeep and showed him a map of the area. They had a laptop in their jeep with maps on it. They wanted my brother to then take them to a house. They forced him to walk with them "to protect" them and to show them the house. Again, they found nothing and returned to the house at about 4:30am -- just before sunrise.

In the morning, after the sun rose, we went out to check around our house and neighborhood to see what happened. We found that the soldiers broke the glass of the garage window and the shutters of one of the bedrooms of our house. That was the physical damage - there was other harm that they imposed upon us.

I am still haunted by the words of the soldier when I told him, "This is my house," and he shouted back, "I am not your friend. This is Israel. Do you understand?"


But, I don't have the luxury to dwell upon this now. I need to get to the University -- my students await me and I have classes to teach.
Deal Hudson himself had this to say about why he posted this story in a comment. He sums up my own feelings very eloquently.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have powerful, and tragic, stories to tell. More often than not, the Palestinian story is not heard to the full in the United States, or, if it is heard, it is quickly dismissed as a gracenote in the larger and louder chord of Muslim terrorism.

The point of telling these stories is to provide a fuller picture of what me normally see, to humanize a people who have been, largely, dehumanized, as they were in the recent Gaza attack.

That attack has left the region smoldering, to say the least. 
Sadly, Dr. Muna's story is by no means unique.

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