On May 3, 2012, 10 teenager members of the Diyar Dance Theater of Bethlehem, Palestine presented their “Portraits of Fear . . . Room for Hope” at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis’ packed auditorium. It was the opening event in Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Palestinian Arts Festival.
This performance emphasized the process of creating hope in the midst of fear in the following six segments:
Palestinian young people come together from different neighborhoods to discover their identities and self-confidence in the midst of oppression.
The young people try to develop a positive spirit in the face of depressing information in the newspapers about the occupation.
The young people live within many social constraints created by men oppressing women, the old oppressing the young and the strong oppressing the weak.
The young people face lack of work opportunities with 40% youth unemployment.
Fears of isolation help the young people unite to become stronger as a community.
The young people find strength by uniting to forge hope, artistic confidence and a feeling of freedom.
The Diyar Dance Theater is a program of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church of Bethlehem, Palestine, which is a partner of Westminster Presbyterian Church. Its mission is to celebrate Bethlehem’s rich history and culture and to nurture creativity, imagination and freedom of expression.
On May 6, 2012, two Palestinian Christian hymns had their world premiers during the Sunday morning worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. Both were commissioned by two Westminster members to celebrate the church’s partnership with Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church of Bethlehem, Palestine.
The music for these hymns was written by Palestinian musicians Marwan Abado, Naser Musa and Georges Lammam. They along with three others (Antoine Lammam, Miles Jay and Tim O’Keefe) constitute the Georges Lammam Ensemble who were present and played and sung the hymns and other Middle Eastern music during the service. The lyrics for both were written by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, the Pastor of the Christmas Church.
The first hymn, Ahar (We Are Free), had three verses and refrain that were a Christian response to the realities of the contemporary Middle East. The hymn’s lyrics in Arabic were on the cover of the church bulletin for the service shown at the right. The verses were sung in Arabic by the Ensemble to their own accompaniment on Middle Eastern instruments. The refrain was sung in English by the congregation:
“We’re free, unbound from slavery.
We’re free, in our humanity.
As dark as it may seem, we’ll work toward the dream until we see the beam, the light of liberty.
We’re free. We’re free. We’re free.”
The lyrics for the other hymn, Ghanu Lil Hayat (A Hymn for Life) had a message of resurrection to be sung in the Easter season. Its two verses were sung in Arabic by the Palestinian musicians with their own accompaniment, and the congregation repeated the first verse in Arabic:
Lai sa ho wa ha hou naa ha hou naa
Kuf fu a’n nii bu kaa caa ma naa buu ha y aat
Rev. Raheb delivered the sermon, “A Village Tour,” based on this passage from the Gospel of Mark (1: 35-39):
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found [Jesus], they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
This passage, Raheb said, was a short summary of Jesus’ political program. In the context of His having been born, raised and lived under Roman occupation and having been oppressed day and night, He was faced with the question, how can His people be liberated?
To answer this question, Raheb continued, Jesus chose not to go to Rome, the capitol of the occupying power, to demand that the people be liberated. Nor did He have any desire to be a king or religious leader or the founder of a political party. Jesus had a different concept of liberation. Instead He chose to go on a village tour to preach, teach and heal the people who were marginalized, who were not in control of their lives. Jesus told them that their liberation starts in the mind and in the heart and that they–the outsiders– were being called to be His ambassadors for the Kingdom of God. We are free!
The service was attended by a local Islamic imam and was live-streamed to the Internet and watched by members of Christmas Church in Bethlehem and by Christians in Europe. It is now archived and can be watched by anyone. It was the concluding event in Westminster’s Palestinian Arts Festival.
In my opinion, this worship service was one of the most meaningful in Westminster’s recent history. It fully integrated the mission of our global partnerships with our worship service. It emphasized that God speaks and acts in different ways, in different times and in different places. We in the United States do not have a monopoly on understanding God and Jesus. The Bible was not written in English in 21st century U.S.A. We can gain additional perspectives on God and Jesus from symbolically standing in the shoes of our brothers and sisters in different places and circumstances. Jesus lived and worked in an era of occupation.
As noted in a prior post, on April 22nd CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes aired the report “Christians of the Holy Land.” It reported that Christians have been leaving Palestine in large numbers for years and that its Christian population is now less than two percent. The program explored differing explanations for this decline.
Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, the Pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, said that Palestinian Christians, once a powerful minority, are becoming the invisible people, squeezed between a growing Muslim majority and burgeoning Israeli settlements. “If you see what’s happening in the West Bank, you will find that the West Bank is becoming more and more like a piece of Swiss cheese where Israel gets the cheese that is the land, the water resources, the archaeological sites. And the Palestinians are pushed in the holes behind the walls.”
The Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, however, vigorously disagreed. He asserted that the Christians in Palestine were being persecuted by Islamic extremism and that the Israeli government did not bother to respond to a 2009 Christian document, Kairos, because it allegedly made inflammatory accusations that Israel had crimes historically associated with anti-Semitism.
Rev. Raheb and others rejected the Ambassador’s assertion that Islamic extremism was the basic cause of the Christian exodus. Raheb said he was a member of the Christian group that wrote and published Kairos: A Moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering. This document, he said, criticized Islamic extremism and advocated non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation which they called a sin against God. This document was endorsed by the leaders of 13 Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican.
The 60 Minutes reference to the Kairos document calls for a more complete account of its contents. It is available on the web and opens with descriptions of what it calls “The reality on the ground: ” “Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, deprivation of our freedom.” Here are the specifics of that accusation:
“1.1.1 The separation wall erected on Palestinian territory, a large part of which has been confiscated for this purpose, has turned our towns and villages into prisons, separating them from one another, making them dispersed and divided cantons. Gaza, especially after the cruel war Israel launched against it during December 2008 and January 2009, continues to live in inhuman conditions, under permanent blockade and cut off from the other Palestinian territories.”
