‘Christmas celebrations are cancelled in Bethlehem this year. What should have been a season of joy and hope this year is a season of death and fear. ‘
Five hundred hushed participants at the European Parliament Prayer Breakfast in Brussels last Wednesday listened intently as Palestinian Christian leader, Dr Jack Sara, told of the sense of hopelessness and wanton destruction that followed in the wake of the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel.
Christians have been caught in the midst of the Palestinian conflict for a lifetime, suffering from both Israeli security concerns on the one hand, and on the other from the militant Islamist Hamas group, whose charter calls for the establishment of an Islamic, rather than a secular, state.
‘We lament the death of all people, Palestinians and Israelis’, explained Dr Sara, president of the Bethlehem Bible College. ‘We affirm that every human being is created in the image of God and is worthy of living in dignity and justice. There can be no peace and security without justice and equal rights for all. We call for a comprehensive ceasefire in the whole land.’
Knesset member Sharren Haskel led out in prayer for peace and for the release of the hostages, adding a warning for the politicians, civil servants, diplomats, lobbyists, activists and church leaders gathered in the European Parliament building, that wherever Jews had been persecuted, Christians had been the next target.
Endings and beginnings
A brother of a hostage still held by Hamas described the attack on his kibbutz where he had grown up, had been married and till now had raised his small children. At 6.30am on October 7, he and his fellow kibbutzniks found themselves ambushed by a gang of terrorists. Seven members of his defence squad, his friends, were killed in a few minutes. Escaping to his house, he saw his neighbours dead on the ground, their now-orphaned seven-month-old twins crying inside the house. He texted to call the army but only twelve hours later could rescue the babies.
Now the keynote speaker had the difficult task of following this dramatic presentation. No stranger to challenging tasks, Mr Eduard Heger, the former prime minister of Slovakia, had himself stepped into government leadership after a turbulent history of corruption and misrule by his predecessors. Just last month I had met Mr Heger in Timisoara and asked to interview him for today’s Schuman Talk (see below). It was a pleasant coincidence to discover his name on the programme.
He wanted to talk about endings and beginnings, he began, in that order. The Bible gave many examples of ‘endings’ that became new beginnings, he explained. While we could often only see an ending, God can create a new beginning. Joseph was sold as a slave, yet that led to a new beginning for himself, his own people and also for Egypt. Revenge and conflict, he urged, can be turned into forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus’ death seemed to be the end for the disciples. But it was the beginning – of the church, and of the global mission movement.
In a seminar following on from the breakfast itself, panel members asked how to stop the radicalisation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The complexities and deep-rootedness of the current conflict quickly became apparent as various contributors explained underlying factors often glossed over in the popular media.
Without a changed mentality, not only in the Middle East, but also in the West, another October 7 was inevitable, we were warned. This attack had not just happened in a vacuum. Analyses of Palestinian media revealed 94% of the Gaza population supported the terrorist attack. The Palestinian Authority talked of a ‘morning of victory, joy and pride, a story of heroism making our heads touch the clouds.’ School textbooks, funded by the UN Relief and Works Agency responsible for Palestinian relief work, were displayed which glorified Dalal Mughrabi, a kidnapper and suicide bomber who killed 38 Israelis, including 13 children, in 1978, and who was still being celebrated as a martyr with dozens of schools bearing her name.
The original 700,000 Palestinian refugees have multiplied into 5.9 million descendents, all of whom remain in refugee status as no Arab nation will offer them civil rights or work permits, perpetuating the volatile situation.
Western naivety has allowed many terrorist proxies to operate within the EU, claimed one panel member. Yet appeasement was not the answer. To believe that the more we behaved like sheep then the less like wolves they would behave was simply the road to oblivion.
‘Peace on earth and goodwill towards all men’ seem a long way removed from the land where the angels first sang those words. Tragically they will remain absent until there is a changed mentality.
Yet we persist in that prayer for Israel and Palestine, and for Ukraine and Russia, this Advent.
Till next week,