Israel-Palestine: The Church Needs to Reclaim Judeo-Christian Values

By Wissam al-Saliby

On September 11, 2016, my baby girl Nour was born.

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My friend, Hassan Karajah

Two weeks later in Jerusalem, my Palestinian friend Hassan Karajah became a dad, too. His wife gave birth to twin baby girls, Sarai and Kenza. However, Hassan has not yet had the pleasure of holding and cuddling his daughters. On July 12, 2016, the Israeli military seized him at a checkpoint in the West Bank and put him in prison without any accusations or trial. This is the second time Hassan has been imprisoned. Between January 2013 and October 2014, Israel imprisoned Hassan without any accusations or due process, let alone an apology or any compensation for his unjust one year and nine months imprisonment.

Unlike everywhere else in the world, Continue reading

Christian Politics at the Expense of Christian Faith in Lebanon

By Wissam al-Saliby

More than a year ago, I gave a training in human rights law to members of a veteran Lebanese Christian political party. At the end of the training, during an informal discussion over coffee, I mentioned my work for the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. The immediate response from one of the party members was, “You evangelicals only have one seat in parliament.” In his mind, the power sharing formula in Lebanon was the first thing he connected with “Lebanese evangelicals.” My immediate response was, jokingly, “Well yes, we do have one intercessor with the Father, Jesus Christ.”

In Lebanon, parliament seats, ministerial positions and key state positions are allocated equally between Christians and Muslims, and proportionally within the various Christian and Muslim sects. Continue reading

Listening, Visiting, and Engaging Arab Christians (Part 2): Considering Arab Christian Perspectives on Palestine

by Wissam al-Saliby*

In my May blog post on the generalized regression of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, I concluded by promising a follow up blog post on what role the global Church can play to counter this regression. Last week, I began a reflection on how churches that feel called to serve the Middle East can play a role – rather than what role to play. In today’s installment of my post, I will discuss the importance of listening, visiting and learning in relation to Israel and Palestine – an enduring conflict and a pivotal region. Continue reading

Listening, Visiting, and Engaging Arab Christians: Prerequisites for Western Churches Advocating their Rights (part 1)

By Wissam al-Saliby*

Two months ago, I wrote a blog post on the general regression of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. I had concluded by asking “What role, if any, can the churches in the West play to foster the respect of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa?” In today’s blog post (and also in next week’s blog post), I will provide a partial answer to my question by reflecting on how to play a role, rather than what role to play. I will emphasize the importance of listening, visiting and learning, and the importance of allowing Arab Christians to expand your perspective on the complex dynamics of the region. Continue reading

Current Evidence of the Generalized Regression of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa

by Wissam al-Saliby

As I was going through Facebook a few days ago, I saw the following post by an Egyptian friend.

Facebook Disappearances 2

This seeming human rights violation by Egyptian authorities is symptomatic of a greater and general regression with respect to fundamental human rights in the stable States in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Turkey this month, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch accused Turkish security forces of committing serious human rights violations against Turkish civilians and Syrian refugees. Media, freedom of speech and of opinion is threatened amid political and security tensions.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Israel human rights activists risk prosecution and the freezing of their assets. Earlier this month, Egypt arrested members of a satirical street troupe for their improvised street films, critical of the Egyptian president, which went viral. Even the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah followed suit this month and detained a 27-year old for his Facebook posts. Continue reading

What is the Solution for Syrian Refugees?

by Wissam al-Saliby

The Syrian refugee influx into Europe respects no borders. From the Mediterranean shores to the Arctic sea, hundreds of thousands are determined to “get in”. I have followed the journeys of many young Syrians over Facebook as they have immigrated first to Greece and then on to their country of destination (often Germany or Sweden). A few weeks ago, I received a message from a pastor in Northern Finland along the Russian border, asking for advice. “These days we have a lot of Syrian refugees coming across the border, of which some participate in our Sunday service,” he wrote.