“1.1.2 Israeli settlements ravage our land in the name of God and in the name of force, controlling our natural resources, including water and agricultural land, thus depriving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and constituting an obstacle to any political solution.”
“1.1.3 Reality is the daily humiliation to which we are subjected at the military checkpoints, as we make our way to jobs, schools or hospitals.”
“1.1.4 Reality is the separation between members of the same family, making family life impossible for thousands of Palestinians, especially where one of the spouses does not have an Israeli identity card.”
“1.1.5 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. Even Jerusalemites face restrictions during the religious feasts. Some of our Arab clergy are regularly barred from entering Jerusalem.”
“1.1.6 Refugees are also part of our reality. Most of them are still living in camps under difficult circumstances. They have been waiting for their right of return, generation after generation. What will be their fate?”
“1.1.7 And the prisoners? The thousands of prisoners languishing in Israeli prisons are part of our reality. The Israelis move heaven and earth to gain the release of one prisoner, and those thousands of Palestinian prisoners, when will they have their freedom?”
“1.1.8 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 neighbourhoods, Jerusalem continues to be emptied of its Palestinian citizens, Christians and Muslims. Their identity cards are 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.”
“1.2 Also part of this reality is the Israeli disregard of international law and international resolutions, as well as the paralysis of the Arab world and the international community in the face of this contempt. Human rights are violated and despite the various reports of local and international human rights’ organizations, the injustice continues.”
The Kairos document concludes with these appeals to the peoples of Palestine and beyond:
“8. Finally, we address an appeal to the religious and spiritual leaders, Jewish and Muslim, with whom we share the same vision that every human being is created by God and has been given equal dignity. Hence the obligation for each of us to defend the oppressed and the dignity God has bestowed on them. Let us together try to rise up above the political positions that have failed so far and continue to lead us on the path of failure and suffering.”
“9.1 This is a call to see the face of God in each one of God’s creatures and overcome the barriers of fear or race in order to establish a constructive dialogue and not remain within the cycle of never-ending manoeuvres [sic] that aim to keep the situation as it is. Our appeal is to reach a common vision, built on equality and sharing, not on superiority, negation of the other or aggression, using the pretext of fear and security. We say that love is possible and mutual trust is possible. Thus, peace is possible and definitive reconciliation also. Thus, justice and security will be attained for all.”
“9.3 Trying to make the state a religious state, Jewish or Islamic, suffocates the state, confines it within narrow limits, and transforms it into a state that practices discrimination and exclusion, preferring one citizen over another. We appeal to both religious Jews and Muslims: let the state be a state for all its citizens, with a vision constructed on respect for religion but also equality, justice, liberty and respect for pluralism and not on domination by a religion or a numerical majority.”
“9.4 To the leaders of Palestine we say that current divisions weaken all of us and cause more sufferings. Nothing can justify these divisions. For the good of the people, which must outweigh that of the political parties, an end must be put to division. We appeal to the international community to lend its support towards this union and to respect the will of the Palestinian people as expressed freely.”
“10. In the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope. We believe in God, good and just. We believe that God’s goodness will finally triumph over the evil of hate and of death that still persist in our land. We will see here ‘a new land’ and ‘a new human being,’ capable of rising up in the spirit to love each one of his or her brothers and sisters.”
The opening event at noon (CDT) on Thursday, May 3rd, will be a Westminster Town Hall Forum presentation entitled “Playing for Peace in Gaza” by Patrick McGrann. A Minnesota native, McGrann has spent the last 15 years creating toys and events for young people living in the midst of violence. He now lives in Gaza where he has taught at the Islamic University, lead the rebuilding of the American International School and developed educational partnerships between the Middle East and the West. The Forum is free and open to the public and broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio. The Forum is preceded by a half-hour of free music and followed by a free reception and a discussion group.
Later that same day (May 3rd) at 7:30 p.m. at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis (410 Oak Grove Street) 14 young dancers from the Diyar Dance Theatre of Bethlehem, Palestine will perform. Tickets at $10 are available at Westminster on Sundays or on the web. Starting at 5:00 p.m. the public is welcome to dine at the Women’s Club; call 612-813-5300 for reservations. A reception with dessert will follow the performance.
On Friday, May 4th, at 6:00 p.m. an art exhibit, Room for Hope, opens at Westminster. It brings realistic, abstract and provocative images by Palestinian artists expressing their visions of the present and their hopes for the future.
Also on Friday, May 4th, at 7:30 p.m. will be a concert at Westminster. Ibtisam Barakat will present her “Freedom Doors Made of Poems.” She grew up in Ramallah, West Bank, and now lives in the U.S. Her work focuses on healing social injustices and the hurts of wars, especially those involving young people. Ibtisam emphasizes that conflicts are more likely to be resolved with creativity, kindness, and inclusion rather than with force, violence, and exclusion. The concert will also include Palestinian musicians playing music from their homeland.
On Saturday, May 5th at 1:00 p.m. a Palestinian Short Film Festival will be presented in Westminster’s Great Hall.
The concluding event of the Festival will be part of Westminster’s Sunday worship service on May 6th at 10:30 a.m. (CDT). Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine will be the preacher. Palestinian musicians will lead the world debut of specially commissioned music during the service. Our guests will sing in Arabic while Westminster members and others sing in English. For those who cannot attend the service, it is live-streamed and subsequently archived on the web.
This historic Festival is the outgrowth of Westminster’s partnership with the Christmas Church and of mission trips to that church by Westminster members. (Westminster also has partnerships with churches and other organizations in Brazil, Cameroon and Cuba.)