The ninth international conference of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre began today in Jerusalem. I got there just in time to catch up with the main group of participants as they were heading off to the Melkite church in the Old City. I was greeted by Omar, one of the Sabeel staff whom I met in the office last week. He led me and a few other stragglers down through the Old City. We soon caught up with the people ahead of us.
Most of the conference participants are from the USA. Scandinavian countries are also well represented. I found a few people from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Many, perhaps most, participants are past retirement. There seems to be a good mixture of people from various protestant churches, as well as Anglicans and Catholics. I chatted briefly with three people from Dublin, who turned out to be Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic.
The Melkite or Greek Catholic church, in which we worshipped, is very ornate, similar to an Orthodox church. This is not altogether surprising, since the Greek Catholics use Orthodox rites and liturgy, although they owe their allegiance to Rome. The worship was ecumenical, with Greek Catholic chanting of a prayer, an Anglican sermon (given by Naim Ateek, the director of Sabeel), and one or two Taizé chants. We all recited the Lord’s prayer in our own language.
After the worship we returned to the Notre Dame Hotel, where the conference is being held. Before the evening meal, we watched an excellent film, “The Stones Cry Out”, slightly less than an hour in length, about Palestinian Christians, whose ancestral roots go back to the first followers of Jesus.
In the film, Elias Chacour, author of “Blood Brothers” and now Melkite Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee, and other Palestinian Christians are interviewed about their experience of Al Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948. The Palestinian inhabitants of Kafr Bir’im, including the eight-year-old Elias Chacour, were driven out of the village by Israeli forces and never allowed to return. Many Palestinian villages suffered a similar fate.
The film also told the story of nonviolent resistance in Beit Sahour, a predominantly Christian town next to Bethlehem. In 1989, during the first intifada, a campaign of tax resistance prompted a harsh response from the Israeli military. Furniture and other household goods were confiscated, the town was placed under siege for 42 days, and 40 people were arrested.
The evening session began with an excellent short (less than ten minutes) animated film, which gave a summary of the history of Palestine/Israel since 1947. Maps showed how the Palestinians have lost more and more land. The film was made by Jewish Voice for Peace.
The keynote speaker for the evening was Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, General Secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, and a candidate in the presidential election in 2005. He showed us how the Palestinians are being confined within a shrinking space. The West Bank and Gaza constitute 22% of historical Palestine, west of the River Jordan. Without Area C, over which they have no control, the Palestinians are left with only 39% of the West Bank.
Mustafa Barghouti believes that it was a big mistake for the Palestinian Authority to go into renewed peace talks with Israel without insisting on a freeze on settlement construction. The continuing expansion of settlements is not only illegal under international law. It is also in contravention of the Oslo Accords.
There has to be a change in the balance of power between Israel and Palestine, if there is to be a just and lasting peace agreement. Palestinian nonviolent resistance needs the support of international solidarity. Mustafa Barghouti said that Israel should be punished, e.g. by a boycott, for its violations of international law. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions must make the occupation costly for Israel.
Sitting on the bus back to Ramallah, I thought to myself: The occupation will come to an end, when the USA decides to stop financing it.