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What is the solution for Syrian refugees? Although this conflict has been displacing Syrians for 5 years now, ever since the images of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed onto a Turkish beach went viral early September, greater Western attention has focused on this difficult question. My wife and I have received many messages from friends and acquaintances in the West asking us how they can help and to whom they can give money that will directly support refugees. The following is my two-cents as to what we can do: Continue reading

Notes from my Visit to Iraqi Kurdistan

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit a dozen of pastors in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the cities of Erbil and Duhok. The purpose of my visit was to promote ABTS’s educational programs with Arabic-speaking churches, namely our new online degree program and our English language Master’s program.

We often hear about the Kurdistan region in the news when violence happens – armed violence, US bombings, crimes by ISIS or terrorism. How can we pray for the people groups of this region, for the Church and for those called by God to serve Him in this area? The following are some of my notes from this trip to guide our prayers. Continue reading

Israel, Palestine and the International Criminal Court

On January 16, 2015, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine looking into alleged crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, since June 13, 2014. Israel condemned this move. Hamas welcomed this move, even though its actions will also be under scrutiny by the ICC. The announcement drew the ire of some Western media platforms, the blogosphere, and many US politicians, mentioning “retaliation” against the Palestinians, or – more subtly – concluding that this will “backfire” on the Palestinian Authority.

We Christ-followers are called to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). Yet justice seems elusive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with 60+ years of history and an array of vital issues – land, water, refugees, borders, Palestinian prisoners, civilian death tolls, security, etc.

Oftentimes, we need to deal first with our own belief systems, including who inherits the land. However, even if we have different theologies or belief systems stemming from our various interpretations of the Scriptures, no interpretation justifies the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity – of which the ICC is competent to judge.

Therefore, I would like to invite the readers to approach this conflict today from a different lens. I invite you to take a stand on international justice, as a pre-requisite for approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague. (Photo credit: REUTERS)

The entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague. (Photo credit: REUTERS)

First, where do we stand on the ICC? The ICC is the permanent international court that followed several ad hoc international tribunals, namely those for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. I argue that, more than ever before, we need to lobby our governments to endorse a strong and well-resourced ICC.

  • International tribunals were the only recourse against the crimes committed in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, especially for crimes committed by high ranking civilian and military officials.
  • Today, the ICC is the sole hope for redress for many conflict victims in Africa, currently being investigated by this Court. Nigeria is under preliminary examinations. Investigations and evidence collection are under way in the Central African Republic.
  • The ICC Statute has only 122 ratifications with many of the remaining States, including the United States, unwilling to ratify. We need to advocate for further ratifications.
  • The ICC is one of the few international mechanisms that can possibly achieve a breakthrough to halt the lingering conflicts in Syria and in Iraq. We need to advocate for a referral of Syria and Iraq to the ICC by the Security Council.

A recent Washington Times article (February 1st 2015) argues “the obvious question is whether the International Criminal Court is capable of investigating with the objectivity the situation requires.” This is a key playing field: never before did we have the mechanisms to seek justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Dismissing the Court because it is scrutinizing Israel’s actions would leave millions of victims without any recourse whatsoever, and would perpetrate impunity worldwide.

Second, we need to accept that Israel is likely to have committed war crimes, as have Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas. Violations of the laws of war by these various actors have been documented extensively by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Palestinian organizations, Israeli organizations, media reports and UN agencies.

The definition of war crimes, in accordance to the ICC statute, not only includes the killing of civilians and destruction of civilian property, but also the “transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” All governments, including the US government, have condemned ongoing Israeli settlement of the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories including East Jerusalem, to no avail.

Third, the “statehood” argument is a key element of the debate. According to the ICC statement, “The Office (of the Prosecutor) considers that, since Palestine was granted observer State status in the United Nations by the UN General Assembly, it must be considered a ‘State’ for the purposes of accession to the Rome Statute.” In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued, “It’s absurd for the ICC to ignore international law and agreements, under which the Palestinians don’t have a State and can only get one through direct negotiations with Israel.”

As seekers of justice, I raise the question: Is it just to bind the right of granting statehood to the will of the one who is occupying and actively colonizing that same State? Since the Oslo agreements, Israel has denied Palestinians the right of statehood while simultaneously and vigorously erecting Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, destroying Palestinians homes, and confiscating Palestinian land and water.

An important and informative precedent on justice when the issue of statehood is at question is the accession to statehood of South West Africa/Namibia in 1966. Although Namibia was occupied, it was able to achieve statehood. (John Quigley, 2010).

Fourth, and finally, we need an authoritative court decisions that clarifies what justice is in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such decisions would bring clarity to a complex situation, or to a highly polarized situation. The only recent precedent of an international jurisdiction addressing this conflict was the International Court of Justice advisory opinion in 2004 on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Court’s 15 Judges unanimously found that Israel’s construction of the wall and the associated regime are contrary to international law, and ordered Israel to make reparation for all damage suffered by all persons affected by the wall’s construction. We need to advocate for judicial intervention in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and advocate for international judicial decisions and opinions to be enforced.

 

As believers, we should approve or denounce acts and events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict according to Biblical standards of justice and mercy among peoples. Supporting the ICC and its action on Israel-Palestine is just and merciful in this seemingly endless conflict. I invite all Christ-followers not to cave in to a discourse that favor Israeli immunity over and against justice and mercy for all Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Nigerians, Congolese, Sudanese and victims of every other armed conflict today.

When one of the Temple guards struck Jesus with his hand, Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23) It is right to ask this question today, and it is right to bring it before the ICC.

 

Note: Links in this blog post to third party websites are supportive of the corresponding statements. To be conclusive, additional footnotes, references and links would be required, but extensive documentation is not feasible in this blog.

Advocating Human Rights as Christian Witness

By Wissam al-Saliby*

Despite the significant role of evangelical churches and organizations in Lebanon in providing relief and aid to Syrian refugees, young committed Christians are still out of touch with the human rights challenges in Lebanon and how to address them. We are failing to stay informed, let alone take a stand or take action, on the many issues that make – or don’t make – news headlines.

Defending human rights is part of the Church’s integral mission, an expression of our love for our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ. To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God is a biblical mandate (Micah 6:8).

If we are to be intentional in our witness, I would argue that advocating human rights creates shared platforms with thousands of people in Lebanon that we witness to as we give an account of the hope that is within us.” We need to advocate for human rights in Lebanon, not only because we believe that this is the right thing to do, but also because we need to create platforms for sharing God’s love with other human rights advocates, with those whose rights are being violated, and even with the perpetrators of abuse!

How do we go about this? The following ideas will help us make first steps in the field of human rights advocacy.

Join the Mobilization

Every day I hear of conferences, meetings and events to discuss or expose a particular human rights abuse. In recent weeks, the mistreatment of migrant domestic workers, workers’ rights, and the shortcomings of Lebanon’s criminal justice system were just a few of the issues that made the news. The march for women’s rights on March 8th was a loud and visible call for for justice, yet I only saw a handful of brothers and sisters from Evangelical churches in the mobilization. The church needs to be part of what is already happening.

Understanding and Having a Position on Many Issues

Domestic violence, asylum, torture, abortion, civil war, homosexuality, arms control, child soldiers, transitional justice, capital punishment… We need to keep abreast of international legal developments related to these issues and the challenges they present in Lebanon. It is time consuming to gain knowledge about all of these discussions and we are well-informed in only a few domains. However, it is imperative to take an informed stand on all of these issues if we are to join the debate and influence its outcome.

The other day, I stumbled upon a book entitled Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. I have personally lost friends in the past two years who were tortured to death in Syria, and I have Syrian friends who have lost loved ones to the same evil. It reminded me how much I felt the need to understand the infliction of suffering in light of God’s word!

TOC Torture

Part of the table of content of: Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ”, by William T. Cavanaugh, published by Wiley-Blackwell, 1998

You can find many Christian blogs and books, and very few Arabic books including the recently translated Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, discussing human rights and justice from a biblical perspective. Also, on a number of these issues, international Christian organizations are leading advocacy efforts at the United Nations and in many countries. International Justice Mission is one example.

Beyond reading, Christian witness requires mature Christian love, even in the face of deeply controversial issues. Two weeks ago, a homosexual representative of a human rights agency brought up with me the issue of how to best help Syrian homosexuals fleeing to Lebanon to avoid persecution. He explained to me that the organizer of gay tourism in Syria – prior to the conflict – is now in Lebanon and is trying to organize for the protection of Syrian men who used to work with him in Syria. Regardless of what one thinks of homosexuality, are we mature enough to formulate a Christ-centered response to the persecution and threats homosexuals face? Are we able to discern what justice is when sin and brokenness are ripping a society apart like in Syria?

Maintaining Identity and a Biblical Discourse

We need to speak Jesus – not necessarily about Jesus. When asked why we believe in human rights and the dignity of every human being, we need to affirm that we are created in the image of God. When asked why God allows so much suffering, we need to affirm that abuse and human rights violations are a direct product of sin – not of God.

We need to imitate Jesus. The radical message of Jesus should appear in our lives and in our commitment to living a sanctified lifestyle. In most human rights circles in Lebanon, sexual freedom is claimed and practiced as a bodily right. Without denying this right, we need to affirm and communicate our values and principles of sexual purity, and to answer everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15).

Be Engaging, Take Initiative

Knowledge must lead to action. We should seek to address wrongdoings by mounting campaigns and initiatives. Initiatives build relationships and credibility, and create platforms for Christian witness.

One such initiative was last year’s Middle East Conference, “Your Rights & My Responsibilities: Biblical and Islamic Perspectives on Human Rights.” It was an opportunity for connecting faithful followers of Jesus to human rights advocates, and for introducing the church to human rights challenges in Lebanon and the region. During this conference, I connected with an Ethiopian woman who works for a prison ministry and was able to find her Amharic bibles for the Ethiopian women with whom she ministers in prison.

Another such initiative is the organization Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences (SKILD) – a ministry of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), the parent organization of ABTS (of which IMES is a department). To gain a better idea about their advocacy for the inclusion in schools of students with learning difficulties, please read LSESD’s April newsletter.

Repairing Misconceptions, Changing the ‘Christian’ Discourse

We need to admit that many in the activist community in Lebanon, regardless of their religious background, have distorted and therefore negative views of the Christian faith. The involvement of ‘Christians’ in civil war violence and massacres, and the politics of ‘Christian’ political parties in Lebanon are definitely counter-witness. Neither war nor Lebanon’s turbulent politics are platforms for demonstrating humility, love, and mercy. For example, Christian political parties have been approaching the plight of the Syrian refugees with a discourse of fear and stigmatization, as opposed to hospitality and love.

Additionally, many believe that all religious morality is a form of societal oppression of the individual, affirming male dominance, and contributing to the abuse of human rights of the vulnerable fringes of society. They fail to see that Jesus sought after society’s most vulnerable, the outcasts and the broken!

We need to promote a new Christian discourse grounded in the Bible that takes a stand for human rights and human dignity. On some issues, this discourse will go against Lebanese pseudo-Christian public opinion – i.e. the opinion of Lebanese who perceive themselves as Christians.

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I took this photo on March 8, 2014, during the march in Beirut demanding criminalization of domestic violence. Photos are available on my blog.

 

In 2013, as I finished a training for a group of moderate Islamic Syrian activists on international humanitarian law, one participant came to me expressing his appreciation that a Christian would care to give them training. It struck me that this workshop was one of the very few opportunities for these activists to dialogue and interact with a Christian! Today, with over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, most of them will be interacting with Christians for the first time.

Defending their rights as well as the rights of all vulnerable and abused men, women and children in our society must become part of our witness.

 

* Wissam al-Saliby is the Partnerships Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. His previous IMES blog posts can be viewed here.

UNHCR Beirut and Persecuted Arab Converts Seeking Refugee Status

By Wissam al-Saliby*

Last Sunday, I drove a woman and her children to my Church service. She had escaped to Lebanon from a North African country following persecution. She had come to faith in Jesus Christ and become a Christian, but her family could not accept this. On the way to church, she explained to me that she had applied for refugee status at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office (UNCHR) in Beirut. Her application was rejected and she has appealed the rejection decision – but she said she was not hopeful that the decision would change.

I have worked in the past on asylum cases and refugee law in Lebanon. And over the past year, I met with many persons who shared with me this same story, over and over again, from across the Middle East and North Africa.

Persecuted converts to Christianity, fearing for their lives and the lives of their children, often end up in Lebanon. However, each individual I met has told me that UNHCR had denied them refugee status and that the UNHCR interviewer was insensitive to their claims – claims that are mostly well founded in my opinion.

To qualify for asylum, an individual must have a fear of persecution for one of the reasons stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and be able to demonstrate that their fear of persecution is well founded and that they are unable, or unwilling because of their fear, to seek protection in their country of origin or habitual residence.

UNHCR examines each case on its individual facts, and looks at every case individually – not at the status of a particular minority. UNHCR assesses whether effective protection is available in relation to the particular circumstances and profile of the claimant and the latest country of origin information.

Reports on religious freedoms and religious minorities, as well as reports by asylum services worldwide, confirm that persecution of converts in many Arab countries is a serious issue and is sufficient grounds for granting refugee status. UNHCR is well aware of the reports, accessible at www.refworld.org.

For example, in a UK Operational Guidance Note Assessment for Egypt (Dated 8 November 2013), Christian converts sit on top of the list of most vulnerable individuals prone to persecution, along with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and women (the note provides UK Home Office caseworkers with guidance on the nature and handling of the most common types of claims received).

Other reports include Bahai’s and other religious groups as persecuted minorities in some of Middle Eastern countries.

In the cases I have come across of Arabs seeking asylum in Lebanon, persecution is either by (1) the family, the husband or the clan in the absence of State protection, or by (2) State apparatuses, such as the judiciary or law enforcement officials, often upon incitement of the family or clan members. Several Arab countries criminalize religious conversion and/or proselytization.

The family of an Egyptian friend of mine formally stripped her of her inheritance last year. She told me that during the turmoil in Egypt in summer, her own friend died – probably murdered – when her parents found out that she was going to church. Other persons I have encountered, from Jordan, Syria and other countries, are likewise in Lebanon and unsure if they will ever be able to return home.

In a previous post, I had argued that the protection of Christians in the Middle East is achieved by upholding the rule of law and respecting human rights. I equally wrote that the splitting or “dissection” of countries and people is detrimental to the wellbeing of the Church and to Christian witness. IMES laments that converts from any religion to any religion in the Middle East and North Africa are very often persecuted. Many who become followers of Christ are forced to leave their communities or the region, where their witness and message of new hope is much needed.

I am not saying that every Muslim will necessarily be in favor of persecuting a convert to Christianity. I have come across converts to Christianity living at peace within their Muslim families in North African countries. I also know of a Christian woman hiding from her Christian family because she married a Muslim in a Middle Eastern country.

Yet, religious persecution at the local level is carried mostly by private actors – or upon their instigation – in many Arab countries. Recent political turmoil in several countries and a likely increase of persons changing religious affiliation could provoke an increase of asylum seekers in Lebanon. UNCHR Beirut may be afraid of an escalation of asylum seekers, or of individuals taking advantage of the ‘system’. This has led to many asylum seekers – including those persons I met – to fall through the cracks and be left vulnerable.

UNHCR Beirut should no longer disregard or downplay this phenomenon. They should give more credibility to the claims of Christian converts seeking asylum and not allow the cracks to endure.

* Wissam al-Saliby is the Partnerships Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. His previous IMES blog posts can be viewed here.